What do you do when you’re not okay?

It’s almost as if “how are you?” has become a rhetorical question. We ask, but do we really want to know the answer? Unless, that is, the answer is, “great, everything is going great,” no, we don’t really want to hear the answer.

What are we supposed to do when we have the wrong answer to that question? What you do is, you lie. You say, “I’m fine. Everything is good, kids are good, work is good, I’m good. Great, in fact!”

I’ve become a liar. I don’t consider myself a dishonest person, but I lie every single day. I lie to everyone. I lie to those closest to me and I lie to the clerk at the grocery store.  I spend all day lying about being ok. “I’m good, how are you?”

I am not good and I’m not even okay. But I have no choice but to keep lying. Why? Because nobody wants to know that I’m not okay. They don’t know what to do any more than I do. And people don’t like to be faced with situations where they don’t know what to do. So I keep lying.

I tried not lying last summer. I told the truth. I told my estranged husband, my mom, my sister, my kids, my friends that I wasn’t ok. And I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for 8 days where the first order of business was to remove the underwire from my bra for fear that I might harm myself with it.

I don’t blame anyone for the fact that I ended up in the hospital. Before I was a patient, I had no idea that when you get sent to a psychiatric hospital (or at least the one I ended up in) you don’t get the help you need. You get sharp objects confiscated, you have to remove the drawstrings from your clothing, you are given coloring pages to pass the time, you get woken up every two hours during the night with a flashlight in your face, you live in a room with the windows covered and are only let outside when the nurses feel like letting you outside and the highlight of the day is ‘activity time’ when you get to make bracelets out of large plastic beads that are often found in preschools. But the one thing I needed the most, I didn’t get. I needed help and I needed it desperately. I begged for it. I asked every day to talk to a therapist. You’d think the place would be filled with them, and you’d be wrong. There is one psychiatrist who sees every patient in the entire hospital for about 5 minutes each day. He doesn’t offer therapy, he doesn’t ask you how you are or tell you how to get better. He looks at your chart and sees that when you got spit on by another patient that morning you asked at the nurses’ desk for anxiety meds and that means that you are not yet stable enough to be released. File closed, see you tomorrow, maybe. If he gets tied up with too many intakes you might not see him until the day after.

With so many high profile suicides in recent years, we have all become “suicide aware,” and we know what to look for in our friends and family. We know that we need to check in with our friends and family members who are struggling. And we know that when they say that they aren’t okay, we need to do something. It’s just that there is no good “something” available.

My doctor, my therapist and every other single person I have walked with on this path through the world of mental illness tells me to immediately go to the ER if I feel like hurting myself. Seems like solid advice. But I tried that. And after two stints in the psychiatric hospital, three rounds of IOP (intensive outpatient program) and six months of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy where each week I had 2 hours of skills training and 1 hour with my individual therapist) I am still not okay. The only difference is that now I know not to tell anyone I’m not okay. And as an added bonus, I can no longer legally purchase a firearm (upon my discharge from the hospital I had to sign the paperwork informing me of the law that anyone who has been involuntarily held on a 5150 cannot purchase firearms). Doesn’t matter that I have never ever threatened to hurt anyone but myself, I am considered too dangerous to own a gun. Oh, and besides the whole gun thing, I also have a case of PTSD and have regular nightmares about being locked in a mental institution without any options for getting out.

When I bowed out of one of the celebrations for my daughter’s upcoming college graduation —  because my former in-laws told me that, even though they never called or sent me a note while I was there, I caused their family a great deal of pain when I ended up in the hospital. They have since refused to speak to me and won’t answer my calls — my husband (who is only still my husband because the divorce is not yet final after nearly two years) accused me of ruining the event. When I explained to him that since it was completely ok with my daughter to miss this ONE event, I had decided to do what was in the best interest of my mental health by not being there. He then accused me of making the whole weekend about me and refuses to speak to me.

What can I possibly do that respects this milestone in my daughter’s life and also takes into account that being around people who have told me they want nothing to do with me is extremely triggering? I suspect that is another rhetorical question. But I do so wish there was a good answer. And I wish I knew what to do when I’m not okay. And I wish there was another viable option for making me feel better. Because now I know all too well what doesn’t help when I say that I’m not okay.

Trapped in a Talking Heads song

Until my marriage starting falling apart, I didn’t know what gaslighting meant. Unfortunately, I know too well what it means now.

Gaslight
/ˈɡaslīt/
verb
gerund or present participle: gaslighting
  1. manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
    “in the first episode, Karen Valentine is being gaslighted by her husband”

 

The cruelest thing gaslighting  does is it takes away your truth. Gaslighting makes you doubt your own reality and, if you are unfortunate enough to suffer with depression and/or anxiety, it takes away almost everything.

During the final few months of my marriage, my husband accused me of cheating. I knew it was untrue, but he wouldn’t listen to me. Refused to discuss it. Told me that was why our marriage was ending. Accused me of lying. It mattered not one bit when I discovered that it was actually HIM who was cheating. I was still one who could not be trusted to tell the truth.

More than two years later, I am questioning everything in my life.

I have always believed myself to be an honest person, quite often to my detriment. As a kid I wished that I could lie to my parents about my misdeeds without the dead giveaways of my bright red face and my stumbling speech. Over the years, I learned to take pride in my ability to speak up for myself, and in my trustworthiness and honestly. But after being accused so many times of being a liar, have I gotten it wrong all my life? Am I really a person who can’t be trusted to tell the truth, as I’ve been told? Do I really twist reality to my benefit, as I’ve been told? I honestly don’t know.

I had been the primary caregiver of my children for most of their lives. I took great pride in my children and was proud to have raised three people with whom I enjoy spending time. But did I get that all wrong, too? Was I a bad parent? Have I really done such horrible things that I deserved to have my legal guardianship of my youngest son stripped from me? I honestly don’t know that either.

Did the fact that for a few months this past summer I thought my life was no longer worth living and my actions caused me to be involuntarily confined to a psychiatric hospital really cause my former in-laws “a great deal of pain?”  So much pain, apparently, that not one of them reached out to me while I was in the hospital or when I returned home?

These days I feel like I’m living that song by the Talking Heads:

“and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? And you may ask yourself, am I right? Or am I wrong. You may ask yourself, my God, what have I done?”

My God, how did I get here? And, how the hell do I get out of here?

I want to be able to trust my instincts again. I want to be able to trust that my truth is reality. I want to know that I count. I want to know that I am a good person. I want to know that I did the best I could in my marriage and that its demise wasn’t all my fault. I want to know that I’m not perfect, but I’m learning and growing and trying to be a better human being.

How do I undo years of gaslighting? How do I stop needing to constantly plead to deaf ears that I am telling the truth? How do I convince people who have been my family for more than 25 years to pick up a phone call from me, or to just listen to what I have to say? How do I stop being invisible to people who were such a large part of my life for more than half my years on this planet? How do I get them to treat me like a person? How do I convince myself that I’m okay? How do I convince myself that I’m enough? How do I convince myself that I am worthy of being loved?

Because I want out of this Talking Heads song now. I want a new song. I want to trust myself again. I want my power back.

 

Definition of a Mom

For the past 21 years when someone asks about me the first thing I tell them is that I am a mom. I’ve started to wonder lately if perhaps I need to come up with a different answer.

I always prided myself on being one of those moms who didn’t talk of their children constantly. I had other activities, I had both mom and non-mom friends, my husband and I spent time with our children and also out together or with friends. The kids were my life, but also not.

And when my husband became the typical Silicon Valley start-up guy, I spent more and more time with my kids. He would be traveling or in VC meetings on a pretty regular basis. And he would remind me often that start-up hours were not 9 to 5. When he was home, he would share in many of the every day activities of parenting. The thing was, he just wasn’t around much.

So I was the one who made their breakfasts, lunches, dinners — sure, most of it was peanut butter & jelly and mac & cheese, but that was all I could get them to eat. Two of my kids were what they called back then “spirited children,” and these days are given more specific diagnoses. I was one to pick my battles, and so I fed them what they would eat and let their rooms become disasters that I would do my best to stay out of.

I was also the room mom for three different classrooms, was on the PTA and school site committees, I made cupcakes for entire classrooms on birthdays and put together holiday and end-of-year holiday gifts for teachers. I did all the laundry and kept the house as neat as one can expect to do with 3 kids and two dogs.  I was the go-to person for everyone. Even my husband would default to me in matters of the kids, the house and where to find (fill in the blank).

I’m reasonably intelligent and I knew that I wouldn’t be needed by everyone forever. And, full disclosure, I didn’t always enjoy being nearly so *needed* every minute of the day. But I saw the progression of my kids becoming gradually more independent as an opportunity for my husband and me to be able to spend more time together. We would be able to travel, we could head up to Tahoe at a moment’s notice and stay for as long as we liked. We could go out to dinner, have dinner parties, finally move out of the suburb that we chose because of its schools. I saw all of that as the finishers’ medal you get at the end of a marathon.

But what happens when the marathon gets cancelled, due to unforeseen circumstances, just as you are about to cross the finish line? Did all those miles count for anything? If there’s no medal, what do I get to show that I did, in fact, run all those miles?

Two of my kids are home from college for the holidays and the other is out of school and finished with school and marching band obligations for the time being. I should be thrilled to have all my kids home. But instead, I’m learning that the “radical acceptance” my therapist and I have been working on, is a much more elusive goal than I initially thought. When they’re home, but all staying with their dad, or  doing things as a family — minus me, of course — it hurts. We throw around the word literally way too much, but it *literally* causes physical pain when all my children are together and having fun without me, while I sit at home alone. This was not what was supposed to happen.

My youngest is here with me today because I insisted on picking him up last night and bringing him over. This morning I asked him if he needed any laundry done. He told me he would do it himself. Those were words I longed to hear from my kids when they were young. But this time all they did were remind that I’m not needed anymore. My kids are doing just fine without me. They all work and have money in their accounts to go out to eat whenever they want. If they need something they buy it, instead of asking me to get it for them. All good things, certainly. Great things, in fact. And things that I hoped for back when things were different. But it’s different. This was not how things were supposed to be.

It’s like the old saying of the tree in the forest…..am I still a mom if nobody needs me to do mom things anymore?

When depression takes a seat at the holiday table

I’ll take a break from recounting my tales of the psychiatric hospital to talk about a time that has always been tricky for me and is now even more so: the holidays.

My parents divorced when I was very young, so feeling emotionally torn during the holiday season is an experience I’m pretty used to by now. During most of my childhood I lived with my father and stepmother. In the beginning, we lived a two-hour drive from my mother, then later we moved 2 hours, and a very treacherous drive, further away. If I was with one parent for a holiday I was missing the other, because there was no going back and forth between the two homes. So, unfortunately, no matter how much fun I was having during a holiday celebration, that joy was always tinged with a little bit of sadness and longing.

I ended up marrying a man whose parents were also divorced — though, for what it’s worth, he was an adult when they split. After we married, holiday planning was akin to a chess match when it came time to coordinate where we would spend the holidays. We had to decide between the homes of my mother (my farther had dropped out of my life by this time and that’s a story for another day), my  mother-in-law and my father-in-law and his wife. Throw in my sister and my husband’s two sisters, and figuring out where to go was a herculean feat, to say the least. Once again, the fun of the holiday was tempered with that ever present sadness and longing for the family members not there with us.

I hoped my children would never have to feel this way when the holidays rolled around. But these days I live with constant guilt and shame that this is exactly what has become their reality.

This year was my first Thanksgiving without my children and the sadness was unimaginable. This was despite the fact that I was fortunate enough to have received numerous invitations and was able to be part of two wonderful celebrations — one with dear friends and one with my aunt, uncle and cousins. And although I had a fantastic time, I couldn’t shake the feeling of loss from not being able to share the holiday with my children as I had every year since my daughter was born 21 years ago.

But beyond missing them, picturing the entire day my kids would be experiencing was excruciating. I could imagine the day in vivid detail because it followed the same script as all the others before it. And for 25 years I had been an integral part of that day and very much part of the family and the traditions we created together.

I knew that up in Tahoe the night before Thanksgiving my husband would be making the same 3 delicious pies he makes every year – probably listening to The Big Night soundtrack. In the morning he would start preparing the turkey. My father-in-law would arrive in the afternoon to watch football — I can see him there on the couch with his glass of wine. Later on, my sisters-in-law would arrive with their in-laws and appetizers, side dishes and wine in hand. They would likely have a banner that my niece made and a table would be moved into the living room to accommodate the large group. With a fire in the large fireplace, there would be lots of lively conversation, lots of laughing and lots of drinking late into the night. All of it nearly identical to the years before it.  The difference is this year I’ve been erased from the day, erased from the family and, if I’m honest, it feels like I’ve even been erased from the minds of everyone at the two tables.

It hurts like a sucker punch to the gut.

We hear from friends, co-workers and on social media how much there is to be grateful for at this time of year and how wonderful it is to be together with loved ones. This is true of course — maybe even more so this year with the terrible fires ravaging our state and the many who have lost their homes, their belongings and their lives. Which makes it that much harder to feel terrible. I DO have much to be grateful for, there is no doubt about that — it’s just so hard to muster up that gratitude on a day when all I can feel is loss. Loss of a family and all the traditions that go along with being part of that family. And knowing that it all continues on without me makes me feel like I never mattered to begin with.

I made it through round 1 of the holiday season. I’ve got a few more rounds to go. I know I’ll make it through — not unscathed, though, and not without experiencing a deep sense of grief and loss. For so many the holidays are truly the greatest time of the year and I’m happy for those who can experience the magic of the season. But it’s worth pointing out that there are so many of us who are doing our best to just survive these last two months on the calendar. If you are one of the lucky ones who enjoy this time of year — I don’t want to take away one bit of that joy. I just want to put out the idea that no matter what we do or how hard we try not to, some see this time though a different lens.

We are here. We long to be seen and heard and, most of all, understood.

If you know someone who is suffering right now, reach out. Say hello, let them know you’re shining of them. Offer up an invitation to coffee or lunch or dinner. Or just let them know they are seen and they are heard, and that you understand.

 

Fear and loathing in the psych ward, Part 2

Here’s part 2 of my dreadful experience in a psychiatric ward. If you haven’t read part 1, you might want to go back so this makes more sense….

I sat down on my tiny bed that was bolted to the floor, next to my nightstand — also bolted to the floor — when Susie (not her real name) the nudist from a few minutes ago, walked in, and, again took off all her clothes. I watched in horror as she walked towards my bed and sprawled out ON TOP OF ME. Bewildered, I calmly told her this wasn’t her bed. Without missing a beat, and without opening her eyes, she went back to her own bed and opened her legs spread eagle in my direction, graphically demonstrating to me her preferred waxing routine. I ignored her, hoping she’d stop. Thankfully, a nurse appeared in our room and told Susie to get dressed. She helped Susie into her shirt and turns to get her pants. Immediately, the shirt comes back off. This goes on for a few minutes until, finally, Susie is fully dressed.

A little while later (time feels very non linear in Sequoia Unit) Susie walks up to the nurses’ station and takes off her pants. Everyone comes out of the activity room to watch.  Sherri (Also, not her real name. Actually, let’s just assume that from here on out, all names are made up), realizing that I’m terrified by my roommate’s antics offers to let Susie have her private room and she would move in with me. She didn’t “feel safe” in her room since it was too close to the emergency exit. Thank goodness for Sherri. A nurse comes in and fully sanitizes the vinyl-covered mattress and puts a sheet and a thin blanket on it. Sherri tells me that our toilet is clogged and then goes to inform the nurses. Just a quick note to say that the bathroom has a “door that is just a vinyl panel, secured with velcro that is no taller than a public bathroom stall door.

Back in my room, and with nothing to do, I looked at my discharge paperwork from the hospital. Tuns out it wasn’t discharge paperwork, it was an “Involuntary Patient Advisement” which declared that I had been 5150’d. Under the line, “we believe this to be true because…”  and, in quotations, it read, “you’re going through a divorce, upset and overdosed. Several prescription pills (Ativan, .5mg about 30 tablets) with alcohol to end yourself.” Wait, what? I don’t even HAVE 30 ativans — my doctor very specifically only prescribes them 15 at a time. So, yeah, I call bullshit on that. “End myself?” Really?? Look, I apparently said and did a lot of things that night that I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure that I said nothing about “ending myself.” If I wanted to “end myself” I sure as hell would have come up with a more grammatically pleasing way to state it. You can accuse me of a lot of things, but I would never say anything as clunky and ridiculous as “end myself.”

I marched down to the nurses’ station and insisted I speak to a doctor to explain that I did not, in fact, attempt suicide and, more importantly, would never say that I wanted to “end myself.” For some reason, this seemed very important to me at the time. I was told that the doctor was suffering from a migraine and they would let him know I wanted to speak to him, but it might not be until tomorrow. I asked if I could see a social worker. She was gone for the evening. Fuck. Dread started to set in when I realized I was essentially trapped in Sequoia Unit. And my toilet was still clogged.

I asked the nurses what I was supposed to do. “There are coloring pages in the activity room.” I’m 50 years old, I don’t do coloring pages, unless it’s an artsy adult coloring book and I have expensive, fancy markers. “Are there any books?” I asked. “No, but there are coloring pages.” “Is there paper so I can journal?” Hallelujah! They have journals! “Can I have a pen, please?” I was handed a short, dull pencil — the kind you get at miniature golf. “Can I have more than one pencil?” “Come back when you need another one.”  Great. 

In addition to a lot of weird habits I have, I am addicted to lip balm. It’s a thing, you can google it. In the loony bin (which, now that I’m distanced enough from the experience, I can call it that. It’s the only way I can really cope with the experience. And I fully accept that I am loony and please don’t tell me I’m discriminating against the mentally ill….I am mentally ill) chapstick is not allowed. I really can’t think of any logical reason for this, but it’s a rule in Sequoia unit. When I asked for chapstick, they gave me a miniature-sized one — like smaller than I ever thought possible. I think it was about and inch and half long. The nurse told me I could use it while at the desk but had to give it back afterwards. She would put a label with my name on it and I would have to come ask for it whenever I needed it. After asking for it five times in the span of 30 minutes, the nurses started pretending not to see me when I approached the desk. Once, when using my chapstick, Susie showed up and started yelling at the unit’s psychiatrist, calling him, inexplicably, a “fish head” and insisting they give her back her belongings, since she was “ready to go out for the evening.” When they refused, she yelled that they were “holding her diamonds and pearls hostage.” The distraction was the perfect opportunity for me to casually walk away with my chapstick in the pocket of my paper shirt. 

I’m not sure what medical reason dictates that windows of a psychiatric unit be blocked from natural light, but there was a thick film on all the windows on the unit. I cold tell whether it was day or night, but had no idea if it was sunny or overcast. There were also no clocks anywhere on the unit, except at the nurses’ station. It really felt like I was in prison. And I was terrified. 

I arrived on the unit after dinner so they gave me a decently tasting turkey sandwich and water. Then it was time for medications. I received my typical dose of antidepressants, an ambien so I could sleep and then a muscle relaxer. I explained I didn’t need a muscle relaxer since I was not in any pain. The nurse kept pushing it towards me. I refused, but then she handed me a Gabapentin. I told her I didn’t need that either. She wasn’t giving up as easily on that. “Take it, it will help you get better. It’s for your stress.” I was finally able to get away with just my regular meds, but was confused and alarmed by the attempt to over medicate me. I started to suspect that they preferred the patients to be somewhat sedated. It certainly looked that way

Thankfully, the Ambien did what it’s supposed to do and I slept through the night, despite the fact that the room — and, actually, the whole unit — was kept at a bone-chilling temperature. 

I woke up in the morning to a nurse who needed to draw some blood and take my vitals. I had not idea what times it was, because, no clocks. Afterwards, I went to the nurses’ desk to get my chapstick and was handed my my breakfast in a to-go container with a paper cup of cold decaf coffee. Breakfast was also cold and unappetizing. It includes a bowl of Raisin Bran, but I’m only given a plastic fork to eat it with. Great, I thought, at least I’ll lose weight while I’m here. And my toilet was still clogged.

After breakfast a nurse announced to the unit that it was time for the art activity and we would be making beaded bracelets. With nothing better to do, I followed the group to the door of the unit. A nurse stopped me and informed me that I was confined to the unit until I had been there for at least 24 hours. With a sense of dread, I realized this was really, truly prison.

There was a phone on the wall in the hallway that was for patients’ use, but I didn’t have my cell phone and I stopped memorizing phone numbers in 2005. I was feeling panicky and claustrophobic, I needed contact with the outside world. When the phone was finally free, I tried a few numbers that I thought might be my daughter’s. On the second try, I reached her….yay! She and her brothers were fine and happy to hear that I was okay. My daughter and 18 year old son were planning on coming to visit that evening during visiting hours (visitors had to be 18 or older so my 15 year old would not be able to come) and would bring me some clothes. Most importantly they said they could bring me a sports bra. I couldn’t wait until that visit! Visiting hours were 7pm to 8pm, I had no idea how I was going to make it that long.

Lunch is served, again, in a to-go container because I’m still not allowed to join my unit in the cafeteria. It’s some sort of teriyaki chicken breast with rice, but since I’m only given a plastic spoon, I’m not able to eat much.

At some point during the day, I don’t really know when because time is a tricky thing in Sequoia Unit, I meet with Dr. Sharon. He seems nice and I learn that he lives in New Mexico and commutes to the hospital each week. He seems overwhelmed and it’s not surprising considering there are 22 of us listed on the white board at the nurses’ station and he is overseeing all of our care.

I talk to him and he believes me when I tell him that I did not attempt suicide. He understands but is still concerned at my combination of Ativan and wine, telling me that it could have stopping my breathing. He’s worried that I still have access to more pills. After a few minutes of talking, he explains that this may not be the appropriate place for me and that he thinks I would be better off keeping the appointment I have scheduled for the next day with my therapist. He also tells me that it was wrong to have confined me to the unit and that after our meeting, he would release me from my unit restriction and  I would be able to meet up with the rest of the patients in my unit for “patio time.” During our conversation he kept apologizing for his pauses as he was still suffering from a migraine. Finally he said, “you really don’t belong here and I’m going to fill out your release paperwork and you can go home tomorrow at 9am.” I wanted to hug dear, sweet, overworked, migraine suffering Dr. Sharon!

Ok, I’ll stop here for today and will continue my story another day. Thanks for reading.

Ontology and my anxious mind

I was listening to a podcast the other day and it mentioned a term I’d never heard before: ontological insecurity. I googled it and, considering how spot on this term describes me, it’s surprising that I’d never heard it until that moment.

Ontology refers to the philosophical study of being. So, it would follow that one who is ontologically insecure would have a very unclear sense of self. As anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows (and likely many of you have, as anxiety it the most common type of mental illness with almost 20% of the population suffering from some form of anxiety), the anxious brain is constantly playing ontological tricks on us.

Without knowing what anxiety was until well into adulthood, I suffered from it for essentially my entire life.  Several years ago my worrying, which is a constant companion of mine, seemed to be getting out of control. It was then that I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and so much of my life began to make sense to me for the first time.

Anxiety is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it, but an easy way to understand it is that our brains are constantly alerting us to any potential danger we might encounter in our every day lives. In normal doses, that survival instinct has kept humans alive since the beginning of time. But anxious brains are pretty much on HYPER alert and interpret almost EVERYTHING as a potential threat. My brain can turn running a few minutes late into a life or death scenario. It might go something like this…..”I’m running late to this dentist appointment….that means they might not be able to get me in to see the dentist…..maybe I have something seriously wrong with my teeth and I won’t know because I’ll miss my appointment….maybe it’s some sort of infection that might get into my bloodstream and I will DIE.” It seems ridiculous that I could go from being 5 minutes late to a dentist appointment to planning my funeral, but it’s a very real and a very common progression of thoughts for me and many others who live with anxiety. And, honestly, It’s downright exhausting to walk around that close to perceived death every waking moment.

Another crappy byproduct of anxiety is that our brains are complete assholes to us. My brain is constantly trying to convince me that I am a terrible person, that nobody likes me and that everyone currently in my life will eventually decide they hate me and I’ll die alone. I spend so much of my energy convincing my brain that just being 5 minutes late isn’t isn’t going to set me on a path of destruction, that I’m often just too physically and emotionally drained to keep up the arguments. So I believe my brain. I believe every cruel and (mostly) untrue thought that enters my head. My brain is certain that everyone will eventually leave me — “but, I’m protecting you so that you’ll be prepared for it when it actually happens,” is how my brain sees it. It also tells me that I will fail at everything I set out to do….”if you know this going in, you won’t be devastated when you do fail. See, I’m helping you,” says that brain again.

Most of the time I eventually find a way to believe that rational part of my brain and can cut off the anxious part before it gets too out of hand. But, sometimes terrible things DO actually happen and my anxious brain goes into overdrive. The event that set in motion my mental health spiral that eventually landed me in the hospital this summer was my divorce.

For more than 25 years, my anxious brain knew that it wasn’t the only one responsible for keeping me safe. My husband was on the job as well. He was there to talk my anxious brain off the ledge and to assure my rational brain that it was on the right track. My husband and my brain were in it together. So when he left, it felt like the small patch of earth I was standing on just broke away from the earth and sent me floating off alone on a vast and scary ocean. Nothing made sense and I was in a constant “fight, flight or freeze” state sensing danger around every corner. The ever-present worry went up to an 11 and I was certain I would end up poor, homeless and utterly alone.

Here’s where ontological insecurity comes into play: I hadn’t a clue who I was when my husband ended our marriage. For more than 25 years I was in a secure and loving partnership. I was a wife. I was a full-time mom to 3 kids. I lived in a big house in an affluent suburb. I didn’t have to worry about money or, if I did, I didn’t have to worry alone — my husband and I were in it together. “So,” my brain says, “let’s see here: you’re not part of that partnership anymore, you’re not someone’s wife. Two of those kids  you’ve been taking care of are on the East Coast attending college and the youngest son is only around half the time or less. It doesn’t feel like you’re really a mother anymore since you’re mostly living in your house alone. You’re not in that big house anymore and if your money runs out you’re on your own.” Yep, that about covers it. Scary times.

Those times when I’m able to access the rational side of my brain, I know that there is so much good that’s come out of me being where I am today. I am more independent than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I have been able to do things that I never thought possible. I have an opportunity to find another relationship that might better suit this more independent version of me. I can use the time I have to write the next chapter in my life, and maybe that involves a different and more exciting career path. I can work on cultivating more adult relationships with my kids now that the day-to-day parenting is largely over. So why can’t I always see this to be true?

That asshole brain of mine that THINKS it’s trying to protect me swirls dire and negative thoughts around in my head. While my logical brain is very quiet and measured, my anxious brain YELLS at me. When my reality starts to overwhelm me, that’s when the yelling blocks out the quiet and measured tone of rationality. That yelling really mucks everything up. Makes everything topsy turvy and I lose myself and my identity. I lose sight of what’s wonderful in my life. I lose my desire to keep plugging away at putting my life back together. This is a dangerous place to be because with all that comes the idea that everyone would be better off if I were to disappear. That if I disappeared I could stop fighting. And when I stop fighting the yelling will end.

Thankfully, I only ended up in the hospital and realized that I DO want to keep fighting. I do want to keep writing this next chapter of my story. And, most of the time, I believe that this next chapter might just be the best one yet.

 

A path I didn’t choose.

cropped-img_2650Yesterday I gathered up the courage to share one of my stories. And, wow, I did NOT expect the feedback I got. I cried big, fat, ugly tears after each and every message, text, email and comment that rolled in. It means the world to me that so many reached out to support me. Those of us who struggle with mental illness spend so very much time thinking we’re alone. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not.

But, like yesterday, I’m having a hard time getting started again. I have so many things I have been holding on to. So many things that I need to let go of. So many things that get worse the longer I keep them bottled up. An enormous amount of shame has kept me from fully opening up and, in turn, letting it go. I need to let it go. I need to heal and move on.

Eighteen months ago my husband of 22 years, without much warning, packed up a suitcase and walked out the door. He never came back. And to this day, has never really told me why. Sure, we had been struggling and had been in therapy for months. But I had no idea that things were unfixable. I had no idea that he had at least a year prior given up even wanting to try to fix it. I was devastated. And if I’m honest, I still am. And, if I’m even more honest, I’ve been consumed by shame since that February day a year and a half ago.

I have not made much of a secret of the fact that my marriage ended. But what I haven’t shared is the shame I lug around with me every day. Shame for being left behind, shame for being cheated on, shame for failing at marriage, shame that I couldn’t fix it, shame that he gave up on me, shame for mostly being the only person in my social circle whose husband gave up on her and shame that I ended up just like my parents….divorced. And not divorced in the “conscious uncoupling” or Demi Moore/Bruce Willis kind of way. Divorced in the way that my not-yet-ex husband wants nothing to do with me. Won’t answer my calls, only answers texts if it’s about the kids and does everything in his power to avoid even laying eyes on me. Almost every minute of every day I struggle with the shame that my husband walked out of my life and NEVER even considered coming back.

I don’t think anyone in my life quite understands this shame and how debilitating it is. Some tell me that I need to let it go and move on. Some tell me that I’ll be better off. Some tell me that I will find someone else. Some tell me that this is just how divorce works. What they don’t see or don’t understand is that the shame is an ever present reminder to me that I wasn’t good enough. That I didn’t try hard enough. That I didn’t matter enough. That I just wasn’t enough. Even today I cry almost every day. How did I spend practically my entire adult life with someone who so easily erased me from his life? And not only did HE erase me from his life, but his entire family followed suit. His sisters stopped speaking to me the day he moved out. One of those sisters lives in a house that we purchased for her and who we took with us on almost every family vacation we took. We raised our children to see that Aunt Beth was the sixth member of our immediate family — their third parent. All of the in-laws and even their in-laws — with whom we celebrated every holiday with — cut off all contact. And, in the modern day version of ending relationships, blocked me from their social media accounts. It was as if after 25 years I ceased to exist.

I have so much more to say about this. But this is a good start. It feels like a weight off my shoulders to stop trying to pretend that I don’t hate myself for the ending of my marriage. It feels good to know that I can stop smiling and telling people that it’s ok, that “I’m fine,” no need to worry about me. I don’t like making others feel uncomfortable so I don’t share this burden with many. But I just don’t think I can carry it anymore. It’s too heavy, it’s taking to much of a toll on my mental and physical health. I’m not ok. I will be someday. But I’m not there yet. I think sharing my story will help. And hopefully it can help someone else.

Healing is a non linear experience. And this blog will be too. Likely I won’t know what story I’ll be telling until I sit down and start typing. So we’ll see what tomorrow brings.  Thanks for letting me share this secret.