My first break

The more I learn about the nature of mental illness and the many different shapes the same disease takes the more I realize I’ve been waltzing with depression longer than I ever knew. The very fact that I was never particularly surprised when different conditions showed themselves is very telling.

I’ve worn glasses everyday of my life since I was ten. I cannot survive without them. I’ve never lost or broken a pair for two simple reasons. 1: I can’t function without them. I cannot read, see a television screen, or walk without risking injury. 2: I have never had enough money to replace a pair should some thing happen to them. Insurance pays their part only once a year. My astigmatism has only become worse with time and my lenses are ridiculously expensive.

Children are highly adaptable. My glasses were has much a part of my life as my eyes and so I protected them just the same. There were never arguments to put them on. My parents never had to question where my glasses were or search them out. If I wanted to read I had to have my glasses. And I want to read more than my next breath.

So when depression sat itself down in my life with all due authority, I accepted it as easily as I would accept my glasses a few years later. For a long time I thought depression had manifested in my early teens. But the depression of my early teen years was just the same monster, wearing a new face.

My first major depressive episode began when I was six. It lasted roughly three years. OCD showed up at the same time. The event that triggered it began with my cousin Jonathan. I was five when he was born. He was the first child of my father’s only sibling. At the time Jonathan was born my Uncle D and Aunt L lived with my paternal Grandmother. If we weren’t in school my siblings and I were at our Grandmother’s.

I don’t remember anything leading up to Jonathan’s birth. He was there one day and that was fine. But then he wasn’t there anymore. He was there when my dad took us home in the evening. The next day, after school had ended, Jonathan was not there. The house was full of lit religious candles and silence. My Grandmother whispered to herself in Spanish, black beaded rosary clenched in her fist. The banner welcoming Jonathan home was gone.

I asked my Great Aunt one quiet question “What happened?”

“Baby Jonathon has gone to Heaven with Jesus.”

Another question “Why?”

“Voluntad de Dios,” she whispered. “Shush.”

Aunt L disappeared too and I have never seen her again. My mother and my Great Aunt sternly told me to be quiet and not ask questions. So I mirrored my older sister’s behavior and things gradually went back to normal. My Uncle moved into his own place and bought a giant black Harley that terrified me.

I was nearing the end of my kindergarten year when one morning sitting in class a thought arched across my mind like lightening. ‘Baby Jonathan!’ He was born and died in early fall. It was nearing summer. I accepted his death the way children sometimes do, easily and without much distress.

“God’s will,” my Aunty had told me. I never questioned her assertion because her belief was absolute. It was honest and fair. Good or bad it was all God’s will and that sat with me quite nicely. To this day I don’t know why his name suddenly came to me but it opened a door in my mind that led to a deep, unknown place.

No one ever said his name. There were no pictures. His mother was gone. His things were gone. He’d had a crib. Gone. A blanket. Gone. Toys. Gone. A name. Nearly gone.

His face. His face! His face? His face was gone, gone, gone.

The more I tried to remember the greater the darkness grew. My Uncle never laughed when he came over anymore. He rode that giant Harley beast without a helmet. He smoked in my Grandmother’s house. He didn’t look at us kids anymore.

I squinted, I held my breath, I pressed on my eyes until they hurt. His face would not come to me. Baby Jonathan had been erased. He’d gone up to Heaven; voluntad de Dios. But it was my family that erased him. His things were gone, his mother gone, and no one spoke his name. Not even a year had passed and he was utterly, completely erased. Not by God’s will but by the will of his own family!

But I had a hope. His birthday. We would celebrate his birthday! Christ had died and gone to Heaven and we celebrated His birthday every single year. Why would Baby Jonathan be different? School ended and started again. First grade and I couldn’t remember Jonathan’s birthday but I knew my Grandmother did. It was before my birthday. But my birthday and Jesus’ birthday passed. A birthday banner for both of us. Cake too. But no mention of Baby Jonathan.

I went into that room that had opened in my mind. It had been dark and empty before. Now it was occupied. A table, two chairs, and it of course. The Pale Rider seated at the table. Its pale horse waited quietly nearby. It was a plague in the Bible. I often went to that dim room and sat with the Pale Rider. I would scream and rage and demand it give me back my cousin’s face. My family had given it to the Pale Rider but I was Jonathan’s family too. I should be able to take it back. He belonged to us! I wouldn’t allow him to be erased. But the Pale Rider never spoke. It would smile sometimes and that’s when the darkness was the worst.

My cousin died of SIDS. He lived for less than a week. He was buried in our mutual hometown. His things were taken away by family friends. Some were blessed and given away. Most were destroyed. My Uncle D and Aunt L divorced quietly. I stared seeing the school counselor after Christmas break. The school had been put on alert of course. The counselor was a kind woman but she didn’t recognize what was happening to me. I doubt many would. I was a six year old in the midst of a major depressive episode with psychotic features brought on not by my cousin’s death but his erasure.

I was utterly convinced that if I looked in the correct book Jonathan’s pictures would be there. How to find that book was given in coded messages in other books. Certain sentences would stick in my mind and these would become the clues I needed to decode and then follow. Certain numbers were special. Certain names important. I fixated. I ruminated. I watched for important signs. I sat at that table with the Pale Rider. I learned to be mentally still. I learned how to keep the Pale Rider from smiling. One day, I left that room and closed the door. I didn’t go back in there for many years. I don’t know how or why that depressive episode ended.

God’s will, I suppose.

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You are always on my mind (and I hate you)

There is a voice in everyone’s head that tells us we are terrible, unworthy, useless. It says things that we don’t want to think about. Its louder in some people than others I think. Usually its called self-doubt or negative thinking or negative self thought or catastrophic thinking. My voice is very loud and I gave it a name a long time ago. Usually I just call it The Imp but sometimes I call it Asmodeus. For those that don’t know Asmodeus is a king demon mostly mentioned in the Book of Tobit.

For clarification I don’t believe a demon is talking to me in my head. Its just that the thoughts I have sometimes are so polar to view of myself that I (at the point that I named it) could not believe these were my own thoughts. The Imp started talking a long time ago. For as long as I can remember I have had these thoughts that I do not want to have. I named The Imp when I was a small child. My mom used to work overnight as a book keeper for several years. I used to worry that something terrible would happen to her because she would be out in the dark.

My worry was validated by my dad and my grandmother telling me (and my siblings) about the dangers of being outside AT NIGHT. Terrible crimes happened AT NIGHT. Children were kidnapped AT NIGHT. Robberies happened AT NIGHT. Murder happened AT NIGHT. Rape happened AT NIGHT. Doors must be locked and checked AT NIGHT to keep the bad people and things outside.

My mom should not be outside AT NIGHT. In order to keep her safe I used to make precise grids of marbles over and over again until she got home. I didn’t sleep much as a kid so I had a lot of time to make grids. I also had a lot of marbles. If the marbles were too close together or too far apart in a row or column I would have to start over again. If I could get it perfect then I could stop. At least until I started worrying again. I very rarely got the grid perfect. My gross and fine motor skills were very underdeveloped and marbles are tricky things in the glow of a flashlight. Also the number of marbles, rows, and columns needed often changed. So there I was under the bed or in the closet making row after row usually until my mom got home. I could put the marbles away after she came inside and locked the door. She would peek in on us kids but it wasn’t uncommon for me not to be in my bed. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep under the bed and other times I would give my mom a hug and welcome her home. Sometimes I would make her a sandwich so she could have a snack before going to sleep. My mom was troubled by my being bright eyed at 5 am when she got home but there was little she could do. I had never had a great need for sleep and she had learned long ago that if I were left to my own devices with a flashlight and books and my toys I would not wake anyone who needed sleep. She was glad I think sometimes that I was there to greet her when she got home. She worked a lot back then and there was little to see for it. I think she was very lonely and I know for a fact she worried.

She worried about my brother’s asthma and how to pay for his meds. She worried about the cars breaking down. She worried about the toilet that would either never stop running or would remain clogged for weeks. She worried about my grandfather (her dad) who was then a full blown alcoholic in the hellish throes of untreated PTSD. She worried about the cells in her breasts and if one would ever decide to turn against her one day, leaving her four children half orphans as her own mother’s had done. She worried about the bills. And I know she worried, worried, worried about me. I was such a strange child and why did I vomit so often? What if something were terribly wrong with me and the doctors just didn’t know what yet? And why was I so different from my siblings?

I swore in my heart that I would never, ever, ever tell her how afraid I was almost all the time. What could be done about it? I swore I would never, ever, ever tell her about the marble grids. What if she took my talismans away? I swore I would NEVER, EVER, EVER tell her about the terrible thoughts in my head. I did tell her, not very long ago in fact, about my secret nightly rituals and a little bit of how terribly often I was afraid as a child. But I have NEVER, EVER, EVER told anyone about the terrible, terrible thoughts in my head. And so the awful things The Imp would yell or whisper or chortle at me stayed right there in my head.

The Imp because much worse after puberty, not uncommon in women with any kind of disorder or illness. For about three years I was convinced I was a psychopath. I did all kinds of research about psychopaths. My parents had long since stopped monitoring what I read and I was very good at keep things secret. It was during this time that we got the Internet (alas AOL). One of the first things I learned to do was delete the history. So why was I convinced I was a psychopath? Well, I didn’t have feelings. Or at least that’s what people told me. Lots of people. Teachers even. I was cold and detached. I had no friends. I was a loner.

I knew all these things but that wasn’t why I was pretty sure I was a psychopath. It was the thoughts I named The Imp that convinced me. You see the awful, terrible thing I never told anyone was that The Imp didn’t just tell me terrible things were going to happen if I didn’t advert them. The Imp told me I wanted to do terrible things. I wanted to stab my teacher in the hand with a pencil. I wanted to push my sister out of a moving car. I wanted to force my brother to have an asthma attack and watch him suffocate. I wanted to stab my beloved dog with the sharp knives from the kitchen. I wanted to set my house on fire with my family in it and watch them all burn. I wanted to kill random people I saw in the grocery store. And I would like it. In fact I would LOVE to do these things. I would do them all and I would never be caught because, as my research told me, women were very rarely ever psychopaths. Or at least murderous ones. I would do them all and I would ENJOY it.

These days I know that the proper label for The Imp is intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are the defining characteristic of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My particular flavor (sub-type) of OCD is Harm OCD. I have intrusive thoughts of a harming/violent nature (the obsession) and the response I engage in to alleviate the discomfort of these thoughts (the compulsion). I have thoughts of hurting the people and animals I live with. I have thoughts about hurting complete strangers. I worry that I could unknowingly do something or fail to do something that results in someone being hurt. I worry that I don’t find these thoughts disturbing enough. I worry that I enjoy what The Imp tells me.

I have told doctors and my friend R about some of my intrusive thoughts but not the worst of them. Lately my anxiety has been worse. A change in meds has helped but my depression has been worse. But worse than that my intrusive thoughts have been so much worse. I had to stop playing with my goddaughter and leave the room because I became convinced that if I remained in the room with her I would hurt or somehow “infect” her, thereby harming her. When R asked about my sudden departure, I lied saying I had a bad stomach cramps which I eventually did end up having as a result of the emotional upset my intrusive thoughts cause. I have thought about hurting our sweet, sweet dogs because they shouldn’t love me as I am a terrible person and they just don’t know it yet. But they will once I have hurt them. I have thoughts about hurting my youngest goddaughter, an infant who cannot defend herself. And I want to hurt someone so that everyone will know just how aberrant I am and they will lock me away where I can’t hurt anyone ever again. And maybe then, finally then, the thoughts will stop.

But I don’t hurt anyone. And I am not insane. I am not a psychopath. If I were these thoughts wouldn’t bother me. I wouldn’t engage in the compulsive behaviors because I would feel no distress. I had this belief, this delusion, that if I told someone they would hate me because who couldn’t hate something as vicious as me? Who wouldn’t stare at horror in the fullness of my violent thoughts and fear me?

But last night I told R and here I am now. I am not a murderer. I am not violent. I do not want to hurt anyone. The Imp talks and laughs and dances. It tells me terrible things and I perform a mental ritual to take away the distress. But The Imp is not real. The thoughts I have are not representative of me. The more I try not to have them the harder they are to ignore. If you have these thoughts tell someone. Don’t suffer alone. This terrible secret has a name and can be treated.

OCD can cause suicide. OCD also kills in small measures, taking a little piece of you with every intrusive thought. Get help. Get support. Get education. Get an advocate. The Imp is not right. The Imp is not the truth.

Look here for some excellent articles:

ocdla.com

Harm OCD: Symptoms and Treatment

Be not afraid

Got a call from my Mum today. She has this way of telling me bad news. She asks how I’ve been, listens, and sighs heavily when I finish. That’s how I know its going to be bad news. I don’t often pick up on social/emotional ques but Mum is a creature of habit (like the rest of my family). Its nice (in a way) to know that bad news is coming before its said.

My grandmother has (probably) less than a year to live. She’s 85 years old and for the last ten years or so her health has been failing. Its only been in the last five years that she’s begun to actively die. It started with a heart attack that led to a stroke that lead to her losing sight in one eye and experience full body muscle weakness. She has low blood pressure and osteoporosis. The osteoporosis leads to abnormally high levels of calcium in her blood which is not just bad for her bones but also her heart. Three years ago she was diagnosed with a kind of cancer of the blood. The only way she will ever be cancer free is if she has a bone marrow transplant but she wouldn’t survive such a harsh procedure. Her heart muscles are atrophied and her heart is actively leaking blood. A pace maker could be put in but it would only stop sudden cardiac arrest. It wouldn’t really solve any problems. It might extend her life but no one can say for sure. She doesn’t want to have the surgery and I respect her decision.

My grandmother has been a fixture in my life since the day I was born. I was very jaundiced at birth and had to be put in a light box immediately. No one could hold me. My grandma prayed and sang to me. Both my parents worked long hours and if me and my siblings weren’t at school we were at my grandmother’s house. When we’re sick she gives us Sprite and eggs and refried beans. Tortillas were her specialty. Her tamales were a Christmas treat I looked forward to all year. Spanish rice, picadillo, and conchas overflowed at her house. She’d bring home a peppermint for each of us when she came home from work. She never forgot and she never miscounted. She was the first person in my life to respect my food sensitivities. She’d make my portion without onions. It took a few minutes more but it wasn’t a burden for her. She knew what I liked to eat. She would challenge me to try new things.

“Try a bite mijita,” she would instruct. “If you don’t like it I make you some eggs.”

Sometimes I liked it. Sometimes she’d make me eggs. She never got mad at me for being a “picky eater”. As long as I tried and didn’t waste food in her house everything was okay with her. As long as I was eating I was healthy.

“Jita,” she would say. “Don’t shake your hands at the table. You’ll get food on the floor.”

No yelling about quiet hands. Just a direction and a very logical reason for it.

“Jita,” she would say. “You need to listen at school. You need a high school diploma to go to college and I want to see you walk the stage.”

I was still mad at my teachers and confused by my classmates but Grandma wanted to see me on my special day. So I learned to put up with it.

“Mijita, when others are mean to you show them your beautiful smile,” she instructed.”They want you to be mad or sad. If you smile you confuse them. Then you come tell Grandma about your hurt.”

And it worked. Bullies stop picking on you if you just don’t care. I would tell Grandma if I was hurt or mad at their words. And it would be okay because Grandma loves me. And Grandma would always love me. There are so many of us (me and my siblings) but she had a way of talking to you that made you feel like you were the only one in the world. Because to her, you were. There was no other granddaughter like me and she thanked God for me every day. My birthday is in December but she would always buy me two presents. Because my birthday was as special as everyone else. Sometimes she would buy me a small one person cake. it would have reindeer and Christmas trees on top. It was my little cake. Just for me. Only for me. And she always remembered my favorite was chocolate.

When I left for college she was sad and scared. But she smiled and cheered me on. I was going to get my degree, the first in my family. She prayed to Jesus that my “school mind” would be open and that the library would be too. The first time I came home from university I went to visit her as usual. She looked so much smaller than I remember. So much weaker, so much sicker. For the first time I realized that my grandmother was going to die. That one day she simply wouldn’t be there anymore. I was so sick with the knowledge that I could hardly stand to look at her. My grandmother had been strong her entire life. She raised her sons alone after my good-for-nothing grandfather abandoned his family. In a time when women had no voice she and her sister worked menial jobs to buy their own home. Any obstacle could be overcome with hard work. Everyone had a skill that was special and could be used. Everyone’s life was important because they are a child of God.

She is a very, very religious woman, my grandma. Pious and as true a believer as there ever was. But her belief was never a weapon. She never tried to put the “fear of God” into any of us. Not even the time I nearly burned her house down. She just reminded us that God loved us. She wanted us all to be Catholics but she loved us no less if we never joined the church. She prayed her rosary quietly while we would nap when we were young. She thanked God for each of us by name. We were the sum of all her prayers, her reward for faithfulness, and proof, if only to her, of the loving God she leaned upon.

I joined the Catholic church in my early twenties. It is a fact that surprises many as I am generally logical and rational and religious beliefs tend not to be. Grandma brought me to the church. I saw the peace and joy it brought her. I saw the comfort religious beliefs could bring. I hoped to find that for myself and I very much did. My faith wavers often but that is just the nature of the thing.

My grandmother faces death with a serene smile. She is comforted by the love of God and His promise. She has lived all her life to be able to go home to His Kingdom and knows that the family members who have gone before her wait for her there.

I want her to go there. I know that she is tired of being in pain and she is tired of being sick. She is tried of hospitals and doctors and needles and pills. I want her to be at peace. Much of who I am today is because of her. Much of the peace I find in my life is because she so patiently taught me how to get there. She has always accepted me exactly for who I am. I have never been strange or weird or tiring to her. I have always been her Janna and I always will be.

I just really, really wish she could stay here with me always. Because I’m not done needing her to remind me that I’m perfect and wonderful and that I am a precious gift from God. I’m not done being her granddaughter. I don’t want her to go. But I know she’ll be waiting for me.