Flashbacks

My flashbacks have never come as visions, and for that I am grateful. The memories are too fragmented to play in a continuous reel. I can’t see her face in my mind; I can’t see anything. The world becomes blurry and dark, and all I am aware of is her hands around my neck. I can’t get enough air. Even now, as I write about it from the safety of my living room, I want to pull those talons away from me. I want to tear at the constriction around my throat. I couldn’t fight back then. I was only five years-old. My little hands were powerless to defend me.  I was helpless as she squeezed the life out of me. 

And then, just as suddenly as the monstrous rage had engulfed her, she came back to herself. Did I stumble away? Did I run? I remember only fragments. I don’t know how long I hid, crouching in my own urine and excrement. 

It was just a series of moments, but the terror of those moments has defined my life. It returns at unexpected moments, infiltrating my emotions and paralyzing my body. Loud noises, arguments, sudden movements, or even the sensation of something touching my neck can cause the panic to rise. Sometimes I’m not even aware of the cause. 

My inability to move sometime lasts only for moments. Other times it lasts for hours. On several occasions, my body has relived the humiliation of soiling myself. I simply could not get up and make my way to a restroom. 

I’ve been told it’s like an animal that excretes waste in moments of extreme fear.  The purpose is theoretically to make the body lighter while running for one’s life. Only I don’t run. I freeze. I shut down. 

I meant to write more here. I meant to further explore the effects PTSD has had on my life. But these few paragraphs have drained me. I feel nauseous and the world is a blur. I will return to this topic when I can see the screen more clearly.  I’m still going to post this as a work in progress, because I am proud of myself for writing it. 

Nightmares

The first time I was a patient at a psychiatric hospital, I was eleven years old. Life felt impossibly hard, and I had tried to take my own life. The nightmare of the ER was nothing compared to the terror I felt when I was told that I would have to be admitted to a nearby psych hospital.  The doctors wanted only to protect me from myself, but I wanted to sink down through the concrete floor and be swallowed by the earth.  Visions filled my mind of old asylums from the movies.  

I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance late at night. The building loomed over me menacingly in the darkness. The hospital that I was sent to had been built in the 1800’s, and the building’s architecture fed into my Gothic nightmare.  

I clearly remember that first time I was strip-searched.  The humiliation burned my skin as strangers examined my underwear, searching for hidden weapons. I was left in a hospital gown, exposed and vulnerable. I barely slept.  

I woke to find the children’s unit bustling with activity.  Vital signs were being taken, and breakfast served. I was naturally overwhelmed, and I honestly don’t remember much about that first day or two.  But by the time other memories began to form, my perception of the hospital had completely shifted.  I remember the large, comfy chairs.  I remember art therapy, a time for coloring and bedazzling. I remember my first class on serotonin and synapses. Mostly, though, I remember the warmth of the staff in that hospital.  The men and women who worked there made me feel safe and cared for in a way that I hadn’t felt at home. 

Their compassion shaped my life.  For many years, I wanted to become just like the nurses on that unit. I wanted to make other people feel safe and nurtured and cherished.  I knew, because of them, that empathy and warmth could be life-saving.

I was better for several years following that first hospitalization, but certain triggers during my freshman year led to a serious suicide attempt and a subsequent hospitalization. I have been hospitalized multiple times since.  In fact, I was just released from the hospital today. While I was there, a friendly gentleman confided in me that he had been terrified to come in, because he had envisioned a place like he had seen in the movies.  Instead, he had found a team of mental health workers who he credited with saving his life. 

I don’t really know what I want to say here.  I did just spend a week in a psychiatric hospital, and my mind is muddled.  But I felt the need to say something. If you ever find yourself feeling lost, overwhelmed and alone, and if you are finding it difficult to keep on living, please know that these hospitals are not to be feared.  They are filled with kind, knowledgeable individuals who desperately want to help you.  And maybe they can.  

My Life Matters

I’m tired of hating myself. I’m tired of the disgust that rips through me when I see my reflection. In  conversations, my contributions leave me with a sour stomach and a trail of self-recriminating thoughts. I look at what I have written, and I recoil at my own words. 

I have to fight myself to continue typing. My fingers feel  leaden and numb. But this is my truth. My truth is as important as that of anyone else, isn’t it? Either none of us matter, or we all do. Either way, we are all equally important. I choose to believe that we all matter, and as such I ought to believe that I matter as well. Intellectually, I do know this makes sense.  Still, I struggle against a deeply ingrained belief that I am inconsequential. Worthless. Useless. A waste of space and resources. And worse: burdensome, disgusting, selfish, irritating, lazy, and stupid. 

At times, the hate is an all-consuming fury. The rage wells up in my core and spills out into my limbs. It is acid burning my insides, boiling up through my skin towards the light. Rage demands expression. I desperately want to run a blade across my skin. Maybe to punish myself for being me, or maybe simply a distraction. The rage overwhelms the senses; I am blinded to the external world. My insides are on fire. I envision myself being hurled against walls until the pain triumphs over the fury.

The fury takes form in my imagination sometimes, late at night. She is a child within me, some grotesquely twisted version of my youth. Her hair is so matted and covered in grime that one would think it black. It drapes across her in greasy tangles, obscuring her from view. She is a small little thing. Perhaps nine or ten. But she engenders no warm feelings. She is cold fury, and she stands apart. If her countenance were not enough to keep people at bay, there would still be no one clambering to offer affection, as she is covered with protruding metal needles from head to toe. To touch her is to be pained. And so she remains alone inside of me, a loveless child, curled in a ball of coiled fury that unravels in sudden bursts.

I am trying to heal that child. For her sake and for mine, as she lashes out at me incessantly. She needs to know that she is loved and that she matters. So I am writing this post, despite the protests of my body. With every word, I am telling my inner child that she matters.

 

Control

Every time my health improves, I become convinced that I finally have control over my illness. I tell myself that even if the disease worsens, I will be able to use all that I have learned and retain control.  This time, it will be different.

It’s an irrational belief, but it reappears every time. Perhaps, the belief in one’s ability to control the self is healthy.  Lack of self-control is certainly terrifying.  Culture dictates that it is also shameful.  Impulsivity, imprudent choices, promiscuity, over-spending, addictive behaviors, etc. are all seen as cause for embarrassment even when they are symptoms of mental illness. Symptoms of other, more accepted, “physical” ailments also cause feelings of shame. Incontinence, for example, is often very difficult for people.  Why? Is it shame at a lack of control over something that one associates with being childlike or immature? Whether that shame is due to cultural or biological factors, it is certainly a widespread phenomenon.

We may need to believe that while we cannot control external circumstances, we can learn to control ourselves. Maybe this belief gives us a sense of safety in an unsafe world. If so, it would be only natural for this belief to return when depressive symptoms abate.

When my symptoms became more severe several months ago, I was so certain that I would be able to continue writing regularly.  Obviously, this was not the case. Days passed, and then weeks had flown by under the covers.  My thoughts were in complete disarray, and the idea of capturing the words flying about and forming them into coherent sentences was ludicrous.   I couldn’t even respond to simple texts and facebook messages, let alone emails. Paragraphs were entirely out of reach.

I felt extremely guilty about my absence from Treasure Island. I was ashamed of my inability to control my illness.  The simplest things seemed impossible. I was unable to respond to friends and acquaintances. I was late paying bills. I missed appointments.  I couldn’t get in the shower or wash my clothes.  The house became a disaster zone.

The guilt and shame were misplaced and unfair, but powerful nonetheless. We are taught to believe that ‘mind over matter’ is a possibility.  It is not entirely false that we can become better at directing our thoughts and emotional states, but it is not entirely true either.  A mental illness is a dysfunction or disorder of the brain.  A dysfunctional brain cannot be expected to control itself, and symptoms of a disease are no cause for shame.

I am sorry for my absence. Is it possible to be apologetic without guilt? I will probably continue to feel guilty. Still, I need to learn to have compassion for myself.  I hope you can have compassion for yourself as well.

 

Learning Love

The battle is ongoing.  Every minute of wakefulness is spent fighting this disease, and still I worry that I should be fighting harder.  I tell myself that I should be walking every day.  Exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication in some studies, but how do I get myself out the door? I have to fight my brain to stand up and walk from one room to another.  My body is filled with sand.  My limbs are so heavy.  Movement is painful.

I spend most of my day in seated or fetal position. If I manage to get myself into the shower, I sit in the tub the entire time. Standing to brush my teeth takes an eternity.  Getting dressed is a formidable project.  I put everything I have into taking care of the pets. Sometimes it takes me hours of lying in bed before I can find the energy to feed them in the mornings.  They have become so patient that it makes me cry.  I tell myself that at least I can almost always give them the love and attention they need. I sit while I do so.

I do try to push through the exhaustion.  I tell myself over and over that I can do it. I tell myself how important it is to push through the pain, and still I am an immovable object.  Stuck.

The thoughts in my head are constantly critical, always pushing me to do more.  Be better.  But as hard as I am on myself, I’m actually a lot nicer than I used to be. Ironically, I started to be kinder to myself when I was granted disability benefits.  I thought that if the government recognized how disabled I was, then it must be real.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying hard enough; I was physically unable to function. I came to have more compassion for myself.  Still, the depression creates negative, self-critical thoughts, and society encourages them.

Depression is still seen by many, if not most, as a weakness.  We are taught that we should be able to control our minds with…our minds. Please explain this to me. I realize that the healthy brain has a positive voice with which to combat the negative thoughts that pass through. There is no such voice in the depressed brain.  There are only these unruly thoughts flitting about, and there is no central authority governing them.

Depression is a disease.  As such, criticism is counterproductive.  It raises cortisol levels and feeds into the illness both chemically and cognitively.  Compassion is the path to mental health.  The depressed need encouragement to be kind to themselves.  When we learn to care for ourselves, we will do what we can to get well.

I am still struggling to care for myself.  I am certainly not kind.  I push myself to my limits every day.  I want so desperately to get better. I do not want this life.  Nobody does. We all desperately want to be healthy.  I want to feel pleasure when I see my loved ones. I want to find joy in the small things, as I did when the depression was less severe.  I loved to sing in the rain when I was a kid.  A beautiful song would give me chills. The sun made me feel warm to my core. I felt a physical thrill when I climbed a mountain and was able to  see the miles stretch out all around me.  Memory of the difficult climb behind me faded with every breath. The world was filled with such wonders, and its cruelties seemed proportionate to its joys.

I want that life again, but I need to remember that will not get there by impersonating a drill sergeant.  I don’t need to push myself to the limits.  I don’t need to fight all the time. I need to be kind to myself.  I will do what I can, when I can.  We all do. 

Paralyzed Prisoner

I am fear’s captive. A child again, I am paralyzed as the terror has its way with me.  I feel it traveling across my skin and down my spine. My mind is screaming, but the thoughts make no sense.  They are of explosions and tornadoes, flames and floods. I am assaulted by visions of gunfire and bombs, crashing planes, wayward drivers smashing through buildings. Homelessness and the freezing cold. Drought and extreme thirst. Rape. Torture. A person imprisoned in an oil drum in the hot African sun. Bodies on the street, their lives taken by a typhoon.

 

Fear robs a person of words, and I am struggling now to find my own.  How do I move? How do I function? These cascading images of horror keep me frozen. I cannot march forward with the assumption of my own safety.  Childhood trauma has broken my brain.

Nothing

This ache is a hound at my heart

This weight is a fierce compression

Where are the words? How do I start?

I am nothing but depression.

The Battle Begins

It is 3:51 AM.  I cannot sleep. I cannot leave this page alone. I am petrified of my own words.

Somehow I was able to find the moments of clarity necessary to string these words into sentences, but these are not just any words. They are dragged from the depths of me.

A million fears have surfaced since I made my first post. I fear my own inadequacy as a writer. I fear the impact my thoughts might have on others. The most horrifying of all, though, is the reality of what I am doing. With each sentence, I am attempting to translate my inner world into something comprehensible to others. I am rendering myself naked in these passages.

Years of self-hatred have led me to hide myself, buried in fear that the ugly truths about me would be revealed. If I was completely myself in the presence of others, they would discover the worst truth of all: I am a bad person. I have always thought myself fundamentally bad. Worthless to the core. A drain on society and on the ones I love.

I have been working in therapy to convince myself that this belief is merely a symptom of my disease and of the traumatic experiences that triggered it. I do know, intellectually at least, that self-blame is a symptom. Still, I have believed that I am shit my entire life. Can I really be wrong?

This project flies in the face of all of my instincts. I would much prefer to hide.  But this is the battle in front of me, and I can’t possibly run away now. I have to confront my beliefs. I have to keep screaming to the world that I have something to offer, so that someday I might actually hear it and believe it myself.

My journey is a human one, and as such there are parts of it that are universal.  There are also parts that are particular to my culture, my gender, my age, and my disability. I don’t know which pieces of my journey are worth capturing in writing, and my tendency is to think that none of it is worth reading. Still, there is a seed of sorts that was planted in me years ago by a very kind psychologist. I have been watering the damn thing for years, and I think it has finally begun to grow. I think this because today, even after examining all of my fears, I am writing. I am opening myself to you so that we both might gain something in the process. If you are reading this, you are bound up in this healing process with me. Expression is only half the interaction; reception and interpretation will always be individualized. The reader will always be a part of the story. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a good story.

Diseased

dis·ease

[dəˈzēz]

NOUN

  1. a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant

           Hello! As you may or may not have gathered, I am a diseased person.  My disease is not communicable, so fear not and read on! It is simply a disorder in the structure and function of my brain.  It can interfere with my ability to think, and certainly to write, but I am attempting this project anyway.  The stigma surrounding my illness is so pervasive and deeply ingrained in our society that it is rarely recognized, and I have become so frustrated that I feel the need to speak about it.  I am by no means the only one to do so, but I have decided that adding another voice to the chorus can do no harm.  Perhaps it will make us even a tiny bit louder, so that we may reach a larger audience.  A gal can dream.  

             If I were to accomplish one thing in battling the stigma, it would be to make a convincing case for Major Depressive Disorder to be renamed.  Names have power.  The name of my disease has, by power of association, greatly undermined popular understanding of its severity.  Major Depressive Disorder is a disabling illness that affects both the function and structure of the brain.  It is associated, for instance, with a shrinking of the hippocampus.  It affects memory, cognitive ability, and perception.  It is associated with changes in hormone levels and neurotransmitter levels, both of which are integral to the functioning of all aspects of the body. 

             Major Depressive Disorder is as physical as it is psychological.  Aside from the long-lasting effects of behavioral changes, studies have also demonstrated long-term physical ramifications for the body.  It was reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association, for instance, that depression is strongly linked with cardiovascular disease. Individuals with a history of depression had between a 50% and >100% increase in risk for heart disease.  Heart attack mortality risk was also increased by a history of depression. (JAHA 2014)

           Evidence abounds regarding the physical nature of Major Depressive Disorder, and yet its classification as a mental illness seems to separate it from other serious diseases. The classification system is problematic in and of itself, but this post will address only the issues with the name.  Major depression causes acute suffering in those afflicted, and it is often fatal.  Still, the name includes a common adjective for a passing mood state.  The word depression is often used interchangeably with sadness.  The psychological community has long understood the power of association, and yet it retains an antiquated name that is associated with a changeable mood.  This allows those who are uninformed to maintain the belief that the illness is merely a negative mindset. Even those with more information retain subconscious associations between depression and sadness. This encourages misperception of the illness, which in turn contributes to prejudice towards the depressed.  If, for instance, depression is like a bad mood, then the afflicted are simply not making enough of an effort to look at things differently.  The depressed are seen by many as simply weak, lazy, and even possessing poor moral character.  It is not widely understood that it is a physical disease. 

          Depression is not simple to treat.  No treatment is yet one hundred percent effective, and many people suffer from what is referred to as “treatment-resistant” depression. Just like with treatment-resistant bacteria, people afflicted find medication and behavioral therapies ineffective. Their bodies are simply at the mercy of the disease. 

        As devastating as it is to experience and as harmful as it is to the body, depression also has wide-ranging effects on a person’s life. The disease can impede a person’s ability to hold a job, have a family, and function in society. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for those aged 15 to 44. (World Health Organization, 2004)   It is not an illness that should be easily dismissed.  

        Major Depressive Disorder is a horrific, poorly understood illness. Though not often perceived as such, it is a disease, and it can be fatal.  Some have estimated the fatality rate to be as high as 15%.  For every homicide in this country, there are two suicides.(NIMH 2014) Sadly, this horrifying loss of life is viewed as personal choice rather than the outcome of a devastating disease.    

       Major depressive disorder has stolen many lives.  The name should not remind one of a passing mood.  It should be free from associations with anything that might detract from its perceived severity. A British doctor once suggested Cantophers Disease. I completely support him.  We desperately need a paradigm shift, and for that, we need a new name. 

          

 

Blind

       I try to function, but my time is running on a dysfunctional clock. The clock is ticking too slowly; my seconds are longer than everybody else’s. No matter how I try to stay in the moment with them, they seem to be in the next minute already. My facial expressions take too long to form. The words come too slowly. My reactions are delayed. The air is thick and heavy, and I cannot move through it.

        When I’m able to move, there is a part of me that is petrified to stop, for fear that I will not be able to get up again. My energy is so unpredictable. When I have it, it can be very difficult to decide what to do with it. I need to take care of the pets. There are so many bills to pay. Will I still have the energy to shower? Wash my face? Brush my teeth? Change my clothes? Take out the trash? Clean an area of my room? How long will the energy last? What task will give me the best chance of feeling better once completed? These questions plague me. Sometimes they paralyze me, and I do nothing before the energy evaporates. I then find myself collapsed on the bathroom floor for half an hour or more, struggling to find the energy that has gone. I will make it to the bedroom, and then lay on the bed for hours, still unable to find energy to move. I have studied countless ceilings, countless floors while laying prostrate on some surface. I find patterns. I count spots of uneven paint. My strings of thought are so frayed that I lose their ends constantly, and have to start from the beginning,

        I don’t know how to explain this life to people. I don’t know how to show the dull grey of everything. The leaden weight that presses me towards the ground. I tell people that it is hard, and they tell me to change my outlook. Fuck that. How do I talk the colors into changing? How do I talk my body into feeling weightless? I’ve felt that way. I know it is possible to exist in a way that isn’t so hard. I remember when walking felt easy. I remember when I could feel the energy in my body, the desire to move and do things. I remember when the color palette of a sunrise was a painting that I could stare at forever. Colors are bland and oppressive now. The sun is glaring and rude. The forest is cold, dark, and frightening where it once was inviting and vibrant. Everything that my healthy self finds beautiful is still the same, but I am colorblind.  I cannot talk myself into seeing it the way I used to. I do try.

        I do not like my story. It is not the life I would have written by choice, for myself or for anyone else. I once had my heart broken by a man who thought he loved me, only to find my depression too stressful. I feel guilty for being such a terrible person, but at the time, I did find myself wishing that he would experience this degree of depression for himself for a while. A few weeks, perhaps. I would even have wished a month of this illness upon him when I was feeling particularly vengeful. But years of a life like mine…it would be a literal form of wishing someone would go to hell.  Even in my darkest moments, I am not that evil. When I imagine my most feared hell, I picture one of two scenarios: either I would truly be burning in a pit of eternal fire, or I would simply be reliving this life repeatedly. Forever.

      I want to experience a less awful version of this life. I know it can feel a gift. I know there is beauty and opportunity everywhere, and if only my mind worked better, I would be able to see. But I cannot see now.  I am blind and broken.