I was always the strong one. Nothing could break me. People, especially family members, could always count on me to help solve their problems. I am loud. I am confident. I can take on the world. Not that all these attributes, as I have come to learn, are positives. At the time it did allow me the luxury of getting through some very dark times in my life. That would include an estrangement with my mother and sister and a 12-year journey with my closest friend, my younger brother, as he battled his own demons, alcohol addiction, anxiety, and depression. He would lose his brave battle on March 18, 2012, when he took his own life. He was 39.
Although it is a well-kept, guarded secret, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism runs in my family. We were not raised to discuss these topics or feelings of any nature and it is frowned upon, even now. That secrecy, since I was a little girl was encouraged and enforced which translated into paralyzing shame, certainly when it came to my brother. He was deeply ashamed that he was an alcoholic and struggled with mental health problems. Shame keeps people hiding, eats them alive from the inside out. They keep secrets and without being completely honest they don’t get the valuable help they need.
I was always different than the others in my family. I don’t believe mental illness and/or addiction is something to be ashamed of nor something to hide. For that reason, with no experience whatsoever (I make body care products for a living) I set out to write and publish my memoir. I didn’t then and I don’t now, consider myself a writer. I am a sister. A wife. A mom. A friend. A neighbor. I am just like you, but I thought I had an important story to share about how these struggles can happen to any person, in any family, and often they continue from generation to generation. I loved my brother, and there was nothing he ever would have done that would change that and I miss him desperately every day.
I thought I was fine. As it turns out, I wasn’t.
On Saturday, June 3rd, 2017 I had a nervous breakdown. I was 48. It happened so quickly but it was a night I will never forget. I was at a birthday party with my husband, son, and daughter-in-law. One minute I was sitting taking a bite of my roast beef sandwich and the next minute I detached from my body, seeing the room through someone else’s eyes. I know now this called disassociation. Disassociation occurs when trauma or stress can cause a breakdown in your mental health and to protect yourself you leave your body. It scared me when I returned, and I needed some air. I was calm and collected as I sat under a tree breathing the warm summer air. My husband found a nurse that happened to be there that said I was having a panic attack. But I knew it wasn’t a panic attack. I didn’t want to worry my family or ruin one of our best friend’s 65th birthday party so I went to lie down in our truck. About 20 minutes later it happened again, the feeling that I had detached from my own body only this time it was much more serious. The best explanation I have, even after these years later, is that it felt like an explosion went off in my head. I thought I was going to die. A brain aneurism? I wasn’t sure.
I called out for my husband and off to the hospital we went. We checked into the Emergency room and were told to wait our turn, me holding my head in pain. I would spend the next hour switching between dry heaving in the toilet due to feeling nauseous and lying helplessly on the filthy bathroom hospital floor. The cold tile on my cheek giving me slight reprieve as it felt like my body was on fire. I was begging loudly for help as my husband frantically implored for someone to see me.
I appreciate all the medical attention and care I was provided. Temperature. Reflexes. Blood test. Blood Pressure. ECG (Electrocardiogram) the small probes checking my heart to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. But what I noticed, even then was all the attention was placed on physical symptoms – no one ever considered a mental one. I know their job is to be thorough to eliminate all causes, but I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack, it was always in my head. After a few hours, a shot of valium to calm me down and my symptoms subsided. I was discharged with advice to see my family doctor the next day.
I didn’t understand what was happening, all I know was that on Saturday I was me and on Sunday I wasn’t.
I would spend the next 12 months in a desperate fight for my life with behavior and feelings completely out of character such as anxiety and panic attacks, depression, confusion, memory loss, dizziness, ringing in my ears and crying spells that I couldn’t control. And every waking moment I felt a deep sense that I wasn’t sure if I was dead or alive. My daily life felt like I was floating on clouds, in someone else’s mind and body, like a dream. I couldn’t be indoors, not even in my own house. I was scared to be alone. I couldn’t eat and lost 10 lbs from my already thin frame. Over and above all of that, and what terrified me the most, a constant urge to take my life.
We hear and read so many stories of demons, self-hatred, shame, depression and one of the same words over and over again, PAIN. That those that take their own life just want the pain to stop. But I wasn’t in pain. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t lonely. I didn’t feel worthless or unloved. I didn’t want to end my life. Not ever. And yet, I felt like I had gone completely crazy as there was a magnetic force pulling my thoughts into a direction of leaving this world. Everything I looked at could accomplish that. My dog’s morning pills. A knife in the cutlery drawer or butcher’s block. My son’s exercise band that he innocently packed in his luggage when we went on a work trip. And I was silently screaming inside as it scared me to death. I used every ounce of energy and conscious thought to not to listen to what my head was telling me. My husband rallied around me as he knew I was struggling, what I failed to mention was the suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to worry him. I didn’t want to worry my adult son, my daughter-in-law, my friends or anyone else.
I went to therapy a couple times a week and I am always blessed to say that I am extremely grateful that my husband and I are in a position to afford the $125-$150 per one-hour session. Therapy was not a new experience for me, not only did it help save my marriage when we were having struggles more than 25 years ago but I had committed to going with my brother when he was alive in order to understand and help him through his alcoholism. And because that time of my life became so stressful, I also went to therapy on my own eventually learning how to set healthy boundaries.
After my breakdown, I did everything to feel better. I read books and articles trying to understand what happened and why I was feeling this way. I gave up coffee, no caffeine whatsoever. I changed my diet. I slept more. I began exercising. I went for walks. I went for a massage once a week to relax my body and calm my mind. I am not sure why I thought of it, but I began swimming every day. We live by a lake and since childhood, being near the water has always been the place where I feel happy and safe. Those are my favorite childhood memories with my brother, so it was no coincidence that swimming calmed me. I have been through enough therapy in my life to know that there are some feelings and behaviors in adulthood that are directly related to childhood experiences. For the 30 minutes of lengths I did in the pool daily, my head became clear, absent of bouncing thoughts, debilitating fear and paralyzing anxiety. I was at peace.
I think it was a good month or two before I finally told my husband about my suicidal thoughts, and a few months later my son. My husband said he knew. And what shames me the most looking back isn’t that I needed help from my loved ones, but that I didn’t say anything. I have read so many stories from others that have lost someone they love to suicide that gave no warning signs. They are left with questions of why and enormous guilt that they shouldn’t carry but a natural response of, “how did I miss the signs?” If I had taken my life, my family would have felt those very same emotions and that breaks my heart that I was so close. I was so fragile at the time teetering on the edge. The people I love most in this world would have thought I wanted to leave, and I didn’t.
There are varying statistics, some report as high as 120 times more likely to follow through with suicide while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A beautiful blessing for me is that I do not drink (nor do drugs). I honestly believe had I been under the influence I would have done it. That is how strong the force was in my head. I had been so scared to try an anti-depressant as I knew that type of medication was for the brain. It wasn’t shame or stigma, I consider medication for mental health just as important as taking it for an ear infection, to help with pain after surgery, insulin for a diabetic, high blood pressure medications, Parkinson’s disease, cancer or any other ailment. I was willing to continue to suffer from my current symptoms for the fear that the medication might alter my brain just enough, opening the door to allow the powerful force to take over and win. I needed to be in 100% complete control, and my recovery was the hardest amount of work I have ever done in my life.
I had seen two different therapists over the 8 or 9 months since my breakdown, and they hadn’t done much to help me. It doesn’t make them bad therapists or bad people it just means they weren’t the one for me. I know enough about myself to know what I need, who is challenging me, who isn’t, and I didn’t feel we were on the path of getting to the bottom of why I was feeling this way.
Since I didn’t know what had happened to my mental health, I was constantly afraid it would happen again. So that fear perpetuated the anxiety. Every time I got dizzy or lightheaded my brain would tell me, not that I was having a breakdown again, but that I was dying.
The magnetic urge to take my life had subsided, but my brain remembered, and all those objects still scared me on a daily basis. A “trigger” that we often hear about when it comes to addiction and mental health. I mean, one can’t go through life without opening the cutlery drawer or using a sharp knife. To become truly healthy again I needed to figure this out.
I thought I would try something different and so this time I researched a female therapist in our small town. Typically, I had always seen a male. As I studied her credentials she specialized in stress, family dynamics, and trauma.
Without understanding the full scope of my story, or anyone’s, I know it is hard to understand how I could be estranged from my own mother. My relationship with my mother and sister was severely unhealthy, toxic and dysfunctional. I feel the need to attach the word “severe” because no family is perfect and all families, behind closed doors have a reasonable amount of bullshit. That’s normal.
But in some families, certainly mine, there is psychological and emotional abuse happening. You may not see broken bones and bruises, but I assure you it is still abuse.
One of my best qualities is my ability to handle stress, I function better under pressure. Whether it is at work or my home life. What I had told no one, except the previous therapists and my husband, was the mounting pressure my mother had put on me pre-breakdown even though we were estranged for years.
I had never seen someone that specialized in trauma before and this intrigued me. I know that unresolved early childhood trauma played a huge role in my brother’s mental health problems and addiction. I didn’t understand the scope of it until after he was gone. The saddest part was neither did the professionals nor did my brother. I had lived with some (not all) the same circumstance he did and had worked through my trauma. Or should I say, I thought I did.
And so, I made an appointment to see Megan. I knew instantly she was my person and I am not exactly sure why. I instantly felt comfortable sharing my deepest thoughts and feelings as she sat a few feet away taking notes, with pen and paper in hand. I feel like I went through two boxes of tissue that first meeting and when I got home, I felt like I had been run over by a truck. Yes, she was the one I needed.
I had seen her once, sometimes twice a week for a couple of months. I felt so much better in comparison, but I was still struggling. We discussed my continued mental health struggles and my fear of taking medication. She wasn’t convinced that I needed it but would help but respected whatever I decided to do. What I always recommend if I am asked about how to find a great therapist is the best ones don’t tell you what to do. They listen. They help you unravel all the pieces of your life experiences not theirs. Great therapists don’t insert their own opinion or try to lead you in a certain way. Life is complicated, there is no right or wrong answer. I was looking for what I needed to make me healthy and happy. Megan was this for me.
Megan knew all about why I had finally ended my relationship with my own mother. 4 years prior, she had missed my birthday and that of my two sons, and when I called her to say that it hurt our feelings, her angry reaction was another reminder that I had heard so many times before. Something that could have been resolved with a simple, “I am sorry.” But my mother isn’t capable of saying “I am sorry”. She instead, took another opportunity to remind me that I gave up on my brother, abandoned him and her snide assertion that I couldn’t save him from addiction.
I knew, at least on a conscious level, my mother made me responsible for everyone in my family and it finally took its toll. I tried setting healthy boundaries, living my own life, but to her that is a betrayal. So that day on the phone, her way of once again blaming me for my brother’s death, I calmly, rationally said, “goodbye mother.”
I did continue to read books and quite by accident found what turns out to be maybe the most important thing I have learned to understand my own behavior and family dynamic. I was trying to find a good book on mother and daughter relationships and what I found was Will I Ever Be Good Enough? by Karyl McBride, Ph.D. I didn’t even notice until I unwrapped the package when it arrived in the mail that on the bottom of the cover said, Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. And finally, it all came together.
I read an online article on Psychology Today by Dr. McBride “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Are you in a relationship with a narcissist?” As I read each word it seemed like it was written just for me.
“In the narcissistic family usually, the parental hierarchy is reversed so the child is taking care of the parent instead of the other way around. When a child is put in the position of parental caretaking, they are being asked to do a job they cannot do based on their maturity and development. In this impossible role of “parentified child,” the child learns that he or she is not capable of changing or fixing their parents which results in an internalized message of “I’m not good enough.” This same message is internalized in adult children of alcoholic families. This, of course, is not understood until adulthood.
A narcissist cannot give empathy and unconditional love to their children. This causes a child to keep trying to find ways to win this approval and attention to no avail.”
What I own, is that I never wrote a story to make someone choose between me or my mother. Or to disparage or show hate towards anyone. But my mother didn’t see it that way as she was on a mission to destroy me. I felt the stress, like a noose around my neck. I never imagined that the pressure and worry would cause a breakdown, but I do recall thinking “Will my mother ever just leave me alone to live my life?” I was, after all, trying to do good in the world.
I had read enough by now and continued therapy but still wasn’t mentally myself. I talked to some of my closest friends who were on anti-depression medication and I was convinced I likely had clinical depression, a chemical imbalance in my brain. My family doctor came to this conclusion a long time ago which is why I had been holding onto the prescription for almost one year. I finally found the courage to pick up a glass a water and swallow a tablet of my prescribed Citalopram (Celexa). As I said, it was not stigma and judgment that scared me, it was the fear that medication would alter my brain in a negative way. And alter it, it did. A completely positive experience and after 8 days I felt a sense of relief. I was far from being perfect, but my crying spells and sadness subsided. I am not pro-medication; I am not anti-medication either. All I know is looking back now I struggled for a full year when this likely would have helped from the beginning. I still would have had to do all the hard work and make changes, but it would have made my journey much easier.
Some of you may wonder why am I writing about this now? On March 18th it will be the anniversary date of my brothers’ suicide. Eight years. It feels like an eternity. It also feels like yesterday. His story and experiences weren’t quite the same as mine but what we had in common was that we both suffered in silence. He never spoke his truth, he never got well, and he is no longer here. I thankfully decided to tell and what I got was more love and help than I could have imagined.
I remember swimming one day; my son and I were at the gym and I was having one of my “bad days” where I was confused and thoughts were jumbled. As I did my sidestroke, I could see him lifting weights through the large window. When we made eye contact he bent over a little and gave me a thumbs up. Something so simple, his way of saying, “You alright mom? I am here.” I don’t think I ever told him, but tears started streaming down my face. I knew then I should have never taken such a chance with my own life after my breakdown. I should have told the one’s closest to me how I was feeling.
I am still just like all of you, trying to get through life’s experiences as best I can. It remains my hope that maybe my journey will resonate with someone else. I never imagined or planned that would include losing a brother to alcoholism and mental illness, a nervous breakdown or being permanently estranged from my own mother. Sometimes we do think we are fine until it becomes too much and we realize we aren’t. We all need to take care of ourselves. That is not selfish, but necessary.
That is what I hope for anyone that needs to hear this today. I know how frightening it is to lose control of your own thoughts and not recognize who you see in the mirror. But what I promise is that there is help, there is hope and please reach out to someone to share how you are feeling. You are not alone. I have been there.
I am still strong. Asking for help doesn’t make me weak. I am still loud. But I know now when to talk and when to listen. I know now that I don’t have to take on the world. It is sad to me when I think a little girl was raised to believe she had to. And one of my most valuable lessons of all is that you can still be a kind, caring, compassionate, beautiful, loving person and not want to see your own mother again.
I have a right to decide if someone is not good for my health, happiness, and spirit. You do too. I will not feel guilty or ashamed. Guilt made me behave and react in a certain way for a very long time.
I could say that no contact, setting healthy boundaries, books, articles, trauma therapy, exercise, and my anti-depressant medication saved my life. But what really saved my life was knowledge, acceptance, and change. Oh, and love.
And that is what I send all of you. LOVE.