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Living with…

It feels completely bizarre for me to fill in the above blank with “chronic illness” or “mental illness” when I think about myself. We have these images in our heads of what it means to be chronically ill, to struggle with mental illness, to have a disability. For a long time, I told myself, “it’s not that bad. I can still (work/parent/whatever).”

Until I realized that those were all myths and stereotypes and stigma. And by not taking these labels onto myself, I was perpetuating these myths. It’s a realization that I have had to make again and again. I’m not stupid. It’s not that I don’t get it. I have intellectually understood for ages. But sometimes it takes a doctor’s appointment on a Saturday night to remind you that this is real life. This is what you’re living with. And those layers of cultural conditioning can be strong and deep. We have to peel them back, piece by piece, until we find who we are underneath it all.

This is me.

I struggle with anxiety. I have OCD. I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder about whether my house is falling down. I re-play conversations, over and over and over. I can’t get to sleep. I fix and re-fix and fix the rearview mirror again and again, because bad things will happen. I get rid of everything in my house that I possibly can because I will internally combust if not. I will not pick up the phone, even if I see the caller ID. I just can’t. Phone calls take like 8 spoons for me.

I lived through trauma, domestic violence and abuse. I intimately understand the way that abusive relationships can be insidious and difficult to leave. I know that a mom can love her kids to death, can be amazing at mom-jobs, and still have a hard time walking out of that situation. I understand loving your father to pieces, yet also being afraid. I know what it means for the bottom to drop out.

I can be weird about sensory things. Showers are painful. I can’t wear shirts that touch my neck. I hate shoes. I never wear socks. I sit cross-legged in the car so that there is pressure on all of my legs. I have become so overstimulated in a store that I have left my full cart in the middle of the aisle and walked right out.

I have autoimmune & allergy issues, with the biggest being my thyroid. And some sleep issues that we haven’t quite figured out. So sometimes I hit a wall. I struggle to stay awake for even six hours a day. I spend my school breaks sleeping as much as anything else, and I feel incompetent, weak, and lazy. We watch television more, we play iPads more, we do all the thing that the mommy wars will ridicule us for doing.

But I’m also a really great parent. I am responsive and respectful. I listen to my kids’ needs, whether spoken or not. I maintain high structure but I support and accommodate my kids so that they can be successful within that structure. I choose connection over compliance. We make time to watch movies, to play video games, to go to the park, to travel, to swim, to do what they need and love. I am giving them a gorgeous childhood, filled with laughter.

I’m a fantastic teacher. I bring work home. I show up early and stay late. I am completely present with my students and teaching in a way that brings out everything that is best in me. I collect data and use it to drive my instruction, while also staying playful and true to developmentally appropriate practice. I connect with families. Learning how to be the best teacher I can possibly be for them is the top of my list.

I do yoga when I can. I go to the pool when my energy allows. I read books, mountains and mountains of books. I read the news. I stay active on various Facebook communities, trying to give back what they have given to me. I blog. And I try very hard to be a good partner and a good friend, always learning.

All of this can be true. I can be a great parent, a great teacher, and have an anxiety disorder. I can need to rest more than the average person and still be raising amazing kids who grow each day. I can be someone that goes above and beyond, that always has another project to do, and be someone who is a little bit of a mess sometimes.

It’s true of all of us. We are all both/and. We are strong and limited. We are brilliant and afraid. The doses may vary in each person but none of us are all-anything-all-the-time. When we give ourselves permission to be ourselves, messiness and all, to stop hiding — we lead the way for our friends, our family, our children. They see that “both/and” applies to them too — that mental illness or disability are part of who we are, maybe big parts, maybe parts that drive the way we see everything else, but they are parts of the whole beautiful, messy, amazing person that defies any and all stereotypes.

Stand as yourself, and stand tall. Be a parent with mental illness. Be a doctor with anxiety. Be a teacher with chronic fatigue. Be a friend who can’t always get out of the house. Be a customer who taps their toes and flaps their hands and rocks in place. Be a salesperson who cannot shake hands. Be a wife who struggles with attention differences. Be a grandfather who has panic attacks. Be you. All of you.

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What is there to do?

Everyone has written about Robin Williams, but I haven’t. I don’t even know where I would begin. I’m mostly grateful for the pushback against stigma, grateful for the ways that we can try to make meaning and move the world forward when we feel like we are drowning in sadness. I appreciate the push-back against the myths of selfishness, of weakness, of just needing to get control. Honestly, anyone who says that has never experienced the utter despair that just captures you there on the bathroom floor, everything aching and alone and hurting. Or, the numbness, the time when there is just nothing left, nothing, nothing. There is no logic. There is no rationality. There is no weighing of choices. There is simply a black canyon hurdling towards you, with nowhere to turn. There is a loss of will, a floating bleakness. There is nothing. Words cannot begin.

I only wish that posting a telephone number to a suicide hotline was enough to stop that train. I wish that asking someone how they are doing and calling them was enough. I wish that encouragement and love and cheer and jokes and hugs and holding space were enough. They are good things to do. They may help people who are still on the edge, who are teetering. They are some of the actions of Love in the world, and they are never without fruit — even when we do not get to see the ripening.

It’s not enough though. I’ve laid on the floor. I’ve lost one of my best friends in the world to suicide in high school, and been one of the ones left behind. I’ve had friends lose fathers and dear ones. I’ve struggled with all the questions — what could I have done? What did I do wrong? How could this happen? Didn’t they know?

It’s not about any of that. We wish it was that easy. We wish that it could be solved by things that are so easily DO-able. We want to act against it. We want to make sense of it, to reassure ourselves that we will lose no one dear to us, or that we would never be surprised by such horrific events. We can’t. Sometimes, there is no sense to be made. There are no reasons or facts that can make the world okay again. There is no way to predict.

My son is anxious and impulsive. I worry about his teen years. I worry about his adult years. I worry about the times when he will surely want to go off medicine. I worry about the way he could do something, in a moment, in a flash, in less than a second, that would mean that I lose his bright and charming smile forever. I am anxious and fearful. I worry about finding myself back on that floor again. I worry about the ways that I hide my sadness and anxiety. I am afraid that people would think less of me to know the real me, the way I straighten my bookshelves to line up with the tiles or stay awake until 3AM wondering about what comes after death. I am fierce and brilliant and amazing, but I am also so afraid to show anything else except the things the world has deemed good. I worry that no one would notice that something was wrong until I was too far gone to come back.

Even in my own life, I don’t know what I can do to be certain that these things will never happen. Certainty is a joke, something that we cling to in this life but are never really given. There is only one thing that I know to do, and that is to keep writing and talking and speaking. To stop hiding. We have to make it okay to ask for help. We have to make it okay to talk about these dark things. We have to make people feel less alone. We can’t let people think that they will lose their jobs, their friends, their family, their respect and their love, because they need medicine or therapy or don’t even know where to begin. We’re focused on over-medication and over-diagnoses and natural cures and bright-side thinking. We watch shows where we are told all about all the bad things that prescriptions can do, or how we need to just get it together, or how only selfish and/or bad people would consider “blah-blah-blah”. New drugs and treatment are only explored if there is a profit potential, or a celebrity leading the cause.

Meanwhile, we are losing friends every day. In the US, we lost nearly 40,000 people last year, people who weren’t so famous or funny, but who brought light and joy to someone’s life. Four people every hour. One person every fifteen minutes. Someone’s life was lost as you were reading these words. And that’s not even beginning to look at the pain of the 700,000 admitted to emergency rooms for self-injury.

We can’t stand there and let that be the way that we live. We need to live with our arms wide open. We need to stare into the dark and know that depression and despair and anxiety and rage and loneliness and aching are all just as much part of the human experience as joy and hope and love. We need to shine a light and say that it’s okay to feel these things. It’s okay to write these things. It’s okay to need help for these things. You are still you, always, no matter what.

And when that’s not enough, when that doesn’t stop the dark tides, when our friends are there on the floor, we need to be there with them. When we lose yet another beautiful, brilliant being to the depths of despair, we need to circle around their loved ones, hold their hands and wipe their tears. We won’t find reasons for the grief. All we can do is try to make meaning from the ashes. To be the love that rises, again and again.