Once upon a time, I almost died, but then I didn’t.
It was a dark and stormy….several years? And then there was light.
Fun fact: I suck at beginnings.
(at least that’s my voice)
I suck at beginnings. And this is too important for me to spin on finding the perfect introduction so long I stall out. So I’m pushing through.
I’d like you to read about my recent struggles managing my mental health if you have the time. This may seem strange if you know me, or presumptuous if you don’t, so let’s start with a few reasons why I’m putting something this personal online and exposing the chewiest of my chewy center for all to see.
Most importantly, this is for anyone who may see themselves in my story. I found strength and inspiration to heal myself as I saw facets of my struggles in the stories of others. Their stories were gifts that I can’t ever repay. I can start by sharing my story and my strength with you, if you’ll accept it.
I also offer this strength to people who may see their loved ones in my story. Another’s pain is such a difficult thing to know when we cannot see the wounds, even when we are looking. Even when we are full of compassion and are pleading to help. I hope you find something to give you strength as you fight for us. And if you are grieving, I hope you find some small amount of comfort in a story with a happier ending.
Third only because the English language is linear, this story is for my people. Because I love you. All of you. Even those who are reading this, wondering if I’m counting you. (I do). I will never be able to repay you, or communicate how much you have done to help me. My story is yours, too, and you should have the opportunity to hear it. (Also, I am still a coward with a crusty outer shell, and can’t handle saying most of this out loud to everyone who deserves to hear it. ;)
And finally, I’m telling my story because I said I would. On my last day of outpatient treatment, I told a room full of people suffering and seeking solutions alongside me that I saw how much that stigma had played a role in the path that had led us there. That it was utter bullshit to feel weak or ashamed because of our struggles. And that I wouldn’t perpetuate that cycle by hiding my “sabbatical” with half-truths, euphemisms and scare quotes.
I feel more strongly than ever that we need to work to erase the stigma of mental illness and addiction. Those of us who are able to tell our stories should tell them for those who cannot. So here you go:
I don’t want to be that friend who won’t shut up about how happy she is now that she’s found G-d or Zumba or by only eating hashbrowns grown in the compost from the last time she ate hashbrowns. Not only is that person obnoxious and probably selling something, but it always feels myopic and like it’s more about her wanting to tell her story than helping you. Even with the right intentions, this is a tricky thing to navigate. No one solution is going to work for everyone and everything is more complicated than that.
That being said, mental health is something that needs to be talked about more. So I’m sorry-not-sorry if I’ve recently become obnoxious on social media. I’ve tried to keep my ego in check and be useful. Instead of giving relatively useless specifics, I’ve more or less restricted myself to alluding to new meds and therapy appointments and supporting people who share bits of their stories with me. I’ve maintained a pretty open “if you ask, I’m happy to share” attitude about relevant details, because I believe this knowledge has power. I’ve had some truly spectacular conversations as a result, and forged new connections with incredible people. Because of their (your) response, I’ve leveled up my personal comfort level with talking about mental health, and it’s time to take the next step and share my recent struggles and successes managing my own health.
I see things for a living, so we’re beginning with what I see. We’re beginning with you.
I’ve watched the posts as many of you have picked yourselves up after struggling and cheered you on. I love the shares of well-written articles that accompany sincere offers of support to any who asks. I have friendships sustained by global gallows humor as we all struggle to make sense of our lives. You are why I’m still on social media.
I’ve also shared in your shock and grief as people slip away from us too suddenly by a force we cannot understand. We wonder how we could have missed the signs. How had they become so good at masking their pain that nobody knew until it was too late? What could we have done? Why we weren’t able to reach them? We were here and they said they knew we were here, but why hadn’t they asked for help?
I see so many of us hurting from the same sorts of injuries. We are clinging to outdated remedies for old trauma even as they cause us fresh trauma. We have resigned ourselves to a state of being that we don’t want and did nothing to deserve. We see others suffering more and add shame and guilt into the mix of indistinguishable emotions that are causing us so much pain. We pull ourselves inward and we lash out as we do our best to ignore what is happening because facing it is the only thing more terrifying than holding on for just a little longer.
Pain is the right word for it, although it wasn’t until a sympathetic intake nurse told me that I had even considered it. “You are clearly in a lot of pain,” she said as I held my body rigid, barely able to get words through my gritted my teeth as I faced the path that had led me to her office. Stress, anxiety, frustration, paranoia, self doubt, depression. Sure. But pain? It’s not like I’d lost a limb, or could even point to a handful of trauma-causing sources. I was simply very unhappy without able to understand why and terrified there was no solution. And yet, the instant I considered her words, the sudden awareness of all that pain ripped through me. It was the first and sharpest moment of clarity and marks the end of my lowest point.
But I’m skipping ahead.
We are so, so good at functioning around this pain. We hide it in the moments people are looking in other directions. We focus on the others who are hurting instead of ourselves. We pull away from people because we can’t meet their gaze without seeing the pain were causing them. We steal stamina from one area of our lives so the others won’t notice and keep that juggling act up as long as we can. We don’t even know we are doing it, most of the time, because we’re hiding the juggling, too. I know these things because I have heard this from others and can see the scars in myself. I will not share more details about these scars in this forum because my story is mingled with too many others and I do not have the right.
My story’s prologue is simply that I have old wounds that couldn’t stay healed because that’s not how it actually works. The work we do to heal ourselves can never be permanent because we are always changing. It’s hard to accept that a wound we closed 10 or 20 years ago is reopening, but it’s the most logical expectation. Change (or the lack of change) as time passes will always weaken healing that was designed for a different version of ourselves.
This is where the stigma of managing mental health can cause the most harm. As I changed and as I experienced fresh trauma, the shame I anticipated at having to admit I needed help again prevented me from seeking more than the most superficial of solutions. In the beginning, these superficial solutions worked fairly well because the fresh wounds were small and easy to patch. There were stretches of stability that lasted for years, but life kept throwing me curveballs and fresh perspectives. I had, and continued to have, a great network of supportive people, but I refused to disappoint them by needing them. Superficial solutions started doing more harm than good, turning into vices that I began to struggle with as well. And through it all, I was unable to tolerate the idea that I was no longer “fixed”.
Day after day, I ignored it all a little harder. For far too long.
From here, it is easy to see that this is not sustainable, but when you are in the thick of it, any thought that threatens surviving the next moment is not tolerated. Without being aware it was happening, the structures I had build to withstand those old traumas and ignore those fresh pains were killing me. This summer, I found myself at one of the darkest crossroads I’ve ever experienced. I saw it all. The paths behind me. The paths ahead. They were all dark. None of them offered anything but more pain. More fear. But some… some were shorter than others. Those paths whispered lies about hope and promise for others, if only I could find a way to quietly vanish from their lives. I knew these whispers were lies, or rather, I knew I was supposed to know they were lies. I knew, but it was becoming impossible to find any path more appealing.
At that crossroads, I found myself choosing the darkest, most terrifying path: I asked for help. Simply and directly in a way I never have before.
Because of so many blessings and privileges of my specific situation, I was easily heard. I put my life into the hands of people who already loved me more than I’ll ever love myself. My husband, my family, my friends and especially the compassionate professionals who helped me find the wisest paths out of that dark crossroads. I rolled the dice against what would happen with my career and took a leave of absence that ended up lasting about 6 weeks. I spent my days in outpatient therapy and was officially diagnosed with severe depression. I learned, I grew, and when we decided I was ready, I left, armed with what I needed to continue the work we’d started.
My transition back to my life was easier than many. Those same blessings and privileges that helped me be heard are helping keep me moving forward and I’m so grateful to be healthy enough to appreciate them. I am optimistic for my future and eager to do the work that I know needs doing so I can keep moving forward.
That, in a nutshell, is my story. I have a chronic condition that I wasn’t managing and had a pretty rough flareup that needed some intense treatment. I’m going to take better care of myself now to help prevent flareups and treat the unavoidable ones as early as possible.
And this is what I see, now. I see you cover your pain by supporting others because you think helping them will heal you, too. I see you so overwhelmed by the outpouring of support the moment you experiment with asking for help that you retreat behind a thicker facade of dark humor. I see you punishing yourself for a life full of regrets that have long been forgiven. I see how your inability to recognize that you have the power to change eats away at you. I see you so surrounded by toxic people that you cannot understand how to begin to break free. I see that you are so terrified of continuing a cycle started generations ago that you’ve shut yourself off from so much joy. I see all of you. I am you, and I have something you need to hear:
You. Deserve. Better.
You deserve less pain. You deserve a clearer mind. You deserve to learn how to forgive so you can be free. To heal. To live. To discover how to embrace the best parts of your nature and to gain more control over the aspects that would do you harm. You deserve it and you will have it, but you need to make the next step. You have to stop listening to the lies that say you don’t deserve better or won’t find it and ask for help.
This is a story about me and what happened when I asked.
This is a message to those who are afraid to ask but are still able to listen.
I know it hurts, but you have to ask so we can help.