Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Not-So-Sad Goodbye

There was no doubt about it, I was getting better. I  thought it, I felt it, I looked it, there was no denying this truth. For the first time in more than a year I didn't always hate my life or myself.  I was twenty pounds lighter and who knows how much that number would be if you added in the emotional weight that I'd shed. People that I had not seen much in the six weeks that I had been on my "improvement retreat" noticed the transformation instantly. And so I knew that as much as I hated to I was going to have to return to my regularly scheduled life.

One of my friends had expressed her concern, because while I had changed it was very clear from the phone calls, emails and text messages that I received while away that where I had to return to had not. I was beyond petrified of being drug back down again. I was armed with my stress-busting and anti-anxiety techniques. I had a sane strategy for how I would deal with difficult encounters. I had anticipated and practiced conversations with my therapist and several times in my head with the person that was my nemesis. I was visualizing how the "changed" me would fit back into the world. But, I was still scared of what could happen. What if I started to slide a little, didn't notice and then slid some more until I was right back in that deep, dark hole?

When I visited the doctor, three weeks after I'd collapsed in the midst of an anxiety attack in her presence, I knew that there would be no breakdown this time. So as I filled out the same form that I had before I looked carefully at the questions that faced me - "How much do you feel like your normal self?" I contemplated the answer for several minutes. I was better, but I wasn't whole. I opted for a number that indicated progress, but not perfection - 70 percent. And faced with the question of what still needed treatment, what was still making it difficult for me to live everyday life the answers were the same as before - lack of concentration, anxiety and inability to face work.

When the doctor appeared at the door to the lobby and called my name I actually smiled genuinely at her. Life was finally starting to feel like less work. We talked about medications, side effects, what I had done during the past three weeks and when she said "I think you are ready to return to work," I told her reluctantly that I did not want to, but I knew it was something which I had to do. I needed to face down my fears and my "enemy." So this time she wrote my prescription, talked about when she wanted to see me again and wrote a note that said I could return to work on a part-time basis. We were going to test the waters and help me acclimate.

I went home, looked around my house and saw physical evidence of all my progress. I had filled countless trash bags with things that I should have thrown away ages before, I'd hauled numerous collected items to goodwill, I had organized a good portion of my life again. The progress wasn't complete, just like I wasn't, but it was evident. I still had a list of things that I knew needed to be done, but now they were smaller tasks, ones that wouldn't be as obvious to anyone, ones that didn't feel so daunting. And my mind had begun to feel less cluttered too. The medications had taken hold, the therapy was working, and I was finally making connections that were helping me heal. Everything was less foggy. But none of that meant that I didn't have trepidation about what I had to face.

The next day, when I walked though that door into my place of employment, on time for the first time in ages,  I did so with my head held high - I could do this I told myself. I smiled and greeted people, I answered questions when asked and in general I heard a lot of "welcome back." In my pocket was a smooth rock - my worry stone. In my purse I carried a piece of cloth scented with lavender oil. And on the outside of the monitor of my computer I placed a small note that I could look at as a reminder to breathe and focus. I was armed with all that had been given to me the past six weeks to face the inevitable. The first thing that I noticed was it seemed that nothing had changed outside of me, this was not going to be easy and if I stayed for any length of time it would be even more difficult. I was a changed woman living in a world that was static.

In the end I made it through the day my half day of work and the next one.  Two half days of work and I was exhausted. The weekend was a welcome friend, two whole days of peace. I wasn't sure that after working only two half days that I should have looked forward to a break as much as I had.

On Friday afternoon I went to lunch with one of my two colleagues that actually knew what was going on with me. I could sense her caution when the conversation turned to work. I told her it was fine, I needed to talk about things, I needed to be able to face reality and start again. But that conversation was so important and telling, when it came to my place of employment - I was right in my snap assessment nothing had changed, people were still feeling miserable and everyone was just waiting for the day when the house of cards would collapse. So, while I didn't suffer an anxiety attack of any sort, I did suffer a reality one - if I stayed I wasn't sure that I would make it for very long without slipping back into old patterns, without feeling the heaviness of all that surrounded me. When everyone around you at work is despondent too it's pretty difficult to rise above and remain the only vestige of positivity. How much of yourself do you compromise before it becomes too much? In the back of my mind as I listened and talked with this very dear friend I knew that I wouldn't last long. I didn't want to go back to where I had been. Coming out of the darkness I'd become fond of the light no matter how faint it was.

And so questions and contemplations riddled my mind throughout the weekend. So much of what you do to make a living defines you as a person, but should it? What if the definition is one that you never want to hear in relation to your name? During our weeks we spend more of our life working and with our coworkers than we do with the people that we love - what does it mean when that place where you reside is making you suffer? We'd never tell a woman to stay with the man that beats her, so why don't we say the same to people that work in a world where the abuse, manipulation and esteem-stealing is just as damaging and degrading? And as a single woman, not a wife or a mother, what else do you have when you don't have those societal norms with which to gauge yourself besides what you do?  No one says she's single, has no kids and is currently working to find herself, until then, well she's a woman - what would that even mean? You're a person with no point of reference.

When you hear stories of people assessing their lives before death I've never heard of anyone saying "I wish I'd worked more." In the end your job doesn't love you back. It's the people that we keep close, they way that we live, how we face adversity, how we support others and so much more that really is the important stuff of life. It's the stuff of truly living. There's no denying that unfortunately you need money to survive, but what are you surviving for if you've sacrificed everything that you are or want to be to earn a check? So that's how I spent my time, trying to figure out what was important, who I wanted to be and how did I chart a path there. I was seriously trying to find the best answers to some of life's greatest questions.

On Monday I returned again ready to face another reality. Before I had left I knew that my work hadn't been my best anymore, and really how could it have been with the depth of depression and anxiety that I was suffering? I had completed what I needed to, but when it came to crossing t's and dotting i's I knew that I had been negligent at times. I knew that at some point there would be a discussion about the past and the future. That day arrived on Thursday.

Behind closed doors I chose to only face what had made me so miserable for so long. The one conclusion that was most clear to me was it wouldn't have mattered in the least the level of my work, I would still be sitting in this same place with these same questions. Work was really that bad. I looked at the abuse, the lack of integrity surrounding me, the manipulation and all the other things that were my reality for too long. I was pretty positive that the goal of most of it was to get me to quietly leave, destroying my self worth and my self-esteem in the process was just an added bonus. And when I opened the door to that office again after very little discussion I had parted ways with the place that I had called my employer for one month shy of fifteen years. That passage of my life, for all the good, the bad and the ugly was complete. And the only emotion that I really felt was relief.

Even facing the fear of poverty and failure and uncertainty and homelessness there was not one part of me that was anxious or regretful about the decision. I was liberated. Free. Dare I say happy? And this time there were no tears. And to this day I have not waivered in that emotion. Do I miss the very meager paycheck? Sure. Do I miss all that I had to endure and all the compromises of myself that I had to make for that small sum? Not in the least.  I had learned a lot in six weeks about the woman that I was and the woman that I still wanted to be and now I could actually see myself being able to get there.

When I sat in my car and took a very deep breath before pulling out of the parking lot I said goodbye to my old life. I had no idea what the future would hold but I only knew that it didn't hold this and for that I was most grateful. I started my car and drove away. And never once did I look back with regret.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Artistic Endeavors

There are things that you begin doing that you never know have meaning or significance. It seems so simple, but later you look back and see how the mind was really several steps ahead of your comprehension. It's the hindsight phenomenon.

It started pretty simply. In January I was in a craft store and I saw a necklace on one of their displays and thought I'd try making one myself. I bought the beads and chain and then a few weeks later I purchased a set of jewelry-making tools. I stared one evening at these components in front of me and tried to make a simple necklace. The result was a disaster. I had no idea what I was doing. I threw the supplies back in the bag and hid them in a closet and didn't really think of them again. This artistic endeavor was pretty similar to the direction my life was taking. Everything was daunting.

Fast forward now several months and while cleaning and purging my space I stumbled upon that bag. Now that I was faced with three more weeks off work I had time and so even though the first attempt had been unsuccessful I purchased more supplies. I actually bought a lot of beads. It was a pretty large outlay of money for something that I really had no confidence in completing. I still had no idea what I was doing. I browsed through some magazines looking at designs but I couldn't focus on the directions.  So on Sunday I hauled out all my supplies, sat on the floor and spread them all out in front of me. I picked up three rose-colored flower beads and two pink butterflies. I stared at them for a while. And then I just sort of saw what I wanted to do with them. And this time I made it happen. I still really didn't know what I was doing, I just made it work. And then I was on a role. In a few hours I had made four necklaces and I was happy with each one of them. I was amazed. The other surprise - I had spent an afternoon creating and not once had I cried, or thought about all that was going on around me or in my head. I was in the moment, not distracted, but really living and creating, I was even concentrating on something. I was elated when I thought about what I had done.  I sat down a few days later and produced four more as I watched television. And again I didn't really know where I was starting, where I was going or what I was doing, but the end result was the same - four new pieces that I loved.

And so making jewelry became the thing I did when my hands and mind would normally have been idle. It was simply a project to do in the evenings when I needed something besides mindlessly watching television or blindly eating to fill a void. Each night I was making something new and none of them looked the same. I'd layout combinations on the bead board and move them again and again until I was happy with the pattern and arrangement and then I'd string the beads on, attach a clasp and voila - another creation. And at the end of night I'd have one more thing to add to my collection. I found myself searching for beads to match every color in my wardrobe. My affinity for cheap, costume jewelry was no longer a shopping experience, now it was a creative one.

And in the background as I shared and showed off my work, scared each time that I did, people began to tell me I should do more than craft pieces for myself. I couldn't do that. This was a hobby and one that I didn't believe I was really all that good at. I still really had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about beading or stringing techniques. I just figured out a way to make it work. For me it was easy and mindless. Every time I would wear something that I made and would get a compliment on it I would be taken by surprise and then shyly say "thank you." And then one time someone asked me where I had purchased it and reluctantly I quietly said "I made it myself." And here a stranger - not one of my friends that would encourage me even if the work was poor - thought that this was something that came from a store. I was blown away.

But, beading was not that impressive to me. A lot of people strung beads. I didn't feel like there was any art or talent involved on my part. If I could make something without really knowing what I was doing anyone could.

So finally I tackled a new project that I'd been contemplating for a while. I took some wire and began bending it into a design. I know that the inspiration was coming from a lot of things that I'd looked at in print and in stores, but again, I was really winging it. And when I was done I had a pendant that encircled a tree. Twisted branches with beads covering them. I looked at it for a long time. I couldn't decide what I thought of it. I took a picture on my cell phone and texted it to three people. I wanted some honest opinions. Would they even know what it was? The response was encouraging, but again these were my friends and I knew that the piece wasn't exactly what I was aiming to create. Well, at least they knew it was a tree So looking at my prototype I tried again. I was a little happier with the result this time and bravely wore this one out in public. I solicited more opinions. And every time I shared a picture of something that I made I was scared beyond belief. I was convinced that I was seeing beauty that no one else would see. But each and every time I would get a positive response. And more and more people kept telling me that I needed to do something more with my craft. I wasn't sure that would happen, but it was nice to hear.

And so I started creating more and making pieces for gifts and I was perfecting my tree. I can't even tell you why I was attracted to this design. I'd never loved trees before. I never really even thought about them. Trees were trees and yet I felt so connected to what I was doing. And as the art evolved so did the therapeutic nature of it. I had created my own version of art therapy for myself without even being aware of it. I was gaining confidence again in my abilities to do something - anything - and do it in a way that people recognized. But still even I couldn't figure out why I was drawn to the tree.

It wasn't until much later when hindsight came into play that I figured out that the mind is a mysterious machine. It makes connections that you aren't even aware that you are seeing until one day it finally hits you what you've been missing.

So here I was creating tree pendants - trees of life - and I had no idea why. So when I made the leap that I was pretty sure I would fail at and I started my jewelry site I did some research to add to the description page and looking back now I'm amazed that I still kept asking why trees,  what is it about this design that keeps me coming back again and again?. When I look now at what I wrote in the description it's so clear why the tree was important to me.
"The tree of life is branched tree illustrating the idea of life's interconnectedness. Some have referred to it as a metaphor for the whimsy of the spirit. Depictions and allusions to the tree of life appear throughout science, religion, philosophy, mythology and art. It's also been described as a cosmic tree, mystic tree or the tree of knowledge."

Life's interconnectedness.

 My mind hadn't made the connection then. The tree was really about my transformation. Art imitating life. My life was changing and so was everything connected to it. I was evolving and so was the tree that represented my life. All of life is connected to what surrounds us and I was depicting this realization with wire and beads long before I let myself soak in the reality of what it meant. I was creating a tree of knowledge that would hopefully in the end lead me to a better understanding of myself, the people that I let near me and the world that surrounds me. And so my art and craft was therapy, but I had also created a touchstone for myself and it was one that was full of hope and growth and knowledge - the tree of life, the tree of my life. Maybe there was hope for a beautiful life after all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Anger Game

For more than a year I walked a very thin line. I would vacillate from tears to anger back to tears again. The pendulum of my emotions would swing from deep desperation to fury in a manner of seconds. At home I would wallow in the dark sadness, but when I finally garnered enough energy to travel in the world for yet another day the person that walked out of my house tended to be on the verge of needing anger management. And the more and more depressed I became the more and more the anger reared its ugly head in all directions.

Every time I was faced with the option I would choose the anger game instead of the crying game. Somewhere in my psyche that just seemed more acceptable and sane.

It was inevitable that I would begin playing a real game at work that directed some of my rage at the person that I was so angry at for dragging me down so much of the time. And again fury kept me from tears. And so as the abuse escalated and I began to question myself and my abilities and everything else more and more, I also knew deep down that I was by far the more intelligent one in the equation. And since that was my only advantage and no one could really fault you in your work for being smart, a game evolved where for a few seconds I felt some control over my thoughts, emotions and esteem. It started simply one day when I watched the wheels turn and come up empty as I used a seemingly simple word that wasn't comprehended. Oh, this was fun - game on. So I would find ways whenever I could to use my vocabulary and channel my anger into the game. I didn't have to even be a master linguist to win this one. One day I questioned why a qualitative answer was used when it was clear that the analysis we were to provide should be quantitative. Blank stare - score. So, a second attempt was made. "Hmmm," I said. "That's a qualitative statement too. The question says to keep it measurable." It was clear that the person staring back at me had no idea what I was saying but would never admit it - win number one for me. And so the game continued, any time I could work in a word that wouldn't be understood I didn't contain myself. One day I would say that a statement was risible, the next I said that an author was resplendent. I could have won the game using much "smaller" words even, but this just made it more fun for me. So one day near the time of my inevitable point of needing and seeking help I had to write something. The result was brillant if I did say so myself. I handed it over and watched the confusion take hold. So later when a co-worker walked in and saw my competitor with my statement in one hand and a dictionary in the other I had scored the ultimate coupe - game, set, match!

And yet no matter how many rounds I won I never really felt any better. The anger game didn't really accomplish anything in the end. It didn't change anything. Here I thought it was a competition that I was playing in and really it was just one more thing that pointed to how far I had fallen. And the person that was evolving before me was someone that I didn't even really like that much. This wasn't the woman that I had ever imagined being. This wasn't the woman that I was. This wasn't the type of person that I admired. And all of this anger was not in line with the way I would have described myself in the past. It was always there though. I fought it and noticed that more and more I was seeming to lose out to it. I may have played the game well sometimes but when it was me against the game I was losing in a big way. When I let myself in the privacy of my mind think I wished that I wasn't always enraged all the time. Why in the world was I always ready to either fight or cry? Why was there just no longer any middle ground?

But the anger game wasn't contained to only work. It was creeping into and invading every facet of my life. I found myself always irritable and on edge. Always ready to pounce or break. On the phone with a customer service rep I would move through the spectrum of emotions lashing out only to ask for their supervisor that found me sobbing and telling her how being treated so poorly had upset me this much. I found myself using my car horn more than ever. Curse words seemed to always be on the tip of my tongue. Every life encounter was either the most infuriating experience or the most miserable one. I was on a roller coaster of two emotions and I just kept riding and riding thinking that somehow maybe one time the cars would take a different course, but knowing that it was impossible for it to do so. Being furious all the time was no less exhausting than be sorrowful, but the whirling between the two was down right crippling.

For some reason that anger made it feel like I was controlling the sadness, but in the end the misery was still there. It was the most uncomfortable feeling I ever encountered. And the anger fueled depression's fire because the more and more I exploded the worse and worse I felt about the person that I now was and that added to the self-loathing, the sadness, the powerlessness. Freud was right in his description, so much of depression is anger turned inward.

I felt the same way around my family. Any time they mentioned things in a way that I felt slighted me or called into question my life choices or "teased" me I would feel the anger boiling up inside. I would often leave the room and silently scream. Tension would manifest itself into knots in the muscles the ran across my shoulder blades. As I pushed away the tears, I'd ball up my fists tightly and push my nails into the palms of my hands until I felt the slight pinch of pain that I could focus on to tamp down the anger. In situations where I couldn't escape I would say things under my breath or bite down on the inside of my cheeks to control myself. Sometimes I would draw blood from the constant force of my teeth on the tender skin inside mouth. In really bad moments I would also pick under my fingernails where the nail met the skin, clawing and peeling until it bled. But turning the anger into pain at least felt like something. Sadly it was nice to feel anything other than the two emotions that I was constantly living between.  I would vent my frustrations to my mom later asking her why everyone thought so little of me? Why couldn't once something that I did be good enough? Why was my time and the person that I was so invaluable to everyone? All the venom and ire that I had focused into the physical pain would pour out of me and just when the anger would dissipate the tears would begin. What was wrong with me? How did this happen? Who was this girl?

Anger - despair - rage - tears - exasperation - desperation - fury - listlessness  - outraged - inconsolable  - storming - sinking ...

And so it continued on and on, the pendulum swinging faster and faster until it and I broke. I had lost the battle, I hadn't won the game.

It wasn't until weeks after my breakdown as I sat on the sofa in my therapist's office that I noticed that the anger was largely gone even though the sadness was not. This realization was delivered to me as I was giving her an example of something that was said to me. I knew that the intent had not been meant to hurt me, but I had been furious at the time all the same. I had let a few people in my life say awful things to me and yet I didn't know how to stop them and when my life spun out of control those things were just magnified by the anger that I felt and then later added to my feelings of worthlessness. If the people that claimed to love you felt this way then how in the world would anyone else possibly even like you? It didn't matter that intellectually I knew that those that uttered the statement didn't mean to inflict pain, but how do you start to gain control of a situation like that?

And so for the first time I thought to really mention all the anger and rage that I had felt during the previous months. And again I learned how much I didn't understand about depression. Anger was a classic symptom. When I thought of the illness I recognized the sadness, the hopelessness, the exhaustion, the feelings of worthlessness, the hypersomnia, the inability to any longer care about the simplest of things, but the irrational degree of negative thinking and the anger that flowed forth because of it I had never contemplated.  But when I lost control of everything around me, my emotions and feelings and my inability to function in everyday life, the anger was inevitable. No one that crossed my path was really safe from it. It's just another emotion that I could not harness. I was angry at myself for being so angry and depressed, which then made me even angrier. I had been cycling in that pattern for quite some time digging myself in deeper and deeper.

And as I learned more and more about me and my disease I began to feel some small amount of control return. I could finally see the anger game for what it was, just another sign that I had needed help. I closed the lid on that box and hid it away. Hopefully I would never feel the need to play again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Scarlet D

I wore a badge of shame and secrecy. The scrap of red cloth for all to see in the form of a letter. The letter "D" signified my "sin" of depression which I kept largely hidden from most in the world. But sometimes I would feel the looks and stares boring into me and I would think that person can see the letter, they know.

The world of mental heath is hush - hush. There is a social stigma. Few people want to admit that they live in a world where they can't control their feelings or emotions. No one wants to be perceived as abnormal, scarred, crazy, weak or any of the other adjectives that are linked to the description of those that live with mental illness. No one wants to be dismissed as unworthy based on their brain. No one wants to face rejection or discrimination based on a sickness. And so someone with cancer can talk openly about the pain and the treatment and people rally to their side, but someone that suffers from depression often hides in shame and fear. They watch people avert their eyes as the wheels in their brain turn judging the person before them when they do reveal. The stigma is so pervasive that the practice where I was receiving treatment and therapy was virtually unmarked. There is no sign advertising it and the name plate on the door simply reads the doctor's name, minus the doctor and associates. When you walk in anyone passing the office has no idea what occurs behind those doors.

So as I sauntered into my place of employment the next day I felt like all eyes were on me - judging. I had lied to most people saying that I was off work because of something that I had done to my foot. But when I walked in to drop off my doctor's note I watched the first co-worker's eyes move to the flip-flops I was wearing. I felt the eyes and the questioning and the talking that was going on when I turned my back. Everyone was wondering why I needed more time to recover when I seemed to be walking pretty well. I tried as much as possible to tell the "story", I didn't really say anything if I could avoid it,  but I felt like those really looking could see the outline of the "D" that I wore on my chest whether I liked it or not. I felt the eyes follow. I knew that even if they weren't looking close enough to see they were looking close enough to know that something wasn't right with my cover story. And so now on top of a major depressive disorder, anxiety attacks and an eating disorder I thought I might need to add paranoia to the plethora of issues. How much of the looks and stares were a product of my vivid imagination and how many of them were real?

So I had the privilege of walking through my own version of the town square shaming ceremony. I again surrendered the note that said I needed to be off for a "biological disorder." Even the note was coded to lessen the stigma. The doctor knew what it was like for someone to walk in the world with depression. She knew the scorn and judgement that people issued without really understanding that it too was a disease, it was just one where the marks are borne inside and they evolve so slowly that it's difficult to easily notice the change. And even in the vernacular the word depression is thrown around to describe a bad day or week or a little sadness; and that too creates more issues because for someone that hasn't been there they just think "well I was depressed a few months ago for a week and you just need to get over it." I had been that person once, but now I knew how the depression invades your brain, washes over you and slowly cripples the person that you are so that you can no longer function in everyday life. You smile and you act, but you aren't well. And when someone is truly depressed they are so afraid that anyone will know and see that it's difficult to imagine the clinically depressed would use that word so casually. People are afraid to be that person made to stand before all her peers as they stare at that red letter and judge.

And with even those that you are confidant you have fooled you are left to contemplate what the response would be if they did know. How would they look at you differently? How would their thoughts and perceptions of you change? How much judgement would they levy? Which ones in your circle of friends, co-workers, acquaintances and confidants would be the one to sew the letter and pin it to your chest for all the world to see - that red letter always present every time they looked at you? Life is so much easier when you don't have to have the answers to those questions and yet it also perpetuates the shame and stigma that you cannot be that honest about something that permeates your life so profoundly. It's a striking reality when you realize that you are a participant in the novel of your life as both shamer and shamee.

What a lesson there is in how Hester wore her badge of shame. She wore it proudly and definitely. She owned her sin. And she was the one that learned to live with and accept herself by doing so. If only I was brave enough to wear that "D" the same way. But instead I walked with my fear and shame and hoped that no one noticed, that no one saw, that no one had been there that afternoon when I appeared in front of my audience with that big red scrap of cloth in the shape of a letter.

I walked out of the door and let the paranoia dissipate. Maybe one day I could be that brave, but today was not the day. Today I would still suffer silently, telling no one and living a lie. I wasn't ready for the ridicule that I had handed out before to anyone that said that they were suffering. For one more day I would hide my pain from most everyone I knew for fear that I would lose what little I had. But if you looked closely you could see that scarlet letter branded on me as it screamed out to the world - depressed, diseased, disturbed, degenerate ...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ticking Time Bomb

Inside my head I could hear the tick getting louder and louder. The sound bore resemblance to one of those old-style clocks where you could hear the mechanism that moved the second hand around the face and then the even bigger click when the minute hand made the jump forward 60 ticks later. After a while the sound blends into the background and you only notice it once in a while and when you do it leaves you wondering how you can tune out such noise so much of the time. Tick - tick - tick - tick ... Every morning in what was usually those peaceful minutes when you move from sleep to awareness I would hear the clock. Tick - tick - tick ... It wasn't something I could turn off - it just ticked incessantly gaining volume and intensity. There was no ignoring it's existence and yet I would turn away and pretend that it wasn't there until it became so loud and persistent that I had to look at it head on and face what it would mean - my return to work was nearing.

Tick - tick - tick ...

The first day I awoke thinking I have three weeks, but then every day after I would think I only have two weeks and six days left. This just wasn't one of those countdowns that ended in a blissful event. Instead my countdown felt like one to doom.

Each day I felt myself getting a little better. I was dealing with every day life and surprisingly I was doing it pretty well. Even though my energy and concentration were still lagging I would easily wake, shower and dress and face the agenda of the day. There were even parts of the routine to which I looked forward with anticipation instead of dread. The medication and the therapy were doing their jobs. But when I let my mind wander it would often think of how many more days. I had accomplished a lot in such a short time but not enough to quell the anxiety about returning to the madness.

Tick (ten days) - tick (nine days) - tick (eight days) ...

I wasn't looking forward to this development and yet I could no more stop the progression of days then I could the ticking or the countdown. It was inevitable, but I didn't have to like idea.

When I went to my last therapy appointment before I returned to the doctor to see if she would release me back work, my therapist and I talked about dealing with the return. I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I tried to breathe and blink them away, but they spilled down my cheeks anyway. We talked about using coping techniques, we discussed how to deal with manipulation and underhandedness when I faced it again, we ran through an imaginary conversation for my first conversation with my abuser. None of it made me feel more prepared for the inevitable. All I could envision was that time bomb exploding and me being blown right back to where I had started.

So still every morning I awoke, looked at my mental countdown calendar of days, heard the ticking and then took a deep breath and pushed my anxiety away until at some point the thought crept back in again later in the day. It was always lurking in the corner. I would tackle a project and I'd look and think how much of this am I going to actually get done in four more days. And then it was there - the ticking, the countdown and the anxiety would wash over me.

On Tuesday I received a call from the human resources department. The person was inquiring about my return to work on Thursday. I told her I had an appointment the following day and that's when I would know if the doctor released me. She was kind and told me to call her back as soon as I knew and she enumerated  what I would need and how to report any accommodations I might need for my return. That's when it all fell apart. The poor woman on the other end of the phone heard me sob as I asked questions about how you do accommodate an inept, abusive boss? Can a doctor actually order her to make accommodations to be more intelligent or fair? Can I get a note that says you can't take out your psychosis on the people that you manage? Was asking for a non-hostile work environment a reasonable accommodation? I choked the questions out between my sobs. I could barely even catch my breath. And here I was again facing not only the clock but the realization that for all my work nothing had changed.

When I took a break to hyperventilate the woman on the other end of the phone said so simply, "maybe you aren't ready to return to work yet." It was the understatement of the day. All those ticks that I heard and all those numbers counting down caught up with me. I had been the ticking time bomb and I had just detonated.  Eventually once I hung up the phone I composed myself but the breakdown had exhausted me, so for the first time since I began my sabbatical I took a nap to sleep off the exhaustion, the headache and the anxiety. When you aren't awake you don't have to face things and for the time being that was my short-term solution. I awoke feeling better, but I knew that the anxiety was creeping along the edges and it wouldn't take much to bring it front and center again.

The rest of the day I distracted myself and survived. I tossed and turned and woke up several times throughout the night in a sweat that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. My heart beating quickly I would breathe taking large gulps of air to fill my lungs. And then I would feel the tears that I'd been crying in my sleep. Slowly I'd calm myself down. I'd turn on my ipod and listen to music and think happy thoughts until I fell asleep again, only to wake up again in the same state a few hours later. And soon enough it was morning. I faced the countdown and sound of the clock. Tick (one day). My last day of peace and sanity was here.

When I arrived at the doctor that afternoon I looked like a much improved woman. And for the most part I was. But I knew what was hiding just below the surface. I sat in the lobby, cast side glances around the room and assessed those sitting here. How close were these people to falling apart? What was just below the surface of their exterior? I liked to guess which of these people were the temporary insane and which ones were lifers. It helped pass the time while I waited. I would wonder what facade I presented to those here? People were called back to individual therapy appointments, my therapist appeared and smiled at me as she called her patient for the hour back and eventually as the lobby began to clear the doctor appeared at the door and said my name.

I followed her into her office and took a seat while she looked over my therapy notes and the intake sheet that I'd filled out that day. I'd answered questions like how close are you to your normal self  (40 percent) and what every day activities and relationships are problematic (concentration, exhaustion, work). As she looked over the notes I started to feel the anxiety build. It started in the pit of my stomach and I felt instantly nauseous. It became more and more difficult to breathe no matter how hard I tried to take deep calming breaths. I stared ahead at her bookcase that sat directly across the room from me and all the titles on the spines blurred. The room seemed all of a sudden very warm but as I felt myself begin to sweat a chill came over me and I felt cold down to my core. I shivered and folded my arms and rubbed my hands up and down over them trying to warm up. I focused on her looking through my chart. Finally she turned to me, smiled and began to ask how I felt since I'd begun taking my medication. She asked about side effects. I was freezing, but I was holding it together as I talked with her. But she only needed to ask me how I felt about returning to work for the anxiety to rear its ugly head. It made my breakdown on the phone the day before look like amateur hour. And maybe it was because I'd been doing so well, but even I was surprised by the intensity of what came to the surface. As I had an anxiety attack and sobbed she sat by and waited until I could at least focus on her words and then she said simply "You aren't ready to go back to work."

I could reset the clock with a new three week countdown. Hopefully this time the ticking wouldn't be so loud or omnipresent.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Connect the Dots

I remember the puzzles in the middle of my coloring books when I was young where there were a series of dots and until I knew the alphabet or my numbers I had to rely on someone else to show me where the lines should connect to develop the picture that I could then fill in with colors. At this point that's how I felt. I was looking at a series of dots manifesting themselves as antidotes from my past and present, but the symbols that appeared above them so that I could make the bigger picture were again foreign to me.

As I sat in my therapist's office after the weekend this is where I was: I knew that life had fallen apart, I knew that I'd asked for help, I knew that there were things that had started to feel more and more unmanageable throughout the last year and I knew that I had a past that complicated all my thoughts and feelings, but what I didn't know was how to connect all those dots. What I didn't know was how in the world I ended up here, in this place.

During my intake I'd been asked more questions then I ever imagined, but a few things stood out. In one section she'd asked me about whether or not I'd been diagnosed with depression in the past. Well, no, but I'd also never made the leap to go to therapy before. Looking back I told her I could see times and places where I was very likely clinically depressed but it had never been this bad and it had never persisted this long. In another she asked me what had been the single biggest stressor in my life as of late and that was a simple one - work.

At the end of that session she gave me a homework assignment; I was to write about three times in my life when I was happy and comfortable with myself. The thing was it hadn't been that long since that had happened. After I figured things out a few years back about my past, all my fears and anxieties, the accumulation of all my life experiences and how it had shaped me into the person that I was,  I had made a lot of changes in my life. I'd started exercising, I was eating right, I had lost weight, I felt healthy, I bought a new, nicer wardrobe of clothes that I actually felt good in, I'd ventured out on dates and I was genuinely happy with the person that evolving both physically and mentally.

It seemed too simple to think that a bad boss, a family death and a few other incidents could unravel me in the way they had even if there was a biological basis that underscored it. But my therapist had stared at those dots and connected a pattern and so that day we started our first of many conversations about work. I suppose that in some ways it was essential that we discuss the place that I wasn't even capable of going to anymore. There had to be a reason that I had to take doctor-ordered time off. So, we started the conversation and it wasn't enough to say simply that work sucked.  For years I'd vacillated between loving my job and being dissatisfied with it. It was never my passion to be doing what I was, so that played into me never being all that happy, but most of the time I didn't hate it and I certainly was never on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of it. Before that it was just that I wanted to be doing something different, something better, something that was challenging, something that mattered, something that I would be proud to tell people I did,  but it was all too easy to stay in the comfort zone - another part of the coasting through life and taking the easiest route.

But slowly for the past three years work had become pretty miserable and the last year had been excruciating. For anyone that hadn't worked in the situation it's pretty difficult to capture what was happening within the walls of that building. When she asked me to describe my boss the simplest phrase was to say that on a good day she was incompetent, on a bad day, well it was worse. There was manipulation at play, outright lies and so much more. And as the stress and pressure built and I began to fall deeper and deeper into depression, I started to make mistakes, I overlooked small details and I found it difficult to concentrate on tasks that were second nature to me. And as those small things were exploited my concentration and everything else became worse. Everything just seemed to be adding more fuel to the fire and it became more and more intolerable as the flames rose up around me. And then I began to stop caring - what did it matter anyway? Nothing was changing and whether your work was good, bad or somewhere in between the response was all the same. And then it was more and more difficult to get out of bed to face a day filled with so much dysfunction, deceit and despair.

We talked about this and strategies to figure out how to deal with it when I returned to work, but what was very clear was that since the situation was not going to change I needed to start a job search to get out of the hell. I could learn to manage the work world I was in but for my long-term health and sanity I needed to get out and find something suitable.

Looking into my eyes she told me, "I've been in a situation like this, your boss is your abuser. You now know what it feels like to be in an abusive relationship, it's just not the kind that most people label as one." And at some point she also told me "You realize that even if I only believed half of what you told me, which is not the case, I've diagnosed your boss with two or three types of psychosis. Those take years of therapy to even attempt to correct. You are not psychotic but being around someone that is leads to feeling pretty manic yourself. She isn't going to change so we need to get you on a path to get out of that environment." So now, in addition to my cleaning checklist I needed to do some research on jobs to share with her for the next time.

At the end of that session we discussed aromatherapy as a way to deal with anxiety. I left with a piece of paper scented with pure lavender oil. I was to add it to my worry stone that she'd given me on my last visit that I was to hold and rub when anxiety overtook me.

And every appointment we would discuss more and more about work, what it had done to me, how it had destroyed my confidence and identity and at the end of every session I would get one more coping mechanism for dealing with the stress and anxiety of life. When I was off work I didn't need to employ these techniques, but I was sure that I would have to when I returned to my job.

What she had connected and I hadn't yet was that while work was an issue, how I dealt with it and the abusive treatment I received and the stress then generated from it was where I'd begun to fall apart. She was pointing me from dot to dot but I still didn't clearly see the picture she was helping me make. It took me a while to put it together and I didn't arrive there after a few appointments.

Here I kept thinking how did I make all these life changes and yet I still ended right back where I started? How did I go from finally living life to being at a place where I didn't really want to live at all anymore? How had the woman that never would have contemplated ending her life begin to think it might not be the worst solution if it didn't take so much energy?

 Eventually though I saw what she knew and I had to figure out for myself with some gentle pushes - once I'd let myself finally live things mattered - they were no longer just something to get past on the way to another mundane day of sameness. And I had learned to live when things were going well, but I didn't know how to live with things when they didn't. If I had never started living I wouldn't be in the hole I was because none of the things would really have mattered - I would have coasted right by them as just another crappy part of life. I might have had the mild, short-lived depressions of the past, but I wouldn't have fallen to the lowest point in my life. But once I'd been happy when things turned a little dark I didn't know how to make them light again.

So all the strategies she would teach me - the worry stone, the aromatherapy, the deep belly breathing, the visualization, the touchstone, the journaling - they were all ways to deal when the going got tough again because if I let myself live there would be times when things were not always sunshine and roses. She was looking at this pretty picture ready to be colored, but it was taking me a while to catch up to her. And who knew what the end result would be when I finally connected them all and stood ready with my crayons to fill in the dotted frame.