Tune-Up

I haven’t written in over a year and thought I might check in. Last time, I wrote about the one-year anniversary of my suicide attempt and how different I felt coming out of the experience, having realized what an amazing support group I have and how I need to use it. Since then, things have been going really well. I’ve been mostly stable, with a few depressive blips here and there, but they’re not severe and typically only last a few days as opposed to, like, months as I was experiencing before my bipolar II diagnosis.

Lately though, things have been…weird.

I’m having a personal issue (what it is isn’t important) and it’s something that keeps  cropping up every now and then. The shame is that it’s a surmountable problem, but I don’t talk about it until it’s reached a crisis level and I’m totally fucked and in a panic. I don’t even talk to my therapist about it because I hate talking about it so much. (This, for those of you not in the know, is called avoidant behavior –  if I don’t face it, it’ll not be a thing.) It causes me to need help that’s hard to ask for. My behavior has made my relationship with my parents very strained, and I can’t stand that. They help me endlessly, not without questions (and sometimes yelling) but in the end they’re always there. So to have a wedge driven between us really hurts. In my darkness moments, I really do have those stereotypical thoughts like, “They’d be better off without me.” They deserve a better daughter. I get into a thought spiral where I feel horrible guilt over being sick and the ways that’s impacted them as parents, and crushing guilt that I’ve always been the one they worried about. I have a brother and I’d never say that my parents have never worried about him, but dude has his life together in a major way. Pretty much always has. I have this view (maybe it’s skewed, I don’t know) that I’m the one that’s always been the worry, the major concern, the cause of stress and sleepless nights. I’m the one who clung to my mother three years ago in the hallway of their house and just sobbed, “I’m so sick,” over and over again. We’re not a hugging family, but she held me and just said, “I know baby, I know.” I think about putting them through moments like that and I can’t even imagine the horror and panic and pain I caused. I can’t imagine what it’s like to see your child, your baby, feeling that way and not knowing how to help. I couldn’t help being sick. I know that. But my illness has had consequences beyond my own body and mind, and sometimes I feel wracked with guilt about that.

My depression and anxiety have been out of control lately, and the aforementioned issue reared its ugly had recently, and my therapist, for the first time, seemed truly upset with me. “Why don’t you talk to me about this before it’s a crisis? Is it something I say or do that makes you not want to tell me?” “No,” I sobbed, “it’s nothing to do with you.”

Later that night, she gently put out the idea that maybe I would benefit from going back to an intensive outpatient program.

I’m crushed. I don’t want to do IOP again. It was so hard last time, and while I know that it taught me so many crucial skills and was such a positive experience, I feel like a failure for having to go back again. I feel completely overwhelmed by the idea of going back to two hours a night, three nights a week, for six weeks. It’s so, so hard. I don’t mean for that to come out whiny, but it’s just the truth. It’s painful and exhausting and completely mentally draining. You have to think and talk about the last things in the entire world that you want to think and talk about. That’s the point, especially for me, the reigning champ of avoidant behavior. But there’s a good sense of community there, though, that I do like. You get to know people and their problems from week to week, and you root for each other. The trouble is that I’m an empath and when someone is in pain, I’m in pain. If they cry, I cry. So I spend most of group therapy struggling not to steal the show and basically hiding in a kleenex. Then I go home and sob until I feel all cried-out. Doesn’t sound therapeutic, but in the end, it is. IOP taught me coping techniques that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else, and I’ve carried many of those lessons with me ever since.

So I’m trying to keep the good stuff in mind as I embark on IOP: The Sequel. My first session was yesterday and it went okay. Didn’t cry too much. We did a unit on social anxiety that I found really helpful. So it’s off to a good start.

What I’ve been struggling with, though, is the thought that I have to do this again. I feel like a failure. Why wasn’t once enough? Where did all that knowledge, all those skills, go? I’m sad and depressed, but I’m also angry. Why the fuck can’t I just live a life that doesn’t require professional help to manage? Other people do this all the time. I mean, I’ve been saying for years that basically everybody would benefit from going to therapy at least once in a while, but what I mean to say here is that I’m pissed off that I’ve been in therapy for four (five?) years, I’ve had three stints in various psych hospitals due to suicidality, 6 weeks of IOP, not to mention a whole cocktail of medications, and I’m still all fucked up. Why can’t I navigate a functional life without needing all that shit? Is there some piece of me that’s missing, and if so, did I ever have it? Was I always going to be like this, since the beginning? There are millions of people like me in the world, but more millions of people who aren’t. What shitty short-ass straw did I draw?

I’m scared, too. I pride myself on being very self-aware. But these last several weeks have shown me that, sometimes, I’m a mystery to myself. And I don’t like that feeling. What other fucked-up-ness is hanging around in here?

I sound really why-me whiny right now. Maybe I am being whiny. I’m just really pissed off , more mad than depressed, that I have, and have had, all this help and I still just cannot get. It. Together. I try so hard. I really do. And moments like these make me feel like it’s just not good enough. A friend told me this week to think of myself as a car that just needs an occasional tune-up, that’s all. And that’s a nice way to think about it, except that I feel like I’m that sad abandoned El Camino up on blocks in the weedy abandoned lot next to the mechanic’s garage.

In my better moments, I decide that I’m just a work in progress, like we all are. Maybe my path is just a little longer and has more twists and dead-ends than is typical. I’m depressed and angry, but I’m still going to go to that goddamn IOP and learn everything they have to teach me, even the stuff I learned last time. Can’t hurt to hear a lesson more than once, right?

Eventually I’m going to move past the resentment and self-blame and all this other shitty stuff I’m feeling right now. IOP is going to help. I know it will. And it’s okay that I need to go through it again. It’s okay to need whatever it is that I need to be safe and stable and something at least resembling happy. In my good moments, I know that. I’m just struggling with the bad ones right now.

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Sunrise

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[TW: suicide]

I looked at the calendar today and noticed that this Sunday is Father’s Day (oops). Then I realized, out of nowhere, that this weekend marks an anniversary for me.

A year ago this weekend, I tried to take my own life.

I think about the time that’s passed and can hardly believe I’m the same person I was a year ago. Maybe I’m not. After I got out of the hospital, I started intensive outpatient therapy. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it changed my life and is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, mental health or otherwise. I met some amazing people at different places in their own journeys, and I learned how to handle various types and levels of emotions with a new set of skills – the most important being what to do when I’m freaking the fuck out and sobbing uncontrollably and presenting a danger to myself. (Most interesting trick I learned? When your distress is at an 8 or 9 out of 10, hold an ice pack on the back of your neck. It works.) I always saw myself as good at being in touch with my emotions and understanding why I felt a certain way and what to do about it. After three stints in a psychiatric hospital, it became apparent that I didn’t have the coping skills I thought I had. So I kept seeing my regular therapist, my psychiatrist, and going to outpatient therapy, and I got through it. I learned a lot, I got myself stabilized, and I was released back into the wild with a new set of skills and, most of all, a good feeling that I’ll probably never need to be sent to a hospital again. Since then, that good feeling has mellowed out into more of an “I will work as hard as I can on myself so I will hopefully never go to the hospital again,” type of thing. Life comes with no guarantees.

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I’m writing this while in the throes of a pretty nasty depressive episode, which I guess is ironic. Last week, when Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died by suicide, I did not take it well. I was very, very sad and felt very, very triggered. I held it together, but earlier this week my brain just gave up and I spiraled down. But I’m safe. I’m dealing with it in the healthiest ways I can manage while feeling exhausted and sad and shitty about everything. I cried myself to sleep the other night because when I’m depressed, all day long I want to isolate and wish everyone in the world would just fuck off, but at night, all I want in the whole world is to have someone in my bed with me. No need to talk to me, no need to lay a finger on me…just be in my bed. It’s awful. But I have hero-friends who have been coaxing me out of the house, which means I’m washing my hair and wearing normal clothes and even putting on makeup sometimes. That helps a lot. Depression makes you only feel like doing things that keep you depressed, so dragging myself out into society is a big middle finger to my depression monster. Sometimes self care is solitude and rest. Sometimes it’s sitting in a bar while laughing so hard I have to wipe my tears with a tiny square napkin. Because it is possible to laugh my ass off while depressed. It takes a little more than usual, but in the right circumstances, it can happen. And I’m very lucky to have people in my life who go out of their way to help me create those circumstances.

So here I am, one year post-attempt. It sucks that I’m marking this moment while in the middle of my worst depressive episode since it happened, but you know what? While last time I spun out of control and almost put a period at the end of my sentence, this time I’m pausing, semicolon-style. Outpatient therapy taught me how to do that. I know, even in this darkness, that life is good and I’m going to see the sun again soon.

In Treatment

[TW: Suicide, method]

So I’ve been watching this HBO show called In Treatment. It’s several years old but I recently got into it and I’m a bit addicted. It’s about a therapist, Paul, and his array of patients, and each season focuses on a particular set of them and follows them through several weeks of sessions. It’s well-written and hard to turn away from. The patients are fascinating and so is Paul, who goes to therapy himself. It reminds me of all the reasons I myself have thought of being a therapist – because people are so interesting and fragile and in need.

There are some episodes that I wish came with a trigger warning. One of Paul’s patients, Walter, attempts suicide, which is triggery for me in itself, but then he is placed in a psychiatric unit for a week, and his description of it to Paul made me cry – terrible staff, nothing to do, fellow patients who are very sick and often disturbing, etc. The whole plot line is an interesting exploration of suicide and its perception by people on the inside track of it. Walter takes a long time to even admit that what happened was an attempt on his life because he’s afraid of the stigma and getting locked up in the “nuthouse,” “loony bin,” etc. Paul’s treatment of the situation is gentler as he helps Walter explore the feelings of helplessness that brought him to that place.

There’s another patient of Paul’s, Mia, who is a very willful, difficult, rather antagonistic woman. I watched an episode today where she’s going through a tough time in her relationship with her father, and when Paul asks her if she’s been experiencing feelings of hopelessness, she says flippantly, “I’m not suicidal, Paul. Don’t worry. I’m pretty tough.”

I immediately had a thought, and that thought was fuck you.

Fuck you, Mia. Or, rather, fuck you, writers of In Treatment. 

I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’m not sure – was it the writers of the show being ignorant, or was it an intentional decision made to continue portraying Mia as the difficult, provocative character she’s been all along? The way Paul handles Walter’s suicide attempt is, in my opinion, well done and what I would hope any therapist would do (it’s certainly what mine did). So I was caught off-guard by this “I’m not suicidal because I’m tough” business. Regardless of the intent behind it, it pushed a huge button that I have about the perception of weakness when we talk about suicide.

To someone with my history, it’s really hurtful. Honestly, I think I’m a tough motherfucker. I’ve taken myself to the hospital twice in order to save my life because I felt that I might be a danger to myself and part of me, deep down, knew that my mind was lying and I didn’t really want to go yet. A third time, I was so sick and exhausted that I actually made the attempt and called 911 to save myself yet again because I realized I was willing to hold on just a little bit longer. Do you know how hard that was to go through? To lie there with that empty bottle next to me, waiting to lose consciousness, and suddenly sitting up in a panic, wanting to take it back because I wasn’t ready to go yet? That 911 call was the hardest, scariest thing I’ve ever had to do because I was so afraid I was too late. Sobbing into the phone and explaining what I’d done was the worst moment of my life. I’ve never been so scared. Facing down insensitive ER staff (“how would you like to pay your copay, ma’am?” as I’m sitting on a gurney with absolutely nothing because they immediately take everything away from you when you show up suicidal) and a horrible psychiatric hospital for the third time was the second worst. Here we go again. I was so sad and scared and tired.

So I’m over listening to bullshit about suicide and weakness. There is nothing weak about facing down that monster. It’s a fight no one can understand until they’ve been there, and only a person who’s never been there would make the judgment that there’s anything like weakness involved. We have a long way to go to erase the stigma, which is part of the reason I write about it.

If you’re struggling, hang in there. You are so brave. And asking for help is brave too. Reach out to someone you trust or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You are strong, you are needed, you are loved, and you matter.

Still here

[TW: suicide]

I recently spent the better part of a week in the hospital again. I was so disappointed to have to do it, but this time was even more important than the previous two times, when I went in because I was suicidal.

This time, I tried to kill myself.

I’m still processing what happened and how to feel. It was the lowest and scariest moment of my life. Maybe “tried” is the wrong word, because within minutes of those pills hitting my stomach, I called 911. I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I wasn’t done fighting to get better and to do such an awful thing to my friends and family, who have done nothing but love and support me as I struggle. I wasn’t ready to give up. So I called an ambulance and stood outside on the sidewalk shaking and crying and listening to the approaching sirens and hoping so hard that it wasn’t too late.

It wasn’t. In the emergency room I had to struggle to answer the basic questions of “what’s your name?” “do you know where you are?” and “do you know what month it is?” but it wasn’t too late. I spent the night in the regular hospital to be kept under observation and then moved to the psychiatric unit, where I stayed for four nights. It was crushingly unhelpful and I left feeling not much better than when I went in. I was both glad and afraid to go home.

But once I got home, I was reminded of what a support network I have and how many people were thinking of and praying for me while I was away. As soon as I got my phone back and turned it on, my text message notifications practically exploded with people letting me know they were thinking of me and they love me and hope I was doing better. I was reminded that I am so loved and cared for – I had a friend visit me twice and bring me clothes, hair product, and mascara (some things about me will never change) and then give me a ride home when I was released. She looked after my cats while I was gone. Overall she was a rock for me, has always been a rock for me, and I will never be able to pay that back well enough. Another friend invited me over and gave me flowers and bought me a much-needed Slurpee. Another fed me pizza and cried letting me know how glad she is that I’m still here. I talked to my mom and cried with her and told her I’m so sorry I did this to her and she told me to knock it off. And still more sent me messages of support and love that reminded me that I’m never alone in this.

It’s hard to explain why, in those darkest moments, it’s so hard to reach out and let people who care about me support me so I don’t do something drastic like this. There was/is a voice in my head that’s afraid of being a burden to someone and putting them in a position where they don’t know what to say or do and dropping a huge terrifying burden into their lap. But I’ve also been asked many times “Why didn’t you call me?” and I can see in their faces how badly they want to help and, in the end, I’m not being fair to them when I don’t.

I know I have a long road ahead and talking about all of this is going to be hard, if not impossible. I have to figure out how to make room in my self-perception to include what I did. But I also I need to embrace normalcy because that stuff (fortunately) has stayed the same. I still need to work and do laundry and make stupid jokes. I still have to stop the cats from eating stuff that isn’t food. I still have to keep being the best friend I know how to be, because I know now that I have the best support network ever, and I have a responsibility to return the favor, whether it be late-night phone calls, bringing someone their makeup when they irrationally want it, or buying them pizza or Slurpees (I’m sensing a food trend here).

Ya’ll are the best and I promise to try my hardest not to leave you, as hard as it might get sometimes. I’m sick but I’m also strong and this awful experience drove that home. And one of the reasons I’m strong is because I have you.

Period.

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Two years ago, when I was on a trip and going through a rocky time with my mental health, I got a tattoo of a semicolon on my ankle. It was inspired by Amy Bluel’s Project Semicolon, a nonprofit dedicated to presenting hope and support for people who struggle with mental health problems, suicidal thoughts, addiction, and self-harm issues. The idea is that your life is a sentence – a period ends it, but a semicolon means a pause and then continuation. It’s a powerful symbol for a powerful message, and Amy’s project has inspired thousands to share their stories of struggle and survival (and photos of their tattoos).

This morning I read the news that Amy has died by suicide.

It isn’t fair.

I’ve been crying on and off all day, and there are two things I keep coming back to: it’s scary and it’s unfair. I’m choking on the injustice of it. Nobody deserves that illness, that pain, that death. She just couldn’t pause anymore.

I’m feeling well and have been feeling well, consistently, for months. No swings, no highs or lows, a bit of anxiety but overall just a nice stability. But today has served as a reminder for future days when I don’t feel as well:

Pause.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

A light somewhere

So.

So.

Hell of a year, right? Enough already. I don’t think the world is going to reset at midnight on New Year’s Eve and everything will be better, but I hope it’ll be a bit of a relief to put this calendar year to rest and enjoy that initial fresh-start feeling in 2017.

 On the 30th it’ll be a year since I went to the emergency room because I wanted to kill myself. I spent New Year’s Eve drugged out of my skull and asleep by 10pm in a sad little bed in a psych hospital. Yesterday Facebook showed me a photo from a year ago, the day when my college friends and I got together, all seven of us, for the first time in forever. It’s a great group photo and I found myself studying my own face, wanting to analyze that smile that looks so easy and bright. I think about what a wreck I was and feel sad for that year-ago girl who was spinning out of control and didn’t think anyone could help her. My hospital stay was a largely positive experience because I was with the rehab patients, not the other patients who were mentally ill and posed more danger to themselves and others. I came out feeling emotional but also glowingly grateful for the chance to get things off my chest to a supportive group (never underestimate the power of unloading your stuff on a small group of impartial strangers and have nothing come back at you but unconditional acceptance and a complete lack of judgment).  I was better for a while, then started spiraling out again, even worse than before, and that’s when the bipolar II diagnosis came. Ultimately this was an incredibly good thing, but before we got the meds right, I wound up in the hospital again in May. That was a fucking trainwreck. I was locked up with severely sick and disordered patients and nobody there was going to get any better. I woke up to people screaming their heads off in the middle of the night and getting locked into “quiet rooms” that were basically prison cells. It was a horrible hospital with horrible staff and I walked out in no better shape than I was when I went in.

But then I took a month off work and we got the drugs right, and everything’s been different since then. I’m still a little depressed most of the time, but that’s pretty normal for a bipolar II sufferer, and sometimes I’m manic, although that’s mostly mild. But overall I feel much more in control and that’s a win all around. My mom gave me a book about bipolar II and it’s been a revelation to learn how some things that I assumed are just my personality are actually symptoms of depression or mania. Sometimes that makes it hard to know when I’m feeling angry or upset about something genuinely shitty and when I’m not, but it’s still good to know that irrational irritability, explosive anger, and my sometimes-debilitating sensitivity to rejection are often symptoms of hypomania, not my “crazy” personality traits that I’ve spent so much time hating. There’s so much freedom in that because it enables me to understand myself better and recognize when it’s time for self-care to get myself balanced and feeling more like me again. I’m not always an unwilling rider of the bipolarcoaster, as I like to call it. It can be a subtle, insidious disease, but every day I’m learning to recognize its many faces.

That’s been my year in mental health. Six months of garbage followed by six months of slow but steady improvement. Thank you to those of you who put up with me being cripplingly depressed and unable to go out, or relentlessly crabby, or just not present in general, and still supported me. None of it’s been intentional but I know that I don’t exist in a vacuum so I am, in fact, a pain in the ass to be friends with sometimes.  So thanks to everyone who’s still here. I love you. Everything won’t reset as 2017 rolls in, but I still feel hopeful that my health (and life) will stay on this upward trend.

As Bukowski said, “Be on the watch. / There is a light somewhere. / It may not be much light / but it beats the darkness.”

Out of the Darkness, Again

Today was my third time doing the AFSP’s Out of the Darkness walk in Chicago. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention works to end suicide and mental illness stigma and has yearly walks all around the country to raise money. In Chicago there’s an opening program and then a 3.5-mile walk along the lakefront. The first two times I did the walk, I went alone. This year I got a team together and from now on I don’t want to do it any other way. I realized that going by myself was a lonely experience that made me feel alone in being sick and struggling. Today felt a lot different, walking with a bunch of friends and having people to talk to. I cried a lot during the opening program because I always do, but the whole day was a reminder that I have people to support me. Being sick has been very isolating for me, but I’m starting to understand that it doesn’t need to be. Some people don’t know what to say and are uncomfortable, and that’s okay, but I do have a core group of people who get me to at least some degree and are there to listen, and I’m so grateful for them. I was also proud of me today…doing things like this makes me feel like I’m showing up for myself and acknowledging what a year of struggle this has been, with two hospitalizations in six months and a bipolar II diagnosis. Jesus, it’s been a rough one. And I’ve started to learn that instead of always keeping a stiff upper lip and just dragging myself along, it’s important to acknowledge what a shitshow it’s been and how much it’s sucked, because there’s no shame in that and I also get to be proud of my own resilience – I can be as open about that as I am when I’m hurting. This year has kicked my ass, but I’m still here and I promise I’ll fight like hell to stay for a good long time. I don’t want anyone who loves me doing that walk  in my memory.