Exposition to my Exposition:
It is Mental Health Awareness Month so many are writing their own mental health stories, breaking the silence imposed upon us by stigma. Seeing these stories has left me questioning: what is my mental health story? Do I have a story? As an English Teacher I have this expectation that a story follows a certain pattern: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Reality doesn’t actually work this way, particularly not reality with mental illness. Because mental illness takes that nice little rise and fall and shatters it to pieces. It takes reality and spins it into a massive web of indecipherability. My day to day is a constant struggle of trying to determine what is what. My depression has made me a skilled climber. Always clawing my way out of deep, dark holes. The hollow void beneath my ribs. Anxiety has made me a thorough digger. Always searching for that elusive needle in a haystack. Where are the facts? What are the lies? Most of the time, I get it wrong. But I keep trying. That’s how I know my mental health story is something that is still being written.
I have answers but I don’t think I have the answers. I don’t even know if the answers really exist. I don’t know if one can ever catch up with one’s own mental health story. I don’t know if resolution is something that any of us ever gets to achieve. But, I am going to tell my story as it exists today, as an ever evolving entity, as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” As a story line more like a roller coaster than a peak, one with ups and downs and twists and turns and bits of missing track. It’s a story that can, at times, be sweet. But it is mostly filled with moments that give you an intense, terrifying sinking feeling. You know the one, where you plummet so quickly that even the laws of gravity go out the window. That is how life with mental illness is… it makes up its own damn rules. So, hang on and enjoy the ride.
My Non-Linear Story:
I actually wish I could tell you when it began. I can’t. Remember those gaps in the tracks? They start early. I have a vague memory of being in pre-k at a really young age. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Grimes. She was a curmudgeonly older woman who, it seemed to me, hated children. She couldn’t handle a class of 20 something rambunctious youngsters. So the memory of her that has been imprinted in my mind is that of a woman yelling at us to “shut up!” I tell you this because it, along with my dysfunctional family, paves the way for years and years and years of attachment issues. Developmental wounds that are probably the foundation for this roller coaster ride. There are, of course, cracks in that foundation. Places where kindness found a way to wiggle itself into my life.
More often than not these moments of kindness came from other teachers or they came from church officials. In Kindergarten I had the sweetest teacher. I clung to her and she never made me feel broken. In 1st and 2nd grade I had a mostly benign teacher. She was there, not leaving an impression one way or another, though I was most definitely already depressed at this point in my life, so perhaps I struggled to let any of her warmth in. 3rd grade my teacher took this sullenness and depression and interpreted it as a deficit in my intellect. She put me in remedial reading because I refused to engage with the class. I refused to read out loud. I was depressed but stubborn. There was nothing wrong with my intellectual development. In fact, I had been reading from newspapers since I was 4. I could write my own name in full by the time I was 2. Learning was never the issue. My 4th grade teacher was able to see beyond the depression, beyond the “shy” exterior, beyond the wall I built. She, along with her assistant, were there with me as things in my home life really started to crumble. By this time my parents were fighting almost daily. My sister was an angry teenager, with one foot already out the door. My brother Patrick was also gone half the time, there the other half. When he was there, things were even more Chaotic. He and my father had a turbulent relationship. (I can remember a time, when I still quite young, my father had my brother against the wall choking him. He had such a firm grip that my brother’s feet literally dangled and kicked as he struggled for air. I thought my father was going to kill him. I think this is when the anxiety began. I tried to call 911. My sister stopped me. She knew what I didn’t. If the cops were called, dad goes to jail, CPS is called; we go into foster care. She called the neighbor instead). My brother George was a hermit. He escaped life by immersing himself in video games. There was no protection there, so I was thankful for the escape to school. 5th grade my depression worsened. My teacher thought I was on drugs because I just showed up and slept. She didn’t know that I wasn’t sleeping because my parents were fighting every night. She didn’t know that I got my period that year and the hormones were wreaking havoc on my body and most especially my mind.
After that things were different. Our time was split between several different teachers, rarely did they have enough of an opportunity to know their students well enough to make any significant cracks to the foundation. There were some rare instances, however. In 8th grade I had my school counselor. But when I tried to talk to her about my cutting she had to call my parents. They freaked out on me and pulled me out of school. Instead of getting me some help they protected their secrets more fiercely. They locked away all the razors and all the pills. They locked away any warmth and affection. They locked me away in a room all by myself, just me and my thoughts. After a few months, my mother broke the silence with a letter. She let me know just how much of a disappointment I was. This silence was only broken because I had managed to escape my prison briefly. I found solace in the church down the street from my childhood home. There I met the youth minister, Chris, and his fiance, Leah. They listened to me, took me seriously. They believed in getting me some help but the best way they knew how was to call CPS. This was not the first time CPS was called on my parents but my mother and father were skillful bards. They pulled the blinders down on anyone who tried to pry into our lives. CPS demanded that I be put back into school but that was the extent of the “help” I received. I was left to battle my demons alone.
In high school I had some good teachers who tried to help in my battle but by that time I was in too deep. I had been cutting for years. I was battling an eating disorder that no one seemed to notice. And, the only way I knew how to show or feel love was to be sexual. Throughout all of this, there were many insidious individuals hell-bent on “showing me love” by using my body. I didn’t know any better because it started at such a young age. But, I knew enough to have had my self-worth more or less destroyed. Enter Johnny. He was 33 and I was 17. The way he looked at me was different than all the other guys. I felt warmth. I felt passion. I didn’t just feel used. That feeling didn’t really last though. This was the first relationship I ever really invested in and it crashed and burned. I found myself pregnant and alone. He left me after he found out that I was pregnant. I was “crazy” with pregnancy hormones. So the harder he pulled away, the harder I fought to keep him close. Eventually, I lost the baby and I lost the will to fight for him anymore. I was nearly 18 and suffering from postpartum depression. My father, whom I lived with at the time, didn’t get it. On the way back from the doctor he called my mother and yelled at her, “what the fuck do you want me to do with her? She won’t fucking stop crying.” I yelled back at him, “no shit I won’t stop crying! I just lost a baby!” We didn’t talk for a week. I spent that week in bed, crying. I didn’t eat. I barely slept. I only dug myself out because my sister called me from England and talked me off the ledge.
When I turned 18 I found myself in another relationship. I thought that one would be my escape. He and I had dated off and on through high school. He was always in love with me but I was a bit flaky, at least until I was faced with the harsh reality of tying the knot or losing the relationship completely. We got married just before he was deployed. It was nothing fancy. Just us, by a pool, at the house of a minister in Orange County California. His grandpa and my best friend were the witnesses. I never got my wedding. But I did get health insurance and I was able to start counseling for real, for the first time in my life. I saw a therapist who specialized in self-injury. I don’t really remember much about working with her but I do remember that she was good. I only had to stop because I lost my insurance when I got divorced. But the divorce was vital, as my husband became abusive when he got back from deployment. Ironically, that was probably the time when counseling would have done the most good. Perhaps PTSD became something like a contagion. His actions reverberated deep into my psyche.
I tried counseling again when I went to University but the counselor dropped me from his services. No explanation. No referrals. No answers. I thought it was me. I didn’t go to counseling again for another several years, not until after I was raped. The psychologist I saw was effective but rather passive. We did a lot of talking but not much getting anywhere. I never let her into the darker parts of my mind. I guess the idea that I must keep secrets was already so deeply ingrained in me that I just couldn’t break the block. I graduated and so counseling had to end once again. But at least from that counseling relationship I got some answers. I got a diagnosis. Depression and Generalized Anxiety. Those have stayed with me ever since.
When I first started teaching I found myself completely broke down, burned out. I saw a psychiatrist, thinking medication might be the answer. He put me on buspirone and lexapro. Neither of which did much of anything for me. He increased the buspirone and put me on zoloft. The zoloft made me suicidal, so he took me off that, increased my buspirone to the max and put me on prozac. The prozac just made the suicidal thoughts even worse. So, when his solution was to up that one I made the decision to come off meds. I quit them cold turkey. I feel fortunate that I was able to do this without any horrible withdrawals symptoms. I went on working and living with my demons. Things just got increasingly worse though. I had nightmares and flashbacks and a deeper recognition of the gaps in my memory. I was dissociating so much that I almost never felt like I was living an embodied experience. I felt sort of non-corporeal. Unreal. This alarmed me and drove me back to counseling. The first counselor I saw was kind but her warmth made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t accustomed to that. It felt threatening, unreal. I ended up running. I didn’t want to let her in and risk her dropping me like a hot potato. Because the part of the story I forgot to tell you is how I had learned by this point that people never stay. They see the jagged edges and run the other way. I had become skilled at running before I was left.
When I started counseling again about 6 months later, I was determined that I wouldn’t run. That’s when I met C. I worked as hard as I possibly could to trust what she said. I let her in. I dropped the walls around my heart. Walls that I had been building for years. I shut out love at least 4 years earlier. I really thought my work with C was going to be the end of the pattern I found myself locked in… but I was wrong. Things were surreal at first. She was supportive, reassuring, present. She taught me skills. She helped me through rough moments. But there was always something that just didn’t feel right about the relationship. I went against my instincts though because I had made up my mind. I decided that I would succeed at the counseling relationship. It literally breaks my heart that I couldn’t, that I didn’t. I don’t think C was bad. I think she made mistakes. I think I was unwilling to forgive those mistakes. I was unable to get past the hurt. I held too firmly to the belief that people lie, that people leave, that people can’t handle me, that I am too much. So when she tried to correct her mistakes, when she tightened the reigns, changed her boundaries, I panicked. I went back and forth. The push and pull that was always present in our relationship reached its climax. I was met with cold, rigidity. I was met by a counselor who was of the belief that healthy people respect a person’s boundaries and therefore, I should learn how to respect her new boundaries. If I couldn’t then I was unhealthy. I just wanted to shout, that is why I saw you, because I am not healthy! I needed things from her that she just couldn’t provide. I left counseling re-traumatized. I’m still trying to stitch those wounds.
During all of this I started to see a psychiatrist. She added the diagnosis of C-PTSD and has been treating me for that and my MDD and GAD (the two diagnoses my new psychologist/therapist concurred with). Despite these diagnoses, I am being treated in such a way that makes me believe the psychiatrist might think I have bipolar II, that is yet to be determined. In the interim, I am going on and off a whole plethora of medications. Some of which have made me feel like I had the flu. Some have made my blood pressure plummet. Some have increased suicidal ideation. Some have caused severe stomach cramping. None have been a nice working, tolerable middle ground. I admit that I have this fear that we may never find the right combination but I keep going back. I keep trying. Hopefully, that will be the way of counseling as well. I mean, that is at least the way I want to write this story. I went straight from C to Dr. W (with a little bit of trial and error, some of that error adding more salt to the wound). I haven’t spent much time with Dr. W. yet and I don’t know if she is the person who will be able to walk the long-stretch of this journey with me but I hope. I hold my own hope now. That was something C used to do for me, it was something I loved and appreciated but I think perhaps made me a little bit dependent. Dr. W doesn’t elicit any of that attachment anxiety or dependence. I am comfortably detached. But part of me fears that this means she will never see the more noxious portions of my self that need the most mending. Who knows….
This is the part of my story that is still unwritten.