I Survived

*tw*: s*icide, mental illness, depression and anxiety, self harm, eating disorders, trauma

One year ago today, I woke up in the hospital. I never actually went to sleep, but I was in and out of awareness so much that I don’t remember much. So, when I was told I was being loaded into am ambulance and taken to a mental health facility, it felt like coming out of a restless sleep. I’ve never felt so helpless. By the time I was in the ambulance being transported to Ridgeview Institute, I was alone. My roommate who brought me to the ER left to go to bed not long after my partner arrived. Around 5am, my partner left to contact his job and re-situate his week based on the circumstances. No one actually knew where I was being taken or when. I couldn’t contact anyone. I tried to use my cell phone while I waited in an intake room in Ridgeview, but there was little to no reception. My iMessages went through as little green SMS messages as I attempted to give the name of my location to a few important people, including my partner. I had to read the hospital information off of my wrist band in order to relay it.

I felt completely lost.

Sometimes I look back on those first 24 hours after my suicide attempt and sincerely wonder how I made it out. My memories are spotty, but the things are remember are terrible, the feeling of loneliness and confusion being some of the most palatable. At the time, I didn’t have any idea how I had ended up in the hospital, both physically and mentally.

The things I initially pointed to as the causes for my attempt only scratched the surface. After all, it’s never about what you think it’s about.

My trauma was all connected in deeper ways than I realized, and I was only in a headspace to acknowledge pieces of it. I was just trying to survive.

In recovery, people talk a lot about survival. When we’re moving through or away from trauma, we often lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms to make it out. Though unhealthy, they’re coping mechanisms nonetheless. We do what we have to do to survive, even when it’s not pretty. My self-harm, panic attacks, disordered eating, and perfectionism have all been attempts at controlling my surroundings in unpredictable times. While I do my best every day to move away from these old habits, I am also grateful for them. They are all ways my body and my mind tried to protect me in survival mode.

In a triggered or traumatized state, all we can do is try to survive. And I did that.

My therapist reminds me on occasion that, even in the midst of my attempt, I advocated for myself. I got help. I went to the hospital. I did my best to tell my support system where I was. When I was being processed during intake, I asked for food because I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. Even in my worst moments, I was making decisions to survive. While, from the outside, attempted suicide, addiction, co-dependency, or stuffing down feelings might appear self-destructive, they are often evidence that a traumatized person is doing their best to survive.

It’s counter-intuitive, yes, that my suicide attempt was also a survival tactic. It doesn’t quite make sense. But my logical brain wasn’t in control, my trauma responses were. My overwhelming panic, sadness, grief, and shame brought me to a place where I could no longer move forward, like a remote control car running into a wall over and over. The best thing my body could tell me to do was to escape. To end the effects of trauma meant to survive them. Trauma Brain could not see any future beyond the trauma, so it told me to stop exhausting myself trying to overcome it.

Now, I’m no longer in survival mode. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I finally emerged or how long I had been there, but I know that now I’m able to do so much more. I’m connecting my sense of justice in the world to my desire for my story to be heard. I’m tracing my episodes of dissociation and panic all the way back to childhood, realizing that I’ve been working through trauma much longer than I knew. I’m working to separate intrusive thoughts, like thoughts self-harm and body dysmorphia, from actions, knowing that just because I think or feel something doesn’t mean I have to act on it.

Most of all, I’m trying to discover who I am, because I don’t think I’ve ever really known. I think I’ve just been searching.

Now is both a terrible and a wonderful time for self-discovery. I’m struggling with identity and value as they relate into my ability to be busy and productive. How am I supposed to discover who I am if I can’t do anything? But who I am is not only qualified by what I produce.

Who I am is deeper, and she can’t wait to meet you, now that she’s survived.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or other mental health issues, reach out and get help. You don’t have to do this alone. Find a therapist near you here. Reach out to an emergency hotline here. Text with a crisis counselor. Call a friend or family member. Your life matters.

Skinny

TW: body image, eating disorders, fatphobia

The first time I thought I was fat, I was in the third grade. I remember that my stomach stuck out, in the way that all little kids’ do – adorable and not concerned about a six-pack. I remember thinking that either there was something wrong with me or that this was what all my peers looked like and I just didn’t know it. While the truth was probably closer to the second option, I logged somewhere in my eight-year-old brain that I needed to do something about my stomach. “Am I fat?” I asked myself, as though that were the worst thing I could be.

Growing up, my parents taught me persistently about exercise and diet. I don’t fault them for this. As an adult, I’ve realized that not everyone learns about food as a child, so I’m grateful that my parents had me try a little bit of everything. I’m also grateful that they instilled in me a love of running, dance, and weight lifting. However, these teachings were not balanced with lessons about moderation. While I was afforded the privilege of a healthy lifestyle, I inherited a guilt about food and exercise. Certain foods were good while others were bad. Working out was a success and rest days were failures.

The first time I started intentionally restricting my eating was my sophomore year of high school. After spending hours looking at a fashion magazine, I sat on the floor of my bathroom one night crying and pulling at the skin of my stomach, disgusted by my own body. For months after that, I lied to my parents and my friends about my eating habits. I pretended to pack lunches for school but brought only an empty lunch box. I told my parents I was eating dinner after play rehearsal and told my friends I was eating dinner at home. I was proud of my self-control. I was proud of my jutting ribs.

I can’t put a finger on when I snapped out of this, although I arguably never did. At one point, I met with one of my youth group leaders who told me that I should be happy with my life and my body because of the joy God was supposed to bring to my life. Despite this unhelpful advice, I did eventually start eating again. However, my feelings about my body didn’t change. As a runner and a former dancer, I coveted skinny thighs and a flat stomach. Emerging from puberty, I began to realize that was not how I was shaped. My thighs became thick and my butt became round. I hated it. Every summer when I worked at a camp, wearing shorts and a bathing suit daily, I resorted to eating only salads and blueberries. Even in times when I felt healthy, I always found something to hate when I looked in the mirror.

My eating disorder returned with a vengance over the past few months. As I recovered from self harm, I found solace in this different but familiar addiction. It was then that I realized I had done the same thing in my high school years. The months after I overcame a period of self harm in high school coincided with that tearful evening in the bathroom. I was trading one trauma response for another. Anorexia was easier to hide and much more socially acceptable, so I turned to it for the sense of control I gave up when I left self-harm behind.

As trite as it sounds, I am still trying to learn to love my body. I am often frustrated by the fact that my dietary and exercise habits don’t result in my “dream body”. Weekly, I am seduced by diets and exercise plans and before/after photos posted by friends. I’m still not sure how to love my body, but I want to try. She has carried me through so much. She has survived assault from others and my own attempts to harm her. I am not angry at my eating disorder or my self-harm because they helped me survive. They were coping mechanisms in times of trauma.

As I try to move forward, I don’t know what this healing will look like, but I know it starts inside with with a small, scared, third grader who has the option to love her little tummy instead of despising it.

The Worst Year

TW: assault, abuse, self harm, suicide

This was the worst year of my life. It feels dramatic to say, but I know emphatically that it’s true. My second year of seminary in 2015 is a pretty close runner-up, but the struggles of this year reached a new level. I’ve never been so glad to see a new year come.

It’s also been a pretty rough decade if I’m being realistic. This decade began with an abusive relationship. I spent five years being told what I could wear, who I could hang out with, and what I was supposed to think. For half of this decade, I wasn’t my own person. I wasn’t myself. I had no way of being myself because I wasn’t given the space to learn who I was. I was the person he made me into. He gradually isolated me from family and friends. I had no one to rely on but him.

In 2015, after a year and a half of seminary, I was finally developing some of my own ideas, and those ideas began to reveal what a terrible situation I was in. I wanted out, but I didn’t know how to escape. My way out finally came, but only with more trauma. My first sexual assault ended my abusive relationship because I was blamed for cheating. My abusive partner doubted my story and became more angry than I had ever seen him. I knew then that I couldn’t do it anymore. I dealt with the fall out of my break up and the recovery from my assault at the same time. I still look back on that semester with amazement at how I made it through.

Things eventually began to turn around. I fell in love with a partner who treated me with respect and equality. I graduated from seminary. I found my first job doing something I loved. Just as things began to shift, though, they fell apart again. Last Thanksgiving, I was sexually assaulted for the second time. This compounded my trauma and left me with Complex PTSD. Instead of dealing with my symptoms, I pushed them down. I told myself that if I never thought about the assault, I could pretend that it didn’t happen.

All of this compounded trauma finally came to a head in the spring of 2019. I had started self harming again for the first time in 15 years. I was drinking more than I should’ve. I was lying to myself and everyone around me about how I was doing. I reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted out. My anxiety and depression were overwhelming, and I felt trapped. On May 21, 2019, I attempted suicide. Thankfully, I wasn’t successful. My roommate drove me to the hospital and I spent a week in the hospital followed by six weeks in an intensive trauma program.

I finally began to face the trauma of my assaults, my abuse, and the loss of my mother in early childhood. I realized how lonely I had been for most of my life. I finished the program on wobbly legs but ready with the tools I needed to live. My body was able to leave the state of emergency it had been in for years and finally breathe. It hasn’t been simple. A lot of days are still hard. There are mornings I have to choose to use the tools I learned in order to get out of bed. There are moments when I struggle not to blame myself for my assaults. There are times when all I can do is feel my emotions and cry. But I’m doing it.

I don’t know what this next decade holds, but I know it has to be better. I bought a house with my partner a month ago and we’re looking toward a future together. I’m writing more and becoming more serious about working toward publication. I’m dreaming with a friend about opening a bookstore full of adoptable cats. I know that making this new decade brighter will be work, but for the first time in years I feel equipped for the task.

Happy New Year. Happy new decade. Morning is coming.

Relapse

*TW*: sexual assault, self harm

A little over a year ago, I relapsed into a pattern of self-harm. Right after Thanksgiving last year, I spent the whole night on the phone with the crisis help line and watching Queer Eye with my roommate while waiting to hear from my therapist. I took nearly a week off of work.

I had struggled with self harm in the past. During high school, I saw a therapist for it. But I had been clean for over 12 years. I felt devastated and disappointed. I grieved what I saw as my ruined success. I didn’t understand why I had ruined my sobriety and pulled myself back under into a habit that I knew would be difficult to break again. There was a reason, though. There is always a reason we do what we do, even if it’s not evident. Usually, we’re reacting to life around us, especially when it has to do with trauma.

Last year, I survived a sexual assault right around Thanksgiving. Much like my first experience of sexual assault, my perpetrator was someone I knew. I’d had some drinks and still don’t remember much of what happened. It was so similar to my first assault, in fact, that I started to believe that everything was my fault. How could this happen twice? Maybe I was the one to blame.

If you’re thinking the same thing, I have a few things to say. First, survivors are never to blame. I own 0% of the blame for what happened to me. My perpetrator is the only one at fault. Second, people under the influence of alcohol or drugs that cannot remember what happened to them are not able to legally consent to any sexual activity. And, perhaps most importantly, there is never a reason or excuse for rape. I could be passed out drunk and naked in someone’s bed and it still would not give them the right to my body. My body is mine and only mine, and if I am not able to say a coherent “yes”, then I am saying “no.”

Before I was able to fully own this more freeing narrative, though, I packed down my shame. I didn’t talk about my assault. I believed that if I never thought about it, I might be able to forget that it had happened. I sort of mentioned it to my therapist once. I didn’t tell my partner or my best friend. I ignored my flashbacks and wrote off my spiked anxiety. And while I might’ve cognitively been able to forget somewhat, my body would not forget what happened to her. She knew what violation felt like and she was crying out for help. This is where the self harm came from.

While it seems contradictory to those who have never experienced it, self harm is often an attempt at control. Much like an eating disorder, self harm feels like it allows someone to control the pain that’s happening to them when they don’t feel like they can control emotional pain. Sometimes self harm occurs out of anger. Sometimes out of sadness. Sometimes loneliness. It’s safe to say that I felt a combination of all of those things. I felt angry at myself, sad that I felt imprisoned by this experience, and lonely because I was bearing it without any help.

Because I continued to box up and stuff down my memories of the rape, I ended up hospitalized last spring. And during my partial hospitalization, I was finally able to share my story. I grieved for days afterward. I had so many pent up emotions about it that it was overwhelming. But the release was what I needed to move forward.

I still struggle, though. I currently have 35 days clean. At one point in my healing journey, I had two months clean. So, all of this is still fresh, but I am beyond proud of the steps I’ve made. Each clean day is a victory. When I relapse, I have not started from the beginning again. Instead, I learn how to heal in an imperfect way and keep going.

Trauma Therapy III: Leaving the Hole

This is part III of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here. If you haven’t ready part II, read it by clicking here.

Once I reached the bottom of the hole, it was difficult to pick myself back up and find my way out. Everything was painful, but the pain had become comfortable. I was used to being raw. I didn’t know how to fold up the mess and prepare to get back to my life. My everyday life had become so encased in reviewing my trauma that I wasn’t sure how to go about my daily life anymore. I had done the work, but now I had to actually recover.

When I was hospitalized, I could tell the day I started feeling better because I started straightening up the common room. For nearly a week, I floated around, not particularly caring about myself or my surroundings. But two days before I was released, I threw out old papers that had piled up, organized the crayons and coloring books, and put all of the remotes in a little basket. That was the moment I knew that I was getting back to normal. While sometimes my obsessive organizing can be a negative sign, here it pointed to the fact that I was getting back to normal. The same was true in PHP/IOP but in a different way: I started mentoring other women.

New women arrived in the program each day, and I watched them go through the same phases I had experienced. When I saw them fighting the process, I called them out. When I saw them willing to be vulnerable, I celebrated. My recovery was no longer just about me but about the women around me as well. My therapist relied on me and other “old-timers” in the group to help guide new women who needed to let go and trust the process. I began to see that I knew everything the program had to offer, and that, if I stayed too much longer, I would start to go backwards.

This happens pretty often in recovery programs like the women’s trauma program at Ridgeview. We reach the bottom of the dark hole, we claw back out, and then we’re not sure what to do. For me, I was too afraid to enter back into real life, so I started crawling back into the hole again. The hole was painful, but at least I knew my way around in there. It seemed like a kind of strange Stockholm syndrome where my trauma was holding me captive. I started to feel comfortable in the misery and resisted returning to my old rhythms. I was different now and didn’t know how to negotiate daily life with my new tools. I knew how to negotiate trauma therapy, though, so I held tight to it as long as I could.

On my last day of the program, I cried constantly. I have always been a sentimental person, so I knew I would be upset about leaving all the women who had been on this journey with me. But it wasn’t just that. I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could do it. I knew I had tools and I had done recovery work to prepare me for being on my own, but I was afraid I was going to fail. I was scared that without the daily support of Ridgeview, I would end right back up where I started. What I didn’t realize was that, even when I messed up, it was impossible for me to go back to the place I had been in before.

Recovery isn’t linear but it isn’t circular either. Even when you mess up, you’re moving forward. Each time I relapse into self harm or have suicidal thoughts, I’m still learning about how to overcome those urges. Each time I have a panic attack, I make it through and I’m reminded that it will end. There are plenty of bad days, but each one makes me stronger. Everything that has happened in the past brings me to where I am now, so even though I’ve had difficult moments since Ridgeview, I can’t go back to where I was in May. I’m not the same.

The hole is still there, and there will always be more to work through, more to sit in. In fact, I am sitting in it right now. But the goal is to not avoid the hole for so long that it overflows again. I now have the tools to clean out the dark hole as I go. I will still be angry along the way. I will still sit and sob at night. But I’ve also witnessed my own strength and know that I can make it to morning.

Trauma Therapy II: Sitting In It

This is part II of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here.

After about a week of trauma therapy in PHP, the work finally began. I stopped resisting and started being honest with myself about my experiences. I stopped trying to do everything right and started trying to tell the truth. Through this, I realized that the reasons I thought I’d been hospitalized weren’t really the reasons I’d been hospitalized. The things that I thought had tipped me over the edge were only the topsoil in a deep and messy hole. And the only way out was to sit in the hole and get dirty.

Because I had been in survival mode for so long, actually feeling my emotions was exhausting. I don’t like for people to see me upset and I don’t like to be vulnerable, but trauma therapy was requiring me to do both of those things basically all the time. After a day or two of this, I told my therapist that I felt like there was a gaping wound in the middle of my chest and the only way to feel safe was to curl up in a ball. She said, “What are you afraid is going to happen? You’re safe.” I wasn’t sure what I thought was going to happen if I let go and sat in it. In retrospect, I think it was the actual letting go that I was so afraid of. I had built my life around hanging on in order to survive. I thought I would lose myself. I thought the darkness would take me over. I thought my grief and trauma and shame would eat me alive. But, in reality, it had already tried and I had escaped.

I cried for a week. I cried constantly in group even if I wasn’t the one sharing. I bought frozen and prepackaged meals at the grocery store because I could barely manage to eat, much less cook. I laid in my bed and cried myself to sleep every night, overwhelmed by the amount of emotions I was finally allowing myself to feel. Plus, the loneliness of knowing that no one else can help you with your feelings is probably the most destitute I’ve ever felt. Some days, I felt ok during PHP because I knew others around me felt the same way. It was often when I left that I felt the most overwhelmed. When it was time to go home, what was I supposed to do? The answer was: nothing. I just had to sit there and feel terrible. I felt lonely and sad and overwhelmed, and you just feel it. I felt homesick for something I couldn’t identify and entirely umoored. And when I felt like drinking or hurting myself or ending it all just to make the feelings stop, I called someone to sit with you. And kept feeling.

After about a week of feeling all of this, I remember asking my therapist, “How long do I have to sit it in? How do I know when I’m done?” She looked at me and said, “I’m still sitting in it.” There will always be things I need to sit in and feel. It will probably never be as overwhelming as the second week of trauma therapy because I aim to never get to a point again where I have decades worth of built up trauma to process, but there will always be something. No one else could tell me when I was done sitting in it. I just knew. One night, I looked at a picture of my mom and sobbed for hours. After that I knew I had reached the bottom of the cave and it was time to find my way back out.

To be continued in part III…

Trauma Therapy I: Anger and Release

When I was first released from my week in an inpatient hospitalization program, I felt better. I thought I had figured out the reasons I fell so far off the edge and believed I had the all the tools I needed to start again. My problem, I thought, was that I had failed to properly use my support system. I had plenty of people who loved me and cared for me, but my perfectionism had been preventing me from letting them in to help. While this was true, this was far from the root of the problem.

Upon my release, I agreed to attend a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). Literally the day after being discharged from the hospital, I had to show up at the same hospital again and keep talking about my feelings. I didn’t think I needed to be there. My first day, I thought, “I’m way more well adjusted than everyone else. I’m fine. I’ll be out of here in a snap.” (Spoiler alert: nope.) That’s the thing about trauma, though, is that it tricks us into believing we’re fine. Rather, our maladaptive coping strategies trick us into believing we’re fine because it’s the only way we know how to survive. I entered into the Women’s Trauma PHP assuming I didn’t have any work left to do. But I was about to do the hardest work of my life.

The first three days of PHP, I played my perfected role of “good student.” I didn’t disrupt, I listened, I responded when asked but only when asked, I took notes, I was friendly to the other participants. I knew all the answers. However, I had no intention of digging in, asking hard questions, or being vulnerable. I thought if I said all the right things and filled out my daily behavior log consisting of no urges to harm myself or others, I could get out of there and get back to my life. I stressed constantly about when I would be able to go back to work. The more “good” I was, the sooner I could leave. Trauma therapists, though, see right through that shit. So, around day 4, my therapist starting pushing my buttons. Our therapists often discussed how the trauma program would trigger us so we could learn how to deal with our triggers in a healthy environment, but they also emphasized that this triggering was not intentional. It just happened as a part of being vulnerable and interacting with others. However, my shell was so tightly encased, that I have a feeling my therapist had no choice but to grab a stick and poke the bear.

I’m funny when I get angry. Most people yell, become aggressive, or get physically aggitated. I sulk. I think a lot of my issues with anger come from both the fact that I’ve experienced the pain that misdirected anger can cause and also from my relentless Good Girl Syndrome. Because I’ve experienced emotional abuse, I don’t want my anger to ever feel that way to anyone else. In addition, angry outbursts seem like a form of losing control, and if I keep my anger dialed down, I’ll still be able to be perfect. It turns out, though, I’m SUPER angry. If you know anything about the Enneagram, this really shouldn’t be surprising. I’m a 1, and we’re notoriously the most angry number. But we keep our anger boxed up inside to seem measured and controlled.

This is what I did in PHP. For several days, I sat in the corner of each lecture and therapy session refusing to make eye contact and refusing to participate. The program was making me angry. The people were making me angry. My therapist was making me angry. And I was in such a delicate state that it was getting harder and harder to keep all my anger controlled. My second Friday in PHP, I told my friend in the program, “I’m never coming back here.” Later we laughed about it, but at the time I was serious. Anger is the gateway to so many other emotions, like grief and shame, so it’s where many of us start our trauma work. The minute we started to feel angry, the minute our therapist knew she was finally getting somewhere.

I finally moved past my anger the day I shared in group therapy. I had shared in group before, but never anything actually vulnerable. The longer I sat in the program, though, the more I realized that, in order to begin my true healing process, I would have to share some things that I hadn’t shared with anyone. I was terrified. Every day as I sat in group, it pressed harder and harder on me that I wasn’t going to get through this program if I didn’t start being vulnerable. I would rehearse what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it when I was falling asleep at night. I didn’t even know how to make the words because I had spent so long trying to pretend that this particular thing hadn’t happened to me that I had started to forget about it. The fact that I had kept it shoved down for so long, though, was a huge source of my trauma.

One morning, I finally decided to share. I think, probably, I was so exhausted from being angry that I figured I had no choice but to let go and actually work the program. As I shared, I stared at the table in front of me, tears dripping off of my face, my breathing shallow, my hands clamped together in my lap. I felt no better, in fact I probably felt worse, but I had done it. Next came the worst part. The sitting in it. Our program therapist was very fond of telling us to “sit in it.” Because of my maladaptive coping strategies that I used to survive years of trauma, I had forgotten how to feel negative feelings and just feel them. Most trauma survivors, upon feeling negative feelings, use behaviors like substance abuse, self harm, avoidance, partying, or over working when we start to feel this way. We spend most of our time just trying to stay alive. In PHP, our therapist challenged us to feel without relying on these behaviors. She told us we were in a safe place to feel all of these emotions: we had mental health professionals around us all the time and we had a built in support system if we were unable to handle the feelings. The only way out was through.

(to be continued in a part II – there’s a lot to cover here, y’all. stay tuned.)

Psych Ward

*tw: mental illness, hospitalization, suicide, self harm, sexual assault*

At the end of May, I spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. While I don’t feel comfortable sharing the specifics of what led me to be admitted, I was admitted involuntarily, meaning I did not walk in off the street and decide I needed care. Instead, I had reached my saturation point for handling life’s variables and healthcare providers determined I would be safest in a hospital setting. I never thought I would need to be hospitalized, but in retrospect, I’m suprised it took me this long. I can now see warning signs in myself all over the place, but I wasn’t listening to them.

Late on the Monday night before Memorial Day, I sobbed in the car as my roommate drove me to the emergency room. I texted my boss and my therapist and called my partner, but I remember very little after that. I spent the night in Emory University’s ER, attempting to watch Sex in the City and drifting in and out of conciousness as we waited for the rotating psychiatrist to come and evaluate me. Around 5:30am, my partner left to go home and rest. Around 6:30am, the psychiatrist finally arrived. I talked with him for a few minutes, answering questions about what brought me to the ER, my medical and psychiatric history, and how I was feeling. Not long after, the attending nurse told me I was being taken to a psychiatric hospital. They assured me they would find one that would accept my insurance. I was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance with no specific idea about where I was headed. I was terrified and exhausted, and I slept the whole ride.

When we arrived, I was unloaded along with my backpack I had somehow managed to bring along. Still in blue papery hospital scrubs, I sat scrunched up in an armchair alone in an intake room for what felt like hours, waiting to be processed into the hospital. Eventually, I was able to put my own clothes back on and use my phone to text a few people to tell them where I was. I wrote down important phone numbers so I would still have them after they could confiscate my phone. They took my bookbag as well, and it would be two days before I could get the rest of my things out of it. I was taken to a section of the hospital that I now know is primarily for people who are psychotic, delusional, aggressive, or paranoid. I didn’t fit any of these categories, but the women’s trauma unit I was eventually bound for was full, so I was stuck in holding until there was an open bed.

I walked around for three days in a complete fog. I’m sure the sleeping medications didn’t help, but as the reality of what was happening set in, I began to feel less and less in control of my body. I had panic attacks and cried constantly. I had no idea what was going on. I felt entirely alone. I wanted so badly to process what had happened but felt I had no one to talk to. I watched people get shots of sedatives to calm them after having raging outbursts. I watched one man try to escape twice in one day. I watched another walk around wearing only one shoe, in a psychotic daze for 48 hours until they corrected his medication and he became a completely stable person. I was scared and I had no clue how to move forward.

On day 3, I finally had visitation hours. Seeing my partner and my best friend was both jarring and comforting. They said they were surprised at how good I looked and seemed. Looking back, this is especially strange because of how out of control I felt. All of my defense mechanisms to keep my life together had finally failed. My perfectionism, my obsessive cleaning and organizing, my intellectualization of my problems, and my avoidance of conflict and difficult emotions had all worked for a long time. But the thing about defense mechanisms is that they work until they don’t. I avoided digging deeply into myself for so many decades that I started to believe I could forget that certain things had happened to me by simply not acknowledging them. (Spoiler: This does not work.) I was dishonest with myself and the people who love me about how I was really doing because I was ashamed of the pain I was actually feeling, and, at times, completely unaware of the pain I was actually feeling.

I started to unwrap all of this once I was moved from the chaotic holding unit to the women’s trauma unit. I was surrounded by women who shared my diagnoses and my life experiences. We never discussed specifics, but we just knew. It was such a relief to get hugs from other women after not having any physical contact for days in the other unit. I started to smile and laugh again. “This isn’t the psych ward!” we would yell across the table at each other, as we color pictures of mandalas and animals with dulling colored pencils. We laughed because there was no other way we could make it through. Because we were in the psych ward. And our reality pressed in from all sides as we walked around in our pants without drawstrings and shoes without laces. Our backs ached from mattresses without springs and our eyes were tired from the wellness checks every 15 minutes during the night to make sure we were breathing. It was an overwhelming week. It was a week I never thought I’d have. But it was real, and now it’s a part of my story.

Since being released, I’ve been participating in a partial hospitalization program for women’s trauma. It’s possibly the most difficult work I’ve ever done. I’m not quite ready to share my reflections on the work I’ve been doing in trauma therapy yet because it’s still so close and because I’m still doing it. But I wanted to at least share the beginning of this journey. I want to share this experience because I want to help normalize psychiatric care. Inpatient hospitalization programs are for everyone. If you feel out of control of your emotions, a situation, substance abuse, or your behaviors, admitting yourself to a program like the one I was in could be a helpful step. Inpatient programs help stabilize you in moments of crisis. Getting help before you’re in a full blown crisis is also a valid reason to seek hospitalization.

I’m getting better, but I can’t say I’m getting better every day because that would be a lie. Healing is not linear. I’m learning new ways to cope and some days I use those new coping skills effectively, but other days I don’t. I’m back at work part time, but I’m teaching my self to take it easy. I’m scared to integrate back into “real life”, but I know that I’ll be ready when it’s time. I’m still not sure what all I’m supposed to have learned from the psych ward, but I trust that I’m learning it.

Trial and Error

Last year, I wrote about my decision to go on medication for my anxiety. It was a complicated decision for me to actually seek help from a doctor. I’d never discussed my mental health with a doctor before, only my therapist, and it felt like an overwhelmingly vulnerable thing to do. My first appointment with my doctor, I sat on the examination table with sweaty palms and shortness of breath. It’s a little over a year later, and I’m still on a journey toward balance, healing, and figuring out what medications are right for me.

Unlike many physical health problems, the medications for mental health are much more of a trial and error situation. I know that some issues like autoimmune disorders, cancer, and chronic pain can feel this way, too, so I don’t want to discount those experiences. But I’d never had an experience where a doctor didn’t know exactly how to treat me. I’m rarely sick, and when I am, it’s usually with something predictable like a cold or flu, bronchitis at the worst. I’ve had a few surgeries, mainly due to routine dental procedures and sports injuries. I’ve done physical therapy countless times. However, being prescribed a medication in the spirit of “we’ll see how this goes!” is a new and somewhat scary journey.

Medications for mental health can sometimes have side effects that are worse than the thing you want them to prevent. They can cause suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and depression. They can make you tired, dizzy, nauseated, gain weight, lose weight, hungry, not hungry, the list goes on. My body has always operated on a pretty predictable rhythm. I’ve exercised at least five days per week since I started running cross country in middle school. Growing up, fried foods, red meat, and other unhealthy options were never made available to me, a pattern I took with me into adulthood. Whenver I was experiencing something unpleasant in my body, I could usually point to exactly why that was and do something to make it stop. But these new medications are a different story.

I started out taking Zoloft. I felt like it was helping my anxiety, so we increased the dosage. After a few months, though, I was feeling exhausted and depressed. I went back to my doctor and we decided to try something else. Next, I tried Lexapro. I felt like I had more energy and experienced less side effects, but I was still feeling depressed. After talking with my therapist, I realized that maybe the depression wasn’t a side effect of the medications but was actually a symptom of mental illness. My anxiety had been my main concern for so long, and once that was quieted, my depression was free to settle back in and take control.

The past six months have been a slow trudge through day to day life. Some days were better than others, but I struggled find joy in my work and in my hobbies. Spending time with friends was exhausting, but sitting in my house alone made me feel even more worthless. There were times I had to call friends to come and sit with me because I didn’t feel safe to be alone. There were times when I had to take several days off of work. There were times when I texted the crisis hotline and thought about admitting myself to a hospital. It hasn’t been the best season. But I’m so grateful for the people who showed up for me and for my own ability to ask for help and to get up and keep trying.

So, now, not only am I taking Lexapro but also Wellbutrin. And I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in months. My insides feel less dreary and I’m excited about things instead of feeling burdened by them. I want to be creative again. I want to be spontaneous and try new things. The fog is slowly lifting. I know there will be bad days again because mental illness doesn’t just go away overnight, but I also know that my therapist and doctor will be there for me along the way. Maybe one day I’ll need to switch medications again. Maybe one day I won’t need any medications at all. But for now, the best version of me is the one that takes two pills per day, and there’s no shame in that.

Lies Religion Told Me About My Depression

CW: disordered eating, depression, religious trauma, self harm

I first struggled with depression and body image in high school. For the better part of my junior year, I restricted my eating or avoided eating altogether. I was in a theater production at school, so my evening rehearsal schedule meant I could pretend to eat all three meals at school while managing to only munch on some free oyster crackers from the cafeteria throughout the day. After several months of this, as well as constant urging from my friends, I summoned the courage to talk to someone at my church about what I was going through.

My youth leader and I went to dinner at Chik-fil-A (the classic Christian restaurant, obviously), and I confessed my hatred for my own body and general unhappiness with my life. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m so unhappy. I have a boyfriend. I have a lot of good friends. I’m doing well in school.” To which my youth leader responded, “Yes, but you need to be able to be happy even if you don’t have those things. That’s why we find our joy in Jesus.” Here is the first lie: If you really love Jesus, you won’t ever be unhappy.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized how disturbing this was. There I sat, a fragile, 95 pound 16-year-old, and instead of getting the mental health assistance I so badly needed, I was being told that my unhappiness was directly correlated to the depth of my religious belief. If I would only pray more, read the Bible more, and be a better Christian, then I wouldn’t be having these problems. I wasn’t referred to get any outside help and instead was referred to a devotional book for teenage girls.

For whatever its worth, I did start eating again after the conversation with my youth leader. Whether it was the confession of my issue itself or my deep belief in what I’d been told, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d started eating all three meals again. But, really, that’s not the thing that matters the most. What does was my belief in my ability to be cured from mental illness simply by praying and going to church. Sure, prayer, meditation, and community can all help improve mental health and personal awareness. I don’t discount that. But my brain chemistry cannot be cured by sitting in a dark room with my eyes closed. People far more devout than I experience unhappiness and depression all of the time. And the refusal of many church communities to acknowledge the dark emotions we all face leads to a church full of shiny, happy people. When church does not allow us to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry, it denies us the fullness of our human experience.

Earlier in my high school experience, I struggled with other self-harming behaviors. Like any addiction or illness, I would go through periods of recovery followed by periods of relapse. Every time I fell back into old patterns, I would spend the next spiritual retreat with my youth group reflecting on my own short comings. This is the second lie: My inability to overcome mental illness is based in my unwillingness to let God work in my life.

I spent countless high school retreats crying while participating in whatever metaphorical spiritual practice had been employed to help us “let go” of the things holding us back in our relationship with God. Sometimes this was writing down what we needed to let go of and nailing it to a cross. (Don’t get me started on the disturbing theological implications of this one.) Sometimes it was writing down our sins on a piece of paper and throwing it in the fire. Sometimes it was holding a small stone in our hands, meditating on it, and then laying it at the foot of the cross to represent our burdens. While I understand what was being attempted with these practices, for me, they did nothing but damage. Each time, I contemplated the same things. I wasn’t happy: I was depressed, self-harming, anorexic, and lonely. I believed that if I tried hard enough and really meant it, then God would take these problems away. Each time, this turned out not to be true, and each time I thought it was my own fault for not having enough faith for God to take away my burdens.

I do not believe that God magically rewards “good people” with joy, wealth, and easy lives. I do not believe that God spitefully punishes “bad people” with mental illness, sickness, and poverty. My brain chemistry has nothing to do with my actions in the world. I was born with a brain that is suceptible to anxiety and depression, and this does not make me a failure in the eyes of God. While I do what I can to maintain my mental health – exercise, healthy diet, meditation, therapy – I am the best version of myself when I’m on the right medications. This does not mean God made me incorrectly or that I’ve done something to cause God’s anger at me. It just means I have to work harder each day to find the things that ground me.

Earlier this week, my therapist asked me what things were grounding me currently. I struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, I was able to mention my partner, my cats, a vegan pot pie I made for dinner, and my new garlic plant. I certainly did not mention guilt from being unhappy or a lack of faith. Days are hard right now, but that makes me no less faithful. It does make me more grateful for the good things when they grow. I am also grateful for the people and spaces that allow be to feel all of my feelings, even when they don’t make sense, even when they are overwhelming. I am grateful for a God who honors all of my feelings, especially the ones that hurt.