Last week: A tumultuous year sets the gears in motion.
This week: Fumbling toward stability
But first …
A recent experience and how it led, in part, to this series
Last year, a co-worker of mine tried to quit smoking by use of a certain, psycho-active cessation medication. I’d tried it in the past myself and warned him that while my reaction was atypical, that he should be wary. Initially, he was undeterred, but a few days later, he said he’d had to stop.
He told me that he was in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, and the thought occurred to him how easy it would be to slice his flesh and he had the unsettling desire to find out what that felt like. That moment frightened him so much he determined to stop taking the medication immediately.
I stood there, listening, and in retrospect my reaction wasn’t what it should have been. It didn’t even occur to me that other people might not have these thoughts.
Ever since that fateful year when I was seventeen, I’ve never been on a balcony without thinking how easy it would be to climb over it and jump. I’ve never been on a subway platform without wondering if I could really jump in front of one of the trains. I think of car accidents (having them or causing them) all the time while I drive.
Often when doing routine tasks like cutting vegetables the unwelcome image of plunging the knife into my stomach—or worse, someone else’s—walks through my head. I tell these thoughts to keep on walking of course, and to let the door hit their narsty asses on the way out, but the fact is, I have these thoughts so often, I actually thought that they were a normal part of everyone’s mental landscape.
Not so, obviously.
I was never so foolish as to think that my battle with depression was over. It’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life and these thoughts are a reminder of that. I’ve learned how to turn them down so they’re just background noise. I acknowledge them and send them on their various ways. They have no power over me. Their work here is done. Mindfulness restored.
I just got so used to them that I forgot not everyone thinks of self-harm every day.
The fumbling part
It took me until I was 33 or so to really address my depression. That’s sixteen years. Some struggle longer, others not so long, and every struggle is different. This, again, is only my story.
When I left for university, I lucked out and got a room mate who really understood. She suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something that she didn’t reveal to me until our second semester together. She did so by asking me to read a short story. It was a tactful and creative way of introducing the subject.
After that, we started to communicate through books. It was a very cool and private way to conduct a friendship, like an exclusive book club.
My roomie saw me through a lot. She helped me discover my parasomnias (I held conversations, got up, and moved around while asleep), helped me start my first journal to capture these experiences, held me when I broke down recounting my tonsillectomy trauma (there are things that I didn’t and wonn’t share with you), and let me talk until I was hoarse while my second serious relationship disintegrated.
She also helped me to rediscover my passion for writing, something that I will forever be grateful for.
We shared a harrowing ditching of my car on our way up to Elora Mills to visit a friend during a winter snowfall, baked and ate a crust pie (we were crust fans), and opened up our lives to one another.
When I moved away, my roomie told me that she’d started cutting. On a visit up to Sudbury, I inadvertently broke her OCD with our hectic schedule. I don’t know if I supported her through either of these transitions.
The Dad detour
In the second summer I was at Guelph, I got myself a job with a video film crew. The business taped horse shows across Canada and into the US, edited the footage, and sold it to the horsey-set as memento, or training tool.
I was away in Southampton, NY for a couple of weeks and while I was down there, my father had a nervous break-down. It was set off due to the dismantling of his unit at work and his potential relocation to southern Ontario.
Mom came home from work one day to find him sitting with a knife.
She didn’t tell me any of this when it happened, but only that Dad was fine, in the hospital and that she would fill me in when I visited home in a couple of weeks.
Dad was hospitalized for months and eventually diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder. From there, he went on long-term disability though his employer’s health plan and eventually applied for Canada Pension Disability.
He never returned to work.
Not quite independence
There was nothing I could do for Mom when I went home. I was just shocked by the news and returned to Toronto, where I moved in with BF number three and tried to survive.
Though I still saw my old roomie, I was without a constant confidant. I turned to self-help books in a major way.
I wanted to spank my inner moppet and fast. I was determined not to end up like Dad. I feared it might be inevitable though.
Just before Christmas that year, my maternal grandmother passed away. She’d been on borrowed time since I was a baby when she’d had multiple bypass heart surgery (see: Something I don’t remember). I was about to start a job, but asked my new employer for a delay in my start date to go home for the funeral and Christmas.
It was surreal. Once again, I didn’t feel connected to the event. I couldn’t muster emotion at the appropriate times. I continued to cry at odd ones, usually when I was alone, which, when you think about it, is the exact wrong time. It’s like an alcoholic drinking alone, a sign of something wrong.
Really, I was worried about Mom. She had been primary caregiver for my grandparents for a number of years. Even though the burden should have been less, it wasn’t really. She now had Dad to take care of too, and my grandfather was an alcoholic, something kept in check by my grandmother’s presence.
Mom was adamant that I couldn’t do anything to help, though, and so back south I went.
A series of jobs and the crash and burn of my third relationship eventually caused me to re-evaluate my life. My attempts to find another place to live met with disappointment again and again. I couldn’t survive alone, working a low-paying job in Toronto, and while I toyed with apprenticeship (masonry was kind of looking interesting for a while), journalism, or radio, or returning to university, my eventual move back to Sudbury decided me on two things:
- I was going to complete my degree in English and use that experience to become the best writer I could be, and
- I wasn’t going to get into another relationship until I’d sorted my shit out.
Of course, I broke my second resolution and was dating Phil (now hubbie) before the summer was out.
Margaret was back in Sudbury too, and with her forever partner by then as well.
I was still not fit partner material, and I don’t know why Phil put up with my neurotic self. I still became sad and cried often. I fled from conflict, literally, and on several occasions Phil had to run after me. If he hadn’t, I’d have retreated completely.
Still, he proposed, I accepted, and we were married the July of my second year at Laurentian.
Things changed again. Margaret moved to Port Elgin when her husband got a job in the area. Though I’d made some friends in school, I once more felt bereft. My roomie from Guelph fell out of touch. I was still searching.
Academically, I excelled. Creatively, I was on a roll. Several prize-winning short stories and poems led to my invitation to write a short story for the first issue of a new magazine.
I graduated cum laude with a concentration in rhetoric, but I still didn’t have any self-confidence. I decided that I needed a master’s degree before I could be considered a ‘real’ writer. All of my university friends were moving on to master’s degrees, or teacher’s college. It just seemed like the thing to do.
Phil was in university now as well, and in order to pursue my degree, we’d have to live apart. And we did. For years.
I’ve written about my master’s experience elsewhere. Here, I will only say that by the end of it, though I achieved my goal, I was beaten down creatively. Despite having my poetry included in two anthologies and a handful of other journals and publications and despite having completed my thesis, a collection of short stories, I doubted that anything I had to write would have meaning or significance to anyone else.
I returned to Sudbury and a life of contract jobs interspersed with unemployment. Those were rough years for Phil and I, and I still hadn’t sorted out my issues. I still lived in fear of becoming like my father, of being as much of a burden to Phil as he was to my mom.
Then, Phil’s sister told me about an opening with her employer, which I applied for and was successful in getting. Though it is the same employer I continue to work for today, the job was in a much different capacity. I was working in a call centre.
The work was emotionally draining and I quickly reduced my hours to part-time. Still, the wage was better than most jobs I could have gotten in Sudbury at the time and the benefits were even better. Within a year, Phil and I had a house and mortgage, a car and car loan. We were growing up.
I took advantage of the benefits I had, got a surgery I’d been putting off, braces, and therapy. The talk therapy was limited by what my plan would pay for. I hadn’t actually tried to kill myself or anything; I was just trying to figure out how to deal.
I also went on Paxil.
I’ve never been a fan of medication. I tried all sorts of herbal and vitamin supplements to improve my mood, level of energy, and feeling of well-being. No combination I’ve tried worked.
The Paxil seemed to work. It gave me a respite from the anxiety and mood swings, but after a few months, I wanted to get off the drug. I didn’t want to become dependant.
The withdrawal symptoms were easily the worst I ever experienced and I never want to go through that again.
Though it may not seem like much, it was my decision to get off the Paxil and get in control of my emotional life that was my turning point, not the therapy or the drug itself, nor any of the other, external things I had tried to that point.
I found ways to cope. I’ll talk about a few of those next week.