What I learned from Tom Hanks and his typewriters

I read a really wonderful profile on Tom Hanks recently (I highly recommend checking it out) and, not surprisingly, learned a lot of really sweet things about Tom Hanks. More unexpected was what I learned about myself.

In the piece, Hanks discusses how he amassed a large collection of typewriters, starting when he was 19 — hundreds of them — and eventually attributing the need to continue building the collection to the fact that for the first time in his life he truly had control of his belongings. As a child Hanks’ family moved pretty regularly and he often lost things in those moves. Being able to purchase the typewriters and hold on to them finally gave him some control in his life. Each time he bought a new typewriter the idea that he could bring it with him wherever he went and keep it for as long as he wanted, provided him with a sense of comfort he hadn’t experienced growing up.

As a kid my family also moved a lot. When they married and started having children, my parents lived in San Francisco. After a few years, we all moved across the Bay Bridge to the East Bay suburbs. Not long after that, my parents split up and my mom, sister and I packed up our things and moved back to the City. We were there for less than a year before returning to our house in the suburbs. The very next year, when I was six, I packed up and went to live with my father and stepmother about 2 hours south of San Francisco. That move felt more permanent than the previous moves and it seemed like I might stay put for a while.

Instead, in just over 3 years, my father, stepmother, sister and new baby brother moved to a small somewhat remote coastal town in Northern California. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories but I do have a vivid memory of a family meeting in the dining room and being given a brand new address book to collect the phone numbers and addresses of my 4th grade classmates because we would be moving in just a few weeks. I would be leaving before the end of the school year and I was devastated. Four years after that, I left my friends and family behind again when I moved back to the Bay Area to live with my mother and stepfather. I stayed there for the next 5 years, until I went away to college — an eternity compared to all my other homes.

As I criss crossed my way up and down California it’s hard to keep an accurate account of all that I left behind in each location: family members, friends, family pets, toys, books and items that my parents likely saw as junk, but to me were treasures. I left a little piece of me in each of the homes and towns I moved away from. And being a kid, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The people and things I left behind were gone forever. Like Tom Hanks, I found myself as an adult with almost no physical objects leftover from my childhood. Not a single thing that went along with me to each of my homes.

My parents and step-parents continued to move several more times throughout the years and more and more of my things were either discarded or left behind. My father and stepmother cut off contact with me when I was in high school so the connections to that part of my life completely disappeared. I have no idea what ever became of my old bedroom set or my books or my bicycle….did they keep my school photos? My report cards? The cutting board I made in my middle school woodshop class? I’ll never know.

During my marriage, my husband and I would often argue over my need to hold onto things. I never made it to “hoarder status” but I had a very difficult time getting rid of books, furniture, clothes, appliances or anything that I might someday wish I had kept. When we had no room in the house, I would move these things out to the garage. For the first time in my life I was able to hang on to my belongings and I’d be damned if I was going to suffer the loss of my life’s treasures ever again.

All the moving and all the loss I experienced growing up made me fiercely protective of my childrens’ histories. I wanted them to grow up and be able to see and read their favorite books, touch their beloved stuffed animals, see their sports’ trophies and art projects on the shelves. It was also important that they be able to hold on to friends from kindergarten all the way to high school graduation, and beyond. I hoped they’d have a sense of history with people who have known them their whole lives — something I longed for but never had. Well, at least not until I met my husband and spent the next 25 years with him.

And that brings up another important thing I missed out on during my transient childhood: feeling like I belong somewhere and with someone. I didn’t get to have friends that lasted for more than a few years. With no social media back then, it was hard to keep track of my friends when I moved away. I didn’t even have a family I felt I belonged to. My stepmother made it well known that I was her stepdaughter and very clearly not her daughter. My father likely suffered from pretty severe and undiagnosed mental illness and wasn’t able to express his emotions in a healthy way. So I never knew where I stood with him or if he even cared about me. My stepfather had three of his own kids that he didn’t have a relationship with, so having one with me was not of any interest to him. And since I moved back and forth between my parents’ homes I often felt like I was a guest in both places.

With my husband, I was finally able to feel secure and loved and like I belonged somewhere for the first time. I wasn’t just visiting, I wasn’t going to be forced to pack up my belongings and move away from a home I loved. No it wasn’t always perfect, but during those years we truly felt like a family, we cared about each other and our kids knew they were loved and safe and cared for. It’s hard to put into words the sense of safety and security I felt during time in my life and it’s even harder to articulate just how devastating it was lose it.

It’s coming up on an astonishing 3 years since my husband left me and I wish I could say that I’ve settled into being alone. I wish I could say that I’ve found that sense of safety and security and belonging that I had in my marriage. I do hope to get there again someday. And I do hope that I can get to a place where I feel loved and cared for. But in the meanwhile, I’ll be holding on to my “typewriters” and feeling some sense of comfort and control, however small.

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.

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.