When the Holidays Are Marred by Loss and Complex Grief

Written For The Mighty on 11/19/2020.

Holidays are usually seen as a happy time, when friends and family get together to celebrate. They are a time filled with the warm glow of decorations, delicious foods to fill our stomachs and wonderful memories in the making with the people we love. 

But sometimes everything is not that simple. When you lose someone you hold dear during the holidays, it creates a dark cloud that looms over the entire celebration, making it harder to enjoy it as you otherwise would.

Loss is hard any time of the year. But a loss during the holidays can be especially painful because everyone else expects you to be happy during the holidays. It is hard to celebrate anything when you don’t feel festive inside. It can feel near-impossible to smile when all you want to do is cry. It is hard to be around others who are happy and festive when you feel anything but, leaving you to wonder if it is just better to stay home and not ruin anyone else’s time.

Holidays are often rooted in nostalgia. Current celebrations bring back memories of other times, better times, when your loved ones were still there to celebrate with you. The sights, sounds, tastes and scents alone can make their absence even more glaring and jarring. What once were joyful recollections you shared together of other years become gut punches that leave you fighting back tears.

It can be doubly hard when you carry conflicting feelings about the person you lost. People often say that you should never speak ill of the dead, disregarding the fact that rarely in life is anything solely black or white, good or bad. The vast majority of relationships in our life exist somewhere within the realm of grays, where they are not one or the other but rather a complex combination of both. When your grief is complex, it makes mourning that much more difficult. 

My mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving day. 

All my childhood holiday memories revolve primarily around my mother. She was the cook, the baker, the decorator, the present-wrapper. The holidays were largely constructed and orchestrated by her two hands. Almost every holiday tradition I’ve carried with me throughout my life originates with her. There is not a single major holiday I celebrate that does not have her fingerprints all over it.

She was my mother. She taught me to cook and bake, to sew, knit, embroider, darn and craft. She implanted in me my stubborn will to keep fighting and my love for the holidays as a whole. She is a big part of the person I am today.

She was also one of my primary abusers throughout my childhood, physically, verbally and mentally. She is one of the reasons I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. She is proof that very few things exist simply as black or white. 

She is my mother. I love her as every little girl loves her mother. And at the same time I hate her. I love her for all that she has taught and given me, and I hate her for all that she’s put me through. I miss her with every fiber of my being and at the same time I could never forgive her for the darkness she put over the holidays for me. 

To better help you understand our relationship, I feel it is important to divulge a little background. Growing up, my mother was very abusive. She was struggling with often untreated, always undertreated bipolar disorder with frequent bouts of rage and I was her primary target. Our entire house was a war zone where the only way to be heard was to yell louder than the next person, and the only way to shut someone up was to lash out with the meanest, cruelest thing you could think of. After over 20 years of combat, my father walked out on our family shortly before I turned 16. My mother retaliated by driving to his work and shooting him twice. She spent the next few years bouncing between jail and mental institutions until it was ultimately pleaded out. But the damage had already been done and my life had been changed forever.

Her actions that day made it very clear to me exactly what she was capable of doing during her bouts of rage. Yet she still refused to seek help, frequently breaking down into tears or exploding with anger with no prior warning at the drop of a dime. For years, I watched in fear for my own life and the lives of my children until I finally admitted to myself that I did not feel safe. My mother and I had been estranged for a couple years when she passed away.

My mother’s death was officially listed as an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. My mother suffered from a lot of maladies and had medicine for all of them. She took dozens of different medications over the course of the day. Presumably, she had taken her medication for the day, forgotten, taken them again, forgotten and repeated this pattern multiple times before succumbing to an overdose.

I do not believe it was an accident. My mother had always been meticulous with her medication, separating it into containers designating not only days of the week, but times of the day, as well, so that she never missed a dose. 

I believe she killed herself that Thanksgiving morning 10 years ago and that, in the process, she robbed my holidays from me. 

Every year now when the holidays roll around, I struggle to enjoy them. My entire holiday season is marred by her loss.

I love her. Everything I do during the holidays comes directly from her. Yet she also hurt me worse than any other person ever has and made me feel largely unsafe in this world. She wasn’t all bad. I miss her. I feel guilty for not being there when she died. There’s an emptiness in my heart that nothing seems to fill, yet I also carry so much anger towards her. From Thanksgiving through New Years, my emotions are continuously all over the place, repeatedly being pulled one way then the other. I want to be happy, be festive, to enjoy the holidays with my family, but it’s a constant struggle.

It’s become a matter of taking everything one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. Allowing myself to feel everything that I am feeling because all my feelings are valid. And accepting that sometimes I’m just not in the right mindset and I need to pull back, regroup and recharge. I have learned to be gentle with myself. I do what I can when I can, and forgive myself for the things I am just not able to do during the holidays. I do my best to live in the moment and embrace the joy, but I don’t pretend that the darkness isn’t still lurking in the shadows, as well. It isn’t easy, but it is better to acknowledge and face all of my feelings, good and bad, than to shove them down deep inside and pretend they aren’t there. I celebrate when I can and step away when I cannot.

After all, none of us has to be festive all of the time — especially when we are not feeling it.

Republished on MSN on 11/20/2020.

Republished on Zenith News on 11/19/2020.

Republished on The Mental Guide on 11/2020.

Why Tess Holliday Was Right About Abusive Relationships and Responsibility

*** This Piece Was Originally Written For The Mighty on 8/7/20 ***

I’m admittedly a hopeless romantic at heart with a strong Florence Nightingale effect. I’ve always been drawn to the misunderstood, wounded soul with the tragic backstory, ultimately wanting to help save them from both their hard lives and themselves. I stayed in a dysfunctional relationship for 11 years, tolerating both repeated abuse and infidelity, because I firmly yet mistakenly believed it was my responsibility to stay the course and make things work. I desperately wanted to help him heal from the hardships of his past. I believed if I just loved him enough and was supportive enough, somehow we could make it work.

I spent years giving of myself and chipping away at my own self-worth until I completely lost myself in the process. In the end, no matter how much love or support I gave, no matter how many times I forgave his transgressions, the relationship ultimately failed. And even though it was his cheating and his abuse that destroyed everything, I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I had somehow failed, that if I had tried harder or loved more, maybe things would have changed; maybe he would have changed.

It took extensive therapy to accept that I was not at fault. In my desire to save everyone else, I had forgotten to bother trying to save myself. In wanting to help fix him, I had broken myself almost to a point beyond repair. In loving him despite all the abuse, I had stopped loving myself.

That’s why I know model Tess Holliday was completely spot-on when she recently said, “women shouldn’t be responsible for rehabilitating men,” and that, “women often get blamed for not doing ‘enough’ to ‘save’ their relationships. Guess what? We don’t have to carry that. We are only responsible for ourselves and our actions.”

And that goes for all people, not just women toward men.

We can love someone to the moon and back but it doesn’t change the fact that abuse is present. Abuse is never acceptable, nor is it a fee anyone has to endure and pay in order to eventually be worthy of love. It is not anyone else’s responsibility to love someone else enough that they eventually decide to change for the better. Nobody deserves to be abused and nobody has the right to subject anyone else to abuse.

Change has to come from within and the person doing the changing is solely responsible for both their actions and their choice to change. Nobody is required to endure abuse in order to be loved or save anyone else from themselves. The only person each of us is responsible for, the only person each of us has an obligation to save, is ourselves.

These days, I have found myself with another tortured soul who has had a relatively hard life. There are quite a few distinct differences, however, between my last relationship and this one. For starters, I will no longer tolerate anyone being abusive or otherwise treating me poorly because I understand now that abuse is not love. Secondly, I am no longer trying to save him, nor am I asking him to save me, but rather we are loving and standing by each other as we both attempt to save ourselves. Last, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned both to accept responsibility for my own actions and to refuse ownership of his or anyone else’s. I also know now that it is not solely my responsibility, nor his, to make this relationship work. Make it or break it, we both must be all-in and committed. Relationships are a partnership, not a rehab.

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Originally Published on The Mighty on 8/7/20.

More than Just a Faceless Number in the Pandemic

There’s nothing quite like those moments of enlightenment when you realize that your feelings and motives go deeper and are more personal than you previously realized or openly admitted.  Why do I care so deeply about people being responsible and staying home as much as possible during this pandemic?
Whenever I was asked, my first impulse answer was always that I didn’t want anything to happen to those I care about and their loved ones, that there are people in my life that are older or are immuno-compromised, friends who are considered high risk because they just got over cancer or who have just had a baby. I care a lot, perhaps too much at times, about other people, mostly because I know what it is like to struggle and suffer and I don’t want anyone else to needlessly go through any heartache or pain.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how much everything affects others that I often forget to consider my own personal situation. Perhaps I also struggle to consider myself among those who need extra protection, those who are determined to be at a higher risk, those in the biggest danger. I have come to see myself as a fighter, a survivor, and being lumped into that category is like accepting that I am fragile, weak, that I am less than the strong person I believe myself to be.
I have been through a lot in my life.  As a child, I endured every type of abuse imaginable.  Physical, mental and emotional abuse lent to my PTSD diagnosis.  Sexual abuse led to my doctors telling me I might never be able to have children.  Yet I persevered.
At sixteen, my abusive childhood culminated with my mother shooting my father.  I was bounced around among family members for a little over a year before finding myself on my own before I was even eighteen years old. Yet I survived.
Even though addiction ran in my family in the form of both drug and alcohol abuse, and trauma like mine often serves as a catalyst for substance abuse, I managed to avoid both and powered on.
I have struggled with severe depression my entire life, due in part to abuse and trauma, and partly due to a genetic mutation that deprives my brain of the substances it needs to adequately moderate my moods, yet I found ways to continue to function and continue to fight.
I have suffered much heartache over the years, from failed unhealthy and abusive relationships, to multiple miscarriages, yet refused to let any of it ultimately break me.
Cancer runs in both sides of my family.  It stole my mother’s brother way too young.  I watched as it slowly ate away at my father until there was nothing left of him and as it almost killed my mother.  Starting in my twenties, I have had numerous cancer-related health scares of my own.  I had two pre-cancerous atypical pap smears that required cryosurgery and was told afterwards that they were caught just in the nick of time.  In my thirties, they found a mass on the side of my breast extending under my arm that was deemed non-cancerous.  At forty, I had to have one of my ovaries removed because there was a large cyst on it with a fibrous mass inside.  Thankfully, the biopsy after my oophorectomy showed the mass to be benign.  And finally, a little less than two years ago, doctors found not one but two meningioma tumors on my brain.  Yet I continue on and refuse to lose hope.
I continue on because I am a survivor. That is what I do.  I keep going. I power on.  I fight whatever life throws my way.
And I do so with kindness in my heart.  I never want my own life experiences to make me jaded or cruel.  I know what it feels like to suffer and I would not wish my struggles on anyone else.  I try to always show others kindness regardless of whether it was ever shown to me in my own times of need.  I have always firmly believed that there is too much suffering in this world and it is our responsibility to be kind to one another, to watch out for each other, and to ease each other’s pain whenever possible.
And somewhere along the way, I rediscovered myself.  I found a miraculous inner strength, a renewed sense of purpose and even was blessed enough to have wonderful children and find a deep and true lasting love.  I have transformed my own pain into mental health advocacy for others.  I write and speak out to encourage others to keep going, to never give up.  I empathize with the struggles of others and let them know they are not alone.  My writing has been showcased worldwide, discussed on television, radio and internet media programs and shared by numerous government agencies, private practices, and advocacy groups along the way.  I have managed to reach and help more people than I ever imagined possible.  My children and my writing are a legacy I am proud to leave behind.
I have come a long way in life and I have overcome many obstacles along the way.  I am a fighter.  A survivor.
However, to the medical community, I am reduced to a simple list of stats.  Though in normal times, doctors often make an effort to acquaint themselves with their patients to better serve their needs, we are currently in the middle of a worldwide viral pandemic.  The number of infected is increasing daily by the thousands in my country.  And to make matters worse, I happen to live in New York – the current epicenter of the virus in the United States.  Doctors don’t have the time or the energy to get to know all of their patients well right now in an emergency setting.  They have to make split decisions based on medical history prior to infection.
And the simple fact is that I have cancer.  I have two tumors on my brain.  I’m honestly not sure it even matters that the tumors are benign or that right before the pandemic was declared a national emergency, my neurosurgeon informed us that my tumors have shown little to no noticeable growth in the last eighteen months’ of MRI scans.  The cancer diagnosis alone means that I am considered high risk and my treatment is considered a lesser priority than someone else without preexisting conditions.
The fact that I have continuously fought hard and survived many things over the course of my entire life is irrelevant.
The fact that I have dedicated years to helping and advocating for others is irrelevant.
The fact that I am otherwise relatively healthy is irrelevant.
Even the fact that I am a mother and a fiance is irrelevant because every single person that comes through the hospital doors is family to someone.  They are all a son or a daughter.  Many are parents, grandparents, spouses, friends.  We all have a story.
But my story can be reduced to one word, a word that makes my treatment less of a priority during a pandemic. Cancer.
As much as I want to say, want to believe, that the primary reason if not the only reason I want people to stay inside and be responsible is to protect others, I have to accept that I need protecting, too.  My health and well-being is important, as well.  I am part of that at risk, high risk group.  If I get sick, my treatment will possibly, if not likely, be deemed less of a priority.
I don’t want to see myself as someone needing protection because I don’t want to be seen as a victim. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.  I am a fighter.  A survivor.  I have beaten the odds again and again.  I have a lot of living left to do and a lot of fight left in me.  I have children who I long to see grow into their own.  I have a wedding to plan.  I have more writing and advocacy to do.  And I have this cancer to beat.
My staying home unless absolutely necessary only goes so far to flatten the curve.  I am depending on others to be responsible, as well.  Every person out there interacting is a possible carrier and the more people congregating in a given area, the bigger and more likely the spread.  The more this virus spreads, the more likely I am to get it.  Hospitals in my state are already struggling to the point where do not resuscitate orders have been put in place if somebody dies.  If the hospitals become even more overwhelmed, they will be put in the same place Italy was at the apex of their crisis – with doctors having to choose who gets treatment and who dies based solely on their prior medical history.  And having tumors means if the hospitals are overwhelmed, I might be deemed not worth saving because they don’t have the manpower, equipment, time or energy to save everyone.
It’s easy to consider terms such as “acceptable losses” or to shrug off deaths of the elderly and sick as “the thinning of the herd” when you think in terms of abstract numbers instead of considering the actual people behind those numbers.  It is different when you consider the faces and stories of those people and the families they will be leaving behind.  Even one person needlessly contracting this virus and dying should be one person too many.  We all have families and stories.  We aren’t just faceless numbers.  And many of us still have a lot of life left to live and a greater purpose left to fulfill.
I didn’t come this far to only come this far.  I’m continuing to fight the good fight because I want to eventually leave this world a better, kinder place than it was when I entered it.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want any of you to die either.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 5/4/20.

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Republished on Yahoo News on 5/4/20.

 

To the Mother I Never Knew..

As Mother’s Day came and went this past year, I once again found myself with conflicting feelings.  Part of me wanted desperately to join in with friends who were fondly honoring their moms or mourning the mothers they had lost over the years.  Another part of me, however, felt numb and empty, because I never had that type of cherished bond with my mother.  I honestly never knew her.

No, my mother didn’t die when I was born.  She passed away 8 years ago this Thanksgiving Day.  No, she didn’t give me up for adoption nor did she abandon me.  The truth is that my mother was there throughout the majority of my childhood and sporadically at best throughout my adult years.  I just never really knew her because the woman she truly was was buried deep beneath often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness.

Growing up, my mother was one of my biggest abusers, both mentally and physically.  She was prone to severe mood swings that would shift into bouts of rage at the drop of a dime.  She had bipolar disorder.

We were estranged for the last few years of her life.  I could no longer handle the abuse nor did I want my children subjected to it.  It seemed that her medication was never quite balanced nor were her moods.  It always felt like what little treatment she did receive was not helping, was not working, and she was doing very little to proactively work towards correcting anything.  She felt to me like a ticking time bomb, one I was afraid would go off at any moment and I did not want my children caught in the crossfire.

Over the years as I have struggled with my own mental illnesses, I have come to deeply regret those feelings.  I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD, labelled treatment resistant for years.  No medication ever seemed to work.  It wasn’t until the last year or two that I discovered via genetic testing that my resistance was caused in great part to a genetic mutation.  I’ve often wondered since then if my mother suffered from the same mutation.

The truth is that mental illness changes a person, or perhaps more appropriately it snuffs that person out, dimming their light and dulling their soul.  The person that you are is trapped underneath, desperately needing to come out, wanting to shine.  But there is this dark hopelessness that oozes over everything, making it impossible to fully be the person you truly are.

I think about my own children and how my diagnosis has affected them.  They have only seen glimpses of the real me over the years.  The creative me who would spend half the day drawing huge murals with sidewalk chalk on the tennis courts at the park with them on summer days.  The silly me who would make paper pirate hats and eye patches, transforming our dining room chairs into a pirate ship to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with them.  The nurturing and educational me who would catch tadpoles in buckets with them to show them how they turned into frogs.

More than anything, though, they saw my mental illness.  They saw the mom who was too exhausted just from going through the daily motions of life to do anything fun.  They saw the mom who opted for quiet family days indoors watching movies or playing board games because I was physically and mentally unable to do anything more.  They saw the mom who often emerged from the bathroom drying my eyes as I attempted to hide the tears I could never seem to stop from flowing.

They were vaguely aware of the person I truly was but they knew my mental illness well.

I remember when I first started taking the medication I needed for my genetic mutation and I had my first truly happy moment.  It was the first time in my life I ever felt that sludge of mental illness be lifted off of me, albeit for a short period of time.  The medication is not a panacea.  It in no way cures or stops my mental illness.  However, it does give my mind the ability to fight back in a way that it never could before.

That moment of happiness was beyond blissful.  I laughed, cried and hugged my boys, asking them again and again if that was truly what happiness felt like.  I had never experienced anything else like it.  That sludge continues to lift here and there sporadically and I have a genuine hope for the future now, that there might be a day when there’s more periods of happiness than illness.  But for now, more days than not, I still struggle.

I have heard from people that knew my mother at the end of her life, in those last couple years, that she had finally gotten the treatment she needed.  Her medication was finally balanced.  She was happy and more herself than she had ever been before.  She was doing crafts with the neighborhood children and even developed a fondness for Harry Potter.

Part of me envies them because I never knew that woman.  I never had the pleasure of meeting her.  All I ever knew was the sludge and taint of her illness.  On Mother’s Day, I mourned the ghost of a woman I never even met, a woman I would have loved more than anything to know.

Please keep in mind that when you’re dealing with people who are struggling with mental illness that they are not completely themselves.  The person they truly are is in there somewhere, beneath their diagnosis, fighting to get out.  Please don’t ever assume that we’re just not trying hard enough, that we’ve already given up or that we’ve lost who we are along the way.  It is a daily battle, a constant fight, against your own mind.  It is a never-ending struggle to push your way through a thick layer of darkness just to come up for air.

Looking back, I truly regret becoming estranged with my mother.  I had done what I thought was best at the time, trying to shield my children and myself from an illness that was not her fault.  She had no more control over her bipolar disorder than I do over my own mental illness.  I am sure she was trying harder, fighting more, than I ever realized.

To the mother I never knew – I’m sorry I was not there when you needed me.  I’m sorry that I allowed my fear to dictate my actions and choices and that I abandoned you when you needed me most.  I’m sorry I was not more compassionate and understanding of all that you were going through.  Most importantly, I am sorry I never had the pleasure to truly meet you.  Happy belated Mother’s Day.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 9/14/18.

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Republished on MSN on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 9/14/18.

What it is Like When PTSD Gives You Flashbacks of Abuse

I had a flashback today.  They don’t happen very often, but when they do, they shake me to the core.

It started with an argument at home.  In a moment of anger and frustration as he stormed out of the room, he shoved a floor fan on the other side of the bed, knocking it over.  He hadn’t meant to scare or startle me.  In that brief moment of frustration, he had lashed out without thinking, not even realizing the effect it might have on me.

It was an instant trigger for me.

I know he has never hit me or laid his hands on me in any way and that he would never do such a thing.  I know he isn’t even normally explosive like that.  I know he’d never hurt me nor would he ever intentionally do anything to scare or trigger me. Yet, in that moment, everything I knew flew right out the window.

I was suddenly that 8 year old girl again, that girl that knew when things went flying it was only a matter of moments until the pain began.  I was that little girl again, scrambling off the bed and cowering in the corner of the room in a tight ball, wishing I could shrink down to nothing and fade away.  I was that girl again, panicked because my arms were too tiny to shield myself, that I didn’t have enough arms to block the whirlwind of hits and kicks I knew was inevitably coming.

I don’t know if my flashbacks are the same as other people’s because I wouldn’t dream to even ask anyone else with PTSD how their attacks play out.  I do know, though, that my mind works differently than many people’s.  You see, among other issues, I have a condition called aphantasia.  In simplest terms, I cannot visualize.  When most people are told to imagine an apple, they can create an image of an apple in their mind.  Though I know what an apple is and can list all types of factual things about an apple, I cannot form an image of one in my mind.  The same goes with memories.  I can list all types of facts about an occasion but I cannot create an image of it from memory.

Because of that fact, my flashbacks do not have images from my past.  My body, however, remembers other things.  I’ve always considered it a type of muscle memory of sorts, triggered by my PTSD.  My mind has retained how those blows felt raining down again and again so when I am pulled back into my past for a flashback, it is those sensations and memories and not visualizations that I experience again.

As I lay curled up in a ball in the corner, I swear I could feel that barrage of swings and kicks as if they were happening right that moment.  My ribs ached from blows delivered back when I was a child.  I struggled to catch my breath as the wind I breathed decades ago felt knocked out of me again.  I felt I needed to protect myself, shield my head and my body, bracing myself for damage long healed.  I could feel bruises blossoming on my skin as a far off voice that felt disconnected and not my own pleaded to not be hurt, cried for it to stop, begged to be left alone. I was trapped in that moment, reliving the abuse of my childhood.

I was vaguely aware of his presence and of disjointed words being said that seemed to disperse before they ever reached my ears.  Though some small part of me recognized his presence, he felt no more real at that moment than I did.  The only thing that felt real was that scared little child who desperately wanted to protect herself from any more hurt.

It felt very akin in a way to the sunken place described in that movie Get Out, where a part of myself was watching and witnessing from afar, though disconnected and unable to do a thing.  I felt trapped in the past, cemented into a nightmare from my childhood, lost within my own head.

A small fragment of my consciousness wanted to scream that this isn’t real, to force myself awake and claw my way back to reality.  But it felt so real.  It was like I was trapped drowning in a memory, unable to catch my own breath.

After what felt like an eternity, I was slowly able to wrestle my way back to myself.  I sat there in the corner, shaking and sobbing, rubbing and squeezing my arms and legs, trying to convince myself that I was myself again, back in the present.  I kept reminding myself it was over, I was safe, that none of that had really just happened.  But it felt so real.  My ribs still ached as if blows had recently landed and my limbs all still stung as if they were bruised.

I sat on the floor, shaking and crying for almost an hour, searching deep within for the strength to even pull myself up off the floor and onto the bed.  I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted from my journey back in time.  I felt like I was freezing.  My teeth chattered whenever I tried to close my mouth, though it was not from the cold.  I was shaken to the core by the whole experience.

I eventually eased myself back up onto the bed and pulled the covers protectively around myself though they did nothing to stop the chill that went down to my bones or to quiet the sobs that still wracked my body.  He held me, doing his best to comfort and soothe me, apologizing again and again for ever even getting upset, pleading for me to talk to him, to let him know I was okay.  It was the first flashback episode of mine that he had witnessed and it scared and shook him to the core as much as it had me.

I laid here in bed, thinking about how badly I needed to share this experience, to try and explain what it was like while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to explain the fear and the terror before the inevitable numbness set in and I shut down in order to recover and recuperate.  I know I didn’t truly go back in time, but I felt just like that little girl again, experiencing one of the many beatings I had endured all over again as if it was happening right in that moment.

I had a PTSD flashback today.

It may have been all in my mind, but it felt devastatingly real to me.

mamamia

Republished on MamaMia on 4/14/18.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 4/18/18.

Resolving Trauma Doesn’t Cure Mental Illness

When I explain that I am struggling with mental illness, I am often faced with people questioning why.  I usually start off with a fairly terse and technical response about it being a combination of genetics and life experiences but that answer rarely seems to appease anyone.  Though I am not quite sure why so many people feel I owe them an explanation about my medical condition, more often than not, people continue probing, wanting to know what could have possibly happened in my life that could cause a lifelong mental illness.

It is at this point that I usually explain that I grew up in a dysfunctional, often abusive, household.  I have endured physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse multiple times each over the years.  I have been knocked down, stepped on, crushed to the core and had my very soul completely obliterated so many times I have lost count.

In response, I usually get the inevitable lecture about not holding onto the past, learning how to forgive, let go and move on.  Sometimes, they even throw in an additional reminder that I shouldn’t allow myself to be a victim for the rest of my life.

What I cannot seem to get through to anyone, though, is that my life experiences are only one small part of a bigger picture.  The traumas in my life did not cause my mental illness but rather they exacerbated it.  They also contributed unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviors and thought patterns.  Though they made a very difficult  situation much worse, resolving the traumas I have endured would not magically make my mental illness disappear.

The truth is that I have come a very long way to resolving and coming to terms with many of the traumas of my past.  I have gone through a lot of therapy over the years and have come to terms with many hard truths.  For instance, I have accepted that my mother shooting my father was in great part due to her often untreated, always undertreated mental illness.  I have accepted that one of the main reasons I had tolerated  repeated infidelity from my romantic partners in the past was due to the fact that I never was able to hold my own father accountable for his transgressions against my mother.  I have accepted that everything in life is not clear cut black or white, good or bad, and have done my best to put myself in the shoes of others and accept the past as something that cannot be changed, letting go of the torment within myself and even forgiving in some instances.

I have even taken things a step further, systematically pulling apart many of my thought processes trying to rout out any dysfunctional or unhealthy behaviors and patterns.  I have put myself under the self-awareness microscope again and again, examining why I react like I do and making a conscious effort to change anything that I believed to be self-destructive or unhealthy.

Most importantly, I have learned to forgive myself and to accept myself for who I am.  I have accepted that I had done nothing wrong to deserve any of the abuse that I was subjected to over the years.  I have even learned to like myself as a person and to identify different traits I possess as being assets.

I don’t consider myself a victim.  I consider myself a survivor.  Though the traumas I have been through have greatly contributed to the person I am and they deserve acknowledgement for that fact, I refuse to let them control my life or dictate the person I am going to be.  I am not looking for pity.  I just want acceptance and understanding.

Though I have fought extremely hard to work through many of the traumas I have endured in my life and consider myself very self-aware, I still struggle with mental illness every single day.  Why?  Because it is a medical condition.  Much like a person’s diabetes may be made worse by a large intake of sugary foods, removing those foods will not magically make their diabetes disappear any more than working through my traumas will make my mental illness disappear.

Part of my diagnosis is a genetic mutation.  This mutation greatly hinders my body’s ability to make a substance my brain needs to moderate my moods.  In essence, my brain has been starving for what it needs my entire life, getting at best 20% of a specific chemical it needs.  Though the traumas I have experienced contributed greatly to the severity of my condition and have negatively impacted my life, my mental illness would have existed even if none of them ever occurred.

Another portion of my mental illness is genetic in general.  Both my parents struggled with various mental illnesses over the years.  My mother suffered from bipolar disorder and my father struggled with depression throughout his life.  Though a parent having a mental illness does not guarantee the diagnosis in their children, studies have shown that the five major mental illnesses can be traced the the same inherited genetic variations.  So much like parents can pass along their eye or hair color, they can also pass along the predisposition for mental illness.

I struggle every single day with my mental illness.  Regardless of whether the rational part of my brain tells me that today should be a good day, another large part of my brain is constantly sending out negative emotions and responses, which in turn sometimes presents itself in physical ways.  I am in a constant battle with my own brain and body.  Though difficult times might contribute to the severity of my downward spiral on a given day, the absence of bad days does not negate my mental illness.  It is always there.

Yet that technical explanation is rarely enough to placate anyone looking for answers.  Many people seem to believe that mental illnesses like depression occur when something bad happens and can be just as easily solved by resolving the underlying issue.  They look for key life events to target, assuming the person struggling will magically be cured if they can just get past that traumatic event.

I can tell you that it rarely is that easy.  Yes, there are some cases of mental illness that are predominately situation-based where the person’s mental health greatly improves when the trauma is resolved, like increased depression caused by bullying, for example.  Likewise, there are milder cases of diabetes where the person’s sugar levels can be moderated predominately by life changes such as diet and exercise alone.  But that does not make that person any less of a diabetic.  For the majority of diabetics, though, addressing their lifestyle is not enough.  They need ongoing treatment and monitoring in order to stay healthy because their illness causes one of the organs in their body to not work properly.  The same can be said for mental illness.  The only difference is that it is our brain that is malfunctioning.

Providing a detailed list of our traumas does not give a run down of how to magically cure our mental illnesses.  Time and again, we throw out our trauma lists out of frustration because some people cannot seem to wrap their head around the fact that we have a medical condition that affects the way our brains work.  It is approached as “mind over matter”, that if we just try hard enough to work through things and learn to let go, we’ll be happy again.  Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

There is no shame in having a mental illness.  It is a medical condition that statistics show now affects one in five people in the world to varying degrees.  We need to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness and stop judging everyone who is struggling to live with one.  Nobody would ask a diabetic why they had their condition because it is accepted that sometimes bodies don’t work as they should and people have to seek medical treatment in order to live a healthier life.  People accept that giving up candy bars or soda won’t magically cure a diabetic.  Likewise, working through the traumas in my past will not magically make my mental illness disappear.  No one should have to justify why they have a mental illness nor should they be met with accusations that they are just not trying hard enough to get past their medical condition.  We don’t owe anyone an explanation nor do we deserve being blamed for our illness.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 5/3/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 5/3/18.

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Republished on Yahoo News – India on 5/3/18.

Republished on Yahoo News – Singapore on 5/3/18.

Stop Blaming the Entire Mental Health Community Whenever a Senseless Tragedy Happens

Mass shootings are commonplace in the United States these days.  One community has barely had a chance to mourn and bury their dead before another incident appears somewhere else on the map.  After the school shooting yesterday, a jaw-dropping statistic began to appear across the internet: In the U.S., there has been a gun incident at a school every 60 hours so far in 2018.  That is one every two and a half days.

Everyone is so quick to point fingers and lay blame.  One of the biggest scapegoats is the mentally ill.  Mental illness has become a dirty word.

When someone does something senseless and tragic, one of the first things you hear is that it wouldn’t have happened if not for better mental health treatment.  When there is a shooting, people question how someone who was mentally ill had access to guns.  When someone drives a vehicle into a crowded area or a parent kills their children, people question why someone who was that mentally ill was even allowed out on the street.  People clamor for more laws restricting the rights of the mentally ill for the protection of communities at large.  Politicians respond by shouting promises that there will be change in lieu of this mental health epidemic.

As someone who has struggled with mental illness my entire life, what I see are torches and pitchforks, what I am hearing is one step away from “lock all the crazies up for the safety of everyone else!”  It is a slippery slope.

Please know that I am in no way disputing that those people who commit senseless atrocities like mass shootings have severe mental issues and are desperately in need of help.  What I am saying is that mental illness exists on a broad spectrum.  Mental illness is  term to describe a wide variety of conditions that originate in the brain.  The scope of mental illness extends from diseases of the brain to diseases of the mind. Also, please know that there is a distinct difference between the majority of mental illnesses and the behavior disorders that sociopaths and psychopaths fall into.

Everyone suffering from a mental illness is not the same.  The Diagnostic and Statistical manual, or DSM, is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used to diagnose mental illnesses.  The current APA list has around 400 different diagnosis, covering a wide range of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.*

Yes, there are people that are mentally ill that are violent and commit unspeakable acts.  It might even be fair to say that someone has to have something wrong in their head to even be able to carry out anything as heinous as a mass shooting.  But the majority of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are non-violent.

According to recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI**, 18.5% of adults in the United States, over 43 million people, experience mental illness every year.  If a mental illness diagnosis alone was enough to determine a person was dangerous and likely to commit violent acts, with 43 million people suffering from mental illness every year, the numbers of violent crimes would be astronomical.

With millions of people in prisons across the United States and over a million more being sentenced each year to incarceration***, you would assume that prisons would be a hotbed of mental illness.  However, again according to NAMI statistics**, only 24%, not even one quarter of inmates, have had any recent mental health diagnosis.

The fact is that a recent study published in the American Journal of  Public Health shows that a person with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator****.  Based on this study’s statistics, almost one-third of adults who have been diagnosed with mental illness had been victimized in some way during the previous 6 month period, with over 40% being victimized multiple times.  Of the 23% of mentally ill persons in the study who had committed any sort of violent act in the previous 6 months, roughly 2/3 of the violence had occurred in a home or other residential setting.  A meager 2.6% of violence occurred outside the home in a school or workplace environment.  The most startling fact to come to light in this study, however, is that the victims of violence were 11 times more likely to commit violent acts themselves afterwards.

Yes, something has to be done in regards to mental health treatment in the United States.  But it is NOT because the mentally ill population is inherently violent and unsafe to wander the streets unrestricted and unregulated.  Mental illness and the way it is regarded in this country is a societal epidemic.  Those who have been diagnosed with mental illness must deal with constant stigma.  We are ostracized as being crazy and unbalanced, simultaneously a joke to be mocked and a dangerous monster who needs to be locked up for their own safety and the safety of others.  We often hide our diagnosis for fear of judgment or minimize our struggles to reassure others they have nothing to fear or worry about.

The way a mentally ill diagnosis is handled in this country has to change.  We need to be able to speak up, speak out and receive the treatment we need.  Though NAMI statistics show over 43 million people struggle with mental illness each year, only 41% have received treatment for their condition**.  Roughly one-fourth of the disability applications for Social Security list mental illness as their primary impairment.  Though NAMI statistics** show that 9.8 million people annually experience a severe mental illness that drastically impairs their ability to function, statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that only roughly 2.7 million people are deemed eligible for SSI or SSDI*****.  As I can attest, anyone who is applying for disability due to mental illness is advised to get a lawyer and to expect to be denied at least once, if not multiple times, regardless of how much documentation you have for your diagnosis.  Though my mental illness is due in large part to a verifiable genetic mutation I was born with, combined with well-documented trauma, I, myself, have been denied multiple times and still am deemed ineligible by government standards.  For years, I have struggled with red tape, jumping through hoop after hoop, hoping to get the help I need, only to hit brick wall after brick wall, having to begin the process all over again.

The lack of adequate treatment for mental illness in this country has grown rampant.  Suicide is currently the 10th highest cause of death in this country, 3rd highest among 10-14 year olds and 2nd highest for 15-24 year olds, according to NAMI statistics**.  Recently, a video of a disoriented mentally ill woman being cast out on the street by a hospital staff has gone viral.  According to the National Coalition for Homelessness, between 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from “a severe form of mental illness”********.  Mental illness is listed as the 3rd highest cause of homelessness.  People are falling through the cracks, wandering the streets untreated, people are dying, our children are dying, and yet nothing is being done.  The lives of the mentally ill are one by one becoming nothing more than statistics.

It should not be so hard to get help in this country.

There are others who are afraid to reach out for help due to government restrictions on the mentally ill.  There is an epidemic of mental illness and substance abuse among our military.  According to the APA, almost one-fourth of our soldiers, up to 24.4%, are struggling with mental illnesses such as PTSD******.  A recent study published in Science Daily from The University at Buffalo observing the mental and physical effects of law enforcement determined that not only was PTSD and depression a substantial issue, but nearly one quarter of police officers admitted to suicidal thoughts, much higher than the 13.5% of the general population*******.  And these are only the statistics of those who have willingly come forward seeking treatment.  Due to the push for politicians to pass laws regulating gun ownership, a mental illness diagnosis could result in losing the right to even own a gun.  How do we encourage our soldiers and police officers to get the help they need when it could mean giving up their livelihood in the process?

I personally know many people who are afraid to have a record on file about their struggles with mental illness.  They are people who hunt for recreation and are legitimately afraid that a diagnosis would take away their 2nd amendment rights and their ability to feed their families.  They are people who fear a diagnosis would negatively impact their career or their ability to advance due to the stigma attached.  They are people who have seen firsthand how poorly the mentally ill are treated in this country and do not want to be labeled as crazy and unbalanced, as well.  So instead, they suffer in silence, without treatment, until something cracks and breaks.

Yes, there is a mental illness epidemic in this country that is leading to horrifically tragic events.  But it is NOT due to people with mental illness having access to guns nor is it due to mentally ill people wandering around free and unfettered.  It is a direct result of society’s treatment, and lack of treatment thereof, of the mentally ill population.  Please take a second again and consider the facts.

Fact: Over 43 million people every single year struggle with mental illness**.

Fact: Only 41% of those with a mental health condition have received medical help for their condition in the last year **.

Fact: One third of people with a mental illness are victimized and abused every six months and those who are victims of abuse are eleven times more likely to commit a violent act themselves****.

We desperately need to change how mental illness is viewed and treated in this country.  The mentally ill population does not need more restrictions and regulations.  We need more access to health care, better support and protections.  We need assurances that it is okay to seek help and guarantees that the millions of us with a mental illness diagnosis will not all become vilified due to the actions of a minute few.

We need the stigma and persecution to end and the help and healing to begin.

That is the only way that things can change.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 2/20/18.

* AMA literature with the DSM codes for the broad spectrum of mental illnesses can be found at:  https://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/doi/book/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

** NAMI’s Mental Health by the Numbers statistics can be found at:  https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers

*** Bureau of Justice Statistics page that provides incarceration numbers can be found at:  https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=11

**** Study entitled “Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With Mental Illnesses” can be found at:  http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301680

***** Statistics from National Institute of Mental Health can be found at:  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2015/mental-health-awareness-month-by-the-numbers.shtml

****** APA Statistics on Veterans can be found at:  http://www.apa.org/advocacy/military-veterans/mental-health-needs.pdf

*******Study on Law Enforcement done by the University of Buffalo, published by Science Daily can be found at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080926105029.htm

******** The National Coalition for Homelessness report on Homelessness and Mental Illness can be found at:  http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf

The Frustration of Explaining Mental Illness to Those Who Have Never Experienced it Themselves

I would not wish mental illness on anyone else.  Having a mental illness is like waging a continuous war within yourself where half the time you are not even sure what is being fought over, only that the battle rages on.  There is never a true moment of peace.  You may have good days, yes, but even on those blessed days there is never peace because you can feel its presence, always looming, weighing down on your soul, preparing to strike again.  There might be small periods of respite here and there, the calm before the storm, but anyone fighting their own battle with mental illness knows it is only a matter of time before another downward spiral or another period of numbness, appears.  One of the worst things about having a mental illness is that we don’t even fully understand what is going on within our own minds and bodies, let alone have the words to adequately explain it to others.  Even more frustrating is when someone else puts us on the defensive because they do not fully understand what we are going through but assume they do because they have been exposed to it from a sideline view.

Someone who has never been in a car crash cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has been in one” or “because I’ve taken care of someone who has had one”.

Someone who has never had cancer cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has had cancer” or “because I’ve helped to take care of people who have had cancer”.

Likewise, someone who has never had a mental illness cannot truly understand what it is like to live with one, regardless of whether they worked with people who had one or had a family member diagnosed with one.

You can sympathize with someone else who is struggling but you cannot truly understand what it is like to live with mental illness merely by being exposed to it second-hand in others.  Witnessing others being traumatized is not the same as experiencing the trauma yourself.  It is not something you can experience vicariously and fully understand the suffering.  As much as we might try to explain what it is like in order to help others somewhat understand, there are no words we possess that would adequately explain all that we are going through.  And anything we say is usually just the tip of the iceberg, minimized for the benefit of others because we don’t want to overwhelm or scare anyone else with the horrors of our reality.   Mental illness is something that you truly have to experience firsthand to fully understand.

Nothing is more frustrating than having someone verbally attack the core of our illness as “making no sense”, expecting us to fully explain something that we ourselves have trouble understanding.  Or to be called out, as if we are somehow inherently wrong for even being mentally ill at all.

I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression and P.T.S.D.

Due to severe anxiety attacks during periods of high stress, one of the agencies I work with recently arranged a home visit as an alternative to my having an office visit.  I had someone interject that their mother is bipolar and has done the same thing, claiming that it is ridiculous that her mother can attend highly populated events such as street fairs but cannot go to a downtown office to complete some paperwork.  She then demanded to know whether I was equally unreasonable, attending random public events while claiming I was incapable of going out to an appointment.

I tried to explain that it isn’t how generalized anxiety works.  I am not anxious being around people.  I do not have social anxiety.  With generalized anxiety, I live in a constant state of heightened anxiety that is worsened by stressful situations.  On a scale of 1-10, most people start off an average day around a one or a two.  If there is nothing to worry about, there’s no reason for an average person to be anxious.  If someone’s rent is coming due and money is tight, their anxiety level might be raised to a two or three.  If, on top of that, they’re worried about being laid off, their anxiety might be raised to a three or four.  Not getting enough time with your kids, needing unplanned repairs on a home or vehicle that you cannot afford, unexpected illnesses and deaths all increase anxiety.  With each newly added stress, anxiety continues to compound and raise.

Now imagine starting every day at a 4 or a 5.  Even worse, most of the time you’re not even sure why exactly you’re anxious.  You just know that feeling is there.  You’re notably on edge, you’re distracted, you’re hyper-vigilant.  Your body is physically reacting to the stress.  You are visibly flustered, your chest is tightened, you find yourself shaking or bouncing your limbs or no reason, you have trouble focusing your thoughts and forming coherent words.  Each new added stress only raises everything higher.  It doesn’t take much until you find yourself at a 7 or 8, in a full blown anxiety attack.

Consider going to an office to do paperwork, starting at the 4 or 5 those with anxiety might begin each day with.  If a previous visit there did not go well, your mind relates the two and it adheres the past to the present situation.  If there were subsequent visits that did not go well, each of them is an added stress, as well.  Your mind is hyper-vigilant, constantly reviewing situations and drawing connections, trying to protect you from duplicating a previous bad experience.  After a few bad experiences somewhere or with someone, that compounded anxiety becomes too much to bear.   Your mind begins firing off danger warnings and your body reacts accordingly.  Your fight or flight response kicks in.  You want to run away, to scream, to avoid it at all costs.  You freeze like a deer caught in the headlights or you become agitated and aggressive because you feel an overwhelming need to protect and defend yourself.  It all occurs subconsciously in the brain.  Your anxiety rises on its own without any conscious decision on your part.  You are not intentionally overreacting or being melodramatic.  Your mind and body are just reacting to the situation at hand based on the data it has compiled.  It is the truth of living with anxiety.

Attending a populated event is another situation entirely.  In all honesty, each situation is different depending on our previous experiences with the location, the people involved and many other contributing factors.  We cannot even reasonably predict ahead of time whether a situation will feel safe or not because literally anything could trigger a raise in anxiety.  It never takes long before that heightened anxiety reaches dangerous levels and an anxiety attack ensues.  We have very limited control over situations.  Our mind and body are steering the car and we are just along for the ride.

My explanation fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps even worse than trying to help others understand anxiety is trying to explain depression.  Too many people who have either never experienced depression or who have only experienced a temporary or situational, mild bout, have a habit of aggressively attacking those suffering from more severe, debilitating depression for not being able to “bounce back” quickly enough to meet their standards.

We are accused of being lazy and having pity parties.  We are told that they “know what it’s like but..” you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself, you have to be more positive and at least try, you have to pull your shit together and do what has to be done.  We are accused of not trying hard enough, of not even trying at all.  We are asked why we are not even working part time and told of a myriad of other people who were able to magically pull themselves together, shamed into feeling like we are horrible people for being unable to function as well as they or someone else they know did.

I have tried explaining the realities of severe depression, only to have it fall on deaf ears, as well.

Those of us suffering from depression are not having pity parties.  Depression is far more than just being sad or feeling negative about our circumstances in life.  There are days when the world feels bleak and hopeless, where you are convinced you are completely alone and become trapped in an empty numbness that renders you virtually immobile.  It isn’t that you are not aware of everything that needs to be done or that you don’t want to do it – you are trapped within yourself, unable to pull yourself up to do even the simplest of tasks.  You might lay there for hours, beating yourself up as your inner dialogue drums into your consciousness everything you could be doing, should be doing, and how broken, worthless and useless you are for being incapable of doing anything at all.  There are days you spiral down into negativity, tearing yourself apart viciously for being garbage because some part of your brain believes that is what you deserve.  You tear yourself apart for being broken, damaged, and flawed worse than anyone else could ever do.  There are days when the tears keep flowing even though you cannot pinpoint exactly why, beyond “life itself” and days you’ll sit in a fog, doing nothing or randomly puttering, losing hours at a time.

Whether we’re trapped in numbness or spiraling down, our minds are constantly whirling, reminding us of all we should be doing and how much of a failure we are for not accomplishing everything we believe we should.  We desperately want to do more, to do better, to do anything at all.  We hate ourselves for not being able to do everything we believe we should be able to do.  We feel like a failure that has let everyone down.  But our minds have betrayed us.  We are in a constant battle within our own heads.  We have so many emotions, so much hurt, pain, anger, self-loathing, sadness and confusion swirling within our heads that it is hard to sort it all out and think straight.  Though we can pinpoint the cause of some of it, the majority is so broad and vague that we don’t even understand where it is coming from let alone know how to begin explaining or addressing it all.

Any job, even part-time, is difficult when we cannot plan from one hour to the next, let alone one day to the next, whether we will be spiraling down into that abyss or frozen in numbness.  Yes, e may have good, functional days, but they do not appear on any set schedule.  We have no idea how or when our depression will strike next or how long it will last. We are not being lazy or just not trying hard enough.  We just cannot reasonably commit ourselves to a schedule when we don’t know how well we’ll be able to function an hour from now, let alone a week from Tuesday from 8am to 4pm.

Perhaps the most asinine assertion I have ever heard from people who did not understand and had never experienced what I was struggling with was the claim I hve heard numerous times that “only soldiers suffer from P.T.S.D.”, as if I was somehow disparaging the armed forces with my diagnosis.  Post traumatic stress disorder is more broad-reaching than the military.  It is fairly common with those who have suffered from years of abuse, especially during their childhood as I have, or have experienced traumatic or violent events in their lives such as rape, as I have.  Flashbacks, nightmares and night terrors are not exclusive to those in a uniform.  Do not minimize my trauma because I fought a different kind of war on a different type of battlefield.

I truly appreciate when people acknowledge my diagnosis and attempt to empathize with all that I am struggling with because it really is a daily battle.  It is heart-wrenching and honestly makes me want to cry whenever someone has been through something so similar that they can truly relate to what I am going through because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.  My heart goes out to everyone fighting a battle within themselves that they cannot seem to fully explain and constantly feel judged for having because I have been there and understand how exhausting it is to have to defend yourself for your diagnosis.  But please don’t ever use the second-hand experiences you’ve witnessed others having to minimize what I am going through.  Knowing someone who has mental illness or even working around people that have been diagnosed with a mental illness is not the same thing as living with one yourself.  Even individual diagnosis can differ greatly, as well, so you cannot measure two personal experiences by the same bar.  You cannot truly understand what a person is going through before walking a mile in their shoes so please stop judging me for my diagnosis when you have no idea of the battles I am fighting inside.  I truly appreciate compassion and empathy but please leave your judgment at the door.

I’m Sorry But It Doesn’t Work That Way…

Not too long ago, someone who used to mean a lot to me tried unsuccessfully to re-enter my life.  Though they wholly admitted to treating me horribly for the last year or so that they were previously in my life, they then tried to minimalize the pain they had caused, claiming that all the good they had done for years before that should outweigh the bad of that last year.

We talked briefly for that one night that they dropped that bombshell.  I was beside myself with shock and honestly wasn’t sure even what to say to that sentiment.  I knew, however, that they had become a toxic presence in my life so I chose to pull away completely, blocking them and ceasing all contact.  I had begun my journey towards a healthier and happier life and refused to let them derail me.  What they said, though, took up residence in my head, a little kernel bouncing around, waiting to pop and expand into something more.

As is often the case, that kernel got pushed aside to a back burner.  Life happened.  Family happened.  Love happened.  Holidays happened.  But I knew that eventually, no matter how much was happening around me, that kernel would reappear.  And just as expected, late this evening, it finally did, fully formed and realized.

As I sat there considering it all, that one line from that commercial with the old lady posting pictures onto the wall in her living room came to mind.

“That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!”

There was just no way that a prior decade of good times and happy memories could erase, overwrite or minimize that one final year of cruelty.

That is not to say that I was not grateful for all the good times that I shared with this person or that I didn’t value all the times they were there for me when I had no one else to lean on.  I will always cherish all those memories and will truly appreciate all that they gave of themselves over the years.

That is not to say, also, that relationships aren’t comprised of ups and downs, highs and lows, good and bad.  People don’t always get along.  Conflicts happen.  People disagree and argue.  When someone truly matters, you try to take the good with the bad, for better or worse.  There is a fair amount of forgive and forget in friendships and relationships.  It all comes with the territory.

However..

There are some actions that rise above and beyond the normal wear and tear of relationships, actions that exist outside the realm of random daily disagreements and headbutting. When someone, in an essence, declares war on another person’s heart, emotions and trust, disregarding their feelings and intentionally going out of their way to repeatedly, without qualms or remorse, lash out and hurt someone else, it is no longer a matter of forgive and forget, for better or worse.

All the good does not negate or erase the bad in those cases.  When he made it his mission to hurt me repeatedly over the course of that last year, it forever changed things between us.  There is never an excuse for intentionally lashing out, trying to damage and break someone that you supposedly love.  All the good he may have done previously does not take away all the heartache in those final months.  All the prior good does not excuse all the times I was ignored and mistreated, all the cruel words and actions hurled my way, and all the times I was ghosted and discarded at the end.

Though with his words he swore I meant the world to him for years, his actions over the last year spoke volumes in the opposite direction.  No matter how good he used to be to me and how sweetly he used to spin his words, none of it can erase the fact that he treated me like garbage for that last year.

That’s not how it works.

If a person lays their hands on another person, they cannot then say “what about all the years before I beat you?  Don’t they count for anything?”

If a person cheats on another person, they cannot then say “what about all the years I didn’t sleep around?  Why aren’t you taking them into consideration?”

If a person tears you down again and again, discards you repeatedly and treats you like you’re worthless, they cannot then say “what about all those years before I showed you what you truly meant to me, before I treated you like you were nothing? Shouldn’t that balance everything out?”

If someone who claims to love you is repeatedly and systematically cruel and uncaring towards you, it does not matter whether or not they used to be sweet and loving once upon a time.  A broken heart is still a broken heart just as much as a broken bone is still a broken bone and a split lip is still a split lip.  Once you abuse that trust and break my heart, I cannot push it aside and pretend it did not happen.  Though it does not erase all the good, it changes things irreparably.

A decade of kindness and love, no matter how wonderful, cannot erase that final year of heartache and heartbreak.

Many people preach forgiveness.  I’m sure that will come in time.  I can honestly say I do not hate him, nor do I wish him any ill will.  But all the trust is gone.  I cannot have him in my life to any extent.  Walls are up.  The place he used to have in my heart has been boarded up and is closed for good.  I’ve reached the point of no return.  There is no going back to how things used to be.

Broken trust and a shattered heart, much like a fractured bone, is not easily mended.  And even when everything does eventually fuse back together, that damage beneath never disappears.  It is always there, just under the surface, forever evidence to the damage that was done.

Perhaps if the order had been reversed, things might have been different.  If the years of kindness had followed after the year of cruelty as a sincere attempt to make amends for prior bad acts, it probably would have counted for more.  That way, at least, there would be an act of contrition and penance for being unnecessarily cruel.  But to expect to be given a free pass for a year of wanton and reckless heartbreak on the basis that you used to be better to me is beyond ludicrous and unreasonable.

Actions speak louder than words and his actions over that final year he was a part of my life spoke volumes about just how low I ranked in his life and heart.  Having an “Oops my bad” moment of admission, especially without any real action of remorse to back it up right after the fact, could not even come close to touching or resolving any of the pain he caused over the last couple years.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am grateful for all those years of friendship and love that were given.  I’ll always cherish the times that he was there for me.  It just doesn’t erase or negate any of the hurt of that final year.  It doesn’t work that way, at least not for me.

Some People Just Don’t Get It..

For almost a decade, I had someone in my life I considered my best friend.  We had bonded over similar experiences and shared pain.  I thought they understood me better than anyone else ever had.  Then, right when I needed them most, they disappeared from my life.

I did what I do best.  I continued on and I survived.  Miraculously, this time I even managed to go above and beyond that.  I rose above it all.  I began to grow and flourish.  And in the midst of all the rubble of my life, I found love.

The love I found was a thing of fairy tales.  A flame from childhood rekindled and a bond beyond anything I ever imagined possible.  We connect on every level and communicate with an openness and honesty I’ve always dreamed about but had always believed was beyond my grasp.  It took me completely by surprise because, though I am a hopeless romantic at heart, I had begun questioning whether a love like this even existed outside of storybooks.

After almost a year of ghosting, that supposed best friend decided recently to touch base, attempting to talk as if no time had passed and all was still well between us.  Though still hurt by their abandonment, for the sake of a decade-long friendship, I tried to have a civil conversation, catching them up on all that has happened and filling them in on how I had been.  After all, I was proud of myself pulling myself back up, holding myself together despite facing so many difficulties alone.  I was proud for all I had accomplished in such a short time and amazed at the love I had managed to find for myself.

To my astonishment, instead of being thrilled for me, he declared that I had “won”.  Apparently, I had, in his eyes, done better in life in some way than he had done.  Even more apparent, he resented it.  He made numerous passive-aggressively snide comments and even attempted to guilt-trip me over my newfound love because he and his partner, though together longer than I had been with mine, were not at all in love.  It saddened me to hear him describe his relationship as an arrangement and a convenience, devoid of emotion altogether.  The more he talked, the more it felt like he was probing, searching for a kernel of misery within my relationship, hoping to reconnect and bond again over a shared unhappiness.

In that moment, it was as if a switch had been flipped.  A light came on and I saw things so much clearer.  He and I had “bonded” for years because we were both residing in a shared misery.  It was not some magical connection.  We did not even have a friendship.  We had a codependency that revolved around leaning on someone else who understood our pain.  He had no problem discarding me when his situation began to improve because he fully expected me to still be there, brooding in the darkness alone, waiting for him to eventually need me again.  My love and happiness was an inconvenience that did not fit into his life so it was met with hostility.

He just doesn’t get it.  That is not friendship.  Friends don’t disappear or abandon each other when times get tough.  Friends also don’t resent each other’s accomplishments or happiness.  They give a shoulder to cry on when times get rough and celebrate each other’s successes as if they were their own.  Though what we had may have been friendship at one time, it had since warped into something unrecognizably negative and self-serving for him.  It had been a long time not only since he had treated me as a friend but also since he had considered my feelings, my well-being or my happiness at all.  Everything was completely on his terms and always all about him.  That is not friendship.

He really does not get it.  There was no reason to attempt guilt-tripping me because I had found happiness.  It isn’t that I somehow magically “won” anything because I’m currently in a better place than he is at the moment.  It isn’t a competition with him.  It never has been.  The only person I am ever competing with is myself, hoping to improve my life whenever I can.  I was not living my life trying to “one up” anyone else, least of all him.  I was living my life just like everyone else, trying to find my own happiness and purpose.  I wasn’t striving to “beat” him.  I had always hoped for his happiness and well-being, as well as my own.

He just didn’t get it.  Finding a genuine love was a very big deal for me.  I’ve spent the majority of my life believing I was inherently unlovable, wandering in and out of abusive and dysfunctional relationships. Again and again, I allowed others to treat me poorly because I believed I didn’t deserve any better.  Having someone finally treat me with love, admiration and respect was an enormous thing for me.  I had always been made to feel like I was either not good enough, never measuring up, or as too much, too needy, too clingy, too much to handle.  This was the first time in my life anyone had made me feel not only like I was enough, but that I was perfect just the way I was.

I finally get it.  I am unapologetic in my happiness.  Though it saddens me that his life has not been turning out as well as he had hoped since we parted ways, I owe him no apologies because I have done nothing wrong.  I was not the one who walked away from our “friendship” or discarded him.  I deserve happiness in my life.  I am not going to downplay the good in my life or reject it altogether, either, just to wallow in misery with him so he has someone else to bond with in shared negativity.

I finally got it.  I had to walk away from the conversation and block him.  It had not been a true friendship.  I haven’t been able to count on him to be there.  He was there only when it was convenient to his life and when he needed someone as equally low as he was feeling to help lift himself back up.  My newfound happiness was met with pettiness, anger and spite by him because I was no longer capable of being what he needed me to be.  My happiness was not allowed in his life.  It did not fit.  He made me feel like I had to choose between having him in my life or having happiness and love.  It was an easy choice.

I am okay with it.  I don’t need any more dysfunctional relationships in my life.  I need to surround myself with people who not only offer support when I’m struggling but who also cheer me on when I succeed.  I need people I can trust to be there consistently instead of discarding and abandoning me periodically on a whim.  I need more love and happiness in my life and less negativity.  After far too many years, I finally get it now.