Therapy homework is hard

A big part of camp has been learning about and practicing mindfulness; not in a strict, sitting still, eyes closed, meditation sort of way (thank god) but more along the lines of “try to be present in the moment, notice your thoughts as just thoughts, and be mindful of when those thoughts aren’t helpful as you go about your day.” It will come as no surprise to those readers who know me personally that I have been working very diligently on my mindfulness homework.

So far, most of my unhelpful thoughts tend to center on my home life: thoughts of being overwhelmed, being inadequate, not knowing what the right answer is (but assuming there is one), and, perhaps hardest of all, the constant thought that I am letting everyone down in ways big and small because there is only one me and so many of them.

My mindfulness practice has has also helped me notice thoughts I was less aware of having, like: how did I get from past me to this present? where did I go in that process? And is it possible to find me again? Or to discover the me that exists now?

These days I hardly have a minute to go to the bathroom by myself, let alone the hours for uninterrupted self-reflection and exploration I imagine would be necessary to excavate my sense of self from beneath layer upon layer of roles and responsibilities related to other people. But apparently this project is not optional. It seems I am required to have a self that is not defined relative to other people; that to be sustainably healthy and content in my life I must find and maintain an independent identity. Apparently this has to do with something called “self-differentiation” and also “healthy boundaries.”

Having my first child involved a fundamental shift in my perception of my place and purpose in this world. I became a mother. Everything changed, even my name. Having the twins only solidified this shift in identity, as my life became largely consumed by managing the practical tasks of caring for three small children, plus a husband, and our live in au pair. I enjoy taking care of other people, but (I have learned) I also use such caretaking as an excuse to avoid taking care of myself. For example, I have altered abused various substantives to go on being “fine” and “happy” and up to whatever tasks need to be done, rather than admit I am actually overwhelmed/tired/resentful/scared/desperate to get in my car and drive somewhere far away and quiet. I have given too much and I have not let go of enough and I have largely lost any sense of who I am apart from the roles that I play in other people’s lives.

So here is the question I have been asking myself: If I were not a mother, not a wife, not an attorney, not anything relative to anyone else, who would I be? As of today, I honestly have no idea, so instead, I am making a list of more questions in hopes of figuring it out. Questions like:

What would I choose to do with my time? What do I value? How do I live consistently what those values? What makes me happy or brings me joy? What have I not done yet that I want to do? What makes me excited about life? What do I want to learn? Where do I want to go? Is there anything I feel I am missing? If so, what and how do I get that thing?

These are not easy questions to answer. In fact, just the asking feels a bit scary; like pulling on a single, errant thread that ends up unraveling your whole sweater.

On the other hand, not asking these questions seems to pose an even greater threat. It is my life after all. If I don’t figure out who I am and how I want to live it, then I won’t have really lived, not authentically.

So I will ask the hard questions, and answer them as best I can. And while I will continue to be the mother of three small children, a wife, and many other things, I will also, hopefully, find the space to be myself, whoever that turns out to be.

 

Letters from Camp, Part 2

My dear friend,

I have been wanting to write you for days now but haven’t been sure what to say, or rather, what is worth saying. Things here at camp are fine, I guess. I went through a really rough patch last week and through the weekend but have been feeling better the past two days. On the plus side, the camp doctors think they have figured out the cause of that particular downward spiral. On the minus side, it involves an entirely new, apparently coexisting (or comorbid) condition. Another diagnosis for the seemingly ever-growing, ever-changing list of things that are likely, but possibly might not be, the cause of whatever is broken in me.

I wish so much that mental health could be distilled to some sort of formula or algorithm: Insert symptoms and levels of responsiveness to past and current medications, out comes a firm diagnosis along with a list of precisely what medications I need to be taking to feel lastingly well.

No such luck. Apparently mental illness is much more fluid that I had realized. Sometimes a firm diagnosis never even gets made. Instead you try different meds, until you hit on a combination that seems to work. And then I guess you just cross your fingers that it keeps working. If it doesn’t, then you try something else. What a mind fuck (ha!).

The good news is that, regardless of my official diagnosis status as TBD, I am taking new meds as if I have what the doctors originally concluded was my most likely (previously undiagnosed and untreated condition) and I am feeling better. I am still not best Alison but I am better Alison and that seems like a good start.

I am also learning a lot of useful skills at camp. Basic life stuff that I think most people would likely benefit from, like mindfulness and the importance of boundaries. I would not consider a single day here to have been wasted.

I am not sure how much time I have left. Apparently my camp insurance is the stingiest around so I will have to make some decisions soon about how much longer to attend and what to do once I’m finished. I don’t want to leave before I am ready but I also miss my real life. Except that my real life is at least part of the reason I ended up here in the first place, so there’s going to need to be some changes there as well.

In short, things are hard but also hopeful. My plan is to just keep showing up, which feels like all I can really do and also enough.

All my love,

A

For Annie

Today at Camp, they asked us to share one thing that the other campers would be surprised to know about us. When it was my turn, I mumbled something about my twins being boy-girl, a fact I am pretty sure 90% of the other campers already knew.

I have been struggling lately to keep my head above water (or my mind out of panic attack territory) and have been paying less attention to the well-being of my fellow campers. In contrast, my fellow campers, particularly you, my dear sweet Annie, have been incredibly thoughtful and compassionate towards me. You have seen me floundering and you have worried and checked in and offered words of comfort and commiseration.

Today, I had the opportunity to do the same for you and I blew it.

You have spoken frequently of your frustration that your current struggles seem to define you. You talk about your dreams for the future but always with a sense of doubt, as if there is just too great a disconnect between where you find yourself today and what you would like for your life to be.

This is what I should have said to you today:

I am a college drop out. I took a medical leave of absence at the beginning of my sophomore year because I was too sick, too much of a danger to myself to stay. I moved home to live with my mother. I started going to therapy. For awhile, that was all I did. Eventually, I got a part-time job. Then, I took a couple of classes at a local university. Nothing too challenging but at least it was school again. I stayed at home with my mom for a year.

Then, I transferred to a different school, less academically rigorous and closer to my family. I was absolutely terrified the day my parents dropped me off. I had no idea whether I would be okay. But, eventually, I was. I kept taking my meds and I made some new friends. I figured out my major and I enjoyed my classes. I was never not sick, but I was well enough that it didn’t prevent me from doing the things that I wanted to do.

I met my future husband at the beginning of my senior year and I graduated with honors. I took the LSAT and went on to law school and then a clerkship.

None of these accomplishments are intended to be impressive and I know they have nothing to do with your goals, Annie. But these were some of the things that I wanted that I truly believed would never, ever happen when I first became sick and had to leave school. I felt like my life had gone off the rails and there was simply no way it would ever get back on track. I was wrong.

I will never not be sick but it does not define me and has not prevented me from leading a life that I cherish and will continue to fight for every single day. I have a loving partner, sweet, funny children, a fulfilling job, and fiercely loyal friends. I have so much love in my life and joy.

Annie – I can’t tell you it will be easy or that the unfairness of having to fight so hard for normal will ever dissipate. But I do know that regardless of what has happened, you can be whatever you want to be and do all of the things your heart desires. I believe in you.

 

Letters from Camp, Part 1

My dear friend,

It has been two days now and so far I don’t really like it here. I don’t feel like I fit in. Mostly I feel like it’s too much; that I shouldn’t be taking time away from my family or my job to listen to other people talk about things I have never experienced or things I already know or things that just don’t seem like they are relevant to my life. Except some of the things we talk about seem highly relevant and some of the other campers are actually quiet similar to me in terms of life circumstances and flawed coping mechanisms. Mostly I am terrified that I belong here.

The first day, after two hours of group, I had a near-panic attack and seriously considered escaping back to my house, my home base, my safe place. Except that home is actually not so safe for me much of the time. Home is where everyone needs or wants me very badly, immediately, and simultaneously. Home is where I am mommy and honey but rarely, if ever, myself. Home is where I have felt compelled to alter my central nervous system to withstand the screaming anxiety and crushing depression that goes along with my continued, ill-fated attempts to do ALL THE THINGS my broken brain has convinced me are necessary to be good and enough.

So I didn’t go home that first day in treatment. I washed my face in the public restroom down the hall from the center, swallowed my sobbing as best I could, and went back to learn more about how to be well again.

Today was still mostly terrifying but I didn’t cry. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Honestly, I will keep going even if it never gets better just so long as it works. Dear god, please let this work. I am so tired of fighting this battle. I miss my life and myself.

All my best,

A

 

 

Speak up!

Today is world mental health day, which I didn’t even know was a thing but I am so glad it is. We go to doctors to take care of our physical bodies all the time and without ever having to consider whether someone, even someone close to us, might consider being sick a personal failing, a lack of trying hard enough to be well, or simply a lie — that we are not actually sick. But going to see a doctor, or other professional care provider, to take care of our mental health (our minds/thoughts/emotions — really our core selves) is often stigmatized. To avoid stigma, people don’t get the help they need or hide what help they have gotten so that it can never serve as a hopeful example to someone else.

This is all bullshit. 

It is 2016. People constantly bombard each other with the most inane personal information about their lives through every possible electronic means. Why not share something that is actually meaningful and helpful, lifesaving even? 

I am not ashamed of my struggle to survive and thrive despite my depression and anxiety and postpartum what-have-you. I am a fucking warrior and I will share and overshare for the good of all of us. Because none of us are untouched by mental heath issues in some way and not one of us should feel like we are alone in this. Ever. Speak up. It helps. It helps everyone. #worldmentalhealthday #endthestigma #iamstigmafree #itsokaynottobeokay

Clean Slate (or Crazy; Take Two)

After a year of fighting almost daily to reach some semblance of the “normal” many people wake up to without effort, I have learned that it was never a fair fight to begin with. It seems I have been bringing a knife to a gun fight every single f*ing day for over 13 months now. 

I have been doing ALL THE THINGS and nothing has worked, not for any sustained amount of time. And I had become so afraid that nothing we tried ever would work. That I would always have more bad days than good, more panic attacks, more days when dragging myself out of bed to make my small child a peanut butter and jelly sandwich feels like more work than I can possibly accomplish in a lifetime.

Turns out I, or we, or whoever is in charge of these things was wrong about what is (most likely) actually wrong with me. Also, what we have been using to try to make me feel better may actually have been making me feel worse. Double trouble.

And yet, my strongest reaction to this news has been relief. What I have been through this past year means so little compared to what my life might be like in a matter of weeks or months of getting the right treatment for the right condition. I had felt so hopeless in recent weeks, so uncertain of ever getting back to baseline, of ever feeling safe and stable and like myself again. But now, I am hopeful. A little freaked out, but mostly hopeful.

On Monday, I thought, at least fleetingly, that maybe a year of fighting was long enough; that I was too tired and too sad to battle my way back to normal even one more day. After my barrage of interviews and testing and ultimate diagnosis on Wednesday, I felt almost giddy with relief. On Monday, I knew that something was going to have to give, and soon. And it did, but not at all in the way I expected. 

It feels like the slate has been wiped clean. The past is done and gone. We are starting over, with better information and a higher likelihood of success. And while I know none of this is going to be easy, that in all likelihood I am going to feel worse before I can start feeling better, I also know I got this. 

We can do hard things, according to my girl G. And she’s right and I can and I will. And then maybe I get to take a break for awhile from the hard things and just be. That sounds heavenly.