Complex feelings.

wiki-ad-survivors-isolate-breaking-free

I’m going to talk about something that people who have not experienced prolonged interpersonal abuse rarely understand, and people who have survived it immediately relate to.   The technical psychology term for it is “trauma bonding” but what it refers to, in simple terms, is the complex and multi-faceted feelings a victim has for their abuser.

It’s very hard for me to talk to people in my life about this.  Well meaning people who want to help and who actually care about me a lot, don’t understand this.  This is why it is so important to support survivors of violence by listening to them, validating them and meeting them where THEY are at.  Make sure you clearly understand where they are at, before you begin projecting what you think they should be feeling or where you think they should be at.   If you don’t listen closely, and validate the complexity of the situation, the survivor will shut down and stop sharing with you.  This is not about you.  It was never about you.  If you didn’t live through it, you don’t get a say in how the survivor “should” be feeling.

I’ve known my ex-partner for 17 years, 1 month and 25 days.  We’ve been in a type of relationship for more than half my life.  We were together for 13 years and have been separated/divorced for 4 years, 1.5 months.  Even though we separated we have been (in theory) sharing responsibility for our two children.  In that way, we were still bonded and in a relationship, even though it was at a distance, non-communicative and unproductive.  It was still a type of co-parenting situation, even if we didn’t actually make any real decisions together.

This represents a large portion of my life and a tangled web of complex emotions.

My ex-partner is moving to the other side of the country in 3 weeks.  He’s leaving.  The house we lived in has been sold.  An everything-must-go yard sale planned.  My kids have brought the majority of their possessions here.

And he hasn’t even communicated this with me directly.   Everything I know, I’ve learned through my children.  After over 17 years, he is leaving without even telling me, let alone consulting me or gathering input from me.  Without discussing how this might impact my children, or quite frankly me.

He’s never been one for consent.

Quite honestly, there have been many times over the past four years where I wished for this outcome.  I wished for him to move away, leave us be.  I wished to not be afraid every time I saw a car like his.  I wished to not worry about running into him at the grocery store.  I wished for him not to emotionally abuse the children and I wished not to have to pick up the pieces of that on a weekly basis.  I wished to never see him again.  I didn’t really wish harm on him, I just wished he would move away and let us heal.

I wished for it.  But I didn’t believe he would actually abandon his kids.  I didn’t actually believe he cared so very little about them, that after 4 years of fighting for custody, he would just walk away.

And because I wished for it, people expect me to be happy.  People are congratulating me.  People are thrilled and excited for me.   From the outside, this looks like a dream come true to them.

But honestly, it isn’t.  Not at all.  I’m going through a complex mix of grief, loss, abandonment, fear, anger, anxiety and confusion.  I’m having to face the fact that what I actually wanted is never, and was never, going to happen.

What I actually wanted, was for things to calm down.  I wanted to co-parent, cooperatively, but at a distance.  I wanted us to continue to raise these kids, in separate houses, but working together in their best interest.  I wanted a truce.  I wanted the abuse to end.  I wanted to leave, but I wanted to leave to stop the abuse, not to cut off all contact with him.  I wanted the right to stop the abuse, without sacrificing the entire relationship.  I thought the common bond of sharing children together would continue.  I thought I would be able to talk with him about issues directly related to the children.  I didn’t think we’d be friends, but I had hoped we could co-parent.  I wanted to have a choice.

I never signed up to be a solo parent.  This is not something I feel like celebrating.  I can’t celebrate because I’m grieving.

Truly this is not what I wanted.  I don’t hate him.  I don’t love him, I don’t think I ever did, but I don’t hate him.  I feel deeply sad and disappointed.  I am having trouble trusting and connecting with anyone.  I feel responsible.

And I understand completely that survivors have a complex relationship with their past abusers.  I understand it when people say that they still love the person who raped them.  I have so much compassion for people who have to parent with someone they don’t trust.  Abuse is not simple.  The feelings aren’t simple and survivors need the space to feel accepted for all their confused feelings.

It’s not their fault if they still care about their abuser.  It’s not their fault if they get confused and think it is their own fault.  It’s not their fault if they hope it will get better. It’s not their fault if they dream of reconciliation despite all evidence that the abuser can’t change.   Don’t be disappointed in them.  They can’t help it.  The psychology term for it is trauma bonding, but quite simply they are tormented by self-blame and confusion.

Gaslighting and the cycle of abuse means the survivor feels responsible.

In my case, the abuser has quite literally blamed every aspect of this process, including the abuse and his decision to move, on me.  He told the kids it is my fault he is leaving, because he has “nothing here.”

So, even though you can probably clearly see that it isn’t my fault, I feel responsible.

Even though I intellectually know that it isn’t my fault,  I still feel devastated.  Even though I know intellectually we are better off without his abuse, I’m still scared to be responsible for the kids on my own.

It’s okay to want someone gone, then mourn the overwhelming sense of abandonment.

It’s okay to have whatever feelings you have.  This isn’t a clear situation.  The abuse was designed to confuse you, and that confusion remains long after you leave.

But it’s pretty hard to open up, cry and receive comfort, when you don’t feel entitled to these feelings and when you feel you SHOULD be happy, because it’s what YOU wanted and what people expect.

emotional-trauma-issues-and-children-19-638.jpg

Slide credit: Soni McCarty, LMHC 

 

 

What the parent of a trans child really needs to hear…

61adW45cw4L._UX385_.jpg

There’s something I haven’t shared very much about in this blog.  I’ve debated for a year about whether or not to write about my children.  I have mixed feelings, even though my blog is anonymous, I want to protect their privacy.  I’ve decided not to write many specifics about them, but I do talk about parenting issues in general, including parenting through mental illness.  I do this because I want to break the isolation I have felt as a parent with a mental illness.  I know other parents out there have felt the way I have, judgment, fears of being judged, fears of not being enough, fears of relapse and more…

But I’m living with a different type of parenting challenge.

I’m raising a transgender daughter.

I wanted to write a post with a few tips on what to say and what NOT to say to the parent of a transgender child.  As I write this post, I want to clearly state that I don’t speak for all parents of transgender children, nor do I speak for trans folks themselves.  I’m speaking for myself, a queer, white, femme but not quite binary person, living with mental illness and raising a trans female daughter.

Things that I don’t need to hear:

  1. You are so brave! I don’t know if I could do it!  I don’t want to be put on a pedestal.  I’m not doing anything superhuman.  I’m parenting my child.  Supporting my child in her social transitioning wasn’t even something I debated.  I knew very early on that I could have a dead “son” or a happy, healthy daughter.  This was a no-brainer.  I’d like to think you would make the same choice, if it came to saving the life of your own child.  I’m not brave or special.  I’m just a regular mom, taking care of a slightly extraordinary girl.
  2. How do you know it’s not just a phase?  What if she grows out of it?  Maybe she’ll just be gay.  Please stop.  Don’t say any of these things.  First, it’s not your business.  Second, my child knows herself best and I guarantee I know her better than you do.  Even if it is a phase, which I highly doubt, she will have a chance to explore it and she will know I support her unconditionally.   These comments also irk me because they are laced with veiled transphobia.   They imply that being trans is something undesirable, that being cis-gender is normal and being trans is something deviant.  I reject this.  Gender exists on a spectrum.  We all have gender identity and gender expression.  Trans folks are no different.  Being cis gender is not inherently better.   I don’t wish my child would “just be gay.”  My child is herself, and I celebrate that.
  3. It’s so difficult for me/us to accommodate this.  This is something I heard from my child’s school.  It made me feel physically ill.  Grown adults saying that creating a universal, gender neutral washroom was SO difficult and using my child’s chosen name was so stressful for the staff.   I’m sorry, but this isn’t about you.  Using a person’s pronouns and chosen name is basic respect.  Mis-gendering a trans person is violent and aggressive.  It’s much more difficult for my child to go into school every day, worry about using the bathroom safely, worry about people respecting her, than it is for adults to adjust to using a name, or change a sign on a bathroom.  This is also another form of veiled transphobia.
  4. I understand.  Please use this phrase with caution.  Unless you have parented a trans child, or you are a trans identified person, please don’t say this to me.  If you don’t have lived experience you don’t really understand what my family is living.  An alternative to this could be to say “I hear you” or “I believe you.”

What I would like to hear as I parent my trans child:

  1. How are things going?  Would you like to go for coffee?  Do you want some company?   Parenting is isolating.  Any parent knows this.  Being a single parent is very isolating.  Being a single parent, with a mental illness, parenting a child who has some unique and special needs is extremely isolating.  Please continue to invite me to do things.  Ask me out for coffee.  Come over to my house and chat.  Let me vent about my fears, worries and struggles.  Be there to hear about our successes.  Because I need these things in the same way that any parent does.  I need a sense of community and so does my child.
  2. You are a good mother.  You are doing the right thing by supporting your child.  Sometimes I need reassurance, especially when I doubt myself or am overwhelmed with fears for the future.  Don’t jump in and give advice (unless asked for), don’t tell me my worries are irrational, don’t shut me down.  Just let me talk.  Believe me, validate me and hold space for the unique challenges my family faces.
  3.  Pretty much ANYTHING coming from other parents of trans children or other trans folks.  Its helps me and my child immensely to know that we are not alone. Hearing about the lived experiences of others and being part of an amazing community of LGBTTQ+ folks in our city has been nothing short of life saving.   If you are parenting a trans child, my one piece of advice would be to seek out a source of community.  Community is different than medical care/counseling, though your child may benefit from that as well.  Community includes online support groups, facebook groups, playgroups, youth groups, parenting groups, pride celebrations, camps etc…reach out and find one in your area.  If you live in Canada, you can contact me and I’ll help you get started. I guarantee you won’t be sorry and you’ll meet some of the most amazing people imaginable.

Best of all, if this is new to you, there are so many resources available.  Educate yourself.  Read.  Learn.  Because trans kids and youth are out there and they need our love and support.  And so do their parents!

Save

Celebrating One Year of Hopeforsanity Blog!

anniversary-background_23-2147508481

It’s been one year since I started writing this blog.  If you are a new reader I encourage you to go back and read the first few posts of this blog.  To all of you who are reading, following, liking, sharing and commenting: THANK YOU!  I’m writing this blog for the dual purpose of expressing myself and connecting with others who are struggling, letting them know they are not alone.  You are not alone.   Though this blog has dealt with graphic and dark topics, I aim for the overall message to be one of hope and resilience.

Twenty one years ago tomorrow (April 12, 1996) the entire course of my life changed.  I was 15 years old and I entered into an abusive relationship that altered my relationship to myself, my friends, my family and my body.  I went from a relatively happy, self assured, popular 15 year old girl, to an anorexic, withdrawn, self-hating, 16 year old young woman.

I believe Ana was born at this time.  It’s no coincidence that Ana is 15 years old.  Ana is my traumatized child self personified.   Ana is angry in ways my younger self could not be.  Ana is all the fear, shame, guilt and hopelessness personified into a rebellious teenager who only wants to hurt me and say a giant F U to the rules of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d never dated X.  If I’d never tried to befriend him.  If I’d never believed that I could help him feel better about himself.

I also wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been taught as a child that it’s okay not to be “nice” to someone who is hurting you.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been less concerned with being “perfect” and more concerned with protecting myself.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d realized that saving myself was even an option.  I was an easy target for perpetrators of abuse.  I played the role of rescuer, helper, caretaker and I never wanted to let anyone down or disappoint anyone.

People who don’t understand normal coping reactions to sexual violence have asked me:  Why didn’t you just scream?  Why didn’t you tell someone?  Why didn’t you push him and run away?

All I can say is that the answer is so complicated.  The answer lies in the social conditioning of some women living in a patriarchal, rape culture.  The answer lies in being taught to be “good” rather than to be true to oneself.  The answer lies in physiological responses which caused me to freeze and disassociate rather than fighting or fleeing.   Those physiological responses were not random, but were connected to the socialization of being a “good girl.”

My 15 year old self never would have considered screaming or fighting back.  Because she was ashamed, blamed herself and never wanted to make a scene.  My 15 year old self was confused and inexperienced and it took her a while to figure out that she didn’t like the sexual experiences that were being forced on her.  It took her a while to figure out that she wasn’t really choosing.  By the time she realized it wasn’t right, she was already coping by disassociating to lessen the impact of the abuse.  By the time she started firmly saying no, the pattern of abuse and the cycle of violence was already firmly established.   And because she was not naturally an assertive child and had not been taught to fight back in self defense, when her no wasn’t listened to, she began to shut down even further, withdraw further and develop other ingenious coping techniques such as anorexia, self harm and disassociating completely.

These reactions weren’t accidental.  They were conditioned from a young age.  Adults have to teach children to fight back.  Adults have to teach children that being nice can stop when someone crosses a boundary.  Adults have to teach children to fight like hell to escape a dangerous situation.  And even if a child learns all these things, it is still possible that in a violent situation freezing can be the only available option.   Many people being abused feel that fighting back would only result in further violence and physical injuries.

In my case, what kept me frozen was guilt and shame.  I thought I was doing something shameful by being sexual.  I thought that his family and my family would judge me.  I thought that my friends would judge me for neglecting them (as I was being socially isolated by the abuser).   Self blame kept me frozen and not fighting back.

Even as an adult, 21 years later, I still cope with conflict and stress by freezing or disassociating.  I’m still not skilled at saying no.  I also have difficulty saying yes or asking for what I need.

I think for a person who has experienced sexual violence it is difficult to say no.  Because in the abusive situation no was ignored and pushed past.  So staying silent feels less painful than having no not respected.  If I never really say no, I can’t be abused again.  It’s warped logic.  It is not productive or helpful, and it also prevents me from comfortably saying yes.

For someone whose boundaries have been consistently violated, setting boundaries can become a life long struggle.  A skill that must be learned or relearned gradually and with patience and self compassion.

Quite simply, I survived in abusive relationships for many years because I literally felt I had no other option.  I didn’t even feel like I deserved to be respected and I was gaslighted into believing the abuse was my own fault.

It’s never helpful to ask a survivor “Why didn’t  you just leave?”

Keep those thoughts to yourself.

They would have left if they could have.  And if they did leave, they are successful.  It doesn’t matter how long it took.  It took as long as it needed and not a moment longer.  Celebrate the reality, don’t question why it didn’t happen sooner.  “Why didn’t you just leave?” is a type of victim blaming statement.   If you don’t understand how someone could be trapped into an abusive relationship, educate yourself.  Don’t ask the survivor to educate you on their own painful lived experiences.  Survivors need to feel believed and validated, not questioned into justifying their existence.

Every year on April 12, I count another year of my life that has been impacted by sexual violence.  It is a grim reminder that for many survivors, myself including,  that the abuse was not “a long time ago” and we can’t “just get over it”  or “just move on.”  For people living with PTSD, time is a slippery beast.  Ana is still 15 years old.  Ana is me, she’s a part of me.  A part of me that never really grew up.  A part of me that needs parenting.

I’ve never parented a teenager before. I have no experience.  But I guess I’ll have to start somewhere.  And starting with acknowledging she is here, and she has unmet needs, is as good a place as any!

 

Be Your Own Hero.

sometimes-you-have-to-be-your-own-hero-2

It’s been a difficult time for me.  I’ve been waiting 90 days+ for the verdict in my family law trial.  I’m experiencing a lot of triggers and finding it harder to stay positive and optimistic about the future.

Quite frankly, it is terrible for my mental and physical health to have contact with my abuser.  It upsets me, it triggers me, it causes flashbacks and disassociation, it confuses me, gaslights me, makes me doubt myself, my abilities, makes me feel crazy and like nobody believes me.

Unfortunately, he is the father of my children and I can’t just go no contact.

It’s awful.  It’s awful being told I have to “get along” with someone who treated me so badly.  It’s frustrating being told by many institutions such as the kids school, the CAS and some doctors, that I should be more neutral, not let my past impact me, that he’s a loving parent and basically a good person.

Hold on a minute….basically a good person?

That’s what I told myself for years.  It’s just sexual abuse.  It’s just the sexual stuff, he’s otherwise “basically a good person.”  Telling myself that kept me locked into the relationship for years longer than I should have stayed.

Someone who doesn’t believe in consent is not “basically a good person” they are an abusive person.  He is an abusive person.

Privilege in society allows abusers to “pass” as basically good people.  They know how to act, to charm, to make their victims look crazy or unreliable or unbelievable, they know how to discredit others, they know how to tell different lies to different people to suit their needs.  Most abusers can make you think they are basically good people, but in reality, the signs are there that they are not good people.

The saddest part is that because abusers are expert liars and manipulators they can often convince everyone who might be able to help you, that they are good people!   So the abuse they perpetrate goes unnoticed and unacknowledged by anyone who might be able to support or rescue you.

Suddenly, they are “basically good people” and you are perceived as mentally ill and crazy.

Abusers gaslight the system.  That, combined with the societal privilege, rape culture, and patriarchy, allow them to pass unseen, and unnoticed through our world, abusing people as they please and not being stopped.  In a parallel experience, the survivors are believed less and less, as a web of lies is spun about them by the abuser to those around her who might assist her in escaping.

This is what I’m experiencing in my life.  It’s been 3.5 years since I left my abuser but I’m still locked in a web of abuse.  Very few people within the “system” believe me, and those who DO believe me and my kids, are seen as biased!  It’s an unbelievable, frustrating and maddening situation.

The more I protest, advocate and fight for myself and my kids, the more I am labelled radical, crazy, not neutral, too angry etc.

So what are my options?

I feel like the only option is to be my own hero.

At the end of the day, my ex-partner would like nothing more than for me to fall into a crisis and commit suicide.  He wants me to kill myself so that he can be right.  So he can prove that I’m crazy and that I don’t care about, and have never cared about, my kids.  He won’t stop punishing us until he reaches this goal.

But it’s been 3.5 years, and generally I’m more mentally healthy than I was before.  Generally, I take care of myself.  I’m working full time.  I’m becoming more confident in myself and my career.  I have some supportive friends and a supportive family.  I’m not falling into a crisis.

I won’t let him destroy me.  I’ll stay alive as long as I can just to spite him.

I’ll be my own hero, if nobody else will step up to protect my kids.  I’ll protect them and myself and do everything in my power to survive.

Survival is the best revenge.

If you are experiencing abuse, be your own hero.  Believe yourself.  Support yourself.  The rest will slowly follow.

If depression were treated like a physical illness

The holidays can be a difficult time for people struggling with invisible illness such as mental illness or chronic pain.  During the holidays we are “supposed” to be happy.  We “should” relax and have fun.  We are “meant” to connect with friends and family.  It’s happiest time of the year, right?

But what if you aren’t happy?  What if you want to be happy and connected more than anything else, but you can’t be?  What if depression is stealing the happy, the relaxing, the fun and the connection right out of your holidays?

People all around me have been cancelling plans due to the flu, a cold and other winter illnesses.  This is acceptable and even expected in the winter time.   It’s even considered polite and good manners to stay home and keep your germs to yourself.  It’s understood that you aren’t feeling your best and that you have no energy when you have the flu. It’s okay to stay in bed and eat soup and sleep for hours.  People are sympathetic and nobody expects you to just “cheer up.”

I can’t even tell people that I’m sick. I can’t cancel plans.  I can’t stay in bed.   I feel disapproving looks from people around me when I’m not smiling and when I sit quietly or lose my temper  more easily that usual.  I’m exhausted, and I won’t feel better after a few days in bed.  Even if I could spend a few days there.

It’s Christmas time and I’m living with depression and anxiety.

Yes.  I’m sick.  I’m more severely depressed and anxious than I’ve been in a long time.

I want to call in sick to life.  I’m not even suicidal, I don’t want to die.  I just want to give up on “acting normal” and “keeping up appearances.”  I can’t imagine going back to work next Monday, the thought makes me panicky almost to the point of tears.  I have fantasies about developing some serious physical illness…nothing TOO serious, just enough to get me about a month off work with no questions ask, but not SO serious that I’d be in the hospital.  I want someone to take care of everything and take all the stress away.

This is what happens when society doesn’t acknowledge mental illness in the same way it does physical illness.  People who are depressed are lowered to the point of imagining horrible illness as a reason to be “justified” in taking sick leave, or even just taking the day off to rest.

Because when you are depressed you get treated like a misbehaving, whining child when you are not happy and not feeling connected.   When you are depressed you feel like a shitty parent when you don’t want to play with your kids, or you can’t enjoy your time with them.  When you are anxious and don’t want to leave the house you have to push yourself through it, even when you don’t enjoy a single minute of the activity you are doing.

When you are depressed, a “good night’s sleep” won’t fix it.  When you are depressed, “just cheering” up won’t work.

When you are depressed, you can’t just “lighten up” or “just relax.”

Believe me.  I WANT to relax.  I WANT to lighten up.  I want to laugh with my children.  I WANT to have fun with you.  I WANT to feel connected.  I WANT to feel like more than an empty shell marching through the tasks of the day.  I WANT to have energy.  I’m fully aware that I’m not acting normally and I’m terribly self conscious about it.  I feel guilty all the time about how depression impacts me and those around me.

I didn’t ask for this, any more than you asked for that cold, flu or stomach bug.

I didn’t ask for this, any more than anyone ever ASKS to be ill.

I don’t need to be fixed.  I don’t need suggestions on how I can help myself.  I don’t need to be told to look on the bright side.  (by the way neither do people dealing with chronic physical illnesses!)

I need you to keep me company while I shuffle through this dark period.  I need you to be there for me and to not judge me.  I need you to remember that I’m sick and not malingering or misbehaving or ungrateful or lazy.  I need you to remember that I’m trying my best and sometimes MORE than my best just to get through each day.  I’m using every ounce of energy to hide the depression from you, from my kids, from everyone.

I’m in pain.  I’m tired.  I don’t feel hopeful.  The world seems like a dark place and I can’t see the end of it because my thoughts aren’t clear.  Just as a runny nose and cough are symptoms of a cold,  depression makes me think that everyone hates me, that I’m worthless and that I don’t deserve basic things.   Just as a flu causes a high fever and aches, anxiety causes me to imagine horrible things and obsessive irrational thoughts.

These are symptoms.   It’s not a choice.

I’m depressed and anxious.  I’m sick and that is not a choice.

I had the best holidays I could, while not feeling well or happy.

 

Welcome 2017…Burn 2016 to the Ground

20161221_170835Without a doubt, 2016 has been one of the worst years of my life.  I survived a massive, never ending family law trial.  My psychiatric records were released to my abuser.  My privacy was breached again and again.  My children’s privacy was destroyed again and again.  By the end of the court process I felt like I had only shards of trust left in anything.  My belief in justice was shaken to pieces.  My trust in the system to protect my family was gone.  As I entered into this Christmas season, I felt like believing in justice for my children was akin to believing in Santa Claus.  A myth, a tale told to pacify young infants.  There is no justice here.  Certainly not in 2016, and certainly not for my family.

I’ve been waiting patiently for 2016 to end.  On the Winter Solstice I burned a fire with my children, symbolizing the end of the year and welcoming back the light of the new year.  An end to the darkness and inviting the brighter days leading to summer.  In the fire I burnt away my fears and dark thoughts from 2016, leaving behind those bad memories and making space for positive karma for 2017.

I am a superstitious person.  Despite my scientific, thoughtful, highly rational mind…my obsessive compulsive nature leads me to have some strange superstitious, ritualistic thoughts.   Some of them are not quite spiritual, but take on an element of obsession.  I believe in signs.  I want to believe that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t see what that reason is.  There is no reason to explain the things I have endured in 2016.  None at all, except for oppression, broken systems, delays, inadequacies and incompetent workers.  No reasons that can satisfy me, or any reasonable person.  But at the end of the year, there are still many things to be grateful for.

I believe that I am a stronger person than anyone should ever have to be.  My children are also stronger than children should have to be.  I suppose in a way, this is something to be grateful for.  Though I almost cry out in pain at times, watching the innocent 2 year old children of my friends’, as they laugh and play with very little cares in the world.  I want that for my children again.  I miss their baby smiles and laughter.  It breaks my heart that they are no longer innocent, though they are still so young.  But they are strong and they are kind and they believe in justice, with a fierceness that has replaced their childhood innocence.  For that I am proud and grateful.

Things I am Grateful for at the start of 2017:

  1. A safe home that I love
  2. Wonderful caring neighbors and a beautiful neighborhood
  3. Enough money to buy the things I need for my family
  4. A job that allows me to help others, be challenged, learn and give back to my community
  5. My coworkers who I consider friends and who have supported me and helped me grow
  6. My family for always supporting me
  7. My children for giving me a reason to keep living and for being wonderful tiny humans
  8. My friends across the world, online and in real life, text and in person
  9. The rainbow community for supporting us and loving us and showing us where we belong
  10. For my citizenship and for this amazing, safe country I had the privilege of being born in
  11. For coffee, for tea, for coffee shops, for hot chocolate and for hot drinks everywhere
  12. For all the people I’ve met through my work, the people I’ve helped and everything I’ve learned from them this year
  13. For my car, for getting me and my family everywhere I need to go
  14. For my health, though it’s not perfect, I have a lot of ability
  15. For fresh air, for sunshine, for the woods, for nature, for being outside
  16. For the internet, cell phones and the ability to stay in touch
  17. For this blog, the ability to write and being able to share my experience with so many

Thank you all readers, for following my blog, for sharing it, for reading and commenting.  I wish you all the best for a peaceful, happy and healthy new year in 2017.  Be well.  I hope to see you all here in the New Year!

Talking to kids about mental illness

20150918_161622

At dinner tonight my  kids were joking about various things and my younger child started joking about being in the “mental health room” and the “mental health unit” and basically laughing about people being crazy.

I felt frozen.  I’m a social justice warrior parent and I’ve been quick to call in, correct, and stop my kids around issues like racism and oppression.  But I was tired today and I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject that I’ve been a patient in mental health hospitals.   My older daughter knows about some things from my past.  They both have seen my scars and know that I used to self harm.  My older daughter knows a bit more, she was more aware of my depression before I left her father.  But they don’t know even a fraction of the story.   I wondered today about what they will think of me when I tell them.

I wanted to jump into the conversation with “it’s not polite to joke about people with mental health problems.”  But that didn’t seem like enough and I was so tempted just to honestly say: “I’ve been in mental health hospitals and it’s not something funny to joke and tease about.”  I wasn’t ready for the conversation and they were happy and I didn’t want to add stress to the evening.

But now, hours later, I’m thinking about it.  What will I tell my kids about my past?  When will I tell them?  Will it be planned, or will it spill out one day in a situation like this one?   I don’t want to talk too much about things that might upset them, but I also don’t want them to feel like mental illness is a taboo or a stigma that people should be ashamed of.

How do we talk to children about mental illness?   Before my first child was born I downloaded a fact sheet from CAMH called “talking to children about mental illness.”  I told myself that I had a few years, until she was 2 at least, to fully recover.  I told myself that she would never know and that I’d be 100% better by the time she was old enough to be aware.

I was optimistic.  But even when I downloaded the fact sheet, I think a part of me realized that it wouldn’t be that simple.  Anorexia, depression, anxiety and PTSD weren’t going to disappear the moment my new baby was born.  It made me (and makes me) so sad to think about talking to my children about my mental health struggles.

The fact sheet suggested reassuring the child that they were not responsible for my health.  Reassuring the child that I was seeking my own help and talking to other adults about my issues.  In this way, she would not feel responsible for me or worry about my health.

I struggled with postpartum depression after both my kids were born.  My older child was impacted more severely because she lived through both episodes.  I struggled to cope with taking care of my toddler after my second baby was born.   I hated myself for it and I still struggle to forgive myself for how I felt during the postpartum depression after my second baby.  By the time my older one was 5-7 years old, I was again coping with depression due to the abuse in my marriage.

My child was bright and extremely emotionally aware and emotionally intelligent.  I knew she worried about me and it broke my heart.  I knew she was aware that I was not happy.  When she was about 6, I read her some books from the public library which explained depression to children.  I told her the words from the fact sheet: “I love you,  I talk to my doctor and my friends when I am sad, you aren’t responsible and it’s not your fault.”  But it was difficult and I felt like a horrible mother.

My eldest was 18 months old when she first noticed my scars.  She was sitting on the potty and she looked at my arms and said “draw, draw?”  She thought they were marker marks on my arms.  I told her they were just marks and not to worry.  I knew I was only buying time until she would ask again.

When my eldest was 7, I separated from her father.  My mood improved and we no longer talked about depression. But over the next year she started to ask me incessantly about my scars.   For a year I told her that I would “explain when you are older,” but after a time it wasn’t enough.  She began to cry at night, get angry at me and say that I didn’t trust her enough to tell her.  She started refusing to talk to me about her problems because I wouldn’t explain the scars.  I spoke to my doctor and together we came up with a plan of how I could talk to my daughter.   He said that the fighting was likely more damaging to our relationship than just telling her an age appropriate version of the truth.

So I told her.  I told my 8 year old child about my past self harm.  I told her that all the scars were due to me injuring myself.  It was very difficult for me and I had a lot of guilt.  I told her a version of the truth.  I told her that when I was younger someone was mean to me and not respecting me and that I never told anyone.  I told her that sometimes when you keep secrets like that inside you start to cope in bad ways like hurting yourself.  I explained to her that this is why I always encourage her to talk to an adult about her problems.   My daughter was sad.  She told me that self harming was a very bad decision and that I should have talked to someone.  She asked me such a wise question: “If someone was hurting you, why did you hurt yourself?”

Since I told her, the questions stopped.  Once in a while I notice her looking at my scars with a sad expression, sometimes when I read to her at night she touches them and looks wistful.  I hope that my honesty will allow her to make choices to help herself in her own life and not turn to such negative coping.   My younger child still thinks the scars are cool, like battle wounds that make me funky and unique and a warrior of sorts.  She knows on some level that they are from self harm, but I’m not sure she is ready to accept that and she doesn’t ask questions.

I don’t think that talking to an 8 year old child about self harm is ideal.  But what options do I have?  My scars are obviously visible and it’s impossible to deny them or hide them.  If I had another type of physical disability I would have to explain that to my children.

Why is it so difficult to have open and honest conversations about mental health and mental illness?

I would like to tell my children that joking about the “mental hospital” isn’t funny.  I would like to tell them that it is triggering for me and could be upsetting for other people as well.  I want them to know that there is no shame in asking for help and getting treatment for a mental illness.  I do want them to know some aspects of my story when they are a bit older.  I want them to know because I made a lot of mistakes, and I hope that the knowledge I’ve gained on this journey could help them avoid the same mistakes.  I also want them to be the kind of people who help others rather than judging them or putting them down.

I want to shatter the stigma.  But today I was tired, my kids were happy and I didn’t want to put a shadow over a good day.   The conversation that started at 18 months old with an innocent “draw, draw” is likely one that will be taking place in stages as they grow up.  My psychiatric survivorship story IS my life, it is a part of me, and because of my scars I can’t hide it, even if I did want to.

And maybe one day I won’t feel ashamed and embarrassed to talk about it.

The leaving.

Open-Door.jpg

When I was 19 years old, I made the biggest mistake of my life.

This mistake potentially changed the entire course of my life until my children are adults and possibly longer.  I was a teenager.  I was in fragile recovery from anorexia and depression and had not yet been correctly diagnosed with PTSD.  I was living in a city away from my family and the majority of my close friends.  I was happy that year, doing well and enjoying life. I had taken up swing dancing and I loved it.  I’d made some friends and we often went out dancing together.  Shortly before my 20th birthday I met him.  He proposed to me after 3 months.  It was one of the worst moments of my life.  I remember physically shaking, thinking frantically in my head “oh my god, this can’t be happening, why is this happening, why is he doing this, why, what should I do, what will I say, why is this happening right now!!!”  In the moment I didn’t want to break up with him, so I said yes.  I honestly figured I had lots of time to get out of the promise, but life didn’t turn out that way.

Thirteen years passed.

Three years ago this week I made the biggest and most complicated decision of my life.

Ironically, the things that ended my marriage came together in a culmination of empowerment and decision for me.  I’d been battling with thoughts of leaving for over a year, slowly gaining strength, processing the ideas and planning.

The soul crushing depression I’d been living with for a few years slowly began to lift about a year before I left him.  I began to see options for myself.

For many years I had seriously considered suicide.  After trying ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) and slews of meds, I believed I had exhausted all options for treatment resistant depression. I was ready to give up and only my children held me to this world.  I had irrational, almost psychotic thoughts, in the depths of that depression.   But in my mind, when I was thinking more clearly, I told myself that suicide was only an option for those who had literally tried everything, people who had no other option.  Sometime in summer 2012 I realized that wasn’t my situation:  there was something I hadn’t tried.

I hadn’t tried moving. Living in my own house away from my partner.  I hadn’t tried starting over, changing my environment, removing myself from the ongoing sexual abuse which I knew was both triggering me and traumatizing me in equal measure.

In 2012, I was experiencing terribly severe migraines which at times left me unable to function.  I remember throwing up in the parking lot of a restaurant on my daughter’s birthday.  I went to the ER at times to receive IV pain meds.  Around that time I began taking a medication called Topimax for the migraines.  And suddenly, my depression lightened.  My obsessive compulsive suicidal and self destructive thoughts relented almost immediately.  I never self harmed in a way that required medical attention again. My migraines improved.  I began to see colours again.  I noticed the world around me.  I began to re-emerge into the world of the living.  And I started to consider my options for leaving my partner

As I grew stronger over the course of the next year, I started talking to more people in my life about the abuse.  I chose very carefully.  I told people who didn’t live in my city.  I told counselors and doctors who were sworn to keep confidentiality.  I was careful, but I started to talk.

I had some good friends who began to tell me that what I was experiencing was not okay.  Friends encouraged me to leave, to tell my parents, to get more counseling and they empowered me.  I started volunteering at a women’s organization. It happened gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly.

In the end, the last time we had sex was the end of that marriage.  I made the decision the next day and told him a few days later.  That night he initiated sexual touching while I was asleep and drugged.  I woke up with him touching my breasts.  Maybe he had been touching me for a while before I fully responded.  On that occasion I woke up and was lucid enough to respond.  Because he had been touching me (without consent), I said yes to sleeping with him.  I verbally said yes.  We had sex and I felt disgusted.   Even though I said yes to the sex, I knew in my mind that I had not consented to the touching. I knew if he had asked me when I was wide awake I would have said no.   I realized that even IF I said yes, I still wouldn’t feel safe, comfortable or at all okay.  I knew it was over.  I knew that would be the last time.  So many times, when I was lying awake at night after being assaulted, I thought to myself “this could be the last time, I could get up and walk away” but I never did.  I was always afraid and I didn’t want to leave my kids.

There are a lot of reasons why people who are being abused do not leave.

And at the end of the day, it only takes one reason to decide to leave.

Leaving an abusive relationship can’t be rushed or forced.  The person being abused has to hit a breaking point and decide that “enough is enough” and that point is different for each individual survivor.

This happened three years ago, but anniversaries are always difficult for me.  I feel it all again.  I have more nightmares, more anxiety and lower self esteem.  I don’t believe in myself.  I have difficulty trusting. I hate my body so intensely that I struggle to look in mirrors or wear certain clothes. I don’t feel safe or relaxed anywhere.  I return to the automatic living, zombie like state.  I have trouble remembering things and difficulty concentrating.  I sometimes wonder if it has been worth the fight.  The suicidal thoughts creep in suddenly, ambushing me in my day to day life.

But at the end of the day, I have to remember that there were only 2 options left for me:

  1. Leaving
  2. Suicide

As difficult as my life is, and as much pain as I’m in, I believe I made the right choice.

I’m still alive.

 

Scars.

20160515_210419[1]

What is it like parenting two children when you are a psychiatric survivor?

Pretty damn scary.

I remember when I first got pregnant and for the first 2 years of parenting my kids, my biggest fear was that someone would call Children’s Aid and report me as an unfit parent.  I worried that my first baby would be taken from me at birth.  You might ask why would someone whose baby isn’t even born worry so much about being an unfit parent?

My body is covered with scars from self inflicted wounds.  I was terrified someone would see this, make assumptions about me, and consider me a danger to a child, especially my child.

I’ve been parenting for almost 10 years now and so far this fear has never materialized.  I still worry about being considered “crazy” and thus “dangerous” and thus “unfit.”  In fact, this is the weapon my ex-husband has used against me since the time I began leaving him.  Just accusing someone of being crazy tends to impact the way others view that person.  My ex-husband took moves out of Dr. X’s playbook and began telling everyone, including the children’s health professionals, our neighbours, the kids’ school AND Children’s Aid that I had borderline personality disorder.

Despite the fact that my own doctor and many other doctors have testified that I do not have borderline personality disorder, this label is still haunting me 15 years after it was first, incorrectly, applied by Dr. X.

Let’s just break this down for a minute.

In the days of insane asylums, a man could have his wife committed against her will since she was essentially his property.  I’m sure asylums were full of women who were wrongly diagnosed as “hysterical” or something, just because they spoke out against the men in their lives.  Maybe they were being abused and dared to say something, maybe they didn’t conform completely to patriarchal societal standards, but one way or another they were put away.

The days of asylums are gone, but the stigma of diagnoses like borderline personality disorder remains.

It’s a very convenient excuse to deflect responsibility for perpetrating abuse.  “Oh, she’s crazy don’t you know.  You can’t believe her story because she’s mentally ill!”

Sound familiar to anyone?  Yes, accusing survivors of being “crazy” is an aspect of rape culture.  Survivors are not crazy.  They are speaking a truth that many in society do not want to hear and thus they are labelled, marginalized and stigmatized.

Every spring when the weather gets warm and t-shirts start to appear, my fear returns.  In the winter I can usually “pass” as “normal.”  My scars are safely hidden under layers of winter clothing.  In the summer, I stand awkwardly with my hands behind my back when I meet new people and when I pick the kids up from school.  I keep a cardigan at work to throw on before meeting with service users.  I see the scars myself, day after day, and sometimes it triggers me and makes me think about a time in my life I’d rather forget.

I still worry that people will view me as an unfit parent because of the coping choices I made.  But I wear t-shirts, because it’s hot outside in the summer.  I won’t hide under clothing everyday for the rest of my life.

If you have used self harm to cope, don’t be ashamed.  You survived and that is the most important thing.  Your scars tell the story of your survival.  If I could tell you a hundred times that you aren’t crazy I would.  But honestly, I’m spending a whole lot of energy reassuring myself that very same thing these days.

My scars tell my story.  Sometimes I wish my story was different, or that I had the privilege of having an invisible mental illness, but that isn’t my reality.

And believe it or not, some people think my scars look pretty damn cool.

 

Post-it notes

images

Possibly one of the saddest moments in my entire story revolves around a post-it note.

During a particularly dark time in my life, sometime in early 2011, I wrote a series of 3 suicide post-it notes.  This is something I haven’t really shared with anyone.

I was completing my Master in Social Work, I was about to start my final placement.  I was working as a Teaching Assistant, attending classes and taking care of my kids.  On the outside I was functioning, but on the inside I was consumed with depression.  Looking back, I know a good part of the darkness was being caused by my increasing unhappiness within a sexually abusive marriage.  I began to feel like I had exhausted every option for recovery, every medication, every type of therapy, every treatment program and as a parent of two young kids I felt I had even fewer options.  I felt trapped and disconnected from myself and the ones I loved.

I don’t remember why I was upset or what happened that day, I do remember I wanted the pain to stop.  I was home alone, the kids were at school or daycare.  I saw a pad of yellow post-it notes one of the kids had left in my bedroom.  On it I scrawled three separate notes, one for my husband and one for each of my kids.  The notes basically said “I love you ___” and had a heart drawn under the words.   They looked like innocent little notes, the kind family members leave for each other to wish them a happy day.

But to me those were the most tragic post-it notes in existence.  In that moment where nothing was really making sense, I was saying goodbye.

I did hurt myself that day, but I went to the hospital to get it taken care of.  I didn’t tell the hospital staff about the post-it notes or about my despondent thoughts.  I let them fix me up and I went home.  I rarely discussed my suicidal thoughts in the Emergency Room unless I wanted to be admitted to the hospital.

When I got home my family was there and so were the post-it notes, unassuming and cheerful yellow papers.  But seeing them reminded me of my dark plans.  I hated those post-it notes with great passion.  They made me angry every time I saw them, but luckily anger was at least a feeling and not just numb emptiness.

The post-it notes stuck around the house for months before I finally threw them away.  I won’t ever forget them though.  They are a symbol of just how little anything ACTUALLY makes sense when you are severely depressed.  Things that seem logical in the moment are completely ridiculous and nonsensical when you are feeling brighter.  Choices that seem like the only option are revealed as unhelpful and fatalistic when you are recovered.

It’s important to hold onto this realization.  When you are severely depressed you are not thinking clearly.  When you are starved from an eating disorder you are not thinking clearly.  When you are triggered and in the middle of flashbacks you are not thinking clearly.

Don’t make decisions that could harm you or someone else when you are not thinking clearly.  Chances are you might regret it when you are calmer.   If possible focus on grounding and self care, or get help from others if you realize you are not thinking clearly.

Suicide wouldn’t have solved the problems in my life, it would have passed them on to my children, my parents and my close friends.  I can say this now, but I know for a fact that in a dark place I just won’t care.  The only thing I will think about is getting the pain to stop.

Luckily, in recovery, I know that depression is temporary and impulses to harm myself are passing thoughts.  Suicidal thinking and gestures are symptoms of depression and PTSD for some people.  Thinking about suicide can be a normal coping reaction to surviving violence.  Just thinking about suicide is not necessarily dangerous.  Sometimes it can be a way of feeling in control of something, which is actually a method of self preservation.  It is necessary to challenge the self destructive behaviours, but I try not to judge myself for the thoughts.

At the end of the day there is no difference between a person who sometimes thinks about suicide and one who does not.  There is not a special “crazy” class of folks who contemplate dying.  Suicide doesn’t discriminate.  Anyone can have the thoughts and it doesn’t make them weird, dangerous or a person to be feared or shunned.

Suicide survivors walk among us.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for a friend who contemplates suicide is to allow her to talk about her thoughts and impulses and listen without panicking and without judgment.  Validate her, let her know that you are sorry she is feeling SO awful that she feels life is hopeless.  Allow her to explore the thoughts with you, or encourage her to talk to a counselor, support worker, crisis line or doctor.  It isn’t your job to save her, it’s your job to be her friend.  Thank her for trusting you.  Let her know you care. By letting someone talk about suicide, you are reducing shame and creating a connection.

Connection is the opposite of depression.