Mental illness, suicide and living for the life in the light

When I was a kid and my mother would do something stupid, my dad would put on one of Robin Williams’ films to make me laugh or to give me a sense of comfort.  Like so much of the world, he was like the father I always wanted and somehow my dad knew he wasn’t capable of being that at the same time.  It’s a strange thing.  It’s been over a week and I’m still coping with this, which somehow feels wrong, but I know it’s not.  I don’t think I’ve been affected by a celebrity death in this way before, honestly. 

The loss of Robin Williams has the whole world shaken up.  However, in loss it has created a much needed dialogue on mental illness, suicide and addiction.  A dialogue that should have been a lot more prominent long ago, but alas here we are now.  It took me a little over a week to articulate my thoughts, but I have some things to say and will hopefully bring in some light as well.

When we lost Robin Williams, social media was immediately flooded with helpline numbers for suicide and depression — words on the screen screaming GET HELP at anyone who scrolled down their feeds.  Here’s the thing, there’s an unspoken truth to suffering with a mental illness or addiction — the sufferer has to WANT to get help.  We know the help is there, but we need to be in a place where we feel safe enough to accept the help.  The other unspoken truth is, it’s an internal battle.  When you’re on that precipice in that dark place, no amount of screaming GET HELP at someone is going to save them.  We get to that place because life is so lonely we feel like we have nothing and no one to live for, and living for ourselves has become too exhausting.  So when that voice tells us to just give up, the end looks inviting.  As human beings, we all go through some sort of mental illness in our lifetime.  We are fragile.  Be careful how you push someone who is struggling.  The effect the struggle has on each person is different, so what has helped you will most likely NOT be the same thing that helps someone else.  Always keep that in mind.

I have severe depression, anxiety and PTSD.  My life has been one trauma after another since I was a child.  Often I feel like I’ve never had a break.  I can feel everything around me and I am easily triggered.  I’m so sensitive I cant even watch or read the news anymore, it sends me into a downward spiral. I’ve been in that dark suicidal place several times in my life.  A weird thing that happens when I’m in that place is, I flashback to this one specific time it happened when I was in eighth grade.  My brother’s best friend went through our house and removed every sharp or harmful object he could find. He just gathered it all up and walked out the front door. Someone who didn’t even really know me, did everything he could to save me.  I think of that day and somehow my unconditional belief in something bigger than you and me pulls me back.  My faith is the reason I could never end my life.  I was not given life to give up on it, no matter how hard it gets.  I’m not in charge of my time to say goodbye and I know that.  Basically what I’ve learned is, if you are still breathing, there is a reason for it.  That doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t want to call out a day on life because the struggle is too much.  There have been many times my illness has made me want to cancel plans and tell someone I just can’t give them my time because the struggle is overpowering me that day.  I try not to do that.

In 2006 when I was given my family, it was like there was a crack in the sky, the light came in and the whole universe opened up.  I could breathe.  It was made clear to me almost instantly, that my illness is most significantly triggered by my surroundings.  When I’m stuck at home for weeks or months at a time, it’s bad,  but if I have a reason to be out, I’m just fine.  I’ve had people want me to promise them I’ll get help, or promise them I’ll go get medication, but the thing is I don’t want the medication.  I know that once I’m physically in a different place I’ll be fine.  And that’s why I’m doing everything I can to work on that.  The bad days are already starting to become few and far between.  I’m blessed.  I’m blessed because I’ve seen the life outside of the darkness and I’m going after it.  I’m blessed because even if I have a bad day, I know I have someone I could call to spend time with me away or at the very least someone to get on Skype or FaceTime to keep me company.  If you ask me, Skype and FaceTime in a world of long distance interaction is one of the only blessings of technology. Those moments of companionship, no matter how they come about are why I am here.  A quote I like, from The Hours, is:

“That is what people do; they stay alive for each other.”

So, I thought I’d end this post by balancing it out with just a small list of the things I live for.  If you are struggling, I encourage you to give this a try.

In no particular order, I live for:

  • Happiness.
  • Laughter.
  • Love
  • Knowing I can feel.
  • Knowing I’ve come this far and that’s not for nothing.
  • Music.
  • Art.
  • My heart family.
  • Watching my nieces and nephews grow up.
  • The strong women in my life who empower me.
  • Loving all the people I’ve had the opportunity to love in my life, even if they’ve left me.
  • Growing in strength, faith and spirit.
  • Opportunities to learn new things.
  • Seeing the world through different perspectives.
  • Traveling.
  • Being able to help other people.
  • My Disneyland adventures.
  • Getting creative and crafty.
  • Forming a connection with someone else.
  • The way that I feel when seeing live theatre and concerts.
  • Peace and relaxation.
  • Genuine understanding.
  • Being able to use my imagination.
  • Having the ability to express myself.
  • Sunshine.

The list is longer, but I’ll stop there.  Have you ever really thought about what you live for? Do it. Make a list. Put it up somewhere where you can see it.  When you feel like there’s no way out and no reason to be here, read it repeatedly.  This conversation is so much bigger than me, but I am here.  I can’t fix it, but I can make the best of it.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.  Grateful you made me laugh — in darkness you were always a part of all the good for as long as I can remember.  Thank you for that.

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Created Equal

San Francisco City Hall (Photo credit: ABC News)

San Francisco City Hall
Photo credit: ABC News

My very first post on this blog came the day New York won the fight for Marriage Equality.  I had desperate hope that my home state of California would follow suit in the near future.  We are finally here.  And with both Prop 8 and DOMA being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court today, I find that I am without words.  Nothing more can be said.  Only joy can exist there.  Most importantly, only love can exist there.

The Conversation

Empathy.  Compassion.  Connection.  These qualities have driven me for as long as I can remember.  In early elementary school I went to several schools for children with special needs due to my Cerebral Palsy and Spina Bifida.  Most of my classmates were worse off than I was, I felt bad for them.  A boy in my class couldn’t use one of his hands – so I tried to break mine.  The girl that sat across from me on the school bus was slightly overweight and constantly bullied for how big her thighs were.  I wanted to step into her shoes, so I gained weight, as a six year old.  Seeing these things broke my heart – and I write this and it sounds crazy now – but I just didn’t want these kids to feel alone.  We already had enough stacked against us with our disabilities.  We were already different and didn’t fit the ideals of beauty as human beings – as children.

What does that teach a child about the world?  How does it affect the adults they become?

We as people shape and define ourselves by the way other people make us feel, especially in women.  There is one instance in my life that, to this day, I am convinced changed the way I perceived my body forever.  I was in the fourth grade.  At this point I was blessed enough to be mainstreamed into a regular school setting.  I lived in a town in Arizona on the Colorado River with a population of 1,500 people.  Everyone knew each other.  I was the only kid with a disability in our school and everyone wanted to be my friend.  I still fought a battle though.  My parents were physically and emotionally abusive and neglectful my entire life.  Despite the fact that everyone away from home seemed to love me, my self-esteem was in the below negative nonexistent category. School was my escape – until it wasn’t anymore.

On my tenth birthday, my teacher sent me away to the library for an hour to study and when I was summoned back to class – the room was decorated with balloons and decor from The Little Mermaid.  My mother was sitting at the table at the back of the room with a cake, candles lit, my classmates  jumped all around me screaming with glee when I entered the room.  My mother planned a surprise party for me – probably the first (and one of the only) nice things she’s done for me in my life.  After the party as things were getting cleaned up, she put a piece of cake in my lunchbox.  Soon after, it was lunchtime and after eating the healthy contents of my lunch I started to eat that piece of cake.  Two bites into it, the lunch lady walked over and took it away from me.  Remember what I said about this being a small town?  This lady was the lunch lady, bus driver and school nurse.  She called me “fat” and felt she was qualified and validated to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to have cake in my lunch.  There was no rule against this in any school handbook.  When I tried to tell her it was my birthday, she told me she “didn’t want to see anything happen” to me and proceeded to toss the cake in the trash.  In the days following, she’d monitor my lunch and take things away from me that she felt I shouldn’t be eating.  Those actions are the ones that were the catalyst to me learning to “eat my feelings” – I wasn’t a big girl then.  I even ate pretty healthy.  It’s twenty years later now, and still every time I look at food I hear her voice ringing in my head telling me I’m fat, and the scarred ten year old inside of me just wants to eat everything.  What little self-image optimism I had was stolen from me that day.  Then I’d go home and someone would emotionally tear me apart, telling me I was worthless and they wished I was dead and then hit me for things out of my control.  Never again did I feel like a valued and beautiful girl or even worthy to be living this life.

I’ve never been one to feel sorry for myself for my disabilities — sure, every now and then there’s a bad day and I wish I was “normal” — but what defines normal?  No, I’d feel bad about myself because being in my own skin was eating me alive.  I felt bad about myself because as much as I loved the people in my life, I didn’t have the love I so desperately needed at home.  I missed out on feelings, on how to handle emotion, on what it meant to be a human being.  And I had no one to teach me all of the wonderful things it meant to be a woman.  I’d sit in my room and look through magazines and long to be as beautiful as the flawless people that graced their covers.  To attack someone like Ashley Judd for her “puffy face” is ridiculous.  I am so proud of her for fighting back with the media.  She was not fighting only for herself, she is fighting for those girls that are like I was – the ones uncomfortable in their own skin, thinking people like her are of the most beautiful in the world.  To show them that they are beautiful the way that they are.  Thank you, Ashley, for making this “acceptable” to be discussed.

I am long past childhood and that insecure young girl that I was.  Here’s something I’ve learned as an adult:  Your environment influences everything that you are.  Growing up confined, scared and imprisoned strips you of your dignity and you get caught up in self-destructive behavior that belittles how you feel about yourself as a person.  You resent everyone around you that doesn’t seem to be struggling.  You long for just one person who can hear you screaming and will try to understand.  The toxic ramifications affect the world around you.  Everything negative links together – pressure on vanity, intolerance, bullying – it all stems from someone somewhere down the line not feeling like they’re good enough.  Who has the right to make someone feel that way?  You have to be your own change.  You have to fight for yourself.  I did.

In shifts I move with my own universe.  My disability isn’t going to  go away, but I walk whenever I get the chance – just to move because it makes me feel good about myself.  The consequences of the behavior and things I felt as a child  have affected me for the rest of my life.  I am not a skinny girl.  Sometimes it is hard, I would give anything to be able to go to the gym and workout in place of the person next to me in public complaining because they have to workout or hate doing it.  You all know someone like that – count that blessing.  Some of us would love to be in your shoes and we wouldn’t complain about it for a second.  I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly four years and I’m doing what I can to make healthier food choices.  And even though food still intimidates me, my body thanks me for it every day.  I’ve also broken away from the people who abused me, and God placed me in the care of a family that I made in my heart.  People that love me for who I am.  They don’t care that I have a disability, or that I’m not perfect physically or emotionally – whatever that definition of perfect may be.  These people only love me and only want me to be happy.  Such a drastic atmosphere change turned my whole world upside down.  Through such a positive and uplifting environment, I’ve learned the invaluable lesson of self-love.

Self-love is the key.  Own what makes you different – because it’s what makes you who you are.  This is a truth.  You have one body, care for it, be proud of it and don’t let any sort of outside influence get in the way of what makes you comfortable.  You want to workout?  Do it.  You want to eat a cupcake?  Do it.  Love you God?  Praise Him.  Are you gay?  Love who you love.  You are only as much a victim to your fate as you make yourself out to be.  You have to be your own hero.  No one can save you but yourself.  You have to want to live and breathe – and experience the real beauty found in all of the little things that are happening all around us in this moment.  Beauty isn’t found on the cover of a magazine – real life doesn’t come with an airbrush tool.    And that’s key too – we only have this life.  You don’t get a second chance.  Don’t let your society dictate who you should be – be the person who is awake in the depths of your soul.  Let that person into the sunlight – it’s warm and inviting.  You’ll never be alone again because you’ll always have a friend in yourself.  Just be.  It’s all we have and we do the best we can with it.

Look in the mirror and say:  “I’m beautiful.”

You are.

(You can read Ashley Judd’s essay here.  Keep talking.)