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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Hold the Mayo: A Reflection on Triggers

Years ago, I found myself in a crumpled heap on the floor in the hallway of my house, weeping as though all the wretchedness of the world lay at my feet in the form of a puddle of white latex paint. I scrubbed frantically and ineffectually as the paint soaked into the beige carpet, the nylon fibers greedily absorbing the goo. My kids waited nearby, helpless to console me, anxious to leave for school yet unable to coax me to my feet. Eventually, I gave up and left the ruined paint-soaked towel in a pink floral heap, taking my kids and myself to school; knowing that by the time I got home the paint would be a hardened shell about which I could do nothing. For years, I lived with that white paint stain on the floor in our hallway; our finances didn’t allow for replacing the carpet and it became mostly invisible. But never totally out of my mind.

The paint stain reminded me of a greasy mayonnaise stain in front of the refrigerator in my childhood home. Our kitchen was floored in hideous 1970s nylon kitchen carpet, a design trend that I find inexplicable. Who in their right mind conceived that raising a family would be better with carpet in the kitchen? At the tender age of nine, I dropped a full jar of mayonnaise while preparing a sandwich. It fell in slow motion to the floor, glass shattering into millions of shards while globs of the eggy, greasy condiment seeped into the gold and brown synthetic loops, the pungent smell filling the air in the tiny kitchen.

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My father was not happy with me, this day became one of the rare ones when his temper found a ready target in me. Of course, I know now that there was much, much more going on in his world than a food stain. And he knew it was an honest accident. But he was, nonetheless, angry. That stain never did go away. Even when we had the house listed for sale, prospective buyers noted the giant dark circle standing sentinel before the refrigerator. The stain reminded me of my own careless klutziness, it reminded me of disappointing my dad, and it reminded me that our family was too poor to have the stain cleaned or the carpet replaced.

On the day the white paint ruined my hall carpet, I was that little girl again.

My trauma had once again chased me into adulthood, sniffing and snapping at my heels like a rabid dog who just refused to let go. My childhood trauma did that a lot (so did my husband’s), and it had made my marriage an uphill climb. In a period of particular strife and struggle in our relationship, my husband and I each attended, separately, retreats with counselors whose mission it was to find sources of dysfunction and shine light on them, enabling their clients to return to their homes equipped with a clearer understanding of their own trauma and the tools with which embark on the perilous journey to wellness.

The foundational exercise that was the crux of the weekend, the one that every bit of healing was meant to be drawn from, was the creation of a “trauma egg,” a visual metaphor for the birth of our brokenness. The preparation for the work began the night before when we were required to enter into silence. We awakened in rooms devoid of the usual chatter heard in a house full of women, our breakfast was eaten in a hush as we began to turn inward.

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And then backward. In the hours-long exercise, the staff coaxed memories and snippets of conversations long forgotten as we sketched our lives in Crayola markers, discovering the seeds, roots, and nuclei of all the hurt we carried with us. Dust motes floated in the autumn sunshine that spilled through the windows, glowing like fairy dust settling on the trembling shoulders of the women who cried in turns. Sniffles, gasps, sobs, and sighs filled my ears as the souls around me bared their anguish in shared privacy. Our therapists’ philosophy was that by acknowledging all of the pains of the past, by drawing them forth out of shadow and into light, our understanding of ourselves would increase and our forgiveness for our own shortcomings would be enabled. This work is where resilience begins.

The mayonnaise incident belonged in that egg. It was the real source of my heartbreak when a can of paint ruined the carpet in the house I had tried so hard to make beautiful for my family after the ratty, dirty, poverty of my own childhood. The filth and chaos of my childhood home are why my spirit now requires order and cleanliness. My family, who loves me, now understands that and they try to honor my need.

There are those who like to berate people for being “triggered,” who deride when someone responds to a current situation with all the hurt of a past one. What I know is that we must acknowledge those old hurts. I don’t mean we clutch them tightly and wear them on our sleeves, touching them like tender bruises over and over, inflicting our own pain and setting traps for others to hurt us, whether intentionally or not. But those hurts are part of who we are. All of us have them. Some of us have hurts where the trauma is genuinely significant.

For us to be truly resilient, we must bring those wounds out of the shadows, expose them to the light of truth, and cleanse them with love from our own selves and from those we trust to love us. Just as importantly, we must honor those wounds in others. Compassion for ourselves can only flourish in soil that is abundant with compassion for the hurts of others, even if they are wounds we don’t understand. I believe that healing is not a me-first-then-you proposition; it is a simultaneous process where my love and grace for others only serves to increase my love and grace for myself. Blessings upon us all.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the trauma egg and its role in healing from trauma, here’s an organization that does this work. If you’re suffering from childhood trauma, I urge you to reach out. You don’t have to walk alone.

The Murray Method, Trauma Eggs, and The 30 Task Model

 

 

 

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