By Shirley O’Shea
In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.
I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?
Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.
July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.
There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.
The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.
I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.
Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.
But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”
A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.
When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.
Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”
I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?
A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.
Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.
Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.
It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.
Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published
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Thank you, Shirley, for sharing the most vulnerable parts of your life journey with us.