S is for Sibling

s goldI have one sibling, an older brother. Growing up, our parents compared us to each other, often to his detriment. When he was born, there were complications. When I was born (three years later), everything happened perfectly. My brother was a fussy baby. I was quiet and slept right through the night immediately. My brother threw temper tantrums and ran away from home, repeatedly. I didn’t. My parents often said that I was the “perfect” child, the “good” one. My brother was rebellious, “bad.”

I still feel guilty about these comparisons and not just because they made my brother feel bad about himself. You see the instances that my parents claimed were proof of my “goodness” were really just proof that I kept my mouth shut. My brother wasn’t rebellious; he was just willing to say what he thought. Yes he was loud and occasionally violent about it. But he usually had good reason. When it comes right down to it, my brother got the short end of the proverbial stick. And then had that stick used upside his ass.

My brother was our paternal grandparents’ first grandchild. They lived about a half hour away and insisted that my brother spend as much time as possible with them. As a male child, he was a perfect way for my grandparents to try to fix whatever mistakes they thought they made with their only male child. By the time I came along, my brother was more their child then our parents’. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t spend most of his weekends at their house.

I was jealous of his relationship with our grandparents. I thought they loved him more than me. They never said anything, but I may have been right.

My grandfather often planned activities with by brother in mind. I was never invited. Never even asked if I was interested. My grandfather’s big hobby was model trains. I wasn’t allowed to touch them. My brother was allowed to touch, rearrange, and play with the trains. I have distinct memories of my grandfather driving away from our grandparents’ house with my brother in the car, leaving me behind in an empty house (my grandmother was at work). I was eight.


No this isn’t us.

My revenge was that our maternal grandmother liked me better. She said so. Out loud. With my brother in the room.

We always went to visit our maternal grandparents during our school’s spring break, which usually fell on or near his birthday. They lived on a farm seven hours away from us and talked with a southern accent. My brother complained about these visits every year. He hated that we had to visit on his birthday, that it took so long to get there, that there were strange smells and stranger people. Everyone always commented on how well behaved I was, how I was such a “good girl” for helping out our parents, how much I looked like my mother. I loved our visits.

The older we got, the less our parents compared us. It wasn’t necessary. My brother and I were stuck with the labels of “bad” and “good” child. Each year, our various resentments grew. He resented having to spend weekdays with our parents. I resented our paternal grandparents love for him. He misbehaved and was spanked for it. I kept my mouth shut and nothing happened to me.

He ran away from home at least once a year. Usually in the summer, which he wanted to spend entirely at our paternal grandparents’ house. He had to be bribed into going to our maternal grandparents’ house. I crept into the persona of “good girl” and rarely allowed myself to act otherwise. The shell of goodness felt safe, comfortable, even if it wasn’t always genuine.

Then my brother became a teenager. Our paternal grandmother bought him his first car and we rarely saw him. When he was seventeen, he moved out of our parents’ house and into our paternal grandmother’s apartment (our grandfather had died years before). I watched our parents endlessly discuss my brother’s rebellion. And I wished I was anyone other than what I was: a boiling mass of jealousy and anger within the façade of a “good girl.”

Then my brother became a father and a husband. An adult. Seemingly all of a sudden he stopped rebelling and became “good.” He got a job, provided for his family and treated our parents with respect. He didn’t go out of his way to spend time with them, but he no longer argued with them, no longer picked fights with them. Our parents began to spend hours discussing how much he’d changed. I was still angry, still jealous and still hiding behind my “good girl” façade. But now, no one noticed.

Years later, my brother and I discussed a little about how we were compared. He told me he had hated them. He said that he had always felt as if our paternal grandparents were his real parents. That our parents were just these people he was required to live with. I told him that I thought our paternal grandparents loved him and not me. I also told him how sorry I was that our paternal grandparents and parents used him as a way to work out their problems. And that I had grown up angry that everyone, our parents included, loved him for who he was, not for what he let them think he was.

You see, by allowing myself to crawl inside that “good girl” shell, I had prevented anyone from knowing the real me. I stayed silent whenever anyone said or did anything that I didn’t like or didn’t agree with. I rarely said or did anything troublesome because a “good girl” didn’t do that. But I wasn’t a “good girl” inside. And no one really knew me.

Looking back at all this, I also can see the seeds for what became my arrogance. Our parents called me their “good girl,” their “perfect” child. People, both related and unrelated, praised me for being there for our parents, for my polite behavior, for my “goodness,” even for my intelligence (long before I showed any signs of being anything other than an average student). Growing up I was constantly thinking I deserved things just because I was there. As an adult, I fight against the bitterness of not having my “goodness” acknowledged. I fight resentment every time I hear about special programs for people with kids or for veterans. Not because I think they don’t deserve it, but because I think “what about me? I deserve those things too!” I think I deserve them without working for them. Why? Because I’m me.

I’m me and I’m not a “good girl.” I don’t deserve to be handed things just because I’m alive. But I also don’t deserve to be labeled as any one thing. I’m not just a woman. Not just mentally ill. Not just fat. I’m all of those things and none of those.

I am a human being. A human. Being. And somehow my sibling learned those things long before I did. And without my shell of “goodness.”

S is for Squalor

abcalphabet_block_blue_sI never meant for it to happen. All I wanted to do was be happy. Instead I ended up living in squalor.

It was 1997 and I made the choice to move to the town where my abuser lived. At the time it seemed to be the right thing to do. Several family members lived in the same town and they all wanted me to move there so they could see me more. The price was right for the apartment and I wanted to see my family more so I didn’t really have a good reason to not move there. After all, only a few people knew about the abuse, and those who did thought I was “over” it. I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to admit it.

Shortly after I moved in, I adopted two kittens. As you may be aware, I’m a HUGE cat lover, so it seemed like a dream come true. Unfortunately, my disease (depression and anxiety) thought otherwise. The entire time I lived in that town I was living in a low level of anxiety that lead me to neglect myself and my surroundings. I rarely cleaned the cats’ litter box, so the cats took to using other parts of the apartment. However I would periodically get it together enough to clean things up so the apartment was presentable.

Then my mother died. Things got worse. Not only was I living in anxiety, but I was overwhelmed with guilt, shame and grief over my mother’s death. I had been unable to go to her deathbed (my parents lived in another state) because of my finances and my brother had to deal with it all alone. I was ashamed that I had not been able to help my brother and father during such a stressful time. The times where I was able to clean became rarer and rarer. Eventually my landlord investigated during a time when I hadn’t cleaned in a while and he asked me to leave.

I found a new apartment in another city, but I couldn’t bring my cats. So I gave them up to the local shelter and cried for days.

Three days after moving into my new apartment, I sat down in my easy chair, looked around at my half packed boxes, sighed and gave up. It was February of 2000. Those boxes never got unpacked. And for the next eight years anything I brought into the apartment stayed. Nothing left. By nothing, I mean nothing. Garbage of every type, papers, food, books, newspapers, mail, everything and anything remained.

At one point my toilet broke. But the mess was so bad that I didn’t dare ask my landlord to fix it. So I lived as much as possible without a working toilet. For six years. I wasn’t always successful, especially as I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS; more info on that here). You can imagine the stench. But I didn’t smell it. I was so used to it that it was normal for me.

During those eight years I never let anyone into the apartment (my landlord never inspected. I guess as long as I paid my rent and no one complained he was happy). I went about my days as if I was perfectly normal. But the fact was that I wasn’t normal. I lived in squalor. I couldn’t use the heat in the apartment because I was afraid I’d start a fire (I had baseboard heat). In the summer I felt like I was on fire because there was so much stuff in front of the windows I couldn’t open them (and I didn’t have air conditioning). Frankly, I’m surprised I never got frost bite or heat stroke; temperatures in the area I live in can run from -30° to +110° Fahrenheit. Somehow I survived.

What finally broke me and got me out of there was when my grandmother could no longer live alone. Up until that time I was her primary caregiver. It wasn’t difficult, I just called her daily, visited several times a week, took her shopping and so forth. But then she fell and broke her wrist. The family got together and let her know that it was time for her to move out. Being an extremely independent woman, this was hard on her, but she did it. She moved in with my brother (fortunately he made enough money to allow my sister-in-law to quit her job and stay home to take care of her) and my world changed.

No longer was I required to keep a constant eye on someone else. I still visited her at my brother’s house, but otherwise I had much more time on my hands. Without the need to take my grandmother to the store or doctor’s all the time, I began to look at what I had neglected in my life. Myself. And my life was not pretty. I was living in filth.

Living in filth

Living in filth

So what did I do? I did what I always do; I got even more depressed and suicidal. At the time I was seeing a counselor, but it wasn’t helping much. Mostly because I couldn’t see her as often as I would like (due to insurance reasons). So, with my counselor’s permission, I got a referral from my insurance company to another counselor. It was then that I was persuaded to “out” myself to my family and get help with the apartment.

How did we take care of it? At first, my brother, sister-in-law and I tried to clean up the apartment by ourselves. But it was too much, so my brother hired some day-laborers who literally took shovels to my apartment. After a day I had a construction-site size dumpster full of garbage removed from my two room apartment. I lost a lot in that dumpster: my high school yearbooks, childhood toys, family pictures, heirlooms, beloved books, my self-esteem.

Afterwards I moved to another apartment where I gradually got into the habit of cleaning and getting rid of stuff.

So what was it really about? My counselor at the time said that I was “manifesting an interior belief into an exterior reality.” This basically means that I believed I was garbage so I lived in garbage. But what I think is that when I moved into that apartment in 2000 I was so exhausted with the constant anxiety of living close to my abuser, my mother’s death, giving up my cats and just being unhappy that I metaphorically crumbled. I crumbled into myself and did the minimum I had to do to get by. I expended whatever energy I had to make sure I had the façade of “normalcy” up that I had no energy to do anything else.

Other counselors I’ve seen classified me as a Hoarder (go here for a definition of hoarding). I never agreed with this classification (and frankly hated it) as I wasn’t emotionally attached to the garbage in my apartment. The hardest part of getting rid of it was how overwhelming it was (as you can see from the above picture, there was quite a bit of it) and that there were people in my apartment seeing how “crazy” I was. The stuff itself was incidental. I prefer another classification: Squalor, or Diogenes, syndrome.

Squalor syndrome is not an officially recognized classification among the mental health community. I came across this phrase when I was trying to put a name to what I was doing. I found this article and finally had a name that fit. I also found a website (Squalor Survivors) that helped me feel less like I was a freak.

I outed myself as a person living in squalor in 2008. The only persons who knew about it or saw it (via a picture or live) were my brother, sister-in-law and mental health professionals. It took me until 2010 to get myself into a system of cleaning/throwing things away. At this point I consider myself “cured” of this syndrome. Of course I’m not a perfect housekeeper. Right now I’ve got two stacks of things that need to be put away and you can write a novel in the dust in my room. But I don’t live in squalor.

So why am I talking about it now? Because I told this story to someone for the first time since 2010, complete with showing them the above picture. And it threw me into vortex of avoidance. I started sleeping 12-20 hours a day, bingeing up a storm and wallowing in self-pity. Over and over I told myself that “no one cares” and that I was “stupid, stupid, stupid.” It’s taken me a week to get out of the vortex and realize that what I did was the right thing, that people do care, that I am not stupid.

I told my story to someone because they were struggling with their own version of squalor. It wasn’t as bad as mine, they were just messy, but they were overwhelmed with the mess. To the point of having an anxiety attack over it. I told them my story as a sort of “it could be worse” and a “if I got through this you can get through your mess” kind of thing. And it did help them. They realized that they could clean up their mess and get organized.

Was my week of avoidance worth it? Since my friend was helped by my opening myself up, I think it was. The trick now is to figure out how to open myself up to others without falling into a vortex.

Any suggestions?

S is for Suicide

SaslI love that the American Sign Language sign for the letter S looks like a fist. Why? Because that’s exactly what feeling suicidal feels like, a clenched fist that you’re using to fight against the impulse to die.

I’ve felt like killing myself since I was about thirteen years old, off and on. More on than off. I don’t remember exactly when it started. You see, the thoughts crept up on me. Somewhere between realizing boys weren’t icky, growing breasts and realizing that the sexual abuse was finally over, thoughts of death and images of killing myself just faded in.

I image that those with a somewhat healthy feeling of self-worth would be shocked by such thoughts. But to me they weren’t shocking; they were just a logical extension of my negative feelings and thoughts of worthlessness.

Here’s a typical dialogue between me and my brain when I’m just feeling mildly suicidal:

Me: I should get up.

Brain: Why? Stay in bed.

Me: I’ve gotta go to work.

Brain: They can handle things without you, better even since you’re such a screw up. You always do things wrong; you can’t meet goals or do anything perfectly so why even bother.

Me: But I’m supposed to be there.

Brain: They’ll be relieved if you’re not there. That way they don’t have to see your disgusting body and ugly face. Stupid girl. What makes you think you’re worthy of leaving your room much less going out into public.

Me: If I don’t go to work I won’t have money to pay bills or rent.

Brain: So what? You’re not going to be around much longer anyway you worthless, ugly thing. You don’t deserve to have a nice place to live. You’d be better off dead.

Me: But people love me.

Brain: Do they? Prove it.

Me: Well—

Brain: No one calls you. Or if they do, you don’t answer the phone, you stupid girl. Then, when you don’t call them back, they don’t call you again.

Me: Well, that’s my own fault.

Brain: Exactly! You’re a horrible friend. An awful family member. You don’t deserve to live. You should just die. Right. Now.

Me: But—but people will be sad if I die.

Brain: Oh yeah, sure. They aren’t sad right now that you’re not in their lives. If they were then they’d be coming over and trying to see you. They’ll be better off without you anyway. If you die now then they don’t have to feel obligated to invite you to gatherings at birthdays and holidays. Your ugly, fat, disgusting, worthless self won’t be bringing down their celebrations. No one really loves you. You should just kill yourself. Get it over with. You know you have pills in that drawer. Just take ‘em, get all this crap over with. Make it easier on everyone else and just get outta their hair.

Me: I don’t know. I don’t think I have enough pills to kill myself.

Brain: What about hanging? It’s more likely to be successful anyway. Look, you could hang yourself from the closet pole.

Me: No. No. That’s just wrong. I can’t kill myself. It’s wrong.

Brain: No. It’s right. It’d be the only thing you actually did do right in this life. Right now, you just take up space. You’re never gonna do anything or be anything worthwhile. You’re a weak, disgusting person with no courage. You don’t have enough courage to live, so you might as well as die.

Of course that’s just if I’m feeling mildly suicidal. When I’m bad enough to need to be hospitalized, it’s no longer a conversation. At that point my brain is constantly feeding me images of ways to kill myself and the impulses to copy those images are nearly impossible to resist. I’m a danger to myself around pills, ropes, knives, breakables and motor vehicles.

After a lifetime of being suicidal I’ve come to the conclusion that the only time I’m not going to feel that way is when I’m on psychotropic medications. I hate it, but I’ve accepted it. Somewhere in my childhood a self-destruct switch was flipped in my brain.

Does that mean I’m brain damaged? Sort of. There’s some evidence that those people who had traumatic childhoods and/or Major Depression have differences in their brain makeup and/or damage to their brain structure. In any case, I try to think of it that way. If I have brain damage, then it’s not my fault. I’m not a bad person, I just have an injury and illness that has to be controlled by medication. Am I fooling myself? Maybe, but it’s better than feeling ashamed of myself for being suicidal.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a part of myself that feels ashamed. There’s also a part of myself that’s proud. I’m ashamed that I didn’t have the courage to make a choice. I was too afraid to choose to live by clenching my fist and making sure I got the correct help sooner. But I’m also proud that I clenched my fists and fought the impulse to kill myself. I didn’t give in. I kept fighting.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Please, please, talk to someone if you or someone you know may be thinking of suicide. Get help. Fight. Live.

Suicide Awareness Month