True Selves

“Unfortunately, in seeing ourselves as we truly are, not all that we see is beautiful and attractive. This is undoubtedly part of the reason we flee silence. We do not want to be confronted with our hypocrisy, our phoniness. We see how false and fragile is the false self we project. We have to go through this painful experience to come to our true self. It is a harrowing journey, a death to self–the false self–and no one wants to die. But it is the only path to life, to freedom, to peace, to true love. And it begins with silence. We cannot give ourselves in love if we do not know and possess ourselves. This is the great value of silence. It is the pathway to all we truly want.” – M. Basil Pennington, A Place Apart


In the Darkness

Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. – John the Apostle

In the last few days, I’ve had a short conversation with a friend over facebook chat. The original message I sent to him was written when I was alone, late in the night, and full of a deep despair that seemed unending. I only meant to say that something he had written about recently had sparked some new thoughts for me, and although I was struggling through a dark night, I wanted to believe that the morning light would come.

What I ended up writing was a suicide note. I didn’t realize this until after it was written and sent. It just sort of came pouring out. I wanted to explain myself, to try to make someone else understand the near-constant questioning and conflict in my mind. I wanted someone to know that even though my thinking is faulty and poisoned with despair, I am trying to do what is best for the people I care about. It may not look like it to an outsider, but I am giving everything I can to be well again. I want to heal, to recover, to “win” over mental illness. But when that feels impossible, when I struggle to believe the morning light will come, death seems like a welcoming embrace. Death seems like my only chance to experience peace.

My sleep schedule has been radically messed up for some time now, and I often find myself sitting alone in the dark, listening to the soft sounds of Kathryn’s breath as she rests in the other room and mindlessly clicking my way through the internet. Trying to sleep, laying quietly, listening to soothing music or practicing various relaxation techniques has only seemed to increase my anxiety, intensify my frustration and even create jealousy of Kathryn who sleeps with ease. Distracting myself with youtube videos and facebook games seems like a better alternative than facing my dark, racing, chaotic and often hopeless thoughts alone.

Some nights feel endless. Logically, I know how absurd this thought is. I understand basic science and know that eventually the earth will revolve to the point that my little part of the planet is again facing the sun. I know this. I’ve experienced it time after time, day after day for my entire life. But sometimes I still fill up with the completely irrational fear that the night will not end, the darkness will not give way to light. The terror of my emotional self drowns out the reason of my intellectual self.

It can be hard when one’s inner experience conflicts so sharply with logic. I was filled with joy at Christmas time, surrounded by my loving family and so grateful for their presence in my life. Kathryn and I have spent the new year in the throes of laughter, the battle of fierce competition, and the peaceful contentment of embrace. Daily my cats come to me for snuggles, and the feeling of being trusted and needed by them in those moments just melts me.

And despite all of these moments, over the last few weeks I have experienced intense hopelessness on a daily basis. I know something in my brain doesn’t work quite right. It’s been diagnosed with many things – borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder (type II), anxiety disorder. It seems every psychiatrist I meet has a different explanation for the intensity of my emotions. What am I to believe?

All of these labels do little to help me cope in moments of sheer desperation, when the darkness seems to have completely erased any shred of light. I have tried various treatments, therapies and medications, some of which have benefitted me in ways, but none of which have been able to reduce the suffering and anguish in my mind to what I would consider a manageable level. Perhaps at times, but nothing long term.  And now my doctor, psychiatrist and therapist seem to all be at a standstill regarding what step to take next. There aren’t really anymore OHIP covered options to explore. We’ve reached the equivalent of “there’s nothing more we can do.”

Even as I write this, I fear publishing it. You might be thinking, “You can do it! You just need more sunshine. Have you tried eating more veggies? It’s probably not that bad. There are people in far worse situations. Physical activity has been shown to have a great impact on mental health, do you get enough exercise?”

So am I just complaining? When I experience these very real and very painful symptoms, is it simply my own fault? Am I just too lazy? If I got off the couch more, built myself a routine, pulled myself up by my bootstraps, forced myself to get out there, practiced gratitude more often, or tried positive thinking, maybe I wouldn’t be in such rough shape. Maybe I can get better on my own, and don’t need medical intervention. Mental illness isn’t as serious as I make it sound, is it? I should likely just be quiet, stop whining, and get on with living life like the rest of the world.

But if my illness was physical, would I feel this way? Would I wonder if I am solely to blame for being sick?

The harsh reality is mental illness is not really understood very well. The pressure to just be quiet and live with it is pretty great. Even the people who love me most say and do things that only reinforce the notion that saying nothing, getting on with life and just dealing with it are what is expected of me. This is the kind of pressure that (at least for me) often leads to self injury and suicide attempts. I feel like no one will believe something is really wrong unless they can see physical evidence of my struggle. The more serious my attempts to injure or kill myself, the more serious they will understand my illness to be. And by they, I mean everyone. From the ER staff that have treated me when I’ve done something to hurt myself, my healthcare team, friends and family – I feel like the whole world will only understand if they can see it. Unseen pain in another is so hard to comprehend.

I know this is faulty thinking. I know there are those who understand and take seriously the symptoms of mental illness. I know that hurting myself in anyway is not the solution. But here again is one of those moments where what my head knows and what my emotions feel simply don’t match up.

In the height of crisis – at times when I likely should be at the emergency room seeking medical attention – this thinking prevents me from doing so. I am desperately afraid that others will think I am just “crying wolf.” To say to someone, “I need help because I feel suicidal” is incredibly, even excruciatingly, difficult. Consider this – if I felt suicidal why would I be seeking help? Telling someone I am suicidal will only result in them trying to prevent me from acting on that feeling. And if I’m not acting on that feeling, well I am not actually suicidal am I, and therefore, I don’t actually need help. Again, my intellectual self knows this doesn’t make sense, but try explaining that to my emotional self.

Emotions pass, right? Like the night, there is a definite end. I will again experience happiness, love, peace, even hope. My intellectual self knows this as much as it knows the sun will rise tomorrow morning. But when the cycle of darkness seems so pervasive, so constantly recurring, my ability to fight against it withers. I find myself saying, “if suicide is imminent, why delay any longer?” If this illness is going to kill me, why not just let it kill me now. My family could sooner begin the grieving and healing process, my love could perhaps build her life anew with someone else. And my darkness would finally end.