A is for Apology

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI didn’t mean to stay away so long. I know I’ve said that before, and I meant it then as I mean it now. If there’s anyone who still is interested in this blog, I apologize for my absence.

Here’s what happened:

When I posted my last entry, I didn’t realize how much of an impact that particular issue was having on my emotional health. I thought it was a small issue, just a little resentment and anxiety to deal with. However, as soon as I posted that entry I started to pull my world back until it was the size and shape of my bed. Not good. Apparently I’ve got a lot of work to do on that particular incident. I’ll blog about it eventually, but please be advised that it will be painful and I’ll procrastinate about it for quite some time.

Image from keepbusy.net/pic.php?id=3347

Image from keepbusy.net/pic.php?id=3347

So what snapped me out of it? Believe it or not, the mental health system. Sometimes it works! I had an appointment with my case worker (at my community health center, case workers are mental health professionals who help patients deal with the day to day stuff. If you need help budgeting, they help. If you need referrals to assistance programs for rent or utilities, they know where to send you. If you’ve got an anxiety issue around crowed places, they’ll go to the grocery store with you. So on and so forth). At the time of my appointment (last week), I couldn’t get out of the house, so we did a phone session and she made me promise to do several things that, hopefully will work when they didn’t in the past.

Here’s what I’m doing:

Regular counseling. Of course I’ve been doing this all along, but this time I promised that I wouldn’t miss any more appointments, even if I couldn’t get out of bed.hugging cats

Group counseling. I had been going to a group for people with eating issues. I’m going to start going to one for people with depression and anxiety as well. I haven’t started this so we’ll see
how it goes.

 Psycho-education. My mental health center just started doing this thing where they have a class/group that educates patients on particular therapy types and gives them the skills to use them at home. For example: They educate you on the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), its history and particular philosophy. Then they teach you how to use it on your own. I start this today.

 On-line support forums/groups. I’ve joined a support group on Facebook that is specifically for those with depression and anxiety. I’ve joined these things before then dropped out because all I did was read what everyone else was saying and never participated. My case manager had me promise to participate at least twice a week. For some reason, this is helping. I’m not sure why. Possibly because I’ve forced myself to be open (I’ve asked for advice about how to deal with specific symptoms and once just vented) or maybe because this group is particularly supportive. I don’t know, but it lifts my spirits.

 Self-help books. I read self-help books off and on all the time, but I never do any of the exercises in

Image from minus.com/msoenEm7B

Image from minus.com/msoenEm7B

the books. Maybe because I’m just lazy. Probably because I’m scared of change. My case manager recommended that I have my regular counselor approve a book before I read it and do the assignments just so I’m not doing some wacky-doodle type stuff, so we’ll see how this goes. I’m least optimistic about this because it’ll require motivation and mental work. I get a bit of “brain fog” (where it feels like I’m thinking through a fog) and I’ll have to push myself to do it. I’ll start doing this once or twice a week, starting later this week.

 Medication. We’re upping (with approval from my drug pusher—I mean my psychiatrist) my meds a little. It’ll take a few weeks (6-8 is the average) to see if this does anything for me.

Self-care. One of the things that I’ve realized lately is that I’m perpetuating a pattern of neglect from my childhood onto myself. To be less “intellectual” about it, I neglect myself. I’ve let my sleep pattern get nuts (some days I sleep all day, others I don’t sleep at all, etc), been lax with my personal hygiene (you don’t need the details on that), and, of course, eaten badly. I’ve agreed to focus on one aspect of self-care a day.

What I’m hoping that will happen is that all this stuff will not only help me feel better, but will make it easier for me to keep promises to my family, myself, and to you. I’m thinking I’ll probably share a lot of the above changes and struggles with you. Or at least that’s the plan.

Wish me luck.

quote struggle

 

Blessings to all of you.

Be well.

 

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F is for Frustrated

For all those Mothers, Grandmothers, and “acting-as-Mom”s out there in the U.S.:

ma day

 

You have the hardest, most important job in the world. Please know that you are appreciated.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, I’m frustrated. Mostly with myself. It’s common for me to be all mixed up during the last two weeks of April and the first week of May. Why? Let me list them (because it’s easier to deal with bullet points right now):

  • I was born in the first week of May. I’m not particularly fond of my birthday, you’ll find out why as you read further.
  • You know those little kid birthday parties that many parents throw? I’ve only ever had one of those in my life and sometime between the beginning of the party and the middle of it, the party became less about me and more about the other kids until eventually I was ignored.
  • Someone I love dearly attempted to kill themselves the day before my fourteenth birthday. They were not cryingsuccessful, have since recovered, and are living a happy life now. But I felt guilty at the time that I didn’t see the pain they were in.
  • My maternal grandfather died on my sixteenth birthday. I only saw him two or three times a year, but he was the only relative who I could point to and say that he loved me unconditionally.
  • In my twenties, my mother got sick and eventually died in the last weeks of April three states away. I’ve always felt guilty that I wasn’t there when she died and that my brother had to deal with all of that on his own.
  • We buried my mother on the day after my birthday.
  • In my thirties, my paternal grandmother died in the first week of May. I was her caretaker almost up to the very end and she was a huge part of my life.
  • Last year, I broke my wrist and shattered my elbow on the last day of April. I ended up spending my birthday in the hospital. Recovering from this injury was difficult and eventually lead to my spending time in the psych ward.

To be honest, I’m glad that nothing too awful happened during these weeks this year. Yes, my car got repo’d, which was upsetting. I loved that car and it was the last thing I had left of my life from when my grandmother was alive. Losing it meant that I could no longer pretend that I was the same person I was then. But it was only a car, an object, a thing, a symbol. I am grateful no one died, no one was hurt, no one was buried.

So why am I frustrated? Because I am still in the midst of a rather large transition and I can no longer see myself and my life clearly.

I spent last weekend at a friend’s house helping them with some projects and some church activities. It was an running grassexhausting time because I’m not used to spending so much time on my feet, not to mention running up and down stairs. My feet, knees, and back were in constant pain. Trust me, there’s nothing easy about being circus-lady-fat when it comes to physical activity.

Despite my pain, and the not inconsiderable social anxiety I was feeling, I made it through without an anxiety attack. Whoo hoo, right? Nope. I felt like a fraud. All these people (at my friend’s church) were thanking me for helping out, my friends were complimenting me (“you have such a pretty face”, “you can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it”), and all I could do was wonder how I was making it through. I should have been collapsed on the floor in the fetal position, but I wasn’t. I’d made it through the anxiety and pain and kept a smile on my face. How? Why? What was different?

Then I came home. And for a few days I was okay. I thought, maybe I’ve finally reached the point where I can take better care of myself. Get some exercise, lose some weight. Maybe the anxiety has retreated to a manageable point. Maybe the fact that I seem to be destined to live a minimum wage life won’t be so bad.

I rode that wave of false optimism until Tuesday night. For some reason, that night I started to feel a part of myself weaken. I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t had much “me” time for awhile, or if it was the fact that I binged, or if it was just time for me to cycle through a negative period again, but I slowly became more and more sensitive. On Wednesday, I had trouble getting out of bed and ended up rescheduling an appointment. On Thursday, I slept most of the day, almost missing a counseling appointment.

On the way home from that appointment, I was triggered. You see, I live in a college town. And, because I’m poor, I live in an area with a lot of college kids. And by college kids, I mean drunk and/or stupid people. The kind that yell stupid things out car windows or ogle you when you walk by. Directly across the street from where I live is a house with several of these drunk/stupid kids who like to hang out on their front porch. During the wintewooden spiralr, this wasn’t so bad cause it was too cold for them to be out there long. But now that it’s gotten warm, they spend a lot of time out there. They never say anything directly to me, but I can tell they are watching me when I walk in or out of my building or when I’m pulling the garbage cans to the front or back. I can’t tell if they are talking about me or not, but my skin crawls regardless. This, to me, is triggering.

When I got home Thursday night, they were hanging out on their porch, watching. I could feel their eyes on me as I pulled the garbage cans behind my building and walked inside. I could feel their eyes judging me, judging my fitness to be amongst them. Judging and finding me wanting.

I didn’t leave my apartment again until Sunday night when I knew they weren’t out there.

So who am I? The girl who fights through her social anxiety and helps out at church functions despite the pain in her joints? Or am I the gross, fat woman too afraid to leave her apartment because of the judgmental eyes of some college kids? Am I getting better and the past few days are just a set back? Or am I selfish failure who spends her days feeling sorry for herself because her birthday’s not so special?

Who am I really? Who am I becoming? And what will it be like when I get there? I want these answers now. As you can imagine, it’s frustrating that I can’t get them.

breaking thru clouds

Blessings to you all.

Be well.

R is for Relationships

r recycledSince this is the week dedicated to all things heart shaped (aka Valentine’s Day week), I thought I’d write a bit about my issues with relationships.

I am horrible at all kinds of relationships other than your superficial kinds. If you want to talk about stuff while at work, I’m your gal (or I would be if I was employed). I’ll talk about anything other than politics (and/or religion if you’re not able to be open-minded/respectful of others’ opinions). If you want to tell me all about your life, spill your secrets, discuss your sex life, whatever, I’m good to go. I’ve got a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and may actually be able to give you some insight or help with whatever you’re going through. No problem. Just don’t expect me to tell you more than the superficial stuff about my own life.

Sure I’ll tell you a bit about my parents, brother, grandmother, and so on. I might tell you stories about growing up heart conversationpoor in a mostly affluent suburb or about taking care of my dying grandmother. I’ll tell you about the safe stuff in my life: career dreams, places I want to travel to or live. But I’ll never get to the meat of anything unless you divulge it first. And even then I’ll stay at the surface. For example: I’ll tell you that I suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a relative, but I won’t tell you who, what happened, or how it was resolved. I might tell you that I suffered guilt and shame over it, that I never told certain people about it, that I’m still somewhat angry about it, or that it took about thirty years for it to become a “minor” part of my life. But I’ll never tell you the details. You’ll never know that my shame isn’t that it happened, but that it hurt those who never knew about it.

In the past, when I’ve told people about some of this superficial stuff, they’ve told me that I’m “open” and that they feel close to me. I nod and thank them for their thoughts but inside I know that it’s just a sham. I know that I’m incapable of real relationships.

How do I know this? Because, to me, when it comes right down to it, real relationships are those that survive outside of the boundaries of the structures of modern life.

Two years ago I worked at a job with a woman who was having trouble in her marriage. She told me about some of her struggles with a previous marriage where her husband was abusive, verbally and sexually. She said that her past made her hesitant to trust her current husband. I divulged to her the superficial details of my own sexual abuse, correlated it to some stuff I learned in school, and gave her advice about talking to her current husband. She took my advice and said it helped. Later she told me that my openness helped her to realize certain things about her relationships. After I quit that job, I never saw or heard from that person again. To me, that was not a real relationship. Was it a worthwhile relationship? Sure, she got something out of it and I enjoyed helping her. But it was superficial. It was the only kind of relationship I am capable of. Other modern life structures that my relationships don’t survive past are school, apartment buildings, even online support groups. After I’m done with a class, graduated from college, moved from a building, left a group, those relationships don’t last. They’re gone. Like they never even happened.

I’m aware that some of those types of relationships are meant to fade away. My counselor tells me this and I read about them in school. But if those are the only kind of relationships I’m capable of, what does that say about me?

The other day I sat down and tried to think of who I’m always honest with (outside of psychiatrists, counselors, heart metaltherapists, etc). I counted seven people: my high school best friend, that friend’s parents, my brother and sister-in-law, a cousin, and a neighbor. Only one of those people is within walking distance of me. Two are in another state all together. And I only speak to one, my neighbor, on a regular basis.

Yes, all of them (and more) are Facebook friends and yes, I can text, email and/or speak to them by phone pretty much anytime. But I don’t. Even when I know I should. I’ll reach for the phone or keyboard and something will stop me. Something dark and ugly will rise inside me and I’ll put the phone or keyboard down.

Sometimes I think that dark and ugly thing is my mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, and/or the eating disorder). And sometimes I might be right because those things seem to clog up my brain and throat until I can’t communicate with anyone other than God.

But other times I think that dark and ugly thing is just me. My innards are so disgusting that I don’t want to expose them to the light, to my friends and family, to anyone with even a little bit of goodness in them. So I shove that ickyness deep down with food. I keep relationships superficial. I keep everyone away from my ugliness.

It’s safer.

Maybe for them.

But mostly for me.

I’ve accepted my inability to have real relationships with anyone other than those seven people. Mostly. Sometimes I surprise myself and make new friends. Like my neighbor, I’ve told her details about my sexual abuse, about my mental health issues, about my previous struggles with cleaning, and so forth. For some reason, I haven’t scared her away.

I think she may be Superwoman.

I know she’s extraordinary.

We’ll see if my relationship with her will last after one of us moves away. I don’t have much faith that it will last, but then again I also didn’t have much faith that I’d live past thirty either so it might. I hope it does. Because if it does, that means maybe I’m capable of a real relationship. One that lasts beyond the boundary of our building.

And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll be capable of having more of those relationships.

And then maybe, just maybe, I could date, have a romantic relationship, marry. I haven’t dated since high school (I’ll be 41 this year.)

Would you date, or marry, the circus-lady fat gal?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

I’m not holding my breath. I’ll be satisfied with becoming capable of having real relationships. Down deep, I know I’m not meant for a romantic relationship. All that disgusting ugliness may be tolerable in friendships (superficial or not) but it would be impossible in a day-to-day-till-death-do-you-part relationship. After all, you can get away from a friend and wash off that gross scum. A romantic partner (in my case, a man) is required to live with it, carry a bit of it in their heart, meld it to their soul.

I couldn’t ask any man to do that.

Does that mean I don’t miss those types of intimate relationships? Not on your life. At one point, when my biological clock was ticking with the power of Big Ben, I thought the yearning, the loneliness, would kill me. I cried at the sight of a baby, leaned toward the TV when watching romantic comedies, sobbed myself into migraines.

Even now, years after my biological clock short-circuited, I still yearn for closeness. There are days, weeks even, when I just want someone to hold me. Someone to tell me it’s gonna be okay. Someone who would worry with me about bills, broken down cars, unemployment. Someone to hold my hand under the dining room table when my social anxiety kicks in. Someone to bring me an apple when I’m binging on chocolate. Someone to look me in the eye and tell me I’m important, worthy, loved.

I want that someone. But I don’t think he exists. At least not for me. I only know one man out there who is that kind of gentleman, who would have that kind of patience, that kind of acceptance, that kind of pure-heartedness. He’s my high school best friend’s father and currently married to her mother. They have a son, but unfortunately he doesn’t take after his father. I doubt very much there’s another guy out there like him.

So I’m assuming I’m gonna live out the rest of my life alone. Slowly working on having real relationships but never having that ultimate relationship that makes life worth living.

It’ll be lonely.

It’ll suck.

But I’m used to that.

I’ll just have to content myself with a cat.

cat sofa

Happy Valentine’s Day to all who celebrate!

Blessings to all of you.

Be well.

M is for Mental Health

m recycledI promised myself that my next blog post wasn’t going to be another musing on the mental health merry-go-round, but I read this & discovered that there was a Blog for Mental Health 2014 project. If you’ve been following my posts, then you’re well aware that I’ve got a mental health condition, more than one in fact. So I thought I’d join in on the project. Here’s my pledge:

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.” (Tallulah “Lulu” Stark, founder of Blog for Mental Health 2014)

Frankly this is a big step for me, as I never thought I’d be one of those bloggers who joined any kind of blogging projects &/or blog-link-along kinda thing. But mental health is a huge thing for me, so here I am. You can read more about the project here.blog for mental health 2014

To bring any new readers up to date, I have “Reoccurring Major Depressive Disorder with Suicidal Ideation”, “Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” (otherwise known as “she’s got it but we can’t give it a category”), and “Binge Eating Disorder.” If you want to learn all the dirty details about my hospitalizations click here, here, here, and here. If you want to read a post specifically about suicide, click here, or bingeing, click here. A bit about my family can be found here, here, and here. And other bits about my mental health can be found here, here, and here.

So here’s what’s new about the state of my mental health:

1. My counselor is leaving me. Well, not just me, she’s leaving the facility I go to. Unfortunately, it’s the only place in the area an unemployed, uninsured person can go to and still get help, so I can’t follow her to wherever she ends up going. To make it worse, it’s just as we were starting to get somewhere. My last session with her is this week. I’ve no idea why she waited this long to tell me, but I hate that I don’t have much time to adjust to it. She says she has to go because she’s got to “model” what she tells us to do. I’m not exactly sure what that means, and she can’t really tell me anything else because of the whole client-counselor separation thing. I’m guessing there’s something major going on in her life and she’s gotta take care of herself in order to take care of something/someone else.

crying baby

Nope this isn’t me.

As a full grown adult, I’m happy for her that she’s taking care of herself. As a messed up person, I AM PISSED OFF!! This is gonna be the third counselor (not counting the intake and crisis counselors) I’ve been assigned at this facility. This is also following a pattern that started a couple of years ago where just when I think I’m getting somewhere with a counselor or major issue in my life, that counselor or person who is helping me leaves. And I have to start all over.

Why? Why do I have to have these problems? I don’t get it and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of having to explain myself and my life over and over again to yet another person. Frankly, I just want to throw things. This leads to:

2. My depression seems to be getting worse. I think it’s because I’ve been missing some of my meds, or it could be because my unemployment was cut off (at least until congress re-authorizes Emergency Unemployment again). Or it could be because the weather sucks. Or it could be because I suck.

Wait, I’m not supposed to say that. Okay, time to use my CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) skills: “sucks” is a negative word so I’ve gotta replace it with something positive. Um… Let’s say “it could be because I’m currently in a difficult situation that anyone would have a hard time with.”

sleeping baby

Still not me.

Not nearly as fulfilling as saying “sucks.” Sigh.

In any case, I’ve been sleeping a lot. 18 hours last night, 12 the night before. And I’ve been spending money that I shouldn’t be spending on stuff I don’t really need (this is one of my ways of distracting myself). I’m still bingeing, but not any more than before my mood started dipping. Oh, yeah, it started dipping right around the holidays. Coincidence? I think not.

3. My anxiety level has gone up. This one is easy to address. It happened because a drunk guy wandered into my building and was creeping up the stairs next to my apartment. He turned out to be harmless, but it triggered all my safety anxieties. And it doesn’t help that one of the abuse incidents in my past happened right after someone crept up a flight of stairs right next to the room I was in. I’m doing all the CBT stuff that I’ve practiced about this and I can see it working. I’m thinking at least this’ll get better soon.

Coming up next week: probably a post about writing (cause I’m sick of staring at my navel).

Kittens. Just cause they're cute.

Kittens. Just cause they’re cute. And I
LOVE cats.

Blessings to you all.

Be well.

L is for a Letter to God

l smoke blueDear God:

Over the past few days over a foot of snow has fallen and the wind won’t stop blowing. Right now, it is thirteen below zero with a wind chill of forty below. I am sitting inside, warm, comfortable, with electricity, and an internet connection. And I’m going stir crazy.

I cannot stop thinking of all the things you have given me. Things that many people don’t have or have not been given. When I was homeless, a home was opened to me. When I was unable to control my suicidal impulses, I was admitted to a hospital. When I needed a friend, one was given to me. So many times you have pulled me back from a brink: homelessness, suicidality, illness. I have a college diploma, live in America where I don’t have to worry about genital mutilation or being stoned if I get raped, have plenty of food, electricity, clean water, and a safe place to live. But I don’t know what to do with these gifts.

For the past few weeks I’ve been fighting the undertow of depression. Instead of using the tools my counselors have given me, I’ve done what I’ve always done: binge, sleep, spend money I don’t have, and yell at myself.

I feel so unworthy of all I’ve been given. God, you sent my soul onto this earth in as perfect of a state as possible and all I do is mess things up. I’ve misused my opportunities, ignored possibilities, lived in fear, and allowed my soul to become black and ugly.

Why? Why am I still here? What do you need me to do that I haven’t done already? How do I do whatever I’m supposed to do if I can’t identify it? How do I do it when I’m often too paralyzed to do even the simple things like brush my teeth, shower, cry?

I often think of an instance in my childhood where I felt your presence so completely. I woke up in the middle of the night for no reason that I can remember and opened my eyes to find that you had flooded my room with moonlight. Beautiful silvery moonlight poured through my window and hugged me. Somehow I just knew that it was you who was causing it to happen and you were telling me that you loved me.

So often God you have given me these little signs. A song played on the radio with lyrics that seem to speak directly to me. A flickering candle where there is no draft. Warmth when I should feel cold. Little signs that speak to me and tell me that you care.

I love those signs but I don’t know what to do with them. How can you care for me, love me, when I’ve misused my life? So often I think that the world would be better without me, that I’m worth less than the smallest insect.

When I was in high school, I was in the musical Godspell and had a small solo in a song called “You are the Light of the World.” In my mind, I’ve replaced those lyrics with “I am the scum of the earth.” I try not to sing these lyrics but sometimes I can’t help it. I believe that I am that green, gross, disgusting stuff that you pull out from sink traps and moldy insulation.

Logically, I know you would not bless me with all the things I have if I were so awful. I know it in my brain, but I cannot seem to feel it in my heart. And I know, God that I cannot move on in my life until I do. But I also think that I cannot move on, cannot feel worthy, cannot do what I’m supposed to do until you answer my questions:

Why am I always so scared?

Why can’t I motivate myself?

Why does food do more for me than interaction with people?

Why can’t I be content with what I do have?

Why can’t I open myself up?

Why can’t I accept love?

Why am I still alive?

Why does it hurt so much?

Why, please God, please tell me, why?

Sincerely,

Bonnie.

 

Blessings to all of you.

Be well.

T is for Thanksgiving

t fancyFor anyone unfamiliar: in America, the fourth Thursday in November is a Federal Holiday called Thanksgiving. This holiday commemorates a peaceful harvest meal celebrated by the European colonists and Native Americans nearly 500 years ago (more on that here). Somewhere along the way it became about appreciating your blessings. Now it’s mostly all about food, family, football, and Black Friday. (Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally considered the first shopping day of the Christmas season, when most retailers go from “being in the red” to “being in the black”. More on that here.)

Growing up, my family spent Thanksgiving with our paternal relatives as they lived nearby. Back then, Black Friday wasn’t such a big thing. (Or at least it didn’t seem like it, maybe because the media wasn’t so omnipresent with the internet and all.) Typically, we would go to my paternal grandparents’ house where my grandmother would cook. Stuffing came out of a box and cranberries out of a can, but we always had mashed potatoes freshly smooshed by hand. The kitchen was too small for more than one or two people, so usually I wasn’t allowed to help until the meal was nearly done. As usual for family gatherings, I was in charge of drinks. Then we would all sit around the table, pose for a picture, and dig in. Sometimes we went around the table and shared what we were thankful for, sometimes we just ate until there was nothing left (grandma hated leftovers). The Friday after Thanksgiving was spent at home, relaxing.

After my grandfather had a stroke, and my grandmother sold her house, my aunt (I mean, the only aunt who lived in the area) took over holiday dinners. I hated this. Not because my aunt wasn’t a good cook (she was a fabulous cook), and not because I didn’t like her (she was actually my favorite aunt for years), but because she was married to the man who abused me. I didn’t tell her about the abuse until I was an adult, and when I did she asked me to keep it a secret (and did little about it). My aunt’s house was even smaller than my grandparents’ and somehow it seemed as if I always ended up sitting next to my abuser.

The older I got the more uncomfortable I was with being in that household. There were years where I became physically ill from the stress of being there. I hated having to act as if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t taken away part of my childhood. But I had promised (because of my own misguided sense of shame) not to tell the rest of the family about the abuse, so I felt obligated to act as if I was fine being there. I learned to smile through the pain in my stomach, to hug him without revealing my revulsion, to keep from shaking with anger.

It wasn’t until my paternal grandmother died that I experienced a Thanksgiving without the stress of being near my abuser. From 2009 to now, I’ve spend Thanksgiving at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. My sister-in-law is a great cook and loves to host holiday/family dinners. She lets her kids and grandkids help and makes as much of the dinner from scratch as she can. There are always prayers and laughter. Often, friends are invited. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I may or may not participate in the Black Friday shopping.

But the holiday still gives me anxiety. As much as I love my brother and sister-in-law, their celebration of the holiday is different than how I would celebrate. It’s more rambunctious, louder, crowded. It works for them, and I love that about them. I love that they open their home to friends. They’re wonderful people and deserve every bit of happiness they have. It’s just unfortunate that I don’t enjoy loud, crowded and rambunctious. I like quiet and small. Rambunctious I can handle (as this usually comes from the under 10 crowd. Kids I’m good with.) I’m just hoping that one day I can celebrate this holiday stress-free with an emphasis on thankfulness and peace.

That said, this year I am thankful (in no particular order) for:

  • You! Thank you for reading my blog.
  • Health. Both physical and mental.
  • Family and friends
  • Blue skies and fluffy clouds
  • Cats!
  • Books
  • The internet. It helps distract me.
  • Unemployment insurance. Otherwise I’d be homeless and car-less.
  • That I’m not in a hospital. For any reason.
  • Modern medicine. Without it I’d be either dead or in a hospital.
  • God “from whom all blessings flow.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

Happy Hanukah to all who celebrate!

Blessings to all of you.

Be well.

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?