Thursday, November 17, 2016

Behind the Veil

September was National Suicide Prevention month.  I wrote about it and it sat in draft form until I deleted it on the last day.  Everything I wrote was honest, but ... it was a bit heavy and though my feelings were very relevant one year ago, they were far from where I was at on the final day of September as I flew to Hawaii.

And...  I was afraid.  Though it affects more people than you'd ever realize, depression and anxiety are still difficult topics to talk about.

In the last month I've had discussions with three different friends on this very topic.  And to one of the friends I admitted to having written and then deleted my post.  She said she wished I would have shared it.  That you never know when someone else is struggling and might benefit from feeling not so alone.

So I wanted to talk about it.  It started when my therapist shared a post on Facebook back in September.  (Yes, I follow my therapist on Facebook.  That's, like, totally normal).  The post was about the difference between wanting to die, and wanting the pain to stop.  There is a huge difference, I assure you.  She brought up the importance of discussing not only the thoughts you might be having about suicide, but also how do you feel about those thoughts, how do you respond to the thoughts, do you have someone to reach out to that you feel safe talking to, etc, etc.  It's not just a simple "yes" or "no".

14 years ago I faced my first bout of depression.  It started so slowly that I didn't even recognize the change.  A gradual eating away at who I was as a person and what I loved in life.  It started with a job that I hated.  I felt overwhelmed and incompetent.  I cried every day on my way to work for almost a year.  I lost 30 pounds in a year and ate almost nothing.  I started the year overweight, so I considered the weight loss a success.  I worked out at the gym, lifting weights and doing yoga.  I had friends who were in the same boat, all of us struggling to some degree.

The following year I moved back to my fiance (now ex-husband) as he finished school.  I had few friends of my own in the town where I no longer belonged.  I was doing relief work so didn't have a regular group of colleagues to bond with.  And I was in a relationship that didn't feel right anymore, but we were both too young and too immature to call it off.  We thought we'd get married and everything would be better.  (It's the equivalent of the "fix the marriage baby" though thankfully we didn't last long enough to have one of those).

After his graduation we moved to yet another new city.  We worked at a job where we were not only unappreciated, but felt degraded on a daily basis.  I distinctly remember the Friday after Thanksgiving.  The only staff members who had to work on Thanksgiving were the interns.  We each had cases in hospital that we had to assess, manage, make phone calls, etc.  After hours of being at the hospital we looked at each other, exhausted, and decided to head home for the day.  The following day was busy.  It's always busy the day after a holiday.  My boss gathered everyone around and handed out passes to the movie theater.  $20 worth of movie tickets to every staff member, except the interns.  Instead we were lectured, in front of the entire staff, about how we didn't do the laundry on Thanksgiving.  Laundry.  We didn't do laundry on normal working days, but yet, we were expected to stay until ALL of the laundry was washed, dried, folded and put away.  On Thanksgiving.  We got nothing but a slap in the face.

That spring my grandpa died.  My family called me at work and I was a mess.  I hid in the office crying while someone arranged my plane ticket home.  Word got around about the death in my family, and when I went to tell my boss I was leaving he told me he expected me back within what felt like a ridiculous amount of time.  I'm pretty sure he offered me 2 days off.  I worked in Florida, and my family was in Iowa.  I stared at him with a look of disgust and told him I'd let him know when I was returning.  I was only gone for a few days, not even a full week.  His lack of compassion solidified my hatred for my boss at that moment.

After the year of internship during which my husband and I had no money, no free time, and were both so emotionally taxed we had nothing left to give each other... we moved to another new city.  And I made probably the biggest mistake of our marriage-- I took a job working nights.  I loved my new job (for the most part) and I loved my colleagues.  But my husband and I grew further apart as he pursued his residency at the university surrounded by intellectual stimulation.  We never saw each other and when we did, we had little in common.  It wasn't long before he was having an affair.

I knew about the affair, and he knew that I knew.  But neither one of us did anything about it.  I was so severely depressed at that point, and he didn't know how to make me happy anymore.  I felt empty.  Nothing.  I didn't sit around crying or moping, at first.  I read a lot.  Watched movies.  But I felt hollow.  I was fine when I was alone.  But in social situations I was a mess.  I didn't know how to behave in public, with my husband having an affair and I was a shell of a person.  The anxiety reared it's ugly head and I was irrational, erratic.

Behind closed doors I confessed that I wanted to "jump off a cliff".  I never thought about how I wanted to kill myself.  I never planned anything.  I just thought I would be so much better off not here and for some reason jumping to my death seemed like the way to go.

I had alienated my sisters, and I had few friends.  One weekend my parents came to visit and the look of fear in their eyes when they saw me and my behavior was a wake up call.  I love my family fiercely and to see how scared they were for me made me afraid.  After their visit I got help.  At first I saw my doctor and got on an anti-depressant.  It was a game changer and for the first time in 3 long years I started to feel like myself again.  I was able to sort through my feelings objectively without emotion.

I started seeing a therapist, and then my husband and I entered counseling together.  The more I felt like me, the angrier I got at him for how he was treating me.  One day I told him I was done and he moved out.  We put our house up for sale.  I filed for divorce.  On our 3rd wedding anniversary he signed the papers and I was free.  I was free months before he finally signed the papers, but I could legally move on with my life.  I had been off of medications for several months.  I had been released from therapy.  I was me again.

I never wanted to die.  But for a while I didn't know how to really live.

After that I embraced life.  I swore I'd never work in a job I hated.  And I didn't take work home with me anymore.  At the end of the day, I left my thoughts, feelings, paperwork, everything in the office.  I created a new life for myself and pursued new hobbies and passions.  I met a man who treated me like a princess, who made me laugh every day, and who cared about MY feelings.  I was happy.  Life wasn't perfect.  It was hard, and challenging.  But as myself, I could handle the challenges.

Years went by.  I wouldn't say I was looking over my shoulder, but I was also keenly aware of my feelings.  If I felt badly about something for weeks/ months and I was not able to improve the situation-- I would cut it out of my life.  I had no room for toxicity.

And then one day in September last year the anxiety hit me like a brick to the face.  It was overwhelming.  Completely unexpected and there was nothing I could do but react.  I was not going to let this drag on and turn me into someone I didn't recognize.  I involved my best friend immediately.  She was "on call" as I worked through my emotions, and found a therapist that I felt comfortable with.  I can't tell you how many times she offered to drop everything and drive to the valley just to talk.

Recovery, though I got help immediately, took almost 3 months.  During this time (in the first 2 months) I thought daily, hourly, about hurting myself.  Let me back up a minute.  Several years ago a friend of mine lost his son to suicide.  Seeing how devastated the family was showed me how my family would have been had I taken my life 13 years earlier.  I knew that I would never do that to my family.  That I would never commit suicide.  So instead of thinking about not being here, I thought about making myself hurt physically to distract myself from the emotional hurt.

I fantasized about cutting myself.  Some days I'd be in surgery and holding the scalpel in my hand and I would think about digging into my own flesh.  About watching the blood drip out of my arm and feeling acute, intense physical pain instead of the raw, slow burn of emotional hurt.  At home it was the kitchen knives I had to will myself not to touch.

I starved myself.  On one hand I was so anxious that I was too nauseated to think about food.  But once I stopped eating, the physical pain of hunger was a relief and a distraction.

I pushed myself harder in workouts because when I was suffering physically, I wasn't thinking about everything else going on in my brain.

Why am I telling you all of this?  I am not looking for sympathy.  I'm fine, I assure you.  I didn't want to live that way any more than I wanted to live with the dark cloud of depression in my life.  I am telling you this because I am not alone.  And I know this now.  I was released from therapy in December and have spent the last 10 months celebrating every single day because I am still here.  In one piece.  Life is meant to be lived and that I have done.

So, suicide awareness month has long passed, and for most people won't be thought of again until next September, if ever.  But for those of us who have fought emotional battles and won, it's more often.

I don't know how to wrap this post up neatly.  It's like the package under the Christmas tree with the neat bow, but you've unwrapped it, and torn the box apart, and now it doesn't fit back together nicely.  Perfectly.  How you think it should look.  And it's not Christmas yet, so part of you feels guilty for seeing this.  Like you have a glimpse of something that isn't quite yours to have.  What do you do with it?  Pretend you never saw?  Look away, guiltily, embarrassed?

I don't know why I'm sharing this now.  Other than the topic of suicide has come up in conversation with multiple people over the last few weeks.  And I think that more than anything, I want my friends to know... you're not alone.  When the topic comes up I am at a loss for words as much as the next person.  I don't know what to say.  I don't have the magic words.  But I hope that I'm a good listener.  And sometimes, most of the time, that's all I needed.  I also want my friends to know that it doesn't have to last forever.  I was in remission (for lack of a better word) for over a decade.  And when I relapsed, I recognized the symptoms, got help immediately and was back on my feet in less than 5 months.  I have no intention of spending any time worrying about what might happen in the future.  I know there's a greater than likely chance I'll struggle again one day.  And I also know I'll fight back as fiercely as I did a year ago.  

I think going through what I did last year has made me appreciate the little things more.  My friends....  I've leaned on them, been more honest with them (and myself), and valued them more than ever.  I've tried to say thank you a little more, and complain a little less.  I've tried to find joy in every aspect of my life, instead of letting the negative wear me down.  And I've kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Life is not easy.  But it is an amazing journey and I don't want to miss any of it.


Blake Bullock said...

Your trials and goals have made you strong Mary! Thanks for sharing.

Brad Hendron said...

Hey Mary,

thanks for posting this. I've battled these demons for years. Though at times in my life I've been near or at suicidal, the depression seldom shows up for very long these days; a transformational experience mostly sorted that for me.

But the anxiety... Most days, it's on a low simmer, but ever-present. Then occasionally, it boils over and I'm nearly crippled, hardly able to function.

Anyway, just wanted to mention and add to the 'not aloneness".


Anonymous said...

Amazing and transparent post. Inspiring. Thank you