Category Archives: depression

The Crumble of My Life

lifemap

The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

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How It Feels to Die

I was utterly convinced that I had a brain tumor. There was no way that you could have convinced me otherwise. I was around 23 and I happened to have a couple of really minor dizzy spells. In my mind, dizzy = brain, brain=tumor. There was no other possible explanation.

I had a serious boyfriend at the time (serious enough that we later got engaged) and he watched me devolve into a huddled mass that lived under the blankets in my bed. I lay there in fear of my impending death. I have a disturbing journal entry from that time that reflects my utter certainty that I had a limited time to live. My boyfriend called a good friend of mine and had her come over to check on me. I remember her sitting on my bed, stroking my hair, trying to reassure me that it was nothing. In my mind, she was coming to say goodbye.

I had made an appointment with my doctor who, not finding anything wrong with me, referred me to a neurologist. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but…” In my mind, that referral was the indicator of doom. Clearly, my doctor thought that a neurologist WOULD find something and she could pass off being the bearer of the inevitable bad news.

A few nights before the appointment my boyfriend insisted we go to the movies to take my (dizzy) mind off of things. Whatever it was we went to see completely eludes me. What I remember is sitting there in fear, not observing or hearing a thing, my dizzy spills getting worse. For some reason, I went into the lobby to call my father from a payphone. I was experiencing a full-on nervous breakdown, an antiquated term, but one I heard many times in regards to my mother. I was having a nervous breakdown, on a payphone in a move theater lobby, while my father listened. I was 23.

My father lives in California so the time difference was advantageous to him scrambling to call some of his contacts on the East Coast to get me in to see someone as quickly as possible. He called me back on the payphone with the number of a psychiatrist who his friend described as a “pussycat.” He had a Jewish last name.

I was able to get an appointment with him the next day. He was an older man, probably in his late 60s early 70s with a very calm demeanor. I had been in therapy on and off since I was 16 so I knew how it worked. I ran through my bullet points like I had hundreds of times and he listened and nodded in the way that therapists do.

A lot of people don’t realize that hypochondria to this degree is a symptom of depression. The dread, the fear, the self-sabotage and all that comes from the twirling spiral downward. I left his office with a prescription for Prozac when it was the newly lauded drug of the century.

Within the same week, I went to the neurologist for a brain scan. I held my breath as he came into the room after reading the results. “You’re fine,” he said smiling. Instantly my dizzy spells turned into little invisible vapors that swirled out the top of my head. Bye bye brain tumor.

Some time after that I thought I had ovarian cancer. It wasn’t nearly as extreme an experience but until I went to the doctor I was convinced that there was something the size of a grapefruit growing inside of me. My meds were “tweaked” and all was well. Until about two weeks ago.

For some reason my ability to breathe smoothly got all fucked up. I felt like there was a catch somewhere between my clavicle and my throat. No wheezing, no blood being coughed up in gobs, just…different. I began to incessantly google “symptoms of lung cancer.” Every day. Lung cancer and mold allergies. I tried to imagine which drag of a cigarette I had taken before I finally quit had run amok. One thing that really scared me is that apparently arm and shoulder pain is a sign of metastisized lung cancer and I’ve had pain in my arm for months. I can easily recreate the pain, clearly muscular, and in fact, I even chose to get a cortisone shot for it about six months ago. But, this didn’t matter. In my mind, the orthopedist wasn’t equipped to see a spot on my shoulder with simple x-rays and it’s been growing at a rapid pace ever since.

I questioned everyone. Are you having trouble breathing? Is it a dry feeling? Does it feel like this? Everyone had coughing and chills and fever. They wheezed and coughed up gunk. Clearly, I was the only one with lung cancer. I thought of what it would be like to have to tell my extremely sensitive daughter. I thought about my husband who I had just found the perfect love with. I thought about how the word would get out. Would I write a post on facebook? Would I be one of those people who smiled through it all and never told anyone until all my hair fell out?

Chances are pretty good that I DON’T have lung cancer. I’ve felt a bit more normal the past few days. I don’t know why I bring this on myself. Why, when I am at my happiest am I expecting it all to end? Why do I choose to sabotage my bliss? I don’t have answers for this, but perhaps, after 20 or so years, it’s time for another meds tweak.