Friday, September 26, 2014

Emptying my bag

I was alone in the back seat of my mother's van.  The pills I had ingested were taking effect.  I had my phone in my hand and I was trying to text my friends to tell them that I was going to be gone for a few days and that my stepdad's driving was going to kill us.  I could feel myself slipping in and out of consciousness in that seat and it was the best feeling in the world. The troubling part was the time in-between bouts of consciousness.  There was nothing, only Darkness.  No dreams, memories, family members to greet me, nothing.   It was not anything like what I had seen on tv when someone described a near-death experience. 

I remember pulling into the ER parking lot and my mom going into the hospital to tell them I was there.  I don't remember how I got from the car to the ER, but I remember telling my mom to go home, that I didn't need her there.  Surprisingly, she left.  Then, again, darkness.  Black.  Nothing.  I heard the doctor tell me that he was going to put oxygen on me and that I needed to breathe.  He told me I wasn't breathing and he was trying to coax me into consciousness.  The doctor faded out into the darkness as well.  The next time I opened my eyes, there was a social worker asking me questions.  I was angry with her and had no idea how to even answer the questions.  I don't remember what I said to her, but it must have been interesting, as the next morning I sneaked a peak at my assessment and saw I had been diagnosed with psychosis NOS.  She reported that I was hallucinating.  I don't remember any of that.

The next time I saw light and came out of the darkness for good was getting off the elevator on the mental health unit at the hospital.  At the nurse's station, one of my good friends and former co-workers greeted me and informed me that he would not be working in that unit while I was there, trying to make me feel more comfortable.  As a person with a masters degree in social work and years of experience working in the field of mental health who was now, herself, a patient in the "nut hut," feeling comfortable wasn't an option for me.

I spent the remainder of those early morning hours in a room designed for caring for people who were depressed and suicidal.  There were no cords or sharp objects, no television or radio, just a bed stripped down to the bare essentials, a small bookcase with a bible on a shelf, and a bathroom with a door that swung open and shut with no latch, lest I get in there and try to off myself with the toilet paper.

Four months prior to this night, I thought life was as bad as it could get.  I had lost my house to foreclosure and my husband to his alcoholic lifestyle.  I was single with five kids.  I spent my days tying knots in ropes trying to keep hanging on to my life and sanity.  I was working as a therapist for a company I hated.  My friends were non-existant or at least out of reach.  I had met a man I thought was going to solve all my problems, and he left for a job in another state.  The night I took the pills, I had just snooped in his email and found he had been emailing other women before he even got out of state.   I didn't initally intend to overdose, and I missed every single one of my own warning signs.  I gave most of my stuff to my daughter and friends.  Since I couldn't sleep in my king size bed or in my room, I gave my big bedroom to my two little ones. I took one of their twin mattresses and put it on the floor in the smallest bedroom we had and called it my bed. I had been taking medication for sleep and anxiety for years, but they no longer seemed to be helping.  My doctor started me on a new atypical antipsychotic to help with mood stabilization and it seemed to be making things worse. 

Trying to stop the tremors from the new meds and calm myself down to sleep, I took some anxiety meds.  I started out at a normal dose, then added a little more for good measure.  Then I took some pain killers I had on hand to help me sleep.  Sleep was still elusive, so I took another anti-anxiety pill.  They just did not seem to be working.  When I got to the point where I couldn't remember how many of what pills I had taken, I called my mom and told her I needed to go to the hospital.  I refused to go to our local ER and insisted on going to the ER at a hospital over an hour away, where they had a mental health unit.  I think I knew I had made a half-hearted suicide attempt and needed help.  Stumbling through the house trying to put shoes on, I felt the first twinge of fear about what was going to happen to me.

As is normal for most people after a botched suicide attempt, I felt really stupid the next day.  Many times while working on the mental health unit at another hospital, I listened to stories of people who had thought they had reached the end and attempted suicide only to wake up and feel like jackasses.  I was no exception.  In that moment, life seems to be impossible, the pain insurmountable, and getting out is the only viable choice.  Given a few hours, those feelings often pass, especially once locked in a mental health unit where shoelaces aren't even allowed due to the danger of someone hanging themselves with them. 

My mission on that first day on the unit was to convince the doctor I needed to go home.  I wasn't suicidal, it was all a misunderstanding and I didn't need to be there with the crazy people.  I was perfectly sane.  Taking too many pills is a perfectly normal reaction to my life at that point, and I needed to get home to remedicate myself.  After all, I knew they were going to cut me off the meds that "really worked," (aka the meds that made me numb) and put me on something stupid.  Didn't matter what they said, I knew myself better, knew what worked, had a top-notch psychiatrist out in the community, and was going to do as I damned well pleased anyway. 

I "met" my doctor that first day.  She was a psychiatrist at the place where I worked at the time, so that was totally embarassing.  I called in to work and told my boss that I was in the hospital but gave no more details except that I would not have access to a phone.  The scheming for release continued but my doctor would not budge.  She was convinced I was a danger to myself and told me that if I tried to leave, I would have a 96 hour hold in place to keep me there at least 96 hours.  I knew that any judge would approve that hold, given that I had almost died due to what appeared to be a planned overdose. 

I was aware of the game I needed to play in order to be set free: go to groups, stay out of bed, play nicely with others and put a smile on your face.  I happened to befriend another patient on the unit pretty quickly.  She looked "normal" like me.  Having worked in the field of mental health for 10 years, I understand the stigma of mental illness and learned not to judge people for being on a mental health unit.  Professionally, that was possible.  Personally, I did not want to be seen as one of THOSE people.  So, the "normal" friend was important for me to have.  She seemed depressed but was functional.  The unit was full of truly mentally ill people, people with schizophrenia who were hallucinating and delusional and people who were otherwise functionally impaired.  My new friend and I walked the halls together and talked and worked on jigsaw puzzles when we weren't in one of those "art therapy" groups where we learned how to express ourselves with markers and dull crayons.  I told her all about why I was there, the "accidental" overdose of pills and the subsequent loss of consciousness.

During a particularly intense jigsaw therapy session, my new friend informed me that she knew why I was there.  I said, "Of course you do.  I told you."

"No.  I know why you are really here.  I don't believe what you told me.  If you had taken all of those pills, you would be dead."
I delicately continued my search for a matching puzzle piece, trying to avoid eye contact, and asked her why she thought I was there. 

"You're here because THEY want you to be here.  You're here to spy on me and tell them what I'm doing.  It's not going to work, you know."

Well damn.  Double damn.  Now I am alone in a room with someone who is not so obviously delusional and believes I am spying on her.  We were in a corner of the room furthest from the door and not a staff person in sight. 

Shifting in my chair, I said, "No way.  I'm here because I am sick.  I am sick and I took pills to kill myself."

"I know you are lying."

"Well, I'm tired.  Just beat."  Using the adolescent yawn move employed by teenage boys in a movie theater to get closer to their dates, I slipped out of my chair, pushed it in to the table and headed for the door.  "Just really tired.  Have a good night!"

Whew, I made it out alive and unscathed physically.  I found the nearest nurse and pulled her into my room and informed her that lady is CRAZY.  I explained what happened to the nurse.  Sometime later, I heard yelling and sobbing coming from the woman's hospital room.  I heard discussion at the nurse's station about a "5/2/1" injection, which is 5 milligrams of Haldol, 2 of cogentin and 1 of ativan, typically used to calm down a patient who is escalating into hysteria or violence.  At supper that night, she looked disshevelled and had that chemically restrained look all too familiar to me from my days working an inpatient psych unit.  I was ready to go.

The next couple of days I spent again reassuring my doctor I was "good to go."  I put all my effort into looking happy and well-adjusted so I could go home.  I spent a lot of time on the phone convincing my friends and family I was fine.  I talked to my husband, who was living separately at the time.  I had to have someone to go home to.  The single mother life was killing me and quite honestly, I didn't trust myself at home alone with the kids, although I wouldn't admit that.  My nights were spent lying awake in bed suffering from withdrawals from the lack of anxiety and sleep medication I had become dependent upon.  I spent most of the night tossing and turning and making numerous trips to the nurse's station trying to get medication so I could sleep. 

After much reassuring and begging my doctor and my family to let me out, I was finally ready to go home.  The final factor in my release was the appearance of a former therapy client of mine on the mental health unit.  Appealing to my doctor using the "imagine being in my shoes as a mental health professional" tactic, I successfully won my ticket home.  The last obstacle to tackle was the family session with my husband and the social worker.  Of course I knew how to successfully manipulate that situation to my advantage, and I did.  I left with Mike to go home.

I don't think I had made it out of town yet when I had my anxiety medicine within the palm of my hand and subsequently sliding down my throat in a frantic gulp followed by soda.  I was having full-blown benzodiazepine withdrawals and only had a couple of pills left for the upcoming weekend.  I ended up going to the local ER that night and got a shot of valium because I was beginning to go into seizures from the withdrawals.  I gave the emergency staff the phone number of a friend of mine who was a psychiatrist so that he could order some medication for me, which he did. 

Life eventually got back to normal.  I went back to work where I would run into the doctor from the hospital on my way to the bathroom from time to time.  I know she recognized me, but never said anything to me.  That did not stop my embarassment and shame from engulfing me.  It was a constant reminder that I was not fine. 

I'm not sure exactly why I decided to tell this story.  This was not the first nor the last episode of hospitalization for me.  After this particular stay in the hospital, I began to grasp that I was not in control of my mental illness, it was controlling me.  I also realized I was an addict, a fact I did not deal with for another three to four years.  This is actually my first public admission that I am an addict.  I believe I am probably at the point in my life where I am strong enough to deal with all of this garbage I have been carrying around with me.  The program director of one of the substance abuse treatment facilities where I worked had this great therapeutic tool I think about often.  We called it the "Shit Bag."  We would take clients into group therapy and give them a plastic bag and tie it around their waist.  We would then fill the bag up with a lot of lightweight objects, papers and such, to represent issues in their life they were carrying around with them.  They had to wear the bag and its contents for 24 hours.  They had to eat, sleep and shower with the bag attached.  They also had to journal about their experience while wearing the bag.  The bag inevitably became inexplicably heavy in those 24 hours.  Once they were freed from their tether, the clients discussed in group their understanding of how carrying that bag around was like the resentments, shame and pain we carry around with ourselves every day.  Perhaps this blog entry is about my untying my own shit bag. 

Thanks for helping me empty the bag.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Breaking the Silence

I am finally back to blogging after a lengthy hiatus.  It feels good to be back at the keyboard and I hope to be able to get the creative juices flowing again.  Thanks to those of you who are reading this and supporting my blog.  This has been a great outlet for me to get my thoughts and feelings out of my head where they become toxic if left unattended.
I had an idea for a blog a while back and I cast a net via Facebook for stories from survivors of sexual assault.  I was astounded by the candor of these ladies as they related their experiences to me.  I wanted to get their stories out there in their words.  Some of them had never told anyone what had happened to them until they shared it with me.  These are ladies I know, friends of mine.  It was humbling to me that they were willing to share their stories with me and my readers.  What also struck me was the sheer number of women in my circle of friends who have been victims of sexual assault.  Sexual assault is not something that happens to strangers in dark alleys in bad neighborhoods, at least not as a rule.  Sexual assault happens at parties, at friends; houses, on vacation, at family dinners.  It happens during the day, in the evening, and at night.  It happens to our brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins, friends.  To me, that is the most disturbing part of these stories; the fact that this could happen to anyone at anytime anywhere and very few people feel empowered to address it publicly or as the national epidemic that it is. 
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website,, these are the staggering statistics about sexual assault:
  • 44% of victims are under age 18
  • 80% are under age 30
  • 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
  • 2/3 of assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim
And the final statistic, which is the most troublesome to me:
Before I delve into the telling of these stories, I want to warn all of you reading that there will be subject matter which could be considered an emotional "trigger" for you.  If you or someone you know have been sexually assaulted, please understand that by reading these stories, you may stir deeply and long-held emotions unintentionally.  If this is an issue for you, please contact a mental health professional and seek help.  You may visit the website:, for a listing of professionals in your area.
The following stories are told in the words of the survivors themselves.  I have edited them for length and removed identifying information to protect the identity of the survivors, with the exception of my story and the story of my daughter, Paige.  I considered removing the details of the assaults themselves, but I decided that it was important for the survivors to tell their own stories, as much of them as they choose.  **TRIGGER WARNING**
I did nothing about the rape.  I couldn't even accept it was rape.  I became a slut because I thought I was going to be forced anyway.  I was only 14.  I spent a lot of years being ridiculed about my sexual behavior.  There were three other times I was a victim of gang rapes.  I don't know if it would have been better to turn these people in or not but I made it through.  I have forgiven my attackers and pray that I never have to be a victim again.  I finally received closure  after I went to counseling and got everything out in the open.  Jesus helped me through it all even before I completely knew Him.
Sarah, 40
I was 19 when I was raped after passing out at a party.  I tried to tell a guy friend the next day, the first person I spoke to after it happened, and his response was, "Yeah, whatever." And that's probably why I didn't tell anyone until I was 38.
Melanie, 39
When I was 12, I looked 17 or 18.  That summer my family was on vacation.  It was paradise.  We were there for several weeks and got very comfortable with the staff and area.  There was a guy who worked at the front desk who was 29.  He told me constantly how I didn't look 12 - I looked 18 - like that made it ok for him to look at me the way he did.  One day he asked me casually if I'd like to come down and play cards with him while he worked his shift that evening.  I did.  He grabbed me and molested me.  He didn't rape me because someone came to the desk to get a replacement room key and I left, but I didn't tell anyone because I thought it was my fault.  I had gone there of my own free will, after all, nevermind that I was 12.  I just figured I would be in so much trouble.  I buried it so deeply that I never thought about it again until the 2nd live stream broadcast of the Steubenville protest, when dozens of rape victims were lined up in the freezing cold, waiting for their turn at the mike to tell their story of being assaulted and take off their masks.  I wondered why I was crying and shaking, and then I could picture myself standing there and telling everyone my story.  I could see the guy and feel (him).  It made me sick, but also cleared up so many things.  And I understand that it is not my fault.  My mom died when I was a teenager, and yes, she probably would have blamed me.  She would have told me and my sisters that I was responsible for ruining their vacation, but that wouldn't have made it true.  I know that.  Her issues cannot be my issues.  That's my story.
June, 50
At 19, I had a boyfriend.  One night at my mom's late at night with her in her bedroom, doors shut, he forced me into anal sex.  It happened on a Sunday, and by Monday back at college I couldn't go to class because of the serious damage done (I couldn't sit down).  I was bleeding still, in lots of pain, and didn't even cry out because I didn't want my mom to walk in and see him hurting me.  I tried to fight until the pain was so intense that I just laid there numb and out of my mind.  It lasted approximately thirty minutes, but it was the worst most memorable moment of my life I had thought.  However, by the time I went to the college nurse about it, she shamed me.  She challenged me about having sex, saying what did I expect, maybe I shouldn't have been sexually active with him, and then told me to use condoms and lubrication next time.  I never went to the police, never told his family.  Sadly, I felt that if the nurse was going to mock me, what would public and cops do?  I pray his daughter doesn't come to him with a similar experience someday, but sadly I will always wonder if there's a next time for me.  The statistics may say 1 in 3, but real life says sometimes 1 in 3 is really 3 in 1.
Jennifer, 35
I went to a party my freshman year and hung out and this was the only group of people that accepted me...well a guy cornered me in a bedroom and started to kiss me and I said no I don't want to and he proceeds to throw me on the bed rip my pants to my ankles and proceeds to do his business.  I tried to scream and that's when he put a pillow over my face.  Right before he finished I slipped out of his grasp and climbed out an open window.
Cindy, 18
When I was sexually assaulted I blamed myself a lot.  I still do.  I constantly drilled myself for drinking when it was my first time ever.  I made a bad choice that night.  One that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  That night something was robbed from me that I will never get back no matter how hard I try.  I really don't know what was taken from me.  I've never been a social person.  But I started never going out or speaking to anyone.  It took me everything just to get out of bed.  Most days I couldn't even do that. Out of everything that has happened, this was the worst.  I'm not the same person and I never will be.  I did made a mistake.  A mistake that I have to live with when I can barely live with myself anyways.
Paige, 15
Finally, I will end with my own story.
When I was four, I was at a family gathering.  I was molested by my teenage cousin.  I'm not sure how I ended up in the room alone with him, but it wasn't anything to be afraid of, he was family, right?  Although my memories of life as a four year old are blurry and jumbled, my memories of what happened in that room are quite vivid.  I prefer not to tell details, but let me assure you, I remember them.  Despite my education, training, and life experience dealing with survivors of sexual assault, and my understanding of the misplaced guilt survivors may feel, I sometimes continue to blame myself for what happened that day.  Somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, my four year old self felt that I should not have been in the room alone with him; that somehow I led him to believe what he was doing was acceptable and wanted.  I didn't stop him.  I didn't say no.  My mom walked in and caught him.  I don't remember what she said to him.  I do remember that she said nothing to the rest of the family.  She said nothing to anyone but me.  She didn't exactly blame me, but she didn't blame him either.  She grilled me about what happened.  At times throughout my life, she would remind me about what happened, as if I could forget.  The thing that stuck with me the most besides the actual act, was my mother's silence.  I felt as though I must need to be ashamed and that somehow, some part of it was my fault.
From that time on, when someone would touch me a certain way, I would feel ill.  This carried on into my relationships, bringing with it the guilt I felt for what happened.  I was in a relationship when I was a teenager and it was very toxic.  I was pressured and shamed into having sex many times.  Although I did not say no, I never felt as though it was a choice.  I felt obligated and felt as though it was just easier to go along with it rather than argue most of the time.  I held that same attitude about sex throughout most of my life.  It was an obligation, something I had to do whether I wanted or not; it was never about intimacy or part of a healthy relationship.  This attitude ultimately cost me my job and my professional integrity by tarnishing my ability to make healthy choices with my body.  I have a rip-roaring case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  If someone touches me unexpectedly, I practically jump out of my own skin.
My decision to share these stories is based on my experiences while watching my daughter cope with what happened to her.  I had a couple of male friends contact me who had also been sexually assaulted, but they opted not to share their stories.  For men especially, it can be even more difficult to tell their stories.  They are the silent factor in all of these statistics and should not be forgotten.
My hope is that sharing all these stories will encourage others who have been sexually assaulted to understand that you are not alone.  It is not your fault.  There is nothing to be ashamed of, despite what society says.  Let's stop blaming the victim and break the silence.