Connection

So yesterday was World Suicide awareness day and I sat down to jot some of my thoughts about it. It isn’t necessarily all recovery related though almost all of the lessons I’ve learned in sobriety relate directly to my mental health. My drinking was my attempt to self medicate, and I ended up addicted and with a multitude of problems that weren’t there to begin with.

A friend encouraged me to re-post it here in its entirety, in the hopes that maybe one person will read and feel they aren’t alone. So here it is. I would love to hear any of your thoughts and experiences.

If you know me well, then you know that I’m pretty open about my struggles with mental illness.

I really do try to find the humor in it, and do my best to be real about some of the struggles I have in living “in it” (not with it) Some of you also know that I am a suicide survivor. Today is World Suicide Awareness day. I’m seeing lots of great posts with advice, resources, critique of the mental health system etc., but also deep sadness, wanting to know how to make it stop. Obviously this is a very complex, serious issue that I can’t fully address in a brief FB post. I do know that almost everyone has been effected in some way by suicide. Your experiences and opinions may be different than mine and I would love to hear your thoughts. This isn’t going to be a “spot the signs” or a list of resources post because there are a lot of good ones on social media today, and people who are more familiar with statistics, trends etc. These are just some of the thoughts I have today.

I can only speak from my own experience, but need to say rather bluntly right at the top that when your brain wants you dead no amount of yoga, magnesium supplements, self help books, herbal remedies, prayer, meditation, alcohol, drugs, anti-inflammatory diets, essential oils, breathing exercises or whatever you throw at it is necessarily going to make a difference. That may sound harsh, but I know this because I tried it all.

You can have all the tools in the world and “know“ the right things to do, know about the hotlines and VA crisis services and text support and try to find meds that work and still find yourself in a place of utter despair. You could be a counselor, a nurse, a doctor, a psychologist, a trauma-Informed therapist, a seemingly super successful person, whatever. It doesn’t discriminate.

When you are in that head space you can’t see what the consequences might be to those around you because your perspective and your ability to look at things has been skewed by your faulty thought processes. You truly come to believe the voice in your head that tells you that your family, loved ones etc. would be better off without you. That you are doing the best thing by sparing everyone from your utter brokenness. It tells you that the amount of pain you’re in can only be solved by choosing to just step into that void of the unknown. It becomes seemingly the only alternative to sitting in your toxic brain another second.

When I was in that place there was no way I would’ve been ABLE to reach out to someone. Depression led to utter isolation and not letting on to anyone how I was really feeling. I looked functional and “fine” so that’s what I said I was. I saw the glazed over looks when people asked me how things were going or how uncomfortable they were if I mentioned I was having a bad time. They changed the subject or quickly gave me a “it will get better- think positive” verbal bandaid and that was it.

Those of us who struggle with mental illness and trauma in our backgrounds can get stuck in a loop at times. We need help to get out of it. Sometimes we need someone to sit with us and ask “is that true” and unflinchingly listen to what we say. Delving into that as someone trying to support a person experiencing suicidal thoughts means that you are in a place where you can be vulnerable and willing to accept your own mortality. Over time, people struggling with suicidal feelings or with managing their mental illness learn to spot who is or who isn’t that type of person. They are very rare. So, well-meaning statements like “you are wanted you are needed please reach out” don’t always translate to the person who is sitting on the edge of life and death.

So what can make a difference? Connection. You reaching out to another person and letting them know they are seen. Ask your loved ones how the are and really listen. Be willing to say “me too”, look into someone’s eyes and accept the darkness as just a piece of all that they are, don’t try to brush it away or tell them they are wrong to feel like they do. Remind

them they are safe. I fully understand that for many people who have lost someone, they HAVE been there, have been authentic and supportive and their loved one has decided to complete suicide in spite of them. I weep for you because it makes no sense. It is utterly unfair.

I do believe that shallow connections in this culture are engendering this epidemic of loneliness, isolation and depression. Our immediate tendency (which honestly, we are encouraged to do because our world is a scary mess lately) to numb out anything that is remotely “negative” with mindlessly scrolling, or video gaming or drinking that “mommy juice” every night, or self medicating with food, or preoccupation with changing our body shapes, or binging Netflix and YouTube videos, has led to a human race that has forgotten what it really means to be human. (Add in the relentless positivity messages that bombard you every day “ no bad vibes, think positive”—they oversimplify how hard it is to be a living, feeling human dealing with extremely painful things; losses that take your breath away, horrific violence etc all when you have a deep sense of being alone in a world out of control. Many of us have been told that our anger, our fear, our jealousy, our sadness, our indignation, our cries of loneliness are wrong. “Put that away, nobody wants to see that- good vibes only” So we stuff them down where they fester.

But those are all natural human emotions meant to be felt, just as valuable as joy, peace, gratitude, love, compassion, empathy. We are meant to be able to accept them, sit in them for a moment, acknowledge them, express them and sometimes, those painful feelings leave. We need the dark to contrast with the light. We are meant to live in connection with others who can help share our burdens, understand us in our deeply flawed but precious humanity.

You really want to help end stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, then stop presenting a perfect facade to the outside world. I can tell you when I was in the grips of depression so severe that I tried to end my life, there was no way I was going to approach a person who looked like they had it all together. I felt utterly broken. What could they possibly understand about that? ( probably more than I thought but who could tell?)

So what did make a difference for me ? Other people being willing to tell the truth about what was really going on with them. My failures, the grief, the existential crisis du jour, the traumatic memories and feelings of hopelessness all became more manageable and lost some of their power because I could finally be seen and heard and speak about it. I found other people trying to live with a different sort of brain- there’s a lot more than you’d think (And ALSO therapy and medication and running all the miles, and setbacks and nutrition and prayer and nature and writing and meditation and yoga and support groups and coffee and lavender and all the other tools in my toolbox because those things are important). But the most important thing was connection.

There is still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “but you’re so strong and resilient and funny. I can’t imagine that.” As if strength has anything to do with it! Yes I’m strong, yes I’m funny (at times), and man, am I resilient. I’m also a complex collection of all the emotions and thoughts that make us human, just processed perhaps a little differently by my brain. For me at least, medication and therapy only works in tandem with staying deeply connected to people who “get me” and in my willingness to remain vulnerable and open to others. I still have some really bad days. It’s not always fun. But I’m still here.

I think the rise in the number of suicides in our world is a sign that our culture is sick— it’s a canary in the coal mine. The huge numbers of women whose lives are being destroyed by alcohol addiction is another. As is the opiate crisis and many other things that scream pain and disconnection that we see every day.

We are disconnected. From God, from nature, from each other.

People need to feel seen and heard and taught to sit in the “darker” parts of themselves and know they can come out the other side because they aren’t alone. To be told it’s ok that you’re not ok” and have that not be the end of the conversation.

#suicideawareness #; #connection #depression #bipolar #ptsd #recovery #soberlife

Corkscrew

When you become an ER nurse, you get yourself a front row seat to some of the toughest moments a human can experience.  Over time, you absorb a lot of other people’s trauma. For many of us, there is a fine line between accepting the randomness of things while still believing in the inherent good of the world vs. plunging headlong into fear and anxiety about lurking danger and beginning to see death around every corner. If you spend enough time seeing really messed up things, you may begin to think of the universe as some kind of demented Rube Goldberg contraption where each swinging lever meets up at the exact right time with a rolling ball, causing calamity. In my work, I see how all it takes is a single second of distraction, a missed phone call, a misperception, a momentary lapse of judgement that cascades into something terrible. Nothing will ever be the same again. Everything from that point forward will be demarked into “Before” and “After.”

I naively entered the gaping maw of Emergency and Combat medicine with a desire to help. I threw myself into the role of healer, of “fixer”. Eventually I found myself dependent on the rush, then over time, when the unfixable things started coming fast and furious, I internalized all of that cumulative damage.  Instead of looking for ways to unpack and unload, I just absorbed it with a sense of “this is just who I am now”. I think I saw it as the price  to pay for the privilege of getting to save lives, and on some days, being the one there in the sacred moment of death. It is a heavy burden and a calling. For me, my inability to unload all of the absorbed traumas devolved into a sense of self-loathing and punishment for not being able to handle it all better. I came to see myself as the unreliable narrator of my own life. I accepted the idea that once damaged, I would stay that way. The solution was to just find a way to numb it all since I felt myself being constantly, internally divided into Before and After.  I developed a lot of hyper-vigilance, trying to control every little detail as if I could ward off the horrors I saw, make it not be MY family, my little world, my patient. I thought that somehow I could keep it from happening by just trying to control, to manage everything, to avoid the swinging levers and when I couldn’t, when I “failed”, then I would drink to numb myself. Addiction blinds us to many things, especially our true selves. I was operating under the false idea that my self was irrevocably broken because I just wasn’t strong enough. And every time my hands started shaking I just saw it as proof.

In year two of sobriety, I took a deep breath, and decided it was time to look into the abyss of my PTSD. I started going to therapy, looking for tools to help me move past some of the things that haunt me, learning how to practice saying “I am just feeling triggered right now. I am safe. This isn’t happening right now.” At first, I kept getting stuck in wishing that I hadn’t chosen the life I had. I wanted to go back and re-write the past. I thought about the roads not taken, my own choices to wander down the tough paths I have.  I wonder what might have been had I not traveled down the road of trauma and addiction.  If I had accepted myself, my identity as a lover of solitude and quiet. If I had chosen the life of a writer or professor, instead of running headlong into adrenaline and excess because I wanted to appear strong, and feared a small, quiet life.  The irony is that now, coming out the other side, that is what I long for the most.

Alcohol was originally a coping mechanism to turn down the noise, to slow my racing brain, temper my tendency to fly too high and then crash.  And it worked for a long, long time. Until it didn’t. I knew at about 25 or 26 years of age when I was in the Army that my drinking wasn’t normal.  I was the classic apex predator of MORE. I had no off switch once I started. I would lead the charge at the bar, was always there when the lights came on. I rolled back into our barracks at 0200 only to be in PT formation at 0500 with my fellow soldiers, the cloud of alcohol fumes no doubt streaming behind us as we ran in darkness singing loud cadences. Most of us were probably not clinically sober when we started our duty days. I had a few painful consequences to my drinking, but they weren’t bad enough to make me really stop. It also wasn’t out of the ordinary in that warrior culture to be a heavy drinker…I believe the military, with it’s focus on being tough and strong and the realities of war can engender addiction in those of us who may be predisposed.  We are told to be cast iron, the last line of defense. We aren’t supposed to be afraid. Feelings make you vulnerable and get you killed, so you just stuff them down. So many sacrifice their mental health in order to never appear weak. I certainly did.  My second profession has many of the same expectations or subliminal messages: Keep it together, get the job done, don’t break down, don’t fail your patient by letting your emotions override your skill. Don’t let anyone know how scared you are.

Many of us who have lost years to addiction and dysfunctional patterns of survival wish we could go back and do things over. We can get stuck feeling the need to constantly make amends for errors of judgment, for our very “lostness”. In my first few months of sobriety, I had an overwhelming urgency to make things count, to grow, to head a thousand miles an hour down the road in the opposite direction.

At the beginning of this journey, I applied a lot of force to my recovery in typical impatient, “I’ve gotta work this out, heal this, fix this NOW” black and white thinking.  In therapy, I started digging out all of the things I had been stuffing down and tried to rush through them. I was just going to be the best patient ever, and I would have this all figured out in no time.  I would do all the homework I was given and then press even more, and if I failed, then I would just charge back into it. It was the same extremes I had been swinging between for as long as I can remember.

And then, six months ago, with 950 odd days of sobriety, I drank for three consecutive nights. I didn’t drink to excess. I applauded myself for making my drinks in a glass, with ice and appropriate mixers like a “normal” person.  I didn’t guzzle straight out of the bottle. I didn’t pour another and honestly, I sat for a moment enjoying the pleasant buzz, the temporary muting of my inner noise. I didn’t call or text anyone, which is what I should have done when I found the bottle hidden. I didn’t dump it out, just quietly planned to drink it once the kids were in bed.  I just wanted to stop feeling broken and full of holes. I wanted to numb and to change my state. And it did. For a bit. With almost the first sip, my old worn neural pathways kicked in. I felt that familiar old sense of well-being, the relaxation of my tense muscles, the smoothing out of my rumply thoughts and then I slept.  Dreamless, blissful oblivious sleep that had been eluding me for months as I was excavating old thought patterns and working through old traumas. I didn’t plunge headlong back into drinking in the morning or blacking out. I just woke up on day 4 and decided “no more.”

Reliving that feeling of looking at myself in the mirror with a sort of film over my eyes–everything muted, turned down low and muffled made me realize something. I don’t want that feeling anymore, nor do I need it. I like the razor sharp clarity, the quickness of mind that comes with being 100% present and unaltered. Over those 950 days sober had become my new default. I knew that deep in my bones.

The first few weeks after my slip were a jumble of thoughts, regrets, trying to understand how I got to that place. The waves of worthlessness that had prompted me to pick up the glass only grew taller in the weeks after, and the darkness that lies under my surface became enveloping. I know deep down that alcohol doesn’t mix well with my mental health. But I drank. I felt like a failure, like someone was going to pull up to my house with flashing lights and revoke my “sober blogger” card.

I told my closest friends and sober sisters, then sat down and did a long inventory. I made a pretty long list of warning signs that had been brewing.  I had some back to back really bad shifts at work that were very reminiscent of my last few months of drinking when I was at my breaking point. I felt constantly triggered. My insides were shaking, my heart and thoughts were racing and I was distracted, disorganized and doubling down on being hard on myself.  I was also struggling with deeply painful changes in some important relationships. At the same time, juggling three kids and their school and sports schedules on my own had reduced my self care to basically zero.  When I wrote it down in black and white, it was clear to see how I had been escalating for weeks before I ever picked up the drink.

I’ve grown a lot since I started writing this post. I had actually written the first part before my slip. I’ve done a lot of hard work and soul searching since then, and a lot of changes have resulted from what I saw as a failure.  But with time, I see it as a perfect alignment of that swinging lever that bumped into the ball and caused a cascade reaction.  Except it wasn’t a calamity.  It was a catalyst.

In the half year since, I’ve continued going to therapy, and I’ve expanded my tool box considerably. I’ve learned new coping mechanisms. I still have some really bad days but I’m allowing myself to take my time, to float in things. I’ve started taking medication for what has been a lifelong struggle with undiagnosed type 2 bipolar/ADHD. It’s been hard to admit I needed more help, but it became clear that if I am going to keep doing the work I need to do to that it was time to try meds. I had tried literally everything else. Including nearly drinking myself to death.  My therapist told me a few weeks ago that my “kinetic energy” has toned down a lot. I think that was a nice way of saying I’m no longer so hypomanic. But it feels good to be at peace with not needing the extremes. I don’t feel less like myself. I actually feel like I finally have a chance to understand who that is, with the constant head noise turned down a little. It’s definitely a work in progress. Some days are rough. I still want to rush, to get to wherever I think I should be immediately.  And then other days I’m a river of zen. (So maybe my extremes aren’t quite gone).  But there are more days where I can hold loosely and work through the anxiety, the days of the mean reds, knowing that it will pass.  That I’m ok.

I think perhaps the hardest part to accept has been the loss of my vision of myself as a perfect rocket launching into sobriety. A new ghost ship sailed away as I waved from the shore: that story line wasn’t one that I could claim, perhaps wasn’t meant for me. I will never know. But looking back, I’m glad it happened. It cemented for me that I want to be sober more than I want to be safe. I want it more than anything.

“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose.  We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours.  It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” -Cheryl Strayed