Monday, January 14, 2013

Mental health: I Am Going to Live


Undoubtedly those who read this blog know that my daughter, Michaela, was kidnapped a little over 24 years ago, and has never been found. They are also probably aware of the fact that I spent the last three months waiting for the test results on a bone, to determine whether or not it was my daughter's. Just last Wednesday I got the results. It was not my daughter.

I have been living with a missing child for a very long time now. It's no picnic, believe me. But these last three months have been like a pressure cooker that kept getting turned up and up and up. I can't even begin to describe the feelings that flowed through me, anticipating the results of this test. I did not have any idea how I would be able to live with the results if I were to find out that my daughter was not alive. I didn't know how I would even handle the real life implications of it, much less the deep down feelings of the certain truth of her death, of her death at the hands of known murderers. On the other hand, there are other possible truths that haunt me with the possibility of her being alive. I long for a happy resolution, but realize that the likelihood of this is small. I also, somewhere deep inside, long for peace, long to be able to relax, to stop having to fight this battle. As it is, as long as she is missing, I feel I must be "on" all the time. If she is alive, which is certainly a possibility, then she could be living in horrible circumstances, and she needs me to keep looking for her, to keep fighting for her. Honestly, I feel limited in what I can actually do, but my heart is always actively involved in the search. My heart is always reaching out to her, reflected in my blog, www.dearmichaela.com.

Of course, Michaela's case wasn't the only thing going on in my life. As the universe would have it, I had other stresses going on at the time as well, and I just wasn't sure I'd be able to keep on keeping on. In the middle of December, I went to my doctor and told him that I just didn't think I could take it anymore. And he prescribed anti-depressants. This is a big thing, because in all the 24 years of heartache, of hellish ups and downs, of lesson upon lesson piled upon the original grief, I have never, ever, not once, resorted to any chemical assistance. Once a doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, but I never took a single pill. This is not to say that I've been a pillar of strength. I have succumbed to eating disorders. At one time it was obsessive dieting and exercise. In the second year after Michaela had been kidnapped I felt as though everything in life was out of control, and I guess I took control of the only thing I really could, and that was my body. For months I ate one meal a day, salad and turkey. I exercised obsessively, ran every morning in the dark at 4:00 a.m., rain or shine, in sickness or health, even on non-working days. But more often than not, I have swung the other way. I have used food to keep from feeling my feels, as my daughter would put it. I don't know how this works, and I wish it didn't! But it does. And so I am here today, needing to lose 60 pounds (and probably looking like I need to lose more).

At the end of December, I had a week off work, and I also received a book I'd preordered some time before -- "Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey. This book is a novel about a man who has bipolar disorder, who is fortunate enough to be independently wealthy enough to give in to it, traveling the world, ending up finally in a mental hospital where he underwent electroshock therapy, from which place this fictional memoir was created. Now I have always been interested in books about mental illness. The first one I ever read was "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" when I was twelve years old. At that time I was also fond of "Abnormal Psychology" texts. Over the years I have read many, many, many accounts, fictional and biographic, of people living with mental illness. Whether or not I was conscious of it at the time or not, I do believe that when I was twelve I was going through a difficult time and was subconsciously wishing myself for a split with reality, for a fantasy world I could go and live in. Never happened, though. I stayed here and lived my life. Over the last twenty years I have been interested in particular in bipolar disorder, as it became something that touched my life through people I knew. I have read lots and lots of books on this, although it's been a few years since I last picked one up.

I couldn't tell you whether I really liked "To Bright to Hear" or not. I have full respect for bipolar disorder and the chemical imbalances that cause it. I recognize the fact that those with bipolar disorder not infrequently indulge in self medication in the form of alcohol or drugs. Of course, that self medication only makes things worse. It's one of the challenges of bipolar disorder that medication has to be adjusted so that it keeps you even, neither manic nor depressed. But this guy ended up drunk throughout most of the book, and I kept thinking that not the sanest of people would stay that way in a state of constant drunkenness. Even when he was in the mental hospital, he was medicated this way and that, and his brain was shocked, and I thought that I'd probably lose my grip in such an environment with such things going on with my brain.

Anyway, I decided when I finished that one that I needed to read a nonfiction account, so I picked up "Madness: A Bipolar Life" by Marya Hornbacher. I did enjoy this nonfiction account. She also indulged in a lot of drinking and drug use, which had a very bad impact on her mental conditions. However, she brought back the seriousness of true bipolar disorder in that even when she did everything right, even when she took the right meds, stayed away from alcohol, ate and slept properly, she still slipped into a psychotic state regularly which required hospitalization and, yes, electroshock therapy, to bring her out of it. Marya has a severe form of the illness.

From there, I figured I would go ahead and read "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can" by Barbara Gordon. This is an old, old book that I'd had lying around in my digital library but had not gotten around to reading. This is the story of a woman who took valium because she had anxiety, good hooked on the stuff, then dropped it cold turkey and had extreme withdrawals exacerbated by a crazy boyfriend. Now I am still just about 24 pages from the end, but this book has driven me absolutely crazy (pardon the pun). I am sure it's completely unfair, but by the end I wanted to shake this woman by the shoulders and tell her to man up, put on her big girl panties and quit wallowing. For one thing, all this stuff about how her parents had damaged her, and how dare they inflict that damage on her fragile little self. Baloney. Your parents are people, too! They are just as damaged as you are! How about cutting them some slack and loving and understanding them instead of blaming your psychological problems on them. This is life! Nobody is perfect! Everybody gets sad, everybody gets anxious. We are all, every one of us, afraid of loss! The wallowing is exemplified in the author's attempts to challenge herself when she was given a 24 hour pass to leave the mental hospital for her birthday. Instead of hooking up with friends, she decided to spend the time alone, to see if she could do it. I mean, this is like testing your ability to keep from catching on fire by dousing yourself with gasoline and standing next to an open flame. When you suffer from mental health problems, one of the key things is learning to live in such a way as to strengthen yourself, not weaken yourself. You don't decide that you will not work for awhile because you want to see if you can keep from getting depressed while living alone, aimless and unproductive. Normal people get depressed in those circumstances! It all just became irritating and ridiculous.

Oh, and Dancing was another example of the fact that if you are going to suffer from any mental problems, it's a really good idea to be independently wealthy first, so that you can pay for inpatient treatment which probably isn't even really needed, while maintaining your nice New York apartment to come home to, etc., etc.

It took a long while, but finally I realized that in my mental conversations with the author of Dancing, I was actually talking to myself. In this last month I have been wallowing. Well, I have been forced by the discovery of this bone to step over the edge of the abyss of the actual loss in my life. I have become very skilled at avoiding it over the last 24 years, but in the last three months I have had to face the fact that I could well just get shoved over it. So I've had to look into it, dip my toes in its dark chilly waters. I have been sitting here, thinking about just jumping into it and lying there.

But then the light came on, and I realized, I am not going to do that. I stood up and I took a deep breath, and I decided I am going to go on. For my next reading material, I have ordered "My Beloved Life," Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, to be released tomorrow. I tend to be impacted by my reading material. If the characters in my book eat spaghetti, I want spaghetti. If I read about runners, I feel like running. I didn't think about this before ordering Sotomayor's book, but after I had, it clicked. Here is part of the pathway up, to read about someone whose life path is inspirational. And hey, I will never be an attorney, much less a Supreme Court Justice, but I am a paralegal. I used to be fascinated by the law, but lately I have lost that fascination. It would be good to read something that might ignite that fire again.

Someone commented on something humorous I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago that they were glad that I was feeling better, as evidenced by the fact that I was posting something funny. I responded that in the very worst of the worst of times one thing I have never lost is my ability to laugh. In fact, I laugh a lot. I once had a reporter who was attending a remembrance we have on the anniversary of Michaela's kidnapping, who questioned me about that. At these anniversaries, there are always people who attend who I have known for a long time, perhaps haven't seen for awhile, and I greet these people with a smile, and often when I talk to them I laugh. This reporter said, "I saw you laughing over there. Does this happen often?"

Yes. Yes it does. In the darkest days after Michaela's kidnapping, my home would fill up with people every day, and the best thing those people did for me was make me laugh. Honestly, I felt guilty about it sometimes. I'd see a split screen in my mind, with me laughing with these wonderful people in the safety of my home, while on the other side Michaela was somewhere in a place where no laughter was possible. It is still something that I struggle with sometimes, that I can actually be happy in life even while my daughter is missing. But I can. If I couldn't, I probably wouldn't have survived the last 24 years, and that wouldn't have done anybody any good. It wouldn't have done any good for my remaining family, my other children, who have all grown up to be very funny people, each of them possessing a wonderful sense of humor and a laugh that lights the world. It wouldn't have done Michaela any good. If she were to come home, she'd need a mom, not a zombie. And if she isn't alive, there is one thing I know, and that is that she would want me to be happy.

When my doctor first brought up the possibility that I might be depressed, I told him I didn't think I was. "In fact," I said, "I think I have a kind of a Pollyanna attitude." Another aspect that can't be ignored is my deep sense that there is a spiritual reality behind our lives, that even these terrible things don't happen without a good purpose, however long the journey may be to find what that may be.

So I have decided. I am going to get up off my butt. I am going to breathe. I am going to laugh. I am going to embrace health, I am going to embrace love, I am going to embrace life. I am going to work at whatever tasks are before me, including looking for Michaela, reaching out to her. I am going to keep my heart open to my lost little girl and all the love and the grief. But I am going to do it from the heights, and not the depths.

I am going to live.