Fear and loathing in the psych ward.

I started this blog to share my stories and I’ve done that. But even though I’ve committed to sharing my stories in the hope that it helps me and, hopefully, others to heal, I’m still terrified. Stories about my two stays in a psychiatric hospital are frightening to share. When I got home from the first time I was there I sat down and wrote about my experience as a way to make sense of it all. Here’s what I wrote:

My anxiety has been in major overdrive since my marriage of 22 years imploded, just over a year ago. Since then I’ve become a walking, talking self help directory and can talk a very convincing game on mindfulness, yoga, DBT, CBT, mediation, attachment theory, radical self acceptance….you name it, I’ve tried it, read obsessively about it or listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts on it. I go to therapy once a week, have been enrolled in an intensive outpatient program at a hospital (twice!), I’m college educated, get paid to do a job I love, have countless supportive friends and family, and, here’s the best part, I’m a yoga and mindfulness teacher  — yet I still think I’m the worst and I still ended up involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital this week.

I won’t dive too deep into the black hole of my separation and pending divorce, except to say that it, like many divorces do, includes infidelity, questionable financial transactions and a generous amount of animosity and lawyers fees.  The whole experience of ending this 25 year old relationship has been the proverbial emotional roller coaster ride and I’ve experienced the highest of highs (i can pile as much crap in my garage as I want now and nobody will yell at me for it….yay!) to the lowest of lows (I’m going to die alone….sigh) and all points in between. A few days ago, I hit one of those lows. 

In hindsight, it wasn’t truly as catastrophic an event as it seemed that day, but when I found out that my soon-to-be-ex husband was backing out of his promise to cover my health insurance and was offering to pay what amounts to less than minimum wage in spousal support, I went OFF THE RAILS. With depression and anxiety being two very large pre-existing conditions, and this being Trump’s America, this was alarming news, to say the least. Anxiety moved into the driver’s seat in my brain and it began yelling that this was THE END OF THE WORLD.

As I have done often over the past several months, I poured myself a very tall glass of wine and paced back and forth in my room, crying and hyperventilating.  Halfway though, I realized that my very tall glass of wine wasn’t going to be nearly enough to get my brain to STFU. So I, very unwisely, grabbed a bottle of Ativan, popped one in my mouth and washed it down with a swig of wine. Soon after, I convinced myself that one measly Ativan, along with my second glass of wine, STILL wasn’t going to be enough to make it through the night without my head exploding. So I popped a few more. I knew it was wrong, but I also knew that it wasn’t going to kill me. My kids were home, I had no thoughts of killing myself. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to feel anything. Not experiencing any serious side effects and still standing a short time later, I thought “why not?” and down went another two pills. That is the last thing I remember.

It turns out that my 18-year old son, concerned about my erratic behavior, called 911. Paramedics and police arrived and sat me down in my kitchen. I’m told, I helpfully offered that I had taken about 5 or 6 Ativans along with half a bottle of wine.  That was just about all they needed to hear and I was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. New to the neighborhood and being a single mom with a extremely un-pedigreed mutt and a slowly dying lawn, on a street lined with perfect-seeming families, living in perfect houses, with perfect lawns and perfect pedigreed dogs, I must have created quite the scene. I try not to make eye contact with any of them nowadays.

My timeline is still a bit fuzzy, but at some point I was informed that I was being transferred– though, nobody would tell me where I was headed. As I was being strapped onto a stretcher, I was told my kids were fine and were being taken care of by their aunt. Two very nice paramedics told me we would reach our destination in about 40 minutes.

I’ll pause the narrative here to say that while I was under the influence of my wine-soaked benzos, I learned that I made dinner for my kids (cheeseburgers) took my dog for a walk in the neighborhood with a friend and had numerous text conversations with varying degrees of coherence. I have not one single recollection of any of it and I cringe when I look at those text messages. I don’t think I need to mention that at least some of those texts were to my husband and they were not kind.

Back to the ambulance. We arrived at what was to be my new home for the next few days and I was whisked into an intake room carrying a plastic bag filled with my clothing and wearing a hospital gown open up the back. Underwire bras are considered dangerous, apparently, so my bra was in my plastic bag.

After what seemed like hours of questions and hundreds of papers to sign, I was escorted down a long hallway and through many locked doorways into the Sequoia Unit. Each door had a sign somewhat inexplicably reading “AWOL risk, think about it.” 

About Sequoia Unit, I can’t stress this enough: it was like every single television show or movie depiction of a psychiatric ward you’ve ever seen. Honest. To. Fucking. God. There were multiple agitated patients pacing up and down the hall and there was indiscriminate screaming coming from several directions — the many nurses seemed unphased by all of it. 

Opposite the nurse’s station was the “activity room” which was filled with about 10 patients either coloring in childrens’ coloring books or watching a television that was locked inside a cabinet with a plexiglass door. Not one of the television viewers appeared to be actually paying attention to what was on the screen and I think they’d all be hard pressed to tell you what they were watching.

I filled out more paperwork and watched as a pretty young Asian girl who looked to be in her mid-twenties started, very nonchalantly, taking off all of her clothes. The nurses screamed at her and rushed to re-dress her. They then turned back to me, took my plastic bag of belongings and handed me a set of blue paper scrubs, yellow socks with grippy rubber bottoms, and my discharge paperwork from the hospital, before walking me to room 108. My bag of belongings, unfortunately, did not contain my contraband underwire bra, so my 50 year old boobs spent the next few days located at stomach level. Let me just say that under no circumstances should 50 year old boobs be unsecured for any significant length of time. It’s not good for me, my boobs or anyone near me or my boobs.

I think we’ll stop here for now and pick this back up.

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.

So many stories to tell….

Having a difficult time getting started since I really can’t find a suitable starting place. I have so much to tell and so much to share. Maybe the right place to start is to tell you why I even have stories to tell. Why I think these stories are worth telling. Why others might want to read these stories. Why those stories might help others. Yes, let’s start there.

For a little more than 18 months, I have been searching for information. Searching for people who have gone through what I’m going through. Searching for support. Searching for solidarity. Searching for answers. Searching for shoulders to cry on. Searching for help. And what I am slowly and reluctantly coming to realize is that I’m not going to find any of that outside of myself. I wish more than anything in this world that there were books that could help me. Friends and family who could provide the answers I want. Therapists who could fix me. Classes that could teach me how to keep moving forward through the pain. But maybe, just maybe, I can find some of that through the telling of my stories. I sincerely hope so.

Back to the why: why are my stories worth telling? Maybe it’s because I might be able help someone find what they’ve been searching for. Perhaps my experiences will resonate with someone out there. Possibly I can be of some assistance. Because I really do want to help.

I think I’ll start at the end. No, scratch that. That isn’t right. My story hasn’t ended yet. As much as I may have wanted it to end, it hasn’t. It will hopefully keep going. I don’t always feel it or believe it, but I need to stick around for a while. I need my story to continue.

Enough stalling, it’s time to jump off the cliff. I’m scared, but it’s time….

Deep breath….I spent ten days this summer committed involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital. I’ll say that again, because I need begin the process of distancing myself from the shame I’ve attached to that sentence. I was declared — on two occasions this summer — a danger to myself. Until this summer 5150 was simply the name of a Van Halen album that was popular when I was in middle school. It has a new and very personal meaning to me after the past few months.

Here’s another deathly terrifying sentence: I suffer from mental illness. Why is that so scary to put out there? Why can’t I declare that in the same way that I tell someone that I suffer from asthma? Well, it’s because nobody’s afraid of someone with asthma. Nobody fears that my asthma might hurt them. Nobody considers that my asthma makes me unfit to raise children or hold a job. Nobody will claim that my asthma caused the end of my 22 year marriage. But to yell from the rooftops that I am mentally ill is, to many, admitting that all of that is true.

Can we get to a place where I can tell a stranger that I suffer from severe clinical depression and crippling anxiety and not have them want to get away from me as quickly as possible? Can I ever say that to another person and not have them fear me, judge me, discredit me? I certainly hope so. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of stories. And, it’s going to take a lot of us coming out of the shadows to tell these stories. The stories are worth telling and they are worth hearing. I’m starting mine today.