We need to talk about our struggles with mental health to break stigmas against it. So… let’s talk about mine.
I’ve tried to make this more of a story than a vent-session. I’ve also peppered it with some hope – hope that has, in some ways, defined my life. Major trigger warnings for suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders.
I don’t hoard physical items (much), but I hoard words as though I’ll run out of them one day. I have journal entries stretching back from when I was six years old. My mom bought me a Minnie Mouse diary while on a work trip in NYC, and I kept it for the journal’s fascinating insight.
Boo… hoo… hoo. Waah haa haa.
I also still have the lyrics to the first song I ever wrote, when I was ten years old. There’s no way I’m showing you. So much cringe.
A more interesting entry comes from 2003. I had just turned twelve.
“When my glass is half empty, or when I think it is, I try and make it more like half full. But sometimes it doesn’t work.”
I have another that I won’t show, from 2005. I was 13, and I had been struggling with an urge to self-harm. I used the phrase “autopilot depression” in that entry.
Although I already knew I had depression, my mother needed more convincing. I had to tell her I was going to the doctor for stomach pains; the doctor diagnosed me with depression and GAD. Therapy didn’t help, but the medication did… until the prescription ran out after a year, and mom didn’t want to take me to the doctor to renew the prescription.
Aside from the depression, it was a pretty normal life. We were financially comfortable. We never went hungry. I came of age in a nice, suburban public school system. I was a band nerd – one of 200 in our large high school. No one bothered to pick on the band nerds; we were a small army. My family was toxic in the normal toxic-family ways. It could have been worse.
I had one Internet boyfriend at ten, who broke up with me because I wouldn’t get jealous of some other girl for liking him. I had another Internet boyfriend at 12, who broke up with me because he cheated on me IRL. (The phrase, “I’m sorry, she was just sooooo hot,” was typed in annoying red font on the black background of our AIM chat.)
Another relationship, in my freshman year, lasted twenty hours. I was in the middle of writing a love song about him when he called me and said he wasn’t over his ex. That was fine; the unrequited angle made the song a little better.
And so it came to pass that, a few years later, I married the first boy I ever kissed. I wasn’t going to let this one go.
We had a great relationship until we got married. Growing up, I vividly remember three times I heard my mother threaten to leave my father. I internalized that lesson – to keep one foot out the door.
When my depression and anxiety came back swinging, I was horrible to him – and he made some mistakes in turn. But I got on medication, and things got a little better. For a while.
After we got married, I started working as a shift manager for a pizza shop. The manager overseeing my training told me that his goal was to “break me” – not in a sexual-harassment way, but in a boot-camp way. In a this-is-pizza-it’s-not-that-fucking-serious way.
Luckily I only cried once during training. But I said a big fuck-you to that job when the GM installed cameras to watch our every move. Boot camp? Fine. Big brother? No.
Instead, I took a job in a call center. I lasted three months.
Every morning, when I woke up, I had extreme stomach pains. I’d call off and then feel better the rest of the evening. More than two weeks proceeded like that; it was all the time they gave me for short-term disability.
When I came back to work, they handed me the paperwork I’d need to have my doctor fill out to prove I’d been sick. They needed psychiatric referrals. How could I afford a psychiatrist on $13 an hour? So I quit before they could fire me for my inability to prove I was anxious.
I didn’t have a job for four months – until a retail store hired me as a head cashier. That worked out for about nine months… until I started getting sick before all my shifts. I called off for one week straight – and felt better every time I did.
In April 2012, I decided it was time to quit again. Better quit too soon than have to report a firing on a future job application, right?
The Dog Days
Except there were no future job applications. My mental state had declined enough that I could no longer hold an in-person job. It was an earth-shattering revelation.
My husband had given up his dream of a psychology career, and hadn’t found a new vocation yet. With his grocery store paycheck and my inability to work, how could we pay off our debts? How could we afford to buy a house and have kids and a dog and a picket fence one day?
I tried therapy again. I told her I felt so bad about myself I couldn’t even manage to clean the house. Her advice was that I should just clean the areas of the house that visitors would see. Somehow she didn’t realize that I wasn’t well enough to even have visitors. I didn’t need advice on throwing stuff into closets; my apartment was a biohazard. It was a nightmare.
I was also on medication – a lot of it – to help with the suicidal ideation. I didn’t see a way out. The drugs exhausted me. I slept fourteen hours a day, and needed a constant stream of Dr. Pepper to stay awake and play video games. I was too tired to cook, so we gorged ourselves on fast food. I gained fifty pounds in about a year.
I tried therapy one more time, in the summer of 2013. This was a state-run mental health clinic, near-free because of our relative lack of income. I remember how hot it was outside. I remember they needed twice as much paperwork as anywhere I’d been before – every detail of my illness, relatives’ illnesses, and my income.
They needed payment at time of service. I couldn’t find my debit card. I had dropped it in my car. I was sweating. I was crying. I had a hard time filling out the paperwork because my legs were shaking so much – more than any other time in my life. I was wearing jeans that didn’t quite fit despite the heat because I didn’t like how my legs looked anymore.
The therapist was sweet. Tall, thin, comforting. After a few minutes, she was able to tell me all the positive things she saw in me – that I was kind, intelligent, well-spoken.
It was nice to hear. She might have helped me, had I kept going – but I couldn’t bring myself to shake like that in front of anyone else again. And so it was that I kept gaining weight, jobless, having quit school, having almost no friends.
In late 2013, I lost the first boy I had ever kissed. I called him crying on that Christmas evening. I told him it was over, and that I’d send along the paperwork as soon as possible.
Deep breaths. That’s as bad as it gets.
There were a few steps involved in my recovery. They’re weird steps, and I don’t recommend replicating most of them.
First: I stopped taking my medication.
NEVER DO THIS! THIS IS VERY VERY BAD!
I barely survived the process, though it did provide one benefit: I wasn’t quite so fatigued anymore. I found that I was capable of much more than I gave myself credit for.
Second: I found remote work.
This one was weird. To deal with the loneliness of social anxiety, I frequented an online chat room for several years.
DON’T DO THIS EITHER! THIS IS VERY VERY BAD! Finding online communities can be great. But chat rooms attract the absolute worst of humanity – GamerGate kinds of people, and worse. The experience was not altogether worth the risks.
One day, living in an extended stay hotel room, I begged anyone listening in chat for a job. No one responded – until the chat conversation turned to feminism. I shared some Very Strong Opinions, and – based on my articulation – a fellow chat denizen messaged me offering work as a copywriter.
Third: I started dating my boss. Yes, that chat room one.
DON’T DO THIS EITHER. I MADE MANY TERRIBLE DECISIONS THAT SOMEHOW ADDED UP TO A BETTER LIFE, BUT BARELY. DON’T FOLLOW MY LEAD.
It was nice to feel wanted again. Plus, while spending so much (virtual) time together, he taught me everything he knew. Those skills led me to get a better remote job – just in time for him to fire me over our breakup. Told you it was a terrible decision.
Fourth: I lowered my expectations.
Remember I said I was despondent because I couldn’t have a nice house and kids and a picket fence? Well, to combat this, I started following the homesteading community.
Homesteaders include people who live in 400 square foot homes that they built themselves for under $5k… people who poop in a bucket to fertilize the vegetables that they grow themselves.
So, that wasn’t actually my dream. But I realized I didn’t need a house the size of my parents’. I knew I wasn’t financially reliable; I lived in constant fear of repeating my Great Collapse of 2013. If I could live completely without debt in a smaller home and grow most of my own food (albeit with actual plumbing), I wouldn’t need that much money to live. I could keep writing as a freelancer and support myself and my small needs.
For the first time in years, I had hope for my future. And that hope kept me going. My goal of self-sufficiency has fueled much of my personality over the past five years; I expect that will continue.
Specifically, I picked up a self-help book on cognitive behavioral therapy. I read two chapters or so. They were enough to help me realize some of my cognitive distortions (e.g. mind-reading, polarized thinking, disqualifying the positive), and to help fix them just enough so that I could stop hating myself.
I started to be content with loneliness. I started to believe I could do things, rather than being sure that I couldn’t. I started to enjoy the pleasure of my own company.
I’m not sure I loved myself; even now, I find myself quirky but overly difficult. But it was a start.
The paperwork for the dissolution of our marriage took about ten months to complete. After ten months of separation, my husband asked if we could try again. So we did; we dated for about five months before I moved back in.
Our separation made us stronger and more independent. It wasn’t easy at first, but the early months of 2017 were some of the best we ever had. In 2017, we moved to Asheville, NC in a dream apartment by the mountains…
And our finances caught up with us. With money problems comes stress and despondency.
I had a mental breakdown in December 2017, and another in September 2018. But this time, my recovery was shorter; it took five weeks to get through the first lapse, and three weeks to get through the second. I am getting better every week, every month – and this time I know my husband and I can get through it. (Emotionally, that is. We still haven’t recovered from the financial hit taken from my lapse in September.)
Separation rarely works in a relationship. But for us, it was the best thing we could have done. We got married too young (for various circumstances), and we needed to grow alone to grow together.
I couldn’t afford therapy. Still can’t. In January of this year, I told a psychiatrist I was suicidal and scared. She asked a lot of questions, but ultimately did not change my diagnosis or prescriptions.
That visit cost me $900. It’s sitting in collections.
I didn’t believe a self-help book could help me, but I tried it anyway, on a whim. Two chapters changed my life and perspective.
If you cannot afford therapy, try a self-help book. Even if all it does for you is help your self-love and a few cognitive adjustments, it can make a major difference. Maybe it will mean that you only need to save up for four therapy sessions instead of ten, but it can hardly hurt.
(And if you can’t afford a self-help book, contact me. I will help you find one.)