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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bit of Drama

When I arrived in the group therapy program, I was a smiley person. I’m still a smiley person. Smiley is a default setting in my programing. In therapy, I discovered that I could say things like, “My heart is breaking” without  the dimming of my smile. I’m pretty sure that it is actually very creepy.

Growing up, people always commented on my smile. Literally, I remember chasing other kids around old people at church to the tune of “Just look at that smile”. My smile has served me well. It has been my personal rescue operation in front of the parental firing squad, as well as my political stance during confrontational “discussions”.

My smile also deceived me. I thought I was okay. I thought I had joy and an undaunted optimism. What I really had were 30 years of emotion stuffed inside a body, heart and mind that were bursting. All of it covered by the bandaid of a bright smile.

I’ll never forget the day that changed. I will never forget the day that I wept in front of people. People I had only known for two weeks.

Psychodrama

It started as a simple role-playing exercise that they called psychodrama . In this exercise, I played myself, while one of my therapists played the angry voice in my head. Meanwhile, another therapist sat next to me and helped me not run from the room wailing….errr…he helped me cope.

It started relatively simple. We sat in chairs facing each other – me facing the therapist who was to play my angry voice. I shared a time when I had some very angry thoughts toward myself. I described some of the thoughts I had so that the angry voice therapist could get an idea of what role she was playing.

Then, we began. The angry voice said something terrible, “You are awful and…” I sat there nodding my head. My helpful coping therapist nudged me. This is where I was supposed to respond apparently.

“Yeah, I do really suck.” I said.

I just accepted what the angry voice said! I didn’t try to argue with her. I didn’t try to negotiate. I didn’t even become emotional.

I smiled.

My helpful, coping therapist intervened. “Do you see how you just accepted and agreed that you are awful and terrible? Do you see that you are still smiling after that? THAT is a sign that you are shutting down your emotions.”

Oh yeah, that’s right! I turned the smile off, trying for appropriate severity. Helpful, coping therapist prompted me to say something back to the angry voice. Literally, I sat in front of my therapy group at a total loss for words. I had no idea what to say to the angry voice other than, “You’re right” with a glowing smile. I had no idea what to do!

They let me struggle for awhile, but then my therapist made a suggestion. Tell the angry voice how you felt about those angry words.

“Not good.” I said grinning, ear to ear, my vocabulary utterly absent.

“Maybe with more description, like is it scary or sad?”

“Ummm….sad?” I questioned

“Good,” Helpful, coping therapist said. “You could say, ‘I feel sad about those words.'”

And so I did. We did this sort of back and forth for several minutes, as I desperately tried to connect with some emotion – any emotion! Then, something strange happened as I said that I felt sad.

I actually felt sad.

For the first time in my life, I felt for myself. Not for the perfectionist version of myself, not for the angry version of myself, not even for the shameful version of myself. I felt for the child within myself. No matter how bad she messed up, she didn’t deserve to be belittled.

We continued on in this way, except my helpful, coping therapist didn’t have to help as much. I had found my own voice, my own words. Back and forth I went with the angry voice. I held it together for awhile – until I told the angry voice that I had given up, quit on all of my dreams, just so that I didn’t have to hear her belittle me anymore.

And then something broke open within me. I started to cry, but it was small crying. Crying for something small like a bad week, not crying for lost dreams and regret. It was monumental to me.

But not quite good enough for helpful, coping therapist. He said, “It’s okay to let it out. Look over at your new friends. Look them in the eye. Are they laughing? Are they criticizing? Are they angry?”

Through my tears, I looked at one face. His face and his eyes were the most kind things I had ever seen. His name was Chad. Even now, today, when I think of it, I am reminded of that iconic picture of Jesus with the kind eyes. Except this was real. This was real love, real concern. I dared to look at another person, Holly. She smiled at me. She nodded.

Yes, it was okay to let go.

After that I cried for a really long time. Helpful, coping therapist reminded me to breath. He patted me on the back. Angry voice therapist leaned forward and touched my knee.

“I think you get it now.” She said meaningfully, dropping her façade.

And I did.

I got it. I understood.

Afterwards, they turned on the lights and each of the people in my therapy group shared what they learned from my story or what was significant to them. It was really sacred to me – not what they said, but that they had actually heard. Someone had heard the real me.

And then it was time for lunch and we all walked out to the kitchenette. As I was serving myself a plate full of nasty hospital food, another therapist, who wasn’t in psychodrama, said he had heard about it. He asked me how I was doing.

And I smiled anew. Not because all of the sadness had passed. It didn’t and still hasn’t. I smiled because I knew. I understood.

People aren’t always looking for the truthful answer and that’s okay. I could give them a truthful answer in my own way.

“I am here.” I said, fully present to all that the day had brought – sadness, freedom, relief, grief and, yes, even the joy of being heard.

 

Withholding vs. Advancing

I just finished deconstructing “The Little Engine that Could.” It had me thinking about the things we tell our children and the things we don’t. The things we show them and the things we don’t. For years, my role as a parent has been a balancing act of secreting certain information and thrusting out nuggets of truth. For a long time I felt like the parenting version of 007. Sneaking into the pantry to devour a cookie that children did not know existed, hiding tears in a bathroom and watching them play on the playground, while contemplating whether I was really marriage material.

If my children only knew…

In my life, there are two categories that will forever remain distinct. Before being hospitalized for mental illness and after being hospitalized.

Before vs. After

If I were to summarize this distinction into something other than time demarcations, then I would describe the difference like this.

Withholding vs. Advancing

Before, when I withheld, I thought that I was too much for the world. I had too much feeling, too much anxiety, too much enthusiasm, too much giftedness. During all of this, I also felt that I was not enough. I did not have enough discipline, organization, self-compassion, resilience. What a paradox! No wonder I wanted to end things.

Now, I think there is probably no such thing as too much or not enough. Everything is simply a matter of perspective. Am I too much for people with religious, conservative views? Maybe, but my mother and sister don’t think so. Am I not enough for non-religious, liberals? Maybe, but my best friend doesn’t seem to think so.

I’ve also come to realize that, for me, the idea of being too much comes from outside of me. The idea of being not enough comes from within me. All of the things I know that I am will be judged by the world. And all of the things that I doubt that I am, will be judged by me. Before, I tried to resolve the problem by hiding. After, I am trying to resolve the problem by recognizing that the ways I am not enough – are the things I need. I need more routine and self-discipline in my life. I need more organization in my life. I need more self-care in my life. It’s not that I am not enough. It’s that I don’t HAVE enough of certain things. Now, after, I try to give myself those things.

I see all of this play out in my parenting as well. Before, I hid things from my children – to protect them, to avoid them, to be perfect in front of them. After, I reveal things to my children so that I can advance their knowledge.

I say, “Children, there are cookies in the pantry. I want to eat one, but I am not going to because I know that it isn’t healthy. I don’t want to set a bad example for you.”

Sometimes, I say instead, “Children, there are cookies in the pantry. I want to eat one, even thought its bad for me. Do you want to eat one too or do you want to make a healthy decision right now? You can decide what is right for you.” I’ll never forget the first time I did this. One of them actually said ‘no’ to cookies! Who knew?

Now, I cry in front of them. Sometimes I tell them why and sometimes I say that I don’t want to talk about it. But they know that it is okay to cry – to cry in front of people and talk about it, as well as not talk about it too. No one has to cry alone, not even moms.

I also tell them when I doubt myself. I tell them when I’m not sure I’m being a good parent, but that this is the best I know to do right now. I tell them if I’m worried I’m not a very good wife, but that daddy says I am and so I will take him at his word. I tell them when I’m taking risks and feel fearful. I tell them when I’m playing it safe too.

In this way, I do not withhold from them. I only advance their understanding of the world.

And in this way, I do not withhold life from myself, but rather advance into new territories.

Before vs. After