???: The Continuing Story

On April 21, 2018, I had the worst breakdown of my life.

I was driving at the time, and I pulled into a grocery store parking lot, crying so hard I could barely see. I couldn’t breathe. I felt nauseous and my hands were shaking. The worst part was the feeling of total isolation – that even though I was in a busy parking lot, surrounded by people, none of them cared and I was totally alone. I had no one to call or text – no one who hadn’t heard this a dozen times before, who had talked me down from dangerous highs or up from frightening lows. I could not bother them again.

For months, I had felt like my mind was increasingly divided into two parts – the part that was rational and the part that was sick. It was then, in that car, that the rational part spoke quietly but clearly. It said, You can’t go on like this. You are hurting yourself and scaring the people who love you. You need help now.

I picked up my phone and searched for crisis hotline. The next thing I searched for was counselors.

That’s how I found myself, a few weeks later, in a counselor’s office. I told him about the behaviors and emotions that had become more prevalent over the past year and gradually brought my level of functioning to near zero. I told him about my tendency to cry, more easily than ever.  I talked about my self-destructive behaviors, my paranoia, and my mood swings. I left unspoken my fear of abandonment and constant need for validation. I didn’t need to say it.

He looked at me and said, “This sounds a lot like borderline personality disorder.”

I guess I knew deep down that this wasn’t just a resurgence in my depression (hence my tendency to refer to my mental health issues as ??? in recent months), but BPD carries such an awful and not completely undeserved stigma that I was shocked and scared by the possible diagnosis.

BPD is one of the Cluster B personality disorders, joined by antisocial, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorder. Sufferers of these disorders exhibit traits of being dramatic, emotional, and erratic, and are commonly perceived as being manipulative, toxic, and abusive. If you form any relationship with someone who has a florid, undiagnosed, or untreated Cluster B personality disorder, you will carry the scars from that relationship for life. I know. I’ve been there.

Someone who knows that they have a problem and is actively working to overcome it, however, is different. It took that quiet voice of insight to pull me out of my downward spiral. We are still working to determine whether I indeed have the full-blown disorder or just a few of the traits, but the fact remains that my core problem is emotional instability, and the treatment is the same regardless … working to increase distress tolerance and to strengthen both parts of my mind, the rational and the emotional part, so that both will be healthy and neither will be sick.

To those of you who have seen me cry or seen me hurt, I am so sorry. I realize now that these actions were disturbing. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you understand this: that none of my actions were intentionally manipulative or dramatic. I think only another person with emotional dysregulation could understand the horrific pain that accompanies sadness, grief, jealousy, anger, etc. And, of course, under the tears and distress is another profound fear: please don’t leave me.

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I know you were singing this in your head, too.

At the time I’m writing this, there has been a lot of discussion about mental illness and how best to reach out to someone who may be hurting or suicidal. Now might be a good time to point out that close to ten percent of the population has a diagnosed personality disorder, and the actual prevalence may be much higher. And one of the diagnostic criteria for BPD is suicidal thoughts or non-suicidal self-harm.

Mental illness and personality disorders are never straightforward and easy to fix. Sometimes they’re scary, or they’re messy, or they’re disturbing. But remember that there is a person on the other side of that screen … someone who is sick and scared. Reach out to them, not as a counselor or a doctor, but as a friend.

Some parts of me are broken, but I am more than that. I am here, and I am learning.

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[May 27]

The sun in my sky is gone,
and so are the stars at night, hanging above the freezing sea.
The ice that burned my face
has melted away, and the rocks
that hurt my feet are nowhere to be found.
This path is a smoother and lonelier one,
its dust pale, not red,
and as I climb it I can hear the ocean
singing under an even haze.
My memories of you, still beautiful
but jagged, rusty, cut deep into my palms
and will leave scars.
I had no idea how tightly I held them
until I let them go and felt my joints and tendons
ache, not with sadness, but with relief.
I am the only person on earth
who remembers where we met, both younger,
before the desert’s scouring wind
wore us both down. Sand against rock.
Rock grinding, unpadded, against itself,
over and over. Here, I do not smell
dust or jasmine, but blood and salt,
and the air is sharp and clean.

You left me broken and adrift,
but I am free, and never more certain,
and I will not stop climbing.

Pieces

I’m a crier.  I always have been.  One of the only memories I have of first grade is of preparing to cry, and of my teacher – her normally sweet, patient face turned cold and hard – snapping, “No, Amber.  You will not cry today.”  I remember being ten and walking in circles around our tiny backyard because my mom was tired of listening to my sobs.  And yes, of course it was raining, and of course my windbreaker was black.  Once I got started, it seemed like nothing could stop me.

As I’ve gotten older, my tendency to cry has lessened, but when it does happen, it is more embarrassing.  Two weeks ago, I cried at an airport because my traveling companions were cranky and because a crossing guard mimicked my clumsy, waddling attempt at running across the road.  I wonder what people thought when they saw my tearstained face.  If they noticed.

The bottom line is that I cry quite often for no real reason.  Even when I’m otherwise happy.  Since relapsing with dysthymia this past fall, I have cried even more often.  It’s horrible.  It’s embarrassing.

Having depression as an Adult™ is much different than having depression as a college student.  In college, I was surrounded by people who cared.  Some were paid to care, some cared because they saw me so often, some cared because they were experiencing similar things.  Now, I feel like I have to earn concern and sympathy.  Chronic mental illness gets old when you’ve had it for nearly ten years.  It has altered my development as a person – not necessarily for the worse, but its mark will always be there, just like the freckle on my nose.

I feel such tenderness and compassion for the nineteen-year-old girl who started this blog.  The younger me talked about recovery as if it were a finite goal, something to be achieved and then discussed breathlessly and optimistically forevermore.  I wanted my battle with depression to be a Lifetime movie, and I almost got my wish.

And then – this fall.  Back to the nauseating waves of anxiety and guilt.  Back to the isolation and the recurring thought that would hit me out of nowhere – You are a failure at everything you have ever done.

And back to the crying.

When I was given the PHQ-9, I checked off every symptom on the list.

Since resuming medical treatment, I have come to realize that recovery is not a goal that you reach and just sit at.  You have to work to recover, tirelessly, every day.  Doctors can help, and medicine can help, but the majority of the work is up to you.  And it is thankless.

Sometimes you stumble in your recovery, and you have to face the consequences.  Because – let’s face it – real life doesn’t care that you have depression.  Real life cares about things like chores and nutrition and profits and productivity.  The government will not accept crippling self-doubt as a reason why your taxes are late.

So you apologize.  Pick up the pieces.  Forgive yourself, and move on.

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Take Up Your Spade – Sara Watkins

Remember when I used to skip the weather? Why did I do that again?

Sun is up, a new day is before you
Sun is up, wake your sleepy soul
Sun is up, hold on to what is yours
Take up your spade and break ground

Shake off your shoes,
Leave yesterday behind you
Shake off your shoes,
But forget not where you’ve been
Shake off your shoes,
Forgive and be forgiven
Take up your spade and break ground

Give thanks, for all that you’ve been given
Give thanks, for who you can become
Give thanks, for each moment and every crumb
Take up your spade and break ground
Break ground, break ground, break ground

[October 1]

One of my favorite poems that I have written, and still relevant, although under different circumstances.

Glass Half Fuller

This is how to forget
that you are probably being forgotten:
make your coffee strong, with dark brown sugar.
Go to bed at nine. Wake up at six
and sit outside in the lightening blue
looking at your phone. Look at your phone
often. Pretend that you’re not
looking for texts. Become good at pretending.
Become a good writer. Wish you were a better
writer. Don’t cry. Dig your nails into
your arm and forget you put them there until
the skin turns white around the grooves
and puffs up and stings in the shower.
Take lots of showers. Put a counter
on your phone: thirty-four days, thirty-five,
thirty-six. You knew this
would happen. One day, two thousand
two hundred and twenty-six days from now,
someone will say her name and you’ll say Who?
even though your heart will skip a beat anyway,
as it does from time to time.

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2017: Looking Back

On January 25, 2017, at approximately 9:15 AM, I was starting my commute to work.  It was a sunny morning and the temperature was right around freezing.  The last thing I remember the radio DJ saying was, “There’s a lot of ice on the roads, so be careful out there.”

The next moment, a big white pickup truck took the corner ahead of me too fast and skidded on the ice.  I remember thinking offhandedly: Wow, that’s a bad skid.  Then, as the truck began to spin more and more out of control: Oh crap, he’s going to hit me.

I pulled the car over to the side of the road as far as I could, closed my eyes, and screamed.

When I opened my eyes milliseconds later, the car was full of smoke from the airbags.  My glasses had been knocked off my face and my forehead and legs were bruised.

The rest of the memories from that day are spotty.  I remember my manager at work calling me, his voice full of concern.  I remember a tow truck arriving to take me and the car to a repair shop, and an employee referring offhandedly to my car as a “total loss.”  I remember getting home, after hours and hours, and immediately falling asleep.

It was my first car accident.  Just days before, I wrote, “It looks like things are finally starting to get better for us.”

January 23 through April 14 was just … a mess.  I won’t go into the details, but it was exhausting, confusing, and terrifying.  Looking back, it’s so clear that the S.O. and I suffered from Vitamin D deficiency last winter, which didn’t help.

Despite all of that, there are some things I will miss about Minnesota – the fresh, cool air in the suburbs, the lakes and endless fields, the rows of buffalo fish and Dover sole at the supermarket (yum, fish!)  I’ll miss rediscovering podcasts like This American Life, S-Town, Welcome to Night Vale and Heavy Metal Historian – don’t ask.  And I will miss wandering through downtown Minneapolis on my way home from yet another job interview.  It’s such a vast, vibrant city, and I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate it enough while I lived there.

December 30 will mark my second anniversary of graduating from college, and I can honestly say that none of the past two years has been what I expected.  At all.  Of course, I didn’t really have any clear expectations when I graduated … besides “Get job.  Earn money.  Try not to freeze to death.”

One of the things I expected the least was moving back to my hometown – almost literally down the street from the hospital where I was born.  When I lived in Minnesota, it was so easy to pretend I didn’t care about old friendships from my childhood.  I don’t care, I told myself when I read about engagements, weddings, graduations.  I have a new life now, and I don’t care if they’ve forgotten me.  

Except, I did care.  And I still do.  And coming back to this state that is so full of memories – some bad, mostly good – I’ve had one heck of a time trying to figure out where I fit into all of this.  Which friendships are salvageable?  Which do I want to salvage?

I have spiraled into this weird, horrible depressive episode (?) with almost delusional levels of guilt and self-hatred.  The good news is, I’m getting help for it very soon.  I just have to hang on for a few more weeks.

In July, just before I started my new job, we adopted a third cat named Oliver.  Younger than Calvin and Hobbes, and normal in terms of motor function, Oliver has been comforting in so many ways.  He lets us hug him, swing him around, and cry into his fur (okay, the last one is mostly me ..)

Up until now, I’ve really underestimated the power of unconditional love.  Our cats love and trust me so much, and that is one of the most inspiring things I’ve come across this year.  Every morning, before I go to work, I kiss the head of every cat I can reach.  I tell them, “I’m doing this for you,” and it gives me the strength to keep going.

Sometimes I wonder why God – or fate, or both, or something in between – brought me back to Arizona.  I wonder why I was guided from a purely R&D, wet lab environment to a more client-oriented lab – a dynamic environment where no two days are the same and where there’s always something to learn.  (Seriously, do not ask me about my job.  I will never stop talking about how much I love it.)

But then I realize that it doesn’t matter why I am here – only that I am here.  I was given a second chance to find closure, and I was given another way in which to change the world for the better.

The sadness is still with me, making my bones and muscles ache and tying my stomach into knots.  Maybe it will always be here, in one way or another.  But my cats and my S.O. are helping me to fight it.

Together, we are a family.  And we are home.

[December 16]

Occasionally
the world tilts for me,
causing me to dig my fingernails
into whatever surface – theater seat,
mountaintop, my own denim-covered
thighs – presents itself.
I remember you were there the first time,
in that sage-scented red desert
to the north, and you laughed and looked back
at me, your hair spilling in the wind.
Don’t be afraid, I heard you saying,
although neither of us spoke out loud.
Later, as we touched foreheads
and smiled into your camera,
the earth righted itself beneath my feet.
Nothing is ever unstable for long.
Eventually, time pulls back
into an unsteady equilibrium, hiccuping along
at an all-too-rapid pace
like tired sobs or a terrified heart.
I wonder if you still remember that day,
that mountain. I wonder if you remember
where we met, or if it matters; me, a chunky
red-sweatered girl, and you, already stronger,
always more graceful. Every day,
as I mend what is left, I remember
the words you already forgot you gave me
and sing them in tandem with the words
I am teaching myself:
Do not be afraid.
This, too, shall pass.