Friday, July 31, 2015

Hello darkness, my old friend

I'm sure many of you have seen pictures of people getting tattoos in the shape of a semicolon for Project Semicolon. If you haven't, or if you don't know what it is, here is a short description from their website:
"Project Semicolon (The Semicolon Project) is a faith-based non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addition and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire."
It is a very worthwhile endeavor - as a society, we have had the idea embedded within us that talking about mental illness is not acceptable. That having mental illness is a sign of weakness. That acknowledging we need help is something that we need not do in public.

However, as I watched so many people jumping on board, I began to wonder if they really understood the project or if they were just doing it because they saw it on Facebook and thought it sounded cool.

As I considered my feelings on the subject, I came to two realizations:

  1. I want to have a semicolon tattoo, and I will talk about that later.
  2. If it is true that people are jumping on board because it's the cool thing to do, that is more proof that it needs to be done. Awareness of the reality of mental illness needs to happen.
With regards to number one, I have decided to share my story. It is a story that began as a teenager and follows me through my adult life. I was raised to not fear death. I was taught that there is something peaceful and natural about it and that when we mourn a death, it is for us, not for the person who died, because that person is in a better place. As a Christian, I embrace the concept that death is a beautiful release from the suffering in the world and a peace unknown and incomprehensible.

The story I am about to tell has not been told to anyone in its entirety. My family will find parts of it to be surprising. For that, I apologize.

When I was in high school, my perception of the world was distorted. Everything was dark. Everything was not in my favor . . . ever. By 16, I routinely used alcohol to generate temporary feelings of peace and calm. As a senior in high school, I believed nothing would ever get better. I believed I had accomplished all that I would in life and there was nothing to look forward to. I would go for drives on winding roads at night, turn out the lights, press the gas pedal to the floor, and dare my car to lose the road. One such night, the thought occurred to me that maybe I was through with the dare and ready to make it happen. I approached a bridge and decided that I would simply drive off of it. Why am I still here today? As I entered the bridge, I had two thoughts enter my head. First, that driving off a bridge wasn't a sure thing. What if I live? Second, if I am gone, will anyone really even care? Sure my parents would be sad for awhile, but would their lives really change? Confusion at the first thought and anger at the second were the first real emotions I had felt for a very long time. I slowed my car down and drove home.

This wasn't a moment that changed my life forever. It was a moment that temporarily stayed my desire to leave this world. I continued on my destructive path and married at 18. Regardless of how our marriage ended up, I credit my first husband with saving my life. He was older, 24, and had been through some difficult times of his own, having lost both of his parents by the time he was 23. He was very controlling, but that is what I needed at the time. I stopped drinking. I started setting goals for myself, and I began thinking of a normal life with a family.

Forward eight years to the age of 26. My then-husband was out of town and I was alone in a four-bedroom house that had belonged to his parents. I remember one morning walking through the house, which still had remnants of his parents' presence, and suddenly a feeling, like a weight, slammed down on me. I fell to the floor, crying. In my tears, I wondered what I was crying about. My mind released what it had been holding for all those years and the depression flooded back. At 26, I believed my life was all that it ever would be. I had been trying to have children for many years. I had not had the money to go to college and never would. I was in a job that didn't satisfy me. My marriage was not all that I had hoped it would be. I felt trapped and alone. I wanted out.

We owned several guns and my then-husband and I shared shooting as a hobby. I had a handgun of my own that I took out of the gun cabinet. I went to the bathroom, thinking that room would be easiest to clean. As I stared at the gun, I wondered how I got there. Why was this back? I called my brother, who is ten years older than me. I told him I thought I wanted to kill myself. He said words that saved me for that day, "think about the things that make you sad right now - if those things were not true about your life, would you still be thinking your life was over?" My answer was no. He said, "then start making those things not true and don't give up on yourself."

When my then-husband came home, I told him everything and he made an appointment with a therapist. It was my first experience with seeking professional help for my mental health. It was life-changing. My therapist suggested I try antidepressants while we worked through my issues, and my doctor prescribed Prozac. After two weeks, I realized my perspective on my life had changed drastically. I was able to think rationally about my life and, with my therapist's help over the next year, I changed the mantras in my head. Eventually, I went off the Prozac, and everything seemed fine.

I went to college. Eventually, I divorced my husband. I started a real career for the first time in my life, and I built a life that made me happy. I didn't sit and wait for it to happen to me, I built it. Through all of that, the lessons I learned in therapy were a constant necessity for me. Why? Because once you dance with the darkness, the darkness is always near.

Because of that last statement, I have had additional bouts with depression all my life. Occasionally, I've needed to seek out therapy and/or medication. Most often, it is the mantras in my head that pull me through. Those of you who know me know that I have a wonderful life. At times, it seems too good to be true. I have a wonderful husband, five kids who are so amazing, and have been successful in my career. Even in the midst of that beauty, the darkness is just over my shoulder. If I allow myself to take a look, I sink back into that darkness. I might find myself huddled in my closet. I might begin to think sleep is the only way to get through the day. I might become quiet and introspective and not let my beautiful family in, and yes, I might begin thinking about how easy it would be to just slip away . . .

I wanted to share all of this because it is my story. My story isn't over yet. If you battle with mental illness and have not sought help. Do it now. Do it for yourself. Do it so that you can open the next chapter of your life. If you know someone who is battling mental illness, be supportive. Don't be afraid to talk to them about it, acknowledge it.

It isn't shameful, it's an illness.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Things I have learned this week

My Facebook posts tell the story of a boy who had surgery a week ago last Monday and was out on the town yesterday, getting his hair cut, renting video games, and shopping with Mom and her friend, Andrea. It all seems like a victorious example of life continuing, unscathed, after a major surgery.

What my posts don't tell is the reality of Nathan having to adjust to life in a wheelchair. They don't tell about my struggles as the mother of a 14 year old boy who is basically a full-grown man, helping him adjust to life in a wheelchair, and feeling terribly inadequate to really help him. My posts don't tell of our triumphs - figuring out how to wash his hair, Nathan being able to get himself out of his chair and into his walker to use the bathroom, and this morning the realization that a whole night had passed without waking up in the middle of the night.

This week, I have learned that, although the Americans with Disabilities Ace (ADA) was passed 15 years ago, most of the places we visit do not have any way for a person in a wheelchair to open the door to enter. They also do not have doorbells to ring to request assistance. I have learned that when stores are being renovated, they don't consider their disabled customers when they scrunch all their inventory into rows so close that an adult would have to walk sideways to navigate and a person in a wheelchair will have to feel closed in, with clothing in his face and unable to see past the next pair of trousers on a rack.

Nathan and I have both learned to scan parking lots as we enter, looking for the handicap parking that has space next to the right side of the car. Some of them don't have spaces like that. We also look for the ramp that he needs to get into the store, since they all have curbs. Nathan, in his chair, is constantly scanning for those places where the concrete has broken and not been repaired, so I have learned that some stores that are "ADA compliant" haven't maintained their ramps so that a person in a wheelchair has to hope the bumps and gouges in the concrete aren't enough to topple the chair and a person who just had his hip sawed into pieces has to hope those bumps won't hurt as much as he rolls over them as he thinks they will.

I have learned that what used to be errands are now day-long, significant efforts, as Nathan and I still haven't quite come up with the easiest way to get him in and out of the car or for me to lift the heavy wheelchair into and out of our trunk or back seat. I now measure the amount of time errands will take by the amount of stops - each stop means a lengthy exit from the vehicle and equally long reentry. With each stop, Nathan's strength diminishes significantly. I am learning to find "one-stop-shops" where I can get everything we need, even if it means spending more money.

I have learned that people don't visit. When Nathan was battling cancer, nobody visited, but it didn't bother me all that much because it was me they were shunning. My infant son didn't have any idea that nobody was visiting us during the long days we spent in the hospital. He didn't realize that people could have been helping with the lawn, cooking, or just giving mom a break.

This time, when there was only one person who visited him during his five days in the hospital who wasn't either related or had to visit because of their job, he knew. Now that we are home and nobody is stopping by or calling to ask how he is doing, he knows.

I've always been fascinated by perspective. I am thankful for the opportunity to spend my days with the incredible young man that is my son. If I could choose any life I wanted, I would choose this one. I am thankful to be able to experience our world through this new lens and I am sure Nathan and I have a lot left to discover.