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Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Universe in the Kitchen

April 13, 2020
sun

By Adrienne LaValley

I didn’t know that everyone doesn’t spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop until I was well into my thirties. I think it was the look on my friend’s face when I said “I’m so nervous things are going well right now. When’s it all gonna end?” She couldn’t quite understand the palpable, stomach twisting fear I had about the inevitable future. I thought everyone had that certainty. That no matter how long things had been good for, the shit was coming to hit that proverbial fan. Hard. You could bet money on it. Because it was fact. Not speculation. Not paranoia. Fact. The better things were, the longer they stayed that way, the more terrified I’d become about the looming fall out. These fallouts that were slowly shaping who I’d become as an adult. Not that I could see it at the time. Or until five years ago really. Enlightenment by therapy. The fallout was dark and moved with the momentum of a freight train barreling around the bend. An unstoppable blackhole that sucked the life out of everything around it. Just writing this I can feel my face fall. It’s visceral. The fallout is far enough away to stop causing damage, but close enough to still make my skin crawl. Not my fallout though. My dad’s.

Living with a bipolar parent is like living with the sun. Forever orbiting someone who wields both the power to nourish and love you and the spontaneous drive to destroy who you are at your core. Like termites eating away at your foundation until there’s nothing left but anxiety and self doubt. Then they die and you’re bestowed the gift of reconstruction. Who will you finally be now that the sun has gone down?

One morning in the nineties I came barreling down the stairs like a kid leaving for Disney World. The house was treading on the thinnest ice sheet of normalcy for a moment and I was cautiously hopeful. Again. A sort of middle ground that only came around when my dad was well medicated. But as I bounced into the kitchen, arms wide and ready to vomit love on anyone I came across, I saw him hunched over in such a way that I knew it was all gone. The air changed. It was thick with tension and smelled of evil enjoying itself just a little too much for 7 am. “Morning dad!!! Sleep ok?” My heart dropped like a ton of bricks at the deafening silence that followed. “Morning…” he said, with the heaviness of someone who’d lost everything and didn’t even know it. Fuck, it’s gone. It’s all gone again. Here we go. Man your stations, war is imminent. Shields up. Head down. Get ready.

…“Did you take my braided belt?”

“Your what?”

“My braided belt. The brown leather one. Did you take it?”

“Nope, didn’t take your belt.”

“Someone god damn took it.”

“No dad, Jesus I didn’t take your belt. Why would I do that?”

“Did one of your friends? They did, didn’t they? Was it Colleen? It was, wasn’t it? Selfish little asshole. You get that back from her. Someone took my god damn belt. Where is it?”

My brain usually fails me when digging through these particular memories. The ones where I meet my other dad. The evil one. “Hello there. You suck so bad. Gotta jet.”

I’m sure I said something for the record books, I just can’t remember exactly what. I have gaping holes in my childhood memories. They come in waves of bad dreams, flashes of screaming a lot and crying until my face was blue, apologizing for something I didn’t do then slamming a door somewhere. Sounds right.

That was only if the sun was pointed at me though. Which I preferred. I knew how to handle it and if for some reason I just couldn’t on that particular occasion, I knew how to live with the constant stomach churning and heartbreak. It was just a regular Tuesday. But to watch the sun shoot flares at my family was like watching our house burn down, helpless to stop it and paralyzed with fear. That barreling train crashed into everyone who loved and supported it and to the untrained eye, it relished in taking as many people down with it as it could.

The sun didn’t always rage and spew flares though. It could be warm. Warm and shiny and really excited about everything in life. And if that warmth was pointed my way, I basked in its glow and relished how lucky I was to know and be loved by someone like that. Someone so bright. So full of life. Someone who convinced me I was incomparable to virtually every other person alive. I was special. To be separated from the pack and nurtured to perfection. Days were full of snowball fights and inappropriate jokes at someone else’s expense, spontaneous road trips, manic fun, 5am tennis practices, and overly eager encouragement to be the best no matter what. At this. At that. And definitely at that. I could always be better. It was an endless merry go round of love and pressure and hurt and betrayal and love and pressure and hurt and betrayal. As the planets circled the sun.

I know all of this because I am one. I’m a planet. And my brother and sister and mom are too. We orbited the sun of our home for half our lives, then from a close distance for the other half. All of us. We orbited and constructed our lives around the unsettling, unpredictable love of my father. Until we ran away. Or he died. Or both.

I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, malleable, loyal and compassionate. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun. Fine tuned the art of tip toeing. We know the delicate ballet of appeasement like we know how to breathe. We can intuit someone’s mood like our lives depend on it. Because it did. For however many years we spent reassuring the sun that someone loved it. We do all of this simply by loving an impossible person. Someone who everyone else gives up on or shakes their head in confounding exhaustion at. And we don’t often let go of our impossible person. Because everyone else already did. Somewhere in the recesses of our hearts we believe impossible people deserve love too, in spite of not being able to reciprocate it very reliably. Even deeper in our recesses we believe that if we do let go, we’ll lose our sun forever. And that’s the scariest thing of all. To be abandoned by someone you abandoned first. After all, saving ourselves was never the first priority. It wasn’t even the second or the third. Frankly, it never crossed our minds until someone mentioned our well-being one day. We stared at them with a genuinely perplexed look. And they stared back just long enough for something to spark in our chest. A whisper of self preservation. Something niggling in the back of our heads that we deserved a better life than this. Our souls carefully tapping from below, just in case we were listening this time. Just leave, it says. Just leave.

But we’ve been well trained to know that the sun can’t survive without us. It can’t survive without its planets and its moon. We’re the only ones who understand how it operates. And without us it would be all alone in the inky blackness of its own celestial abyss. And so the dance of codependency forges on, stronger than ever. I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more untrusting, desperate for structure, constantly self effacing, full of anxiety and always in search of something more perfect. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun.

Last year I rode out to Fort Tilden to catch the solar eclipse. I was in awe of how many people were in awe of it. Millions of gazers all over the country gathering to watch the sun god be rendered powerless by our little planet and its little moon. Our pale blue dot. Even more astounding was that in the looming countdown to artificial nighttime, the life around us adjusted accordingly. Crickets started chirping, a few bats started flying around disoriented from lack of sleep on a long summer day, the fresh scent of early evening wafting through the breeze. A powerful entity going dark, the life around it adjusting. Surviving. When the sun and the earth and the moon are all perfectly in line.

When we lined up in the kitchen to watch our personal eclipse we also adjusted accordingly. We’d hunker down for dark mode, which could last for weeks depending on the season. We spoke quietly and avoided the sun at all costs, careful not to disturb it. Never complaining if it tucked itself away in it’s room for days on end. We were safe if it stayed behind closed doors, doing whatever it needed to do to survive the grip. During these times my walk home from school slowed to a crawl. Surely there was a friends house I should be visiting right now. Maybe Nicole’s mom bought fruit roll ups again. I’d drag my feet and trudge home every day, mentally preparing myself to find my dad hanging from the garage rafters. “Would I get there in time? Why am I walking so slow? Feet, fucking move faster. Would I even be able to get him down though? Is there a ladder nearby? Do we even have rafters? I don’t think we have rafters.” But I could picture it so clearly. Like it had already happened and the universe was trying to warn me. It knew that’s how he’d do it. And that he’d make sure I was the one who found him. I was the one he opened up to, after all. I was the one he’d sit down in front of to explain why my mom was so horrible and why he was unfaithful to her for all those years. Why my friend’s mom was something he just needed. I knew how the sun operated. I’d surely be the one he’d bestow his suicide on. But I’d never find him hanging in the garage. He was always alive. Hunched over, now keenly aware that he’d surely lost everything. But alive. A sad calm would hang in the room as long as it was silent. Sarcasm and utter despair if we engaged. Spinning around and around, getting lost in the orbit of the sun never knowing which dad we’d land on but always knowing the truly evil one would be back. He always came back. Like a heavy shoe forever hovering above.

I can’t help but think about what could have stopped the cycle? What could slow the orbit? Something that could have made our universe even marginally more tolerable. Like ketchup on dry eggs. Sometimes I think naming it would have. Just calling it out helps it lose some power. That’s what they say, right? The enlighteners? We knew who and what our sun was, but we didn’t really talk about it. We blamed the sun over and over and then when that got old we blamed ourselves until the rage came clawing from below. Then we blamed the sun again.

Had my dad really sat us down and named the things he did maybe we’d be better off. Therapy was long and painful and arduous and obnoxiously expensive. And I’m still talking about it, for Christ’s sake. He’s still a star in my fucking galaxy. I still struggle to understand healthy relationships and have a distorted ideas of authority. I always gravitate towards people I think need to be fixed. However irritatingly subconscious that is. Because it’s what I’m uncomfortably comfortable with. Feels like home. Maybe if he’d been able to admit to the things he did I’d be a better version of myself. I don’t know the answer to that and I never will. He took his guilt and shame and apologies to the grave with him. If they were ever there in the first place. That’s still up for debate amongst my family members. Did he even know what he did? Did he clock the damage he caused? Probably not.

At one Thanksgiving dinner where we all know family recovery starts and ends, I reminded him of the time my rabbit Poster Nutmeg was found missing his entire body. I found a small pile of him in the neighbor’s dilapidated garage where we knew this one evil cat liked to hang out. George, the orange striped serial killer. My dad joined me in the garage to stare down at what used to be my fluffy pet. He stuck his hands in his pockets rocked back on his heels and said ‘Hey, at least someone got a good meal.’ Then walked back inside. Even as I was recounting the story to him over mashed potatoes and too much wine I could see on his face that nothing was registering. He was incredulous, even. If that wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity, the roaring belly laughter and: ‘I’d never say something like that’ that followed certainly drove the point home. Even if he did know what he’d done at one point, he lied to himself until he believed it never happened. Is there really a difference?

My question for fellow lovers of impossible people is… would you change it? If you were the child of a mentally ill parent would you go back and be a different formula blended in a different bowl if you could? Have a different set of genes? My genes terrify me. Bipolar disorder can be incredibly genetic sometimes ripping through generations of family, as it has mine. Its companions are addiction and eating disorders and anxiety. Who’s kid will have it? Do I have the gene just hiding away in there somewhere waiting to rear it’s ugly head? My own anxiety fuels that fire. But would I be someone else in order to erase all that?

I have family members who suffer on a daily basis. They can be utterly debilitated by the pain their own brain inflicts on them. Would they change that if they could? Would my dad? If he knew what he did to us, would he go back and never get married or have kids? To spare them? I don’t have the answer. But sometimes I think about who I’d be if I never lived this life. If I was born with different parents in a different house with stability and safety and normal mornings. Who would I be now?

I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t change it. The more I look into it, the more I look back at the ugly, the more I like myself just exactly this way. If I changed everything, I’d have to change well… everything. I might be less loyal, less empathetic and less intuitive. I might love people less, or want to have conversations about the Kardashians instead of mental health. And then someone who really needed to hear this might never know that someone else grew up orbiting their own personal sun too. And that it all really happened. That someone believes them. I believe them. If the formula changes, so does the product. And if I start to accept that, who knows what road I might find myself on. Learning to love who I am just exactly as I was made? Preposterous. Right?

Sometimes I wonder if living with an impossible person wasn’t the greatest worst thing I’ve ever done. This is only after years of dissecting the facts of course, or what I remember of them anyway. I know I’ll never fix all the things. I don’t even think I want to. All the digging around and ripping apart and examining has just made me think… if hurt people hurt people… what do you think healed people can do? And when will the planets finally be healed from years of orbiting the sun so close? Maybe never. Some burns just leave a scar that way. So they heal the best they can and then they look for shade. Hoping to find another planet cooling off under a tree somewhere so they can finally talk about just how bright that sun used to be.

Adrienne LaValley is an actor, writer and creator of the podcast ‘The Old Man and the Me’. She writes and records in an attempt to expel shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues while also never tiptoeing around the frequent crapstorm they can cause. She tells stories about life, mental health and lack of both in the hopes that people will feel a little less alone out there. Her full length play ‘The Good Father’ recently had a reading at The Paramount Theatre with the Dramatist’s Guild and will start workshopping in the new year. She lives with her husband and superdog Junebug in the Hudson Valley and wishes everyone would pay it forward just a little more often.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

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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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Walk This Way

December 17, 2019
walk

By Sarah Boon

If you’d told me last summer that I’d be training for a half-marathon this summer, I would have laughed hard and loud. Not because it was funny, per se, but because of my mental illness and the crippling grip it has on me.

In 2014, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The former is when your mood swings from euphoric highs during which you feel invincible, to deep lows during which you feel the world is going to end – something I realized I’d definitely been experiencing over the past five years. The latter is an underlying condition that I recognized as soon as he diagnosed it: I have been anxious since I was a child, always worried that something bad is going to happen or that I’ve done something wrong, and it’s coloured my whole life. He explained that this combination of illnesses is one of the most difficult to treat, adding that cognitive decline, or changes in your ability to think, is common among people with bipolar disorder.

I tried over a dozen different drugs to manage my illness. One required that I stay close to the bathroom, another sent me to the ER with a migraine so terrible I thought my head would explode. Some medications knocked me out to sleep in minutes, while others led to nausea and vomiting. I got used to experiencing a range of unpleasant side effects, until we finally found a mix of medications that made life a little bit more manageable.

All this is to say that I’ve spent the past seven years being held hostage by my illness. It tells me when I need extra sleep, when I need to avoid groups of people, when I should adjust my medications and, if there’s anything left, when I’m able to be sort of normal. It’s not clear on which days I’ll feel okay versus days when I feel terrible, and there’s no easy way to correlate certain activities or events with a specific emotional or mental response. I still have highs and lows, despite my medication being delicately balanced in an attempt to avoid these swings.

My illness dictates how my days and weeks go, and I often resent it for that. If, as Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” then my life is a combination of excess sleeping and trying to maintain a stable mood, like sitting on a children’s seesaw and trying to hold steady in the middle. This is definitely not the life I wanted or expected to live.

My illness has also made me less than active, and that – combined with the unfortunate but common side effect of the medications – has led to significant weight gain and reduced fitness. I haven’t been able to commit to regular exercise or joining a fitness club because my life is so unpredictable. Physical deterioration is not discussed much in mental health circles or stories. As Virginia Woolf writes in On Being Ill, we tend to focus only on the mind, “the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how it has civilised the universe. [We ignore] the body in the philosopher’s turret…Those great wars which it wages by itself…against the oncome of melancholia, are neglected.” But having a body you don’t like is just one more thing that feeds depression.

Then last January, something changed. I experienced one of the highest high moods of my life: so high that I had to increase my regular medications and take copious amounts of a new medication to manage it. I felt like I could do anything. I wasn’t sleeping. I was writing essays in my head at all hours of the day. I was purchasing all sorts of things online. I was pitching freelance pieces left, right, and centre. I was back to my former state of juggling more balls than I should have been able to manage. And I loved it.

When you’re used to being depressed, submerged under an immovable weight that just can’t be lifted, a bipolar high feels like a gift, even though you know it’s going to end badly and have serious impacts on your brain function and mood. Indeed, I did a series of cognitive competency tests shortly after one of my earlier high episodes to see if I could go back to work, and I failed several of them – likely due to a combination of cognitive decline and mental fuzziness caused by the medication.

One good thing came from this high, however – I decided that I needed to be more in charge of my life. I wanted a sense of personal agency, something I’d been missing as I was tossed around by the vagaries of my illness and the side effects of the medication. I wanted goals, and a series of steps to reach those goals – steps I’d chosen myself to track my progress. I wanted to be more fit, to be active like I used to be, when I hiked and skied in the Rockies, swam 3,000-4,000 metres every other day, and lifted weights every second day.

What did “taking charge of my life” mean in practice? It meant walking the trails around my house again, something I’d done when we first moved in but dropped during a depressive phase. It meant committing to writing a book about my field experiences as a research scientist. It meant deciding to do the Lake-to-Lake Marathon.

I first heard about the Lake-to-Lake Marathon last year and was intrigued. It follows a gravel railbed trail for 42 kilometres from Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, crossing several old train trestles along the way. I liked the idea of walking on gravel rather than asphalt, and checking out the view from each of the different trestles. I didn’t think about the training so much as I envisioned a lovely walk in the woods and crossing the finish line.

People with bipolar disorder are notorious for promising the world during a high phase. We have a tendency to take on more than we can manage, and that impulse collides with the inability to do it, leaving us holding the pieces and wondering what went wrong. During that high earlier this year, I promised several writing assignments and ended up having to cancel one and not do as good a job as I’d planned for another, which made me feel like a terrible writer. But I never lost that idea of wanting to walk the marathon.

Some people would have happily chosen a 10-kilometre race, but I wanted to challenge myself with something longer and more difficult, something that would allow me to enhance my fitness levels. I wanted to force my body to listen to me and do as I asked, to push me strongly over the finish line. As my high mood declined, however, I realized that there was no way I could do a full marathon. So I switched my sights to the half-marathon.

In June I got serious about training and started walking longer distances than my usual 3-4 kilometres. My plan was to just walk farther each day until I hit close to marathon length. My longest walk as of the middle of July was 14 km. But walking is time-consuming, and it’s difficult to fit a 2.5 hr walk into an already limited day. I’m up at 8.30 am and back in bed at 10 pm, with a 2.5 hr nap in the afternoon. Within those hours I not only have to walk, but I also have to eat, wrangle dogs, do house and garden chores, run errands, and keep up my writing – especially now that I’m working on a book.

What happens if I have a bad day (or week) and have to stay in bed? Like the day after that 14 km walk, when reality came back to bite me and I had to sleep all day? It’s made me realize that my training has to take into account how my body and mind feel, that I have to consider not what other people do, but what I’m able to do. I can’t afford to re-injure my knee, or to draw too deeply on my limited energy stores while training. I have to walk at my own pace, not the pace set by the faster walkers on the course.

Thank goodness I’ve found a half-marathon training program that allows for two days off a week, and includes only one long walk a week (like my 14 kilometre walk), with shorter walks at faster speeds or a session of repeated hill climbs during the rest of the week. Suddenly things seem much more manageable – I can fit most of my daily walks into an hour or two, and I can recharge on the days off. This also allows me to manage bad days – I can just shift my days off. I can also use the extra time for writing.

I’m proud of myself for sticking with the training so far, and am starting to see some benefits like reduced resting heart rate and some weight loss. The half-marathon itself will be tough, but it’s almost tougher to make sure I get out at least five times a week to train. I enjoy my training sessions, though. Walking gives me a way of thinking through life issues, plus writing and book ideas. It’s also a way to zone out and let my feet do the work. As Antonia Malchik explains in her book, A Walking Life, walking helps re-centre ourselves in our body and in society, heal hurts and organize thoughts, and remember the past and aim for the future. That’s exactly what I need to help me balance both my mental and physical health, and is similar to advice I’ve read from other prolific walkers.

I’ll never get rid of my illness, but I can do my best to take charge of it and work within its physical and mental limitations, and to focus on the positives as much as possible. As Anne Giardini writes, “The days cannot be stretched, but they can be shaped.” I can shape my days around my walking goals, with the understanding that they may need to be modified at times, depending on how I’m feeling. I can walk that Lake-to-Lake Half-Marathon. Crossing the finish line after having committed to all that training will be the best gift I could give myself.

Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Find her on Twitter at @SnowHydro

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Guest Posts, suicide

Chester Bennington is Dead

August 19, 2019

benningtonCW: This essay discusses ideation and/or suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Nikki A. Sambitsky

“Just ‘cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it, isn’t there.”
-Lyrics taken from “One More Light” as performed by Chester Charles Bennington,
 March 20, 1976-June 20, 2017

Chester Bennington is Dead.

Chester Bennington is dead; I sit struggling with my feelings, knowing what it feels like to reside in that same dark space, grateful to that angelic light, that blessed essence, for guiding me out.

Chester Bennington is dead; his family, bandmates, fans, the world, and I mourn a life who departed this earthly plane too soon. Forsaken youth around the world, in their disbelief and sorrow, crafted makeshift memorials. Some stood singing, some stood in silence, all held slim, white candles that glowed and flickered through the night’s shadowy shroud during poignant vigils.

Chester Bennington is dead; the sadness is all balled up inside my chest, knotted, tangled, coiled, yet, still tethered to my own demons, my own depression that lingers within me. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Call Me What You Will

August 18, 2019
illness

By Rebecca Chamaa

I am one of them, a “mentally ill monster,” and let’s be honest it isn’t just Trump that uses that language. The President might be divisive on many issues, but on this one, he’s in the majority. How do I know? What statistics or facts am I basing my statements on? Life as someone with paranoid schizophrenia. I am making an observation. True, there is a portion of the population that is battling against the stigma of severe mental illness. I can easily name twelve people who live with the same diagnosis I have. I can name them only because those people are brave enough to publicly admit to having a disease that sufferers are demonized or criminalized for having.

Once there was a saying that leprosy was the only illness that was also a crime, but that saying isn’t true now that people with schizophrenia are let alone to eat out of garbage cans or locked up for crimes directly related to their symptoms.

Of course, I want to speak out against the treatment, so many of us struggling receive, like living with delusions, voices, mysterious smells, tastes, and other forms of hallucinations. Speaking out doesn’t make people care, though. I know parents who have a child with this illness who blame severe mental illness for mass shootings. The illness, even if it impacts someone you love, can carry a deep and insidious stigma. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide, Surviving

Depression is Still A Duplicitous Asshole

August 12, 2018

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Angela M Giles

This weekend marks the four year anniversary of Robin Willam’s suicide. I still cannot watch anything with him in it, it makes my heart hurt too much. I know this is irrational. But it is real. Perhaps it is my fear of seeing a flicker of darkness cross his face, or perhaps it is hearing him say something that hits too close to his end that prevents me. I know how his story finishes, I want to remember enjoying his work.

Suicide is a complicated act, its shroud is depression and it is often accompanied by something else, another disease that really gives ideation heft. In the case of Robin Williams it was Parkinson’s disease, in the case of my father it was alcoholism. In my case it was a combination of diagnosed issues, packed in trauma, tied up in emotional abuse, both at the hands of a lover. Continue Reading…

And So It Is, Guest Posts

Darwin’s Island

May 14, 2018
galapagos

By Diana Odasso

Within a week of turning sixteen in 1983, my cousin Raine flipped her first car, a brand-new cherry-red Saab, onto the beach in South Florida, amidst the hysterical laughter and shouts of her friends: a slow-motion disaster that luckily ended without injury. It was the kind of thing that only sixteen-year-olds could find funny and only because tragedy had avoided them thus far.

Once the sirens sounded in the distance, the teenagers dispersed in all directions. Raine was nowhere to be found when the police knocked at Uncle John’s door.

During college, there was that Outward Bound trip she was supposed to be leading. Raine broke her leg after an unsuccessful trapeze act above a waterfall. While she waited besides the freezing waters, her body plunging into shock, a group of terrified tenth-graders trekked alone through the woods to radio for help. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Last Hurrah

May 7, 2018
moms

By Amy Connor

I was about 8 years old when I realized my mom wasn’t quite like all the other moms. Most other moms didn’t speak of their wish to commit suicide to their kids. Most other moms didn’t threaten to drive the car off the bridge on the way home from school when they’d had a bad day. Most other moms didn’t spend a week in bed with the curtains drawn.

My mother suffered from severe clinical depression that left her consumed by emotional anguish. She felt that life had dealt her a raw deal (and maybe it had) and she expressed her resentment of her circumstances by lashing out. When my mother felt wronged in some way, which was regularly, no one and nothing was off limits. Her objective was to hurt her target by whatever means necessary, all the while convinced that she was the true victim. This often resulted in unwanted drama at otherwise joyous family events (graduations! weddings! births!) and the innocent, notably my sister and me, were collateral damage. Making other people feel bad when she was in such pain leveled the playing field and made her feel better. Quite simply, confrontation gave her a buzz. It was her comfort zone and an area where she excelled.

My mother’s verbal outbursts were only slightly upstaged by her love of angry letter writing. When she felt she had received poor customer service, she would sit down and dash off a letter with the hopes of getting someone fired. Her angry letters were a source of humor for me and my teenage friends and would always begin by proclaiming that “[Insert company name here] is the loser!” in bold type. She’d insist that we proof multiple letter drafts and only when she was satisfied that the missive would present the maximum level of discomfort for the recipient would it be mailed. Continue Reading…

depression, Guest Posts, Mental Health

Couched

May 4, 2018
couch

By Tina Porter

It was way too early for a knock on the door, but there it was; and there I was, in my red terrycloth bathrobe. I hadn’t seen the two women come up the walkway, but here they were, looking back at me through the big window of the front door.

“Hi,” I said as I slowly opened the door, clamping one hand on the two frayed lapels of my robe while running the other hand over my just-out-of-bed hair.

“We’re sorry to bother you,” said the lady in the front, who had an officiousness that took me off guard as she stood there in clothes almost as worn as my robe. “Is that couch available? Would you care if we took it?” She pointed over her shoulder, to the chocolate-brown, ultra-padded, ultra-suede, three-cushioned couch sitting on the curb, between our mailbox and the garbage bins.

“Oh, no,” I said. “You don’t want it,” I shook my head and pinched up my face. “It’s so … gross.”

“I have a steam cleaner,” she said while the woman behind her looked over her shoulder at the couch, trying to hide the look in her eyes that betrayed she agreed more with me than with her friend.

“I’m not going to say no,” I said, after taking a deep breath, “because it is obviously out there for the garbage man. But ….” and I trailed off, mimicking repulsion with my face and with a shudder that ran through my body. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Promises and Lies

March 7, 2018
manuals

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world needs you.

By Jen Soong

In a cramped motel room, I stared silently into the dark, lying still as a corpse. Until recently, I had been studying at a prestigious university, my future beckoning brightly. My father kept vigil over me, still his little girl. The distance separating us — a few feet, at most — felt like an unbridgeable gulf.

Jen-ni-fer, he said, his once-steady voice cracking as he broke the silence. Promise me you’ll never try that again.

I promise, I lied softly, knowing those were the words he needed to hear. Lying proved to be easier than living. No, I’m not having any thoughts of harming myself. I lied to the clinician to gain my release from the locked hospital ward after my dad arrived. Yes, I will seek help if I have those thoughts again.

The next day, I repeated those lies to a disinterested psychiatrist in a drab beige office, tuning out his line of inquiry about my ethnicity. A verbal no-harm agreement. Like a security blanket, it generally works only if the child tucked underneath believes it. Let’s play pretend. I knew my lines to deliver, even if they weren’t completely honest.

I took too many sleeping pills. Truth is a slippery slope. I just wanted to sleep. If I never spoke the words out loud—that I was tired of living—was I technically lying? If the bitter truth, a suicide attempt, is never examined in the light of day, then it can stay buried in the past, like the ghosts of my ancestors.

We don’t talk about these things.

Earlier that day, my dad questioned why I had run away when I was a kid, a time I could still cry out for help. He was desperate to connect the dots and reach a logical conclusion. My father, armed with a PhD in electrical engineering, will read a manual from beginning to end before attempting to fiddle with anything.

Daughters don’t come with manuals. My dad was my protector; once he scolded the boy who crashed a bike that caused my skinned knees. Dirt and tears, these could be wiped away with his pocket handkerchief. Protecting me from myself was not a formula he could solve.

Depression runs in my family. My dad’s mother committed suicide when she was 59. The last time he saw her alive was 1956, before he boarded a freight ship from Taiwan to study in America. Thirteen years later, he flew back to his homeland for her funeral. After the service, he learned she killed herself. His sister had discovered her body in the bathroom along with a suicide note.

We don’t talk about these things.

Late at night during family gatherings when I was still young, adults whispered in hushed tones in the kitchen, usually with fruit — likely oranges or Asian pears — peels and peanut shells littered on paper plates at the table. The secrets swirled in the air, sucking the oxygen out of the room. When I entered, my body immediately tensed, torn between wanting to know and needing to escape.

Often, I would descend into the basement to play mah-jong with my cousins, shuffling tiles and competing for red and blue poker chips, never revealing what lay behind our tile walls. It was easier to hide our hurts, mask our missteps, swallow our pride. If we never questioned our elders, then perhaps we would take home the greatest jackpot.

This unwritten bargain will be familiar to immigrant children, whispered softly like a mother’s lullaby. We will make unimaginable sacrifices to raise you in America, land of riches, and you will play the role of the dutiful daughter, living a life of immeasurable happiness.

Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t find the words to explain to my dad how lost I felt. Depression had stolen my voice, betrayed my mind and filled my soul with an insidious darkness. No map could lead me out of this bleak, nameless place. Instead, I lay in wait, knowing my dad, my hero, would sacrifice his life to light the way home.

Jen Soong is a writer and brand strategist with more than two decades of media and marketing experience. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in a small town in New Jersey, lived in NYC, Boston and London before moving to Atlanta in 2005. A graduate of Cornell University, Jen is working on a memoir about one woman’s struggle to understand her depression and her family’s history of suicide.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Anxiety, Guest Posts

Building a Wall

January 26, 2018

By Emily F. Popek

“Tell me the story of our trip again, Mama.”

My 5-year-old daughter is in bed and I am sitting next to her with my hand resting on her back.

In one week, we are leaving for Mexico. She has been on an airplane before but never to another country.

She is nervous.

“Tell me the story again.”

Since she has been able to talk, she has asked me to tell her stories. Stories are the coin of her realm; stories order her world and give her something to hang on to.

I know this because I do the same thing. I tell myself stories just as I tell these stories to her. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

MY MOTHER IS CRAZY

January 24, 2018
crazy

By Leslie Lindsay

My mother is crazy. This is no lie.

She is not fun-day-at-the-mall-get-whatever-you-want crazy; she is flaming-crimson-I’m-going-to-kill-you-because-you-are-the-devil-crazy. Her eyes are glassy and bright, pockets of sunshine reflecting in the darkness. They dart from side to side, to side. She lifts her cigarette, inspects it like a specimen then plunges it into her mouth. There’s a pop as she pulls it out, rimmed with bold berry lipstick, then shakes off the ashes.

My mother is crazy.

She thinks she killed the postman. This comes out in puffs of gray, a frenzy of words not connecting. I’m sorry. I didn’t. Mean. Tokillthepostman.

Dust motes dance in the sunlight peering from the gauzy drapes. She reaches out; her slim, menthol-smelling fingers attempt to pinch the flakes of dead skin cells, bug fragments, and sparkles of emptiness. Diamonds, she says. She throws her head back, cackles, then reaches for her mug of hot tea. Steam rims the cup, hot and life-giving. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Triggered

January 12, 2018

By Jessica Standifird

The building looks new from outside, but this office feels old. The carpet is beige and stained, dust has made nests in the corners, and all of the furniture is from the 1980s and trying really hard to be comfortable. A large wooden desk sits in front of the only window, files with paper tongues sticking out are littered across its surface. There’s a computer monitor with a scheduling calendar displayed on the screen.

The psychiatrist my disability lawyer sent me to sits across from me in a rolling office chair. One leg kicked up over the other, ankle on knee. I’ve already forgotten his name. His hair is running away from his face, apparently so quickly that what strands remain are left to the wind. His glasses are gold medal frames stuck so deeply into his nose that I imagine he has to pry them off at night. He is angular and at ease in this place. He is Ichabod Crane in his forties, post a divorce he hardly even noticed.

The chair I’m in is in the middle of the room. There is nowhere to set my purse and drink but on the floor. I am an awkward island in a sea that is past its prime. My palms are damp.

We started this appointment by Ichabod bursting into the waiting room and accusing me of being late. When I said I thought I was supposed to be there at ten-thirty, he admonished me. Continue Reading…

depression, Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Me and The She

December 27, 2017
bear

By Adrienne LaValley

I’m a little blue today.  Not the Ceylon sapphire blue I’d love to be enveloped in. Royal blue, cerulean blue, turquoise like the ocean or any other variety of azure. The blue that leaves me confused, unsure, and downright loathing of anyone able to plaster a smile on their face. Fuck them. That kind of blue. Continue Reading…

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