Suicide runs in my blood.
My mother was 16 when her mother (my biological grandmother) committed suicide. She left behind five children whom all went on to inherit various forms of the band of illnesses categorized under the umbrella “mental illness.” My poor mother was left with the worst of the conditions – a special blend of bipolar, psychosis, and a lovely personality disorder called borderline to top it all off. She has been tormented from the inside out for most of her life. She has attempted suicide…many, many, many times…. and I have witnessed her collapsed across a hospital bed – her fire engine red hair ringing out in stark comparison against white walled hospital rooms – all while sobbing for forgiveness and surviving solely on various forms of ventilators after said attempts went wrong. It is never lost on me how close I have been to living without the woman who created me to this horrid illness, and how brave she has been for fighting the wars inside of her mind for so many years.
But this sad story is not the reason I am writing this post. I am actually writing this post from a cafe table in London where I am on holiday with my husband to celebrate every single thing about this big beautiful life we have created together, and to count our vast collective blessings. We have fought the world together, and I have truly never been happier or healthier.
But that happy ending has not come easily, nor overnight. The the real reason I am writing this afternoon is because of the ironic twist to my personal tale that Europe was the birthplace of the anxiety and panic attacks that I started experiencing at the age of 19 (although my entire childhood was froth with worry and concern). For many years following that first panic attack, I could have never dreamed that I would be in this place; with everything I have ever wanted out of this life, nor that I would have be able to manage my own mental illness – anxiety disorder – to the level I have been able to today. I am writing this because the day I arrived in London was the day that my storytelling hero Anthony Bordain committed suicide, and that news alone rocked my core so deeply that the voice inside of me – the one that used to always convince me that my families fate was coming for me started whispering in my ear again….we are coming for you. Only this time I know how to overpower that whisper with a louder, stronger, more powerful and accurate truth that it will not…that I am free and I am not afriad. I am writing this because after years of therapy, and education, and incomprehensible amounts of self work, I deeply desire to offer hope those who are suffering. I believe that there is a way to heal those who are broken so that we don’t have to continue to lose those who were worthy being saved any longer. We are all worthy. We are all enough. We are all love.
But I digress.
Following my first panic attack in a Paris hotel room, my life became completely overwhelmed by crippling anxiety. I left the university I had spend two years working towards transferring only one week after moving in. I couldn’t keep on weight. I visited doctor after doctor sure I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was a frail, sick, and downright miserable ghost of my prior self. I left behind dreams, and goals, and love and life in search for safety and comfort and security. The world seemed a mad and scary place and I was consistently overwhelmed with the notion that I was going to end up like my mother and my grandmother – a prisoner of my own mind, and destined to end up completely alone – if I survived at all.
I will cut out the hairy details of my many years of suffering because, it is such a beautiful day, and even in this place of pride and strength I stand firmly inside of today – I know that those memories are still triggering to my soul, and I don’t want to ruin my holiday with my own triggers. So I will just say this; I allowed fear and shame overshadow my true wants and desires for more than a decade. I lost out on so many things I so deeply wanted, and more than that, I truly convinced myself that I was so broken and so unlovable that I set out on a 15 year mission to prove my worth through a tremendous amount of giving myself away and hustling for my own belonging.
Simply put I never felt “enough” for someone to want to call me theirs. I was also certain that postpartum depression, divorce, the loss of my best friend, and the suffering that has come with loosing so many things I loved would be the trigger that would send me to the abyss of that “mental illness” sea that I always believed was coming for me.
But it did not.
But I survived. I endured. I was resilient. And I have thrived.
And so I believe in my heart every single human has the propensity to do just that.
When I read the stories of others who say things like “get help,” and “reach out,” I do believe that is the tip of the dialog iceberg that we must have to evoke some change for people in the throes of the tidal waves of madness – but with that said, I also think there are far more complex webs of how we all got here and solutions on how we get out that are not often addressed.
I am not sure there is enough time in my afternoon writing session to cover them all, but I will do my best to touch on the things that I have witnessed to be the most important for me and those I love. I am not a doctor, nor an expert – just a witness of this thing called life – and I have gained some wisdom along the way.
ON A MICRO PROSPECTIVE
We have to stop pushing happy and allow people to be with their big sad feelings in order to heal. I have found in the times that I feel anything less than “happy,” I am often met by others with solutions to get out of my pain and to focus on what I have. We have created a culture where we are so busy trying to “fix” pain and uncomfortable feelings with pills (which are a must for so many people and not to be minimized) and doctors that we no longer know how to lean into others darkness as humans. You have to meet people with where they are – not push them to where you want them to be. There is no greater fix when someone is hurting than to hold space for their pain and allow them to create an opening inside of themselves to explore that pain without judgement. Sometimes all anyone needs in this life is “tell me more about why that hurts,” – what doesn’t work is telling someone everything that they have that should be making them happy.
In my own journey towards happiness there was no greater paradigm shift for me then the teachings of Brene Brown. When I shifted my perspective on strength lying in our ability to make our emotions smaller or to pull ourselves together, to believing that our real strength and power lies in our ability to stand in our vulnerability and own our weaknesses – my internal anxieties dissipated immensely and almost immediately. I learned to own my shame – to say when I felt threatened, afraid, not enough, and to honor those who did the same. I started to pull away from all the fake facades where everything was perfect and lean into the people and communities that wanted to live in that space with me. I lost a lot of people and things in the transition into that space – a lot of people are uncomfortable with big feelings and found the “intensity” of that journey to be too much. I stopped apologizing for being “too much.” My life – my mother, my trauma, my losses, my pain were sooo much – and I decided that like Brown says, “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” Do not dull yourself down to belong.
Which brings me to the absolute birthplace of freedom from mental illness – self acceptance. When you are truly accepting of yourself – your depressions, your anxieties, and the things you have to do for yourself to maintain your own well being – then no one can threaten that or take that away from you. You have the courage to advocate for what you need and why – you know when to say no – to bad advice, a false coping mechanism, or a false relationship that will only keep you comfortable in your pain instead of pushing you to become the best version of yourself. I will touch on drinking here because I believe it is so important to this conversation. When you are afraid of your dark feelings, than drinking is a wonderful way to numb said feelings away (temporarily). It is a terrible slippery slope. Nothing you use to dull your feelings away will actually take them away. There is only one way out of pain and that is through pain. One of the greatest lessons I have learned over the years is that anxiety and depression is your feelings ways of screaming at you to make space for them. Even today when I feel big scary feeling bubbling up there is still great fear inside of myself that I cant handle them, or that they will be the demise of me – but I have also realized that I do not need to numb them – I just need to trust in myself – my own self-acceptance that I can handle them – and believe that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else feels about them – all that matters is what I feel about them – and that I can accept them within myself. My feelings are sacred – I no longer need anyone else’s approval.
Last but not least I will impart some of what has made me successful that has absolutely nothing to do with me. The top of that list is my husband. I think this is is important to touch the subject of your chosen mate, because I do believe that plays a part in what has landed so many people I love in such bad places. The company you keep and the people you chose to build a life upon will affect your well being greatly. If I were giving advice to any young man or woman with any degree of mental illnesses and they were to ask me what is the real secret to a happy life and healing – I would say to find someone that you can love, and that will love you in return that will hold on through the complicated and messy process of your healing – but with that said you have to let them in. Find someone who is strong enough to whether the storm of your ungluing and whom is not afraid of that which is hard. Someone who is strong enough to stand unmoved as you bob and weave through your twists and turns, and who is forgiving enough to rebound in love though the highs and lows of life. Marriage is not easy; it is a great deal of work to hold onto one another when it is uncomfortable – it is even harder to make space for marriage when life gets insane. But marriage is the most incredible of soft places to land in a sometimes big scary world. And life is undoubtedly easier when you find a wonderful partner to share it with.
Which brings me to the next important piece of this post which is how we help those whose pain is so severe that it is detrimental to relationships, and whose suffering is so great that their connections and protections have been severed. How we help those whose illnesses have left them without proper advocates or relationships to serve them and need societies help.
FROM A MACRO PERSPECTIVE
For starters we have to understand that the basis of most pain and suffering is trauma. I have been a champion of understanding developmental trauma and what ACES means and the effect of Adverse Childhood experiences on our society for a decade now, but once we understand that suicide is less about what runs in our bloodlines, and more about how traumas are passed down the more we can do to heal them.
When looking at trauma – the pain stems from our primary attachments. Simply put the attachment we build with our primary attachment objects (people, places, securities) either send a message that the world is safe and loving or that the world is scary and full of pain. For those who have learned that the world is scary and full of pain – our brains quite literally form differently. Our neuro-pathways and chemicals change during our development and often this sends our brain into fight or flight mode as a way of survival. Depression often follows.
For those who have experienced traumas – the best way to truly heal is through relationships. Now this is where things get very tricky. If unhealthy love is all you have known – you are far more likely as an adult to seek and attract relationships that mirror the traumas of your youth. In my experience this is where primary wounds get so much deeper and more painful. The abused child often attracts the abusive partner. The chaotic life experience of a child is what feels most comfortable as an adult. What happens here is that the cycle of “the world is dark and scary,” repeats and is reinforced only furthering the false belief systems that keeps us stuck inside of our pain.
Our mental health care system in America is broken beyond belief. The places that offer shelter for those who so desperately a soft place to fall, are the closest places to hell on earth I have ever experienced. Simply put – the psychiatric wards are like prison cells – the doctors who work inside of these places are completely under-supported and ill-equipped to do the work at hand. I could talk for hours about the times my mother has been locked in a padded room covered in her own feces while no one cared. The times I have visited her in a ward with her teeth rotting out. The lack of wholistic and streamlined medical history that leaves these individuals who have no one to advocate for them treated like abandoned garbage.
We have to create homes and supports filled with nature and art and music and love where people who are suffering can live. When you look at addiction facilities they have created environments where people can heal – but the mental healthcare community has not been supported financially in the same way – because there is still such stigma attached with mental illness.
We need to pay social workers far more – they are where the heavy lifting of the heart gets done – they are the way of the future for mental healthcare and yet these positions are the most neglected in our society. There is so much more to touch on but fundraising and support to these centers is most certainly the biggest start.
And the end of the day humans need bumper rails – something to guard them from going off the edge – no doubt the bumpers we need the most is human connection. It just takes one person to care for another enough to stand on guard while we stumble through the messiness. I want to be that bumper for others – I have also learned how to put the guard rails up for myself. That is the real challenge I leave with you. Don’t be afraid of sad or messy, stand up to shame and unworthiness, and know that your not alone in your darkness.
That is all I have for today. I will just leave you friends with this – do not let the darkness take you – there are sunsets overlooking mountains, and the sounds of your children’s laughter, and there is so much magic in love. If you need a friend to hold space for you – you know where to find me.