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.


Lisa Parisi said...

Very powerful. You described my teens and twenties very well. I've been taking medication for about ten years. It holds the thoughts of suicide at bay. But going through it myself helped me recognize depression in my daughter early enough to stop her destructive behavior quickly. We do need to talk about this more openly. It is nothing to be ashamed of. The chemicals in my brain just don't act like everyone else's. So medication helps that. And so do the people in my life.

Jennifer Leyva said...

Thank you

eplybon said...

Lisa, I also have found my experience helpful as a parent. I have been able to recognize when my children need help and they have all learned how to recognize it in themselves. It is so important to give them these tools.

Mrs. D said...

As someone who is married to a person who struggles with this every day, I can say that your story really hits home. I too recognize what you are talking about in several of my children and worry about them each and every moment of each and every day. Trying to help their father navigate through the darkness while keeping it at bay for them is my main goal in life. The hardest part is that no matter how aware I am, nor how much I try to give all of them the tools that they need, it seems like it is never enough. I never really know what is truly going on in their heads and that scares me to death. It is also next to impossible to get help or support. You are right, it needs to be discussed. We need a national movement to open up this conversation. Not only about depression but also about some of the other conditions that depression is associated with. Thank you for your frankness. I too want a semi colon tatoo.