My Story – Part 12

Continued from My Story – Part 11

By January 2008, I was approved for Medicare coverage since I was receiving SSDI. However, for some reason, Medicare didn’t cover the therapist I was seeing at the time — who I saw for almost an entire year and liked very much. So, I had to switch to someone else. I never connected with the new therapist because she was so much younger than me. I continued therapy with her until the end of May 2008. By that time I was really struggling to go out in public (borderline agoraphobia) even to get to appointments. The bus rides were sometimes frightening. On top of the usual catcalls I experienced anytime I walked to and from bus stops, I witnessed a fist fight at the bus shelter downtown, a few shouting matches, and another day a man became violent when the bus driver told him to get off his bus for being disruptive and rude to other passengers, not to mention this one poor, old woman who was so lost in her own reality — so deeply down the rabbit hole — that she was carrying on a complete conversation with herself. It was a beautifully curious sight to see. No one would sit beside her, so I did. I empathized with her, yet she frightened me at the same time… because I worried I was her.

I scare so easily.

It was around that time that I remember feeling like I could take no more and stopped treatment altogether. I gave myself the break from psychiatry that I felt I needed for my own sanity. I felt that I had been a guinea pig for the industry long enough. I felt that I owed it to myself to find alternatives that would actually work for me rather than trusting another person to figure it out who doesn’t live inside this body. It’s difficult to know when treatment is doing more harm than good; but I sincerely believed that, in my case, the psychiatric medications and even some of the therapy I received in the past did far more damage than I realized. As a result, I simply no longer trusted doctors, psychiatrists, or any use of medication, not even for physical problems. Having been off all of the medications for well over 6 years, I’m not certain that the long-term effects of having taken them for so long will ever completely go away, like problems with memory and concentration; but it is possible that those could be an issue of malnutrition rather than an iatrogenic effect.

It was not my intent to give in to an irrational fear of medicine; but basically, my fear of medicine outweighs my fear of dying. Let me reiterate once again, the very nature of my disability is that I don’t do well under pressure and completely shut down when stressed. I have experienced this reaction since childhood with little to no control over it. I am overly sensitive to the point of non-functioning when I feel like my environment is threatened or I feel overwhelmed. Also, the original problem that sent me into therapy to begin with at the end of 1994 — anxiety — is still a major issue. I have experienced severe anxiety my entire life. It feels like all of my senses are in overload. While the depression comes and goes, the anxiety has worsened over the years. Given many of my life experiences in the past, I can honestly understand why. I do my best to not dwell on the past; but many of these experiences still affect me to this day. Processing the emotions and thoughts that go along with the memories of them is a constant battle.

Most weeks, I struggle to make myself leave the house just to do the shopping or go for a walk at the park. The latter I try to do with some regularity during warmer weather to challenge the anxiety and keep the joint pain to a minimum. In order to deal with a lot of the overwhelming emotions and sensations that I feel, I have many creative outlets that provide distraction. Distraction has been the single most useful tool in managing my mental illness because I am so easily distracted. Through music, art, photography, writing, and blogging, I’ve discovered that I can contribute something to society that helps me at the same time. However, there are times that my distractibility back-fires and works against me, causing a greater lack of concentration and focus. These are usually instances when I am feeling more stressed and overwhelmed; but the biggest problem I face with these creative outlets is motivation. Often, weeks go by with little to no motivation to accomplish anything.

I have no social life outside of the internet; and even on the internet, I find it difficult to carry on conversations with other people. Responding to a comment, writing a short blog post, or an email can take me hours to compose as I constantly second-guess every word I type. A lot of the time, I simply don’t respond at all. KR is the only person I interact with on a regular basis in “real” life. I haven’t really had any close friends for many, many years. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that I lose patience with people much more quickly than I used to. Being around even a small group of people for any length of time is incredibly exhausting for me. Occasionally, I speak with my son or my mother over the phone; but even those conversations lack any type of regularity.

I have found that it is imperative that my life be as simple as possible and that I must keep my stress level to a minimum in order to function with any type of normalcy. Normal for me looks very different from the expectations others seem to have of me. I’ve struggled my entire life to simply function and survive. It’s been over 9 years since I was last employed, held a “real” paying job. I have good days, and I have bad days; but I still have no consistency with which to give an employer a workable schedule. I really don’t know how to “work” with such fluctuations in my mood, let alone the recuperation time I feel I require when forced to be around other people. It was my hope and intent to support myself financially through my art; but the lack of motivation and inability to develop a consistent routine for myself interfered with my ability to focus on accomplishing career goals.

I’ve often thought the reason why I cannot place value on my artwork and photography is that I lack self-worth. More recently, I had several images published in a variety of different publications, from books, to magazines, to other websites asking permission to use certain images. I’ve never received monetary compensation for any of these uses. It makes me happy — no, thrilled — for someone to express interest in my work because this gives me a sense of accomplishment and pride; but I have to wonder if by not asking for payment, am I devaluing myself even more? The “business” aspects to having a creative career are lost to me. Unfortunately, I’ve never really considered myself a professional anything. I’m a “Jack of all trades, master of none” kind of gal for the simple reason that there are too many possibilities, too many things I’m interested in to settle on one. And because I get bored easily, I’m constantly moving from one interest to the next.

This struggle became clear to me throughout 2012. For the entire year of 2012, I worked on a photography project using the small point-and-shoot camera that KR bought me for Christmas in 2011 — one photograph for every single day of the year. I had to put forth some serious effort to complete this project; yet it taught me, proved to me, that I could start something and actually finish it. It taught me to pay attention to small details. It gave me a goal and a purpose. It was a creative distraction from a lot of the stress I was feeling from our living situation and the financial insecurities that began early that year.

At the end of January 2012, I learned that my Social Security Disability case was being reviewed. This caused me more anxiety than I could put into words. I didn’t know what to expect and the possibility that I might lose my only source of income was more than I could handle; so I put it out of my mind, didn’t think about it or tried not to think about it as much as I could. I did everything they asked me to, but in October 2012 I found out I would be losing SSDI and Medicare at the end of the year. No tangible reason was given in that dreaded form letter. It only stated in matter-of-fact terms, “After reviewing all of the information carefully, we’ve decided that your health has improved since we last reviewed your case. And you’re now able to work.” I was devastated. I don’t know why I didn’t fight it, appeal the decision. I think I must have been frozen in fear, an all too familiar life theme.

Life went on.

In the spring of 2013, one of KR’s nieces came to stay with us in an attempt to help her through a difficult period in her life. By the time she returned home to Michigan a few weeks later, I found myself emotionally triggered by the circumstances she was facing that were eerily similar to my life in ’98. I began having flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks again as my thoughts turned inward and darker, recalling past traumas that I thought I was over. Losing SSDI and depleting my savings account by summer triggered the financial insecurities that I struggled with for so many years. Mine and KR’s relationship began to suffer as we lost hope of moving from the shack we called home, away from neighbors who were causing us more and more stress. Physical problems (e.g. chronic fatigue, joint pain, occasional chest pain, my hair falling out in clumps, hormonal issues that put me into early menopause by the age of 44) worsened as much throughout 2013 as the depression and anxiety I was experiencing.

A bargain I made with myself when I was approved to begin receiving SSDI resurfaced — survive until I can no longer survive. The bargaining chip was my life. Part of me believed that I would follow through with the terms of this bargain, which I’m consciously choosing not to disclose here. I will only say that even though I was surprised by my resilience, my courage to defy, placate the darker side of myself, I feared for my life. Again, I felt like I was suffocating in darkness. By August 2013, not knowing what else to do, I began the Social Security Disability process all over again and reached out for help at a local mental health center. Seeking treatment again terrified me; but by this point, I was desperate.

To be continued…

My Story – Part 11

Continued from My Story – Part 10 (My Relationship with KR)

When I was around 2 years old, my family moved from the subdivision where we were living into an old 2-story farmhouse. This home is the home of my childhood memories, the home where I was raised, the only real “home” I remember. My family lived there up until the autumn after I graduated from high-school. I’m thankful to have experienced the stability and security of having grown up in one place, without the chaos of moving around so much as has been the case throughout my adult years. From the time I got married until present day, I received mail at a total of 27 different addresses. I lived in 4 different states over the years — Tennessee, Hawaii, California, and briefly Kentucky. I lived in 16 different cities over the course of my life, 12 of which were in Tennessee. I have been homeless a total of 5 times, 3 of which were in 1998, with the longest period of time spent homeless at an entire month.

As chaotic as my home-life became as an adult, my employment history was equally chaotic. From the time I began working at the age of 17 until July 2005, I had a variety of jobs. I worked as a cashier at a grocery store, a mail clerk on the campus of the university I was attending, a teacher’s aide, a ride attendant at Dollywood (probably my favorite job out of all of them), a preschool teacher, an American Red Cross Volunteer, a factory worker, a meat-wrapper at a grocery store, an inventory counter, a cashier at Wal-Mart, a Census Bureau enumerator, a framer at an art store, a telemarketer (I absolutely hated this one!), a bar-maid (by far my worst working experience), and finally, a graphic artist. And that’s just to name the most significant ones. Over a 15 year period, I had a total of 26 different periods of employment with 20 different employers. Seven of those different employers were in 1998 alone. The longest I ever worked full-time was 7 months. The longest I worked part-time was 1 year, 4 months.

And there were many periods of unemployment during those 15 years, too. The longest period of unemployment was 3 years and 7 months, during my pregnancy, son’s infancy, and his early childhood. I don’t really count this one as “unemployed,” though, because I felt I had the most important job of raising my son, even if my ex-husband and other family members didn’t see it that way. Call me old-fashioned, but I truly believe that young children need a parent at home during those formative years. I did, however, spend 5 months of that time period volunteering with the American Red Cross. I was able to bring my son along with me due to the nature of my volunteer position which was at a free child care facility designed for military families’ use while at medical appointments. After I finally went back to work after that, the periods of unemployment ranged from 3 to 7 months at a time (never with unemployment benefits), although many of the jobs I acquired were back to back or overlapping in some cases.

When I consider the original reasons for why I struggled so much to keep a job, the only conclusion I come to is that I simply become overwhelmed when trying to juggle too many things at once. Simplicity is paramount to my mental health and well-being. Part-time is better than full-time; but even part-time work left me exhausted and feeling smothered. After the rapes in 1998, I had the added anxiety — subconscious at the time — of associating work with being raped. This was further compounded by the stalker with whom I worked at Wal-Mart, and then finally, all of the sexual assaults I experienced at the beer bar where I worked a few years later.

Early on in 2004, I began the Social Security Disability process. In the state of Tennessee (maybe other states as well), this is a long, drawn out process where you are almost guaranteed to be denied at least the first two times. By the time you get to the hearing stage in front of a judge, I think the SSA is pretty much hoping that you kill yourself to save them the trouble. Several times during that 3 years it took me to finally be approved, I came very close to doing just that. Honestly, I’m surprised I survived it. Between the pressure PI (boyfriend at the time) put me under with his impatience for results from a system that prides itself in hurry-up-and-wait and my own despair in having to ask for help in this way — I only felt a hopelessness that life would never improve, that I didn’t deserve to live, let alone ask for help. It was really no surprise that the relationship with PI ended as a result.

In January 2007, a couple of months after I left PI and had been living with KR in Nashville, my Social Security Disability Income was finally approved. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could finally breathe. This didn’t solve all of my problems, but I had one less thing to worry about.

Around that time, I began seeing a psychiatrist and therapist again through Tennessee’s Safety Net Program since I still had no medical insurance. I had been medication free for about 14 months, but still experiencing severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. After the psychiatrist asked me all the usual intake questions, he diagnosed me as Bipolar, prescribing Lamictal. He also ordered blood-work to check my thyroid because it hadn’t been checked in so long. About a week later, he called to tell me that my thyroid was over-active, advising me to find a doctor and get a complete physical.

Again, without medical insurance, this proved to be quite difficult; but somehow (honestly, I can’t remember how I managed it), I finally saw a physician. This doctor sent me to an endocrinologist a couple of months later for further testing on my thyroid who began treatment for the thyroid problem. He also scheduled an appointment with a rheumatologist for the first time since high school. When their blood tests came back normal, the rheumatologist refused to do x-rays to determine if I actually had rheumatoid arthritis. Basically, I got the impression that I was wasting the rheumatologist’s time; so I was left to deal with the joint pain I was experiencing on my own.

On top of these other health issues, over a 3 year period, my teeth literally broke, shattered, and decayed at an alarming rate. Most had already broken to the gum line and others were missing all of the enamel by 2007. Many factors contributed to the sudden decline of my dental health; but more than anything, long-term malnutrition probably played the most significant role (starting in/around 1997 through the present time, I only eat one meal per day in order to save on food costs – usually, no snacks). My oral surgeon told me that even antidepressants contribute to dental problems. It’s difficult to explain the impact of dental issues on your self-esteem, confidence, emotional balance, lifestyle, and physical health. The detrimental effects of losing my smile were as devastating as the excruciating pain I constantly felt in my gums, jaw, and mouth, in general. The headaches and migraines that accompanied this were equally awful. Prior to receiving SSDI, I was financially destitute. I couldn’t always get antibiotics to treat the constant infections and abscesses I got. After 3 years of agonizing pain due to my teeth, I was finally able to get all of my teeth extracted with the help of a long-lost friend who showed me a great kindness. The oral surgeon was fantastic. Given the severe anxiety that dental procedures cause me, my oral surgeon put me completely under; so I didn’t feel a thing. I used a portion of the back-pay from SSDI to purchase dentures. I got my temporary set of dentures at the end of April 2007 and the permanent set about 6 months later.

From the time I began taking Lamictal in January 2007, I began having severe mood swings with bouts of anger that frightened me. The anxiety became so bad that I was having problems making it to appointments and leaving my apartment at all. For the first time since December of 2005, the obsessive thoughts of suicide and death increased to an alarming level. These issues could have been the result of the thyroid problem (or treatment of the thyroid problem) or it could have been the result of the Lamictal. Given my reaction to most, if not all, psychiatric medications in the past (and during times that I was not having the problems with my thyroid), I felt that the issues I was experiencing were a direct result of the Lamictal. I was also concerned that my “food issues” were causing a lot of my problems; but most, if not all, the doctors and mental health professionals I saw up to that point, with whom I did express these concerns, said I was a healthy weight. Therefore, the disordered eating habits were completely overlooked. Neither the psychiatrist nor the endocrinologist listened to my concerns even though I voiced these concerns regularly. As I experienced this type of negligence and apathy from medical providers for the majority of my adult life, I became increasingly suspicious of psychiatry, medicine, and medical treatment.

In March 2008, I quit taking the Lamictal due to these significant mood swings and emotional outbursts. I chose to stop taking medication for anxiety and depression because for the entire 13 years I was on them, none of those medications I was ever prescribed actually helped. When I very first started taking Prozac, the original medication I was prescribed back in June 1996, five weeks later I attempted suicide for the first time in my life. Every time the medications were changed or the dosage was raised or another one added, I fell deeper into a state of depression where I could not function at all or I became completely suicidal, ruminating constantly on thoughts of suicide and obsessing over methods to take my life.

I’ve often experienced my thoughts as loud voices, with or without medication. Prior to my adult years from as early as the age of 10 or 11 years old, these “loud thoughts” were mostly benign, more so creative expressions of my imagination; but as I grew older these voices became more sinister, often times screaming at me to kill myself. If (and that’s a BIG “if”) the medication quieted these voices slightly, the effect wouldn’t last long because I developed a compulsive tendency to obsess over certain thoughts, specifically death and suicide. While these thoughts do still occur (stress triggers this response and suicidal behavior in me) and I still feel the hopelessness that accompanies them, they happen no more or no less frequently than while I was medicated. The medications, however, made it easier to act on these thoughts as I had very little impulse control while on them. I also believe that the medication prolonged the periods of depression rather than improving the symptoms. The medication robbed me of life’s greatest treasures, my emotions and my creativity. Without those, life is not worth living, at least, not for me.

To be continued….

My Story – Part 8 (The Relationship with My Son)

Continued from My Story – Part 7 (Chaos Relived)

For the past 8 (close to 9) months, present life has interfered with my ability to accomplish my goal of finishing My Story. Rather than attempting to process past problems, “present-day” struggles have consumed my thoughts and energy. These may or may not be an “echo” of past issues, but they’ve certainly triggered a lot of the same emotions and difficulties remaining present. I’m feeling compelled now to finish what I started here and hopefully move past this “need” to tell my story. 

I left off with the relationship break-up between PI and me after our move to Lebanon, TN, and my subsequent move to Nashville, TN, when KR took me in….

At the end of 2006, I received a letter from the Department of Safety telling me that my driver’s license had been suspended due to failure to pay child support. I rarely drove anyway because I found driving in Nashville to be very stressful; and my car was on its last leg, overheating any time I got stuck in traffic. I ended up selling the car for $40 (yes, I said forty dollars) just to get rid of it and chose to ride the bus instead. (I could, seriously, write an entire post on nothing but my experiences riding the bus in Nashville!) Still, I was stressed a great deal by this letter revoking my driving privileges. In January 2007, I received another letter in the mail, this time from the Social Security Administration. Finally, after 3 very long, stressful years of barely surviving while trying to get on Social Security Disability, I was approved. It was just enough to cover my student loan payments and child support; but at least, it was something. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could finally breathe.

For quite a while, I had completely lost contact with my ex-husband, CF, and our son. This happened several times over the years from the time I left. On a few occasions, cards, letters, and gifts were returned to me through the mail when they couldn’t reach my son at the given address (I held onto all of these things as proof of my devotion until I lost everything in my storage unit in 2005). Eventually, I gave up on communication through the postal service because I had no idea where my son was. The last time I had been allowed to even speak to him on the phone was in the summer of 2006. Often times, I had no financial means to make long-distance phone calls, which were pretty expensive back then with or without an “unlimited” calling feature. Other times, the number I was given by my ex-husband was “out of service,” probably for the same reason. By February 2007, the stress of not knowing was killing me.

By this point, I had accepted the fact that everyone saw me as an unfit parent. That realization is a humbling experience. The shame I felt (still feel to this day) led me to believe that my son was better off without me being directly involved in his life. However, I had the right, according to the divorce decree, to supervised visitation and updates on my son’s well-being and school progress. Enforcing these provisions of the divorce decree proved to be financially impossible and caused both me and my son an incredible amount of emotional anguish.

I began calling the last number I had for them. At first, I got the all too familiar operator on the other end telling me, “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.” Later, trying the same number again, it went directly to voice mail. I tried sending CF emails to the last known email address I had for him. As always, these went unanswered. It was at this time that I had also asked my mom for information about my son’s whereabouts. At first, Mom kept telling me to let it go and give up. My mind reeled at the notion of a mother telling her daughter to “give up” on anything related to her child. This didn’t sit well with me at all and strained our relationship further. Finally, she told me that my sister had CF’s current address. After a particularly disturbing and bitter email conversation between the two of us, my sister sent me the address.

At the same time that I was trying to get information from my family, the thought occurred to me to search the internet for CF. I tracked down his new wife on MySpace. I contacted her first, before finally finding CF elsewhere online shortly thereafter. It was at this point that CF finally answered one of my emails with an incredibly hateful, derogatory response. His wife and I had exchanged phone numbers; and I called numerous times to try to speak to my son, unsuccessfully. Finally, she called me back one day and told me that my son did not want to speak to me. I was crushed, but I didn’t blame him for this at all. She told me that he might email me at a later date. She also said that CF was very angry with her (and me) for the emails we had exchanged. I realized at that moment that CF was controlling her in the same way as he had me. At that point, for her safety and the safety of my son, I decided to break off contact — again.

April 11, 2007, was my final court appearance over the child support. A couple of years prior, I had obtained an attorney who took my case pro bono.  She never even showed up to this court date! However, because I showed proof that I had finally gotten Social Security Disability and sent in a large payment towards the arrears, the case was finally suspended due to “the obligations of the non-custodial parent being met.” CF finally showed up for the first time in the almost 6 years that I was being dragged through the court system. The district attorney told CF to go to the Social Security office to fill out the necessary paperwork so that my son would receive a portion of my Social Security check because the SSA told me that they had been unsuccessful in attempts to contact him through mail and phone calls. I honestly thought he had taken care of this; yet later in the year around the end of August 2007, I received another certified letter from the district attorney’s office stating that my driver’s license may be revoked again. I went by the Social Security office to see if CF did as the district attorney instructed him to and whether or not my son was getting a check every month. They told me he had not. This was also when I found out that I had to send the child support check out of the $475 SSD check that I received each month because I did not qualify for SSI. I never missed a payment again.

Eventually my son and I finally began exchanging emails; but I was cautious due to concerns that my ex-husband might be messing with my head since I couldn’t be sure who exactly was sending them. This may sound a little paranoid to most people; but given what I had been through with my ex-husband over the years, my caution was warranted. Honestly, I think the earliest emails in 2007 may have been my ex-husband; but by 2009, I was fairly certain that I was actually speaking to my son. In July 2009 I was able to see and speak to my son face-to-face for the first time in years. It was awkward at first; but I think we were both surprised by how much we had in common — from his love of art to his enjoyment of gaming. Even some of his mannerisms reminded me of me.

In February 2010 after CF and his wife divorced, she contacted me again through Facebook, confirming that she had gone through a lot of the same control, anger, and violence issues with CF that I had experienced. He even threatened to have her arrested because she took my son to church one day after they separated. My son was 15 or 16 years old at the time! She and I exchanged several emails, “comparing notes,” so to speak. My quest of writing down my entire life story in the way that I am sharing here on my blog began as a result of these correspondences. After I shared my side of the story with her, she wrote in an email to me:

“The story that I, and I believe [your son] has always heard, is very different from that story. We were told that you left the bar with them and then claimed rape. [CF] got flown back home because of it and then you changed your story. He went home to find out that [your son] had been home alone the entire time. I hate to tell you this but [your son] believes that he remembers being home alone all night. I never thought he could truly remember something like that at a young age, but he is determined that he does remember it. That is part of his anger towards you. I have no doubt that [CF] made up enough detail that over the years [your son] believes these are his genuine memories.”

Let me reiterate here: The vile things those men did to me and made me do to them was NOT consensual. I felt I had no choice but to comply. It was rape.

And secondly, my son was at home, safe, with a sitter that night — the entire night. Needless to say, this conversation with CF’s newest ex-wife intensified my concerns about my son and the amount of control my ex-husband had over him. I emailed my son after this conversation and spoke to him briefly about what CF’s ex-wife told me; but at the time, I didn’t want to overload him with too much information or any of the specifics because he was only 16 years old.

In the years since that time, my son graduated from high school with honors, joined the Navy, and most recently, married. He is now an adult, and we’re able to speak much more freely with one another than we could throughout his childhood. This past summer, my son and I were able to finally have that much-needed long conversation about everything that happened when I left him with his father. I felt that this was a discussion that we needed to have face-to-face. It was a difficult conversation, to say the least, but a necessary one for him to understand my life and the distance I kept for so many years. From my post, Tech Free = Less Stress, where I briefly discussed this conversation:

That was the first time I have spent that type of quality time with my child in many, many years. We had the opportunity to have a long, in-depth discussion about my past and the break-up with his dad, something we never had the chance to discuss prior to his visit. It was discouraging to hear the things CF told my son about me (mostly false), but not surprising. I’m happy that I can speak so openly around my son and his wife. That visit meant the world to me, and provided a small amount of closure that I’ve never felt.

It’s that closure that I so desperately needed. His (and his wife’s) compassion and acceptance were an added bonus, a seed of hope. I am so, so proud of my son and the man he turned out to be. He’s an intelligent, creative, kindhearted man with a bright future ahead of him. My son truly holds my heart and my soul. In a previous post, I said:

In moments of complete despair, thoughts of [my son] kept me alive. One day, I must thank my child for saving my life on so many occasions. Something, I’m certain, he’s completely unaware of.

I’m thankful that we were finally able to have that heart-to-heart conversation because more than anything in the world, all I’ve ever wanted, was to be a part of his life and to show him the love that he deserves. I love my son dearly and look forward to a future with him in my life.

To be continued….