On My Way
November 25. That was the date. I wrote it on my calendar and even used it as my password at work. My Date of Death. I figured it would be the best time – after my daughter’s 7th birthday and Thanksgiving, but before Christmas. I didn’t want to ruin those days for my family. So I picked a day in between. It made sense to me at the time. The funny thing about it was that I didn’t really know where it was coming from.
I was happily married with a young family – my daughter was six and my son was five. I was going to work and functioning as a “normal” person – doing my job and spending time on my lunch break with my friends. I was the assistant leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and taking time to attend preschool field trips with my son. It all seemed to be going along like it was supposed to – I was working and my kids were growing and healthy.
But something was not right. I was using my impending Date of Death as my password.
Who does that?
When I casually mentioned this idea to my therapist, she tried to understand. But the look on her face told me that what I was saying so nonchalantly was really a big deal.
With my permission, she called my husband, and together we decided that I would voluntarily check myself into a psyche hospital. It was the first of 13 times I have been behind those locked doors.
Looking back on that day, the signs were pretty clear that I needed help. And I needed it in a big way. Although I was holding it all together and presenting a good front, the cracks were there. My husband had recently lost his job and I was in a constant panic over money. I wasn’t sleeping, so I was always tired. And I was having painful flashbacks of the sexual abuse I had suffered as a 6 year old.
In order the find relief from all the stress, I started cutting on my arm – something I had never done in my entire life. Not only did the cutting bring me relief and distraction, but it also helped me to simply feel. Without that, I was numb. I remember looking at pictures of my family and friends and thinking, I know they love me, and I love them, but I couldn’t feel it. I would hear people laughing in my office, but I couldn’t join in. Instead, I would go to my car on my breaks.
Being admitted to the hospital was surreal. They searched my bags for sharp items, and took out the strings from my sweatshirts. It wasn’t a strip search, but they checked my body, too. I saw the other patients, and to my surprise, many of them looked just like me.
I had expected that I’d walk into a scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; instead, I entered into a place of healing.
A place to stabilize.
A place to be safe from myself.
I met my psychiatrist the next day. He was a kind man, someone I felt instantly safe with. He asked me why I was there. And I had to go back in time as I told him my history: my parents’ divorce when I was six and the sexual abuse that was happening at the same time. I told him about growing up without my dad. And I told him about what had happened to me 13 years prior.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in Guatemala. I was about halfway through my 2 years of service, and I had developed a love of the country and my service there. I also cared deeply about a family I shared an apartment complex with – a single mom with 2 young boys.
I had gone out of town one weekend to come home to having had my apartment broken into. It was obviously kids – curious kids. Who else would have spread my tooth floss across the room? So I told the mom – Carolina – what had happened. Looking back on what resulted from telling her, I never would have said a word.
From my tiny kitchen, she summoned the boys upstairs. She told them to remove their belts. And before my eyes, before I could react, she whipped them. They held out their hands so she could whip those, too. She asked for salt, and rubbed it into their wounds.
I stood there, and as I did, I felt as if my skin was peeling away from my body – from the top of my head down. I was a raw nerve unable to stop the abuse I now felt responsible for. After that night, I was afraid of Carolina. I could hear her beating her boys on a regular basis. They would often stand outside my door, crying, wanting to come in, to escape. But I never let them in because I, too, was afraid of their mom. I started using ear plugs and high doses of Benadryl PM to block out the noise. There was no CPS to call, no one to help me help this family. In the end, I left Guatemala and my 2 years of Peace Corps service with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and in a severe depression.
Five days after returning home, I met my future husband. And as life does, mine moved along. I got married, hade 2 kids in 2 years, and kind of pushed that trauma to the back of my mind. I was still haunted by it – the images, the screaming, the crying – but I pushed it down, along with the memories of my own childhood abuse.
But these things can only be pushed away for so long. And that date in November was a harsh reminder of that. The combination of having a full time job, 2 young kids, my husband out of work, and those relentless flashbacks of abuse intruding uncontrollably in my mind, and the scene was set.
The perfect storm: the depression, the numbness, the cutting.
That date in November.
And so I found myself sitting there with this man, explaining why I was in a psyche hospital. That first time in set me on my way to recovery. I say on my way, because it is not complete. I’m not sure it ever will be.
That’s the funny thing about mental illness: you may feel better, you may feel in control. But so often it creeps back in. Sometimes I can’t resist the urge to cut; sometimes I need to talk to my therapist every day instead of just once a week.
And sometimes I need to go back behind those locked doors.
But it’s OK.
I’m living with – and no longer dying from – mental illness.
I’m standing here today, not only because I have been in a psyche hospital numerous times. I am standing here today because I am one of the lucky ones. As I have gone through this journey, I have had amazing support around me. My husband has stood by my side and taken care of our kids when I could not. My boss has been open to learning from me, hearing my story, and has never wavered in her support of me and my abilities. My friends have come to the hospital, sat with me while I stared silently into space or had tears running down my face. And my doctors have patiently walked this road with me, feeling my pain, taking my calls after hours, and holding out hope for my future when I couldn’t see beyond the next moment.
We all need support. We all need advocates. Envelope yourself with people who care. Be that person for a friend or family member who may need you in a crisis. As someone who’s been there, I know how crucial we are for each other. Thanks to all those who have stood by me I can now truthfully say:
I’ve got depression and PTSD. But they do not have me.