A dear friend once said that some people just aren’t meant for this world…and I was one of those people.
How does a small-town girl from Ohio end up in a 9th floor office on Madison Avenue in NYC? How does an intelligent, creative, successful, overachieving, high-functioning workaholic end up at the bottom of an abyss of the darkest darkness?
I was conceived by accident. I have always felt that I don’t belong here, that I was a square peg in a round hole. That I didn’t fit in. My parents were hoping for a boy. They had picked out a boy’s name for me. My dad, deployed throughout Mom’s pregnancy, sent home his sketch of a baby boy wearing an Air Force Officer’s hat and a diaper in a very fierce stance. Mom tucked that sketch into my baby book. It is a reminder of the beginning of my disappointing them.
I gained a sister at the age of two, which began my life lesson in sharing. There was a lot of competition for attention from a mother who was a very strict disciplinarian and a father who was physically absent and emotionally unavailable. Mom was a bully and Pop was impossible to please. I never really felt safe or nurtured. I was just a bad girl who constantly needed correction. I heard, “Shame on you!” and, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” way too often. So often, in fact, that shame became my identity.
When I ventured out into kindergarten, the world didn’t get any friendlier. I was so afraid, shy and extremely uncomfortable. The bullying at home spilled over into my school experience. My efforts to hide behind good performance put me in the firing line for bullying for being “the teacher’s pet.” Life was so confusing—was I to stop trying, which I knew would disappoint my parents, or try harder to hide even deeper behind my success?
Later in life, I would understand that my parents were parenting with the parenting they received. When my grandmother failed to protect Mom from her stepfather, there’s no doubt she felt unsafe and abandoned. When I realized how Pop was raised by emotionally unavailable parents, I understood why expressing emotions was prohibited in our home. My sister and I were also raised to protect the privacy of our family. We were to keep everything secret. This only added to my felt sense of fear…that the world was so dangerous that we had to keep silent about our life.
Throughout school I was bullied. I was physically and verbally attacked. Physical contact continued to be, for the most part, painful and frightening. There was an event in the third grade when that changed. My third-grade teacher had an adult son who was a photographer for our local newspaper. He often visited during class time. He always brought his camera and would snap photos of us. We all thought he was super cool. One day, he invited me back to the coat room, away from everyone else. I was thrilled by the thought that he was going to take my picture, and that it would be in the newspaper. Instead, he lifted my dress, pulled down my underpants and began to touch me. I was so confused. I didn’t understand what was happening. He always wore his hair slicked back, and I remember the acrid smell of the hair gel he used. I remember feeling disappointed that I wasn’t getting my picture taken for the paper. I don’t remember his touching as either pleasant or unpleasant. It was just confusing. I never spoke of it to anyone.
The remainder of my elementary school years were relatively unremarkable. I continued to be an overachiever, desperately seeking the attention and affirmation I desired. I continued to feel like I did not belong in this world. I’d played piano since kindergarten, and decided to expand my musical ability in the sixth grade when I started harp lessons. There was something desirable to me to be unique. Playing the harp was unique. Writing poetry was unique. Sewing my own clothes was unique. Striving for “unique” was not the best way to receive the attention and acceptance I wanted. It only brought more bullying and isolation.
Throughout these early years in my life, God was just another disciplinarian. Religion was very legalistic. Mom would take us to church simply to be seen there. Pop never went. Later in life, he would explain that he never felt genuine going to church. He had not had a relationship with Christ. I suspect he never really understood Christianity any more than Mom did.
Middle school and high school were just as difficult as my childhood. High school brought new friends and new experiences, which included dating. My first serious boyfriend was so different from any of my other friends. He was a Christian. He gently and patiently shared his testimony with me. He led me to Christ. Then came college.
I earned a scholarship and attended college at Pop’s alma mater for likely obvious reasons. My relationship with my mom had by then gotten to a breaking point, so leaving home for college was thrilling. I was stepping into my first taste of independence and freedom. And the enemy was waiting for me in the dorm. I entered a season of experimentation while floundering in the social life of a young adult. I placed myself in risky situations. During freshman year, my virginity was taken by a friend of a friend. From that point on, I felt ruined. God would never want me anymore. So, I walked away from Him. I gave up on following rules, on being the good girl. Being good and doing good hadn’t really seemed to matter. My parents we disappointed in me—again. Suddenly, I had become a failure. Pop said he would continue to fulfill his obligation to me as a father, but that once I’d finished college he would no longer have anything to do with me. I fell into a very deep depression, living alone in a studio apartment, working three jobs to keep up with my expenses while carrying a full course load of classes. I graduated and moved away from home as quickly as possible.
Moving away felt like a clean slate. I started dating a friend of a friend and eventually agreed to marry him. My parents’ marriage ended around this time, which made my relationship with my parents extremely awkward. But I wanted Pop to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I distinctly remember him asking me if I was ready before he walked me down that aisle. My head and heart were screaming NO! But the guests were there, there was cake, and the man who was about to perform our wedding was about to become my father-in-law. So, my voice said Yes. People pleaser. Affirmation seeker. Had I satisfied my biological father? Was it enough yet? If not, what else did I have to do? Mom thought it very selfish of me to plan the wedding only months after their divorce. She saw my moving on with my life as a slap in her face. But there I was, marrying the wrong man for all the wrong reasons. I knew the marriage would not last. My parents’ marriage of 25 years had just ended—a marriage that started and continued for all the wrong reasons. I suppose I was fulfilling the message that had been placed in my head that I had no common sense. That I would screw up my life. Validation of that message really stung.
Two years into that marriage, we had a beautiful baby boy and I began my next season as a mom. I had 8 weeks with my son before I had to return to work. I was financially head of the household and had to maintain the health benefits for the family. His father’s income was hit-or-miss.
Marrying the wrong man for the wrong reasons eventually ended in divorce. I had buried myself in my work and that is where I met the true love of my life. We married and started our lives as a blended family. But my commitment to my career had taken its toll on my heart, and after twenty years as a workaholic, it ended. What followed was a severe depression.
I hadn’t realized how much of my identity and sense of self-worth had been attached to that career. I had been an absent mother to my son. Regret and shame came with that, burying me further in depression. I would remain in that state for years. I became more and more dysregulated. My psychiatrist experimented with a variety of cocktails of antidepressants, but they brought only side effects without relief. Every day, I would sit in a chair in my son’s room and stare. At nothing. I lapsed into complete psychosis three times in that season, requiring hospitalizations.
Being a psych patient is a terrible experience. The ER nurses had no compassion for a mentally ill patient. Once the initial psych evaluation was completed, I was placed in a room with a cot. Anything I had with me was confiscated. I would sit there, in a hospital gown, for up to six hours while the insurance authorization process took place. I remember feeling terrified in that room the first time. The second time I bawled inconsolably the entire time. The third time, I was so psychotic that I was completely unphased. Once the insurance authorization was finalized and a bed became available, an ambulance would take me to the behavioral health campus. Once again, my possessions, including my phone, were confiscated. I was strip-searched and placed into a room with another patient. They took my picture to keep on file. They explained that if I escaped, that photo would become my mug shot. Intimidation is just what a mentally ill patient needs in a time of crisis. The food sucked. No physical contact was allowed—no hugs. No one was allowed in another patient’s room. We showered, ate and got our meds on their schedule. Pay phones on the wall in the hallway would be turned on for 2 hours each evening. There were visiting hours, not generous enough for the family contact I needed. No mind-altering substances were allowed, including caffeine, so we all had constant caffeine-withdrawal headaches. A good night’s sleep was impossible because staff did room checks every fifteen minutes throughout the night, shining their flashlight into our faces through the windows in our doors to make sure everyone was safely in their beds. If we cooperated by participating in all the daily groups, we were eligible for a walk around the outside of the building. Our shoes would be returned to us for our walks, laces removed. There was a small garden inside the enclosure behind the building where we would gather. At some point, someone had planted a blueberry bush there. It would be a treat if you were there during the season when the bush was full of berries. There was also a small patch of mint. We would take the leaves of the mint to enjoy as candy. A trip outside also included a privileged stop at the vending machine in the lobby on the way back to the unit. Quarters were precious and scarce. Two more hospitalizations within the next two years were motivation to stay out. During my third stay, a male patient lost control, putting the rest of us in danger. His anger escalated to rage, and we had to fight with the staff to have him moved to the high-risk unit. We witnessed his suffering in that episode as he was strapped down to the floor in the “time-out room” and dosed heavily with haldol as he writhed in agony. It was the stuff of nightmares. Those stays did little to move me to recovery. Once discharged from the unit, there was mandatory month of daily IOP—intensive outpatient therapy. All I wanted to do was go home and stay home. The mental health industry in this country is merciless and hideously pathetic.
I have memory lapses from various seasons throughout my life. It’s just like when Mom burned all the photos with Dad in them when they divorced. There is only so much capacity for seeing the painful things before we shove them down, burn them or lock them away.
The blessing in my breakdown was how it strengthened my relationship with my sister. She became a huge part of my support system. We spoke daily on the phone—usually for over an hour. Reflecting on our childhood through her filter brought back the good memories from that season. We shared thoughts and experiences like we never had. Her stories of her work as a licensed social worker within the hospice program have taught me mindfulness and grace.
In 2012, my depression lifted enough that I could function. Our yard, once filled with my beautiful gardens and koi ponds, had gone untended during my severe depression. Inside, the house was a mess. The Christmas tree once stayed up for over a year, since Kenneth was working so many hours and had no time or energy to take it down. There were piles of mail and layers of dust and cobwebs. Kenneth had to take on the household functions when I wasn’t able. I remember looking around at all that mess. Failure. Shame. When the depression lifted, I became manic and cleaned and organized the house from the attic to the basement. It was awesome…the house was finally back in order. But with the mania came severe insomnia and I became very dysregulated. I had another diagnosis—bipolar disorder. With severe mania comes the knowing that it will end with the next depressive episode. Fear. Being manic turns “how to win friends and influence people” into “how to lose friends and alienate people.” Being manic is exhausting and debilitating. Being manic is exhilarating and dangerous. It is both emboldening and embarrassing. Being manic is daringly dancing in a minefield while an all-too-quiet voice of reason says, “sit down, calm down, slow down and quiet down.” Being manic necessitates heartfelt apologies and acts of pardon, botched opportunities and sad farewells. Being manic sucks. And dealing with the aftermath sucks. Because it will return, as unexpectedly and unwanted and completely undeserved as it always does. When the mood rollercoaster heads back down to the bottom of the ride, depression sets in.
People think that depression is sadness. It’s not. Rather, it is a lack of vitality. It is nothingness, an absence of joy, a loss of interest in life. And when you’re in it, you would do anything to make it stop. Suicidal ideation has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I haven’t returned to high-functioning since the breakdown in 2007. I am unable to keep a job. I tried twice, during lucid episodes, to go back to work. I was fired for poor performance. I had never been fired in my life. More failure that drove me back to a deep depression. I had lost all my confidence and sense of self-worth. My decision-making skills disappeared. So many times, I had gotten back up for a short time, then stumbled back into depression. I struggled with disabling anxiety. Inadequate, dependent, disappointment were the labels on my forehead. I can only imagine how my mental illness terrified my family. I had become a burden. Their successful daughter was now gone. They were ashamed. Disappointed.
My husband, Kenneth, was divinely created to be my mate. His love and devotion have never wavered. He is my primary caregiver. He has become an expert in the treatment of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder in order to be an advocate for me.
My son has grown into an amazing young man. I have apologized numerous times for how I’d been a less-than-desirable mother to him. That’s a guilt that even all his forgiveness hadn’t wiped out of my heart. Pain. Regret. Shame.
In 2015, our family dispersed. The kids had finished college. My son moved to Vermont. Instant empty nest. That has been the hardest part of mothering I’ve experienced. Kenneth and I relocated to Colorado Springs—the destination in our pre-retirement plan. This meant leaving our beloved home of 30 years and the house we’d lived in for 15 of those years. We loved that house. Our wedding took place in that house. We loved that town. We mourned over giving up our home. We still do. We started our new home here, acclimating as well as possible to this new culture. It was very disorienting.
By early 2018, a friend introduced us to DCC. Coming to DCC has changed our lives. We have found our community in this place. Our walk with God is stronger than ever and continues to grow. This feels like rescue. I have forgiven my parents, my first husband and myself for many things. I am learning to live with more grace for others and for myself.
I still struggle with mild-to-severe depression, manic episodes and anxiety. Mental illness is still very misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized. To science, mental illness is an imbalance of neurochemicals—a brain disease. To psychology, it is an atypical and irrational response to trauma. To religion, it’s demonic possession. To me, mental illness has been a series of agonizing attacks from dark angels—my lack of capacity for the fear that life placed on my heart. Reframed, it is a response to a life separated from God. And as He rewrites my story, there is immeasurable grace and forgiveness for me. And with these comes hope. The decade I lost to mental illness can never be replaced. But I use my experience to help others struggling with this, with an understanding and grace-filled heart, offering a hand to hold along their journey. I use it to rescue.
God calls to us with so many beautiful words: My child, beloved, beautiful, forgiven, precious, etc. The enemy whispers one word, “inadequate,” and we can come completely undone. Because “inadequate” brings “disappointing,” “worthless,” “shameful,” “ugly,” “failure.” And it’s in those dark places where we hide. We make agreements when we listen to those lies. When we invite God into those dark places, He fills them with light and rewrites our story in His words. And we are freed.