Have a Merry Nervous Breakdown.

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.

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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:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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Short and Sweet: To Be Heard at Christmas

I have spent much of my life feeling invisible. Earlier this week, I felt profoundly unseen and unheard. It’s not a new dynamic for me, those of us who are introverts can find ourselves caught in a quandary: we wish to be quietly alone, but we also yearn to know that we are known to exist. A dilemma, to be sure. And at the holidays, with all the hubbub, the parties and karaoke and Yankee gift exchanges, we are even more troubled.

Unless….we have someone who loves us without requiring we clang bells and whistles to earn it. I have that someone.

Christmas 1987 in SAT

When I met my husband almost 35 years ago, he saw me. More importantly, he heard me; not only when I, a vocal major, was singing, but when I was speaking. When we met, we were able, for the first time in our entire lives, to be completely vulnerable with another person, knowing that our hearts were being held in trust.

Our first Christmas, he gave me a teddy bear that still sits on a shelf in my bedroom, we attended three Christmas parties for my social club in college: 1986: engaged. 1987: married. 1988: expecting our first child. Since those early days we have struggled and prospered in turn. But one truth remains: we are each other’s most treasured Christmas gift.

I am reminded of a treasured Christmas carol:

“Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night”

To be seen, to be heard, is a gift. I think I am the star that dances in my husband’s night.

My wish for each person who finds themselves lonely this holiday is for you to find love. Romantic, familial, platonic. Any love. Friends, I pray that you and I become soft of heart and open of spirit to recognize those who need cherishing.

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Conflicted Holiday Recollections

The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.

You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.

From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.

My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:

sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;

diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;

playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;

cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;

tossing a ball with my mom;

riding our shared Big Wheel;

playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.

These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?

Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…

Chad and puppy 1975I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.

When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.

She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.

The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.

So much joy, so much promise.

Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.

I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.

Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.

My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.

Kim and Daddy 2-70

It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.

With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.

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Losing My Religion

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It’s the day after Christmas. I am sitting in my quiet house, my sweet husband is napping, my eldest daughter and her fiancee have left for a movie, my son is at work, and my youngest is across the world. It has been a wonderful Christmas- everyone is healthy (I didn’t fall and injure myself severely- just one small second degree burn from a candy-making fumble) and happy, and very much in love with their significant other. I don’t feel any post Christmas blues, but the holiday’s passing has left me feeling reflective about one very specific thing: my vanished faith.

I do understand the actual origins of Christmas- Yule and Saturnalia, Pope Julius I’s decision to create a celebration of Jesus’ birth and using the conveniently placed Solstice celebrations to do so, the Puritans’ refusal to acknowledge the holiday (it was against the law to celebrate Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681), its absence in America throughout the 18th century, then its resurgence in the 19th with the publication of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ novels.

Historically, Jesus is really not “The Reason for the Season.” But in contemporary America, in Texas, Christmas is very much about celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But not for me.

Amy-Grant

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s Christmas concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion here in the Houston area. I was so excited! It was a chilly night (a rare occurrence in a Houston December), and poor Amy had come onto the outdoor stage in an emerald sleeveless gown. She spent most of act one wrapped in a blanket, and changed into jeans, boots, and a quilted parka at intermission. Smitty was in a suit, and playing pretty vigorously at the grand piano, so he seemed to fare better in the chilled air. I loved it. They sang back to back renditions of “Jingle Bells” (Smitty sang the Perry Como arrangement, Amy the Streisand), “The Christmas Waltz,” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I have been listening to these two sing Christmas songs since I was 18 years old, and it was like being home.

But the mood changed in the second half. It became more tender, more reflective, more…worshipful. In this half, Amy sang “Heirlooms” and “Breath of Heaven.” Smitty led a sing along. But this was not a sing along like happens at your child’s elementary school PTO program, with “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” This was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” The mood became holy. And I couldn’t sing. Clearly, the audience was worshiping, and I knew that to lend my voice would be inauthentic. Counterfeit. It was beautiful, and I felt alien. Throughout the remainder of the concert, I teared up several times; and when the first notes of “Friends” played in the encore, I began to really cry…when the lights went up, I found I couldn’t talk, I could barely hold it together and my sweet husband held me while I wept, truly wept.

Christmas is often a time for heavy-heartedness- that’s not news to most adults (and a few kids). We grieve for lost loved ones. We mourn passing time. I am a little melancholy this year. But it’s not really nostalgia for my childhood Christmases (which were spotty, to say the least). It’s not even nostalgia for the holidays for when my kids were little.

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My grief is for my lost faith.

I no longer believe in the Christian faith. Not because of “hypocrites” or the times when God hasn’t answered prayers. Not because of the insanity of millionaire ministers or the rampant suffering and injustice in the world.

I can’t believe a virgin birth. I just can’t. Nor can I believe that a dead man rose and walked after three days entombed. And I can’t force myself to sit in a sanctuary and recite the Nicene Creed or sing hymns (or praise and worship songs) that strike me as so very, very false. It would be, for me, fraudulent, and an insult to the sincerity of the Christians who find such joy in their faith.

I believe in the teachings of Jesus, wisdom of the Proverbs, the passion and pathos of the Psalms. But I cannot accept that many of the writings of the apostle Paul were meant to be followed verbatim, by all humans, no matter gender, culture, and time, for ever and ever amen. I know enough to know that what we have as the Holy Bible was passed around, rewritten, interpreted, and adapted for 300 years before finally being codified. How can it possibly be infallible?

Unusual-Christmas-Trees uses

But secular Christmas seems so empty.

How does one recover from lost faith?

When I posted on Facebook that my thoughts, not prayers, were with the victims of the French terrorist attacks, a long time friend (who is not a person of faith) sought me out two days later to tell me, in person, that that made him sad. That he sensed that the loss of my faith was a grief to me. How profound is it that it was an agnostic to express sorrow over this loss?

That he has expressed more kindness over my loss than nearly any Christian in my acquaintance is also profound. I think I am a pretty big disappointment to a lot of people.

Most days, I don’t really give it much thought. I don’t miss church, not even a little bit. I think years as a minister’s wife, privy to the inner workings of church politics, cured me of ever wanting to belong to a church again. American Christianity has become a frightening place, full of fear and politics.

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In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes the dilemma of introverts (of which I am most definitely one) trying to participate in American Evangelicanism: ” Contemporary Evangelicanism…emphasizes building community among confirmed believers, with many churches encouraging (or even requiring) their members to join extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable subject- cooking, real-estate investing, skateboarding.” She meets with a man who struggles with his introverted nature, and can’t find the place where he can worship, commune, and serve. I get that. In my last attempts at finding a church home, all I wanted was a place where I could have a few real, genuine friends and contemplative, thoughtful worship, preferably far, far away from LED smart lights and Jumbotron screens.

Oh, and by the way, I still believe in God.

So I try to use walking or yoga time to reconnect with the Divine. In my solo worship time, I have learned that God is also Goddess. That trees and animals carry a bit of the Divine spark. That literature and music do as well. I have learned that kindness can be found and is often practiced by the most unexpected people: the tattooed, gypsy “heathen” is often more benevolent than the most polished Evangelical.

Years ago, when I confided to two of my aunts (on my mom’s side) that I had found myself in a desert place, they assured me that if I was just patient, that God would lead me out of the desert. I don’t feel arid anymore, and that’s a blessing. But I don’t feel Churched, either. I feel like I am in a quiet forest, with a beautiful lake. Pretty alone, but with something Divine whispering to me. Maybe that’s enough.

Merry Christmas, friends.

 

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