Friday, June 24, 2016

What scars?

A man asked about my scars. A stranger. Which ones, I’m not sure—there are a lot. But I assumed he referred to the white lines, the superbly obvious ones, or so I see them to be. I looked at him quizzically and asked, “what scars?” Stupid question. Questions. You don’t know me—my scars are none of your damn business. Hell, you don’t even know my name. I’m the fucking cashier. Take your coffee beans and get. My response? Equally stupid: sheer denial. What scars? As if. The better none-of-your-damn-business response would have been, “oh, long stories” or “just old scars.” Just. Ha. But, “long stories,” yes. They each have a story.

Of course, he wasn’t referring to the scar on my knee. That scar I likened to an elephant’s trunk as a kid. While I wasn’t terribly clumsy, I was adventurous, and I played hard, repeatedly tearing open my right knee. The wounds and scars never had time to fully heal before I barreled into the ground again, creating a large lump I fancied was full of dirt, rocks, and gravel. It became numb: no matter how hard I fell, I wouldn’t notice it bleeding until there was a tickle from the stream of blood at the base of my shin, staining my sock. I was proud of that scar. Since, it has stretched out flat with my growth spurts and has become fairly unremarkable.

And he wasn’t referring to my next set of scars, from 2004. Those are nearly invisible. They came with pocketknives and charcoal. I can feel those with my fingers but cannot note them with my eyes.

It was the violence, I do not doubt, with which I cut in 2013 that he noticed. There are five scars on my arms from that episode, three on my ankles. Those scars are slightly distracted by two dark burns from baking and cooking and one molehill from staph, but I’m almost certain he noticed the white lines created by kitchen knives—large, small, serrated, anything—pocket knives, and, once those were confiscated, the satisfying discovery of razors.

I wish he hadn’t asked. I felt violated. Why are you looking at my scars? No. I don’t care why. Just stop. Now. I’ve worked hard not to spend every other moment overly self-conscious, but I can’t not notice. I do not, however, need a reminder.

I have more scars. My thighs are striped with white and purple spread and swollen scars. I’d rather not swim, thanks for the offer, though.

His question scared me. Do they really stand out that much? Do they? Is he just socially awkward, like me? But instead of shutting up, he opens his mouth? Would the polite response be to give him a break—mental illness is surprising enough, but once made physical, the shock increases—and assume the best in him rather than mentally chewing him out?

What would I rather? Never to be asked or to have people look with compassionate inquiry? If there was a hint of compassion, maybe I would have responded differently. “Oh, life hasn’t always been easy.” That’s the truth. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

PTSD, Suicide, and A Way Out

PTSD is most often associated with veterans and rape survivors. The label has grown to cover the repercussions of other traumas: childhood abuse, for example. The symptoms are across the board; no need to reinvent the diagnosis for each situation.

Of course, when the four letters are attributed to my condition, I shake my head. PTSD is for Serious Traumas. Not the bullying I experienced in sixth grade or the episodes of suicidal behavior and thinking that I’ve known. The latter is perhaps the most shocking to me: I could suffer from PTSD grown from the traumas created by my own brain? PTSD doesn’t require an external force? Are you sure?

I guess it could be true. I’m terrified of suicidal depression/severe depression returning. It will. We just don’t know when. And that terror I feel is PTSD, apparently. That stomach churning, lung crushing, anxiety-producing terror. That terror can cause me to freeze. My mind will rush with confused thoughts, I won’t sleep, I’ll cringe and toss and turn, and all sensible reason will freeze just out of reach. My comfort is in telling myself that it will be fine. Which is horse shit. It isn’t and won’t be fine. When severe depression returns, it’ll be all wrong and not okay, not fine.

Last time I was actively suicidal I held pills in one hand and water in the other, 99% sure that the “fine” thing to do would be to take those pills. (The final comfort once suicidal thinking comes is that there is always, always, a way out.) Before that, seven months before, I sat being evaluated for inpatient care. I had yet to step so close to suicide, but there I was. And they sent me home. I was shocked. But I guess I did okay at present myself as fine without even trying.

The amazing part, though, is that the episode of depression that led me to hold pills in my hand did not put me in the hospital. But then again, no one knew. No one knew because that would have compromised my “safety plan”: it would have resulted in the confiscation of my secret stash of suicide in a bottle. I needed a way out. I need a way out.

The biggest fear, then, that comes with PTSD, is not the repeat of the conflicting feelings and numbness of deep depression, but the feeling of losing control. I fear feeling the fear of someone knowing of my plan A and taking it away: taking away my therapist, friends, family; and I fear feeling the fear of someone knowing my plan B and taking it away: taking away my way out.

I need a way out.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Last Saturday, a local church put on a Community Mental Health Day. Somehow I convinced myself to go. I went, however, with an attitude of suspicion and doubt rather than of curiosity and gratefulness. It is a good step, to even try to talk about mental health and illness, but I still expected Jesus-saves-talk, the bullshit that burns bridges between the suffering secular and the healthy holy, the crap that insinuates that our diseases are “secular” and curable only by “sacred” practices. The like assumes, of course, a rift between sacred and secular, black and white, etc. But there is no rift. It is all mixed up and right-side-down: the secular sparkles with holiness and the sacred is diluted with inseparable evil.

The church tells me to pray. To consult an ever-absent God and her/his son for healing; “Jesus cast out the demons from the man at the graves and sent them into the pigs—he can do the same for you.” I retort that it was the demons who had faith, not the man or the community. No one prayed about it. Besides, Jesus isn’t here and what would it matter? The man was still rejected by his community and Jesus run out for it all. We lose no matter what.

The church looks at my personal pharmacy with wary eyes, accusing eyes. And I don’t get it. The pain of cancer is largely invisible, yet the church does not write a prescription for prayer and supplication in place of chemo and radiation. Both cancer and mental illness kill from deep within. Perhaps it is because a bone-scan can reveal metastasizing cancer whereas a brain-scan won’t show fucked up dopamine and serotonin levels ebbing and flowing and flooding and evaporating in any way obvious to the common eye. They don’t scan us or draw our blood before prescribing Lamictal; they just listen.

But back to the Community Day. The church that hosted it is huge. They charged $15 to attend. $20 at the door. Which irked me. The search for mental health is expensive enough. But I guess they had to pay for the speaker they flew in from Texas somehow.

The best part, though, was after a panel of community leaders discussed movements and projects and what the church could do. (Which, by the way, was excellent.) They invited a young schizophrenic man to talk. Schizophrenia. That is a taboo illness anywhere besides the psych classroom. He was a picture of hope and heartache. People go through, every day, the torture that he has faced? But here he is, stable. Hearing voices, speaking, and reflecting on the past and present realities so openly in front of easily one hundred people.

Here, I thought, here is a person the church ignored, and yet, he is loving the church. What an example to the mentally ill in the audience, to me.

The question “what can the church do for the population of the anxiety-riddled, the schizos, the personality disorders, those with PTSD, the bipolars, the depressed, the borderline suicides,” is one which I do not yet know how to answer in a way that invites active participation. What I learned, though, is what I can do for the church. Even though the church may not welcome me, and, hell, I know they will hurt me, I can forgive them, and maybe, maybe, love them anyway. Then, I can only hope, they will learn to love me in the way which Simone Weil describes:

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is the recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. (Waiting for God)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Inevitable Otherwise

It’s mental illness that I write about, not so much mental health. I don’t have the long, clear stretches of remarkable health in my adult life to consult for wisdom or writing material, and the mental health I have known resides in a foggier pocket of my memory.

I live in fear of illness. An anxious and pessimistic person by nature, health seems more of a ruse than an opportunity for thankfulness. I wonder: what will be the next addition to the cocktail when I fall to pieces again?

It is as in Jane Kenyon’s “Having it Out with Melancholy”:
                                    8 Credo
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
                        but I believe only in this moment
                        of well-being. Unholy ghost,
                        you are certain to come again.

It sounds to be a negative conclusion: “Unholy ghost,/you are certain to come again.” Maybe it is. But it also is a sincere allowance of a certain truth, just as her words in “Otherwise” point toward the inescapable future:
                        I slept in a bed
                        in a room with paintings
                        on the walls, and
                        planned another day
                        just like this day.
                        But, one day, I know,
                        it will be otherwise.

“. . . I believe only in this moment/of well-being.” Kenyon admits to not trusting or hoping in the longevity of what can feel like medical miracles, of what we call health. But she also embraces and believes in the reality of this moment, this moment of well-being.

Why, when I could smile on the now and have faith in this very moment, do I dwell on that “otherwise,” then? I can’t help it. That’s why. My mind tends towards a certain degree of honesty with itself—no matter how painful—the honesty that embraces the inevitable “otherwise.” I save most of my dishonesty and avoidance for others:

“How’s your head-space, Annie?”
That’s a creative way to ask about mental (in)stability.
“Fine . . . stable . . . I’m fine. Fine.”

I know. Predicting downfall robs this moment of its goodness, this mental state of its health. I’ll not be as well as I could if I go carrying the weight of “what if” and “when.” But the fall. Will not it be less rough if I am aware? I worry that if I allow myself to get lost in the now, I’ll miss the signs of illness coming on, and it’ll hit me like the twenty-four hour flu. And then some. Because each time it hits, it’s worse. Inevitably worse. The sickness has grown stronger—it must in order to overcome the pharmacy I keep—and knocks me out harder. And that is why I fail to trust in this moment. This moment is too uncertain. “Otherwise” I can trust.