No Emergency Exit Here

I wish I had something insightful to say. I wish I could cull something deep and meaningful to the surface.

I do not have insight.

Today, I sat on my bed staring out the window in a haze of apathy. On the same window, I noticed a sticker that says “For Emergency Exit”. It basically tells how to open the window.

I was struck by the words, because I have wanted to exit life. Life has felt like a plane dive-bombing due to lost engines – full emergency mode.

But there are no emergency exits here.

So my insight today is that life sucks. Things feel bleak. I suppose this is depression.

Hello, old friend.

Candidly,

Ash

Honor the Girl Inside

I used to push through things. Difficult things. Easy things. Dwelling on problems or negatives didn’t solve anything. I had to keep going.

After my stay in the hospital that all changed. In therapy, I was able to recognize that part of the reason I wanted to end it all was that I had pushed through things too many times. I was living a life that I didn’t want.

For most of the time since then, going on four years, my goal has been to listen to myself and honor the things I feel. For several years, this meant waking up to suicidal thoughts, sharing them with my husband and him staying home or calling a friend to stay with me. It hasn’t been an easy road.

These days, I don’t wake with suicidal thoughts very often. I believe a steady practice of listening to myself has helped me create a life I want to live.

Like (probably) many people, I still have days when I wake up without motivation, not wanting to do the things the day requires of me. Today was one of those days. It has me walking around sad, consuming caffeine to feel strong and equipped for the next thing. It hurts to push myself, but maybe sometimes that is okay?

Harder than pushing myself is discovering what I need, because it feels incredibly like something is missing. So I go through the motions and I try to listen to the sway of my feelings, while still keeping up with the day. I find this to be infinitely harder than the pushing onward.

Honoring the girl inside.

THAT is the real struggle in these days.

I Need Not Flee.

I love to watch geeky TV shows. I’ve written about superheroes, but now I’m going to take my geekery a step further. BUT there is a purpose for it, so hang in there…

I watch the show Westworld on HBO. Westworld is a theme park of sorts. Its set in the Wild West and there are tons of characters with whom park goers interact. There is just one catch – the characters are androids. Androids so sophisticated that you cannot tell them apart from humans. Androids programmed to think and feel. In fact, those feelings are so realistic that they include pain.

During one poignant scene, one of the androids signs up to have part of his brain extracted so that he can interface with the main server. Appalled, the human says, “We don’t have ANY anesthesia.” The android responds….

The pain is just a program.

These words had my brain turning immediately, because as humans our perception of pain can vary greatly. Some people have pain tolerance that is higher than others, while some people literally can’t experience physical pain.

I surmise that emotional pain is much the same way. Some people are more tolerant of it than others. I’ve written before that I think I might be one of those people who is more bothered by emotional pain. Yet, I have learned to cope with it in greater ways since my stay in the hospital and subsequent therapy.

You see, through therapy, I was able to view my thoughts and resulting pain from a new perspective. For weeks, I would say something negative about myself or discuss suicidal thoughts and my therapist would respond, “But that’s just a thought. You don’t have to believe it.”

It annoyed me.

I was annoyed, because while it was just a thought – my body and my heart had a response to that thought. It was weeks before I finally widened the gap between my thoughts and my emotional response. You see, once I was able to slow my emotional response to the thoughts, then I could choose to acknowledge the thought and then believe or disbelieve it. Slowly, very slowly, I was re-programmed.

Re-programmed Pain

I’ll never forget how it felt to disbelieve a suicidal thought. Everything within me relaxed. My spirit exhaled. I had been afraid of myself, my thoughts, for so long that I did not know what it was to experience something besides self-hatred.

Self-love was a very far way off. I’m still working towards that one. Each day, I re-program pain or, rather, my response to it. You see, now that the gap between thought and feeling exists, I am able to experience pain from a new perspective.

Pain is just a program.

Pain is a program that our body and spirit run when we need to learn something, remember something or yearn for something. It is there to tell us that things are important.

“Take note!” Pain says.

It is the fleeing, avoiding, suppressing of pain that causes it to be insurmountable, because there is a truth about pain that few accept.

Pain never goes away.

Think about it. Do you remember the first time you lost someone? Or maybe the first time someone made fun of you? In one instant, you can bring all of that back to your mind and experience it again. And this is only looking at pain from a past perspective. In the present and the future, pain exists too.

I cannot run from it, because it will come in one form or another again. If there is a constant in the universe, then it is that people experience pain.

While this is sad and grieve-some,  I can accept it. Once accepted, I can begin a reprogramming of my response to pain. Since I can never get away from pain, then I must deal with it, process it, learn to experience it.

Yes, pain is a program I cannot outrun, but it is also re-programmable. I can experience pain, learn from it and watch it pass.

For as constant as pain can be, it does pass. There is a reprieve. I need not flee.

Candidly,

Ash

 

 

Refugee of the Masquerade

The way I talk about my depression has always been a difficulty of mine, especially when it comes to that time I planned to take my life. Those words, “a plan to take my life”, are not my own. They were given to me by my therapist shortly after my stint in the hospital. You see, I needed to talk about this thing in group therapy, but I didn’t have words.

So he helped me find them.

I am eternally grateful. I used his words for years. Sometimes, I find myself still saying them. It’s my default setting.

Another word, that I use to describe those precarious days was given to me by Brene Brown. The word is ‘breakdown’. This usually comes out of my mouth when I’m not trying to be serious. It’s like a pleasant, shorthand for “I was going to kill myself”.

Recently, I wrote here about stigma and mental illness. I loved how Jim Carey had come up with his own twist on the word ‘depressed’. Not even a few days later, I sat in front of a book that encouraged the reader to find their own language for the darkness in their life – whether it is an event, ongoing illness or season of life. He encouraged the reader to go so far as developing a description for the many dark parts of their lives.

When I Came to a Dead End

I’ve been reflecting on this for several days. I think the best way to describe my ‘breakdown’ would be to call it a “Dead End”. I had come to a dead end, a great canyon emerging in front of me. Within that giant canyon was my death. There was no way over it. No way under it or around it. Turning back seemed impossible. I made a plan to bungee jump into that giant canyon, because it was the only way I could see forward.

I think some people don’t mind having a persona that they wear around the office or on stage or with their mom-friends, etc. Maybe they know it’s a mask and they are able to wear it and remove it as needed. I don’t know whether that is healthy or not, but I’m willing to consider that some people aren’t affected by the masks they wear. They know who they are and who they may have to be AND they know the difference between the two.

I, however, was wearing my mask as my identity. I didn’t know what I wanted so I created the mask that seemed the most acceptable to others. At first, the mask made the road I was walking on easier. It helped me move forward, gained me approval. I felt confident in her.

Then, over time, the road got bumpy and twisty. The Mask maintained the charade, requiring things of the real me that felt like prostitution. She was hiring the real me to do the hard parts, delivering a crisp check in the morning. Except, the real me couldn’t cash that check or take it to the bank. It wasn’t my form of currency. The real me spiraled into poverty of the soul.

The Mask and I walked the path for years, each day creating a larger and larger chasm in the distance. When we reached that chasm, a dead end forming in the road, it was either her or me. Either the mask had to jump or I would. And the mask – she’d been calling the shots for a long time. The real me felt worthless compared to this façade the world saw. If I couldn’t be the façade, then my life needed to end.

Now, I’ve told this story before and it has been pointed out that I could have just let the façade go. Why didn’t I just let the façade go? Because the person underneath the façade – the real me? She was worthless. That’s the reason I had adopted the façade in the first place. The real me deserved to die. I truly felt that, believed that. No amount of preaching God’s love to me over thirty years had changed it.

I didn’t deserve to be alive. I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to exist.

The Line I Crossed

The person I was, the mask, it died the day I went to the hospital. I remember them taking my blood pressure and heart rate – the numbers were off the charts. Alarmingly off the charts, dangerous. My emotional state was tearing me apart. I think of the way it felt, to walk into the emergency room, knowing that I was the emergency. The Mask was literally seizing inside of me, stroking out, dying.

I’m not sure who jumped first into the giant chasm at the dead end, but I know that we both fell together – the Mask and I. The façade didn’t survive. Though I had expected to die from the fall, I lay bleeding out in the dark instead. How could I navigate the dark chasm as the husk that I was?

One of my favorite songs has these words to describe how I felt:

“When I chose to live, there was no joy. It’s just a line I crossed. It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost. So I was not lost or found.” From “After All” by Dar Williams

Every moment since I crossed that line has been lived in the dark chasm. I thought it was death before me, but discovered that it was simply the unknown – a land without the Mask. I’d like to say that I haven’t doubted my worth since then. I’d like to say that the relevancy of my existence has been proved each and every day.

I cannot say those things. However, I can say that the darkness is a beautiful mystery. This chasm is lonely in good ways, solitary. No mask accompanies me. I am simply a refugee of the masquerade, looking for a home, living day-to-day.

Sometimes, that has to be enough.

Candidly,

Ash

 

Paul, from the Mental Ward

It’s Thursday so I’m throwing back. This is a piece I wrote last summer when a friend asked for prayer. She had a former student who was thinking about suicide and was not sure how to respond or who to tell. Mostly, more than the logistics, she also felt uncomfortable.

Suicidal thoughts are uncomfortable – whether they are yours or not. They are also some of the most common thoughts. So common that many people don’t even know when they are having them or that they even hear people say them without being alarmed. Perhaps the scariest thing about a suicidal thought is the connotation of the word suicidal.

I had a very religious upbringing and so I am constantly reminded of things I’ve read in the Bible. When my friend shared her concerns and fears, these are the things which came to my mind. I hope they help people understand that even in the great light of Christian faith, death or suicide were contemplations of many who lived and were revered in the Bible.

Paul, from the Mental Ward

I grew up in highly religious environment. I spent parts of 9th grade discussing speaking in tongues and whether people went to heaven after dying by suicide. Except we didn’t use phrases like death by suicide. We used the phrase committed suicide, as in committed sin and damned to hell regardless of whatever that Jesus guy said.

I said {religious} not spiritual.

(Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in highly spiritual environment too, which is why I still **believe-ish** today.)

After having a plan to end my life and not enacting it and going to the mental hospital and entering intensive therapy for weeks and now years and tons of medication changes and what feels like ten years of emotional growth crammed into two…I can honestly say one thing.

I still struggle.

Weekly, the times I think about taking my life are more than I can count on both hands. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is healed.

And if committing suicide is a sin, then what is thinking about it?

I have sat in a dozen church pews and been told that even looking or thinking about another woman is adultery for married men. They don’t say much about women looking at other men. {religion}.

So what of my daily contemplations? What of the day my life almost ended?

The day I found myself in the mental hospital, I had been a Christian for 20 years, 8 months and 17 days. I spent the majority of that time trying to get rid of suicidal thoughts. Honestly, that desire, to have pure thoughts, to be without sin? It was one of the largest driving factors in my suicidal ideation. You see, the more I tried to get rid of the thought, the more often it came.

My therapist spent weeks of daily therapy repeating, “It’s just a thought. You don’t have to believe it.” I’ve spent years trying to believe him.

I do believe him. Daily, I believe him and believe that thoughts are just that. Just thoughts. Not sins. Not murder. Not suicide.

Just thoughts.

It’s been over a year and then some. And I’d like to tell you about a man who, like me {and many, many, many of us}, was torn between two desires – to live or to die. And he didn’t know which was best. He truly thought dying was better, but living meant more, was worth more.

Living was harder. It was a sacrifice.

Dying was easy. Beneficial.

His name was the Apostle Paul.

And he didn’t hide his thoughts or his desires. He wrote about them openly.

They don’t have power, unless you give them it.

For me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more…So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.” Philippians 1:21-23

Death is an end to pain and it is easy. As humans, we face pains that seem too great for us. Death sometimes feels the only answer. Pain never goes away. It abates and come again, whether it is physical or emotional, it never passes forever. It is part of life.

But Paul was convinced of something. He was convinced that he would go on living.

And that he was not alone.

We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am in the midst of it.”  Philippians 1:30

And as I finish writing about this Paul, from the mental ward, who lived in prison and chains {literal and metaphorical}, I have two desires that are different.

I desire that the church hear suicidal thoughts and that we struggle together.

Suicidal ideation is common and exacerbated by being hidden away.

When we say that we want to die, please know that we mostly mean we want {pain, fear, insert emotion here} to end.

Please help us remember that there is more to life.

Please help us remember {together} we can struggle.

I have been and am convinced to live… by the giant {together} that was my group therapy experience.

What if I had been convinced to live by the giant {together} of a church?

How beautiful.

Candidly,

Ash

My Brain Off Drugs

I have an alarm set on my phone in two different apps to remind me to take my medication. I have routines to try and keep on track. Yet, my system failed me yesterday. Today, at 2:00 PM I discovered yesterdays pills in  my skirt pocket.

We were running all over the place for Evan. He had a neurology appointment and a pre-op appointment for his dental surgery. My regular schedule was scratched. Systems fail. Safeguards go off duty. It happens.

I use a journal to track trends in my mood, behavior and thoughts. It helps me to refer back to other times when I’ve missed medication. I’m able to prepare for what is coming or at least able to tell myself it will pass in approximately 72 Hours.

The Last Time I Missed My Meds…

One of my particular medications is quite dose-dependent. I’m not sure that is an official  way of describing it or anything. I just mean that when I miss even one dose, then everything goes to shit.

Late Afternoon on Day Missed – I start having enormous, incapacitating anxiety. I literally have to distract myself from reality in order to cope. Usually, I immerse myself in a book, while also playing games on my phone. I do the two things at once. The multi-tasking helps to keep my brain from catastrophizing everything in existence.

Day After Missed Medication – I’m hypomanic. Everything is wonderful. I accomplish all of the things. I consider starting a new career, business or non-profit (I’ve learned NOT to do this the hard way). I call people just because I want to talk to them. I decide to clean the house top to bottom at 11:30 that night. I go full steam until 4:00 AM, when suddenly I feel like I’m completely alone in the world, everything is awful. Suicidal thoughts come to mind so frequently that now I HAVE to sleep in order to not harm myself.

Two Days After Missed Medication – I am now completely catatonic. I awake to thoughts of self-harm. I don’t want to eat. I go back to sleep. I sleep 14 hours that day, because I cannot cope with the vicious thoughts bursting through my mind.

Three Days After Missed Medication – I only missed one day so things start to even out here. The last two days I took my medication on time so I’m stabilizing. I still can’t do much of anything. And this is why….

Thinking of Hurting Yourself…..Hurts

Maybe it is just me. Maybe I respond to thoughts of hurting myself more dramatically than others. Actually, I’m willing to strike maybe from those sentences. I’m super sensitive to my internal state. I’ve read that this is part of my personality (INFP). I’m willing to venture a therapist would have some recommendations on how to cope better. Right now, I’m still sans therapist (though I have an appointment in two weeks).

For me, thinking of harming myself, contemplating suicide – these are just thoughts. I don’t have to believe them. I don’t. I know they are lying to me or at the very least false notions. When these thoughts come a couple of times a day, I’m able to use this strategy/idea to calm my emotional reaction to the thoughts.

When I’m off my meds? There is no time. Literally, thoughts, images of cutting myself and other awfulness are so frequent that I can’t focus on anything else. Sleep is my only reprieve. I’ve learned HOW to go to sleep by deep breathing and repeating one phrase over and over.

{Breathe in.} All I have to do is sleep. {Breathe out.} All I have to do is sleep.

So I sleep.

When I wake if the thoughts are still galloping like a warhorse, then I put myself back to sleep. Eventually, I wake up and the thoughts are slow and I’m able to say to myself, “These are just thoughts. I don’t have to believe them.” Then, I go and reward myself for staying alive by drinking mountain dew or eating a donut. Honestly, its the only thing that can motivate me to get out of bed.

This is my brain off drugs.

I wonder if other people experience this too.

Candidly,

Ash

 

Mental Illness is not Contagious

It was my second day in the mental hospital. I had anticipated being exhausted, isolated, scared. Instead, I woke up refreshed at 6:00 AM, even without an alarm. It was mostly because they had given me a sleeping pill the night before. I had agreed largely because I was slightly panicked about having a roommate in the mental hospital. I mean, what if they were really off their rocker and strangled me in my sleep? Additionally, the doors didn’t lock. 

(The irony of fearing death via murder was not lost on me. How was it that I was cool offing myself, but if someone else tried? Well, hell no!)

I took a shower that morning. Breakfast wasn’t for another two hours. Again, no lock on the bathroom door was sort of a turn off. Showering at 6:00 AM before anyone else was awake seemed like the ideal situation. I didn’t want any weirdos walking in on me naked!

 I walked down the hallway afterwards and smiled at the nurses sitting around a single computer. They looked up at me and stared. I tried to think of something to say. I turned to my mom status for a rescue comment.

“I’m used to waking up early and getting the kids ready for school.” I said, shrugging. 

In retrospect, it must have seemed super odd to them that I woke up so early, showered, got dressed. Aren’t depressed people sluggish and struggling to handle the day-to-day of life? Sometimes. Trust me, I have been sluggish and I have not showered for at least 10 days, multiple times in a row. 

Later that day, I sat with a psychiatrist. He quizzed me about symptoms and thoughts. I replied with one word answers. Then, he said I had atypical depression. I think I sniggered. Of course, my mental illness would be “atypical”. Figures. I added this to the growing list of things that made me odd or a black sheep. 

After that I went to a group session in which they compared mental illness to diabetes. If you had diabetes, then would you just stop taking your medicine when you felt good? No, you would check your blood sugar and keep track of yourself. This was how we should treat mental illness – as a health condition. 

At the time, this really helped me to accept what was happening to me, as well as take my treatment seriously. 

I made friends while I was there. For the most part, I stopped worrying about being murdered in my sleep or raped in the bathroom. They were good people, experiencing things like me. I could see the ways in which they were unhealthy, just as they could see the way that I was unhealthy. We even talked about first impressions of each other. People said they thought I worked there for the first 24 hours, because I had regular clothes on. I said I had a really good husband who brought me clothes and books. 

On my third day, the mood on the floor shifted drastically. It was visitor’s day, which only happened once a week. Many of my new friends had been there for almost a week or more than a week. Basically, every one was super high strung and anxious – myself included. I would be so happy to see my husband, but I would also be seeing my parents. You know, because they love me and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to see me – hospital or no hospital. 

Except seeing my parents…in the mental hospital….it made things real. I had a problem. I had a condition. I would be handled with care. 

The truth is, sometimes, the people who love us the most can’t help us. If they could, then they would have done it long ago. Both parties hurt, because both parties know. 

“This isn’t something I can fix. I don’t know what to do.” We all say to ourselves. 

Leaving the hospital, I was determined to treat my mental illness as a health problem. I quit caffeine, forced myself to exercise, shower and do the things that “helped” depression. For the next week, I was a task master driving myself through slavery. Then, my therapist drew my attention to something. 

 I frequently said, “It does no good to dwell on things. You just have to keep going.” I stared at him, clueless. Then, he said, “Generally, when people wake up with thoughts of harming themselves, then their day doesn’t proceed as normal.”

Huh? Umm….things still have to get done. I wasn’t sure what he meant

It took a really. really long time for me to realize that I could cut myself some slack. First, I had to actually open up to people and tell them what was behind my smile. Then, I had to sit with what I told them, because I had acknowledged it existed. Suddenly, I wasn’t the girl waking up at 6:00 AM, getting a shower and going on with the day. I was the girl lying in bed, crying and feeling so many, many things. 

About nine months later, I quit everything I had been doing for the last two years – every obligation, every responsibility. I left it all behind (except for being a wife and a mom). We even moved to a different city. Everything started over.

 This is when I finally started to feel free. I was still depressed. I was even more anxious. Yet, I felt free.

 You see, I had a lot of loved ones and friends. People, good people, cared about my family and I. Loving, kind, generous people. We all sat in a room awkwardly with each other, just like the night my parents visited me in the mental hospital. Except, this time it wasn’t just a room – it was our lives. My mental illness wasn’t something they could fix. They didn’t know what to do.

And I didn’t know what to do either.

Sadly, people largely don’t know how to respond to mental illness. I wish they wouldn’t call it mental illness. I wish I wasn’t referred to as the mentally ill.

I’m just Ash.

If people could just respond to me as Ash, then this wouldn’t be so hard.

 There is so much stigma around mental illness, that I’ve come to hate the word stigma itself. People have said to me, “Thanks for being vulnerable. Thanks for ending the stigma!” and even “I don’t know how you are so honest.” I can tell you how I have done it. I’ve come to know my truth.

I cannot live any other way.

I must be honest. I must be vulnerable or I will break again. Their is elasticity in vulnerability. It allows me to come back from the falls.

The Vulnerable, Mentally Ill Person Wants to Say This…

Ending the stigma of mental illness shouldn’t be the burden of the mentally ill. Social justice and responsibility mean speaking up for the speechless. Unfortunately, this has never once been the way the of the world. I learned it first with autism and the church. Evan was almost four before anyone addressed his autism at church. The church that addressed it was one of the best ones, but we had sought them. We had come to their church because he had autism.

I learned then that I would always be the one advocating for our family as a special needs family. No one else would do it for me. Now, I know this to be true for mental illness. No one else will advocate for me and my dear friends. They will pretend not to see me so I must make myself visible, even at times a spectacle.

I am willing.

It isn’t fair. It will never be fair. Do I fear that one day I may take my life and make all of these words null? Yes, yes, I do. Do I fear how my words will reflect and affect my children? Yes, yes, I do.

But I fear far more what saying nothing will do to the world and what it will do to me.

For this reason, I cannot keep silent.

I am an abolitionist of stigma. And I wish to find a new name for the mentally ill.

Candidly,

Ash