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.

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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A Trip to the E.R.: Physical Vs. Mental Ailments

This last week has been yet another stark reminder of how differently people view and react to mental illnesses versus physical ones, especially in medical settings like the emergency room.

Please bear in mind that I am by no means a frequent flyer in the emergency room. The last time I was in the E.R. was about two years ago when I had a large cyst and tissue growth on my left ovary that had twisted and contorted it, causing severe pain. I was in no way crying wolf or looking for attention. My E.R. visit resulted in a surgical referral and the removal of that ovary.

My mother was a hypochondriac. She had doctors for everything and scheduled appointments with specialists on the drop of a dime. Somewhere along the way in my journey to not become her, I became the polar opposite in that aspect. I avoided doctors and only sought medical treatment as a last resort. I once tried to walk off appendicitis for a few hours as bad stomach cramps. On some level, I know it is irrational and that I need to make my health a bigger priority, but I still struggle to go to the doctor unless it is absolutely necessary.

Last week, I had a bit of a scare. I had gotten upset after a spat with my partner and had gone for a walk to calm down and clear my head. Somewhere along the way, though, my head began to hurt and spin. I knew I was upset but the details felt distant and fuzzy, as if the facts were lost in my head somewhere yet I was unable to access them. The harder I tried to root out facts, the more my head spun and the more confused I felt.

While I do struggle often with losing numbers, words or specific facts as a result of my mental illness and have also had memory issues following anxiety attacks and PTSD flashbacks as well, I have never experienced anything like this before. When I realized I could not even recall my own name, it sent me into a panic. I knew something was seriously wrong so went into the first business I saw and asked the clerk to call 911 for help.

An ambulance arrived to take me to the hospital. Their initial fear was a stroke. They started running multiple tests and sent me for a CT scan. As tests began to come back ruling out the prognosis of a stroke, the demeanor of the staff treating me began to change drastically.

Their next possible prognosis was that it was purely a mental issue or that I was lying about the severity of my condition, putting on some sort of act for attention. Despite the fact that I was visibly agitated and distressed at being unable to recall even basic facts, their demeanor changed. All of a sudden, they became outright accusatory and began to question whether I was telling the truth. One nurse went so far as to tell me point blank that they would have to start doing uncomfortable and painful tests, including taking my temperature rectally, putting in a catheter for a clean urine sample (though I had given them one in a cup not twenty minutes prior) or even putting a needle in my back to withdraw fluids for tests “unless I had something I wanted to confess”.

As I laid there in a state of panic not because of the possible upcoming uncomfortable tests but rather because my brain just was not working like it should, I could hear that nurse at the desk nearby laughing with her coworkers about how she was “going to get a rectal thermometer and make me talk”, the results of my CT scan came back.

It turns out that I have two meningioma on my brain, tumors between the surface of my brain and the inside of my skull. The larger of the two is in the falx region, in the front of my head, which deals with memory. The smaller of the two is in the middle, presiding predominantly over balance.

Neither was particularly large thankfully, but when housed in the small space between my brain and skull, even smaller tumors could cause issues. Apparently in my already agitated state following the spat with my partner earlier, there must have been just enough pressure put on the memory portion of my brain to cause a temporary memory loss.

The whole demeanor of the staff treating me shifted once again, becoming very serious and somber. They gave me some sedatives and anti-anxiety medication to calm me and slowly the fog began to clear. They began bringing in paperwork and test results for me to bring to my primary doctor to get a referral for a neurologist, stressing the urgency of the situation. Though they informed me that something like eighty percent of meningiomas are benign, even benign tumors continue to grow and could cause temporary or even lasting damage to my brain if left untreated. Ultimately, I’ll need surgery regardless of whether biopsy results conclude the tumors are benign or malignant.

The whole situation made me nauseous, even beyond the fact that I have tumors on my brain. Just the fact that I was only taken seriously when they feared for a physical condition like a stroke or when the tumors were found on my brain was appalling. As I had mentioned earlier, I have had memory issues related to my mental illness in the past, though thankfully never quite to this extent before. However, following PTSD flashbacks or severe anxiety attacks, my brain is always fuzzy and muddled, as well, and I often have periods of impaired memory afterwards. The fact that professionally trained medical staff at an emergency room would treat any condition they believed had a mental origin less seriously, let alone as a joke, is beyond disgusting to me.

I did not make a scene or call them out on their obviously shifting behavior, in part because the very idea that I had tumors growing on my brain left me in a state of shock. Even more so, like many others struggling with mental illness, I have sadly become accustomed to my mental health not being taken seriously. However, it is deeply disconcerting to me that emergency personnel at a hospital would be so openly cavalier about anyone’s mental health, treating their patients as a joke.

I walked away from this situation with a few distinct feelings and thoughts in my head. First and foremost, I have a newfound anxiety and wariness about going anywhere alone until this is resolved, particularly when upset. I was lucky that I was in an area with easy access to other people and was blessed to have maintained enough reason to know to ask for help. But I carry with me now an ever-present fear that next time I might not be as lucky, especially considering that I regularly operate under conditions of extreme anxiety and depression due to my mental illness.

I also am distinctly aware of all the unknowns in my foreseeable future. I am not sure exactly where I go from here. I understand the basics. Get a neurology referral, get an MRI, get a  biopsy, have surgery, possibly radiation if needed. But I have no idea of the time frames of anything just yet and probably won’t until tests and biopsies start coming back. I don’t deal well with the unknown. Not being able to plan to any degree heightens my anxiety to dangerous levels.

There is a strange sense of underlying optimism, as well. Somehow I know I will get through this, that I’m a tough cookie. I come from strong stock. Both my parents survived multiple types of cancer and other ailments before they passed. My time is not up yet. I have too much left to do. I have a lot of fight left in me.

However, I am very aware of the fear growing inside me, too. Cancer scares me to the core. I remember going to the hospital day after day when my mother had part of her lung removed due to lung cancer, watching her fade in and out in the CCU, not sure whether she would make it or not. I remember reconnecting with my father just in time to watch cancer wreak havoc on his body, going through repeated cycles of surgeries and chemotherapy. His cancer always seemed to be one step ahead, reappearing again and again in different areas until it eventually killed him. I’ve seen cancer eat away at and kill multiple friends over the years, as well. Cancer is, by far, my biggest fear and it is now on my doorstep.

More than anything, though, I came away from this with a harsh reminder of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, even in medical facilities. When they believed my issue was a mental one, I was a joke they saw fit to threaten with unneeded, uncomfortable and painful tests as a way to get me to “come around”, expecting my condition to magically cure itself and disappear under threats of unpleasantness. It took finding tumors on my brain, something they could physically see, for my condition to finally be taken seriously.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/17/18.

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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.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Healthy Relationship when You’re Mentally Ill?

Someone who was once a friend used to tell me that two unhealthy people could not have a healthy relationship.  That honestly ate at me because my mental illness is based, to a large degree, on a genetic mutation.  I was born with it.  I’ll always have it.  It is a part of who I am.  Did that mean I would never be able to have a healthy relationship?

From my earliest memories, I’ve always been surrounded by examples of dysfunctional relationships.  I’ve had many unhealthy and abusive relationships in the past as well.  Until recently, I wasn’t exactly sure even what a healthy relationship even was, let alone even believed I might experience one myself.  When my last relationship crashed and burned after eleven painful years together, I honestly thought that I was done in the relationship department.

That is, until the fateful day that I received the unlikeliest message from one of my older brother’s childhood best friends.  He had been my first crush ever.  He was the sweetest, kindest, albeit a bit nerdy, boy I had ever met.  He was always so nice to me, the bratty kid sister of his best friend, and had always made me feel like it was okay to be myself – something I’ve rarely experienced both back then and all the years since.  We were too young to really have a “thing” back then, though admittedly I did once playfully tie him to the headboard of my bed, declaring that since I caught him, he was now mine.  I was nine or ten, he was a few years older.  It had been a brief moment in time, a pleasant faded memory amidst my rocky childhood.

He found me again, over twenty five years since I had left behind my childhood and the town we had grown up in, on Facebook of all places, listed as a friend of a friend he might know.  My last name had changed, a remnant of a failed marriage, but my face apparently still held enough of the little girl he remembered.  It was honestly the first time I was ever grateful that my chipmunk cheeks had never faded away.

He reached out with a short message, not sure I would even remember him.  My heart skipped a beat when his message appeared.  How could he ever assume I would have possibly forgotten him?  He had been my first crush and had inadvertently influenced my taste in men my entire life.  I was forever a sucker for the sweet, boy next door, nerdy type because of him.

We friended each other and began talking nonstop.  I admittedly went full force Facebook stalkerish, scouring through his pictures and posts, wanting a better feel of who he had become over the years.  His sweet smile and warm eyes that had captured my heart all those years ago were still the same, as was his love for Transformers and rc cars.  He was still very much himself in so many ways, but all grown up.

We made plans to meet up, to sit, talk and catch up more.  I don’t ever remember being so nervous meeting anyone.  When he picked me up at the train station, my heart was pounding so loudly I was sure everyone around us could hear it.  My first thought was that his pictures did not do him justice.  Our hug hello left my stomach all a flutter.

We sat down by the river in the town we had grown up in, talking while we watched the sun set over the water.  It was a city I had avoided for decades for the most part, a place plagued with bad memories of a traumatic childhood.  It was a place he had left behind, as well.  It was where we had once known each other all those years ago and the familiarity brought us back.  I usually dreaded being anywhere that had ties to my past.  Yet for the first time, I felt at peace being back home.  Being there with him gave me a comfort I had never known.

We talked for hours and bonded.  We had both unknowingly walked very similar paths, were both working through very similar issues.  We had both struggled with abuse, mental illness and failed relationships.  He understood me in a way no one else ever had and there was no judgment in his eyes or his words.  As he shared much of what he had been through over the years, I found myself reaching out to take his hand to comfort him and let him know I was there, that I understood.  As we began to kiss, he pulled back and asked “Are we really doing this?”  It was honestly the sweetest thing I had ever heard.

For a couple months, we seemed inseparable, spending every minute we could together, talking and texting in between.  On days he traveled and worked out of town, he’d often rush over when he returned to the area later that night, even if it was just to spend an hour or two walking through the park together, hand in hand, talking.  It didn’t take long for us to begin sharing our feelings.  We were both hesitant at first, afraid the other one would think we were nuts for feeling so much so soon.  But we were both right there, on the same page, just as we were with everything else.  We began to see the possibility of a future together and slowly started easing our children into it all, hoping they could see even a portion of what we saw in each other and how happy we both were.  Everything was coming together beautifully.

We began looking for a place together because living almost an hour apart felt too far.  While filling out an application with a rental agent, she asked him about our relationship status.  Without a second thought, he smiled at me, squeezed my hand and responded “Fiance”.  I did not question it.  Everything felt so perfect when we were together.  As crazy as it sounded, I already could not imagine my life without him at my side.  To know he felt the same way was heavenly.

As is often the case when things seem to be going too perfectly, tragedy hit.  His father had a bad fall.  In a matter of days, he went from bed rest to ICU to hospice.  I watched the man I had fallen in love with crumble into despair.  The loss of his father only a few short years after losing his mother was too much to bear.  The world felt too overwhelming to face.  He had a breakdown and needed to take some time off from work to recover.

From the time his father went into hospice, we had been inseparable.  I understood all too well what he was going through because my father had gone into hospice and passed away less than a decade prior.  Though every moment in the hospital with him was a painful reminder of losing my own father, I could not leave his side.  In the midst of this tragedy, we transitioned into living together because we could not stand to be apart.  I had never felt closer to anyone.  We not only wanted to be with each other, but seemed to need each other, as well.

He was home on a temporary disability for almost four months.  In that time, we honestly did not spend more than a few hours apart at a clip.  You’d assume being constantly together would wear on us after some time, but we seemed to soak it all in, craving all the time together we could get.  There was a peace, a solace, we found in each other’s presence unlike anything either of us had ever felt before.  For the first time ever, we both felt like we could completely be ourselves with someone else and that, no matter what we were feeling, it was okay.

It is a relationship unlike anything I have ever experienced.  We have moved very fast but it all feels very natural.  I never have felt so comfortable or so sure of anything else in my life.  We have been through some very rough times together and it has only brought us closer.  It feels like we have been together forever, like we had been meant for each other all along.  I often find myself looking at him, amazed that this is my life.  As much as I have so many other struggles to face, he has become my safe place, my happy spot, my calm in the storm.

We have yet to have a single fight.  It is not that either of us is being disregarded or is swallowing any slight, or that that we are passive-aggressively lashing out at each other instead of addressing problems.  We are not avoiding issues or pretending our relationship is okay when it’s not.  Our relationship is one of the few truly wonderful things we both have in our life.  We see eye to eye on almost everything and we talk.  We talk a lot.  Neither one of us has a stomach for yelling, screaming or lashing out.  If something is on our mind or bothering us, we bring it up.  We say how we feel calmly without anger or personal attacks.  Whenever we’ve had a misunderstanding or hurt feelings, which has happened very rarely, we have talked it out and have spent more time apologizing to one another for not realizing it was an issue or for hurting each other’s feelings than we have discussing the topic on hand.  We’ve both been hurt so much in the past that the last thing either one of us ever wants to do is hurt each other any more.

I have heard many people say every couple fights.  The internet is full of articles about how healthy and normal it is to argue.  I’ve found myself wondering more than once if what we have is normal or healthy, as well.  Neither of us is holding back feelings or being disregarded or feels unheard.  We have both had our fill of arguments in our pasts where the goal seemed to be trying to lash out and hurt each other instead of resolving issues.  We simply decided we were not going to live like that any longer.  We both prefer to talk.

I have also heard many people say that time apart is healthy.  He’s back to work now so we are no longer together 24/7 like we had been in the beginning of our relationship, but we still very much enjoy our time together.  We are both homebodies.  We both enjoy spending time with our kids and curling up watching movies together.  When we do go out and do things, we enjoy doing them together.  We never feel crowded by each other and enjoy having each other tag along even when out with friends.  We can deal with time apart but honestly enjoy being together more.  Neither of us have that nagging feeling that we just need time away from one another.  We genuinely miss each other when we are apart.

We are very openly affectionate all the time.  If we are feeling love, we say it.  More importantly, we show it.  If one of us is sore, the other is massaging the aches away.  We are forever fetching things and doing things for one another to make each other’s lives easier or to make each other feel cherished and loved.  We are always considerate, always sharing, always mindful of each other.  We are both very touchy feely and revel in the closeness we both have been lacking for far too long.  He makes me feel beautiful and I am always telling him how adorable I find him.  But our love for each other is more than skin deep.  We seem to be forever talking about all we love in each other and how lucky we are to have found one another again.  Perhaps most importantly, we are both very appreciative of everything we both do.  We acknowledge and thank each other for all we do because we both understand that none of it is a requirement or a job but rather is done out of love.

Is all the time we spend together and the fact that we never fight healthy?  Honestly I don’t know.  What I do know, however, is that this is the healthiest and happiest relationship I have ever been in.  For the first time, I feel completely accepted for who I am, loved and cherished for all my quirks.  For the first time, I don’t feel like I’m walking on eggshells, afraid of a blow up if I say or do the wrong thing.  For the first time, I can be as lovey or snuggly as I want without being accused of being clingy or needy.  I can be me.  He feels the same way.  Like everything else, we are on the same page.

I am not sure whether our relationship would be considered healthy or normal by anyone else’s standards.  I just know that I’ve never been happier, never felt more loved, cherished or appreciated.  I have stopped dwelling on what my once friend said about unhealthy people not being able to have a healthy relationship.  I no longer wonder whether love is possible when struggling with a mental illness.  The truth is that, healthy or not by anyone else’s definition, he is exactly what I want and need in my life.

Love Come Full Circle

I have struggled for years with love on many levels.

At my core, I have always been torn between contradictory beliefs.  I am forever the hopeless romantic that wants desperately to believe in happily ever afters, yet I am also very much the realist that weighs the odds and finds it highly improbable that two like souls could not only find each other but also somehow defy the odds and make it work.

Looking back at my life only added to the improbability that I would never have a chance when it came to matters of the heart.  I grew up in a dysfunctional battlefield, never really understanding what love even was let alone where to find it or how to tend to it and make it grow.

My parents were of no assistance.  Their marriage was in many ways a manual of what not to do.  My own relationships in the past were not much better, though I am proud to say that none of my exes have bullet wounds by my hand – a boast my mother could not make.

(Please note that I joke not because I find any of it even mildly hysterical but rather because I’ve learned over the years that it is often easier to laugh than to cry and that, when discussing deeper traumas, a joke helps lift that uncomfortable weight of the situation.)

To complicate matters more, I struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD.  Making a relationship work is hard enough when both people are fully functional.  When you factor in mental illness that pulls me in many directions against my will, it creates a volatile concoction that is almost guaranteed to implode upon itself given enough time.

Again and again, I found myself heartbroken and alone, searching for answers of where everything went wrong.  I believed in love on a fundamental level.  Yet as the failed relationships continued to pile up, I found myself questioning whether love was even attainable for me or if it truly only existed in fairy tales.

Along my journey, I began to see the red flags of repeated dysfunction.  I spent an inordinate amount of time examining and reexamining situations from my past, trying to determine where everything had gone wrong.  I also began to reconsider my own personal views of myself.  After all, how could anyone ever truly love or accept me until I learned to love and accept myself?

I found myself at an impasse.  It wasn’t that I had given up entirely on love but rather I needed to focus on myself before I would ever be ready to let anyone else into my life again.  I had chains to break and long-standing belief systems to shatter and rebuild.  I still very much wanted my happily ever after but finally understood I would never be able to build anything lasting until I was able to fix many of the cracks in the foundation that my life was built upon.  I needed to put my love life on hold and work on myself.

A funny thing happened during my hiatus to rebuild – I not only discovered myself again but I also found my first crush again, or shall I say he found me.

He had remained with me as a fond memory of my childhood, one of the brighter spots during a time when the darkness had begun to creep in.  He was a few years older than me and a friend of my brother’s so the cards had been stacked against us from the start, yet we still managed to create a few sweetly innocent memories together before we eventually faded out of each other’s lives.

Fast-forward twenty five years.  My life had collapsed yet again but I was in the process of rebuilding.  Though my struggles are far from over, I am in a healthier place now than I have ever been before.  I have begun talking and writing about all I have been through.  More importantly, though, I’ve been healing.  I am no longer running from my past and I am beginning to slowly reopen doors that had been long-closed for no other reason than they existed in close proximity to the worst experiences of my life.

One of these doors happened to be my first crush.  He reentered my life through a simple friend request, not even sure if I would remember him.  I was dumbfounded by that assumption because he had been that sweet boy next door who had ushered me into puppy-love and had been the standard by which all other boys had been measured for years.

As we began talking, it became clear that, though we had been worlds apart for many years, we had been walking along the same path in so many ways.  Without going into details because his story is his alone to share, he understood me completely on so many levels that no one else ever has.  From that first moment we reconnected, we have been drawn together in this whirlwind beyond our control.

There is a safety and serenity with him on so many levels.  My history did not scare him because he understood my childhood, if not the full extent of it all.  My diagnosis and struggles do not intimidate him, either, because he understands better than most what it has been like for me over the years.

We’ve found ourselves connecting to one another in this free fall, accelerating as we go while the rest of the world passes by in a blur.  I imagine us caught within the eye of the storm, in that peaceful quiet stillness that is unaffected by the chaos that whirls around us.  From the outside, I imagine it seems insanely chaotic and nonsensical but from in here, it is the first thing in a long time in my life that makes sense.

In each other, we have found the compassion, understanding and solace we had been searching for elsewhere in vain.  We have rekindled old sparks that had begun in innocence and fanned them into a genuine passion for each other.  For the first time, I am able to fully embrace and express all that I am without fear of judgment or ridicule because I am still very much that silly, adorkable girl he knew me as all those years ago.  Likewise, he knows he can put all of himself out there without fear because he is still very much himself.

We are not blind to each other’s scars.  We are respectfully cautious of each scar because neither of us wishes to reopen old battle wounds and we understand that they are a part of who we have become over the years. But we are also able to see one another for who we are underneath and cherish that innocence beneath it all because we had been there before those wounds were made.

I used to wonder whether love and happily ever afters existed only in fairy tales.  As much as the hopeless romantic in me wanted to believe anything was possible, the realist in me always pondered whether some people were just beyond hope when it came to love.  Over the years, my journey has taken me through a lifetime of heartache and heartbreak.  I have come through the other end, though, a stronger and healthier person.  I have also come around full circle as the first person to ever capture my heart has once again won it.

If I Were Gone…

When Suicidal Ideation Takes You to Dark Places

Suicidal ideation differs from being actively suicidal in that there are not any active plans to kill yourself.  You are not intending to take your own life, but rather your mind finds itself contemplating how tired you are of living a life that feels hopeless.  You are exhausted, drained and just want to stop hurting.  You find yourself thinking about death in abstract terms, almost as a sweet release and ponder how the world would be without you.

When I am overwhelmed with anxiety and stress and my depression has spiked, my mind will travel to dark, scary, morbid places.  I find myself pondering how everyone’s lives would be better without me.  I dwell on the fact that if I was to give up tomorrow, I don’t even have family that could make arrangements because all I have in my life is my children who are not old enough to take on such a responsibility or burden.  I have no intention of taking my life, yet there are days that these thoughts consume me.

Today, in the depths of my despair, I began to think about what my obituary might read if I were gone.  In my mind, it would read something like this:

Today, we lost Beth W-.  She was 40 years old.  She had a kind and compassionate heart, always trying to reach out to help others even when she was struggling to stay afloat herself.  She had a great love of animals, nature, children’s cartoons, bad movies, good chocolate and life in general.  She was quick to smile, laugh and give out hugs even though she was always crying inside.  Over the course of her lifetime, she filled many roles including fiance, wife, friend, student, teacher, caregiver and author, though there was no role she cherished more than motherhood.

She passed today after losing her battle with a lifelong invisible illness, complicated by the apathy of others.  She bravely battled both her demons  and a system who saw her as a number instead of a person, doubting what they could not see.  Though she fought long and hard to get help, she met roadblocks at too many turns, eventually being consumed by the fiery wreck of her own life.  She truly wanted to live but was not sure how, or whether life itself truly wanted her in it.

She is survived by amazing children with beautiful hearts and sharp minds who deserved so much better than the mother they received.  She is also survived by a handful of friends, some distant because though they cared, she was too overwhelming to be around for long periods of time and some estranged because she pushed them away so they would not see how broken she truly was.  She is also survived by a best friend who had too much on his own plate to see how her life was crumbling beneath her.  She was preceded in death by both of her parents, who passed to her the legacy of dysfunction and abuse.

There will be no services because she has no family to arrange them.  In lieu of flowers or donations, it is requested that parents hold their children tightly to ensure they know they are loved, that friends make a genuine attempt to listen to one another and that society in general begins to openly talk about mental illness and depression because deaths like these are both tragic and needless.  The world would be such a different place if everyone walked it with compassion and empathy.

As I sat here morbidly imagining what I would wish my obituary would say if I were gone tomorrow, I realized there was neither anyone to write it, nor anyone I was sure would care enough to read it.  My passing would likely go largely unnoticed, my death another number added to the statistics of the mentally ill.

Such is the case with so many people struggling with mental illness today.  We are struggling, stumbling, floundering through life.  We are trying so desperately to live and not give up hope yet we feel all alone in the world.  All too often, we find ourselves drowning in depression, just wanting the pain to end.  Whether or not our situation is truly hopeless, all we can feel inside is despair.

More often than not, even when we reach out for help or assistance, we’re met by roadblocks and red tape.  There are so many hoops to jump through, unknown roads to navigate on our own that it quickly becomes overwhelming, complicated and unbearable.  We are met with doubt and suspicion along the way as if we are fabricating our struggles or looking for attention.  We are treated coldly, without compassion or care, like we are numbers and not people.  We are made to feel like we are inconsequential and somehow less than human by the same groups and agencies we have turned to for help.

We watch as one by one friends and family distance themselves from our “drama” but we don’t fight it because we already feel like a burden.  We begin pushing away those who are left because we come to believe it is only a matter of time before they would leave us, as well, and it seems easier to cut the ties ourselves.  We feel completely alone.  On some level, we feel we deserve it because we are such a mess.  We honestly believe that everyone would be better off without us in their lives.

Meanwhile, we’re drowning.  We’re drowning in hopelessness, helplessness, depression and despair.  We’re struggling harder and harder to find reasons to pull ourselves out of bed, reasons to keep living.  It’s not so much that we want to die that we are just so very tired of living this way.  We already feel dead inside.  Our minds take us to dark places, dwelling on morbid situations that we know are unhealthy yet give us a strange sense of peace.

Deep down, I know I would be missed, at least by my children and by the few friends who have stood by me through my struggles.  It is a fact I cling to on my hardest days, when I feel like I am spiraling down into that hopeless abyss.  No matter how hard I try to fight it, that darkness sometimes seeps into my consciousness and beckons me.  Though I am not actively planning to take my own life, there are days I cannot help but ponder what it would be like if I were gone.

Mourning Ghosts & Fairy Tales

They say everyone has a type of person they find themselves drawn to in life.  For some, it’s hair or eye color, for others it is height or build.  For me, it seems to be wounded souls with a ton of unresolved baggage and commitment issues.  I’ve always seen them as kindred spirits, assuming that, because they had so many issues themselves, they would be better equipped to handle mine.  On some level, as well, I think I’ve always hoped that if I could help them to find a better place in life, they would somehow return the favor – that by some miracle we would find a way to heal and grow together.

I have a history of unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships.  Every single serious relationship I have had has been with someone who has been surrounded by addiction, whether their own or their family’s.  I, myself, am the child of a compulsive gambler.  My father’s family was riddled with alcoholism and drug addiction, as well.  Dysfunction breeds dysfunction.  Though I never developed an addiction myself, I inherited all the bad behaviors.  Again and again, I found myself in co-dependent, destructive relationships with others who walked similar paths.  Instead of healing together, we created toxic bonds that slowly destroyed themselves from within.

I admittedly hold onto some warped version of positive ideals more than I embrace the ugly reality of people and situations.  It is easier for me to embrace the good than to dwell on the bad.  My mind longs to hold onto the happiness and discard all the pain and misery.  At the end of  each relationship, as I lay there heartbroken and emotionally shattered, again and again I would cry and mourn what I felt I had lost, blind to the truth of the situation.  I would think back to all those good times and cherished memories, unable to grasp how things could have ended so horribly.

The truth is that none of those relationships were healthy or loving, at least not for the majority of the relationship and definitely not at the end.  When someone genuinely cares for another person, they do not go out of their way to hurt them or make them feel worthless.  That is not love.  I cannot keep putting people on pedestals that do not belong there.  Too often, I have held so tightly to the concept of the person I fell in love with that I was unable to accept that they hadn’t been that person for a long time.  While the initial love may have felt pure and beautiful, the warped monstrosity that tore my heart out was anything but and does not deserve to be mourned.

I need to be honest with myself and call things out for what they are.  I cannot cling to the happily ever afters of fairy tales and attempt to forcefully align my own stories to match.  I cannot glorify the good while ignoring the bad.  I cannot cry myself to sleep because again and again my Prince has turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  I cannot shed even one more tear for someone who does not even truly exist outside my mind, because that is exactly what I have done repeatedly.  I have built up and fabricated ideal personas of my partners that did not truly reflect who they were or how they treated me.  Each time, when things fell apart, I was heartbroken, not for the man I had lost but for who I had build him up to be in my heart, mind and soul.

Recently, when yet another relationship imploded, I found myself heartbroken and confused.  I could not understand how someone who had claimed to love me so enormously and completely could turn around and hurt me as badly as he had.  My image and memories of him conflicted with his words, actions and treatment of me.  I was at a loss.  It made no sense.  Until I realized that all of my hurt and anger stemmed not only from their actions themselves but from that conflicted state, as well.  In truth, he was not that man I embraced so fully in my heart and believed had loved me unconditionally, at least not anymore.  There is no way anyone could truly love someone and lash out the way he kept doing, repeatedly hurting me.  While he may have loved me at some point, early on, before everything began to warp and change, there was truthfully no love for me anymore.  Love is not heartless, indifferent or cruel.  In the end, he might as well have been a stranger.  Once again, I was mourning the ghost of who they used to be or perhaps who I built them up to be in my mind.  I was holding onto a fairy tale that did not exist.  I needed to let go of it all and embrace the reality of the situation.

I am not without fault.  I have many unhealthy behavior patterns I need to address and to change.  I have made poor choices and caused my share of destruction.  As I have said before, dysfunction breeds dysfunction and it is hard for unhealthy people to make healthy decisions.  However, I have always consciously tried not to intentionally hurt those I love and therein lies the difference.  But attempting to never intentionally cause pain to those I love has never been enough, nor would it ever be enough on it’s own in the future.   I also must begin to be more proactive about how I allow myself to be treated.  I do not deserve to be anyone’s doormat.  I do not deserve to be discarded and made to feel worthless until I am convenient.  You do not tell someone that you truly love that they are not a priority, in your words or your actions.  Love isn’t something you push aside and say maybe next week, next month or next year if life is more convenient then.  If you love someone, you always love them, for better or worse, in good times and bad.  You do not intentionally hurt the people you love.  Showing love doesn’t make you weak or needy or clingy.  Love should always be appreciated and cherished.  I deserve no less than a genuine, complete love because that is what I always give out wholeheartedly.

As I begin to look at myself retrospectively, to talk and to heal, I am seeing these patterns of dysfunction rear their ugly head again and again.  I need to be more aware of my choices and not fall into another unhealthy relationship again.  Much like two wrongs do not make a right, two dysfunctional people cannot make a healthy relationship, at least not while they are both stagnating in their own unhealthy messes.  That does not mean I cannot connect with another tortured soul and bond over our similar paths in life.  I just need to find someone as invested in healing and moving forward as I am, who can treat me with the compassion and understanding I deserve and love me with as much tenderness and passion as I give to him.  I need to keep walking down this path to becoming a healthier person and I deserve to have someone who will love me enough to stay at my side unwavering throughout my journey.

The Shooting

~ Dedicated to All the Doubting Mustafas Out There ~

Every now and then, when I try to open up and begin to share my past, I find myself faced with a Doubting Mustafa – someone who seems completely incapable of believing anything without seeing the evidence first-hand.  When you’re someone like me, who has been abused and traumatized my entire life, being hit head on with that kind of doubt is overwhelming.  When they respond incredulously and ask to see proof, it always feels like they’re accusing me of lying.

Beyond the years of day to day abuse of varying kinds, one of the most singular traumatizing events of my childhood was the day my mother shot my father.  It is a difficult story for me to share because my whole world changed in an instant.  I went from being a straight A student busy with babysitting, cheerleading and other mundane teenage things to being bounced around for a little over a year, ultimately ending up on the street.  It wasn’t until years later that I even finished high school, earning my g.e.d. while going to college while my children were at school.  But all that is a story for another day.

The day of the shooting began like any other.  My mother had been a mess since my father had left a few months before, always either yelling or crying.  She had been erratic and abusive my entire life, suffering from an often untreated, sometimes under-treated mental condition we did not discuss.  I had waited upstairs until she left for work to begin my day.

I went to school just like any other day.  Between second and third period, while I was at my locker swapping books, my guidance counselor approached me, asking me to come up to her office with her.  I had assumed it was because my grades had begun to slip.  She knew how strict my mother was about my grades.  An A grade was acceptable.  An A- was not.

She paused to hold her office door open, motioning for me to go inside first.  The next few seconds have replayed in my nightmares for years.  She reached out, put a hand on my shoulder and calmly said, “Your dad has just been shot.  He’s in critical condition at Albany Med.  They’re looking for your mother.”

The next few hours felt like an eternity.  They were not sure where my mother was so I was not allowed to leave the school, not even to see my father who, for all I knew, was dying.  Cops were stationed by the entrances just in case she showed up at my school.  I spent a few hours up in the guidance office in a haze.  Friends came in here and there to check on me.  It was all a blur.  I was numb.

At one point, I asked to go to one of my classes.  I just couldn’t sit in that office any longer. I had completely forgotten that I had an oral report due in the class I had chosen to attend.  The teacher had always been firm yet fair.  I tried to calmly explain that I could hand in my written copy but that I could not do an oral presentation that day.  Despite repeated pleas, she kept informing me that failure to do my oral report would result in an F.

Finally, I snapped.  I brusquely informed her that, “My FUCKING father has just been shot.  They’re looking for my FUCKING mother.  If you want the FUCKING report read, you can read it your FUCKING self.”  It was the one and only time I ever cursed at a teacher.  I honestly didn’t even feel like myself.  I was still looming inside that cloud of numbness and shock.  I was quietly excused from doing my report.

I heard afterwards that classmates were all talking about how cold I was, attending classes like nothing was wrong after something like that had happened.  None of them knew that I bawled my eyes out for a couple hours before that class and many hours afterwards.  I had just been well-trained not to let others see what hurt me.  I refused to let my walls down and cry in front of other people.

Eventually, they located my mother.  She had checked herself into a local psych hospital.  I was finally allowed to leave the school and see my father.  Peeking out from the edge of the bandages covering what was left of his mouth, he winced as the one corner of his mouth turned upwards into a smile.  Trying to give me some semblance of peace of mind, he tried to joke with me.  He gestured to either side of his neck, where the other bullet had entered on one side and exited on the other, and informed me he had Halloween all set this year – all he needed was two bolts.  Through my tears, I tried to smile back – I’m not sure that it ever made it to my lips.  He kept trying to joke as I felt my life crumbling around me.  It wasn’t long until my sister told me to wrap things up and ushered me out.

I always hesitate to share this story because it always feels like there’s a 50/50 shot that I’ll find myself in the company of a Doubting Mustafa – someone looking at me like I must be pulling their leg.  Whenever someone starts in with questions, looking for verification and validation, I find myself wanting to scream.  Why on earth would anyone make anything like that up?    Did they not hear my voice crack or see my eyes mist over?  How could anyone doubt my story  when the pain is so clearly there even after all these years?

So – in honor of all the Doubting Mustafas out there who need to see proof in order to believe it, I have gathered a few pictures of old newspaper clippings I had googled one day.  I had bookmarked them to link to anyone who doubted me because I’ve become accustomed to proving myself again and again.  This time, I took screenshots to save to my blog.  I sincerely hope this puts all of those doubts to rest.

shooting4

 

This was one of the first articles I remember reading after the shooting.  It was printed the day after it happened.  I didn’t see it until months later – a friend had saved me clippings in case I ever wanted to read them.  I admittedly threw them away because nobody needs newspaper clippings to remind them of one of the most traumatic days of their life.

 

shooting2

 

This article, and others that followed, admittedly irked me because they got my father’s middle initial wrong.  I know it’s such a trivial thing, and most likely a slip of the finger since the S-key resides right next to the D-key on the keyboard, but it still ate at me for some strange reason.  I had seen other articles, as well, that had small factual errors like the wrong street address or incorrect number of children, things along those lines.  Each mistake always seemed glaring and made me wonder how many simple things reporters got wrong on a daily basis.

 

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This was one of the last articles printed about the shooting, almost three years after it happened.  A couple months before her sentencing, I remember visiting my mother in Albany County Jail to tell her I was pregnant.  When I got home, I received a call from my uncle, my mother’s brother, telling me I should “get an abortion and stop shaming the family”.  I always found that call ironic because once you have to inform someone of a pregnancy while they’re in jail, an upcoming baby is not the shame anyone should be worrying about.

She shot my father twice.  One bullet went in through his cheek and out the front of his mouth.  The second shot was fired as he was running back towards the big heavy metal doors on the bottom level of the Dutch Quad where he was hoping to find cover.  That shot went in one side of his neck and out the other, amazingly missing everything vital.  The shooting didn’t kill him – as soon as he was able, he moved to the other side of the country and disappeared so I lost him just the same.  Years later, cancer did what two bullets couldn’t.  We reconnected just in time for him to share his diagnosis.  I got to reconnect with him for a few months between his surgeries and chemo.  By the time he entered hospice, he was so sick he couldn’t even remember me.

For her crime, my mother ultimately got time served counted between her time in Four Winds, the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center and Albany County Jail, places she flitted between when she wasn’t out on bail.  Five years of probation was tacked on, as well.  She shot my father twice and more or less got away with it.  In her last act of vengeance against my father, she managed to outlive him by two months.  I’ve since heard that in her last years, she finally got the treatment she needed and got her bipolar disorder under control.  I never got to meet the woman my mother was when her mental illness was not in the driver’s seat.  We had been estranged for a couple years when I got the call she had died. They both passed away in 2010.

To this day, it honestly amazes me that she could sign out her gun from the police department storage days before the shooting and still walk away in less than three years with probation and a slap on the wrist.  Even more incredible, though, is the thought that anyone would ever listen to me tell my life story then ask for proof that it truly happened.

Opening a Big Can of Worms

Talking to My Children about My Mental Illness

For years, I tried to hide my mental illness from my children.  They were aware that I had some issues, but I downplayed the severity of my situation.  I shared joint custody of my boys with my ex-husband, with them travelling back and forth between our homes.  The entire time they were with their father each week, I would do the bare minimum, stockpiling my energy for their joyful return.  When they would arrive, I would do my best to greet them with exuberance, making plans with them and baking their favorite treats.  I would paint on a smile and pretend everything in life was as it should be, hoping to be that idealized mother I felt they deserved.  My children were my everything and I wanted every visit with me to be special, whether we ventured out to do things or stayed home for family game nights or bad movie nights.  We always made time to have extended talks about books, movies, shows, games, friends, school and life in general so that they always knew every aspect of their lives was important to me.  Meanwhile, my demons were eating me alive from the inside.  I’d take long showers, silently sobbing so they could not hear me;  After they went to bed, I would quietly sob into my pillow.  When they left to return to their father’s, I would collapse until their next visit.  Wearing that facade was exhausting.

I dreaded them discovering how bad things truly were for many reasons.  Primarily, I didn’t want them to view their mother as damaged or broken.  In my mind, parents were supposed to be these strong, invincible, larger than life entities that guide their children through life.  Children were not supposed to worry about their parents.  Their parents were not supposed to be weak or easily destroyed by their own emotions.  I was supposed to be their rock, their pillar of strength, someone they could look up to in life.  I felt that by letting them see how bad things truly were, I was somehow failing them as a mother.

I also feared their father, my ex-husband.  As much as I try to never speak unkindly about him, especially within earshot of my children, purely out of respect for the fact that he is their father, truth be told our break up was horrendous.  I carried with me the constant fear that the severity of my depression might get back to him and it would be used as a weapon for him to try to lessen my time with them.  From time to time, we would end up back in family court, him wanting to change the order for no other reason than that frequent swaps were inconvenient.  I dreaded him getting his hands on true ammunition he could use to get his way.

One of my biggest fears, though, was that my children would have questions for which there were no easy answers.  I’ve gone through different types of abuse from different people throughout my life, some of them my children genuinely admire or love.  These people, though they have caused me heartache, have always been good to my kids and I did not want to be the one to share anything with them that may cause them to see the people they cared for differently, especially their father.  There may come a day when those hard questions will be asked, but I never wanted to taint their childhood or make them feel they had to hate anyone solely based on my interactions with them.

There were a handful of times when I had breakdowns throughout their childhood and would end up admitted to an inpatient setting for a short period of time.  As far as my ex-husband knew, it was to balance medications; As far as my children were concerned, I was just feeling under the weather so I was exchanging a few days this week for some more the next.  Eventually, though, my entire life collapsed.  My then-fiance had left me for another woman.  I had no real support system and no family to turn to in my time of need.  There was no way for me to paint on a smile and pretend everything was okay.  Things were the farthest from okay they could possibly be and I was scared to death.  There was no way to hide it.

By this time, my boys were fifteen and eighteen.  They were no longer the fragile little children I had to watch over and protect, regardless of the fact that they were still my babies in my heart and mind.  I sat down with them, terrified to the bottom of my soul, and had the most honest conversation with them that I have ever had.  I didn’t go into details about a lot of my past abuse, but I didn’t sugarcoat it’s affect on me, either.  I explained the struggles ahead and all I would need to do to put my life back together and get back on my feet.  While I let them know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I made it clear that the journey ahead would not be an easy one for me.

I also let them know I had begun to write, having put my life’s story out there both in a book and a follow-up blog.  I was honest with them that they may want to wait until they’re older to read my book  because, while I discussed things I needed to talk about for my own self-healing, there were some hard truths in it I didn’t feel they were ready to face.  I welcomed them to read my blog, however, if they wanted to so they could follow my journey as I worked through things and healed.  I also let them know I would answer any questions they had because I did not want them worrying that things were worse than they appeared.   Both my sons hugged me tightly after our talk and have continued to do so more often since then.  They both admitted to not feeling ready to read anything I’ve written so I did not press the issue.  I had not expected them to want to read anything I wrote or to have any questions, but I wanted to leave the lines of communication open just in case they wanted to talk.

I had another blog I had begun, as well, that focused primarily on the positive aspects of my healing, that I welcomed them to read as an alternative to the blog that revolved around my struggles with mental illness.  The other day, I recommended that my older son read my most recent positive blog about stepping out of my comfort zone and trying to live my life more fully.  After reading that blog, unbeknownst to me, my son decided to follow a link to my mental illness blog.  Much to my surprise, he read every entry I had posted so far.  After finishing, he left me this message:

“after I read that article you sent me earlier, I saw the link to your blog and read it. I didn’t want to at first, but something in me told me to listen to your story and finally be able to truly empathize with you. After reading it, I can hardly believe you went through so much without reaching out for so long, and am glad you finally did.”

Truthfully, I cried when I received that message; Not small tears that cascade gracefully down your cheeks, but rather chest-wracking, snot-bubble-inducing sobs that shook my entire body.  For so long, I had been terrified of my children finding out about the extent of my mental illness, fearing that they would see me as broken or damaged or not worthy to be their mother.  Yet here was my son, after reading only a fraction of what I had endured, able to empathize with how much I had struggled.  Even more amazingly, he was proud of me for surviving it all, finally coming out with my story and reaching out for help.

The truth is, as much as in my heart and mind my children will be frozen forever as those sweet-faced, innocent babies they once were years ago, they’ve since grown into strong, intelligent, empathetic young men.  While it is every parent’s greatest fear that they will let their children down in some unforgivable way by not being that strong, unbreakable entity atop a pedestal, in reality no one can live up to that ideal.  I’m slowly beginning to accept that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of because we all have our struggles and our demons to face.  I couldn’t be prouder of the men they’ve become or how supportive and compassionate they’ve been when facing the harsh truths about my mental illness.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 9/6/16.