Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Fall and winter are hard. They’ve been difficult for years because I have both the shorter days to deal with and the holidays. Holidays have been awful for years, really ever since I left home, because if my family isn’t directing manipulation and abusive behavior towards me, they’re directing it to my siblings. This Christmas was the first time I’d gone to visit my parents and both of my younger siblings since I was 18. Which, god 18 was a long time ago. Anyway, the older of my two younger sisters flew into Boston the Saturday before Christmas and the three of us, (my sister, my partner, and myself) took Greyhound up to northern Vermont to celebrate with my parents and my youngest sibling (who lives ten miles away from my parents).

There were good moments in the three days that we were there. It was great spending time with both of my siblings at the same time because it’s pretty rare we’re all in one place at the same time. It was nice to remember little family traditions and share them with my partner. It was good to spend time with my mother in the mornings when we both woke up before every else. There was snow, which always makes Christmas seem more real. There were some really bad moments there too, and they kind of crushed the good things. The bad parts… They’re pretty bad.

Both of my sisters and I drove someplace where we could take a long walk the morning of Christmas Eve. We didn’t wind up walking very far because my youngest sister slipped on the parking lot of her building and landed on her knee and elbow. We wound up walking a bit into the center of town and getting coffee and just hanging out for a bit. It was really nice, minus the part where my sister’s knee hurt. But on the way home, my other sister burst out crying because she didn’t want to go back to my parents’ home because she didn’t want to be around our father. He had apparently come up behind her that morning, put his arms around her, and tickled her stomach that morning. She was afraid to be alone with him. We wound up taking the long way back to my parents’ house and promised her that we wouldn’t let him get her alone again if we could help it.

So we got back and my youngest sister asked if we wanted to watch a movie with her. She’d started Die Hard (best Christmas movie ever, if you ask me) the day before and I said yes because it’s awesome. Then we asked my other sister if she wanted to watch with us, which she did, but my father had been trying to talk her into playing a game with him just the two of them. So my sister agreed to watch it with us, the three of us on the futon with my partner sitting at the counter. My father got really pissed that she had chosen to do something with us instead of him and stormed off, slamming the door behind him. It made me anxious and I’m sure it made my sister anxious because she had “caused” him to be angry. Anyway, we watched the movie and eventually moved on from worrying about what he might say or do next. I was definitely on edge the rest of the evening, but we all got through it.

Christmas started out fine. I hung out with my mother again early in the morning because I was waking up at 5:30 again for no reason. When everyone was awake and downstairs and properly caffeinated (minus my sister and myself), we opened stockings and my sister played the Christmas elf (don’t ask, it’s a family thing from long before I was old enough to understand Christmas at all) and handed out presents from under the tree. Everyone was having a good time together, which was nice. My father was kind of an ass. My partner went out of her way to make a batch of hot sauce to give him, and I’d gone to two different stores to find appropriate peppers. He basically unwrapped it, asked what it was and what he was supposed to do with it, and set it aside. No thank you, no acknowledgment of the effort we put into it. Then he opened a card that my sister had given him and made a big deal out of how wonderful and thoughtful it was. So I was already pissed at him and decided not to bother with a gift for him again, because clearly he didn’t give a shit about anything from me.

Later that morning, my mother was in the kitchen cooking and roasting vegetables for dinner, and we were hanging out in the living room with my partner. My sister was in the rocking chair that my mother has had pretty much since I was a baby, rocking. My father came up behind her and leaned on the back of the chair so she wouldn’t be able to rock anymore. She slid as far forward as she could in the chair. After it became clear that he wasn’t going to leave the chair alone, she said something about how she couldn’t rock anymore and his response was that she should lean back in the chair. So my father is standing there, ignoring her very obvious discomfort and she is sending pleas for help from the rest of us. I told him that it looked like she didn’t like him hanging on the back of her chair. He ignored me completely. I waited a minute and then said “I think she’s asking you to stop. Please stop.” which apparently was not appropriate or reasonable in my father’s mind, because he left the room muttering “for fuck’s sake” as he left the room. So everyone except my partner was panicking over what he might do, because he had obviously been pissed off at my sister trying to communicate a boundary with him and had ignored her completely and then was pissed at me for interfering.

This is a pattern with my father. He doesn’t tolerate us setting boundaries with him, especially when it involves my sister. She’s his favorite and I think he has some fucked up notion that she’s not her own person and he can do what he want to and around her. (Side note: it took years of her telling him not to touch her ass and my mother kind of telling him to stop before he actually stopped. When she was 25.) She just basically is not allowed to have bodily autonomy with him. She’s just a pawn for him to move around. And for the most part, my mother doesn’t do anything to discourage him from this behavior. She might speak up on occasion, but usually it’s in a way that everyone else can tell has no chance of being effective at all. And she was giving my sister a guilt trip to spend more time with him, alone, in a way that feels obligatory, like she owes him that.

I don’t know if I’m going to go back for the holidays after this. It basically stirred up a lot of childhood trauma and I’ve spent the last few days with varying levels of dissociation. It’s not okay. I know it’s not okay. And I can’t do anything about it because my father acts like a fucking child anytime someone dares to tell him no. Actually no, that’s an insult to the children I know. I know he’s an abusive asshole. I’m pretty sure everyone except my mother knows this, but somehow we get dragged back into his shit every time. I texted my therapist the day after we got back to Boston to see if she had any free time before the weekend. She wound up calling me to check in even because she wasn’t working that week and I think she could tell that I couldn’t wait until my next appointment. My sister left Friday morning and I’ve been trying to get back into life at home. It is good to be home, but it’s been really challenging because most of the trauma that I’ve been struggling with this week didn’t really hit until after we got back. It’s like I went back into that childhood mode of just doing what I had to to survive until I got back home and now that I’m back a whole bunch of stuff has been coming up. Trauma over being around my parents, grief over it not being safe emotionally for me to be around them, sadness that the hopes I had that things could be different were dashed pretty quickly, and feeling like I was stupid for getting my hopes up in the first place.

I’m trying to stay grounded. I had TMS Thursday and Friday and overall felt like I was coping well and listening to the parts of me that are needing attention. I’ve been taking long walks again, something that was very much lacking in Vermont, listening to music, and drinking a lot of tea. I’m gradually getting back to where I was before Christmas. And that’s probably all normal, even if it feels horrible. We will all get through this, one way or another.

Finding Tolerance Inside of Despair

I feel sometimes that the only time I write any kind of update it’s either in the throes of emotional distress or following it. I started feeling more depressed again in late September. I tried to power through and when that wasn’t working, I met with my psychiatrist about it. When I was in the hospital in February they made med changes, and the big one was taking me off of desvenlafaxine (generic Pristiq) and started me on valproic acid (generic Depaote). I was kind of surprised that they had chosen an antipsychotic that wasn’t really known to be used for depressive episodes, but when I asked the psychiatrist at the partial hospitalization program I was in before/after the hospitalization she said that it was probably to level me out some, so that I wasn’t having severe lows. Something seemed to be working though, because I did get better and my mood was sustained until August or so.

When I met with my psychiatrist in September, I asked if it might make more sense to take me off the valproic acid since neither of us really agreed with my having been put on it, and change that out for lamotrigine (generic Lamictal) instead, since that is actually used off label for depression. She agreed that that made sense, so she had me stop taking valproic acid for two weeks before starting the lamotrigine because apparently the combination of the two increases the risk of Stevens-Johnson syndrome which in severe cases it basically results in a severe rash and your skin to slough off your body. Which, no thanks. I like my skin where it is, please. So I stopped the valproic acid and two weeks later had my first tiny dose of lamotrigine. (Lamotrigine is a medication that alone can cause Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, so you basically have to start at a very low dose and taper up very slowly.) I took the first dose in October, just before Halloween, but by the time I was able to start the lamotrigine, I had already gotten a lot worse. Whether that was because of stopping the valproic acid or if it was just the usual seasonal changes who knows, but the evening after the first dose, I felt like I needed to go to the emergency room. My partner was doing everything she could to have me be okay at home, but I had been having suicidal ideation for a few days and had moved from just passive thoughts into a planning stage and it just felt unsafe to not be in a non secure environment. So we both decided that I would go to the ER that night because the weekend was approaching and beds are really hard to find on days where no one is being discharged (which basically doesn’t happen at all on weekends and holidays). So off we went.

I don’t remember getting to the emergency room in Cambridge or most of the time that I was there, but I do remember psychiatry coming down to evaluate me and agreeing that I needed to be in the hospital. There were no beds available that night. The next morning came and afternoon started to pass and there was still no bed available. One briefly opened up in Everett but about an hour before the ambulance was due to come pick me up, they cancelled it because a more violent patient needed to be put in that single. I was starting to panic that I would be in the ER for another night. My partner had spent the day with me, working by my bedside, and that was helping keep me grounded and mostly calm, but the thought of another night with no sleep sucked. A couple of hours later, the psychiatrist came back and said that I had a bed at McLean, which was fucking amazing because there are never any open beds at McLean. I don’t really remember going or getting to McLean other than it was by ambulance. I got up to the short term unit (south) around 10-11:00 and crashed out in the quiet room. They moved me the next day after other patients were discharged and that was that.

It was definitely necessary for me to be there. I really struggled the first couple of weeks as they increased the lamotrigine (which was a faster process than if I’d been at home, but still felt intolerably slow) and I started TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation). I had no appetite. I spent my time going to groups and worrying about potential discharge dates, since my secondary insurance was trying to get me discharged a week after I arrived. My partner visited almost every evening. I made connections with other patients. Gradually I started to feel better. I was told that with TMS I would start having good periods of time would occur but not last very long, then as I progressed, those good times would gradually stretch out into longer and longer periods of time, until it was being sustained to feeling good a lot of the time. I don’t know what made the most difference. They got me up to a therapeutic dose of the lamotrigine and I started progressing just how the nurses at TMS told me about. I think it was likely a combination of the two, but I do think the TMS helped, and is still helping. I strongly connected with a handful of patients and a couple of the staff members there. I’m in touch with some of the patients I met, though I have only seen one of them outside of the hospital so far. It’s hard not having the constant support of staff, especially the two that made the most difference while I was there. I miss them a lot and knowing that I will likely never see them again is hard emotionally. I make such strong bonds so quickly in the hospital because everyone is there for similar reasons and they just get it better than most people outside.

I had multiple discharge dates planned by myself and my social worker and psychiatrist but they kept getting cancelled because they wanted to see how I did on the weekend first when time is less structured, and I kept backsliding because I got really anxious about discharge looming over my head. Tim, one of my favorite staff members, worked with me to stop thinking so far into the future. He took time out of his schedule to meet with me even when he was not assigned to work with me. He was really honest about his personal struggles and advocated for my needs when I couldn’t do it myself. Ben, my other favorite staff member, would let me walk with him on rounds and talk about what was dark stuff was going on in my head. He taught me how to use ice diving to control my severe anxiety and self harm urges. He found a way for me to be able to do it with just supervision and eventually alone both in the hospital and now that I’m home. Both of them kind of kept an extra eye on me to help keep me safe more frequently when I was struggling a lot. Not having the two of them in my life anymore has been really difficult. I told them both goodbye before that I left and thanked them for all of their help, because it really made a difference. It was so clear that the both of them were in this job because they cared about the patients. Ben told me to give myself credit for the hard work that I’d done (which I am struggling with) and gave me a hug the last night he was on shift before I left. I wrote both of them letters to say the things I wanted/needed to say and didn’t get a chance to say in person.

My psychiatrist was gone the last two weeks of my hospitalization so I had four different doctors in that time period. Things were better then, but my anxiety was still really high a lot of the time and what I was being given to help make it more manageable was not sufficient. My psychiatrist had mentioned gabapentin (generic Neurontin) for the anxiety but had not ordered it for me. The first three covering doctors said no (the first saying that because it can have “dependency issues” which okay, but so does my clonazepam (generic klonopin)), but with Tim’s urging I asked the last doctor if we could try it and she didn’t see any reason why not because neither myself or my partner have substance abuse issues. I started on it that afternoon and evening and by the second day of it, it was like a switch had flipped in my brain. The anxiety was either not noticeable or at a low enough level that it was manageable. It was amazing. I’m still taking it now that I’m home and it’s continuing that be really helpful.

Home is good. I’m feeling so much better. People were telling me the last days I was at the hospital that I looked like a completely different person. One patient who had come, left, and come back while I was there told me that she almost didn’t recognize me because when she had come in originally I was just so down and depressed and then she came back and I was stable and actually happy. I’ve had fluctuations in my mood and anxiety, but I know that is normal and no one is happy all the time. I talk more now. I’m more engaged in things. I make eye contact with strangers when I’m out walking and actually talk to them at times! My psychiatrist and therapist both noticed a drastic difference in my demeanor. My partner said it was like I was present in myself in a way that she maybe had never seen before. Overall I was in the hospital for five and a half weeks, but I learned a lot during those weeks and know it was necessary.

I’m still going to McLean twice a week (used to be five days a week) for TMS treatments. I am nearing the end of what insurance has agreed to cover. The TMS doctor wants me to continue doing maintenance beyond that and will be requesting more coverage but my insurance mandates that there have to be three months before they’ll consider covering me more. That’s daunting and scary, but I’ll do what I have to. In the mean time though, I’m doing what I can to stay stable outside of treatment. I walk a lot now, aiming for 10,000-15,000 steps a day. I have met that goal every day, minus the time I spent in Vermont with family (that’s a whole other post altogether). The walking helps me stay grounded, it’s actually kind of meditative in a way walking while listening to music, and helps keep my mood stable. I’ve been really enjoying it. I’ve gone back to Tai Chi after about a two month break since before the hospitalization I was too depressed/anxious to go to class. I haven’t missed any classes for this month, which is a big change for me. I’m actually looking forward to class. I sometimes keep feeling like I’m tempting fate with feeling this good and like maybe the other shoe is going to drop on my head, but I’m continuing with life anyway. Things are good and I’m enjoying the good and trying not to fixate on things in the future that I can’t control. (Thanks Tim!)

Why Boundaries Matter

For years I couldn’t feel anger. I was so used to stuffing it down inside myself, that I only ever took my anger out on myself. At the partial hospitalization program I’ve been attending, they talk about how anger is a secondary emotion, how it is usually the result of some other emotion. And that makes sense to me, because I think for me anger is usually secondary to hurt. For years I couldn’t feel anger, I just felt the hurt and at times betrayal. Then I went through a lot of trauma specific therapy and all the anger that I’d suppressed for years came flooding out. It took a lot more therapy, but I eventually got to the point where I can feel anger without being afraid of losing control. I began to be able to experience big emotions or fluctuations in emotions without them taking control of me. And then this past autumn happened.

I knew my partner was polyamorous when I met her. I was aware of this but kind of filed it away because we were living in a really rural town for years where dating prospects were pretty slim. Then we moved back to the Boston area, but my mental health was such that she didn’t seek out other romantic partners. But over the summer and early fall, it became clear that she was interested in potentially dating other people outside of our marriage. I had a lot of fears about going forward with her dating, mostly the usual things like “What if she decides she likes this new person better than me? What if she leaves me?” that came up many times in therapy as I processed this. And over time I began to believe that she meant it when she said she wasn’t going anywhere. But then she told me who she wanted to try dating and I just had a bad feeling about it not just because of the worries I mentioned above, but also because the person she was talking about, I’ll call her C, had given me a bad feeling when we met.

I love my partner and I wanted her to be happy, so I said okay, even through these bad first impressions and neither of us could really tell if I was uncomfortable with Miss Insecurity because she generally sent off warning signs in my head or if I was just going to be uncomfortable with anyone my partner was dating. So I said okay and their relationship began. And it was awful. For six weeks, C managed to not just manipulate my partner but also acted in ways that were borderline abusive towards me. She continually started conversations with me online and then ghosted on them after I responded, sometimes not replying for a full week. She tried to make me help her process her feelings of jealousy and upset when I tried to set boundaries with her. She patronizingly tried to explain to me how relationships worked and how I was being a bad partner. She used guilt to try to manipulate my partner into spending more time with her when my partner genuinely couldn’t due to scheduling constraints that didn’t work with C’s constant travel plans. C had jealous fits that I wouldn’t expect out of someone who’d been having polyamorous relationships for twenty years. When my partner had to occasionally turn down invitations for dates, she got upset that I got to see my partner all the time when in reality there were weeks where my partner and she spent more time together than the two of us did living together.

I spent the first few weeks of their relationship feeling very isolated and alone. I tried to set boundaries as a way of protecting myself and C took my setting them out on me. She made everything about her feelings and told me I was bad at relationships. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening because C made me feel like the only reason I was struggling was because I was bad at polyamory. She told me that I shouldn’t talk about the issues that she and I were having with my partner, essentially trying to take away the one person I could talk to. I felt like I couldn’t reach out to mutual or non mutual friends because I was internalizing her message and was afraid they would judge me harshly. I spent the last few weeks of their relationship an anxious wreck every time my phone vibrated because I was afraid it was C trying to start shit with me again. I had trouble sleeping and meeting obligations because I was trying to deal with this alone.

But then I just couldn’t do it anymore, not alone. I started talking to friends who were also in polyamorous relationships about what was actually happening and they were horrified. One friend who knew C through other channels responded by e-mail that they’d heard that my partner and C were dating and that they felt “a moment of both horror and deep love for” me because they had also had bad experiences with her as well. Other friends told me how they were horrified by the way that C was talking to me because being polyamorous themselves they would NEVER had talked to their partner’s partner this way. Person after person, friend after friend share their horror stories of dealing with C. I finally started to feel less alone. I wasn’t happy that my partner was still in this relationship because of the ways it was affecting me, but at least I wasn’t alone in my feelings anymore.

I had refrained from talking about any of my problems with C because I didn’t want other people to have to pick a side and I didn’t want to damage her relationships with mutual friends. I tried to be the bigger person. I continued to treat her with respect even though she didn’t extend the same back to me. Even months after the breakup, I limited my discussions with mutual friends to protect her. And really that was the thing that made my partner finally end this toxic relationship. She was contacted by a mutual friend who said they wanted nothing to do with me anymore because C was trash talking me behind my back, lying about things I had said or done and framing them as her feelings so no argument against them could be made. That was the last straw. My partner met up with her to break up. C failed to mention she was drunk and the breakup took until after 3 AM because my partner had to wait for her to sober up enough that she’d actually remember the conversation in the morning. Yeah, it was a three hour breakup.

So why am I bringing all of this up now? Because C is still, unsurprisingly, bad at boundaries. And this is still, perhaps just as unsurprisingly, affecting my life. I am angry at her behavior, I am anxious of the way she may treat me after the next conversation that she and my partner have about respecting boundaries. I’m anxious that she’s going to try and turn our mutual friends against me as she has in the past. I’m angry that months after my partner broke up with her, that boundaries are still continuing to be violated. I was talking to a mutual friend last week and her reaction was that it sounded like we had both been hurt by this relationship. And I wish I’d had the strength to tell her that it wasn’t just that we’d both been hurt. That C had been actively manipulative and toxic and abusive during the six weeks she and my partner were dating and that it went beyond not inviting us both to the same gathering. I wish I’d had the strength to not just shrug and agree. I don’t know where to go from this point, but I need to figure something out because right now every time I see her face, I’m a ball of fury and hurt and recognizing that anger is a secondary emotion doesn’t make me feel any less angry by the situation.

A Familiar Holding Pattern

After Amelia’s death in January, the depressive episode I was in got worse. I waffled about going back to the partial hospitalization program (Triangle) that I attended in June because it felt like maybe my depression wasn’t bad enough to warrant me being admitted to it and besides what if there were other people who needed the services more than I did. Yeah, I apparently have imposter syndrome about accessing mental health care. But that was what I was thinking, distorted or not, and after some gentle pressure from both my psychiatrist and my therapist, I gave in and got my therapist to call and schedule an intake for me. That was about a month ago.

Even though I felt shitty about taking up space in Triangle, I went in for my first day on February 19th. I was trying to push those thoughts aside and just focus on recovery when I read a statement online that wound up being the destabilizing event that my brain had apparently been waiting for. I wound up not really sleeping much that Monday and felt pretty crummy heading into the PHP the next day. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d read and the implications for what could happen and my thoughts just spiraled into despair. I made it through the first couple groups that morning and then just couldn’t make my brain stop. I asked one of the clinicians if she had a minute and followed her through the back hallway into her office. She was so kind to me and all I could think was what if it was me this time. What if the thoughts running through me took control and I didn’t make it home that night. We talked for maybe ten minutes. Well, she talked and I sobbed. I wound up meeting with the psychiatrist I’d been assigned to and she wound up sectioning me to a nearby ER to be evaluated for an inpatient bed. The irony of being terrified of taking someone else’s much needed spot in the program and winding up being transported across the city by ambulance to spend a week on a locked inpatient unit was not lost on me.

The hospital was okay. They were really lacking in structured activities, so I spent most of my time hanging out with other patients and playing with art supplies. I started another journal and probably filled half of the notebook before I left, mostly to get thoughts out of my head and also because I was just bored. The hospital psychiatrists made a bunch of changes to my meds. There were some not great moments, patients having meltdowns and breaking furniture, the guy who tried to commit suicide on the unit minutes after I’d been taken to my room, the guy who literally ignored me all week but who would sit at the table across from me and flirt with the women there as if I were invisible if I tried to continue being involved in conversation with the women I’d just been talking with. He’d go so far as to talk around me, change the subject of the conversation, or depending on who was around, switch into Portuguese so I couldn’t interject. But things were pretty okay. I found camaraderie in some of the other patients. I burrowed under the occupational therapy department’s weighted blanket that they loaned me.  I gambled with the hospital kitchen, trying to order as many non-water beverages on my meal trays as possible and seeing what they’d cross off. (I think my max was one cup of hot water for tea, one cup of hot water and no sugar added hot chocolate mix, a cup of diet ginger ale, and a diet cranberry juice.) I felt pretty safe and supported.

I wound up celebrating my 35th birthday while hospitalized. I wasn’t really looking forward to my birthday because Amelia’s memorial was scheduled for the following day and it just felt weird to celebrate something after what had happened. My partner came by for a visit that night and brought me a slice of cake, with two other friends which I was not expecting at all. I missed the memorial, of course, which was felt complicated. I tried to distract myself that day, reading over the pamphlets on grief that the interfaith chaplain had given me, hanging out eating way too much no sugar added sorbet and playing games that I continued to suck at and lose. We marked the passing of time by waiting for our next meals, having long forgotten what we’d ordered by the time it arrived. I drank a lot of tea. I was discharged after a week, and referred back to Triangle the next day after spending a night getting much better sleep in my own bed.

The meds change has been interesting so far. The psychiatrist I saw in the ER increased my evening antipsychotic dose because he felt that would help with the ruminating thoughts that were keeping me up at night and added a sleep med. The inpatient psychiatrist I saw discontinued one antidepressant I’d been taking and lowered the dose on another because she though it might be making me more anxious. She also started me on a mood stabilizer which has mostly been making me drowsy during the day. I hear this side effect most likely will pass with time and I’m starting to feel a bit more alert this weekend, so I’m hoping it will eventually be fine. I am noticing that when my mood drops during the day it isn’t dropped as fast or as low so hopefully the med will do what I need it to do after we figure out the right dose for me. I actually woke up feeling really good this morning, even if it didn’t last throughout the day. It’s way better than I felt three weeks ago, or even a month ago. I’ll just have to wait and see what comes to pass.

 

Old Made New Again

Fifteen and a half years ago, I got my first tattoo with my ex. It was a very simple design, a Japanese kanji for courage, based on a tattoo my ex had in the same location on his wrist. I don’t remember much from getting the tattoo except that it was relatively painless and quick and I began telling people that it was a reminder to myself that I had courage.

Fifteen years was a long time ago. I’ve grown since then, though I might still need that reminder, but I’ve had regrets for a long time. I didn’t like that I had tattooed myself in a language that I didn’t speak, in a style that was appropriated from a culture that I’m not a part of. I regretted the reminder of my abusive relationship on my body. I just couldn’t figure out how to turn the kanji into something else though, since it was black ink in a pattern that I couldn’t draw into something else.

I’ve had a great appreciation for dinosaurs for a long time. And I’ve identified with them strongly for the past years, especially with Tyrannosaurus Rex. What started as an inside joke about how I am really a tiny dino blossomed into my adopting this as part of my identity. No, I don’t think I am actually a dinosaur, but I enjoy playing the part sometimes. So when it came to trying to figure out what to cover this tattoo with, I decided that it would be great to put a dinosaur in it’s place. I couldn’t figure out how to design it myself though, so I reached out to a local tattoo artist to see what he could come up with.

I was a little nervous going into the shop yesterday for my appointment, because I hadn’t actually seen the sketches he’d drawn yet and had no idea what things might look like. I knew that I could walk away without getting the tattoo if I didn’t like what he had come up with, so I wasn’t worried about getting something I didn’t like, but I was really hopeful that he would design something I’d fall in love with. He did not disappoint.

The dinosaur snakes its way from the outside of my forearm, covering the old tattoo seamlessly, and branches out around the outside of my arm. My only complaint with this tattoo is that it’s impossible to get all of it in one photo. The shading work is brilliant. I can’t express how much I love this tattoo. It feels appropriate to have something that fits in line with my identity rather than a foreign symbol that made me cringe every time a stranger asked me about it. It feels like a reset in some ways.

I’ve been so engulfed in depression lately that laying on a table feeling that familiar stinging sensation as the tattoo artist transformed my arm was comforting. In the same sense that self injury has been comforting in the past, the pain felt like a release that I had long been needing, except this pain didn’t come with feelings of shame and regret as self injury often does. My partner who came with me kept commenting that I just looked blissed out for the most part, probably because I was high on endorphins. But it was good. I needed this.

I’m starting again in the LGBT partial hospitalization program that I went through over the summer tomorrow morning. I have a lot of feelings about getting help, mostly shame for needing help, for not being strong enough to get through this on my own. I know that this is my own internalized shit and that it’s actually a strength that I’m not giving up and fighting this, blah, blah, blah, but it sucks all the same. However, there is one brilliant thing* that does not suck that is easy for me to see and since it’s still really sensitive, it’s easy for me to feel. That is a thing that I can bring with me tomorrow when I go to my program, which will be with me the entire time. And I love it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though things really suck right now, this experience has been a light in the dark and I really needed that right now.

Image – Four photos stitched into one, showing four different angles of my right forearm with my new dinosaur tattoo

*I just want to mention that another brilliant thing in my life is my close friends and family and partner who have all been providing me with a lot of necessary support

Where Do We Go From Here?

My friend and upstairs neighbor committed suicide a week ago and it feels a little like a bomb has exploded in the center of my community. Watching my friends struggle to process the news and dealing with complicated feelings all while trying to make sure that my friend’s partner is well supported has been… difficult. Amelia and I weren’t all that close of friends, especially in the last few months or so, but hir death echoed like a shockwave across the community. I feel responsible for us not having been closer friends and at the same time, I’m not sure what I could have done differently.

As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, it is a challenge for me to be around overt displays of sexual behavior. I have a feeling some of my friends consider me to be rather prudish about sex, but it’s just really complicated for me. Even when it is modeled in healthy ways, it feels unsafe or at the least deeply uncomfortable for me to be around people who are being really flirty and aggressively sexual. Amelia often made me feel triggered in this way. Watching hir relationships with people often left me feeling vulnerable in a way that made me feel unsafe. I had planned on trying to set some clear boundaries around the specific behaviors that made me feel unsafe, but I also didn’t want to cause hir more distress when ze was already so overcome by depression so this conversation was never able to happen.

Now I have regrets. I regret that this conversation was never able to happen because it makes things feel unsettled, unresolved. And now instead of mourning for the loss of a friend, it feels like I lost a friend who could have been a much closer friend if it weren’t for my hangups around sex and sexuality. I regret that I was unable to be a better support for hir when ze was still alive because I was afraid of being triggered. I regret keeping my distance as much as I did because I was trying to protect myself. And I feel deeply alone in all of this because it feels like everyone else’s relationships with Amelia were much simpler. I feel like I can’t say “I miss Amelia but our relationship was difficult at times and it’s complicated” without coming across as a giant asshole.

My therapist reassured me yesterday that I’m not a giant asshole, but somehow having someone who gets paid to listen to me tell me that doesn’t dissolve those feelings. Of course she says I’m not an asshole. It’s part of her job to help hold me together. I don’t know how to resolve my feelings around this. I feel deeply guilty and angry and oftentimes very alone. How do you get support from people who you’re afraid are going to judge you harshly, even as you feel you probably deserve it? Is it possible to have imposter syndrome when it comes to grief?

And if that weren’t enough to deal with, I’m also struggling with the guilt I have over the realization that a few years ago, I could be the cause of all of this grief in my loved ones. There was one day back in 2012 where I had a plan in place. I was ready to die and all I needed was for my partner to leave for work and leave me alone in the apartment. I had made up my mind and the only thing that kept me from dying that day was my partner seeing something in me and knowing that I needed help immediately. She didn’t go to work that day. Instead we went to the emergency room and I signed myself into a locked psychiatric unit for a month. But I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if she hadn’t realized where I was. She would have come home from work and it would have been too late. But when you’re in that mindset, when you’re ready to die, the consequences of your actions don’t register. I know that for me, I wasn’t thinking in that moment of anything except ending my pain in the only way I knew how.

So how do I move from this guilt, this anger at myself, into a place of healing and moving on? I know it has just been a week, but this feels like the longest week I’ve ever had. I feel stuck in my grief and alone with my guilt. How do I let people in without inappropriately centering the conversation on myself? It all just feels like some horrible dream from which I can’t wake up. How do I be a better support to the people I care about so that this doesn’t have to repeat itself in the future? How do I be a better person to myself? If only I had all the answers.

(Image description: A photo of my right wrist with a tattoo of a semi-colon nestled between a sinus EKG rhythm)

Brain Weasels

Depression walloped me yesterday. I had a short case of the sad and lonelies on Sunday afternoon, but getting out of the apartment for a bit and being around other people helped. Monday night I was supposed to go to chorus rehearsal but instead I sat at home medicating the anxiety that popped up late morning. So when I woke up yesterday feeling that sense of doom hanging over me, the darkness enveloping my brain, all I could find the words to say was that I felt “bad” inside.

Because that’s how it feels inside my head and body. A sense of something dark deep inside me that is growing sinisterly. Last week when I saw my psychiatrist, I mentioned that my sleep had been really off for a bit, but I had just come back home from a trip to the west coast and we both kind of chocked it up to my brain having difficulty adjusting to the time change. And I was optimistic that things would improve soon, once I got over the jet lag, I would bounce back. Except that’s not what happened.

I went through the motions yesterday. I got exercise riding my bicycle seven and a half miles to my weekly therapy appointment. I went to therapy and was honest with my therapist about how I felt. I forced myself to eat three times. I went to Tai Chi. But every single step that day was forced. Nothing came easily. My therapist reminded me that depression does this, makes everything feel impossibly hard. I feel like I’m carrying a huge weight alone, uphill, in a blizzard. I can’t see where I’m going, I’m cold and lonely and tired, and every step feels harder than the last.

Today I met with a friend to get groceries for dinner. I took the bus a few miles into the next city over from mine, walked through the aisles of the grocery store trying to find ingredients for dinner tonight and tomorrow. I bought the box of dinosaur-shaped macaroni and cheese to eat someday when my appetite returns because it was cute and hey, dinosaurs! I paid for my groceries and got back on the bus to go home with my two light-ish bags and I felt a tiny bit better. The company helped and I was being productive. Then I realized I’d forgotten to do something minor yesterday when my brain was fuzzed from depression and immediately started to catastrophize. “You are a horrible person.” “Everyone hates you anyway.” “What’s the point in trying?” my brain told me on a loop. I unwisely got on the internet and looked at the state of the world and felt powerless and angry and bad. And then I apologized to a friend for my error and corrected it so it no longer existed. My friend was very kind and told me how not a horrible person I was. My cat sat in my lap. I lay on our beanbags under my weighted blanket. And you know, things still suck, but they suck a little bit less.

And that’s the way life goes. I’m trying to practice radical acceptance that as a person with recurring severe depression, this is just a part of my life. To acknowledge that the dark times are going to come and eventually fade away and brighter days will come. And even though I may not want my life to exist this way, I don’t have total control over this and my life is still worth living. I have people who care about me. I am loved. And even if I didn’t manage to get my laundry done today, I did enough and that counts.

(Image Description: Me lying reclined on two brightly colored beanbag chairs, under a weighted blanket with polka dots on it. I’m reading a book – So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – with my cat lying near me)

An Anti-Humbug

Four Year’s ago, I was sitting at a table in a locked psychiatric unit drawing non-stop, wishing desperately that tomorrow would be just any normal day and not a holiday that had driven me to suicidality. The how’s and why’s of that are a whole post of their own though. That year I would spend Christmas among twenty or thirty other patients, a handful of staff members and a “special” hospital food feast. It was glum and depressing and while the staff went above and beyond to make it as decent as they possibly could, receiving a wrapped weekly planner didn’t do much to brighten my mood. Seriously though, the staff was amazing. They even gave me a small wrapped gift to give my partner that day so I would get to give her something. The point I’m trying to drive home though is how bleak and hopeless things felt at that time in my life and how powerless I felt to confront that.

It has been a long four years filled with growth, progress and set-backs but this Christmas is starkly different. This year, for the first time in 17 years, I am traveling to celebrate Christmas with the older of my two younger sisters. I’m not sure who out of the two of us is more excited. For weeks I’ve been shipping little stocking stuffers to her house because that is a family tradition that she’s kept. We’re arriving in California slightly after 10 PM on Christmas Eve since that was significantly less money than flying out earlier in the week. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and we’ll unpack stockings that I can’t wait to fill tonight and go play DND with my sister’s friends and I’ll get to spend the day with her, rather than an hour away from home, inpatient and suicidal like I did in 2013.

There are a lot of things that I attribute this change to. A shit ton of hard trauma therapy for one. Different meds. Some repairing of family relationships. Some healing wounds. I don’t think any of just one of these things would have made all the difference without the others alongside it. I feel pretty damn grateful for my partner, my supportive friends, my mental health team.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year and as we head into 2018, I’m trying to retain a sense of hope that the challenges I’ll face in the upcoming year will be things familiar enough that I can cope to overcome them. It different enough that I still grow as a person. The state of the world feels pretty bleak and I’m easily overwhelmed if I read too many news stories, but I’m hoping things can still change if we don’t give up. Even if it sometimes feels like I gave up a long time ago. This year I’m celebrating Christmas with my sister in California. That’s pretty hard to top.

Let’s Do This

There’s a white supremacy rally happening across the river tomorrow. I’m going with a group of friends to join the counter-protest early in the morning. We’re meeting two miles away and then marching to the common. I’m having a lot of anxiety about tomorrow. I’m worried that things will get violent. I’m worried that I can’t guarantee the safety of myself and the people I love. I’m worried that I could possibly be arrested if things get out of control. But I feel even more strongly that I need to be there tomorrow. I need to show up and stand up and fight back against all of this bullshit because what will happen if people don’t? I’ve got my buddy for the protest. I’ve got a contact person who will be expecting me to call and check in at a given time and can start a search for me if need be. I’ll have the numbers of my contact person and the National Lawyers Guild written on my arm in case I need them and don’t have access to my phone.

I was heartened to read today that nearby churches are opening their doors to the counter-protestors tomorrow, some offering to stay open all night if need be. I’m heartened to see that 15,000 people have RSVP’d on Facebook to show up to the counter-protest and another 30,000 marked themselves as being “interested”. I hope they all show up tomorrow morning. I’m grateful to know that these people will have my back tomorrow if I need them to. And I hope that there won’t be violence tomorrow, but I feel like I’m as prepared as I can be if there is.

Let’s do this…

(Image Description – Myself wearing a black t-shirt which reads “White Silence = White Violence. Black Lives Matter”)

Just Another Practice Run

About six months ago, I started having an increase in anxiety symptoms. I have panic disorder with agoraphobia and so sometimes, I just get really anxious for reasons that I’m not aware of and, if I don’t succeed in using coping skills to deal with the anxiety, can progress into having a panic attack. So I started wanting to avoid things that I normally enjoy and was procrastinating on a lot of important tasks. About four months ago, the anxiety skyrocketed seemingly out of the blue. I couldn’t leave my house, I was dependent on prescription anxiety meds to survive the days, I basically spent entire days underneath my weighted blanket to keep my skin from crawling. And then the depression hit. It started off as a subtle shift from the extreme anxiety I was having with my mood beginning to change and then hit me like a train.

I saw my mental health providers and decided that even though it was early on in this depressive episode, I’d seek out intensive treatment with the goal of preventing it from continuing into something darker where I might become actively suicidal again. I picked a PHP (Partial Hospitalization Program) in a program designed for queer patients, meeting for five group therapy sessions per day. The people at Triangle were great. The mixture of patients was really well suited to my needs and after a few days of silently nodding and snapping my fingers when I identified with something someone said, I began to feel comfortable enough to open up to the group. And gradually, with structure and group sessions and a medication change, I started to feel better.

I’ve been at home full time for about three weeks now and while things aren’t 100% better, I feel like I’m on pretty stable footing. I started volunteering once a week with an organization that does important work that I feel makes a difference in people’s lives. Even though it’s usually just one day a week, it’s made me feel a tiny bit productive and I feel like I’ve gotten as much out of the relationship I’m forging as they might be getting from me. I haven’t really felt this way since I started with OCEMS (Ouray County EMS) in Colorado years and years ago. Life has changed and I’m adjusting to the changes in my own crotchety, skeptical manner. But I am adjusting.

Tomorrow I leave for a four day camping trip in rural Maine. I’ll be spending time with friends that I’ve known for over a decade now, many of which I haven’t seen in years. I have to admit I’m a little anxious about the trip, regardless of my excitement for it. It’ll be the first time going on a trip without Aria since I went to Philadelphia four years ago. I get anxious when riding as a passenger in a car on highways because of the speed and this trip involves several hours of highway driving. And I’m anxious about meeting new people, of which there will be many. I’m managing by reminding myself that I have the friends I know already to feel comfortable around, and that I can medicate myself in the morning before we leave to help with the car anxiety. I am really looking forward to hanging around with a bunch of friends lakeside, getting to use my tent again, bonfires, and sitting around in the sun in a pair of shorts and no shirt.

I’m packed, except for last minute things like my cell phone and my alarm is set for 6:15 tomorrow. The only thing left to do tonight is stop worrying so I can fall asleep. Hah. If only it were that easy, but you know what I mean. It’ll be a good trip and I just need to keep reminding myself of that until it happens.