Leaving. Living.

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It started to go off the rails quite soon after I told him I was leaving.  Gradually, as the reality of the magnitude of what I was doing sunk in for him, the angrier he became.  When I told him I’d hired a lawyer and wanted to discuss what it would look like to divide our finances he got angry.  When I explained how child support might work and that I’d been informed about my rights he got angry.

He tried to convince me that we could put the money for the children into an account that we’d both have access to.  That I could buy the things they needed from there.  I explained calmly that child support didn’t work that way, that he’d have to pay me and that I could legally use the money for anything related to caring for the children.  He was furious.  I tried to explain that child support wasn’t just for the children’s clothes and activities, but for anything related to their care.  That I could use it for things like utilities bills (so they had heat and electricity) or repairs to the car (if the brakes were broken and it was unsafe for them) etc.   He got angrier.  We fought.  I was so hurt because I felt like he didn’t trust me to manage money, even though I’d been paying our bills and managing household finances for our entire marriage.  I didn’t understand at that point, that the issue was power and control.  I wanted him to trust me.  I kept trying to explain.  He got very angry.  I thought he might hit me, but he just yelled at me to drop it, to walk away.  We were in the basement of our house, near the stairs.  He wanted me to go upstairs to let him calm down (he’d been sleeping in the basement as we were separated within the same house).   A part of me knew I should go upstairs, but I was so hurt and so upset and I needed him to understand.   He was full of rage and I was afraid and crying.

When I didn’t go upstairs he got angrier.  He smashed his head through the drywall of the basement wall.  I didn’t understand why he would destroy his own property.   I was the one leaving, this would soon be his house, not ours.  Why damage it?

I was really scared at this point and I wanted to leave.  I told him I wanted to take the children to my parents’ house until he calmed down.  I needed to calm down as well.  I couldn’t stop crying and shaking.   I went up to the main floor, but he blocked my way to the upstairs, blocking me from the kids.  He told me I could go to my parents’ but I couldn’t take the kids.  I kept trying to get by him and he kept holding me back.  I told him I was going to call the police.  At this point we were upstairs, near my older daughter’s bedroom.   He snarled at me “if  you call the police I will tell them you are mentally ill and hysterical and they won’t believe you.  They will believe me.”

Defeated, I knew he was right.  I was too afraid to call.  I grabbed my medication and some things and ran out to my car, locked myself in and sobbed.  It was late.  Maybe midnight.  I cried and cried.  I called a friend who’d told me that I could call him if I had to leave in an emergency.  He didn’t pick up.  I was too afraid to tell my parents.  I wasn’t willing to leave my kids.

I remember him coming out to the car.  Asking me, through the glass, to come into the house.  Eventually he went back inside the house.  I cried in the car for a long time before realizing I was out of options.  I went back into the house, went upstairs and went to sleep.

I could have run with the kids while he was sleeping.  But I was too afraid.  We lived together, separately for a few more weeks after that night.    More recently, I learned that my daughter heard us fighting and me crying and she was afraid.   She never told me at the time.

He took the kids to visit his mother.  I packed my belongings and moved them to my parents garage.   I tried to make the house look as nice as possible before the children returned, so they wouldn’t be afraid.  I finished staining the new fence.  I  hung pictures of his family in place of the ones I took down.  I spent hours looking through my photo albums, taking out all the ones of his family that I thought he’d want to keep before packing the albums.  I left our wedding album on the bookshelf.  I spent 10 days mostly alone, slowly taking apart my life and putting it into boxes.

When he came back from the trip he was cold.  He was a white hot, cold rage.  His eyes were changed.  I knew on some level he was dangerous, but I still wanted to believe it would be okay.  I wanted to believe we could separate, and co-parent peacefully in two separate houses.

When he came back there were 3 nights until the day I took possession of my new place.  He told me he would be sleeping in our bedroom now and I could sleep downstairs.  I didn’t argue.  I slept on the couch and lying numb and afraid in my daughter’s bed.  I remember having a terrible nightmare on the last night I spent in that house.  It was 4 years ago tonight.  I dreamed that one of my friends died.  It was horrible and sad and I woke up crying.

I woke up and he was gone.  The kids had a medical appointment and then we were supposed to go to my parents’ house for the night.  I packed up some last things, the children’s clothing and left them by the front door for my Dad to pick up while we were at the appointment.   I got an email from him telling me that the plan had changed, that he wouldn’t allow me to take the children.  He insisted he would come to get them later in the day, that he didn’t want them exposed to the move and my new house empty.  He said the kids would stay with him most of the time until school started.  I didn’t agree, I tried to negotiate with him. I remember lying curled up on the floor of my childhood bedroom, crying, sobbing on the phone with him trying to convince him to allow the children to stay with me that night.  I’d already been away from them 10 days and they were confused and upset.

My Dad tried to pick up the kids things and he wouldn’t allow him into the house.  He was angry and like an animal.  My Dad asked him to calm down but he wouldn’t listen.  He allowed my Dad to take the things that belonged to me, but not the children’s clothing.

Before dinner, he showed up at my parents’ house.  He wanted the kids.  We were standing on the front porch and I was asking him to let the kids stay with me.  He dragged them away from me.  They were crying, especially my older child.  He took them anyway.  Took them out to dinner to try to bribe them into being okay with what had happened.

I remember lying on the floor of the bedroom, sobbing.  Trying to reach my lawyer.  Trying to get advice about what to do.  Feeling defeated, less than 12 hours after leaving him.  It already felt like too much.  I was scared and I knew that I’d been living in a dream world for the past 6 weeks, thinking we could live separately and co-parent.

But it would take me another few months, until October of that year, before I truly realized the depths he would go to to take my kids away.  It would be a few more months until I  realized it was hopeless and there was no chance of a reconciliation, common ground, shared parenting or co-operation.

I spent a few more months telling people that it was “just sexual abuse” and that he was basically a good guy.  I spent a few more months believing that it was about sex.  I spent a few more months believing before someone told me that abuse was about power and control, and that I had to stop making excuses for him and acknowledge the severity of what was happening.

Every year since then I’ve spent the last few days of August re-living every moment of those last few weeks I spent in my old life.  I might have already written this exact blog post last year.  Every year I struggle.   Every year I feel hopeless.  Every year I’m forced to confront the reality that my marriage was abusive, that my ex-husband was very definitely NOT “basically a good guy.”

This year, I received the verdict of the four year long custody battle and family law trial only a few weeks before the anniversary of the leaving.

It took me a year to plan to leave and to execute that plan.  It took me 4 more years to get custody of my children.

It took 5 years to leave him.  5 years.

I feel like a chapter in my life has closed.  The court verdict drew a line after the last sentence on the final page of the book of my leaving.   The book closed.  I got free.  For a moment I breathed out and my entire body has almost collapsed with the exhaustion of the fight finally ending.  I had to hold it together for 5 years.  I had to be sane for 5 years.  I had to cope.  I had to go to work.  I had to act normally, when inside I felt like I was being torn apart with the grief of knowing my children were being abused and I couldn’t stop it.  I felt like my brain shattered into a million pieces during the last few days of court when my children’s psychological records were disclosed, against their wishes and the wishes of their psychologist, to their father. I felt like I would not survive the anxiety of waiting over 8 months for the verdict of the trial.

But I did survive.  I’m not the same person I was 5 years ago.  I’m not the same person I was a year ago.  This has changed me.  It has fundamentally shifted any belief I had in the world being a fair and just place.  It has created a dark, sad, hopeless place inside of me that I don’t know how to soothe.

And almost as soon as I breathed out.  Almost as soon as the chapter book closed, with the verdict in my favour…before I had a chance to rest or come to a full stop…while I was still almost immobile with exhaustion…

It carried on.  A new book opened.  A book full of empty blank pages.  I have no idea what the future holds.  I know that it contains more struggles and more fear.  I know that my kids are still not safe, that he will still emotionally abuse them when he has access to them.  I know that I will continue to have to fight for my trans daughter’s right to exist safely.  I know that I will need to fight every day to hold onto hope and to see the good in the world.

The leaving has ended.

I just don’t know what the living has in store for us.

Another abandoned hospital.

I visited another hospital where I spent time as a patient.  This is the now abandoned Regional Mental Health Care Centre, otherwise known as the LPH, or prior to that the Asylum for the Insane.  There has been a psychiatric hospital on this site since 1870.

I walked around the large property.   Back in the late 1870s, asylums were located on large properties where patients lived and worked.  This property included a farm and a separate chapel.  For a time, there was a type of treatment known as “moral therapy” which included involving the patients in activities such as farming asylum land.  This site also witnessed many tragic and scary “cures”, like surgeries and electroshock treatments.

When I was a patient at the Regional Mental Health Centre, the facility was already operating at a much reduced patient capacity.  It has now been closed altogether and patients relocated to a modern, newly built site.

This site was creepy then and it is even more creepy now that it is abandoned.  I felt the energy around the property to be cool and sinister, despite the beautiful sunny day.

When I was a patient, we used to go for walks around the property.  There are long tree lined roads, which provide shade.   There was also the abandoned insane asylum.  The new building stands in it’s shadow.

This is what the building looks like today.  10+ years ago, it was even more run down.  The ceiling was falling in.  The glass in the windows was shattered in many places.  At night it was frightening.  I imagined ghosts and spirits of dead patients haunting the property.   On this visit I noticed that the city has added a new roof and boarded up all the windows.  Today, the building looks more like a museum.   The chapel and barns have also been boarded over and trees and grass are beginning to reclaim the entire site.

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It’s strange to think that the hospitals where I was treated are now torn down and abandoned.  I wonder what will happen to the brand new build in another 50-75 years time?

The time I spent at this hospital was a turning point in my recovery.  The mood disorder specialist who treated me recognized that I was being made sicker by the psychiatric drug cocktail I was on.  He changed all my medication, and within 5 weeks I was released from the hospital a significantly more stable person.  This marked the end of the 4 years I spent in and out of hospital.  It marked the beginning of the next chapter in my life.  It allowed me to become a parent.  My mood disorder specialist followed me closely during both my pregnancies and postpartum periods.  Without him, I would probably be dead and I certainly would not be a mother of two healthy children.

I have mixed feelings walking around the site.  I’ve always been fascinated by the history of medicine in general, but more specifically the history of psychiatry.  I feel captivated by the old building, while at the same time frightened and ill at ease.  I feel thankful that I was able to get the care I needed to begin my recovery.  But I feel unsettled that I had to spend time in a place like this.

Mystery.

I’ve spent time over the past few weeks reflecting on the roots of my abusive relationships.  What I try very hard NOT to think about is the answer to questions like these:

Was any of it ACTUALLY real?  Was there every REALLY any love between us?  Were they lying to me from the start?  Were the entire relationships just elaborate gaslighting schemes design to facilitate abuse?

It’s quite painful to cope with the potential truth that my entire marriage was abusive. It’s sometimes too difficult to believe this.  It’s too difficult to hold that truth in my mind for more than a few moments.  If none of it was real, the loss becomes immense.  I can’t go back in time and re-live my children’s first  years with a non-abusive partner.  I might never know what it feels like to parent a child with someone I truly love and respect.  I won’t get my 20’s back.

Sometimes I search my memory, grasping for pure memories.  Moments that weren’t tinged with discomfort or abuse.  I try to find some moments to hold onto that feel REAL, where we were both happy, genuine and authentic.

Sadly, I can’t find very many.  I remember a lot of distance.  I remember a lot of me questioning myself, changing myself, adapting myself, trying to fit in with what I thought I should be.  I remember me hurting myself, starving myself, judging myself, disassociating, making excuses for him, and blaming myself.

I remember being alone.  I felt alone. I was alone.  I remember the isolation and desperation of post-partum depression and the loneliness of parenting two young children without much help.

I wonder if I ever really knew the man I was married to for a decade.  Today, I can accept that I never did.

I can remember one genuine moment.  It was in the hospital, after my first child was born.  We were tired and happy.  New parents.  It was the first night after her birth, before he went home to sleep for a while.  We were singing a ridiculous Hugh Laurie song that we’d both found amusing over the weeks before the birth.  I remember laughing a bit, holding the baby in my arms.  I think that was real.

But maybe it will always just be a mystery…

Firsts.

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<trigger warning for graphic descriptions of self harm and eating disorder>

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “firsts” of my mental illnesses.  We all have memories of the first time we did certain things or had certain experiences, but for people who have chronic mental health struggles over a number of years, not all “firsts” are positive memories to celebrate.

When I was experiencing my “firsts” of mental illness I was a teenager.  I was 15-17 years old and I didn’t have any idea that my experiences were those of specific mental illness, let alone what those mental illnesses might be.  I thought that I was going crazy.  I thought I was the only one.  I was afraid to tell others what I was experiencing internally.  Until I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 20 years old, most of my “firsts” made little sense to me.

The first time I experienced what would become anorexia I was about 16 years old.  I’ve written about it in another blog post.  I was physically sick and hadn’t eaten for a few days.  I felt mostly better and wanted to go to school.  I remember my mother telling me I had to eat something if I was going to school.  I took a granola bar and started walking down the street to meet my boyfriend at the time and to catch the bus.  I remember feeling light, empty and powerful.  I remember feeling the sense of white, blank emptiness that I now associate with disassociation.  I felt like I could take on the world.  I felt like I could survive without food and that I’d actually be more powerful.  I loved that feeling and I chased after it in various forms for the next 20 years.  I believe this moment is the one I chose anorexia as a coping technique for the sexual and emotional abuse I was living with.  At that time I wouldn’t have identified it as an eating disorder, nor would I have identified my relationship as sexually and emotionally abusive.  It was just a feeling I had, of realizing that disassociation was more comfortable than pain.

I remember the first and one of the few times I tried (unsuccessfully) to purge after panicking about eating.  This I described in another blog post.  I remember crying and sitting shaking on the floor of the downtown public library.  My crime?  Eating a whole cookie rather than half of one.  I remember I had been reading books about eating disorders, secretly, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

I remember my first panic attack.  I was in Grade 12, 17 years old and extremely ill from anorexia.  I was attending school despite the fact that my weight was well under 100 pounds at close to 5’9″.  I remember feeling driven.  I remember feeling an intensity of moving forward that wouldn’t allow me to slow down or calm down.  I had to keep “doing” and trying to be perfect at everything.  I had to follow all my rules or something terrible would happen.  I remember there was one day I had a math test.  I believe it was Grade 12 Calculus or some other horrible subject.  I had been doing well in school despite my illness.  But that day somehow my brain just wouldn’t work.  I remember sitting in the classroom, the desks were arranged in rows, one in front of the other with the blackboard at the front.  I remember all the numbers and letters swimming around on the paper.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t think of how to solve the problems because everything was spinning and I felt like I was being crushed.  I felt nauseous and I realized that I was about to cry.  I remember bolting out of the room and into a stall in the girls bathroom.  I remember sitting there crying, shaking and feeling terribly upset that I couldn’t do the test.  My thoughts were racing around and I just wanted to go home.  I remember another student from the class coming in to check on me (it was a male teacher).  I remember being somehow glad she was there even though I was embarrassed.  I made up some excuse about being sick and not being able to write the test.  I think I went home.  I wouldn’t have known at the time that it was a panic attack, but it was and it was probably related to extreme lack of nutrition and just pushing myself too hard on no fuel.

I remember the first time I cut myself as a coping technique for stress.  I was about 18 years old.  I had just started taking SSRI medication for depression and anxiety after about 2 years of fighting with my parents and my doctors.  I never wanted to take medication.  I think deeply and instinctively I must have known that my mental health problems were situational, but that knowledge was too terrifying to face, so I blocked it out.  The first time I engaged in cutting I  used a pair of scissors that I kept in my bedroom.  I used to make just one small cut.  I would do it once a week in the exact same place, just under where the band of my watch lay.  So I could hide it carefully.  It was ritualistic, very controlled.  I don’t remember exactly why I started doing this.  It became part of my routine as I gained weight and somewhat normalized my eating behaviour. I needed something else to help block out the memories of the abuse.

I remember the first time I considered suicide.  I was probably about 17 years old, but I might have been 18.  I remember being at a party at a friend’s house.  Radiohead OKComputer was playing in the background.  Music I always associate with the “saddest of the sad” times.  It was raining outside.  I remember sitting on the couch looking out the back sliding door.  It was dark outside, evening.  The rain was falling really hard and there was thunder and lighting. I felt like I was in a trance.  Looking back I realize this was also an example of disassociation.  I remember feeling incredibly alone and disconnected. I was AT the party but not part of it.  I remember being at home that evening.  My bathroom had green tiles.  Small square tiles with white grout.  I remember just sitting there staring at my razor.  Thinking about cutting myself, thinking about dying and ending my life by opening up my veins.  I just sat there for a long time thinking about it.  The images of the green tiles and the emptiness of that moment are burned into my memory.

I remember my first flashback.  I was 18.5 and with my first love, my first real connection after the abuse and the severe anorexia.  I remember we were in my bedroom and we were kissing.  It was consensual and I wanted to do it.  He was lying on top of me. I think he might have been about to unbutton a piece of my clothing or something like that.  Suddenly I was crying and shaking and it wasn’t him there.  It was my ex boyfriend, who had so many times taken off or unbuttoned my clothing when I’d clearly said now.  It was him on top of me and I was afraid.  I had no idea what a flashback was, I didn’t know I had PTSD.  I just had an intense physical reaction to what was happening.  My boyfriend stopped immediately.  I remember him leaving the room briefly to give me space.  I remember feeling scared and embarrassed.  I don’t really remember the explanation I gave to him.  Some of my memories are less clear, but I think over time I had told him that my last relationship had been difficult.  I don’t think I fully understood myself at that time that it had been abusive, and that this type of reaction was a normal one for survivors.

I remember the first time I cut myself deeply enough to need stitches.  I was 20.  I was at university.  I remember buying the craft knife at the university book store. I remember walking home.   There was  a bridge on the campus and for months I thought about jumping off it every day.  I knew that I was going to cut deeply.  It was planned and premeditated.  I remember disassociating and thinking only about the injuring.  I remember wanted to make sure it was deep enough to need stitches.  I remember walking to the hospital which was on the campus.  I walked across a field to get there.  It was May or June.  I remember the doctor stitching up the wound.  It was a medical student and I remember feeling afraid.  I remember the resident coming to check the work and commenting that the stitches were incorrectly done.  I remember wondering why the resident didn’t fix them, but I assumed that because the wound was self inflicted they thought I didn’t care about scars.  In the end that wound healed badly and caused me chronic pain until it was fixed about 7 years later by a plastic surgeon at that same hospital.   I remember feeling nothing.  I remember feeling nothing about the injury and having no emotional or physical reaction until the day I went to the health clinic to have the stitches removed. I fainted when the doctor took them out.  My body felt the trauma suddenly and all at once the disassociate wasn’t there.   From then on I always took my own stitches out so I could control the process and do it in a way that I would not feel as much pain.  The ritual of the whole thing was an important part of the process of disassociation for me.

It’s a sad list.  Really sad.  Because some of these firsts are clearly in my mind that pleasant memories I would like to remember.  The way that PTSD stores traumatic memories and erases positive ones is deeply frustrating.  Because the long term consequence of disassociation is memory loss, and rarely losing the memories I wish would disappear.

Picture was drawn in September 1999

 

 

 

Healer, Heal Thyself.

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Do you ever have the feeling that you are a complete and utter fraud?

I’ve been feeling this way recently, more than usual, as I’ve been reflecting on how little of the advice I share with others that I actually follow myself.   Am I a fraud, if I truly believe what I’m telling other people, but can’t internalize it or believe it for myself?

How is it possible that everyone around me deserves health, happiness and recovery but I somehow feel undeserving of even simple things?

Someone close to me commented on one of my scars this week.  It was a passing comment, about noticing a scar on my hand that he hadn’t noticed before.  To him it was a neutral comment, just noticing, no judgment.  I told him that scar had been there since around 2002, it wasn’t new.  That was the end of the conversation for him, but I started talking about and reflecting on the amount of harm I’ve done to myself over the past 20 years.

Until 2009, I hid all my scars, all of the time, from everyone.  Even when I was home alone I would wear long sleeves and pants.  I was so ashamed of my cuts and scars that I didn’t even want to look at them myself.  In the summer, I was perpetually hot, avoiding swimming, making excuses to stay in the air conditioning.  My life was being seriously limited by my self destruction.

From 2009 on, I gradually began experimenting with uncovering my scars.  I wore t-shirts or skirts when I was hot, and started to swim again.  I still kept a cardigan or long sleeved shirt with me at all times, so I could cover up around people who didn’t know about my habit, or for situations like interviews where I didn’t want to be judged.  I used to have so much anxiety about people seeing my scars and I would imagine all sorts of scenarios where people around me judged me as crazy.  I even thought that CAS would come to take away my  kids because if someone saw my scars they would report me as an unfit mother. Over time, I  became accustomed to uncovering my scars.  I came to a place of a bit more acceptance (plus I got tired of being hot all summer!).  This was a process and today, the only time I purposefully cover my scars is when I’m helping other women at work.  I’m afraid that my scars might trigger others, especially those who are working on their own healing.

I still feel sad though, every spring when the warm weather returns and shorts, t-shirts and summer dresses flood the shopping malls.  I feel sad because in the summer I can’t hide under my clothes.  In the warm weather, I often feel exhausted when interacting with people because I am intensely aware of the visibility of my scars.  It gets a little bit easier each summer, and I think about it less and less often, to the point where there are times that I almost forget about the scars. Almost.

I can’t really forget about them. I can’t forget about them because they represent a huge, unnameable, unspeakable history of trauma and pain.  And at some points I feel crushed by the weight of the realization that I have been my own worst abuser.

I am my own most dangerous and most unrelenting abuser.

It’s difficult to know how to even approach talking about, thinking about or grieving the trauma I’ve inflicted on myself.  It’s not something others discuss or disclose to me either.  We talk about the hurt caused by other people in our lives, the betrayals, the injuries and the abuse.  We talk about being hurt and being damaged.  But how do I start a conversation or healing process around the trauma that I perpetuated?  How do I heal from situations where I was both the abuser and the survivor, simultaneously in one person, in one experience, in one breath?

My experience of surviving sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of perpetrators, is directly linked to my “decisions” to cope by self harming in various ways.  Before I was sexually abused I didn’t have anorexia, depression, PTSD, or obsessive compulsive tendencies and I did not cut or physically harm myself in response to stress.   Before I was sexually abused, I considered myself a “normal” person.  I didn’t have a mental illness, I didn’t have dangerous coping techniques, I wasn’t a psychiatric survivor or  a survivor of violence.   When I look at my scars, I see both the abuse I survived and the abuse I perpetuated.  The scars are an ever present reminder that I have survived, but they are also like a road map of the destruction and self destruction that has woven through my adult life.

Yes, my scars tell a story, but I’m not sure it’s a story that I want to hear.  I’m not sure it’s a story that I want to tell either.

But sometimes I do want to tell my story.  That’s part of why this blog was created.  There just isn’t a lot of space in our busy, day to day lives, to talk about the story my scars tell.  The person who was with me during the majority of those years (my ex-husband) is no longer available or safe for me to contact.  I don’t have anyone to share my memories of those dark years with.  The people who know me now weren’t there with me in the emergency room while my cuts were being stitched.  The people in my life now, weren’t there with me when I tried, multiple times, to end my life.   Except for a few, the people in my day to day life, didn’t know me when I almost starved myself to death.  People see me differently now.  They see me as a whole person, a mostly well person, a successful person, a good mother, a co-worker, a friend…sometimes I feel like a fraud because I can’t, or don’t know how to, talk about these aspects of my past.

And sometimes I want to talk about them.  I really want to talk about what things were like “before.”   Before I left my ex-husband.  Before I stopped utilizing the psychiatric system.  Before I decided to stay alive.

That “before” person is still me.  I’m just not sure how to heal that “before” me and this current me simultaneously.  I’m not sure how to forgive myself, or to have sympathy or empathy for the me that wanted to die.  I’m not sure how to look at my scars without feeling sadness for the fact that I permanently disfigured my body before I turned 25.  I don’t know how to grieve my smooth, scar free skin…I barely even remember what I looked like before I started cutting.

There are days when I accept my scars.  They are a part of me, they do tell a story and they do represent survival.  But there are days when I hate them.  I hate being different.  I hate having a visible mental illness.  I hate feeling ugly.  I hate worrying about what others will think when they see them.  I hate hating myself SO much that self harm feels like a reasonable solution.

Sometimes I look back on the past and wonder what my life would be like if I’d chosen a different way of coping.  Or if I’d never been abused.  Or if I’d told someone about the abuse.   How different would my life be if I’d never picked up a blade, never wished to end it all?

It’s an interesting dilemma, because there are some parts of my survivor self that I like and I wouldn’t want to change.  If I hadn’t had these experiences I would have chosen a different career path.  I wouldn’t have had my children at a young age.  I wouldn’t be as passionate about social justice and advocacy.  I wouldn’t know the majority of my current friends.

My life would be very different.  I don’t even want to change the past.  It did make me the person I am today and I’m okay with that.   What I do want to change is how much I still judge myself, berate myself and hate myself for my past choices.  I want to learn to do more than accept my scars.  I want to do more than tolerate my body, in an uneasy, fragile truce.

Intellectually, I know that I deserve more than surviving.  Intellectually, I know that a deeper level of healing is possible.  I’ve seen people around me heal and recover from unimaginable horrors.  I’ve seen people build a sense of self confidence from the rubble of their lives.  I know it is possible and that self-love and self acceptance are attainable goals.

But emotionally, I just don’t feel it.  And that makes me sad, and maybe right now, the first step in healing self-hatred is just simply grieving the loss of that 15 year old healthy self.

 Note: The illustration was drawn by me around 2004

 

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

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“Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock therapy, and often referred to as shock treatment, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from psychiatric illnesses” -Wikipedia

Basically, ECT is a treatment by which patients consent to have seizures intentionally triggered by electric shocks which are applied to the brain.

When you put it that way, it sounds barbaric and unnecessary.  Why would someone consent to have electric currents put through their brain under general anesthetic and undergo seizures?

The desperation and intense suicidal ideation that can accompany treatment resistant depression can be unbearable and even fatal.  Given the choice between suicide and ECT, some people choose ECT.  I was one of those people.

In 2011, I was caught in the grips of one of the worst depressive episodes of my life.  I was fighting off constant thoughts of suicide and severe self harm.  I was having difficulty functioning in my day to day life.  I had tried every medication known to human kind.  I was truly desperate and ECT was a last resort, something I hadn’t tried and something I hoped would provide even brief respite from my suicidal depression.

Over the course of about 8 weeks I received 15 electroconvulsive treatments.  This means I was put under general anesthetic 15 times and I had 15 seizures.  Some were unilateral (one side of the brain) and some were bilateral (both sides shocked simultaneously). I received the treatment as an outpatient, twice a week, Monday and Friday mornings at a hospital near my home.

Each morning I would report to the inpatient psychiatry floor around 6:30AM.  I would change into a hospital gown, remove my jewelry and be taken on a stretcher, by an orderly, down to the surgical area of the hospital.  I would wait in the semi-darkness, dimmed light of the surgical recovery room.  While in this room, nurses would place an IV into my hand so the necessary medications could be injected.  I was hooked up to heart rate monitor and other monitors.  There were usually 4-6 of us lying there, side by side, waiting our turn in the treatment room.  As I would wait, I would see the previous person being wheeled out of the treatment room, unconscious.  It was unsettling, as I knew my turn was coming soon.

The ECT room was a small procedure room attached to the surgical recovery room.  It was just large enough for a stretcher, the medical professionals and the necessary equipment.  It was bright and clinical.

Nurses and doctors began to work on me quickly.  I had the impression of an assembly line, a schedule being kept, patient in, treatment given, next patient in and so on.  My temples were wiped with alcohol swabs and electrodes attached.  The anesthesiologist talked to me about the medications he was going to administer.  A nurse would often hold my hand, there to keep me calm as everything was arranged.  The medications were injected one by one through the IV.  I could feel the cold fluid entering into the veins in my left hand.  I would keep my eyes fixed on the clock, trying to remember the time as I went unconscious, to later compare to the time on the clock when I awoke.  Sometimes I would lose no more than 15 minutes of time, the procedure was very quick.

I remember feeling afraid.  The nurse asked me to count backwards.  An oxygen mask was applied to my face and nose, ready to breath for me while I was unconscious.  The medications worked quickly and then nothing.  There was only one time of the 15 when I was aware of part of the process.  The medications they injected to relax my muscles began to act before I was unconscious, I felt like I was suffocating.  I couldn’t breathe and I started panicking.  I literally couldn’t breathe, but I was awake.  I could hear them talking and feel the next medication being injected and then nothing.

I would wake up 15 minutes later.  Back in a different curtained bay of the recovery room.  I could hear the nurses helping the other patients on either side of me, also recovering from ECT.   This was the part of the treatments that I hated most.  I had to stay in the recovery room for 30 minutes following the treatment, as they monitored my blood pressure and other vital signs.  I felt trapped.  I was hooked up to machines.  I often had a sense of panic and wanting to flee, to leave, to be outside.  Sometimes I would cry and I don’t think the nurses understood why.  Eventually the Doctor would come, talk to me briefly and I would be released.   The first time I could barely walk and the nurses wheeled me to the entrance to meet my family member.  I was usually home by 9 am.  The whole process taking 2-3 hours.

Usually I would stumble, drowsy and disoriented to the car.  I would be driven home and I would go straight to bed.  Usually I would sleep and rest for most of the day.  I lost a lot of weight over those few weeks because I ate so little due to missing breakfast and then being nauseous from the medications.  I also had severe headaches due to the shocks, and many side effects from the medications.  I felt like a zombie.  My short term memory was foggy as to the events during those 8 weeks.  During that time, my grandmother passed away and the experience was surreal through the state of mind I was in.  I have no memory of my own birthday that year, and few of my daughter’s.

In terms of long term side effects from the treatments, I found that the area of my brain which recalled the order of the months of the year and the seasons of the year were impacted.   If someone asked me “What season comes before Fall?”  I would feel confused and have to think very hard to answer “Summer”   Similarly with the months of the year and the order of the holidays in the calendar.

Overall I don’t think I suffered any major memory loss.   At the time I thought that the treatments helped my depression a little.

Sadly, I only realized about 9 months later that a large portion of my depression was situational, related to my abusive marriage.  In the end, the treatment for my depression was to move away from him.

If I’d realized this sooner, I probably would not have endured ECT.

Looking back on the whole series of treatments, it feels unreal.  It feels traumatic.  It feels strange and difficult to process.

In what world does it make sense to further traumatize a traumatized brain?  But desperation will make a person take desperate measures.  I survived and that is what matters.

Zombie.

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Pushing through trauma.  Trauma layered on more trauma.   Decades of trauma.

Brain shuts down.  Eerie quiet and an empty space inside where my thoughts should be.  Ears ringing.  Body feels heavy and difficult to move. Words come slowly, sticky in my mouth.  Sometimes movement and speech is impossible.  Days blur together.  Conversations become difficult to follow.  Confusion.  Short term memory loss.

When disassociation is the only way to get through the day.  There isn’t even enough energy left to panic.  When stress is something that can’t be changed, when there is no solution, when the fear is overwhelming and I am helpless.  Panic is scary, but there is motion there and emotion.  The blank space is less human somehow.

It’s not a choice.  It’s like a switch is flipped.  My brain says “NO!”  That’s enough, time to quiet down.  Anxiety becomes a physical reaction rather than worries, feelings or thoughts.

I feel like a zombie.  I’m walking around, doing day to day tasks.  I know from experience though that I’m only part there.  I know from experience that days or weeks from now my memory of this time will be divided into two extremes.  Traumatic memories, seared into my brain for life…and blank space, nothing, no memories at all.  Part of the day will be remembered for ever and part of it…it’s like it never even existed.

When stress levels are chronic and traumatic memories from the past are re-enacted in present life, new traumas in the present are linked in the brain to old traumas.  They are no longer separate events.  The brain stores them all together and confirms the facts as PTSD knows them:

“You are not safe”

“You can’t trust anyone”

“Nobody believes you”

This shifts along into another layer of faulty PTSD thinking:

“You are fat.  Your body is disgusting.  Your stomach is too big”

“Nobody likes you.  You are bothering people with your existence”

“People think you are doing a bad job.  People think you are not capable”

“You are letting everyone down”

“It’s all your fault”

In a way the thoughts and the blank space are flashbacks.  They are here, in the present moment, and they are flashbacks to times similar to this one.  The past and the present are linked in PTSD.  Like invasive vines taking over the brick wall of me.

I can’t cry.  I have to feel safe to cry.  There are no tears in the blank space.

I shrink away from being touched.  I jump and startle.

What I want most is to be held.  To be comforted.  To be kept safe.

What I can’t do is let anyone close enough to do this.  The blank space is so large, the buzzing is so loud.

 

 

Darkness and Light

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It’s been almost 3 years now since my last full-out episode of major depression lifted.  It started to shift about 4 years ago and lifted when I moved away from my ex-husband.

The last 2 months I’ve been struggling a little.  I developed low iron and I was feeling burnt out and stressed.  For a short time I was depressed again.

I wanted to write a little bit about my experiences with the difference between depression and a clear mind.  Usually the shifts are subtle, but startling, and it’s all to do with darkness and light.

The last few days, I felt startled, caught of guard by the brightness of the colours around me as I drove through the city.  Granted, it is spring and the leaves, buds, grass and flowers are growing, but this is something more than noticing natures beauty.   Today I was driving home with my kids and I saw a set of traffic lights across a field.

My mind: “Wow, those traffic lights are SO bright, so colourful, so orange yellow, they are jumping out of that field”  They looked almost psychedelic and other worldly to me.  Yesterday, as I was driving, the green grass looked almost neon and startled my eyes.  It’s a striking yet not unpleasant feeling waking up from a time of depression.   Suddenly there is light in the world, when you were not always aware of the depth of its absence.

When I get depressed I also struggle with varying levels of disassociation related to my PTSD.  Depression tends to blunt feelings at the best of times, while disassociation can leave you numb.

The last few months I described my feelings as “being a zombie.”  Going through the motions of my day to day life, functioning on the surface, but feeling like I didn’t care, wasn’t connected, wasn’t engaged and wasn’t happy.  Depression feels like living in a world without colours.  Everything pleasant is muted because I cannot connect with my feelings or my environment and then I start to feel hopeless.  It’s like looking through a dirty lens and being wrapped in a blanket that prevents me from feeling things fully.  I can see people around me, I know how I “should” be acting, but it’s an effort to complete the actions in a genuine manner.

For many years, I was severely depressed and this became my “normal” state.  I remember in 2012, I had been depressed consistently since 2009, with 2011 being a particularly bad year.  In July 2012 I was in England on a family holiday.  One day we were at the beach, my family, my cousins and my cousin’s children.  It was a warm day, not hot, but sunny and very pleasant.  We were walking by the seaside along a rocky beach.  I sat down on the stones and I placed my hand on them.  I remember the moment so vividly because I was aware that the stones were warm.  I sat soaking the warmth from the stones into my hand and I felt alive.  I felt something that probably saved my life (again).  I felt hope.  It was the first moment I truly felt connected with the world around me in all its vivid reality in many years.

That moment was one impetus on the journey towards finding my path away from my abusive marriage.  Just those smooth warm rocks and a single moment of the depression cloud lifting and hope streaming in.

People often wonder what moments have changed your life, and sometimes the truth is that the most simple, unplanned moments can elicit major change.

Christmas 2013 I had another moment of hope, it was bittersweet though as I realized how dark my world had been.  We were at my parents house and my younger cousin and her boyfriend at the time were teasing me about someone I was dating.  I was laughing and laughing because the situation was funny, hilarious even.  My children were playing in another room and my older daughter ran in, looked at me confused, then ran into the kitchen shouting “Grandma! Why is  Mommy laughing?”

My daughter needed reassurance that I was happy, she hadn’t heard me genuinely laughing in years, maybe never.  Connection.  In that moment I was connected with the world and I was enjoying my life.   During a dark depression I don’t laugh very much, I feel isolated in a room full of people, I feel like a shadow with clouds hanging over me.  I sometimes don’t even feel like a real person!  My memory is terribly bad after a period of depression.  I think I’m functioning normally, but later, because of disassociation, I realize that I didn’t form proper memories of the events.  I’ve realized that without connection, sometimes memories aren’t completed and stored correctly.

Seeing those yellow traffic lights today felt similar to the stones on the beach and the Christmas laughter.  Yellow shining beacons of hope and connection!  Maybe the opposite of depression is connection?

I’m very lucky that my periods of depression are much further apart now and usually very brief.  They don’t last long enough for me to truly lose hope.  I can always hold onto the memories of those moments of connection.

Even if you are struggling with depression you feel will never lift, please don’t lose hope.  Look for small moments of connection in your day to day life.  It could be as small as noticing a flower that has bloomed, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, feeling the cool water while you are washing your hands, enjoying a smile with a friend.  I believe you can build on those moments and slowly build a path to recovery.