Hello to all the fighters out there:
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going.” 86 year old Alzheimer’s patient said with a smile.
With that statement, I was reminded that one of the most important ways you can help someone is by offering some guidance when it is needed. I haven’t posted my complete story of my struggle with anxiety and panic disorder before, not because of shame, or fear, or pain, but because I think that it’s too complicated, or self-indulgent, or slightly narcissistic. However, I think that for those who are new to opening up about the pain of depression, suicide, self-harm, loneliness, sadness, isolation, anxiety, panic, or any other socially painful issue, hearing the ongoing stories of their fellow fighters can make a difference.
So please excuse the length this is sure to become. Not only is it a long story, but I am a very wordy person. (It’s in my nature to talk – a lot – really – a lot.)
So here it goes… It was a dark and stormy night. Oops, wrong story. Well, no actually, anyone can tell you that the most beautiful nights will feel dark and stormy when you are faced with the pain and agony of mental illness. My dark and stormy night lasted for years and there were times when I thought the only way out was, well…out. I have been married for 27+ years now, and while my story started long before I even met my husband, it became the most difficult and life-changing just before our 15th anniversary (that’s 2003 for those not wanting to do the math.) My story isn’t mine alone either – none of ours really are. We share our lives with so many people. The passing impact of those around us can often unintentionally change the course of our lives – for better or worse.
For months, my husband, Mike, had been having all kinds of physical issues. One of the most misunderstood aspects of mental health problems is that they can manifest themselves with physical symptoms. He could not concentrate, his vision was bad, his sleep patterns were all over the place, he had headaches, twitches, muscle pain, trouble remembering, and motor coordination problems. All a really big issue for a man who makes his living as a professional musician. It is in his nature to hide his flaws (who among us doesn’t feel this way). He feared it would look like he was making excuses or allowing it to get in his way. It was something for him to deal with and of no business to the rest of the world.
As we went from doctor to doctor, it just got worse. Test after test revealed nothing. Mike isn’t really keen on doctors, to begin with, (especially ones that can’t offer answers) and getting him to continue when the results were so pathetic became an ongoing struggle. We started fighting – and not in a good way. I had long dealt with panic and anxiety, but mostly on my own and in silence. However, my panic attacks became more frequent and my anxiety more pronounced. I spent most of my days in tears.
I am a fix-it girl by nature. Whether objects, animals, humans, or society, I want to make it all better, and the most painful thing that can happen is to be made impotent to help. So we started having the same circular argument. It went something like this:
Mike: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.!”
Me: “What can I do to help? I don’t know what I can do.”
Mike: “It’s not about you!”
Me: “I know that, but I don’t know what to say!”
Mike: “Just forget it.”
Spiral down from there. Doors slamming, tears flowing, chairs occasionally breaking, threats of leaving, actual leaving, and on, and on, and on.
It got so bad that I was afraid to go home. Not because I was afraid of him, but because I was afraid for him. I didn’t know if I would come home and find him hanging from the rafters, or curled up in a fetal position – catatonia having taken over. I didn’t want to have the same argument again. I began to have increased panic attacks – both in frequency and intensity. My anxiety skyrocketed, and my migraines, weight, stress, and blood pressure all shot through the roof. I started thinking of ways to end myself as well. I entertained the spectacular – drive off a cliff – or the instant impact of a car vs. a wall – or maybe just driving until I ran out of gas and walking until I ran out of… me. I worked through all the options until one night I finally left. I just couldn’t take the pain anymore. Without plan or purpose, I got in my car and I drove. And then I stopped, hyperventilated until I passed out, came too, cried until the blood vessels in my eyes burst, and the racking sobs caused my body to shake violently. When there was nothing left and I was completely empty, I decided I couldn’t care anymore. I couldn’t continue to endure this pain. I built a fortress of protection around myself and cut off the emotionally damaged pieces that were so very devastating. And in that empty void, I found I could think. I thought about the good, the bad, and the ugly. I found that I no longer needed him to survive – I would be fine all by myself. I was strong enough to make it alone and without him, I figured the pain would lessen. But then I also saw that I wanted him in my life – that I liked the us that was greater than me. That his very smile, as infrequent as it was, made my life brighter. That what we had built over the 15 years was an amazing and intricate structure of two lives woven together. There was something freeing about realizing that I had a choice. In this empty void I created with the emotional wall, I was able to see that I could find my way back. Not because I needed him in my life, but because I wanted him there. Because what we were together was something greater than each of us alone. That the reasons I married him in the first place were still there – buried under the crap we were heaping on each other because we didn’t understand what was really wrong – that depression, anxiety, and mental illness were in control of our lives.
So, I drove home. Of course, by this time I was somewhere in the middle of Wyoming, and Denver was a long way away, but I drove. And when I got there around sun-up, he was there too. And I told him I didn’t need him. But I also told him I wanted him – that I wanted to find the us that had been lost.
So we really started the fight – this time the fight that defines this group. And we fought our way through more doctors until one finally suggested that the physical issues might be the manifestation of clinical depression. Now the fight became one of finding the right combination of meds – for him and for me. It became one of talk therapy and counseling to fix the places that had been broken and to tear down the walls that had been built – of facing the pain and damage that we had wrought on ourselves and each other – of building us anew. I had often heard that it is at the lowest point that you find your way back. That’s a little like saying my keys were in the last place that I looked. (Think about it for a minute.) Your lowest point is always the place where you find your choices. And the choices you make will forever define your future. Suicide is a choice – but so is living. I firmly believe that living is the more difficult, the more painful, the more complicated choice. But it is also the most amazing, the most wonderful, the most beautiful one. Without darkness, the moon would not shine. Without pain, the wonderful means nothing. It is in the opposites that we can see the colors that fill our lives. In the pain and desperation felt by one, all the rest become the saviors – every broken person has a piece that will fit someone else. A kind word or touch becomes the lifeline needed to always keep fighting.
I am lucky to have a spouse that I can turn to when I am not enough for myself – when my strength and courage seem missing in action. But we also find strength from our animals.
Our cats (5) and dogs (2) are often found lying in a big pile on the bed – heads, tails, arms, legs, and bodies wrapped around each other to form a big furry pile of indistinguishable shapes. The concept of “cat” or “dog” being unimportant to the greater purpose. I got my first cat when my anxiety about college got to be too much. I thought needing to care for something else would help me focus. And it did. She needed me and I couldn’t fail her and in return, she would give to me the love and affection that I needed in the middle of the night, in the middle of a crying jag. Maybe it is telling about our mental states that we have so many animals – maybe we just have big hearts and are suckers for furry faces. Whatever the reason, there are times when they have pulled us through – when we both were spiraling down and needed a warm furry body to bury our faces in.
Today we continue to Always Keep Fighting. Sometimes we win the battle, sometimes we lose the skirmish. But we survive to begin another day tomorrow. Each day is a choice to live, to share, to change someone else’s for the better. We are still broken, but then what favorite item isn’t a little frayed around the edges, chipped on the corner, dented, scratched, or bent in the middle – and it is the flaws that make it ours and ours alone.
I worked at an Alzheimer’s residential home. As I fix-it girl, I had to learn that I can’t hope to fix what is broken but to simply make their today as good as possible. My ladies would often say they cannot repay the kindness I show them. What they don’t see, and what has become so important to me, is that in giving, I am repairing my own soul. I fill in the cracks with their smiles and laughter.
Always Keep Fighting… It’s worth every cut and scrape you take. Remember fighters that you are not alone. You have a family ready with band-aids to help seal your wounds.
We re-committed to each other on our 15th anniversary with matching tattoos that say:
With Single-hearted Devotion
I don’t always know where I am going…but I’m going. And I want all y’all to go with me.
Live life like a 12-year-old
Give even when you think you have nothing
And…Always Keep Fighting.
I am a huge fangirl of the show Supernatural and of the work the lead actors are doing to destigmatize mental illness. Jared Padalecki has been the driving force behind the #AlwaysKeepFighting campaigns to raise funds to support various causes promoting mental health awareness. He has become very vocal about his own struggles and the importance of realizing how many people live with mental illness. His drive has prompted fans everywhere to reach out to each other and offer support and strength – from creating facebook groups dedicated to supporting, to Twitter campaigns to match people willing to buy represent.com shirts for those who can’t afford one. The work that Jared and Jensen Ackles are doing has taken on a life of its own. If you struggle with any kind of mental illness, please reach out to someone – you are not alone – there is a world of fighters ready to help.
Some places to find help:
National Suicide Hotline
An Online Crisis Network
The first online network with 100% of its volunteers trained and certified in crisis intervention.
TWLOHA is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope & finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, & suicide.