Highs and Lows: My journey with self-doubt, anxiety, and assault

Happiness.

What does it mean to you? Is it a specific feeling? A destination? A goal? We all strive for this abstract concept of “being happy.” But what does it even mean?

To me, happiness is about learning to float with the ebb and flow of life’s tides. It is not about the absence of negative experiences or feelings, but rather the acceptance that good does not exist without bad and that every part of our lives is part of the grander scheme of who we are and where we fit into this universe.

Don’t get me wrong: I know as well as the next person that this is much easier said than done, and I struggle every single day in adopting this mindset and lifestyle, but this is the story of why I continue to believe that everything happens for a reason.

I went into my freshman year of college feeling invincible, like I could conquer the world. I was excited for the next four years and to see what magical experiences awaited. I had this idea that college was going to be the best years of my life.

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Dee in Rye, NH

Although I have experienced my fair share of magic, I was completely unaware of the ways in which these next few years were going to tear me down. As I was putting up pictures and decorations to make my dorm room a new place to call home, I was unaware of the depths that life was about to drag me to.

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“Confession of a Surviving Liar” – Coping This Is Who We Are, Entry 24

Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide.

Below, we have a coping piece written by our friend Icess Fernandez Rojas. This piece is not only powerful and emotional, but a symbol of strength. Thank you, Icess, for  bravely sharing your story with us.


“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”

― James Baldwin

“We each survive in our own way.”

― Sarah J. Maas

July 2015

I am a liar.

I know how to react when the question comes. I know what will happen if I answer with the truth. I know what I will do if I think about the truth too long.

“Icess, do you want to hurt yourself or others?”

“No. Of course not,” I say straight-faced, like answering whether I wanted red or white wine with my dinner.

A check mark on the clipboard. Then the next question. Topic dropped. Another fooled.

If I answered yes, I would be immediately admitted somewhere where I couldn’t hurt myself, watched for a day or two, and then something about medicine. I wanted to get to the medicine part, to the part where chemistry was going to fix me.

The real answer to that question was yes. I thought about killing myself like people planned out their vacations. There was a letter crafted. Instructions. Simple. Direct. Perhaps reassuring. Hopefully reassuring.

My death would be just as simple, just as direct. No blood. Nothing to clean up. Neat. Clean. Even in my death I thought of others, of the people behind me who have to clean up the mess literally and figuratively.

Damn it, not even my death was my own.

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“My Electro-Convulsive Treatment Experience” – Coping, This Is Who We Are, Entry 23

Below, we have a submission from Fishspit, on their experiences with electroshock treatment and other thoughts on life.

The people that were in the cubicles all around me; how can I put it gently? Ah hell, let’s just say it: they were fucked up man. Over the rainbow. Toodly-whooped. Deranged. Damaged. Or just plain worn out.  The last house on the block.  I watched; I listened and I thought, “Holy cats!  Am I that fucked up?  Do I look like them?”  Befuddled. Mixed up. Nobody home- can’t make friends with the brain.

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Shock!  Shock!  Let’s shock ‘em back into shape!  Get rolling!  Keep them doggies moving!  Rolling!  Rolling!  Rolling!  The shock mill!  They were sizing up our situation-asking the necessary questions.  They were nice nurses; they had a lot of compassion.  One of them put her hand on my shoulder as they put the electrodes on that first time. It’s a strange thing, all so strange.  Pardon me, dear reader, if I bounce around like a ping pong ball. It’s a part of the program right now. A side effect.  Being flumdiddled!  “It’ll go away,” they say.  I don’t care if it doesn’t; I’ll be a total simpleton!  I’ll be the slobbering screwball of the century. Just get that fucking beast depression out of my soul!  Shock the shit out of it!  Zip!  Zip Zoom! Zap!  Give it to me!  Double doses!  No, hell!  Quadruple doses: make me a dingus!  Destroy my reason! I want to play again!  Shock!  Zip!  Whammo!

When you come out of it, Oh god!  The first time was a terrifying vision!  I can’t remember the details. I don’t want to. I just remember the fear. I weighed it all in the balance; do I want to experience that again?  I decided it was worth it, but what a bitch!  Misery upon misery!  Would I do it again?  I decided, “Yes!”  But why so much misery?

The second time?  It was worse. I couldn’t breathe. I was conscious. I couldn’t move!  I couldn’t speak!  It’s hard to remember details. I was shocked you know.  Most people have no memory of the whole process; this would become true of me. But this time, Jesus. I could hear them talk. Their laughter. But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. It’s hard to remember it all!  I’m digging deeply here for you, dear reader. I’m visiting memories I’d rather forget . . . for you!  The anesthesia, the shock. Most people have no memory of the whole process.

I did.

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A dead donkey has more sense than a person coming out of the induced seizure.  That’s what they do, induce a seizure.  Crazy!

I don’t ask questions.  No, I’m beyond all that.  I don’t give a good goddamned anymore.  Just shut up!  Shock me!  Let me become a human again. I haven’t been a human for so long. A jabbering idiot?  Yes!  Yes indeed.  I’ve stumbled through somehow, ended on that table.  Table?  It’s not really, dear reader. Wicked scientists? No!  They show the utmost compassion.  It’s soft, my little table. Plenty of cushion. The machinery-high tech!  Beeps, boops, tweets, twinks; all sorts of beeps going on. No use trying to separate them out.

My anesthesiologist (hey she’s kind of cute!) gives me her routine. Yeah, yeah, I don’t care; put me to sleep baby.  If I don’t wake up, well, was a rough life.  Put me to sleep!  Shock me!  Whammo!  Zip! Zip!  I want to be normal. I want that.

After the second treatment, I had gone home and was sitting on the couch watching my dear, old cat try to play, but this little angel has got some arthritis. 19 years old!  She’s still a kitten at heart!  Yes, but those back legs, especially them.  It only lasted for, well, I’d say a half an hour.  I sat on the couch, like I told you, looking at my cat. I realized there was no depression!  Absolutely none.  I have depression on me at all times, unless I drink liquor or take drugs. But with this path, I ended up homeless, sitting on a bench with my cat, swilling Potter’s 100 proof. Catholic Family Services came down to my bench once a day and brought me a sandwich and my cat a can of food.   Those days were done, though. No more liquor, no more drugs. I was left with a constant depression. I can feel it some as I write. Sometimes it’s a mosquito, a small pestering depression, a tiny dark spot on the soul. But then!  Oh my!  It can become a gorilla!  Consuming me absolutely!  Then I become bed bound, and sometimes, even have to be fed by another by hand, one spoonful of soup at a time.  I become so consumed by darkness I cannot lift my head.  I piss in the bed!  No getting up!  They roll me over and change the sheets.  It’s a hideous thing!  Oh god!  It’s black!  But I’m losing you again.

I’ll take you back. I’m on the couch, watching my precious, and I realize the depression is gone!  Absolutely, totally gone!  I thought Holy dipshits!  This is how other people feel!  This is how normal people feel!  It was then I understood how people navigated life so easily. I felt like others must feel what it felt like to be a normal person.  I could do this life thing!  It was a breeze!  Feeling like that . . . the weight off the brain and the soul. The horrors lifted; I was like, I can do this shit.  This shit’s easy!  Man!  It blew me away!   No wonder people mortgaged their soul, buying these suburban homes.  No wonder they popped out babies to an overpopulated world.  That shit, I realized, is easy!  For normal people.  Oh man, I could kick ass in this world. I was on top of it!  Ha ha, I’d be running this place.  God, life was easy without the black dog.

It went away though. I lost it. The depression returned. The grey and the brown sunk in. I sat, bewildered.

 

Postscript 

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I don’t like to tell people I get E.C.T.  It’s too much of a hassle.  For instance, I’ve started going out into society again after a long hiatus.  My pal Bob took me to a musical jamboree.  I was smoking out back and this fellow took an interest in me for some reason.  We talked for quite some time.  I finally admitted that I get electro-convulsive treatment.  He didn’t know what I was talking about, so I said: “You know, shock treatments.”  People know that term!  He said, “Shock treatments have been outlawed since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

God, if I had a nickel for every time that movie was brought up when I mention “shock treatments!”

I told him, “No, I get them.”  He demanded his assertion was correct.  He was calling me a liar, I guess.  I told him he could contact Swedish Hospital, the ECT department, if he didn’t believe me.”  He got up and left me in disgust.

Electro-convulsive treatment was good to me in that it got me out of a suicidal depression.   I still struggle, but at least I’m able to get up and get out of bed.  I was in bed for a very long time.  Still, its wreaked havoc with my brain.  They told me that it would affect my memory.  At first this didn’t seem to be happening.  I didn’t know what the big deal was.  But then, wow, things just seemed to slip away.  I forgot the names of people I knew very well!  It became difficult to tell a story.  It wasn’t only that I forgot the words needed, no!  It was also that I forgot the concepts that made up the basics of the story.  I don’t know how to describe this!  Unless it has happened to you, I don’t think you could know just what I mean.  Then there are the strange mental blank spots.  You are not supposed to drive when getting ECT.  I understand why!  I have been driven through places I have known for years, but I will look around me and not know where I am at.

I have been told that these side effects will diminish.  I currently get ECT once a month.  Depression has become a problem again.  It became very scarce with three treatments a week.  It seems to be rearing its insidious head again.   Vincent Van Gogh said something to his brother Theo as he was dying, after shooting himself. I once knew the quote quite well, but now I not only have forgotten it. I have forgotten which notebook I wrote it in. That’s one thing to mention: I take copious notes because my memory is so poor, so many that I’m becoming overwhelmed by the amount of notes.

Vincent said something to the effect that suffering never ends.  I know exactly what he was saying.

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Remember, you’re never alone,

and you’re always loved.

-DK

Want to submit to Dear Hope and share your story, art, or article related to mental health? Email us at wemustbebroken@gmail.com.

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“The Violent Ward” – Coping: This is Who We Are Entry 22

By: Leif Gregersen

He had me firmly by the left arm and was twisting it.  It hurt bad, and he was going to take me back there again, to ‘the room.’

“Wade, you don’t need to force me, I’m not resisting you.”

Wade was a good looking guy with shoulder length brown hair and a neatly shaved face with a well kept moustache.  He twisted my arm more as he walked me to the isolation room and looked down at it.  I looked at his face again, and I could see him smiling, trying not to laugh at the fact that his actions were severely hurting me to the point of injury.  He had to be a closet psychopath.  Me, I was only psychotic.

Wade brought me to the side room, shoved me inside and slammed the door.  I could hear the metallic click of the magnetic lock that only opened from the outside.  I was back, and I hated the feel of the white painted walls, the hard floor with the interrupted pattern of small tiles on it that seemed to put messages in my head.  Most of all I hated that nothing I could do would get me out of there before someone on the other side of that door felt like opening it.

I had so much anger, so much pain inside me that when the staff put me in the side room, I would cut loose.  I screamed a string of profanities as loud as I could, and let go as many hard kicks to the door as humanly possible.  I did this until I was hoarse and my shoeless feet ached.  I don’t know what I was accomplishing, but it helped me calm down, and the staff never seemed to be able to give me trouble for it, so I kept doing it.

The room was small, maybe 12 feet by 12.  There was nothing in it, no TV, no padding, no window.  My only companion was the air conditioning unit in the corner built into the wall.  It hummed out a throaty, low sounding waft of cold air for a few minutes every hour.  Still, the air seemed pretty stale in there.  It was institutional air, a lot of other people had breathed it in an out before me and I would likely breathe the same air in again in the near future.

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All I had in that room was a bottle to piss in, a plastic mattress and what they called a strong sheet.  There was no way to hang yourself or injure yourself in any way unless you got creative like I had done, and you kicked at the thick metal door until you felt like your foot would break.  I saw people pick at the linoleum if they were motivated to find a way and take a little piece of the stuff to try and cut their wrists.  It rarely worked.

I had arrived on that ward about five months ago.  I had been living alone, and it seemed like everything was going right for me.  I had credit cards, I took trips, I had a car and led an active life. For some inexplicable reason, I decided that I could lower my medications—not a lot, just a little.  It was a mistake that nearly cost me my life.  At the very least it cost me the next six months of my life that I spent in that horrible place.

My psychiatrist seemed to have no interest in helping me.  I had gotten sick of the doctor’s inaction and the fact that he never talked to me, and I ended up telling the nurses and other staff members that he was incompetent.  They laughed and told me to tell him that.  Little did they know I was just crazy enough to do so.

“You’re incompetent, and I want a different doctor,” I said.

“Get out.” He said in reply.

That was it.  ‘get out.’  The next weeks and months went by so slowly I could hardly stand it.  I didn’t get a new doctor or any help from the old one.  Once he came by to tell me that I would be put in jail if I kept making phone calls to people.  I had called a former girlfriend’s dad one time to ask him a couple of questions, and he had gone ballistic.  No one took into account that I made no threats or insults, and I was severely mentally ill at the time.

My doctor had left instructions that at the first sign of any problems they could put me in the side room without hesitation.  There was no judge and jury process, no need to contact a supervisor, they just had to gang up and throw me in, with or without injecting me with something ominous, and they could leave me in there as long as they wanted.  Over the next five months, I must have been in that room more than a hundred full 24-hour stays.  I tried everything to get back at them for this injustice.  They had set things up so even the ward receptionist could have me put in the side room for absolutely no reason.  One time I filled the piss bottle and then tossed it under the door frame.  Another time I took my mattress and tipped it against the wall and hid behind it making them have to come in and take it away from me.  I like to think that my spirit couldn’t be defeated, that I had a will that would outlast those bastards, but it didn’t work out that way.  I turned into a simpering wreck in the long, tedious, painful and arduous months.  I even made a phone call to the Canadian Special Intelligence Service thinking they had been torturing me for information.  What they didn’t sweat out of me they tranquilized out of me with a long list of medications.

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Then one day my doctor took a short vacation.  I got a chance to see the Psychiatrist, and he had me immediately taken to a ward that didn’t even have a side room.  After all that waiting, all those ‘side room’ visits, I was put back on the medication that I was taking before my hospital stay—but now at the proper dose.  I got better within a month, good enough to walk right out of that place.

The next months on the outside were rough.  I went to a group home run by a penny pinching, self-serving, uncaring old wretch of a woman.  She did things like serve us one potato with watery gravy for supper and took 90% of our disability benefits each month.  One day her sister came over and caused a leak with her washing machine, and she came to me and screamed in my face.  My roommate convinced me that was assault and that I should call the police.  I did, and the cop went right to her, listened to a small web of lies and then came down to threaten me with being taken back to the hospital.  It makes me so angry to think of not being able to say my side of an issue because an oversized moron who is too lazy to do his job has a gun and a taser and will use them.

My life was a mess when I left that hospital.  I never thought I would work again, never thought I would travel or do the myriad of things my heart longed to do when I was younger.  But I found a home.  I found a group home that gave me regular medications, someone to talk with and a comfortable bed.  A group home where everyone dealt with mental health issues as either sufferers or caregivers, and suddenly the stigma of my mental condition was gone, and I could heal.  That was 15 years ago.  The whole world changed since the time I was in the hospital for six months.  There have been wars and stock market crashes, oil booms and opportunities of every kind.  This Spring I made a lifelong dream come true of traveling to London, England and was in awe of the history and traditions.  Five years ago I published a book about my life with bipolar disorder and two years later a sequel.  Life has become a thousand times more incredible than I ever thought it could, and as I finish writing this short essay I wonder how many of those people in that hospital did care, really did want me to get better.  I know I could have been a much easier patient to deal with and that I was pretty bull-headed.  What would anyone do when someone took their freedom away?  How would a person without an illness react when treated so unfairly?  But I also thank the stars that a place like that mental hospital, for lack of a better term, exists that can take someone in when they are seemingly beyond all help.  It may not be a pleasant thing to be drugged and warehoused, but now that I’ve come out the other side I feel stronger for it, and now have a whole new understanding of my loved ones and friends.  Every opportunity I never thought I could have had has come my way.  I don’t know if there is a way to end all pain, but I do know faith in yourself and hard work towards a worthwhile goal can change bad luck into consistent positive results, and bring meaning to any life.

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This incredibly brave and moving piece comes our friend, Leif Gregersen. You can read more of Leif’s work based on his experiences with mental health here, or you can find his mental health memoirs on Amazon: Inching Back to Sane and Through the Withering Storm. Thank you, Leif, for sharing your story with us.

Always know that you are not alone.

You are always loved.

AC

Want to submit to Dear Hope and share your story, art, or article related to mental health? Email us at wemustbebroken@gmail.com.

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Finding Home & Finding Myself: The Climb Back Up From Suicidal Thoughts” – Coping: This is Who We Are Entry 21

By: Stacy Wacks

I know we’ve all had those experiences in our lives where we felt obsolete. I know that for me, the hardest was my freshman year of college.

People always ask me why I would ever leave Florida and come back north for college; I wouldn’t blame them for asking. The weather was amazing and my college at the time was fairly easy: minimal work and lots of play. I was also in an amazing fashion program and got to experience Miami fashion week. I even sang a duet with Billy Joel. I know. Freshman year was a surreal blur, sometimes it’s hard to believe any of that actually happened. I was having an out of body experience. I was dancing on table tops at age 18 in downtown Miami at 2 am. Looking back, I am honestly amazed I even made it back to my dorm room on some nights.

It was my past life, but I wasn’t truly happy.

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“My Confession: Depression, Faith & Isolation” – Coping: This is Who We Are Entry 20

I was never one to thrive off of isolation. “A spry little spurt who’s never met a stranger” is a succinct summary of many an individual’s perception of me as a child. I lived and breathed on the social interaction that I could find. Old people were fun to joke with, adults were cool to talk to, and kids my age were naïve enough to be my friend.

I grew up in a pastor’s home. Social interaction kind of came with the territory but I was perfectly fine with it. I found outlets to express my inner nerd, girls to chase around the church parking lot, and reasons to tag along on youth group events, even though I was only eight.

I played baseball. Well, tried to play baseball. Little league was the thing to do in my town and both my father and I signed up. He coached, I played. A power duo, I suppose you could call it. I wanted nothing more than to make my dad proud. He had played baseball in his high school years and turned out to be pretty good. I thought that if I could only catch the ball better, hit the ball harder, or run the bases faster, he would tell me those five words: I’m proud of you, son.

I developed a propensity, in my younger years, towards the pursuit of perfection. I didn’t want to disappoint those around me, I didn’t want to make my dad upset with me, and I didn’t want to fail at anything I did. Unfortunately, there were times that I disappointed those around me, made my father upset with me, and failed at the things I did. In fact, those occurrences of failure became more consistent the older I got and the harder I tried.

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“God” was the thing to do; believing in Him, that is. I mean, I was a pastor’s kid. I pretty much had to. I also felt the need to be perfect in this area as well. The moment you step through the door’s of God’s church it seemed as if every pair of eyes were on you. Some of them were loving, some of them speculative, and others were simply mean. One slip up in the church world and you created a mess for daddy to clean up. I felt that any mistake on my part would make my dad look bad. Be good. Keep your mouth shut. Smile and wave.

That’s what I did. I believed in God, tried to be good, tried to keep my mouth shut, and I tried to blend in. I was a free spirit when I was with my friends but I never felt like I fit in. The kids around me were all older and weren’t appreciative of my attempts to “be cool”. Skateboarding and long hair were the cool things to do but I couldn’t do either of them. Making jokes that had the entire group rolling on the floor wasn’t my forte. What was I left with? Star Wars action figures and muddled hopes and dreams of being accepted.

Fast forward through my teenage years. Ages 11-16 were pretty much the same story. Go to church, be a pastor’s kid, learn to preach, and try to have friends. In the midst of all of this my family had decided to be missionaries to Australia. Deciding this meant that we had to raise monthly support. We spent two years on the road travelling from church to church with very limited success. I lost a lot of the major contact I had with my closest friends because I was constantly in the back of a mini van. 25 states and two years later my mom and dad felt that the Lord was calling them to instead move to Georgia to be a youth pastor.

I didn’t blame them. I didn’t hate them. At this point moving was normal and home was relative to the place I laid my head down at night. Just another day in the Malin family.

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We moved to Georgia right at the start of my Freshman year of high school. I was roughly 14-15 years old, 6 feet tall, looked like Harry Potter (glasses and all), and about a hundred pounds wet. Why do these things matter? I got picked on mercilessly at my new high school. Verbally abused. It came to a point where my dad even told me he might let me fight these kids. I was ready. I had never been in a fight but I was dying to prove my worth.

I tried my hand at baseball but sat the bench the entire year. I started working out but could barely lift the bar. Kids at church all thought I was obnoxious and tried to avoid me. Pretty lonely life to begin with but now it was setting in: I didn’t measure up.

Want to know what changed people’s perception and ability to accept me? Getting rid of my glasses. Yeah, that’s right. The culture of that town was so shallow that a simple addition of contacts to the daily life opened up a plethora of doors to friendships. At the time I didn’t care. I was finally accepted. People were my friends again!

Then we moved.

This time to Michigan and this time a little more painful than the last. Halfway through my sophomore year I found myself sitting in a new classroom with new opportunities and new fears. Instead of having to fight for my relationships, the relationships fought for me. It was a small town with a small school and I instantly became the hit attraction. New kid on the block meant lots of attention. Yay me!

We spent two years there and I grew immensely. I travelled to South Korea on a mission’s trip where my view of God was radically changed. I started dating girls and learned that my heart could be broken beyond what I already knew. I started playing the guitar, drums, piano, and began to sing. I wanted to excel. I wanted to conquer. I wanted to finish my high school years on top of the world.

Then we moved.

Halfway through my senior year I’m back in the town I was born in and lived in before we moved to Georgia. This time all of my childhood friends were gone. The church wasn’t the same. I had walked into a radically different place. I was pissed. I had six months of my high school career left and here I am going on to school number three.

I was fed up. I was tired of having to be on the receiving end of pain from my parent’s decisions. I didn’t hate them. I didn’t blame them. I simply didn’t like them. My heart was ready to be on my own and to make my own decisions.

I had a grand total of three friends my last six months of high school. I was miserable. I went to a small bible college in the fall and immediately started dating a girl who tore my heart inside out within a month of our being together. It was here that I saw people’s true colors. It was here that my depression began.

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I spent six months at that school and made a lot of bad decisions. I turned my back on God and I turned my back on the people who had hurt me. I hated what I was going through and I couldn’t even process it. I left the school after six months. I came home and started working for a temp agency…Fired after two months.

Fired? I’m a pastor’s kid.

I don’t get fired.

I don’t get fired.

I spiraled down into isolation and hatred. I burned any bridge that stood to be burned. I made the ashes my home. Day after day I slipped deeper into depression and I didn’t even realize it. I justified my anger. I thought that it was a good thing. Meanwhile, my father, the very man I wished to never disappoint, was always at my throat. We couldn’t stand each other. My mom stood in the kitchen bawling one day. She begged me to fix my relationship with my dad. Whatever love I had left in my heart tried but I believed it was too far gone.

I gave up.

Suicide came to mind. I struggled with the apathy towards dying. I didn’t care if I woke up the next day. There was no one to help. Everyone had turned their back on me. The very thing I placed all of my hope in had crushed me. I couldn’t trust anyone anymore, not even God.

I laid in bed one night and entertained the thought of death. I could’ve swore that there was something in my room. A presence…Whatever it was, I can tell you that it wasn’t Jesus.

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Soon enough, the grace of God came flooding into my heart and opened my eyes to the hell that I was living in. Something inside of me awoke and began to scream for help. I can’t tell you how, nor why, nor for what reason. All I know is that my eyes were opened and I was scared. I was scared because I knew who I had become and I knew just how far I had run from God. I had nowhere else to turn but to my dad.

After a hard, long conversation with him I learned that he had been going through the same things. I couldn’t believe that after all of that time thinking that I was alone, there was someone within arm’s reach of me thinking the very same things. Funny how the devil blinds you to the help you need. From that day on, my relationships with all of my family members have been restored and healed.

To make a very long story shorter, fast forward 3 years and I’m learning. Some days I’m learning how to thrive, some days I’m learning how to cope, and other days I’m simply just surviving.
But that’s ok. God has brought me to my knees on more than one occasion with reminders of His immaculate love and forgiveness for me. In fact, not but a month ago I sat on my couch weeping over my losses, my hatred for myself, and then I finally let it all go.

I became a free man.

I learned that it’s one thing to forgive others and it’s another thing to be forgiven by God. Those things are a must in this life. People are going to hurt you. You’re going to hurt people. It’s a fact. There’s no escaping it. You can’t change it. Do their attacks mean that there’s something wrong with you? Not all of the time. If you ever mess up and hurt someone else be quick to ask for forgiveness and be quick to admit that you were wrong. If someone else hurts you then be quick to forgive. It’s a give and take relationship. To be forgiven you must forgive.

I learned something else, though. We spend so much time trying to forgive others that we forget to forgive ourselves. My 23-year pursuit of perfection left me hollow, dry, and hateful. Not just towards other people but mostly towards myself. It wasn’t until God opened my eyes to it that I found complete wholeness inside of Him. The fact that Jesus sacrificed His life for me on behalf of my sin rattled my heart to the core. I finally understood that He loved me and wanted nothing but the best for me.

Do people still hurt me? Yes. Do I still hurt people? Unfortunately. Will any of that change? No. What can and should be said of our lives is of the willingness to forgive. Whether you believe in a God or not doesn’t change the fact that you and I have been forgiven of much. It is in this knowledge that we should be ready and willing to forgive just as deeply and even quicker.

Easier said than done. It’s a process and you have to be willing to let yourself go through it. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come as quickly as you’d like it to. Make mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and never give up.

Don’t just cope with your depression. Beat it. Show it who’s boss.

You have value. You are of worth. You are loved.

May God show himself real and faithful to you.

-Matt

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Special thanks to Matt for his incredible entry into our Coping series. Some of the photos included in this post were from his photography project,”Confession Through Photograph”, which we featured here last month. Be sure to check out more of his writing on his blog Confessions.

Always remember you are not alone.

You are loved.

PF

Want to submit to Dear Hope and share your story, art, or article related to mental health? Email wemustbebroken@gmail.com

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“Defining Normal: Finding Myself Through Depression and Hospitalizations” – Coping: This is Who We Are Entry 19

It usually starts in my chest. The weight of the world is pressing down on me as if I were being crushed under a slab of concrete. Giles Corey rolls over in his grave, and I am far from crying out for more weight. My rib cage feels like it could crack at any moment, deflating my lungs as it all tumbles down. I think I’m going to suffocate.

Then it starts to burn. It aches, my chest wall engulfed in conflagration, burning everything within it to a crisp. I can almost taste the ash.

The little monsters in my brain catch on; they start to worry. The rational part of my brain, the part the monsters have yet to grab hold of, tells me to calm down. That I’m okay. That I’ll make it. That I’ve done this before.

The monsters don’t like that at all. They tell me it’s only going to get worse, that I can’t get out of this one. They show me flashbacks of the times I’ve spent crying on the bathroom floor of restaurants and academic buildings, the times I’ve clawed my skin raw just to feel anything but the insanity taking over my mind. They remind me that I’m not strong enough to pull through, not this time anyway.

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My hands become clammy, sweat pooling in the chasms of my palms, the “M” shapes I once traced with my fingertips creating rivers for my anxieties to flow through. They start to shake; the trembles trek tumultuously through my hands and into the rest of my body. I am far from cold, but I shiver and twitch like I’ve been trapped in the arctic for days. The convulsions starve my muscles, the aches mimicking the fire in my chest.

I try to swallow, but I can’t. I try to breathe slowly–in through my nose and out through my mouth, like I have been taught to do–but it’s not enough. My breaths come unevenly, my chest rising and falling in jerks and quakes. It hurts to move.

I’ve lost control of the one thing that was supposed to be mine, my mind the master of the extremities I’ve walked with for 19 years now no longer mine at all. The monsters have taken the joystick and learned all the codes: they are the masters now.

The monsters start panicking. They tell me I’m going to die. They convince me that these are my final, unbearable moments before everything I’ve ever known dissipates before my eyes.

Usually, I can stay somewhat composed. I can keep my shallow breaths quiet, and my tears roll silently down my cheeks. My head rests on my knees as the bathroom tiles slowly stop swirling, and I pull myself out of it and suffer without so much as a whimper. I can return to class or the party or the dinner table without anyone knowing that mere moments before, I was losing control.

But sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes I start to hyperventilate. Sometimes I throw up. Sometimes–usually–I start to cry. Sometimes I’m convinced I’m dying. And when it seems to be over, sometimes I collapse on my bed, utterly exhausted and desperate for sleep.

When I think that I’ve finally made it through the thick of things, the monsters start up again. They tell me I’m ridiculous, that I’m stupid, that I’m annoying. They tell me that I shouldn’t have overreacted. They tell me to pull myself together and get over it, that I’m worthless and can’t do anything right. They tell me that I faked the whole thing.

They tell me that they wished I had died.

The rational part of my brain starts to believe them. The monsters invade; they conquer the place they once couldn’t reach, busting down walls with their swords held high and their battle cries thunderous. I pull the covers over my head and curl up so tightly that I almost disappear into myself. I wish that I could.

My sophomore year of high school I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Growing up, I was always the goofy, fun-loving, smiling kid. I was rambunctious, ambitious, and ready to take the world by storm. I loved life and I swear, at some point, it loved me back.

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Baby Sandra

I don’t quite know when I first noticed the little monsters inside my head making their appearance. I thought it was normal to feel the way that I felt.

Apparently, other people didn’t lock themselves in the bathroom when the FedEx guy came to the door, convinced that he was a serial killer looking for his next victim; that they were in their final moments, so unbelievably sure that this was their end; that the safe haven of the bathroom floor was easier to face than the man that was obviously just delivering their Amazon order for Amy Poehler’s critically acclaimed novel, Yes Please!

Apparently, they didn’t lie in bed for hours, or days, unable to find the strength to shower or study or hang out with friends or breathe, all the while criticizing themselves for being lazy, antisocial, and unscholarly.

Apparently, they didn’t blatantly lie about being busy to avoid a particularly stressful situation, like going to school or a party with people they didn’t know–or the grocery store for fear of seeing someone they did know.

I thought it was just how everyone felt. I thought it was normal. It turns out that it was just my normal.

I saw therapist after therapist who only viewed me as another client doling out the cash. I had coping skills thrown at me left and right, none of them working the miracles that these professionals claimed they would. I had grown tired of the empty promises that deep breathing and visualization promised, and was slowly slipping through the cracks. The facade I maintained was almost unbearable, but I was terrified of appearing weak. Few people knew what I was dealing with, and I wanted to keep it that way.

I struggled through the rest of high school. The little monsters inside my head grew teeth and claws. They were bigger now. More ferocious, unrelenting.

All I wanted was to once again be the happy-go-lucky kid who loved to twirl in the kitchen in my ruffled socks and climb the towering trees in the backyard; the wild-child tyke who side-tackled second graders on the town league soccer field and got handed yellow cards by the dozen for whacking lacrosse players in the face with my stick; the exuberant rug rat who made faces at my little sister across the dinner table and snuck books under my pillow when the lights had already been turned off; the wide-eyed hellion who manned sticks like swords in my medieval kingdom of the living room and created galaxies in my bedroom that only I could live in and see. I longed to look in the mirror and like what I saw, to open the refrigerator and not estimate the calories in the items I stared at and wished I could consume without guilt seeping into my bones. I longed to fall asleep at night counting sheep rather than the number of mistakes I had made. I longed to get out of bed each morning excited to take on the day, to have the child-like wonder of the girl I used to be back inside of me.

I longed to be happy.

I went into freshman year of college with a relatively positive outlook: I was desperate for a fresh start. I had just started taking medication for my anxiety and depression, and was hoping that this could help me as I transitioned to the college lifestyle. I had been waiting for this moment for so long and I felt like things could finally start falling into place. After all, everyone said that college was the place you found your lifelong friends and had experiences you’d never forget.

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My rare positivity fell short very quickly. I changed my major almost as soon as I arrived, feeling like a failure before I even knew the names of the buildings I walked by each day. I missed home–not surprisingly–and wished I could walk the 93 miles back to the town that shaped me, the same place that I could not wait to escape mere weeks before.

Regardless of my insecurities and the overwhelming waves of homesickness that washed over me more often than not, fall semester came and went. I had gotten so good at pretending that I was okay, that sometimes I even had myself convinced. I aced all of my classes and came out of the year exhausted and slightly concerned for spring.

The following semester seemed to be going better. I made some really great friends, the first time in a long time that I felt like I belonged. I got more involved with campus activities. I joined the newspaper staff and fell in love with editing. These two things kept me busy and surrounded by people I enjoyed spending time with. The monsters died down for a good while. Their claws had been trimmed and their roars had grown hoarse.

Joining clubs and making friends did not, however, negate the utter stress and panic I felt about college and life itself. Regardless of all the great things about spring semester, it was the semester that I started cutting myself.

During previous bouts of extreme anxiety I would claw my skin with my nails, scratching away to distract myself from the unbearable panic that I felt. This time, though, it was different. It was deliberate. It was deep.

It left scars.

Spring semester ended and I realized I needed to get help, so I started seeing my new and current therapist. I finally felt like someone was listening to me and validating all of the feelings I once believed to be unbearable. I actually started opening up. For someone with debilitating trust issues, this was huge for me. She helped me deal with the monsters in my brain in a healthy way. I was actually feeling better.

The monsters did not like that at all. They hated her. They hated the way she made me feel. So they came back with a vengeance, like they had taken steroids and grown twice their original size. The monsters got the better of me, and things took a turn for the worse.

The transition back to college in the fall for my sophomore year knocked me off of my feet. I was now involved in five different activities to keep myself distracted from the realities of mental illness. The monsters were fighting back, and I was losing. I was hiding my problems from everyone. I always wanted everyone to see me as the goofy, happy-go-lucky person I truly believed I was underneath all the secret self-hatred and anxiety.

Image-3Suicidal ideation became a part of my crushing reality. It was terrifying. I was exhausted, angry, frustrated, scared, lonely, and just about everything in between. I could barely understand what was happening to me, nevermind how to deal with it. I just wanted it all to stop.

For the first time in my life, I wanted to die. Ultimately, I gave up.

I stopped paying attention in class. I stopped going to class. Most of the time, I physically couldn’t get out of bed, all the while blaming myself for being lazy. I was notorious for being on time and ready to go for all of my activities. Now, I was showing up late, ill-prepared, and unmotivated to work. I began lashing out at the people who meant the most to me, and pushing everyone away.

I was getting increasingly more anxious and depressed; I was spiraling out of control. The monsters in my head had started fighting with each other, battling it out for the upper hand. Essentially, something like this:

Depression Monsters: Nothing matters. You’re worthless and you can’t do anything right. Nothing is ever going to change or get better. You’re lazy. You’re unmotivated. You’re a mess. Nobody cares about you. You’re all alone. Nobody wants you to succeed. You can’t succeed, anyway. Just give up.

Anxiety Monsters: You have to work hard or you’ll never graduate and never get a job and never be happy and you’ll get in so much trouble if you don’t do well you have to be perfect perfect perfect nobody can see what you’re dealing with don’t tell anyone about us work harder be better do better

In October, I left school for a week and was admitted to a psychiatric unit for the first time. To be completely honest, I felt miserable and out of place. Even though the hospitalization got me out of my initial crisis mode and into a safe environment, all I could think about was going back to school and finishing all of the work I was missing. I was on the brink of destruction, confined between the four walls of a mental hospital, and I was worrying about how I was going to catch up on schoolwork. It seems completely irrational, but it was just how I felt.

I struggled through the rest of my fall semester and barely made it out alive. My hospitalization wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; I received therapy, adjusted my medications, and focused only on myself. However, I was so anxious about making up all of my missed work, completing my current work, saving my once-perfect GPA, and keeping up with all of the activities I had thrown myself into, that the monsters in my brain started taking over again. Desperately trying to keep my focus on my slipping grades and various commitments–all the while dealing with self-harm, suicidal ideation, and panic/anxiety attacks–I somehow made it through. I thought that the month-long break before spring semester would be exactly what I needed.

It wasn’t.

I became increasingly more depressed. My suicidal ideation wasn’t just a lingering thought in my head, but a constant presence in everything I did. I was cutting more frequently. I stayed at home, in bed, all day and all night. I stopped taking my medications. I stopped talking to my friends. Some of my friends stopped talking to me.

I didn’t believe I deserved to get better. I was falling deeper into the monsters’ clutches. Their razor-sharp claws and vampiresque teeth had torn me to shreds. They had me completely convinced that I wasn’t worth anything. They had been trying to completely take over for so long that, eventually, I just let them. I didn’t feel like fighting them anymore. I truly didn’t think I was worth the fight. I just couldn’t do it.

I was holding on by a thread. Christmas came and went, and the thread finally snapped. For the second time in less than three months, I was back in the hospital.

I spent another week inside another psych unit, constantly monitored and watched like some sort of sick tourist attraction. I laid in my hospital bed and watched Dec. 31, 2015 become Jan. 1, 2016 alone, the cries of “Happy New Year!” from the staff echoing throughout the hallways of Med Six. While my friends were out drinking, partying, and laughing 2015 into oblivion, I was watching the shadows dance on my ceiling and wishing I could feel something good again.Image-11

I never really understood what people meant when they said you needed to be “ready” to recover. I didn’t think anything could help me, so I didn’t see a point in trying. I thought that I had tried everything–failed–and was therefore hopeless. I believed I was destined for a life of darkness, misery, and despair. I realized during this hospitalization that I didn’t want or have to be miserable for the rest of my life. I needed to advocate for myself and choose to recover, not just let recovery find me.

The biggest discovery I made during this hospitalization, however, was that rather than working towards making my mental illnesses go away, I needed to work toward making them more manageable instead. I didn’t want the monsters in control. I wanted to be in control. I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time.

I was never someone who “looked” like I was struggling. I was conscious of the way I presented myself so as to not let anyone know what was really going on with me. I now know that there are so many other people like me who secretly struggle with mental illness and never show an inkling of distress.

For a long time, I didn’t like telling anyone about my struggle with mental health because I felt like it was just one more thing to prove to myself and others that I was “weak” and “unable to deal with real life.” It wasn’t even until mid-2015 that I used the words “mentally ill” in reference to myself. It used to sound so weird to me. I felt like there was so much shame attached to it, and I worried people would think less of me. I felt like people wouldn’t want to be friends with me because of it. I felt like people would judge me. A lot of the time, I still feel that way. In reality, though, I’m only judging myself.

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We can’t change mental illness, and we can’t make it go away. What we can change, however, is how we talk about mental illness, how we treat mental illness, and how we support ourselves and our loved ones with mental illness.

And that’s why I’m writing this. Because for the longest time, I was afraid to talk about what was really going on with me; I was afraid of appearing weak. Even as I am writing this, I fear the backlash and judgement I may receive; however, by telling my story and speaking candidly about my own personal struggles with mental illness, I hope someone out there finds the courage to talk about their struggles. I hope someone out there can say “mentally ill” in reference to themselves with pride and strength instead of with a fearful heart. I hope someone out there can find the courage to seek help, guidance, or comfort in their troubles.

These are the stories I swore I’d never tell, the thoughts I swore I’d never write down, and the parts of myself I swore I’d never show. But here I am. This is my heart on my sleeve.

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Sandra with her friend Nick

Although my mindset toward my mental health has shifted, that doesn’t mean the monsters have gone away. They still live in my brain, nested comfortably in their bed of self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-destruction. Though they sleep a little more these days, occasionally filing down their claws, they still speak to me every day. They still tell me to stop eating, stop talking, stop trying, stop caring. And they won’t ever leave.

There won’t ever be a day where I don’t have mental illness.

There are days when I pick up the razor to punish myself instead of the phone to get support. There are days when I lie in bed for hours waiting for my mattress to absorb me into the folds of my sheets instead of packing up my bag and going to class. There are days where I’m so anxious that I throw up in the shower; where I lock myself in the bathroom unable to breathe, the pain in my chest unbearable and my heart beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings; where I look in the mirror and want to smash it to pieces, disgusted with the reflection staring back at me; where my hands shake so badly that I can barely fold them in my lap or hold a pencil or lift a cup to my lips. There are still days where I don’t want live.

What keeps me going, though, is that there are days where I do.

There are days where getting out of bed doesn’t seem like a chore, and looking in the mirror doesn’t feel so unsettling. There are days where I laugh so hard that my stomach aches and I feel on top of the world. There are days that I wish I could bottle up and keep next to me, waiting to be opened up and experienced all over again. There are nights I fall asleep in complete bliss, reveling in the wonders of life and forgetting my worries entirely.

I don’t want to be defined by my mental illness, but I don’t want it to be a part of myself that I have to hide either. I’m made up of so many other things that making just one of them the focal point would really be a disservice to myself. I am worth more than that. I am not perfect, I am not better, but I am getting there. And that’s okay.

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This Coping entry comes from the wonderful Sandra Mercer, who actually recently wrote a wonder feature on Dear Hope for the newspaper The Westfield Voice.

Always remember you are not alone.

You are loved.

PF

Want to submit to this site and share your story, art, or article related to mental health? Email wemustbebroken@gmail.com

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