Aztec 3

Monday, July 16, 2018

When Sleeping is the Enemy

My counselor and psychiatrist tell me to write. They're not wrong. It's therapeutic for me. It allows me to empty my head and continue on with my day. But to tell you the truth, I'm exhausted, both mentally and physically. Summer is both awesome and difficult at our house. We have one kid who suffers from anxiety as I do and does better under a strict schedule but needs lots of down time; and we have one kid who's like her daddy and is up for a party pretty much anytime one is advertised. That makes for a difficult household during the summer. Well, why don't you just make a really detailed schedule for yourself and your kids so everyone is happy? Good question. It's because we all function well under our own individual schedules. During the school year it's great because we're all scheduled in each of our own activities. This make us happy. I'm not dragging the 12 y/o to the science museum for the sake of the 8 y/o and the 8 y/o to the game store for the sake of the 12 y/o. Well, why don't you just find activities that they both like? Right. A 7th grade boy and a 3rd grade girl -- they won't even agree to go to the pool on the same days. It's like they've conspired against me to make things difficult. They're great kids, but even great kids are hard sometimes. In fact, parenting is just hard.

I've been struggling this summer. What I want to do is sleep late, skip yoga and Pilates, drink my cold brew while being left alone, maybe do some work on curriculum, then get back in bed and read myself into a nap. Because naps are both basically awesome in nature and also help pass the day away. That sounds kind of depressing, doesn't it? The idea that I want to nap so the day passes more quickly? That's not what we want in my life. By "we" I mean the people who want me to stay mentally healthy -- my medical/mental folks, my husband, my kids, my family and friends. Sleeping at odd times is the enemy of people who suffer from depression. It helps us avoid real life and what we're really struggling with. I hate that because I LOVE naps. In my bed with a book is my happy place. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with that but other times, when I'm escaping a to-do list, or my kids, or life in general, falling asleep with a good book is a big fat way of telling life to get lost. And that takes us into dangerous territory. I don't want life to get lost. I don't want myself to get lost.
I have things to do. I'm starting a very part-time teaching job in the fall for which I am preparing. I have my kids' schedules to run and make sure they're not on a screen 24/7. I have a wonderful husband who needs and deserves my attention and admiration. I have real life friends and family who deserve more than just texts and Facebook messages.

And then I remember that so many others are dealing with MUCH more difficult lives than I am. They have real problems like poor health, job loss, marriage troubles, sick kids, and on and on. So I feel guilty about being depressed and anxious, which makes me guessed it -- depressed and anxious. So what I want to do right now is sleep. I want to get my Kindle and crawl into my awesomely comfortable bed, in my dark and cool room, and fall asleep while reading a silly Christian romance book (my current and random genre of choice). I won't right now though. I'll stay on the couch writing and working on lectures while my daughter is curled up next to me reading her own book. She's not watching those silly YouTube videos they love to watch and I'm not in my room ignoring her. I'm calling this one a win. When it's four o'clock and they're allowed to get back on screens, I may reward myself with a nap. I see my counselor tomorrow so we'll see what she says about that. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

My Mental Illness

My life is amazing. I have an amazing husband, awesome kids, a safe, warm house, all the food we could want, plenty of money to pay the bills and have luxuries, and I struggle with mental illness. Every single day, I take these pills to keep me mentally and physically healthy. I'm sharing this because I'm not ashamed and you neither should you be. It's not something I think should be done in secret with stigma attached. It doesn't mean I'm weak or somehow lacking in character, perseverance, or strength. It means that the chemicals in my brain are out of balance. It means that it got so bad that I reached out for help. I was miserable but I'm not anymore. 

Here is what I take every single day: B12 (for mood and health), D3 (for mood and health), Tumeric (for inflamation), Abilify (anxiety/depression), Wellbutrin (depression), Klonopin (three times a day for anxiety), Lexapro (anxiety/depression), Tamoxifen (cancer drug), and Coumadin (for my clotting disorder). These drugs, along with weekly counseling, daily yoga and pilates, and my writing keep me where I need to be.
People use Facebook and blogs for all different sorts of things. I've always used both platforms to be nothing but honest. It's okay if you just like to look at people's lives. It's okay if you just want to share the good stuff. It's okay if you want to share everything, just memes, or whatever the heck you want. It's just Facebook. I'm choosing to use it to reach out. To maybe help someone who's struggling. To make it okay to say that I take meds and I'm not ashamed. This isn't bravery, or it shouldn't be labeled that anyway. It should be so accepted and non-stigmatized that it's normal for people to talk about their struggles, their counseling, their medications.
So there you have it. If you feel like joining me in fighting the stigma, comment with your med/counseling routine. What habits do you use to stay mentally healthy? Maybe it's just meditation, or prayer (a form of meditation), or exercise. Maybe you've never struggled with mental health. You're in the minority. Count yourself blessed. But for those of us who have, let's lend our understanding to others who need it. Let's look for those warning signs in our friends and acquaintances. Let's really mean it when we ask, "Are you okay?"

Suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (you can also google it and reach an online chat)
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Monday, June 4, 2018

The In-Between

The in-between. That's what my doctor identified on my last visit to her office for my med check. It's when I usually feel like writing. My last visits to my psychiatrist and to my counselor have been uneventful, and that is fantastic news! There's always the standard questions about how I'm doing on my meds and how I'm feeling about different circumstances and situations. Having nothing to report is a good thing, exactly what we want. One thing they always ask about is if I'm writing, because writing is very therapeutic and often cathartic for me. If you've been following this blog you'll see that I haven't written since early April. So, why not? My psychiatrist helped me recognize that I write when I'm "in-between" -- in-between feeling really good and really bad. My writing is an effective coping mechanism, often times bursting out of me so I can continue with my day and other more functional thoughts and actions.

The reason I haven't written since April is because I haven't been in the in-between place. I've been in the really good place. I haven't needed to write in order to cope with the world around me. A lot of that has to do with me being very busy -- I always function better when I'm busy. That sounds like it's a good thing but the fact that I don't function well when I'm not busy is a problem. It's the down time that allows my brain to wander and dwell on painful and difficult things. And sometimes it's not even certain thoughts, it's just a feeling of angst or depression that's there for no reason at all other than it just is. My life can be perfect and still those feelings creep in. That's the nature of chemical versus clinical anxiety/depression.

I also don't write when I'm in the really bad place. In January and February of this year I was in a bad and scary place. I felt like hurting myself, unable to function outside of my bed, my room, my house. No one would have noticed this because I'm good at pretending. I only let the closest people to me in on it and even then I didn't necessarily tell the entire truth. My "truth" was often just, "I'm having a hard time." This is a far cry from imagining what it would be like to swallow all my pills and go to sleep. Now I can hardly fathom having those thoughts. When I finally admitted it, my psychiatrist threatened to hospitalize me unless I told my husband about those thoughts, and my counselor made me sign a suicide contract. That's miles away from where I am now. But in that dark space, I couldn't write because my thoughts scared me. It felt like if I put my feelings in writing then they'd be real and I'd somehow be more likely to act on them. So I was silent. Silence can be dangerous. I'm thankful that in my case it wasn't.

When I write I get lots of private comments from friends going through the same thing. They don't comment here on my blog, but usually send me texts or messages through Facebook. They're often living in the in-between -- that uncomfortable place where life is a struggle and they don't know why they feel the way they do. Sometimes they're in the bad place and I try to help them find resources to help. I'm so very thankful that they reach out because the alternative is dangerous. For those who have never experienced being a danger to themselves, such a situation seems confusing and impossible. I just want you to know that it's very real and very scary for those who are in it. And for those of you who are in it, please know that I and many others are right here waiting to listen and help.

This morning at yoga, our instructor mentioned that the four pillars of health are peace, hydration, nutrition, and movement, but the most important of those is peace. I absolutely believe that. Whether it's religion, mindfulness, yoga-type practices, or something else, nothing else comes naturally in life without peace. It's hard to maintain the other three pillars without feeling peaceful. This is always my chant when I'm (trying) to meditate -- PEACE. I pray for it every time I pray. I repeat it over and over when I'm feeling anxious. It's my greatest wish for those I love and for the world in general. So no matter what you're facing, ask for peace. Whoever you pray to, ask for peace. Strive to find it within yourself. You are powerful and wonderfully made. Sometimes we need medicine and/or counseling to find that peace and it's okay. Wherever you are today, friends, I wish you peace. May you find it in abundance.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Between Him and God

They began to trickle in to the gate area, some in uniform some in civilian clothes but all carrying the tell-tale Army camouflage backpacks. They were young. Very young. Wide-eyed and willing to serve, not yet having faced the front and felt the ravages of actual battle. One was wearing a Nirvana shirt. He wasn’t even born when Nirvana still existed. “Please don’t let me cry on this flight.” That’s the text I shot off to my mom and three sisters as the gate area became packed with young Army men. And then entered a veteran, likely a young Vietnam Vet or perhaps Gulf War. He wore a leather vest with various Army and Harley patches. Had I not had my seven-year-old daughter with me I would have quickly made my way to the nearest bathroom to have a good cry before boarding the flight. But I couldn’t do that.

The same phrase entered my head, the one that haunts me every time I see a service member or recall my father’s time in the Army – “between me and God.” That was his mantra. He likely repeated it to himself the last forty years of his life. I say the “last forty years” because that’s how I think of my dad’s existence. Before the war and after. He repeated that phrase to us several times in the years and months before his death. It referred to his greatest demon, the one he met in the jungles of Vietnam, the one he would never divulge or let go of.

I thanked the young soldiers for their service and I touched the shoulder of the older veteran, thanking him for his. Any time I see an older veteran I want to tell them about my dad, how he served two years in the jungles, how he earned a bronze star for saving a boat, how he came back forever changed. But I don’t because that’s not playing by the rules. We don’t talk to strangers that way, especially in passing on an airplane. So I just settled for a touch on the shoulder or a handshake and a thank you. And I wonder what demons he’s living with.

I sit on the plane surrounded by these young men and women willing to serve our country in a way I’ve never been. I pray over them – for their protection, that they never meet the demons so many others have, and selfishly that my own children never follow in their footsteps.
We sing songs about them, tell stories about them, have parades and special days for them, but few of us will ever understand what they carry. It’s an indoctrination into a life and existence that we wouldn’t wish on our enemies. And yet our enemies carry the demons as well. That’s the result of war. Men, women, civilians – in the jungles, deserts, mountains, trenches – all must forever suffer the consequences of brokenness. Some may return home with whole bodies, having escaped the physical damages of battle yet all return fighting mental brokenness. Those who deny it are simply avoiding reality.

My father never revealed what happened in those jungles. He said he’d take it to his grave and he kept his promise. He did tell stories and they were graphic, something out of a high-budget war movie. I wonder what could possibly be worse. In a way, I’m thankful he never told us. I wonder if his carrying that burden on his own was a huge sacrifice he made for our family. For years I’ve regretted that I couldn’t carry it for him or with him to lessen the load but now I realize that he kept his secret because he knew it was too heavy for the rest of us. He was brave, as he was in the jungles, as he was for forty years after the demons latched on, as he was when he slipped away from us.
As I sit next to my sweet baby girl, the one who was born six weeks after my dad passed, I think of the joy she would have brought him. Today she’s sporting unicorn shoes, a unicorn dress, and a unicorn backpack for the trip. He would have laughed to no end over her style choices. He would have hugged and kissed her, told her he loved her, held her hand and gone to grandparent’s breakfast at her school. He would have done all the things his demons never let him do for his own children.
And so I pray again – let these young soldiers find solace in their families. Let them unburden to trusted people when they need to. Let them be fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who live full, unbroken lives after their tours are done. Let them have nothing that stays just between them and God.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

His First "I Love You"

As far as I can remember, I was eighteen years old the first time my dad told me he loved me. It was after my high school graduation and it came with an awkward hug and kiss on the head. It was completely momentous and completely too late. I was student senate president and had just given the student address. I was on cloud nine, feeling all the excitement that graduates feel on that night. But then my dad did that thing and distracted me for the rest of the night. In a sense it made me angry. How dare he choose my special night to do the one thing I’d dreamed he’d do since I was old enough to think about it.

Five hours -- that’s how far I was moving from home to go to college. I couldn’t wait. Couldn’t wait to get out of the small town in which I grew up. Couldn’t wait to start a new life at college. Couldn’t wait to get away from the uncomfortable relationship with the living ghost that was my dad. I suppose his profession of love toward my twin sister and me that graduation night was his way of saying he’d miss us. I don’t really know though since he never said it. When he and my mom dropped us at college in the fall, he responded with the same awkward hug, kiss on the head, and “I love you.”

I didn’t know what all that meant. Those words and that affection from him were so foreign to me. Maybe he was realizing for the first time what he’d lost, and what he was still losing. The time he’d wasted during our childhood – time spent drinking and avoiding instead of spending time with his kids. If that’s the case, I can’t imagine the enormity of his regret. To this day it hurts my heart to think about what he must have felt. Throughout our time in college, Dad would make grand gestures. Our shared car would have problems and our mechanic father would drive the five hours to and from our college in one day to make the necessary repairs. I didn’t understand why he would do such a thing when we were perfectly capable of taking our car to a mechanic. He wouldn’t stay for lunch or dinner nor any longer than it took to fix the car. He would also give us money that I knew he didn’t have to spare. Now I understand that he was trying to make up for time lost. He either didn’t understand or couldn’t follow through on what we always knew though. We just wanted his love. We didn’t need any grand gestures. We needed him to apologize, to admit that he wasn’t the father we needed him to be. We needed him to get help and heal the wounds caused by his time as a soldier in Vietnam. We just needed him to get better, so he could be a “normal” dad. Whatever normal looked like for a family touched by PTSD for more than three decades. We buried my dad eight years ago today. I think about the military funeral, about the cemetery, about all the men and women buried there with him. And I wonder how many of them also had trouble saying "I love you."

Monday, March 26, 2018

His Lunchbox

I can’t remember the color or what it looked like. You’d think I’d remember something that significant. This thing that seemingly controlled our lives. This symbol that noted what our days would be like, whether he would be just a fleeting ghost in the house or whether he would be the drunk-but-present, non-father-figure we hated to see.
That damned lunchbox. I think it was a small lunch-sized Igloo and I’m probably just making up that it was red and white because that was the classic ‘80s Igloo. But it was the kind with the titling triangle lid that slid down to reveal the interior. Everyday he took that box to work and every night he came home, emptied it, and put it in its place of honor on top of the fridge. My 4th grade self knew that was something important to my father. And I knew that if I was to communicate with him it had to be via that lunchbox. During the week when it was parked on the fridge I knew he would see a note placed inside it, and Dad would be sober enough to read it. Not on the weekends. Not only did he not use the lunchbox on the weekends but he wouldn’t be sober enough to give my note a fair chance. So, I devised my plan. I would write a letter that would save our family – one that would spell everything out and change our lives. It would completely result in our dad having the epiphany of his life and becoming the father we all wanted him to be.
I pulled out a school spiral and began composing the most pleading, eloquent letter any 9-year-old had ever written. I begged him to stop drinking. I begged him to stop smoking. I begged him to love us. I explained how much it hurt my feelings that he spilled his beer on my Bible. I pleaded with him not to get drunk on the weekends so we could do things that normal families do – things like fishing and camping and taking trips. Or at least that’s what I assumed normal families did. I signed it, “I love you, Dad. Love, Amy.” Then I ripped it from the spiral, leaving the classic messy edges that still annoy me to this day. I carefully folded the paper, waited for him to go to bed, then pulled a chair over to the yellow fridge. I placed the paper in his lunchbox then went to bed, sure that by the next afternoon our lives would be different. This would be the pivotal moment for our family. He would hear such wisdom and love in his little girl’s words and he would beg us for forgiveness. We would soon be a real family.
The next day, I woke like it was Christmas morning. Dad was already gone to work, as he was each morning when we woke. The lunchbox was gone. I couldn’t wait for him to get home, for him to be changed, for him to pick me up and be the dad I’d always wanted. The kind of dad that does things like picks up his daughter and hugs her. But something caught my eye as I walked by the kitchen table. In the corner next to the table was the trashcan. That huge freaking black industrial-sized trashcan which was the only thing that could keep up with a family of seven. On top of the trash was torn up pieces of paper. The edges had that annoying fraying from being torn from a notebook, and my handwriting was on it. There would be no change, no hugs, no dad stuff that day nor the days after. I can’t imagine what went through his mind when he read my letter but he must have been angry – enough to rip it to shreds. Who does that? What kind of father would rip up his daughter’s heartfelt letter? A father with PTSD. One who sees everything as a threat. One who is barely hanging on to sanity and sees change as the enemy. I didn’t understand that as a child but as an adult child of a veteran with PTSD I understand it all too well. I understand the anxiety and the depression and the longing to control the world around me. I understand the fear of change and the anger that comes when change occurs and it’s not my idea. I understand that he would have chosen differently if he could have. He would have scooped me up and kissed my face and became the dad we all desperately wanted. That’s not how it went though, and I understand it now.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Daily Life

Since my last post life has been better. The new medication has been helping with my depression, plus I've been working to follow through with plans I've made with my counselor and psychiatrist. Days are up and down -- some good, some bad, but more good than not. One thing that's been fun is that I've been going to yoga and Pilates with BHE (best husband ever). His work schedule is really weird right now so he often has random time off that affords him the opportunity to work out in the mornings after school drop-off. Having that accountability is crucial for me. My doctors are adamant that I exercise because of the proven benefits it holds for mental health. I can definitely tell a difference on the days that I don't exercise so I'm really trying to follow through.

Another thing I've realized lately is that I'm just plain bored. I'm a stay-at-home mom with both kids in school, and although I'm involved as room parent and on the PTA boards, I still find myself needing more. More than volunteer work. So, why don't I get a job you ask? Because, BHE's schedule is such that we would need a team of babysitters to manage if I worked. Not that other families don't manage life like that but it's just not where we are right now.

In my former life I was an adjunct professor of sociology. I think one day, perhaps even one day soon, I would like to go back to that. I love working with college students and academia is my happy place. I've been in love with sociology since my senior year of high school, and although I haven't been in the classroom for seven years I still love it and soak in whatever comes my way in the social sphere. It continues to be an important part of my life. Right now though I'm working on an essay about the inter-generational transmission of trauma. I have first-hand experience with this as the child of a Vietnam veteran. I'm also interested in looking at literature on the generational impact of parental cancer experiences on children. So, instead of being bored I may just start camping out in coffee shops to write. I think it would be beneficial to me and hopefully I could find someplace to publish what I come up with, like a patient-care or veteran-care publication.

That's life right now, trying to keep my mind busy so it doesn't wind up where it was a few months ago. I have an extraordinary life with extraordinary opportunities and I want to live a life that reflects that. It might always be a struggle for me but I pray that it's not. Especially having beaten cancer at such an early age, I should have a unique experience with gratefulness. Here's to living a grateful daily life.