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Three years ago, I wrote a piece called Through the Screen Door. It was written from a hospital bed, during a long admission that seemed to have no end in sight. Hope felt next to non-existent. I didn’t believe that I would ever get better, or be able to build the life with Kathryn that I had imagined.

That post was about picturing kids playing in our backyard, knowing that some day Kathryn and I would be raising those kids together. It was about imagining a time when mental illness wasn’t the driving force in our daily life, and about using all we had learned through my illness to teach little ones to live with hope deep within them.

We had gone to a fertility clinic earlier that year for an initial consult. We had also spent long hours researching and talking about the pros and cons of anonymous vs known donor sperm. We had not set a specific timeline in motion, but we were well on our way to beginning to grow our family. I remember Friday nights spent wondering how much sperm was being tossed away in houses all around us.

I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was little. Probably since I knew that babies came from mommies’ tummies. I was the girl eager to babysit the neighbours’ kids, always volunteering in the nursery at church, enraptured by the pregnant women and babies that seemed to constantly flow through our community. I remember my grade one teacher, who had gone on maternity leave, bringing in her newborn infant for the class to meet and trying to get as close as I could to see the tiny one’s eyes, her lips and fingers. I was the little girl that imagined my wedding and picked out my kids’ names long before a healthy relationship was ever a reality in my life.

So when Kathryn came along and we got married, it seemed logical to start planning for kids almost immediately. I had a new motivation too – I desperately wanted to see her be a mother, and see aspects of her reflected in our children. I was in love with this woman, and couldn’t wait to nurture her through pregnancy and care for a child together. I probably would have agreed to pregnancy on the honeymoon if she was up for it. It’s a good thing she’s more practical about these matters.

But she was on board with planning for kids within a couple years of the wedding. She had never imagined getting married before she met me, and couldn’t imagine herself as a parent until I showed her what I saw in her. She developed a unique bond early in our relationship with my then ten year old niece. As more friends began having children, she too started to catch the baby bug. It was incredible to watch how children were drawn to her very laid-back approach. Even kids deemed timid eventually found their way into her lap.

And when that long year of hospitalizations came in 2014 and interrupted all our plans, it was painful for both of us. When our second niece was born that fall, my heart simultaneously burst and broke each time I watched Kathryn hold her, care for her, play with her and teach her things. I was so amazed (and still am!) at all the potential in her small body, at everything she had learned each time we saw her – to lift her head, or make eye contact, or roll over. The first time she said our names my heart melted.

But it wasn’t our time. I was ill, and getting better was the priority, and although it was the wisest thing to put off pregnancy-planning, it was still painful. So we actively imagined the future in order to build hope, we put the building blocks together piece by piece so that one day, it would be our turn. We bought a onesie and a teether together as a promise to each other that although the time was not yet, it would be.

Those items have been sitting in our cabinet next to my childhood stuffed bear and Kathryn’s stuffed lion for three years now.

And this spring, after a lot of processing with Kathryn and my therapist, we made the decision to let go of that promise. With the recent relapse of my illness came a realization that we may not ever be able to promise each other the stability that raising children would require.

A few people we have talked to have said, “you’re still young, you will change your minds.” Others have assured us that I won’t always struggle this way, that we can and should look forward to long periods of wellness. It’s also true that lots of people parent, and parent well, with mental illness.

There are a lot of reasons why we’ve made this choice, but here’s the key – even if I could guarantee five years or ten years of stability, the chances that at some point a deep struggle with suicidal ideation will re-emerge seems very likely. I’ve been dealing with suicidal thinking since middle school. And it seems that every time I finally begin to say I am free of the torment, it comes rushing back in to defeat me. I am not willing to put a child in a position where suicide is introduced to them as a way to cope or escape. It’s so fucking hard to reroute that neural pathway. And the stakes are way too high.

In some ways Kathryn has had an easier time accepting this new reality. Of course she has grieved through this process as well. But her world didn’t shatter the way mine initially did. It’s possible that part of the reason is because she had begun to question our plans earlier than I had. She says that her only desire is to have a fulfilling life with me, and that she’s spent a lot less time defining what that means to her. She also didn’t spend her teenage years imagining nursery colours or reading parenting books.

The message of a woman’s role as mother has bombarded me daily through this entire emotional process. The movies we watch, commercials on television, comments from others, and our own damn hormones all seem to reinforce motherhood as the ultimate definition and purpose of womanhood. I weep with all of you who have been accosted and accused by these messages. You aren’t alone in your grief, for whatever your reasons. We’re learning to sit with it too.

I don’t expect others to fully understand our decision. It’s true that things may change in the future, this isn’t written in stone. For now, for us, we decided we had to get to a point where we were okay with not being mothers, that our lives would not be defined by that role. And accepting that has been its own step toward hope. We’ve had to reimagine our future together. We’ve had to take apart all those pieces in order to find out what we have left to rebuild a new life.

The Bear, Part 1

Death consumes me.

I am fighting a bear that is 1000x stronger, 1000x more vicious than me.

They tell me to be brave, to have hope, to take one moment at a time.

I believe the voices that say I am stronger than him.

I tell the bear and he laughs and grows 100 more teeth to rip at my flesh.

He stalks me while I do the things that show that I’m still alive – while I put on clean socks, while I brush my teeth, while I try to sleep.

My death would mean less to the bear than a mosquito does to a windshield.

I beg the bear for a merciful death, for release. I can’t remember why I try to flee from him.

He does not show mercy. While he hunts me I can no more choose to die than I can choose to live.

The Bear, Part 2

Who is this bear that stalks me at night when I am alone, when I am most exposed?

Perhaps he is chemicals and broken synapses in my brain. A hallucination caused by disordered biology. I swallow the pills that they tell me will tame him.

Or, he is a loud roar, no more of a threat than the rolling thunder at night. A desperate cry composed only of Fear. Like dark clouds dispersed by a strong wind, he is quieted to sleep by their assurance that dawn will come and Love will Win.

Or, he is a fragmented part of me, a distortion in a fun house mirror. I invite him in, so that both he and I can become more whole.

Or, he is the escape I hold on to when being alive means experiencing pain. The dark shadows projected against cave walls intensify the size and threat of the bear. I have rejected my own nourishment so that he can grow stronger. I have given him more power than he deserves. When I call for help, the Universe answers with Light to help me see.

The bear and the terror are real. The struggle and the wounded flesh and the monstrosity of feeling caught between life and death are real.

Yet, even as he hunts me, I sharpen my weapons. I find strength left like bread crumbs by those who have been chased by their own bears. I reach through the isolation; my community is my arrows. I scratch my words into rock faces; my  voice is my spear.

I am hunted by him, but night by night I learn more of his secrets. For tonight, the bear and I will rest.

I am still alive. I can choose to live.

If You Feel Too Much

Jamie Tworkowski, founder of TWLOHA

If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
If this world is too painful, stop and rest.
It’s okay to stop and rest.
If you need a break, it’s okay to say you need a break.
This life – it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win.
It’s okay to slow down.
You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by.
This life is not about status or opinion or appearance.
You don’t have to fake it.
You do not have to fake it.
Other people feel this way too.
If your heart is broken, it’s okay to say your heart is broken.
If you feel stuck, it’s okay to say you feel stuck.
If you can’t let go, it’s okay to say you can’t let go.
You are not alone in these places.
Other people feel how you feel.
You are more than just your pain. You are more than wounds, more than drugs, more than death and silence.
There is still some time to be surprised.
There is still some time to ask for help.
There is still some time to start again.
There is still some time for love to find you.
It’s not too late.
You’re not alone.
It’s okay – whatever you need and however long it takes – it’s okay.
It’s okay.
If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
There is still some time.

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I will tell my story.

I will open space for vulnerability where stigma and silence have reigned.

In this, I bring my darkness to light. In this, I find hope.

In this, I kindle a spark for you to bring your own darkness to light.

“You are alone.” “This pain will last forever.”

These are the two great lies of mental illness.

And so, instinctively, we fight or flee.

In telling my story, I challenge myself and you:

Stand still and hold the light.

Do what you can to take the smallest step towards light.

This is my new goal in difficult moments. Having borderline personality disorder, a mental illness that is still largely misunderstood and unknown in the public eye, means my day to day experience involves monitoring my vulnerability to intense emotions and using coping skills to avoid spiraling into despair. Despair is a familiar place for me. At times its embrace even feels like an old friend.

Sometimes it seems that my emotional memory is much stronger than my logical memory. The pain of past struggle feels fresh and new, when in fact I know it is just old scars. The pain pins me down, holds me hostage, and demands to be felt. And instinctively I resist.

Sometimes the smallest step towards the light is accepting the darkness. Letting it in, letting it whisper and rage and swirl and silence. Letting it crawl along your skin.

My own struggle against suicidal ideation is rooted in escaping emotional pain. The darkness flourishes in thoughts of endlessness, of inability to endure the darkness. The darkness tries to panic me, and as I try to flee, it solidifies its hold.

Everything I know (so far) about living with borderline personality disorder and depression is in these words by the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

I will let the darkness come if it must, as I hold within me the hope for light. When we ache in the absence of light, the ache in itself is a spark. My desire for light in the face of darkness is in fact a source of light. It shows me there is still life here. There is still some fight left in these bones. I will not give up, I will not give in, to the dark scars I carry.

Sometimes the smallest step from darkness is to accept it. If I can resist the desire to flee and allow it space to sit I may find my soul, much like one’s eyes, begin to adjust. Nothing can extinguish my hope. The darkness may call me stubborn, it may call me a foolish coward, but the embers of hope will still burn and this burning will lead me to light.

Let everything happen to you:

beauty and terror.

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

A dear friend, Karis, shared this quote with me awhile ago, maybe last year sometime.

I took to it and buried it deep inside and have come to it again and again (and still yet again) in my most difficult moments.

Everything I know and have learned about dealing with depression, borderline personality disorder and suicidal ideation boils down to this.

There is life in these words.

She tells me to picture a screen door that leads out to a garden where two children and a dog are playing. A young boy, is squirting his dog and his little sister with a water gun.  The summer sun is hot and the little girl is more interested in picking cherry tomatoes to fill her tummy, leaving her brother to tease the dog.

She tells me to picture a garden where veggies and flowers grow intermingled, and a sandbox where the kids digs for buried treasure that their mom has hidden the night before. These are timeless days. These are the days we cherish, the days we know will be gone in a flash.

She tells me to picture school days and packed lunches, birthday parties and family events. She tells me I can’t even begin to imagine all the things we will learn from these children when they come into our lives. She tells me to hold on to hope.

Hope is a scarce commodity here in the hospital. The nurses would like to dish it out like candy, but real hope doesn’t come cheap. I’ve lost my way during this hospitalization, lost my ability to hope. And the only thing that keeps me holding on is knowing I could never hurt Kathryn by leaving her.

When suicide dances and sings its Siren call, I am mezmerized – taken in like a lost child and given something to hold on to. But suicide is only false hope, is only defeat. My life is meant for more, the life Kathryn and I share is meant for more. There’s still love in this heart and peace in this soul.

So I must continue my treatments, follow my doctor’s advice, take the medication as it’s prescribed. And hold on to hope. Hope that it won’t be long before Kathryn and I are looking out the backdoor and watching our kids play, teaching them gratitude and what it means to live with hope deep within them.

Last night, I went leafing through an old journal, one that I kept while I travelled across Canada with ten other young people.  While we were in New Brunswick (in the town that would eventually become my home for four years), we made up a treasure hunting game that involved a van, a blindfold and a lot of sugar-induced hyperactivity.  The blindfolded person would make decisions about which direction to turn at intersections, taking us in circles and down sidestreets until they shouted STOP! – at which point the driver would park, we would all jump out and begin running desperately around trying to find treasure – any treasure.  An incredible leaf.  A swingset.  An ice cream shop.  It didn’t matter what the treasure was, so long as it was considered treasure by the beholder.  It was all inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes books and Calvin’s claim that there is treasure everywhere.  And really, there is, if you go looking for it.

As I drove home through downtown Hamilton today, this idea of treasure everywhere wandered through my mind.  I looked at the people walking along the sidewalks, waiting for buses, coming out of stores.   I looked at the drivers who were passing me.  I looked at the shops and thought about who their owners might be, who might work in them.  I thought about the people I’ve met downtown.  Agnus, who came to Canada from Vienna fifty years ago; Dave, who runs an art/book shop; Jenny, the artist I wrote about a few months ago.  And so many others.  Downtown Hamilton is a busy place.  There are people everywhere.  Treasured people.

But these people are so fragile.  Some of them have been very obviously broken by poverty or addictions, abuse or mental health issues or unemployment.  Some have very obviously fallen through gaps in the system – be it the mental health system, or the education system, or the justice system.  And there are others who you would never know are broken.  Who walk around in nice clothes, with jobs and kids and smiles on their face, while society hands them every kind of mask they could possible need to hide what exists on the inside.  Because people are so fragile.  So easily broken.

And yet, these same people are so resilient.  Some of the most caring people I have met have stories of abuse and cruelty in their past.  People who have been treated like garbage by family or society who choose still to love and trust and reach across the space between us.  To try again and again and again to get on their feet, despite others knocking them back down.  To believe for something better.  Or even to just keep going in the absence of that belief.

I am astounded by this paradox.  The fragility and resiliency of humankind.  I see it everywhere.  On their faces.  In my own reflection.  I see it in you.

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