Sitting poolside in south west Mexico dreaming of buying a wee little apartment. Just a two bedroom in a nice spot. We could leave our house to our grown son or let it out for six months of the year. What a tidy little life we would have now that we are both retired, hubby and I. We would go to the beach every morning to do a bit of yoga. Swim. Eat tons of guacamole and ceviche. The odd margarita. Mmmmm. A tidy, little life.
Ah, but there’s a wrinkle in said plan.
If I’m not absolutely careful with medications, (yes, plural) sleep, sun, frivolity, bloodwork and following up with both medical and psychiatric doctors as well as talk therapy with a social worker. If I’m not on top of this thing, I could easily be poolside talking to an invisible Virgin Mary. You see, mental illness is not tidy. Nor is it little. But, it is life.
I am blessed in many ways and some have told me that I ‘have it all’. If by that you mean waking up out of a dead sleep in the grips of a panic attack with lifelike apparitions about, then, yes. I do have it all. Or being amped up such that sleep is just impossible. Then yes. I do. You see, the amped up aspect means hypo-mania. Hypo-mania is dangerous as it makes me lose my sense of judgment. I also just get downright pushy and annoying.
Let’s touch on another true danger. Suicidal thoughts and plans can occupy my racing mind when hypo-mania settles into my tidy little life. In order to combat the situation I second and third guess everything I do and say. I will often get quiet and sensitive and will overthink even the tiniest of decisions. Should I have a coffee or not. Maybe I should never have coffee again. Ok. Maybe I’ll only have coffee every other day but only if it’s sunny and definitely only if it’s before noon and only if a squirrel is peering at me while she quickly cheeks another nut. And on and on it goes. Yes, shades of Rainman.
From hypo to full on mania is just a step away. Maybe a few sleepless, lonely, frustrating and scary nights. With full on mania I talk to and touch everyone. I call folks at 3 in the morning repeatedly. When talking to complete strangers in the street or in a shop I take hold of their hand and tell them about their life and what to do with it.
The next step after mania is psychosis. Straight-jacket thrown into a rubber room psychosis. Injected with an embarrassing amount of sedative that usually needs repeating to be at all effective. I’ve been psychotic twice. I was unrecognizable even to myself. I escaped the locked psych ward of our area hospital and with a johnny coat flapping, knee socks and Birkenstocks I was running home. It was February. It was dark and minus 20 Celsius but, see, no judgement. Two old ladies encouraged me to get into their warm car then they called 911. I have no idea who they were but they likely saved my life that night.
Folks, if you know someone with mental illness and they are behaving unlike their usual selves, tell someone who loves them or call the cops and ask for a wellness check on them.
When psychosis is in full swing it is in no way tidy. It is in no way little but, it is in every way life.
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away
And I know a father who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he had done
He came a long way just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and he headed home again
Slip slidin’ away
I was awake at 3:30 am when the sirens went by on Main Street down below our house. I had no idea to what sort of tragedy the sirens were responding.
Then I received a call at 6:30 am.
Come over right now! My closest girlfriend said.
What’s going on? I asked.
Just come over. Her voice urged.
On my way. I said.
I envisioned helping with a flood or some other household problem, like a lost dog.
I was up, dressed in the car and driven the snowy few blocks in six minutes. What’s going on? I called out in the direction up the steps from the entry. The air was thick with emotion and fear. I could almost see it hanging there.
He died. She said simply.
Who died? I screeched as I ran up the steps in my boots, snow falling off. I was glancing around for a body.
Calvin. She said.
A sound came out of me involuntarily. I grabbed her and hugged her small body fiercely. The sound was primordial. Painful. A deep keening. Her Ex, the Dad, appeared and enclosed us in his arms and we all cried together for a few seconds. In my mind’s eye I was still looking around for his body.
I asked… where is he?
He had been the first of three steps at age three, when we moved in next door. Our Leo was the second step at four and his older brother Kevin at five was the third step. Fast friends who ran all over the neighbourhood together, Calvin usually bringing up the rear, on his toes – he was a toe-walker then and so cute as he nimbly rushed to be included. Countless sleepovers, snacks, tumbling, trampolining. He would sometimes gather up his courage and ask me for a drink of water, almost like I might say no. I must have been scary to him?? In recent years, in their teens, Leo would visit and and he would later tell me how Calvin had offered him tea, or soup, or whatever was available. Leo told me how kind Calvin was.
I had watched Calvin grow into a six foot two, curly blond-haired, blue-eyed quiet young man. He loved the outdoors, experiments with pond-like aquariums, fishing. He was a fierce competitor in jujitsu and, sadly, had some other darker pastimes which I would guess were self-medicating. He struggled with anxiety, addiction and with social situations. For the past several months, he could not sleep, due to anti-depressant medication. This would be the straw that broke the camel’s back – the not sleeping. I had heard about many many attempts to get him into counselling and to a psychiatrist or even to get him to emerg. He just would not go. How does a parent force this? It’s next to impossible.
Daisy told me the whole story of the few days leading up to this disaster. We sat by the fire on her couch in the early morning hours. When the door opened and her eldest, stepped in, he collapsed against the wall crying and keening loudly in despair. I slipped unnoticed out the back door. My Blunstones leaving their distinctive print in the freshly fallen snow. Down the back deck steps and around the house to my car. I drove home in a daze. I walked in to find my husband Dean and my son Leo silent with despair. All I could manage to do was to make a pot of soup for my friend in her grief.
In the wee hours, Jonah had followed his son’s bootprints (and many obvious signs of his slipping and falling on the trail, like bad snow-angel attempts). He entered the park, slipping and cursing the hidden ice as he went. A few hundred meters in, he saw Calvin’s backpack at the base of a tree and looked up, his headlight finding the silhouette of his youngest son hanging in the tree. Jonah struggled to get him down. He was still warm. He did CPR for almost an hour, crying, praying and shouting at him to wake up but systematically counting in keeping with his elite military training. The paramedics finally arrived having had a hard time locating them in the dark woods and slipping and falling many times due to the deceptively slick ice under the layer of snow.
Jonah called his ex-wife, The Mom, telling her not to come to the park. She went up there anyway. At the gates she was met by a cop who loved Calvin – knowing him through the dojo they shared. He avoided her eyes. Her heart sank to its deepest despair.
Where do you go when your child takes his own life? There is nothing worse than this.
Dean and I organized meals and visits to Daisy so that she wouldn’t be alone, especially at night. The outpouring of support was incredible and humbling. Thousands of dollars were raised through a single email asking for support on her behalf. Daisy couldn’t work due to grief. No income, bills and life carrying on. A full day of yoga was organized by a group of women with lunch, live music and incredible local art in a silent auction. Daisy was given therapies like massage, osteopathy and reflexology. Two cords of wood were delivered, fully paid for. The guys from the dojo arrived and stacked it in fifteen minutes, based on a simple request to them that morning. We cleaned her house, her friend washed the floor with great care. Dean shoveled the driveway. Another friend swept the chimney. We walked the dog, picked up the mail, painted a room, helped her sort through the bills. A friend baked her a cake and brought flowers. A woman knitted a special scarf to encircle her in love and comfort.
The celebration of life was at a large hall downtown. Every aspect of the day was taken care of by volunteers: planning, decorating, food, drink, crafts for little ones, boughs of evergreen, writing implements for sharing snippets of memories. Hot drinks and marshmallows outside by the fire like Calvin would have wanted. A beautifully hand-crafted wooden box to store parchment pages of written memories — the blond wood the colour of his beautiful hair, his name etched in the sliding cover. The place was packed. One friend introduced the speeches and thanked all those who helped. The owner of the dojo gave a recounting of the fierce fighting competitor that Calvin was and also of the kind teacher with a huge heart for his young charges. The gym guys shoulder-to-shoulder, sniffling, their hands folded tightly. Eyes lowered. Cheeks wet with tears.
Jonah and Daisy talked about Calvin’s life. The kind of person he was, the kind of brother and son he was. His personality and some funny memories of him. Jonah finally said that he had decided to find solace in the joy of seventeen years that they had had with Calvin. At least they had had the honour and pleasure of him for seventeen years.
Extreme grief and mourning ensued for the loss of one of our boys – the first step of three.
Some years have passed since we lost this beautiful young man. I feel that he slipped through the cracks in our mental health system. He was so loved and so well taken care of, yet he still slipped through. Can you imagine the youth who do not have attentive parents?
I feel sick that I personally couldn’t DO anything to help with this nor could I stop the loss of his life. I replay my last face-to-face with him when I dropped off a huge bag of dog food because our Lady-Jane had passed. Could I not have asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about? Could I not have swallowed my pride and told him that I too suffer with mental illness? It’s so fucked up. I find that I am still quite angry about my lack of ability to help with this. To take action. To DO SOMETHING.
I know one thing for sure. The next time I detect a sadness in someone, I will ask them if they need help. I will simply ask them.
Gordon Lightfoot’s song was playing while I shuffled around my kitchen trying to simplify my thoughts and push down the anxiety. God Damed Anxiety is back. It puts this tight clamp on my spine where the cortisol moves in and stirs up feelings of hopelessness, lack of confidence, uselessness. All those wonderful wonderful feelings to carry like a monkey through the days.
In 1999, in postpartum after the birth of my one child, I was flung into a psychosis which turned into a straight-jacket and a rubber room experience. Haldol and all. (Locked up in D.C.). I was then, at the age of 33, diagnosed Bipolar. I had never had any symptoms prior to that. But you see, I am Military Martha. My whole family of six siblings call me that. I am the sensible one. The rule-follower. List maker (thank’s Annie). The one who solves problems. I am definitely NOT the one who ends up in a Johnny coat running for my life out the hospital doors at -20 Celsius with my undies on show. (Crazy Train 2011)
But this is mental illness folks. It takes all that you know and turns it upside down. It makes that positive side of me disappear. It makes it nearly impossible to reach out to friends and family (unless it turns into mania and then it is impossible to NOT reach out to friends and family and just about anyone else, and even at 3 in the morning).
Even the simplest of tasks cause me to turn in circles and not know where to begin. I need adult supervision. Thanks Uncle Buck. My husband of 28 years becomes the one person who knows me so well. He takes my hand and leads me along through the cloud. He will encourage me with a simple tasks to focus on and accomplish, telling me all the other stuff can wait. It’s not going to be a problem if it all just waits, he says.
Yesterday I was trying to explain the anxiety to my sister on the phone, three provinces away. It is like I know cerebrally that the task is not important but even knowing that, I feel like I am swimming in goop and am finding it hard to keep my head above it. Couple that with the feeling of a huge alligator clamp on my lower spine and that everything I look at is somehow wrong: not good enough, out of order, messy, needs fixing…AHHH! It becomes just overwhelming.
I was explaining how some things seem to help. Letting things go until a better time, cancel, reschedule, forego, cross it off the list. Listening to up and happy music. Walking in nature. Holding hands with my husband and quietly talking and walking. Simple tasks: peeling potatoes, hanging laundry, watering the garden, weeding, sweeping the floor, scraping the paint on the house with a warm sun on my back…all seem to help, if I can get out of my own way to do them.
1981 was the year my Mom morphed into a love-sick teenager right before my cringing eyes. My parents were in the midst of a break up but the first step was for them to have a trial separation while still both living in our bungalow. Mom had the basement and Dad had the upstairs. They shared the kitchen. I remember Mom writing her name on her row of eggs on the inside of the fridge door and Dad inevitably eating some of them and the arguing that ensued.
Before long, Mom started dating an alcoholic she met at the Legion. Good choice. I loathed the way she behaved in those months. She started wearing really tight clothing and tons of makeup. She was going out to the Legion many times a week. It infuriated and sickened me. My fifteen-year-old self was ashamed of the person I had basically worshiped prior to that. I think Mom was rebelling and bingeing on that aspect of life because she had been depraved of proper affection and love by Dad for years. It was just sad.
I used to make phone calls to my eldest sister, Eva, who was married, and tell her my woes. I would tell her how Mom and Dad were always fighting and bickering. Soon, she invited me to live with her and her family, three-hours away in London. Later that year I would come back to visit and by then, Mom had gotten a place: a 1.5-bedroom apartment above the Knights of Columbus Hall up by St Mary’s School.
My little brother Luke was living with her and while there, slipped into a shadow of his former self. He continuously watched television and became very quiet and sullen. It would break my heart to see what my little brother had become in this dysfunctional arrangement. I blamed myself for decades afterward, that I had abandoned him there. Finally a wise therapist told me to let that go. I was just a child myself at the time. It was not my fault. The other adults should have been there to help us through it, she explained softly while I wept, in her chair.
Anyway, living with my eldest sister and her family, I realized that every family has their problems and pressures. Sometimes I would wake up at night and hear them arguing with each other about money. Taking in a teen isn’t without cost.
I knew that I needed to chip in. I picked up many babysitting gigs and even braided the hair of a few ladies on the street. For a couple years, French braids were at quite trendy and, I could braid. Layla, my red-headed friend who had moved away had taught me. I would charge up to twenty bucks for a braid and that was quite a lot at that time. The ladies would gladly pay me because their long hair, also trendy at that time, would be up and out of their way for days in a good braid and, they could go out on the town with hubby and be in style.
Ever the entrepreneur, when I had a free night, especially on a weekend, I would call some parents and let them know I was free. Nine times out of ten they would call back and hire me to babysit for the night. I didn’t buy groceries or anything with my money, but, at least I didn’t need to ask for any spending money. I also paid for my driving school with that money. I was very eager to learn how to drive and I firmly believed in learning correctly. Interestingly, I later became a Transportation Officer in the Army and then a Driving School owner.
Eva took me down to enroll in the Catholic Central (CCH) for grade ten. I would take the bus every day. The bus stop was only a minute away. The problem was, going to CCH was going to be a huge change. I had been going to St. Joe’s in Barrie with its 163 students. 2000 students went to CCH in London. It was huge. I was completely lost there. I had been a total jock at St. Joe’s. On every team. Excelling at almost all my subjects. Known by all.
At CCH it was a different story. I didn’t make the basketball team. I just could not believe it. I went to the coach and begged my way onto the team. She told me I would likely ride the bench all season. I said, ‘I don’t care. Please let me play. I will not survive here without basketball.’
Basketball practice was every morning at 7:30. I had to take the city bus for 45 minutes to downtown then run five blocks to CCH, then run for an hour of practice. Normally that would be no problem, because I had been super fit.
However, at that time, I had become pretty much anorexic. I was living on about 800 calories or less per day: a tiny breakfast of half a pita with 1 precise tablespoon of peanut butter and exactly 8 oz of skim milk that I mixed from powder into a plastic cup each morning (blech!!!); an apple for lunch and the smallest dinner I could get away with. Eva was watching and I would try not to upset her. I didn’t want her to know my secret.
I was growing and I was expending a lot of calories for basketball. I was extremely emaciated and lacked any muscle tone and had very little strength. I really don’t know how I physically carried my frame around for the day. The human body is an amazing machine.
The anorexia started innocently enough. Eva had started going to Weight Watchers to lose the baby weight from her second pregnancy. Her first born was now two. She asked me if I would like to eat the same way as her. We could do it together. But, I did not need to lose any weight. My body was an average size and quite muscular. But, I was open to trying this new thing with my sister whom I looked up to so much.
I loved doing things with Eva. We had a lot of fun together and did a whole lot of laughing together. But, as I started restricting and losing weight and then going back to Barrie for a visit, my friends made quite a big deal about how great I looked. I thought I should lose even more. I have very strong willpower when I draw on it, so restricting even more was possible.
It wasn’t at all fun, but, by this time it had become a bit of a weird addiction and a secret project which somehow gave me comfort — ridiculous, I know. I was riddled with fear. Worried that if I ate as much as I wanted, I would get very fat very fast. I was ashamed of myself for being so self-centered.
One day, I was out with Eva running errands. I was walking up to this storefront window. I was watching the reflection of this skeletal figure walking up to the window in her baggy jeans and I was looking to see who it was. I did not recognize myself. I was that skeletal form but, when looking at my reflection, I saw a fatter body. Dysmorphia is what they call this phenomena.
When laying down in my bed at night, my bones were pressing through my skin and it would hurt. It was quite hard to get comfortable. There was a pull chain above my bed to turn out the light. I had to will myself to raise my arm to reach the chain to turn out the light.
I continued this way for the year – holding out even though Eva would scream at me to Martha please eat!!!!. By the end of it, I was about 80 pounds and was getting sick a lot, always freezing cold, no period, short of breath, thinning hair, bad breath, coated tongue and of course, always starving and suppressing it. Anorexia is hell. It truly is. Do not go there.
From my research now, I have learned that Anorexia Nervosa is a mental illness. I would have several more battles with mental illness in the future, but not for nearly two decades.
I had strep throat over and over that year. My immune system was shot. Going to see Eva’s doctor, a European with blunt speech, asked me if I was losing this much weight on purpose. I remember liking how he worded that question. I opened up to him and told him the truth. Right away he organized a counselor to come and see me at home a couple of times per week. The counselor was wonderful. I really liked her. She explained to me that I needed to put more fuel into my body. I had been complaining about not having any energy (do ya think?). I liked how gently she explained these simple matters to me. She helped me to stop the behaviour.
However, I was terrified of opening the flood gates of eating. I thought I would never be able to stop once I started. I was starving but I was afraid to eat. So, then the bulimia started. I would open the flood gates. I would eat thousands of calories in cookies, chips, cake, baked goods and then I would take a large dose of laxatives. Chocolate X-lax was my purging tool because I was unable to make myself vomit.
By the middle of the night, my guts would be gurgling. But, it would do the trick. Everything would be voided explosively into the toilet. Sometimes it was quite embarrassing, depending on where I was when the void wanted to begin and, it was never funny like the time in Virginia with my friend Nancy when I was large with pregnancy and drank way too much prune juice.
The Bulimia went on for about another year or so and by then I was living back in Barrie and attending grade eleven. For years, I would go through times of wanting to lose weight again and so would start to restrict, but, it always led to bingeing and purging again.
Joining the Army put a stop to it for a while because I simply had no time or energy to devote to body size. Joining the Army put me smack dab into Survival Mode…