“Broken”

I have to assume other people who struggle with mental health issues feel the same way I do when someone (especially someone you care about immensely) refers to you as “broken.” I felt so much anger last night, I wanted to write and reach out but I just couldn’t for fear of saying something I would regret.

When people refer to me as “broken”, it makes me feel like they view me as less than them somehow. I think it feeds into the already existing stigma around mental health when even people close to me turn on me in such a way. It’s especially frustrating when I am doing everything I can to manage my issues. I have been in therapy off and on (more on than off lately, a personal achievement!), I go to so many doctor visits I can’t keep them straight, I try to find healthy outlets, etc. so it frustrates me that all of that seems to not exist, that someone can just dash all of that away with one simple label such as this.

Broken.

You know who I think is broken? NO ONE. Everyone everywhere is a work in progress. Even the people who are stubborn as hell, pointing fingers and crying ‘broken!’ at others. I was like that once. Well, I never accused anyone else of being broken but I sure accused myself. And I wasn’t ready to listen to anyone, even me, about what I needed to do to move forward. So I drowned all of it out. I drowned it out by cutting, by drinking, by setting myself up for failure time and time again.

The current cycle I am stuck in is a cycle of instability.

I’ve been in the same relationship for about two and a half years. I have been in the same house for two years. Both of these are milestones for me, but both are still built on shaky foundations.

Broken, you might say.

I feel it all coming and crashing down around me now because I can’t keep up with this charade any longer. I get into relationship after relationship with people who cannot provide me with what I need because they are completely unwilling to. Again, I am setting myself up for failure. I’m in many ways a stereotypical adult child of an alcoholic in that I tend to end up with people who abuse alcohol, often people who deny this.

The thing is, I am finally growing; and when I find myself moving in different directions with someone who would prefer to keep me stagnant and apply labels to me, I just have to move on without looking back. I hope I have the strength this time.

First guest post – from Tara

I don’t have a nice neat story line to type up, just the typically scattered thoughts of someone who has been sober from alcohol for less than a year. My ability to journal, or to write slightly more formally such as this, has faded from lack of use in the last ten years. Wanting to write about this hasn’t magically made it any easier, but the difficulty seems entirely self-perpetuated. Well, there’s also the fog of chemicals but more about that later.

The basics of my story are simple enough to articulate, at least in a very general way. I am a thirty-five year old alcoholic who has struggled with mental illness for years. In 2008, I suffered a traumatic burst fracture of the T12 vertebra, which resulted in a fusion of the T10-L2 vertebrae. In July of 2012, I was diagnosed with triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma, and I am BRCA and BRCA-2 negative as well. (I like to call it quadruple negative, but it’s not catching on yet.) There are positives to be found in this diagnosis, such as not having to take any targeted hormone therapy and no increased risk of ovarian cancer. Also, negatives- there are only a few chemotherapy drugs known to work on this kind of cancer, in addition to the tools of surgery and radiation. Having the genetic testing come back negative meant that an overwhelming majority of the research on TNBC is useless in my case. My oncologist actually told me there are no other patients with this combination in the area, so I shouldn’t hope to be easily understood in any kind of support group. How fun to be unusual, right?

At the time of diagnosis, the tumor and necrosis in my right breast was almost ten centimeters, which meant I wasn’t an immediate candidate for surgery, nor were we able to determine if it had spread to the lymph nodes. Luckily, I had a very positive reaction to my first regimen of eight AC-T chemotherapy treatments and was able to have a bilateral skin sparing radical mastectomy in December of 2012. At that time, sixteen nodes were removed on my right side and one was positive for cancer cells. My subsequent diagnostic scan showed no mass, which meant it was entirely up to me if I wanted more chemo. What a tough choice! I did decide to proceed, and just completed four doses of Carboplatin with Gemzar. Everyone on my medical team, and especially my oncologist, has been very clear that this is a WHEN situation, not an IF.

That all said, I would like to talk about a few of the feelings and thoughts that are consuming me at this juncture. My needs, emotional and physical, feel overwhelming and huge. The gulf between what my mind is screaming out for and what I express is immeasurable, as is the gulf between what I ask for and what I receive. Easier in its own way is the habit of shutting down and responding only to the least threatening of companions- my partner and my pets. Socializing almost entirely online, I feel support but also a painful awareness of the distance between myself and others. The people in my life that want to provide the most support happen to be the least able, for a variety of reasons. It’s difficult to avoid developing resentments, and I still haven’t figured out a healthy way to do so.

There is much difficulty in finding perspective, in understanding each new emotion or permutation of thoughts. Not only overwhelmed at times by the prospect of each next tiresome step in this cancer process, I am also despondent when considering the life of sobriety that yawns before me, shapeless as of yet. I’d perfected the art of self-loathing and self-abuse, to change now and to become MORE than the sum of my problems is daunting at best.

And then one begins to approach the long term issues, terrified and convinced of my obvious imminent failure. Is school just a way to expensively delay the inevitable, as seems to be the case with so many of my peers? Does my brain even work that way anymore, or is it too damaged by years of abuse and illness? If I fall into a heap on the floor when faced with the prospect of paperwork, who am I to talk about going to school? If not school, what else- an inexplicably long life of customer service slavery, always wishing for each day just to be over?

I’ve lived that way for almost my entire adult life, watching the clock and waiting. Tomorrow will suck less, or maybe next week. If I just push through this next ten minutes, or ten hours, then maybe I won’t be in pain and exhausted by just the machinations of life. That has certainly stood me in good stead as I deal with cancer, and so I joke that being an alcoholic has made this easier and vice versa. Cancer certainly woke me up, and allowed me to understand that there’s more fight in me than I had come to accept.

No longer drinking is a huge step, and one that can be almost impossible for the active alcoholic to achieve. In a strange way, I think that all the drugs they threw down my gullet caused enough of a fog that it softened the worst of the emotional effects. Or perhaps that all lurks, waiting for me to be able to process? Either way, this is the most intense burst of emotional growth I have experienced thus far in my life. Remembering each day to be grateful, even when I am in crippling pain, is extremely difficult to do but will hopefully become easier with more time and work.

Ugh. More work.

-Tara

3/14/13

I was thinking a lot today, and I really feel I have made some astounding progress in the past five years. Five years is the marker because that was when the car accident that changed my entire life occurred. This has forced me to push myself harder, take care of myself and learn to live with things that I have no control over all at once.

I have a very long history with severe depression, have struggled with alcohol, been homeless and have always had a weak immune system. I never had much going for me it seemed, and it took a long time to learn to even respect myself.

Five years ago, I was living alone in a two bedroom apartment. I had a good job. I had, for the most part, removed alcohol from my life. I would go to bars and clubs and not drink, mostly because I was very strict with my money (having come from not much of it!) and didn’t trust myself, either. I never did quit drinking completely (there were a few years I did go completely alcohol-free), but I have learned where to draw boundaries, and I absolutely loathe the feeling of being drunk now.

So, while it seemed things were looking up, I still somehow had ended up with shingles. I was only 24 and didn’t think I was dealing with a lot of stress at the time. I was still healing from that when the car accident happened.

“The Car Accident” has been a phrase I have been used to repeating over and over again in the past five years. Probably to other people it doesn’t signify much, but to me, it’s such a milestone. I have to assume other people imagine I am over dramatic about it but it really did change everything, for better or worse. Both, really.

I lost my job after this accident, of course I was injured badly (nothing obvious or visible like broken bones) and had to remain on bed rest for about three months. I wanted to go back to work. I was tired of laying around by myself, suddenly becoming very dependent upon others. I couldn’t even manage to go grocery shopping by myself, it hurt too much to lift a bag of food. I fell into a deep depressive phase while I waited for life to get back on track. After three months, I did return to work, part time by doctor’s orders. This put me right in the line of fire at my workplace. They were going through round after round of layoffs, and this time I was let go, because I was not as productive as the others.

Of course not.

I had already been fretting over how to pay my bills when I was on bed rest. This made things worse. Luckily one of the first things I did was go to my credit union and apply for a credit card. I was approved and this was how I paid my bills. It took forever for insurance to pay out for personal injury protection and my unemployment was not much. I scanned job listings day after day, only to become more depressed over the fact that I couldn’t seem to find anything I could *physically* handle at all.

I was a previously independent person trying to make due relying on others and being out of work. This was a difficult lesson to learn, learning how to ask for help for the first time in my life since childhood. However, it’s an important thing to learn in my opinion, so I have to say learning how to ask for help has become a benefit in my life now.

Regarding my depression…this comes from my turbulent childhood, living with an abusive alcoholic father, as well as a big dose of anxiety. I’ve been in therapy on and off for many years, but due to changing employment situations and lack of insurance, I had a hard time sticking with it. There doesn’t seem to be a large amount of help for unemployed or uninsured people struggling with mental health issues unless they are homeless, addicted to drugs, hardly in control of themselves, etc. Not that it is not important to help these people, but people like myself seem to be viewed as “doing okay on your own” and dismissed by these organizations. That was my experience, anyway. I have had very terrible therapists and some great ones, but last time I quit seeing a great one was because I suddenly received “pre-existing conditions clause” notices in the mail from my insurance at the time. I had already racked up about $4000 in visits by the time insurance notified me they would not cover me. It seemed so callous and cold to deny someone with mental health issues simply because they’ve had a history of them. The medical system can be a very disappointing and frustrating thing to deal with.

So after losing my job and being still too injured to just apply to every job I could find, I then had to worry about insurance, how to care for my injured self without breaking the bank that was already pretty much broken. Car insurance covers a person injured in a car accident for a maximum of one year, regardless of the issues. It would be up to my lawyer to go for the rest of my medical costs. Of course, there was another lesson to be learned there, as well. I was bitterly disappointed in my choice of lawyer after three years passed and the settlement was finally in my hands.

I made a huge decision when the car insurance stopped covering my medical bills. I promised myself that it was worth it to continue to receive care, even if I had to rack up debt. The savings I had was drained to pay for my care and my basic bills. I did not care, or tried not to, because I knew I owed it to myself to finally learn to love myself. First I would learn to do so by physically caring for my body. The harder part came later when I had to make peace with myself emotionally and mentally.

I don’t think there has been more than two weeks that have gone by without at least one appointment related to my physical or mental health care in the past five years. Many times I would become overwhelmed with how demanding this schedule was. Mostly now I deal with it well, because I have a car now, which makes it a million times easier to get from point A to point B, especially when my practitioners are spread all over the city and into the suburbs. Doing all of that on the bus was very difficult.

It took three years for me to finally land a full time job. I was so grateful. I finally felt I could get back on my feet, get insurance, take care of myself. Of course, no… the pre-existing conditions clause kept me from being able to utilize my insurance for almost all my problems until a year had passed. I had to pay for insurance I could not use for one year before I would qualify. This was very upsetting. By this time, I had definitely come to notice my full time job that I was ever-so-grateful for was too stressful for me. The job itself was fine, but the environment was not. People I worked with were incredibly mean because they were under stress. I was in a position that allowed them to feel okay looking down on me and treating me accordingly. I had to get out of there. My headaches were becoming more frequent, tension was at its all time high in my muscles and I suffered my one and luckily only migraine there. I noticed myself snapping at people and in general being a not very nice person. I was of course very downtrodden most of the time and I am not good at hiding my moods. I was, in short, a very miserable person to be around.

I ended up applying for other jobs, and surprisingly, it was the one that had no open positions that I ended up snagging. I was so desperate for a new job that I emailed my resume and cover letter to a company that sounded like one I would enjoy working for. I was right, and still work there today. My insurance coverage started with them after my first 30 days of employment. I was extra grateful for that, and even better, it was the same insurance I had at my last job that I could not use…only now I was free of the pre-existing conditions clause.

This is really where I started putting in all that I could into myself.

I worked so hard at my job, and it was recognized. My manager has been very flexible and understanding with my schedule and all my appointments. I went to every single specialist I had wanted to see but was prevented from seeing before. My schedule was completely packed with my new (quite demanding) job and all my appointments. I’ve been in therapy now for awhile, the longest I have seen one therapist ever. I’m off pharmaceuticals for depression. I’ve gotten new diagnoses, things that probably have been with me for many years, and now that I am receiving treatment I DO see and feel a difference. I am still very exhausted, but my journey has really only just begun.

I feel that I finally can look at myself and see the potential I have. Instead of constantly belittling myself, I see how intelligent I am, how well I can handle difficult situations and how much I have accomplished even against very bad odds. I think to myself what an amazing, unstoppable force I have already been, even when I just wanted to sleep all day, just give up. I can only assume I will be able to finish every task I set out to, especially once my issues are properly managed.

On top of it all, I have a wonderful partner who understands why I have no energy to handle household chores often, who always handles them without begrudging me. He’s learned a lot and grown too over the years and although I have accomplished nearly everything worthwhile in my life on my own, it is a breath of fresh air to have someone stand by my side and truly understand me and what I have gone through, and am still going through. He’s changed, I’ve changed, we’ve changed. It’s a wonderful thing to reflect on.

I almost feel as if I owe an apology to anyone I have met within the past five years; I feel as though I should say that was not me they met, but a shadow of me, someone overburdened with things they did not understand or know how to handle. As a result, I know I was unpleasant to be around at times. But with a lot of work in therapy, a lot of harsh self-reflection, a lot of kind self-love and treating my body with the best healthcare I can find, I finally feel as though I am becoming the person I know I could be. It sounds so cheesy but here I am thinking this way. When I think back on my past, it seems just short of a miracle.

I have a lot of wonderful friends who have walked beside me as well, and I have learned what kind of toxic relationships to watch out for. I secluded myself a lot in the past couple years, mostly so I can finally focus on me and get where I need to be. It’s an easy way to see just who does care enough about you to keep in touch. I am not the most open person normally, and would not type all of this out if it were not anonymous, but seeing that I truly have friends who love me and care about what is going on in my life is worth so much to me. Learning who to cut out of my life was hard but beneficial. I am very sensitive and typically put people I care about before myself. I have had to reverse that in the past two years or so just to get where I am today. I try to be there for people I care for but know where to draw the line so I don’t exhaust myself. If I don’t take care of me, how can I take care of others?

I’m not going to say life is perfect, because there are still days where I really struggle with the pain, or the depression, or just the idea of how much has changed and how much work there is left to do. But I will say I am grateful for all the lessons even though they have been incredibly harsh at times. I’m finally the one in control of my destiny instead of standing by and just letting things happen. I feel empowered by that and hope that I can keep this strength for the rest of my life.