Today, December 23, is the tenth anniversary of the day I cracked up. Ho, Ho, Ho!
I bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?
We don’t like to talk about depression, anxiety, or the many ways it can manifest. We prefer to laugh it off as “menopausal hormone fluctuation” or being “hangry”. And at the holidays, when cheerfulness is practically beaten into our collective psyche, to admit one is struggling can be interpreted as particularly “Grinchy.” Yet, there it is.
I once heard a wise woman say about her own journey of healing: “I had to go back for the pieces of myself.” That’s what I have doing since I endured those three most difficult days of my life.
The three days I spent locked up in a mental hospital.
During the Christmas season of 2009, I was having a complete mental and emotional breakdown:
My father had died the year before after a week of particularly virulent reactions to Type II Diabetes complications, which I had not even know he had. I was still reeling.
My brother died of a drug overdose a year later and was found only because of the smell emanating from his run-down motel room. Our youngest brother, a cop, bore witness to the body. Again, still reeling.
I was losing a vital friendship that had sustained me and going through the heartrending separation from a group I had performed with for years over that hackneyed but accurate reason: creative differences. The band wanted to go one way, and I wanted to go another.
Travis and I were working on getting our marriage healthy.
I was in my first year of graduate school, while continuing to teach full time and attempting to be a model wife and mother.
It felt like I was drowning at work, running a large high school theatre program, where my colleague and I were absolutely unable to work peacefully together.
We had filed bankruptcy and were trying to climb out of that pit of deprivation and shame. We were barely paying bills.
And I just couldn’t let go of the grief and resentment left over from my own mom’s mental illness which led to profound neglect and abuse.
I thought I had outdone, or maybe undone, my mother. I thought because I had finished my degree, stayed married, managed to raise my kids and have a career, that I was better, but I wasn’t. Not really. Cutting myself open with scissors, either in my office at school or in my bedroom, became a coping technique. I sliced to bring focus, carving words like “fat” into my thighs. I was punishing myself with each cut: for breaking faith, for not being beautiful, for getting older, for missing my dad’s final week of life, for not saving my drug ridden brother, for an unresolved and bitter relationship with my mom, for not providing enough for my family, for leaving church and being glad about it, for not being able to mend my work relationship, for not having a perfect 4.0 gpa. Oh, and there was a bold and hungry squirrel lodged in my dining room wall, eating a big hole through it. It would poke its little nose out from the destroyed drywall and I was convinced it was blowing raspberries at us. We were scheduled to host a holiday party that had been an annual tradition among our friends, and I had no idea how we could get that squirrel out in time. Or how we could afford to host a party.
I was hiding all this agony from my husband. Well, not so much– I hid my scars and scabs, and there was no disguising the chattering and chewing of the squirrel– but I couldn’t mask the turmoil, the waking up from nightmares regularly, the shaking and trembling, the inability to make eye contact. Then one morning, he saw the scars and forced me to meet his gaze. Later, when I looked at the photo taken at my admission, I realized how truly sick I looked, haggard from lack of sleep, deep shadows under my eyes, cheeks sunken. He saw and he cried, imploring me to go to the doctor. I refused, he begged. I continued to refuse and so, growing desperate, he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. I screamed and kicked, grasping at the bedroom doorjamb to keep from being carried out, and my poor teen-aged kids watched as their dad forced their mom into a car to go to the doctor, where I was compelled to show my scabbed cuts, tell him what my days and nights had been like, and answer questions about suicidal ideation. Suicide had not been my intention, at least not overtly, but fantasies of it had certainly floated through my brain. Mostly, I just wanted to relieve and chastise my soul. The physician wanted me admitted to a psychiatric hospital, saying that if I didn’t capitulate and admit myself voluntarily, he would force the issue.
Trav was instructed to get a chaperone to sit with me in the back of the car so that I wouldn’t jump out while it was moving. By this time, I was so gone that I don’t remember who that was, though I remember with crystal clarity the moment when I was locked into an examining room. I banged on the door, howling and sobbing for freedom. It was not coming.
In Texas you are kept for three days if you’re on suicide watch. Once you’re in the mental hospital, you’re in. For three days. If you shower, you’re supervised, a nurse stands there watching you. You’re not allowed anything to write with or silverware or shoelaces. You attend mandatory group meetings. You can have approved visitors at appointed times. You queue up at a half door to get your meds in a little cup, just like on TV.
I shared a room with a stranger, and we didn’t speak to each other at all, and why would we? I didn’t talk much under normal circumstances to people I loved and trusted; I hushed. Most of the women on this ward moved and acted like ghosts, shuffling around from bed to chair to television with exhausted, haunted eyes. The walls were nondescript, the ward was locked. We lined up to go to meals. On my final full day, December 25th, I was permitted to walk to the gymnasium, where I walked laps and did sit ups, partly because I was restless, partly because I couldn’t bear to show weakness, and partly because I still thought I was fat, even though I was the smallest I had been since I had worn my size two wedding gown and had endured two plastic surgeries to perfect my body.
Phone use was freely permitted, and I called home in tears, pleading to be released. My husband, who hadn’t really known what we were in for but also had not known what else to do, fought like hell for three days to get me out. He called a family friend who was a lawyer, he got money from his parents. It was impossible.
That week, my first grad school portfolio was due, the university had deadlines for grade submissions and there was no way I was asking for an extension. To tell the director of the program, whom I admired and hoped to get job references from later, that I was in the nut house? Nope. I was given special dispensation to have a pencil and paper, as well as my textbooks. Travis brought them to me and I finished my first semester projects and papers in the waiting room of the ward, adjusting to the side effects my first doses of anti-depressants, sitting up the whole night through so that I could work on theatrical analysis, vocal technique, and acting methods in peace. The nurses and other patients looked at me like I was an alien; perhaps it’s unusual to keep being a driven perfectionist in the middle of a nervous breakdown? Anyway, I sent everything home to be submitted into the computer system for the deadline. Travis typed it all for me and I earned straight As.
Christmas Day came and went while I was locked up, but my family faithfully waited until I was released on the 26th to celebrate. There aren’t many photos of that particular Christmas, but the one I remember most shows our family behind the dinner table, silly hats on (it’s a thing we do), arms around each others’ waists, and my eyes swollen and half shut from fatigue. I was never so grateful and relieved. We didn’t talk about it, though, and I have sometimes wondered what my children thought about their crazy mom. Back then, I was too scared and ashamed to ask. Still am.
Maybe there are people who manage to escape that kind of despair, whose lives are charmed. Their kids are compliant, their bosses appreciate them, their siblings love to hang out at barbecues, their faiths are intact. Their hair is always shiny.
Not me. And not my family. And not most of my friends.
What were all the broken pieces and bits and where were they? How could I even begin to find them?
The groundwork for my collapse had been laid piece by tiny piece over 42 years: a mentally ill, abusive and drug-addicted mom; faith and sexual trauma; isolation from extended family; marriage and motherhood at an ill-equipped young age; an exhausting job paired with a perfectionist drive … my own quiet and introverted nature had enabled a habit of keeping all my struggles to myself. To move forward, I had to finally face all of it, unflinchingly, make peace with my own mistakes, forgive the mistakes of others, and lay it all to rest.
Therapy was not, surprisingly, part of my healing, mostly because I couldn’t afford it. So I relied on my new anti-depressant meds and did my own therapy. I had done plenty of therapy while in my twenties, I understood where my pain came from and I figured out how to fix it. It was all inner work, and it was done imperfectly, but I began to take small steps– cracking open the chambers where I had stashed sorrows, letting the feelings fill me and then leave me, offering apologies where I knew I needed to, and setting boundaries around myself that would serve to protect me from those who hurt me.
That “letting feelings fill me” was the hardest part. A lifetime of closing myself off, of biting my tongue, of muffling my own truth so that I could keep walking had numbed me. What I discovered, though, was that the feelings didn’t kill me. Tears, anger, whatever, it all ebbed and flowed, leaking out my tear ducts and clenching my muscles. But then breath would come, my body would relax, and I’d still be here. Here and okay, with my beloveds standing near, whether in body or spirit, to lend strength.
Yoga helped a lot, too; so did writing. In the sharing of my story by way of my blog, I began to hear from people who loved me as well as strangers who identified with my journey. There were folk who connected, and it was as if my testimony was redeemed from my lurching, stumbling, imperfect faith.
Friends and strangers alike are bearing witness to my messy life, opening their eyes and hearts to witness what trying to be an authentic human really looks like. It is my deep hope that in sharing my own foibles and graces that others might recognize the beauty of their own lives; and that they might find hope and tools for healing. You are not alone. I was not either in that disastrous December, though my own pain made it impossible to believe otherwise.
We sometimes allow ourselves to believe profound lies, don’t we?
I have spent the last decade learning to be the authentic me. It has meant walking away from a career, speaking the truth of my faith journey, setting boundaries, loving the child I was, and accepting the love of those whom I trust.
If you’re struggling this Christmas, please don’t isolate or mask. Find one person you trust and let them see your genuine hurt. And if you know someone on the brink, find them. Look at them. Hear them. And take the necessary steps, even if they seem impossible.
Merry Christmas, my friends.
If you re struggling this Christmas but believe you have nowhere to turn, please use this resource. It will get better, take it from someone who’s been there: