“Trauma Informed Care” as featured on Betty’s Battleground!

I’m REALLY excited to share a guest post I did for my blogger friend and fellow PTSD Mama Betty. Her blog is amazing and I’m so happy I was able to contribute! Here’s my guest post on Trauma Informed Care. In it, I speak at length about my professional experience and training in trauma informed approaches and contrast my professional experience with the decidedly-NOT-trauma-informed nature of my experience with receiving crisis stabilization.

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When treatment is NOT trauma informed, and you’re dealing with trauma, it kind of makes you feel like this. 

I’m really proud of this piece, as I feel it’s important to the overall conversation on the state of mental health care in this country and around the world. I hope you’ll read and consider sharing it!

ALSO, please check out Betty’s site and connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and through her site (linked above). 

 

Mixed (Manic) Precipitation – A Poem

You all seemed to like the last poem I posted, and I hope you’ll enjoy this one, too! April is, after all, National Poetry Month. So, you may be able to expect more poetry in the coming weeks.

“Mixed (Manic) Precipitation”

I exist somewhere between
the depth of salt water
and the misty clouds in the sky –
but my mind is in both simultaneously.

So when it rains, tears tumble out,
yet fill me, all at once.
So the crushing pressure of depth
and the thin air, sharp breaths,
fog my thoughts beyond recognition.

Beautiful landscape, scattered downpours,
of words that just don’t fit, and over saturate.
I’m gathering raindrops to assemble them:
two incomplete, thousand piece jigsaw puzzles
mixed up, but I won’t stop until each one is perfect.

And you try to tell me the task is impossible.
I laugh in your face with immeasurable confidence.
But you hear the tremors of fear,
threatening to break open the ground,
in each word,
in each syllable,
in each tone.

I know the flooding will overtake eventually,
the knowledge lying in a swampy bog
in the forest of my mind. The water’s rising
and a part of me sits huddled, shivering, lost.

But I can’t listen to your sun-shine voice
guiding me back. Your words can’t quell the storm.
“I love you. And I’m here. And I’m not leaving – ever.”
But I can’t find peace and comfort from without.
My connection to the clear skies of reality is depleted;
stuck inside, and I can’t hear you through the gales.

But I see True North at night, and it calls.
So I tread lightly through the rising waters,
knowing I need blue skies –
even  if it means not dancing in the rain:

past the tangled vines of mangled thoughts,
the knotted, gnarled trees rotted with disease
and the high-water landscape
of my sopping wet, beautiful mind.
I slosh my way toward clear skies.

C-PTSD as featured on Sidereal Catalyst!

I’m really excited to share with you this guest blog I wrote for Sidereal Catalyst, a blog owned and operated by Abbie Zebrowski. If you’re not familiar with Abbie, I’d encourage you check out her work! She is a published author and poet and a force for change in the issues facing those of us living with Mental Health diagnoses! Depression: Catalyst for Change is a fantastic collection of helpful resources and a place for individuals to share their stories without shame. One more way to break down the stigma around mental health! I’m very thankful to have been given to opportunity to contribute to this blog, and I hope you will give Abbie a visit and take a quick peek around her corner of the internet (after you read, like, and share my post, of course! 🙂 )

 

 

Please welcome my Depression Catalyst for Change guest, Sheila, who shares her story and her struggles with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

via C-PTSD by Shiela O’Donnell | #DCfC — Sidereal Catalyst

“They Closed the Asylums”

Sometimes, I don’t write long posts about my own stories. Every now and then, I write poems. This is one of them. I initially wrote it after visiting my brother when he was at inpatient treatment in a place that was clearly once an “asylum”, but is now labeled a “Retreat”. (but it’s still very asylum-like.) I wanted to capture the feelings of being inpatient, especially in a place with so much history. Since my own hospitalization, though, I wanted to also make sure the narrator of the poem could either be the patient or the visitor. The poem has seen some serious revision, and I wanted to share the finished product with you. I hope you enjoy.

“They Closed the Asylums”

The room captures the auras
of past patients and restrains
their spirits of madness and beauty
tightly within.

Fluorescent lights create an unearthly glow
and illuminate 100 years of decay
(layers of paint can only hide so much)
and the locked window, rusted bars,
cages our reflections.

Small talk, how’s the food?
repetitive motion, catch and release
we toss the blue stress ball at the wall.

The echoes fill our ears
when the conversation dies.

This room has held hundreds of souls
and now, it holds ours tight.
It squeezes, but we don’t speak.
The air thickens, but we just breathe deeper.

Until it’s just you and me,                                                                                                                        and the ceaseless pounding

of stress relief in compacted foam
ricocheting through the room,
the endless thudding                                                                                                                            slowly driving the ghosts insane.

On Parenting Through Depression

Depression sucks. It sucks your energy. It sucks your joy. It sucks your motivation. It sucks just about every good thing you’ve ever felt, and the ability to recall every good memory you have, right out of you. It sucks like the vacuum cleaner that’s in the corner, unused, because you are too tired to drag it over your carpet a few times to pick up the crumbs from the cookie you let your toddler eat right before dinner because you were too tired to put up a fight. It sucks like the television that sucks in your preschooler because you just can’t entertain them anymore, so you say “Screw it” to the screen time limits “good” parents set. It just sucks.

Depression warps your entire outlook on yourself, your life, you future, and, yes, your parenting and your kids. That’s not a popular thing to say. Shouldn’t your kids be enough to fight your depression? Take pride in your little ones, take joy in their laughter. Your kids should make you happy no matter what you’re “feeling.” 

Yeah? And this door should have a freaking window! But it doesn’t. Someone boarded and painted over where the window used to be and now it’s just a cracked, monotone, locked door that no one can open and no light can enter.

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Yes, I’m using this door as a visual representation of depression. 

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I got the double-whammy of environmental factors and genetics in the mental health lottery. There’s no Nature vs. Nurture debate with this gal, I’ve got a solid combination of both. For this post, though, I wanted to broaden the scope of things considered a little bit. I am currently parenting through depression, and I have many friends who have done and are doing the same. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and there are also a lot of hard truths many people feel ashamed to voice. This post is a combination of my personal experiences and those of my friends. I will not name names or differentiate which experiences come from who, because, I suspect, there are moms and dads out there who will be able to relate to everything in this post. My guess is that those of us who are ashamed to admit these things out loud will find that our experience is not nearly as unique as we think, and, in turn, we’re not the “bad” moms and dads our depression tells us we are. So without further ado, here are Five Things Parenting Through Depression Is and Five Things it Isn’t.

Parenting Through Depression: 

1) It’s locking yourself in the bathroom/ taking a shower to cry so that your child(ren) don’t see you. 

Depression is not “sadness”. Hopefully, by now, we all know this. If you don’t, let me explain: sadness is situational; depression is a state of being. Your dog died and you’re crying in front of your kids? This is deemed “ok” because your tears are “justified”. Depression crying is not always “justified”. Depression is a deep loss of joy and a loss of the ability to find joy, and sometimes, the smallest thing can bring tears to your eyes. Sometimes, there’s no obvious trigger at all, you just break down and sob. When this is happening, in whatever frequency, you want to shield those little (or not so little) eyes from seeing you like that. You want to prevent those little mouths from asking “What’s wrong? Why are you sad?” Because you don’t have an answer, or, if you do, it’s far too dark and burdensome to lay at the feet of your children. You hide in the bathroom because you want to protect them from the emptiness you feel inside. Because you don’t want it to spread to them. You don’t want them worried. You don’t want them to feel obligated to try to comfort you because that is not their role. Parents comfort children, not the other way around.

2) It’s dragging yourself out of bed in the morning despite having absolutely no energy or motivation. 

Let’s face it, the kids aren’t going to feed and dress themselves. (Especially the younger ones.) As a parent, you’re responsible for getting the kiddos out the door and on their way to school or daycare each day. You may be responsible for getting yourself to work as well, but let’s be honest, the thought of work in the morning is so far on the back burner when parenting with depression that it’s not even heating up until you finally get the kids off to their respective destinations first. Also in this category, sometimes it’s not getting up on time, despite your best efforts. Some mornings, you just can’t peel yourself off the mattress in time to get the kids to school (or yourself to work) on schedule. Once the kids are late to school a few mornings, teachers start mentioning it, and you feel like a complete and utter failure as a parent. You just have to try harder, you think. But you can’t try your way out of depression. You can’t will your way out, either.

3) It’s feeling detached from your life. Feeling alone even if you’re with your child(ren) and/or significant other. 

Oh! You wanted to actually enjoy family game night? You wanted to engage in that art project your 5 year old is so excited about? You wanted to laugh at that funny family movie you’re all watching together? Tough luck! Depression has a way of taking the fun out of everything. Sure, sometimes you can muster up the energy to go through the motions, you know, roll the dice, hold the paintbrush, push the play button on Netflix, but in reality, you’re so drained emotionally that that’s just about all you can do. Your biggest fear is that your child(ren) will notice this and internalize it as “Mommy/Daddy isn’t really interested in what I have to say/ want to do”, feel rejected, feel hurt, and then stop wanting to do things with you at all. And then depression convinces you that this is already the case and that you’ve failed as a parent and you are screwing up your kid(s) for life.

4) It’s phoning it in on dinner some nights. 

If you’re at all like me, you prefer your child(ren) to eat at least mostly healthy things. You know, 3 meals a day, hitting ideal nutritional values, not having too much sugar or junk… But there are some nights that I honestly cannot muster the energy to cook anything at all, to say nothing of a meal consisting of meat, starch, and veggies. Some nights, we have PB&J’s for dinner, some nights it’s cereal, and some nights it’s Spaghetti-O’s. Am I proud of this? Absolutely not. But sometimes “it is what it is.” Bellies are full and I’m not condemning my kid(s) to a lifetime of health struggles if we have an unhealthy dinner occasionally.

5) It’s pulling the energy to make sure your children are clean, warm, and loved when you can barely find the energy for any of that yourself. 

Depression has a way of attacking you in sometimes unexpected and not often discussed areas of life. One is hygiene. Now, look, this is the conversation no parent (or any adult) really wants to cop to, but the fact of the matter is, on the really bad days in your battle with depression, if you can manage to take a shower, you pat yourself on the back for it. If you can manage to put on clean clothes, that’s a freaking gold star moment. If you can manage to care enough to actually brush your teeth and hair, you’re officially winning for the day. Because you have that little energy. But your kids? They need to be bathed, they need clean clothes, and they need brushed teeth and hair. It’s your responsibility as a parent. Not doing so constitutes Child Neglect. So, you’ve got to drag that energy from somewhere. Honestly, most nights, I don’t know where it comes from. But I do know, despite being exhausted, despite having zero patience, despite not being able to find a single ounce of energy to care for myself, I have to take care of my kid(s), so I do.

That’s my completely non-comprehensive list of what it is to parent through depression. Now, let’s take a look at what it isn’t. 

1) It isn’t laziness, and it’s not a reflection of your love for your child(ren). 

We all have ideas of what it means to be a “good” parent. Depression, and the lack of energy, enjoyment of life, and engagement that comes with it, is not in anyone’s definition of “good parenting.” But please be gentle with yourself. It’s not something you can “snap out of”. It’s not something you can wish away. It does sometimes impact the way you interact with your kid(s). (As seen above.) But it does not make you a bad parent. Depression tells you you’re failing. It tells you you are dropping every ball in your life. It tells you you are worthless. But you’re not. And your kids don’t think you are either. We all love our kid(s). Our depression doesn’t change that.

2) It’s not you scarring your child(ren) for life. 

So, your kid(s) had “too much” screen time this week (or month), so they ate canned or frozen food for dinner more times than you would have liked, so they wore mismatched socks or clashing clothes because you didn’t have the energy to wash, dry, fold, and sort laundry. Your child(ren) love you, and you love them. They will not be permanently affected by your hard time. As parents, we have a way of showing up for our kids even when we can’t manage to show up for ourselves. Even if we’re doing “less” than we think we should, if your kids are clean, fed, and clothed and they know you love them, you’re doing just fine. I promise.

3) It’s not easy. Forgive yourself. 

Depression makes parenting (which is already a job of work) much harder. It tends to not only decrease your levels of interest and enjoyment, but also increase your irritability. There will be days that your fuse is short. Sometimes, a mess left in a room you just spent all day (and all your energy) managing to get clean is going to cause you to lose your temper. You may snap at your child(ren) for things that, on a good day, would not be a problem at all. Forgive yourself, but also ask your child(ren) for forgiveness. It’s ok to have age appropriate conversations with your children about what you’re facing. In fact, I’d encourage it, because there may be a time in their life that they struggle with depression or anxiety or some other form of mental health issue. Though no parent would wish that on their child(ren), having an open, honest dialogue about it may give them the foundational understanding to seek support in the future without feeling the shame and stigma so many of us feel.

4) It’s not permanent. 

Even if you’ve struggled with depression for your whole life, you know it comes in waves. The “bad days” are not everyday. You are not doomed to a life of half-hearted engagement with your child(ren), you are not doomed to live in this darkness forever. You will feel joy and connection again. Depression tells us that it will never leave, and for many (myself included) it is a life-long struggle. But there is a certain ebb and flow to it. Remind yourself of that on the bad days, if you can.

5) It’s not weakness to ask for help. 

Be it from your natural supports (friends and family) or from a professional, depression is a battle you do not have to fight alone. Everyone needs help sometimes. If a friend of yours had cancer and needed help managing the responsibilities of parenting while they were receiving treatment and recovering, would you deem them a “bad” parent? No? I didn’t think so. So why do so many of us hesitate to reach out for support while we’re struggling? Why do so many of us feel that no one will be around to help if we do need treatment? Of course, the answer to this is the stigma placed on mental health issues. People are taught not to view mental health the way that they view physical health. The distinction is a fallacy. Whether it’s clinical depression or cancer, generalized anxiety disorder or diabetes, you’ve got a medical condition that sometimes requires medical intervention. So many of us believe that reaching out and getting help will somehow paint us as “weak,” or as a “bad” parent. But that’s the depression talking! If you need help, or if you just need to talk, reach out! I promise you, good friends will be there, good family will be there, and they won’t judge you.

That last one is deeply personal to me, although it was initially offered up by one of the friends with whom I connected. If you’ve been following my story, I had to spend a week at inpatient care on a psychiatric unit in January, which meant not seeing my baby girl for the duration of that time.

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My Katie. 

I cannot stress enough how much I did not want to admit myself to the hospital. I cannot stress enough how much I feared the implications of my stay at the hospital on the perception of my parenting ability, especially having recently separated from my husband. I thought for sure my stay in the hospital would be all the fodder needed to ensure that I’d lose any shot at equal custody of this beautiful girl. I thought that my family and friends would abandon me. I thought that no one would help. I thought that leaving her for a week was the absolute worst thing I could do as a parent. I thought that I should be able to push through and carry on with my daily responsibilities as a mom. I thought, for a long time, that I had no choice in the matter. Moms can’t take “time off”, right? In my mind, “taking a break”  was tantamount to neglecting my daughter. I thought getting help meant I was a complete and utter failure at the one thing in my life that mattered most.

In truth, it was the exact opposite. If you’re struggling with depression and parenting, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your child(ren) is reach out for the support and help you need. 

It may be just telling a few close friends and getting help with the day to day stuff so that life is a little less overwhelming for you until you get through your depressive episode. It may be seeking out a therapist and/or psychiatrist, and finding child care to allow you to go to those appointments. If you’re really struggling, yes, it may mean utilizing more intensive supports, such as hospitalization, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment. Wherever you’re at, and whatever level of care you need, reaching out for help does not make you a bad parent. In fact, it makes you an even better one. (And you’re already a pretty good one if you’re raising a child through the fog and darkness of depression, believe me!)

IF YOU’RE REALLY STRUGGLING AND HAVING THOUGHTS OF HURTING YOURSELF, PLEASE CALL 911 OR THE NATIONAL SUICIDE HOTLINE AT 1-800-273-8255. 

On Shoveling, Fathers, and Forgiveness

If you live in New England, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts about shoveling and snow today. As I write this, I’m sitting cozy in my bed, wearing a hoodie that once belonged to my Papa, acutely aware of the fact that there is a minimum of 2 feet of snow covering the ground outside. Why am I acutely aware of that fact? It’s not all the Facebook posts. It’s the fact that I spent about 2 hours today shoveling it.

Growing up in New England secured shoveling as a familiar task to these arm and leg muscles. Now that I’m a bit older, I can safely add back muscles as an affected area, too. Despite the physical strain (and the pain I will no doubt feel tomorrow), I’ve always enjoyed shoveling. It’s quiet. It engages your whole body, but is so repetitive, it leaves plenty of time to let your mind wander. It’s nostalgic, in a strange way. For me, each shovelful of snow scooped up digs up memories along with it. Tossing that snow to the side leads to a lot of reflection on the past.

When I was very little, snow storms meant playing in the banks my Papa made as he shoveled the driveway down to the cement. That was one of his things. He shoveled with a precision no plow could ever hope to achieve. Don’t believe me?

Look at these shots of his handywork in the snowstorm of April 1997.  IMG_20170315_184753_151

That’s no photoshop or trick of the light; this man, at the age of 77, did that single-handedly with his $20 orange shovel from Hoxie’s (an Ace Hardware/ convenience store up the road). My Papa’s idea of shoveling was insane perfectionism personified.

I, too, have channeled my perfectionist tendencies into shoveling, though not in the way my Papa did. (Back road living simply doesn’t allow you to shovel down to the ground, as the dirt is frozen and uneven and there are sporadic clumps of grass in the way). My perfectionism was in my strength. I was in a constant, unspoken, competition with my brothers, to prove that I was just as strong, to prove that I could do anything they could do. I took pride in my ability to clear the driveway without help. It validated my strength. It also elicited a genuinely proud “Wow! Good job, Sheil!” from Tom, my stepfather. And isn’t praise from one’s father what every child wants more than anything?

As I was shoveling today, listening to the same ’90’s music I listened to through my Walkman back when I was shoveling with Tom, I started thinking about how complicated my paternal relationships have been. I guess the association of shoveling and being praised for it and the idea that it’s traditionally a “man’s” job got the thoughts churning. I thought of that snowstorm in ’97, I thought of snow fights with Tom, I thought of times sitting in the snowy woods alone thinking about my life and God and the nature of love and fathers when I was a kid (I have always tended to wax a little philosophical, I suppose.)

I’m not even sure where to start digging in to those complex connections.  I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

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These three photos are all precious to me. There’s my mom and my biological father with little 6 month old me, then one year old me and my Papa, and finally 13 year old me and my stepfather, Tom.

My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid. He struggled with heroin addiction and Bipolar 1 and was in and out of jail for most of my formative years. I don’t want to sound silly or overly sensitive or anything like that, but having basically no contact with my father left me feeling pretty lost as a kid. My mom did her best to assuage this by answering my questions with honesty when I asked, but the truth is, not having your dad around leaves a sort of hole in the core of your self image. Father-Daughter dances were out of the question for me. Father’s Day was confusing. (It still is, sort of, honestly.) No one “gave me away” at my wedding. When I was in school and the other kids would talk about their dads and ask about mine, the reactions to the fact that I had a stepfather were almost always shame inducing. (Baptist school, remember.) And, as kids are prone to do, the curiosity would get the best of them and they’d ask, “Yeah, but what about your real dad?” And that shame would grow along with the burning in my cheeks. Because I never knew what to say. And almost none of the other kids had any frame of reference for someone not knowing their father. I felt, deeply and at a very core level, that there must be something wrong with me. And all of the talk of “God the Father” was simultaneously alluring (maybe God can fill this hole) and discouraging (I don’t even know what that word really means.) When I would pray to God to fill the hole and be my father (a prayer I uttered frequently) it never seemed to work. Maybe I’m saying it wrong, I would think. Or maybe I’m just not meant to have any father at all. 

I want to be fair, despite my father’s absence, I did have father figures.  Papa was my constant growing up. In truth, he was the biggest and most influential father figure I had. He taught me how to ride a bike, tie my shoes, play basketball, throw a punch, sail, and gave me my sarcastic sense of humor. Though he lived 300 miles away for most of my life, I talked with him and Nana on the phone every single night when I was a kid and visited them every school vacation. As I grew older, if I was in trouble or needed advice, Papa was the first one I would call. He loved me as his own daughter, and I never doubted that for a minute. But, try as he might, he could not fill that hole of not having a “real” father.

Then, there was Tom. Though he told me explicitly not to call him “dad,” he was also a father figure. While there were many times in my life that I was scared of him, I also have a decent stash of good memories – camping in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, driving around listening to Pink Floyd, watching Star Trek,  and playing Monopoly and Poker are some of the highlights. Tom was not an overly affectionate man, though. At least not to me. The picture above is one of probably 5 hugs I received from him in my childhood. And I cherish that picture as I cherish the good memories of Tom I have.

When I was admitted at Dartmouth, part of the intake process was explaining what brought me there, which meant going into some of the specifics of what caused my PTSD. After a few days on the unit, a nurse was checking in around something (I can’t remember what exactly, my first few days there are pretty hazy from a lack of sleep coupled with med changes). What I do remember, very clearly, is this nurse saying, “This man, if you can even call him a man, Tom… god, who does that?” She spat out his name. She had no regard for the fact that maybe I had some good associations with this guy along with the bad. (As children who grow up in chaotic or abusive homes often do.) I felt that old creeping shame at her comment. I’m not allowed to love Tom. I shouldn’t love him. But I do. And I realized in that moment that all these complicated feelings from when I was a kid didn’t just go away because I grew up. That sad, ashamed little girl is still alive and well in this grown-up’s body.

Now, I need to make something explicitly clear. I love my father. I’m happy to say that I’ve been in touch with him for the past 10 years, and I have been very grateful to get to know him and to have him not only in my life, but also in my daughter’s life. But having him in my life starting at 19 cannot undo the fact that he wasn’t there when I was 9, or 16, or when I went to my first prom, or when I graduated high school with honors, or when I was accepted to college.

I loved my Papa. For my entire life, he was there, and I placed him on a pedestal. (I imagine the same pedestal that most kids place their actual fathers.) His ability to perfectly shovel the driveway is the exact analogy for how I viewed him and everything he did: perfect. In my little girl eyes, he was absolutely perfect. But, as an adult, I can see that he was not without his faults and struggles. He faced many adversities in his life, and his mentality was to just keep shoveling through. Keep your head up and just keep pushing. And he occasionally did things that caused me pain. When I was a child, he told me not to tell others about what was happening at home. Hearing from him, the man I trusted and loved more than anyone, that I needed to be secretive and keep everything to myself did help cultivate that shame I felt so deeply. And, of course, eventually, my Papa was not able to “keep pushing”, and he left us in the messiest way possible when he died and took my Nana with him. Which was, and remains, the biggest curve ball this life has ever thrown me.

And, yes, I love Tom. Truly, despite everything. I love him for being there when I dislocated my knee in seventh grade. I love him for the time he and I hiked into Sawyer Pond a day before everyone else to set up camp and woke up with the sun to go swimming and cook oatmeal over the campfire before the rest of the family arrived. I love him for the entire summer that he spent introducing me to classic films like Casablanca and Cool Hand Luke. I love him for the time he said, “I promised you when you were 6 years old that if Pink Floyd ever toured again, I’d take you. I don’t think that’s going to happen, so I’m doing the next best thing.” and we took a trip to see the Australian Pink Floyd Show play in Manchester, New Hampshire. I love him for the times he threw me across Kiwanis Pool when I was a kid, and the times he’d “A-Bomb” splash me and my friends from the high dive. I love him for every joke, every laugh, every happy memory he gave me. But there are plenty of bad memories, too. PTSD-inducing bad memories. And those can’t be simply ignored or brushed over.

But I love him because I recognize that, through everything, he was doing his best. And my Papa was doing his best. And my Dad was doing his best. They were all doing their best. It wasn’t ideal. But it was what I had. And I can’t change that.

Psychologically, I understand now why I always gravitated toward tasks of physical strength, like mowing, moving heavy furniture, and yes, shoveling. Because, from my frame of reference (Baptist) those were “man’s” jobs, and if I could prove to myself that I was strong, maybe life without a “dad” was a little less scary. If I could handle doing those things on my own, maybe I’d be ok.

My relationship with my father, and with my stepfather, and even sometimes with my Papa, wasn’t at all what I hoped and prayed for when I was a kid, and there’s still that little girl inside of me wishing things were different, trying to make sense of everything and find her place in this world. Trying to balance the good with the bad, and internal strength with the ability to fall apart and borrow strength from others when she needs it.

And maybe it was her outside today, shoveling for hours through high drifts and layers of packed, heavy, wet snow and memories and thoughts and feelings. Hoping with each motion to prove her strength. Hoping to validate her adulthood. Hoping to prove to herself that she’s ok, even though she didn’t grow up with a “father.” Hoping to live up to her Papa’s standards of working hard and pushing through. Hoping with each scoop and each heave, to get somewhere closer to the truth, to understanding, to acceptance, to forgiveness, to healing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Meaningful Connections

This is not what I intended to write this evening. It’s actually the emotional opposite of what I intended to write. See, I’ve had an exhausting day of phone calls, waiting rooms, and non-productive meetings in an attempt to get everything situated. Red Tape is real and my god does it get in the way of things. I planned to write a rather scathing commentary on the impact of burnt-out workers, seemingly insurmountable hurtles, and the general way the system treats you as a number and a clipboard-check-list rather than as a human being on motivation to even try to get help and support. But that’s not what I’m going to focus on tonight, because I need a little positive energy and I’m just going to cultivate it for myself.

Rather than focus on people who seem to see me as “another case file,” I’d like to talk a little about meaningful connections and their importance in recovery and maintenance of mental wellness.

First, I have family members who have really stepped up in different ways to show their love and support. My mom has been immensely helpful in many tangible ways, from financial assistance to childcare, and emotionally, too, by just generally being around if I want to talk. My Uncle calls me frequently to check in. My foster sister, who I hadn’t seen in years, came up to visit me for a weekend and it was like we never missed a beat. She helped me in a lot of tangible ways, too, and I’m seriously looking forward to the next time I get to see her.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have some fantastic friends. Friends who showed up for me even when I was actively trying to push them away. Friends who gave me “space” when I did push them away but were there for me the minute that I, much like the Prodigal Son, came crawling back beaten and filthy and out of options. I do not feel I deserve such unconditional love and support, but I’ve been blessed to receive it nevertheless.

I named this blog “Parallel Dichotomy” because the two words are, by definition, mutually exclusive. Carl Jung had a concept he called the “Tension of Opposites,” holding two seemingly incompatible things in balance. This has been a theme throughout my entire life. In this post, I’d like to focus on one particular example: if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve always had this internal pull toward self-destruction, but I’ve denied it’s existence and kept it mostly in check by my need to be perceived as responsible and reliable. As with any aspect of Self, though, the more you deny something, the more it tends to pop up at very inconvenient times and in very unexpected ways. “What you resist, persists,” as the saying goes.

This has been the case for most of my life, I think. Too afraid to be honest with myself about my feelings and thoughts, I avoided them at all costs. I denied my anger at others, and thus, took it out on myself through self-harm rather than expressing it in a productive way. As I got older, I tended towards drowning my sorrows in alcohol, especially when alone, rather than facing my feelings head on. I tended toward indulging my self-defeat in private while publicly projecting a persona of strength and confidence. I tended toward being resistant to medical professionals (or support of any form, really) while holding a career in mental health support. I tended toward a lot of maladaptive stuff, and masked it all with a smile. I basked in the light of others telling me how strong I was while really, I felt weak and broken. I enjoyed the pats on the back I would receive for each accomplishment, all while feeling, at my core, that I didn’t deserve any of it. And whenever anyone would get too close to seeing the “real me,” I’d pull away. Only now am I beginning to recognize these patterns and work to consciously address them.

My friends, though, saw these patterns for what they were far sooner than I did. When I was in college the first time, I very nearly had a breakdown which likely would have required hospitalization were it not for such wonderful friends. Actually, I nearly had two: one slightly less acute episode my Junior year of college, and then the spectacular, blazing fire of self-destruction that was my Senior year blow-out.

In each case, I had friends step in and intervene. Junior year, my high school friend Kim was literally available for texts and phone calls every day, any time of day. That, in conjunction with therapy, was sufficient to get me through what I thought was intense depression and insomnia. (Interesting aside, around age 20 tends to be when the Bipolar switch gets flipped, and looking back on that month and a half or so and discussing it with a psychiatrist, it’s now clear to me that that was my first real mixed-state manic episode.)

Senior year, I was in a state of complete willfulness. I was just going to do my thing, get through the year no matter what life threw at me, because I was stronger than my depression and anxiety and trauma and dammit, nothing was going to stop me from graduating! I’d just act like everything was good, “fake it ’til I made it,” and self-harm and drink as stress relief. As I am now 28 years old and still do not have my bachelor’s degree, you, astute reader, have probably deduced that this approach was unsuccessful. See, there was no way in hell I could juggle everything life was throwing at me. Thankfully, I had these wonderful people called “friends,” you see, and one of them in particular realized I was on a very slippery slope, took away anything I could possibly use to hurt myself, and essentially dragged my ass to therapy (*cough* Paige *cough*). She also refused to leave me alone until everyone was sure I’d be OK. (There was a whole fiasco with anti-depressants making me hallucinate and a Halloween ER visit in which literally all of my closest college friends showed up, piled into the car, and hung out in the ER waiting room while Paige sat with me in the actual exam room. Again, friendship at a level I did not deserve. And another aside, such a reaction to an SSRI should have been a red-flag for Bipolar, but the doctors missed it.)

Many of these people are still around today, despite me really falling off the face of the earth after I found out I was pregnant, burying myself in work and my marriage and parenting, and generally being a shitty and unreliable friend.

As I gingerly claw my way out of the pit of self-hatred and self-destruction once again, this time actually learning ways to avoid the pit all together next time (a foreign concept to me), many of these friends have come back into my life in full force and demonstrated that even though I suck at picking up the phone, they are always there for me.

My friend Paige (the same Paige from Senior Year), who literally lives across the country now, supported me by listening to me vent, cry, get mad, and sometimes, just bitch and whine from October (when things were just starting to slip) on. She came to my house for almost a whole week right before Christmas and dealt with me and my flashbacks and panic attacks and dissociation which, at that point, were so bad they disrupted just about everything we tried to accomplish. I talked to her on the phone leading up to me going to the hospital and she gently encouraged it. And she talked to me every day I was in the hospital and in the ensuing weeks and months. She’s one of those good friends I’m not sure I deserve. (Ok, she’s one of the best friends possible.)

And then, there’s Cassie. Now, Cassie has known me for over 15 years. She’s younger than me, but she’s always kind of played “big sister” in a way. In 90’s kid terms, she’s always been the Cory to my Shawn. That self-destructive tendency I mentioned earlier? If Cassie wasn’t in my life in middle and high school, I’m honestly not sure where I’d be today. I’m quite sure, though, that I wouldn’t be taking positive steps to improve my well-being and over all quality of life. Because Cassie has always possessed the ability to steer me away from the stupid choices and toward the right ones. Gently, with compassion, without being forceful. She’s the person who is always on the other end of the phone if I call. I spent the weekend prior to my hospitalization at Cassie’s house, and she spent the weekend making phone calls, doing research, letting me sob on her lap, holding me while I rode out panic attacks and flash backs, comforting me after nightmares, and, ultimately, convincing me (with the help of Paige and Kelly – another fantastic friend I have) that the hospital was the way to go because things needed to change and I needed help and, despite my Irish stubbornness, I couldn’t do it on my own, or even with friend support and once-a-week therapy.

Once at the hospital, I had five different people who called me almost every day to check-in, and I learned about another very meaningful connection – peer support and the importance of spending time with people on a similar journey. It might sound weird at first, but I made some fantastic friends while on the psych unit and at the partial hospitalization program. And I plan to maintain those relationships, because spending time with people who “get it” is essential to success, I think.

And, as of today, I’m beginning to connect with other mental health advocates as well. Bloggers, YouTubers, and Twitter Kings and Queens. I’m feeling a little more confident about putting myself “out there” as a vehicle for impacting change and shifting perceptions about mental health struggles and successes. I’ve mentioned before that I have a drive to be a force for good in this world and a desire to have a positive impact. This has not diminished, I’m simply shifting it toward a more healthy (for me) platform.

The scathing post about some of the reactions I got today from “support” people will come at some point, but it felt important, tonight, to focus on the good people in my life, and I dedicate this post to all of you.

On Loopholes, Jumping Through Hoops, and Silly Holidays.

In which Sheila returns to the use of footnotes in hopes of being perceived as somewhat funny. 

Ok, here’s the situation*: Vermont is a silly place. I say that with the utmost respect for the Green Mountain State. I’ve lived here most of my life, and, if you’re not from Vermont, it really is as amazing as Bernie Sanders said.**  One of the really amazing things Vermont does is declare “Town Meeting Day” a holiday so that everyone*** can go to their respective Town Meetings and vote on things like school budgets. Literally, every state office is closed on Town Meeting Day, and, to my knowledge, Vermont is the only place to engage in this strange custom. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful thing to encourage people to participate in local politics and in forming the budgets of the local schools and such, however (and it’s a big however) it is incredibly inconvenient should you find yourself in the situation in which I found myself this morning.

Quick little personal note – I am currently unemployed and, according to all the doctors I’ve spoken to, am to remain unemployed with the exception of “possibly being able to work a part time, low stress job which is conducive to a consistent schedule to successfully prevent any intensified PTSD or BPAD symptoms.” Saying that this is a massive pain in the ass is an understatement. There’s something else you may not know about me: I’m kind of a work-a-holic. If I had my way, I would consistently work a minimum of 50 hours a week. It keeps me busy . All this “down” time is driving me nuts.**** So, I’d like to be working, but the powers that be, it would seem, have a different idea. With not working comes the loss of the benefits I had while working, the most pressing one being health insurance. To be absolutely clear, no one knew that my health insurance had lapsed until Friday afternoon. I filled out the application online for state insurance on Saturday. So I have been as on top of this as possible. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and you really need health insurance if you are hoping to manage a chronic medical condition, especially one requiring expensive mood stabilizers.*****

Back to this morning: I realized yesterday that I had less than a day’s worth of one of my medications and no means with which to get more until the insurance stuff cleared. This stressful epiphany came as I was having a late afternoon meeting with a counselor at a local mental health organization. Like I said, the application is in, and I’ve been told, based on my application, I’m approved. But it’s not “official” until the paperwork goes through all the way. State offices close at 4 PM on weekdays, and I did not finish my appointment until 4:10 yesterday. Then, I couldn’t make the phone call to get that magic number that will allow me to fill my prescriptions today due to Town Meeting Day.

So, there I was, with less than enough of this medication I’ve been told I cannot go without to get through the day and apparently no recourse. I called my Primary Care office and explained the situation. They said they were not sure they could help, but “someone will get back to you.” I then called the local mental health organization. I got voicemail. The waiting game began as my anxiety steadily increased.

My PCP office called me back at around 2 PM. I calmly explained that I do not have insurance currently (but I will, and it will be retroactive to the end date of my prior insurance), that I was dangerously low on this medication that every keeps telling me I absolutely cannot stop taking, and I have no money to pay out-of-pocket for a partial RX refill. The lady on the other end of the phone seemed genuinely concerned and interested in helping me, and I could hear the attempt at a reassuring smile in her voice****** as she said that she could call my pharmacy, have them fill the prescription and bill the hospital for now, so my retroactive insurance could handle it when it kicks in.

Fantastic! Problem solved! That was surprisingly simple, I thought. ******* She said she’d call me back once it was cleared it with the pharmacy.

About 15 minutes later, my phone rings and it’s the same very helpful nurse. Her opening line, though, is far less helpful and reassuring than I anticipated. It certainly wasn’t “You’re all set! Just head to the pharmacy.”

“So, Sheila,” she opened with a tone of hesitation. Uh-oh. “Your dosage on this medication has substantially increased since the last time you saw your primary care physician.”

“Um… yeah. Last time I saw him I was fresh out of Dartmouth and not diagnosed Bipolar, so it was being used in a very low dose to manage anxiety. Now it’s being used for mood stabilization.”

“Ok, well, your primary doctor isn’t really comfortable writing prescriptions of psychiatric meds in such high doses. Do you have an appointment with a psychiatrist lined up?”

“Yes, but we’re not sure exactly how far out that appointment will be. I am working with [mental health agency], though, and will have access to psychiatric services through them. The idea with discharge from the IOP, though, was that my PCP could write the prescriptions in the interim. They were supposed to communicate with you guys about that.”

“Well, they haven’t, and your doctor is not comfortable writing scripts at these dosages. So you’ll need to talk with the people at [mental health organization] to set something else up. Also, with your recent hospitalization, I need to clarify that you haven’t had any thoughts of suicide. That’s another reason your doctor is hesitant to write such large dose ‘scripts. We don’t want you trying to overdose on them.”

And there’s the real problem. “I haven’t, and I won’t. These meds are the things that are preventing both manic and depressive episodes. If I stop taking them, then I might be in trouble. But I don’t see how getting the prescriptions I’ve been taking for the last month and half to get stabilized is considered more dangerous than stopping them and risking being unstable just because a doctor is nervous I’ll suddenly try to kill myself with the meds that are literally preventing me from hitting that point.”

“Well, it’s an issue of liability.” Ah, yes. Liability. In our litigation filled society, it’s a legitimate concern for medical professionals. But I briefly wonder what the lawsuit would look like if I was forced to stop taking this medication and then ended up hospitalized again or worse. 

“Ok, so what am I supposed to do?” My anxiety and irritation are pushing code red levels at this point. 

“Well, he’s willing to write a prescription for one day’s worth. That will get you through until tomorrow when you can call about your insurance and also connect with your interim counselor to establish interim psychiatric care until you’re established with consistent care.”******** She tells me to come pick up the one day’s worth of this currently essential medication, which she gives me at no cost due to this loophole she’s found.

This fiasco took me just about all day. It was stressful. It prevented me from doing several other things I was hoping to accomplish today, and I spent a good chunk of the day honestly concerned I would not be getting this medication and missing it for a day would send me into a tailspin and land me back in the hospital, because it’s been drilled into my head over and over again how essential it is that I maintain consistency with my medications.

Maybe it’s my inner cynic, but I can’t help but wonder if the reaction to this situation would have been different were this medicine for a “physical” health problem verses a “mental” health problem. I suspect the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”. Fear and stigma, it would seem, extend even into the medical world. Which is pretty silly when you think about it. BPAD and PTSD are medical conditions. The chemicals in and physical structure of my brain are messed up. Medication and therapy are essential to correct those issues and maintain “normal” functionality, much like a person with diabetes needs insulin to stay healthy. But “mental” health is still viewed as being very separate from physical health, and mental health patients without an established psychiatrist tend to fall through the cracks of misunderstanding and legal concerns.

So, I’m moving into tomorrow completely unsure of how much of this can be resolved in the next 24 hours. I’m worried that my Primary will flat out refuse to fill the prescriptions I’m now acclimated to and dependent upon; I’m worried I won’t be able to get in with the psychiatrist for over a month (psychiatric appointments in Vermont are very hard to come by, it seems). I’m stuck in this system that simultaneously fears destabilized mental health patients and hesitates to write prescriptions for mental health medications to keep people stabilized.

I was discharged from IOP with no insurance, no way to refill prescriptions, and no established, on going psychiatry appointments. Yes, I’ve learned the skills I needed from that program, and mentally, I was stabilized and prepared to move on. But, when you think about going from two months of wrap around services to seeing a temporary mobile crisis counselor because they don’t require insurance or payments upfront (another loophole I’m currently utilizing) and having a primary care doctor completely unaware of your medication changes and, it seems, unwilling to maintain those changes short term, you can start to see how fucked up this system of ours really is.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not more than a little frustrated. “One day at a time” is fantastic advice, but I’m not sure it’s comfortably applied to prescriptions. I certainly don’t want to be moving through the next however-long-it-takes-to-get-insurance-and-a-psychiatrist one dose or one day at a time.

One thing is for sure, I will feel so much better once my on-going maintenance care is established and I have insurance. I’ll feel better once I can work again, and I don’t just mean working at a “low stress, consistent part time job,” I mean working. Full time, with benefits, in some capacity that feels meaningful. Because I’m not built for a “job”, I’m built for making an impact. I don’t mean that in a “savior complex” kind of way, I just mean that I am someone who needs to feel like somehow, someway, I am making a positive impact in the world.

But for now, I’m literally being forced to live moment to moment. And maybe this is where that DBT idea of Radical Acceptance comes into play. But make no mistake, tomorrow morning this girl’s coming out the gate (politely) swinging, with self advocacy and assertive communication skills cranked all the way up to 11.

*my parents are NOT away on a week’s vacation – an obscure reference, perhaps. OLD Will Smith – like before the acting gigs old.

** Unless you live in the NEK (I grew up in St. J and Danville, I’m allowed to say that.)

*** State and Bank employees

**** Too soon?

*****Seriously, these things are, like, $5 a pill and I am supposed to take 18 of them a day.

******Medical professionals have a “special” voice for mental health patients, I’ve discovered. Quiet and gentle, intentional, like verbally attempting to defuse a bomb, all the while sweating bullets and terrified of an accidental detonation.

*******Famous last words. Right up there with “Hold my beer.”

******** I think I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog how very much I dislike “interim” and “short term” care.

On Moving On and Bumper Sticker Wisdom (That Actually Helped Me)

(Photo – I wanted a selfie while admitting myself to the psych unit… because that made sense. My wonderful friend humored me. This picture is denial incarnate, I think.)

Today was my final day of Intensive Out Patient treatment. This is a massive transition for me, as my life for the past 2 months has consisted of some form of group therapy almost every weekday. In January, when I admitted myself to the psych unit at Dartmouth, I was not anticipating the length of the journey upon which I was embarking.

In Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT), there is a concept called Radical Acceptance. The basic idea is that you have to accept reality for what it is. If you accept reality, while there may be pain, you will not suffer. If you refuse to accept reality for what it is, then you will suffer. Another way of putting it is “willingness verses willfulness”. Willingness is the ability to accept where you’re at and do what it takes to get better. Willfulness is rebelling against or refusing treatment.

I struggled with willfulness at the beginning of my treatment. Though I voluntarily admitted myself to Dartmouth, I spent the first two or three days I was there insisting that I could not learn anything from the group therapy because I had a strong  professional understanding of the topics being taught.

** A slight aside on my professional identity: I have spent the past four and a half years of my life as a residential instructor in a group home. My job was teaching emotional regulation and life skills to dual diagnosed individuals (think Autistic/Schizophrenic; Bipolar/Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, etc.) . In that capacity, I was very familiar with the concept of DBT as it is a resource offered to many of the clients with whom I have worked.

Back to the Dartmouth Psych Unit, sitting in a DBT group as a patient felt pretty unnecessary to me. On my third day on the unit, I had a good conversation with my nurse for the day. She told me that I needed to shut off the professional part of my brain, the part that “knew” DBT skills intellectually, and I needed to have “beginner’s mind” when approaching the material and consider how those skills could be applied to my current situation. This perspective helped me overcome my willfulness on the unit; but I was still willfully in denial of the scope and impact of the struggles I was facing. I was convinced I would return to work and school in a matter of days and that this little detour to the hospital would have no long-lasting impact on my life.

This, as it turns out, was a completely irrational belief. You can’t qualify for admittance to a psych unit one week and be back to business as usual the next. There’s all this follow-up care shit you have to do. (It’s not really shit. But that’s my angry, willful Bostonian coming out.) For me, aftercare was a month of Partial Hospitalization and two and a half weeks of Intensive Out Patient (IOP). Finishing up IOP, though, is also not the end of my journey to wellness. Now, I’ll be working closely with my PCP, therapist, a psychiatrist, and Voc Rehab to try to really get things evened out and get my life back on track. And I’m very excited to continue to learn and grow. Right now, though, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect a little, if you’ll indulge me.

In the past two months, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that I have Bipolar Affective Disorder. I’ve learned that my PTSD symptoms don’t have some magic cure, and that I’ll have them, to some extent, for the rest of my life. I’ve learned that I have an unhealthy tendency toward numbing my feelings with alcohol. I’ve learned that the way to manage many of my symptoms is to set and follow a schedule (something I despise). I’ve learned that medications are essential for the foreseeable future at the least, and possibly for the rest of my life. Prior to each moment of learning were several moments of willful denial.

“Fuck off, I’m not Bipolar!”

“The PTSD isn’t a big deal. It will pass.”

“I’m not taking any meds heavier than Tylenol.”

“Schedules are boring.”

“I’m a night person. I’m not going to start being in bed and working on sleep by midnight.”

“I don’t even need this program.”

“Drinking with friends isn’t a fucking issue. I can drink whenever I want. Who are you to take away my social life?”

The above are all actual things I’ve said out loud to my friends and/or treatment team over the past two months. Honestly, there have been moments that I’ve been truly insufferable, I’m sure. But, one by one, I’ve moved away from my denial and toward acceptance. And you know? Accepting things as they are instead of getting angry about how they “should be” has truly helped me stabilize and engage fully in treatment, and I have come a long way.

Treatment isn’t over yet, though. And there are some immediate hurtles for me to try to jump over. I’m hoping I’ve got enough momentum to clear them. My insurance lapsed mid-February, which is making follow-up care tricky to coordinate and getting prescriptions refilled impossible at the moment. (I’m working on that, though, with both my PCP and a local mental health organization, and should hopefully have that resolved in the next few days.) But, it’s definitely a stressful note on which to leave the intensive, wrap around support of the IOP program. (There will, in the future, be a separate blog post all about the ridiculous struggles of finding and maintaining affordable, quality mental health care.)

For right now, though, I just wanted to take a few minutes to share with you some bits of what I like to call “bumper sticker wisdom” that I’ve learned in the last two months that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life:

“Sometimes good is good enough” (for your inner perfectionist)

“Yeah but your yeah buts” (For the moments your self talk is not helping you.)

“Check your lens” (Also for the moments your self talk sucks and your inner critic is dictating your perception of yourself and others.)

“Your shit; my shit.” (For the moments you may struggle with being able to differentiate between your responsibilities and other people’s problems)

“There is no bad mindfulness practice, there is only practice or no practice.” (Even if you’re REALLY distracted, and being mindful is hard, as long as you practice bringing it back to the present, you are succeeding in practicing mindfulness.)

“Act Opposite” (This one is from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – you feel like staying in bed all day because you’re depressed? Do the opposite, even if you only make it to the kitchen and do 10 minutes worth of something before going back to bed.)

“Use the 10 Minute Rule” (This is maybe exactly what it sounds like, you do something you are avoiding for 10 minutes at a time. Got an inbox full of emails you’re avoiding replying to? Set a timer for 10 minutes and start reading and responding. Wherever you’re at at the end of that 10 minutes, you can choose to stop or continue based on how you’re feeling, but at least you made a small dent.)

“Action Precedes Motivation / If You Wait Until You Feel Like It, You’ll be Waiting a Long Time.” (Mood dependent behaviors are going to keep you stuck in your cycle of suck. You’ve got to do something to break the cycle. 10 Minute Rule is great here.)

“It’s Simple, but not easy.” (All of these things seem simple enough, maybe even like oversimplifications of the struggles you’re facing. But no one is saying it’s “easy.” Doing this work is fucking work. But it will help improve your situation over time.)

“Distress Tolerance: Getting Through a Bad Situation Without Making it Worse.” (I literally have a card of go-to healthy coping methods I can use when things really suck. I also have a list of favorite activities – I call it my “kit-bag”)

“G.L.A.D. / What’s Not Wrong? Journal” – One thing you are Grateful for today, one thing you Learned today, one thing you Accomplished today, one thing you took Delight in today, and two or three things that are NOT wrong in this moment. Write it out every day. Keep track. Over all, it will help challenge those deeply entrenched thoughts of “My life sucks”, “Nothing good ever happens to me”, “Why bother?”, “Fuck it”, etc.

And finally, remember that we are all working as hard as we can, and we have been working as hard as we can, but recovery is based on finding a way to work better, not harder.

So, I’m onto the next step. Wish my luck in this insurance fiasco. I’m told going off my meds due to not being able to refill them at this specific point may undo all the work I’ve done in the last two months, and I’m really not trying to have that happen.   I have several meetings tomorrow, so I anticipate a more technical/ resource filled post at some point.

Movin’ onward and upward, as they say.

On the “Moments of Suck”

This post directly contradicts a rule with which I was raised – an implicit rule, a common rule, I think, in Irish American households (and maybe in other household, too.) “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” Well, I’m tossing that rule out the window tonight along with my “dirty laundry,” wheeling out the clothes line full of shirts and pants and underwear, stained and smelly, for all to see. I want to make a little note that if mentions of domestic violence trigger you, you may not want to read this.

I have had a lot of shitty moments in my life. The moment when I was a child and found out my father wasn’t in my life because he was struggling with heroin addiction and in and out of jail. The moment my mom divorced my first step father. The moment I decided not to go on the every-other-weekend visits with my first step father because I felt out of place knowing that my brother was his biological kid and I wasn’t. The moment right after my mom married my second stepfather and he went outside on the porch for a cigarette and I followed him out and said, “So, you’re married to my mom now. Do I call you dad? Or do we stick with Tom?” and he replied, “I think Tom is good.” The moment I first realized I needed to take care of my younger brothers. The moments (and there were many) that I saw my mother sobbing in the kitchen and tried to comfort her. The moment I had a friend spend the night and I spent time before we were picked up from school explaining that my parents fought sometimes (every weekend, really) and that sometimes it was really intense, and she replied “I get it, my parents fight too.” The moment the relief from hearing that vanished as we sat playing up in my room and they screamed downstairs and her face turned white and she couldn’t even look at me as she said, “My parents don’t fight like that.” The moments that I sneaked into the kitchen when my mom and Tom were fighting to grab the knife block to make sure he couldn’t stab her if he got too mad. The moment I watched Tom tackle my mother to a sidewalk and beat her while holding my toddler brother and trying to prevent him from seeing what was happening. The moments right after that happened when we went to our church. The moments and days following that. (That event is a whole separate post, probably, we’ll leave it there for now.) The moments I sat in my room listening to every crash of dishes and every word screamed to figure out whether or not the police needed to be called. The moments I gave my brothers headphones and videos so that they didn’t have to listen to those fights. The moments neighbors did call the police and I heard my mom and Tom both insist that everything was fine. The moment my pediatrician pulled a social worker into my physical to ask me if I ever felt afraid or threatened in my home or if I ever saw anyone else afraid or threatened, and the ensuing moment in which I made a conscious decision to lie because I didn’t want to be taken away. The moment my lie didn’t matter and DCF said Tom needed to leave the house or else we would be taken away. The moment I angrily paced my living room telling my mom “They can’t break up our family. I’m 16. They can’t take me anywhere. I won’t let them. I’ll get emancipated if I need to.” The moments in time where my mom would decide to leave Tom and it would be my job to help get things packed up and keep the secret until we moved out. The moments they would reconcile and I would finally feel like “everything is good, we have a stable family” and almost immediately, it would seem, a huge fight would erupt and a separation would ensue again. The moment I returned from a weekend long Ultimate tournament in my senior year of high school to find a broken clothes rack and  a few shattered plates and I asked my little brother what had happened and he said, “Dad got mad.” The moment I told my Ultimate coach that I had to quit the team because it was too much to do weekend tournaments with all my senior year homework load, when really, it was because I knew I couldn’t leave my brothers alone to deal with Tom each weekend if he got pissed off. The moment I went to my paternal grandfather’s funeral having just recently connected with my father and his side of the family and the cruelty of only getting to meet Papa Tom when he was already in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and MS . The moment I realized I had an older brother who had known me as his baby sister for 3 years until I just disappeared when he was eight. The moment I realized I had a younger brother who didn’t even know I existed until he was much older.  The moment my mom truly decided, once and for all, to end her marriage and was on the phone asking me to support my brothers through the divorce and telling me all her fears and concerns and how she thought he was stalking her while I was at college 2 hours away and completely helpless and, honestly, dealing with my own conflicting feelings on the topic. The moment my husband intentionally slammed frying pans off the kitchen counter because he knew it would trigger me and then stood over me, a sobbing blob on the floor, screaming at me for being a weak bitch. The moment my husband shoved me against a wall and then told me I was “too sensitive” because of the environment in which I grew up and I “didn’t know what abuse was” due to that “over-sensitivity.” The moment I found out my Nana and Papa died. The moment I learned it was a murder-suicide and that my Papa, the man I loved and admired more than anyone on this entire planet had put a gun to my Nana’s head while she was eating a muffin and killed her before sitting down and turning the gun on himself and leaving it to my Uncle to find the bodies the next morning. The day I told my husband to leave. The moment I admitted myself to Dartmouth. The moment I was diagnosed Bipolar. The moment I learned I couldn’t keep my job…

That’s a snap-shot. There are more events, but I think I’ve successfully established that I’ve had my fair share of “Moments of Suck.” That’s what I like to call them. I’m not sure how else to classify them. They suck. They all suck. Plain and simple. Why list them out like this? Because I have been taught implicitly, and occasionally told explicitly, my entire life, to keep them to myself, and because of that, I have felt immense shame. I’ve been ashamed of myself and of my family. I’ve felt, inherently, that I am broken and worthless. I convinced myself very early on that all of this was a part of God’s plan and that I had no right to question it or to be angry about it. I’d been taught in school and church that God either allows things to happen to teach us a lesson or as a punishment for sin, and therefore, as a child, naturally assumed that that meant I deserved each and every one of these moments and had absolutely no right to complain about any of them: fertile ground for shame to grow.

These “Moments of Suck” are where developmental trauma comes from, my friend. It’s not a singular event. It’s not a moment in time. It’s a compilation of moments. Some scarier than others, but all, decidedly, Moments of SUCK. What do you do with these Moments of Suck? I’ve tried to do quite a bit  with them – I’ve tried to ignore them, I’ve tried to minimize them (“lots of people have endured much worse”), I’ve tried to trivialize them (“hey, shit happens, right?”), I’ve tried to numb them with alcohol (many, many nights with many, many bottles), I’ve tried to say, “Hey! I can use this shit to help other people! And if I can help enough of them, then maybe I can be ‘good’ enough to warrant an end to my own suffering.” I’ve rationalized it. I’ve written shitty poems about it thinking maybe I’d be the next Bukowski. I’ve justified it – remember the Barenaked Ladies song “The Old Apartment” and that one line “Why did you plaster over the hole I punched in the door?” That line was a lifesaver for me when I was a kid, because it normalized people getting angry and putting holes in the things and that made me feel a little less alone.

The only thing I haven’t truly done is felt it. In truth, I’ve spent my whole life pushing it all away, shoving it so deep down that any anger I feel is automatically labeled “bad” and “dangerous” because, in my experience, anger is dangerous. Hell, mild irritation is dangerous because it can lead to anger at the flip of a switch and anger and violence are synonyms in my fucked up brain. Any sadness I felt was automatically pathetic and unjustified – evidence of what a “weak bitch” I really was. I’ve overcompensated, taking a job in a difficult group home with clients prone to violent outbursts to prove to myself that I was not weak, to prove to everyone else that I could handle threats without breaking, and because it was familiar to me. I was feeding that inner child that needed to be around dangerous situations so that she could make them safe. Abuse is, and has been, my comfort zone. For as long as I can remember, managing a crisis has been my strength. Detach, be cool, do what needs to be done. That’s been my MO my entire life. But no more.

Now, I’m in a situation where I literally am incapable of detaching. I get hit with flashbacks and panic attacks almost daily. (This is improving slowly, but it’s still a fairly frequent issue.) I still have nightmares almost every night. My brain is screaming at me “We have to deal with this. You have to feel this. It’s eating you alive and we have to get ahead of it!” 

And that’s a huge part of what I’m working on now. What do you do with the Moments of Suck? You’ve got to dig in deep. Because they fester. They get infected. And that infection spreads and contaminates every aspect of your life. Until you cut away the rotten flesh and flush the wound and let the air hit it, it can’t even begin to heal. But I’ll tell you what, that surgery is a painful one. There’s no anesthetic; there’s no quick fix. And sometimes, it’s just you staring at the gauze trying to build up the courage to take the bandage off, and re-flush, and re-tape this gaping hole in your body. And you have to take careful steps not to get it infected again. This can mean pulling away from some people that you really care about, it can mean setting boundaries you’ve never set in your life, it can mean doing things that make you feel like a terrible human being. But it has to be done if you ever want to heal – no, really, if you want to survive. Because one way or another, that infection will kill you if you don’t get it take care of it.  But you can get it take care of it. You can heal. It’s work – it’s a lot of hard work. But it can happen. This is what I am learning, and slowly but surely, I am healing. If you’ve endured trauma, I hope that there is a little kernel of something resembling encouragement and hope in this post. I know that sometimes the Moments of Suck can seem to pile so high you can’t see past them, but there is something beyond them. I promise.