I am still alive

It’s Sunday afternoon. Sometime in the last two hours since I’ve been up I’ve managed to have cereal, make myself an espresso with my moka, sweetened with cane sugar and dressed up with soy creamer, and pluck my chin hairs. Chin hairs are an inevitable fact of many women, but it’s not often talked about because people are embarrassed or it’s somehow a taboo subject. But it’s my blog and I’m free to talk about what I want here.

Friday night I went to bed at midnight and I spent the entirety of Saturday in bed. I didn’t want to face the world and I didn’t want to be living. Staying in bed, holding my teddy bear tight, drifting in and out of sleep in my darkened bedroom alone, is one way I avoid the world. It’s not that I don’t feel like I deserve to live. This time it has nothing to do with deserving. I just don’t feel alive, and I self-perpetuate the cycle by actually staying in bed with my eyes closed, doing nothing but thinking and sleeping and having nightmares all day long, which reaffirms that I’m not really alive because I’m not doing things that “normal” living people do, like being upright instead of vertical, talking with people, making plans, going out for hikes, making coffee.

It’s a big deal that I made myself coffee today. I love good coffee. Most days I make do with the crappy coffee that’s free and made en masse at work, but on weekends I deserve more. I dream of getting up at a reasonable hour every day of the weekend, say, by 10:00 and making myself coffee with my newly purchased Lavazza coffee grounds which for some reason need to be refrigerated. I bought a whole thing of cane sugar just for that purpose. I bought the soy creamer, because it lasts much longer than regular dairy creamer. Yet it was already 2:00 in the afternoon by the time I got around to making my coffee. Still, it felt good making it, pressing the coffee grounds down in the metal container of the moka, smelling the coffee grounds, preparing my large coffee cup with cane sugar, waiting over the hot stove for the first of the espresso liquid to boil up. It made me feel alive because I was doing what living people do. I was doing something I enjoyed.

I think my armpits stink because I sweated under my big down comforter yesterday, though we had the air conditioning on. My long hair is greasy on the top because I haven’t showered since Thursday, and it’s now somehow four days later. How did that happen? How is it that I have to endure this weekend for a bloody third day because of the holiday tomorrow. How is it that I despise weekends because of this cycle of not-living-but-sleeping-all-day-instead and then I don’t enjoy my weeks either because I don’t find fulfillment in my job. Yet I am still here. Still on this earth. Still breathing. And I am privileged because I am a citizen of this country, I have access to clean, running water, I am in good physical health, and I am not homeless. Still, knowing those things don’t help with my depression.

It’s my depression and I’ll do with it what I want! You say ‘action before motivation’? I don’t think so! Says my depression. You’re not doing anything today, it says. You’re going to stay in your dark room and deal with the nightmares, which usually have to do with the sexual trauma of my past, and you’ll suffice to eat once a day, and miss taking your morning medication that is supposed to stimulate you, because you’re confined to your bed. You’re going to stay there all day, says my depression, and pretend you’re not alive. If you’re not going to give in, not going to kill yourself, you can punish yourself in other ways.

Shoot. Am I punishing myself by staying in bed all day? I didn’t realize it until I took on the voice of my depression. It’s a form of self-punishment. It’s definitely not ‘lazy’. I texted my younger but adult boy cousin that I slept all day and his reply was “bum!”. I couldn’t help but replying: “I’m entitled to my bum days. By the way, bums actually work hard to earn a living collecting recyclables to turn in for dollars. They’re not all lazy. Most homeless people have severe mental illness.” No response. What do you say when someone comes at you with hard truth like that? Most people don’t want to think about the other people suffering out there. But what can I do about it? The best I could do would be to stay awake and study, although the motivation isn’t there, pass this exam and go to grad school where I can learn to be a therapist and then help the underserved populations of my community. That would be community service. And when you’re in the helping profession, it’s inevitable to do some charity work on the side. My therapist took me on as a charity case for years. How could any conscientious being not want to give back somehow? I’ve been seeing him for eight long years, and that time hasn’t flown by. It has been arduous and challenging. It sure was hard to stay alive, but he helped to keep me alive, along with other supportive people, and here I am today, alive even if I don’t exactly want to be. I’m alive for a reason. That reason is to help people. To do good in this world.

Money matters. To say otherwise would not be true. You have to have enough money to live. My girlfriend who is a psychiatrist, was recently interviewed by some students who asked her what motivated her to choose the profession she is in, among other things. “Don’t believe anyone when they tell you that money doesn’t matter. It does.” She helps people every day, but it also pays enough for her to pay rent, to send her son to a private school where he can get more individualized attention because he has ADHD, to pay back her student loans, to fight custody battles with her ex-husband. You need money to do all of these things and more. She takes her son on vacations and he is the center of her entire life. Yet she accomplishes so much. “I see the strength of the human spirit in each and every one of my patients, in the adversity they endure and how far they have come,” she says. She admires her patients. She helps them and gives all of herself to them. She doesn’t hide her tears if something comes up that elicits them during a session. She is very emotional and thinks with her heart, and is emotionally connected with her patients. She has seen them grow and become more stable during the treatment period. That makes a good helping professional.

I have to remember that my therapist cares so much. Of all of the humans in my life, he has been able to connect most with me. He has helped me through my most difficult times. He has never rejected me, never lied to me, never been judgmental. He has always been there for me. He always reads the emails I send him every day still, because I need that form of therapy, a one-way journal, a connection with the most important person in my life. He doesn’t respond to my emails, because that would take too much time, and because that’s not a part of the way we do therapy, it’s the face-to-face in person contact for 50 minutes a week which is the therapeutic process, but I know I’m special and that we have a special arrangement, and he doesn’t charge me for the extra time he spends reading my daily emails. I know he reads them, one, because he said he would and he always fulfills his promises, and two, because he references material I’ve written to him during our talk sessions. I am so lucky to have found him. It took trying about five therapists over the period of two years before I finally found him, yet, I persevered. I knew I needed help and no one, not even an abusive husband, was going to stop me from getting the kind of help I knew I needed.

After writing for an hour, I feel much more connected to the world and to myself. I don’t feel quite so empty as I did a few hours ago when I finally had the courage to get out of bed, to wake up, to face the day. Nothing about my environment has changed. I’m still sitting on my lovely couch, with the blinds open, and the sunlight spilling in from outside. Yet, internally, in my mind, a shift has taken place. Writing gives me purpose. It does give me a reason for living. I need to tell my story and I need to be heard. I want others to be witness to my life. My therapist is already a witness, and this means so much to me, but what if, by writing about my inner world, someone else reads what I’ve written and they somehow connect with something I’ve said? A few sentences. That’s all it takes to change someone’s day, to open up someone’s perspective of the world, to let someone know they’re not alone in their suffering and that the human spirit can endure in each and every one of us, if only we let it. When I’m at my lowest of lows, when I’m feeling suicidal, when I just don’t want to keep on living, there is always this small seed of hope within me, a minuscule inner voice that says, “don’t give up. It will be worth it one day. You are worthy of living. You are beautiful inside and out and you deserve to live. You have to live. You don’t have a choice but to live.” The truth is that I do have a choice. If I had really wanted to take my life, I would have done it. I wouldn’t have called the crisis line to have ambulances take me to the emergency room, or to have policemen beat me down just because I had a knife, which is considered a weapon, in my hand. All of these actions kept me alive and it’s because of me, ultimately, that I am still alive.

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On Educating Others

I’m sitting here at my work computer on my lunch break with my aching legs criss crossed on the swively chair and my head cocked to one side. My phone headset is floating atop my hair and I’ve been taking calls even through my lunch hour. I rarely step away. Today is an easy day: there’s not much going on, and it gives me time to think.

The night of my reverse-suicide attempt I got the courage to confront my American aunt. I lived with her and my uncle for a few months after I had first escaped my abuser four years ago. She has known me since I was born. She’s been in my life sporadically, on and off, over the years. When we lived in Europe I didn’t think of her at all; I was so focused on the environment around me.

I’ve been frustrated because I want to have a relationship with her and I would like her support. The thing is, she doesn’t know how to “handle” me because of my mental illness. I send her a text message every few months to let her know how I’m doing but she doesn’t and hasn’t ever reached out to me proactively, on her own accord, without prompting from me. And that hurts ever so slightly. I like to think of myself as an amenable person.

Here’s our recent text message conversation verbatim:

Me: I was going to kill myself tonight. My therapist listened to me and talked me out of killing myself. I feel like you could care less either way. You probably just don’t know how to deal with it. Suicidal people just want compassion and understanding, someone to listen and to respond. Your last comment to me was insulting. Don’t you think I’d join a volunteer group or partake in a hobby if I could?? That would make my life just that much more worth living. When you’re suicidal you don’t have any energy to devote toward those things. I had hoped for too much when I thought you might be willing to listen and respond. I didn’t even get a response from you for the first two messages when I said I was going to talk to the district attorney. Nothing. Silence. Maybe you didn’t know what to say? Maybe you could have told me just that. It would have been better than unsupportive silence. I feel like you could care less about me even though you and your husband paid for a whole year of my college over ten years ago. I knew that you cared then. You even made the effort to come visit me in Italy. What happened? Did I do something to disappoint you? Maybe the fact that I’ve been suicidal for five years scares you and you don’t want to deal with it. I’d rather know if that’s the case. Something is better than nothing. When I made my safety contract with my therapist in 2012, you were one of the people I was supposed to call if I felt I was going to harm myself. But I know I can’t count on you for that now. The last time we Skyped was a long time ago and you never care to reach out to me proactively yet you visit with your own children all the time. And you visit your youngest niece. If I called you feeling suicidal you would probably just tell me to go get a hobby. Not only does that kind of comment make me feel worse, it’s confusing. Why would someone say that to a suicidal person? All I’ve ever wanted is your support and I hereby must apologize again for having had any hopes or expectations. It’s not my fault that my ex-spouse raped me, sexually abused me, psychologically controlled me and damaged me for six years. I had an emotionally abusive mother and I was vulnerable to falling into that trap again. I had no idea when I met him that he would turn into a narcissistic abuser. Living in that marriage was torture and hell and I put on a brave face for everyone just like I did when I was a little child. Killing myself was the only logical solution out of that mess because I didn’t want to leave him, ever. I never thought of leaving. I think I stayed with you for a while when I first separated from him. Thank you for that. I don’t remember any of that. Apparently I acted or behaved in a way that would never make you want to have me stay with you ever again. I don’t know what I did. I don’t remember that period of my life. Sorry for existing. I thought you should know how I feel, what my thought process is, and that my suicidality is not gone. Tell me that you can’t handle it.

My Aunt: I’m sorry I don’t know how to respond. I found it emotionally draining trying to help you in the time after your separation and I felt you were trying to manipulate me. I did not feel it was good for me to keep helping. I really don’t understand not wanting to be happy so the things I recommend are things I do when I feel down. I’m sorry if they are insulting to you. It just shows that I’m not qualified to deal with your problems. It is good you have a therapist who can.

Me: Thank you for saying that and for responding. I still desire to have a relationship with you. I know you’ve never felt suicidal before but it has been such a big part of my life. I’m sorry that you thought I was being manipulative. I don’t remember any of it. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just acting on instinct. How I behaved with you gives you a good idea how I was with my ex-husband at the end. It wouldn’t have just changed that quickly. It wasn’t you, that’s how I would have been with every person around me. I can understand needing to protect yourself first over helping me. I wonder what you would have been like had it been your own daughter. I’m not your daughter so you don’t have that sort of social or moral connection or responsibility. I have come a long way and I have had lots of support from other people. Sharing with you that I was going to the DA was a leap of faith because I wanted to include you in my life. When my grandmother died I broke my safety contract with my therapist and cut my arm with scissors. I took pictures of the wounds and shared them around. I said something to you and I think you asked your son to call me because it was right after that when he called me that week.

My Aunt: I didn’t respond because I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t think it would be good for you.

Letter to my Therapist

To my therapist,

I want to tell you about my weekend. I logged in to my computer to write to you so I could write fluidly rather than the small slow typing on a cell phone. Friday night I went out for a couple hours. I think I told you that already. As of this week, piano is back in my life. It’s about time. I’m practising my senior piano recital piece. I’m amazed I still have the music score that my mum originally bought for me when I was 16. I have a whole bookshelf full of piano music I’ve collected over the years, and I will never need to buy new music because I’ll never get to playing everything that’s in my shelf. I used to photocopy music in the library when I was in college and I was so proud of my collection, even though I wasn’t playing it. I’m glad I didn’t get rid of it like I got rid of so many other books to Goodwill when I moved.
My mom bought for me and sent to me a book that is both in Italian and in English. I started reading it tonight. It’s sort of an autobiography. Reading the Italian is like reading music, and when I don’t understand a word, all I have to do is to look over to the other side where it’s translated into English. It makes me want to move to Italy and to somehow find work there. My mom would miss me if I chose to live in a different country. But I would love to live in Europe again! Germany or Italy would be my choices to go back to. It’s just that it’s hard to find jobs there.
I am starting to find more pleasure in life. Although, I did not have a good Saturday. I went to bed at 2 AM and then finally got out of bed at 5 PM. I was supposed to have coffee with a friend that afternoon but totally did not. Sunday, today, I woke up at 1:20 and made it out to coffee with a new friend. She is in my counseling class. We only spent an hour and a half with each other but we connect and we could have continued talking for a long time. I had a nice evening after that. I finished reading my class text book, then read another book for pleasure, then played piano, all before my roommate got home, then I washed dishes and read some more, of the Italian book this time, and had a shower. Now I am writing to you. Reading books is opening up my whole world. Taking these two classes taught me the pleasure of learning again, and I’m really enjoying enjoying things now. And my life is so much better. I have such a nice roommate, and I have a few new friends, through school and through my roommate. I was even able to get up out of bed today. I had a really nice weekend, overall, and I wish I had another weekend day, just so I could read my books and play piano and eat, and stay in pajamas all day.
Once classes are over I am going to start studying for the GRE this summer. I really want to take the test and pass it. I think it’s a good and achievable goal.
I’m really glad we have our next appointment scheduled. It comforts me knowing when I am going to see you next. Seeing you at the middle of my week is the high point of my week. Since I have dreaded weekends so much, it’s two days away from the weekend and two days until the weekend, so Wednesday is really my best day of the week.
I haven’t written in my blog, my online journal so much. I’ve been going through more internal processing, rather than external, writing-it-out processing. I’m really glad we got through the difficult part of our relationship when I broke our trust agreement. Those were some really difficult weeks to get through because I felt angry with you and rejected but now I am feeling good about our relationship again.
Thank you for helping me.

Henna covers scars

It’s Sunday and I went out to a street fair. I actually went out. Rather than sleeping, I got up, successfully, and got out of the house. It’s a sunny climate and I am never in the sun. But today I was. I got a henna tattoo. It’s on my inner left forearm and it is covering up some scars, which are a constant reminder of my dark past and healing journey.

I think I feel happy. I did something today and I spent time with another person, and I was around a big crowd of people. Even just a year ago I couldn’t fathom being around so many people in a large crowd with little personal space and wiggle room. It would have raised too much anxiety and I would have been afraid for my safety. But today, I stepped boldly into the sea of young families and sifted my way up and down the aisles of outdoor stands selling food and jewelry and homemade art. I spent a good five hours out of my house. I added one more positive memory and experience to my life. I am going to give myself credit for doing something good today.

Next week I have a schedule conflict. At the time that I would normally be seeing my therapist, I have an interview scheduled. My 62-year-old semi-retired professor friend is introducing me to his 84-year-old friend, who is apparently a hoot, but cannot get out lately due to a recent back surgery. For my class on ageing, death, and dying, my final project is to interview an older person and then present it in 15 minutes to my class. I am looking forward to this project. It should be fun. I am actually looking forward to things in my life, and planning things in my future. For the longest time I was only able to live from day to day and planning ahead would have been too taxing on my emotions. So, unusually, I am going to skip my therapy session. I seem to generally be coping much better now. As long as I keep on this positive streak.

It has been almost nine months now since I’ve had my job. I wasn’t sure if they would keep me on, but they seem to be pleased with the work that I am doing and I feel more comfortable now. I can honestly say I feel as if it’s a stable job. It’s the first real stability I’ve had in the last five or more years.

I just spent half an hour going through my phone contacts list and deleting people I no longer know or want to know. It’s good to do that every now and then. I have my core group of people around me and the rest lies to the wayside. Sometimes it feels good to get rid of connections to the past.

A fly landed on my yogurt spoon

It’s evening time on a Saturday and I’ve only been up for four hours. The sun is still out. I went to bed at 7:30 on Friday night, which means I passed that twelve-hour threshold a long time ago. I was going to get up, have a cup of coffee, read a textbook, and then be on time to my therapy session. That didn’t happen. I startled awake a quarter hour before my appointment and raced at 80 down the freeway on my twenty-minute drive. So glad his office is close by.

I was so afraid that my therapist was upset with me from our session last week. His immediate answer was “no”. What a relief. He just has to be firm with me from time to time. He will not support self harm in any way. What kind of a therapist would support it? It was I who was angry with him for being so firm with me. I didn’t handle it very well. I realized that hurting myself because of anger toward another person only hurts me, and does not affect the other person directly. But it does affect other people. Most people cannot handle knowing about my suicidal ideation. It pushes people away. After a while they don’t know how to cope with that knowledge and then they stop communicating with me. It’s not my fault that it comes and it goes. I like my life better when I get to be me, and not bogged down by extreme suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Now that I broke our agreement from four years ago, he is going to trust me less. He said that’s a part of it. The threat, however, was that he might not see me any longer, particularly if I share with him that I have been self-harming. I just have to be honest with myself and with him, for effective therapy to continue.

Today we explored why my mind wanders into that dark space where I feel extreme emotions of distress. When I watch videos online or read stories of other people self-harming it is a conscious (more so than unconscious) decision to intentionally put my mind in that place. Is it because that’s what I’ve been used to? The drama of feeling suicidal and being hospitalized? There is a lot of extreme emotions and negative excitement around it. He likened it to an adrenaline junkie who gets thrills from doing extreme sports and only feels alive when there is danger involved, sometimes even the danger of death. It’s not an addiction but has been kind of an obsession, or a fixation. My stomach is uneasy and my breath short just thinking about this.

Let’s take a self-soothing break and breathe deeply. I am drinking lukewarm Earl Grey tea in a mug as wide and round as a bowl, but with a handle on it. It is white inside and green on the outside. One of my favourite colours. I can smell the frankincense incense that I was burning earlier on the kitchen counter. There’s a life-size teddy bear that my roommate put in the living room, and it has a permanent smile affixed to the face. I can hear birds whispering beyond the living room walls. My neighbour upstairs is watching television as usual and in a short while we are going to walk across the street to get Thai food together. Which means I have to put on a bra. The inconveniences of being a woman.

See? Those are self-soothing thoughts. It is anti-anxiety medicine, the natural way. I was messaging with an older lady friend in Italy who said to me that I just have to “get over” my depression and “be strong”. I know that most people don’t understand major depressive disorder. Especially in Italy. It is much more of a stigma there to have mental illness, and is just not talked about.

I treated myself to something nice today. I let my semi-healthy diet go by the wayside and stopped by a coffee shop on the way home from my therapist’s office. I had a medium two-shot vanilla latte along with a warmed-up chocolate croissant. It was buttery, melted chocolate heaven and for those few moments I felt really good. My hands got really messy and I realized I should have been less eco-conservative by taking more than one napkin. The more I have good, positive experiences in my life, the mo’ better I will begin to feel. Feeling good will become a routine rather than a sporadic medley of mixed moments. It will help me want to live, all of the time.

I am more into talking about positive moments right now rather than sinking into the insight and light exploration done at “work” today in my therapist’s office. He asked me difficult questions for which I didn’t have answers and could only guess. I could tell he had a clear picture of where he was leading me, and he always wants me to eventually come to my own conclusions. If I am not able to, he helps me by providing insight as to the “why” of the actions I choose to take. I had a habit of writing to him every day (he never responds only reads) in emails, but this week I took a break because I was upset with him. He also remembers everything I tell him, so he’ll reference things I’ve said in the past that I don’t expect him to remember. It always catches me by surprise.

As a child I got used to the volatility of intense emotions because my mother would often yell and get upset. It was scary. As young as the age of eight I remember yelling back at my mum in order to hurt her: “I wish I were dead!” She immediately welled up with tears in her eyes. But it has been since that moment that I have struggled with suicidal thoughts. They came to a peak when I was 16 and first attempted suicide. My mom wouldn’t let it go, that, in addition to the overdose, I had cut myself with a supposedly “rusty” knife. We were in conflict about the rust. I know it wasn’t rusty but she had me get shots at the doctor’s office nevertheless.

Then when I was married in my 20s, the emotions were equally as volatile. My ex was all about control and manipulating, and it was his own illness acting out itself upon others. If I didn’t do what he wanted me to do, I would be punished, emotionally. He was very good at doing that to me. So, most of my life I have known punishment and volatility. They have been constants in my life, and the challenge now is to break that cycle.

On a positive note, I might be making a new friend. I have a friend who is 62 and a semi-retired professor at a local community college in the child development department, where I took some classes several years ago. I had to withdraw from the classes due to suicidal ideation and being hospitalized. That was during the period of my life when I could not hold down a job due to my mental illness. This teacher stayed friends with me. He wanted to be a part of my healing journey. He calls me once a week and is very calming to me when he talks. In my psychology class on ageing, I have to interview someone who is over the age of 65, and then present it to class. My professor friend has a retired friend who is 85 years old and spunky, although he just had back surgery. I am going to visit with them both next weekend, and hopefully tape my interview on camera to present to my class. It should be a good experience.

My upstairs neighbour is very active. He works out six days a week and plays sports and still manages to work over full time. My roommate plays volleyball, swims, and works, and even has friends. She is always gone on the weekends, out doing things. She doesn’t have inhibitions about doing things that make her happy, as I have. I block myself from being happy, and stay stuck in that mediocre “okay” state. I don’t even have the energy to go to the gym once a week, although I had told myself I would start going more often. It makes me feel good and energizes me. This would be using the skill called “opposite action”. Hard to do when I can’t even get up in the mornings on the weekends to take my morning medication.

I’m going to an avocado festival tomorrow. It will be a completely new experience. I could never do it alone. I’m going with my upstairs neighbour. There will be wine and guacamole among other things, and the sun will be shining. It might just be therapeutic, what I need.