How I Dug Myself Out of Suicidal Depression

{Trigger warning: talk of suicidal thoughts. If you’re in a sensitive place right now, you may want to skip this post.}
image (7).

Looking back now it’s so easy to point to the things I did during my year-long devastating depression which in turn lead to my recovery. But in the moment, my husband, my parents and I, we had no clue what would work. We were just trying so hard to get the “old Jenn” back.

Why is it so hard to look forward when you live with depression? Because you’re just trying to make it through the day you’re in. Tomorrow feels impossible, too heavy and suffocating to entertain even a thought of it. So you stay in the here and now and try not to let the anxiety about what’s coming next crush you.

That’s how it felt for me, anyway. When I thought about my life and what the future might look like after two hospitalizations for mania and a diagnosis of Bipolar type 1, I wasn’t able to fill my lungs with air. Every day felt impossible to bear, like I was drowning. So instead of thinking too far ahead, I sipped the air in gulps and lived my life in moments.

Like the moment I realized I was experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time.

And the moment I realized I had to tell my husband but was terrified because I didn’t want to hurt or scare him. He had been through enough already.

Or the moment I realized the pulsing anxiety making me so nauseous I could barely eat from day to day was the reason I suddenly had to shop for a size smaller.

This realization was soon followed by the moment I admitted to myself that I didn’t want to go on like this. That I had had enough. That I wanted to get well already, for the love of God. I was done being sick.

I didn’t want another sun to set while my anxious mind paralyzed my dreams, didn’t want to be forever consumed by this sadness. I knew I was the only person who could make the decision to change my outcome.

I wanted to come out on the other side of a mental illness diagnosis smiling and happy, despite it all. I wanted to enjoy life. I wanted a family. I wanted to build a future.

So this is what I did at my pivotal moment at the end of 2006, the most draining year of my life.

I advocated for myself.

I decided to try the medication my doctors had been encouraging me to try for many months. I stayed on top of side effects and my symptoms by keeping a detailed journal so I could share my concerns with my doctor between appointments. And I came to terms with my illness, this life-long condition I face each and every day.

I am extremely fortunate to have good doctors, and the most loving, supportive people around me who care deeply about my well-being. I realize it’s not always as simple as trying a new med and communicating with your doctor. But this acceptance thing. The point in my life when I decided to embrace my sometimes malfunctioning brain so that I could move on and make progress was my turning point.

It’s what sparked the fire in my belly to advocate for mental health. It’s what told me that sharing my story could help other people. It’s my way of saying that if I could do it, you can do it, too.

Last week’s tragic news of the passing of Robin Williams occurred while we were traveling on the west coast. I, like the entire world, was deeply saddened by this tremendous loss, but we need to remember that suicide claims the lives of over 39,000 people a year, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 64 years old in the United States. It’s time we start talking about mental illness and how to prevent suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a great place to start. Also, if you are struggling, please reach out for help. Talk with a family member or friend. Or contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-800-273-8255
NSPILogo_lg
 

EAPs: A Hidden Resource

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-time job with health insurance benefits. Six years, to be exact. But even when I had my own benefits available, ever since my husband and I got married in 2003, we always went with his benefits plan because his employer seemed to have the most robust plan for the lower price, compared to mine.

I’ve never paid much attention to the details of our health insurance plan. To me, insurance is a necessary evil. All I knew was that it had morphed over the years from co-pays to deductibles, and when enrollment time came around I’d complain to my husband that we seem to be paying more with each passing year and yet we’re getting less and less coverage. A sign of the times, I guess. Still, I’m extremely grateful to have insurance at all.

We used to pay a co-pay for visits, and had to get referrals to see specialists, but last year and this year we moved to a deductible plan. Now instead of co-pays, we pay a premium each pay period, have a {pretty high} family deductible to meet, and once that’s met, the insurance plan covers our doctor’s visits at 100%.

I hadn’t been to the dermatologist since 2009, and with the recent news reports about skin cancer, Ben and I decided it was time he and I get checked. I called our provider to double-check that I didn’t need a referral, since I couldn’t for the life of me remember. The customer service rep I spoke with reminded me that referrals weren’t required with our plan. While he was reviewing our account, I happened to make a comment about how far we were from meeting our deductible and the cost of doctor’s visits, and how I’d love to be able to see my therapist again but since I’m working for free to start-up my non-profit and we’re living on one income right now it wasn’t really possible.

Here’s where the Employee Assistance Program comes in. The rep told me that my husband’s company participates in an EAP which would allow for me to see my therapist for eight visits completely free, if I qualified after speaking with an intake counselor over the phone. I immediately asked to be transferred and had a ten-minute conversation with a kind woman who assured skeptical ole’ me that the benefit was most certainly available for my use and she’d email me the authorization code so I can book my appointment. There’s nothing dire going on with me, just the usual stress of being a stay-at-home mom who is struggling to balance life and work and family and if given the opportunity to talk with a professional about it, I’ll jump at the chance.

{Happy dance! I’m going back to therapy!}

I went ahead and booked appointments two weeks apart for September, October, November and December and then decided I needed to blog about this.

Maybe you’ve been feeling really down lately, or you’re struggling with your anger management and it’s affecting your home life. Or your glass of wine with dinner has turned into two or three, or maybe an entire bottle. Financial worries are giving you anxiety attacks and you are at a loss when it comes to what to do. If the weight of everyday life is crushing you and you’re gasping to catch your breath, it’s time to stop feeling ashamed and do something about it.

EAPs aren’t just for the employee, people! They include every family member on the plan, from what I understand. They can offer assistance in the following areas:

  • Counseling Services (Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, Mental Health issues, etc.)
  • Occupational Stress and Emotional Distress
  • Financial and Legal Advice
  • Family Support
  • Help with Work and Home Relationships
  • and more

Maybe I’m just naive in my estimate that many folks out there don’t realize they have access to this valuable resource. I certainly didn’t, even though they mailed us information and I read it and put the magnet on our fridge.

Buddhaquote

My point is, if you’ve been wrestling with a personal issue and need someone to talk with, check your health insurance plan and see if you have access to an Employee Assistance Program. You may be pleasantly surprised and on your way to a happier, healthier you.

Do it for yourself, do it for your family. Namaste.

Dreaming Tree

10552368_10204353021647962_127558677699681406_nThis photo was only my fourth Instagram shot taken in March 2012

 

There is an enormous old tree in the lot next to our house. It’s full of big climbing branches and there is a rope someone nailed into the massive trunk so that you can get up. I haven’t tried it yet.

I remember the tree being a big selling feature when we were deciding on which house to buy six years ago. The house had plenty of other pluses on our list of pros and cons: a finished basement, an open kitchen and family room layout, nice big deck, corner soaking tub in the master bath. But the tree tipped it over the edge for us. Never will another home be built in the space next to where we’ve planted our roots.

~~~~~~~~~~

Six months after we moved in, October of 2008. The smell of autumn danced in the breezes and I was finally home again after a week of receiving antipsychotics via injections, then by mouth, then back to my regular meds for good. I was somehow able to release the bleeding ambition I had to be a breastfeeding mom. It hurt. We had seemingly made it through the hardest part – the learning curve of the first four weeks. And now, as quickly as my mania lurched into psychosis, my baby had converted to formula from my motherly nectar.

Why was I so hung up on being my first baby’s sole source of nutrition? Why couldn’t I see past all the outside pressure, push past my own sense of guilt over using formula? Why did I equate breastfeeding with being the ultimate mother? I don’t know.

What I do know is that after twenty-eight days of getting by on the amount of sleep reserved as a form of torture, I fell apart. That morning, on the twenty-ninth day of my newborn’s life, my husband handed our son to his mom, as I flitted around the house collecting my journals from nightstands and closet corners. I clutched them in my arms, along with all the cards friends and family had sent to congratulate us on becoming parents for the first time. I piled them up by the fireplace, making a shrine to my myself. A temple of my words and the love of others to remember me by.

I was terrified of being forgotten.

Lucky for me, a few days of a high dose of Lithium does wonders to balance out the chemicals out of whack in my head. I went from feeling like the sand was about to run out in my hypothetical life timer to realizing that I was still very much alive. I now had someone to take care of other than myself, and if it meant I needed to take medication for life, that’s what I would do and I wasn’t a bad mom because of it or because of having to change feeding methods.

~~~~~~~~~~

In the bathtub my first night home from the hospital, looking out the mini-blinds to the branches of the tree glowing in the moonlight, I reached a conclusion. Dave Matthews was playing on the mini CD-player and I remember singing The Dreaming Tree, my heart swelling with the energy of renewal. A deep longing to see my future life in recovery from my mental illness came alive within me.

I had officially been broken. A new mom is fragile to begin with. Throw in an episode of postpartum psychosis and the result is pure poison dissolving the paper thin skin. I thought maybe I had made a mistake. Maybe people like me weren’t meant to have kids. Being diagnosed with mental illness had ripped apart my confidence, my ability to see more than a day ahead at a time, and for awhile it was ruling my life. There were a few months when I rationalized it would be easier to end it all than to try to learn to swim through the waves of anxiety pummeling me day in and day out.

I was being pulled down by an anchor, drowning by waves of this emotion which everyone around me seemed to think I could just push out of my mind. Gulps of air were all I could manage and thankfully there were enough to sustain me. Because eventually, after bobbing in the waves for the roughest storm I had ever known in my 27 years, I was able to pull myself out of the water and onto dry land. With the wherewithal that the rains might very well come again.

We wanted children and so we took a leap of faith that I’d be able to handle motherhood.

~~~~~~~~~~

I remember sitting in that tub for almost two hours, scrubbing the film of hospital grime from my skin. I’d only showered once while I was in, as the first few days the psychosis held me tight in its grip, rendering me incapable of taking care of personal hygiene. As I lathered up my body, rinsed the soapy bubbles from my hair and let the rest of me soak, I kept thinking of the tree.

My brain had begun to process feelings and emotions and random images floating through my psyche at a normal rate, as compared to only six days before when the rapid fire of information flooding my mind crashed like an old computer’s hard drive. The meds were doing their job, and although I was lucid, my thoughts were still swirling a bit.

Thoughts of being chosen to go through this. Thoughts of feeling grateful for the trauma my family and I had endured. Thoughts of getting well and making memories with my son under our dreaming tree.

I just knew in my mind that I would find a way to use my story for good. I would give meaning to all the pain and heartache. I had to. I had a child now who’d be looking up to his mom. And I wanted to show him how to fly.

image (7)

#TBT – A Much Needed Vacation

St Thomas & new house pics 011

The other night as we were getting ready for bed I complained of my lack of writing lately to my husband.

“I just feel so disconnected from my illness. Like I haven’t been experiencing any symptoms so how can I write authentically on my blog?” I whined.

He smiled at me. “That’s a good thing.”

I’m not arguing that a lack of symptoms is anything but wonderful. These past four years I’ve felt better than I ever have. At about year five was when I crossed over to the point of understanding why my body did the things it did, and what I needed to do in order to control my illness lest it control me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of scars from where I’ve been. I especially remember the emotional rips to my heart from the stigma I feared in talking about what I was going through early on.

I wasn’t the only person affected this way by my illness.

Less than two months after my first two episodes and the hospitalizations that followed, Ben and I found ourselves in a tropical paradise. That fall we had booked a romantic February vacation to celebrate our birthdays and Valentine’s day. I spent months researching bed & breakfast spots on the island before settling on one that looked absolutely breathtaking, cozy and perfect.

I still can’t believe I made it through the trip.

The sunsets were magical and sitting across from this man who had cared for me so lovingly brought me to tears almost every night. Even though I was desperate to talk about what had happened to me, to try to figure out why my brain got so screwed up, we couldn’t. It was too soon. It hurt too much to revisit those excruciating moments so soon after we had managed to pull through.

St Thomas & new house pics 004

Our B&B host was welcoming and sweet, and I would have loved to have chatted with her if I would have been able to make it through three sentences before getting choked up. I could barely tell her how much I enjoyed her homemade breakfast let alone tell her how special this trip was to us, how we both needed the relaxation the island was providing more than she’d ever know. It was as if my story was caught in my throat. But why wouldn’t it be? It was so raw and I hadn’t yet been able to process everything that had happened so no wonder my words got stuck and jumbled. It was easier to let the tears speak for me.

My love. He must have been so scared of what was ahead of us. Would I recover? Would I ever be the same woman he fell in love with? Would he be able to hold on to our marriage until I was able to pull myself out of the fog I was sinking into?

St Thomas & new house pics 008
{After I snapped this picture, Ben came face-to-face with a barracuda when he was snorkling!}

People often write to me and ask how I was able to make it. They look at my highlight reel and wonder how I make it look so effortless. But the photos of today don’t reflect the pain and suffering of eight and a half years ago. If you look closely at pictures from 2006, my eyes show the trauma. My feelings may have been bottled-up back then, but photos can’t lie. My smile isn’t as bright and true. My eyes are distant, cold, afraid of the future.

St Thomas & new house pics 055

The future keeps coming. And now I find myself here, ready for what is lies ahead still. But I haven’t done it alone, that’s for sure. My partner honored his vows and stayed by my side, cheering me on each and every day. Through the days when I said I didn’t think I wanted to go on anymore. Through the days when I doubted whether we’d ever have a family. Through the days when I fell asleep crying for it to be over, for the clouds to make way for the sun again in my life.

The sun came back. And although I know that it will come and go at times in my life, I hold on to the past as a reminder of how far I’ve come and how grateful I am for the life I have today.