Rest and relief

Dedicated  to Michael Goncalves and the loved ones we have lost to suicide

Early in June, I had a day at work that left me drained, overwhelmed, and maybe even frightened at how low I felt.  I really felt the need to go back into therapy. That difficult moment did eventually pass. I spent decades working on strategies to self-regulate, to care for myself, and to deal with some of the challenges that I face.  I call upon that learning, training, and experience whenever I feel weak. I am grateful to be able to do so for myself.

This past June we lost fashion icon Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to suicide. This week I lost a former student to suicide. Those deaths made me reflect on my own journey with depression and mental illness.  I have been open about my own struggles with anxiety and depression. I don’t talk about them as much in recent years because they’re not as central to my current experience. There may be times in the future when I face grief, loss, and other challenges of middle age.  My mental health has been foremost in my mind for the greater part of my adult life. It took me years to achieve that level of self-awareness.

The mental transformation that I have undergone took years.  There are times like that summer afternoon when I will feel as if all my progress has evaporated in moments. Suddenly my negative self-talk and  negative self-image will resurface. I may be healthy now but that doesn’t mean my negative self-image still isn’t there. I spent years loathing myself. That part of me still shows up now and then, those thoughts, those ways of seeing and perceiving the world. They don’t go away because of therapy or, for so many people, because of medication. Those negative thoughts and beliefs are some of the ways my mind responds to challenges.

I am thankful for all the work I put in for my mental health. I have known my therapist for half my life. There were times when I saw her once a week. I also took part in support group for three years.  I completed intensive work in various behavioral therapies.. That work was necessary and continues to be instrumental in my life today. I would not have made it through in my profession and in my personal life. I couldn’t be a parent today.

As we grapple with suicide, we are more open to discussing mental health.  It’s important that we recognize we are not professionals. We can’t take the place of professional help.  Some may think having good friends and a loving partner may be all the support needed. That could be. However, I know I needed my entire circle of family and friends supporting my journey, a great therapist, and my entire medical team involved. I am religious so my spiritual life and practices also changed and deepened. Working on my mental health included work in all areas of my life. It was a process.  I learned that I needed routine, discipline, and physical movement. Becoming mentally well took a monumental effort. I needed patience and faith that what I was learning would work. I had to have faith life was going to get better.

It hurt my heart when I learned of Anthony Bourdain’s death. I never met the man but I have read his books and he was fun to watch on TV. We used to joke we would have our own show, Latino couple traveling with toddler. It was easy for us to look at Bourdain and say that he was living the dream.  I was devastated when I learned my former student had died. I think about how he was always smiling, how sweet and happy he seemed. I won’t ever truly know anyone’s story or pain. We each have a journey and unfortunately some end in tragedy. Even though I don’t know what these men experienced, I remember my own struggles. I remember how sad, angry, frustrated, low, and miserable I felt. I remember wanting relief. I won’t ever forget. Those memories keep life in perspective.

I wish those we’ve lost to suicide rest.  I wish everyone grappling with mental illness relief. If you have been blessed with a truly healthy self-image and mind, be grateful. For some of us, it’s a daily effort to be well.  I hope to keep my eyes, ears, and heart open to others.


*National Depression Screening Day is October 11.  Learn more at Stop a Suicide Today

A letter to a stranger

All My Love, V
Dearest Vanessa,
We don’t know each other. I’m ashamed to admit I never saw your films nor did I read your writing though as a Latina writer I try to support my hermanas in art.  I only know about your passing because I follow Alisa Valdes on Facebook.  Still, news of your death has touched me.  Once it could have been me blogging a farewell.
I wish our paths had crossed somehow.  I could have told you about my own struggles with self-doubt, depression, and the allure of a quick death.  I wish I could say I was the secret to my own survival.  This is only partially true.  I have to credit therapy, prayer, the love of family and friends. Mostly, it was simply fear that kept me alive, fear of the unknown.  Then I received unexpected news.  Suddenly, it wasn’t only my life hanging in the balance but that of my daughter.  So I really had to rediscover my will to live.   But I was no stronger than you.  I suppose I stayed a few days more.  Now we won’t know what might have been if you had done so, too.
I am sorry you have left the world. I am sad the world did not sense the depths of your pain.  I am hurt that we will never know the extent of your potential and that only your art will endure.  But I hope you have found the freedom you sought for most of your life, la libertad of peace.
I pray for the repose of the soul of Vanessa Libertad Garcia.  Con safos, chica.

Life on Alphabet Street

“2 make this cruel, cruel world hear what we’ve got to say:
Put the right letters together and make a better day!”   Prince
There are times when I worry that my daughter will grow up and write a best-selling memoir about growing up in a household that could be identified by medical acronyms.  Sometimes I believe it will make her independent, sensitive, and resilient because I see her developing those qualities.  Every so often, I fear it will cause her pain. Most of the time, we take each day as it comes. Day to day, we are like every other family. There is always a basket of laundry to fold, dishes in the sink to be washed, somebody’s socks a few inches short of the hamper. There is laughter and plenty of hugs. The labels seem to be just that. 
To survive any challenge, you must be focused.  To remember that you survived and retain what you learned from it, you must be mindful.  When I was diagnosed with BPD nearly five years ago, I faced my biggest challenge to date. I had to focus all of my energy and faith into my recovery; my life depended on it.  Years later, I am healthy but I cannot forget all that I learned. My recent battles with my weight and with interpersonal communication are reminders that I must be aware of whom or what is affecting me and, more importantly, how I choose to handle all situations, especially the negative ones. My health and happiness depend on it.
Our family, like all other families, is unique.  The fact that each of us has an interesting label that gives insight into who we are doesn’t define or limit our life experiences or the love we share.  In fact, it allows me to fully  appreciate and cherish that love.  
*For more information about BPD(also known as emotion regulation disorder), visit NEA BPD.  

Crazy , sexy, not cool?

“No amount of cute is worth any amount of crazy.” Yours truly
“And I’m crazy for loving you.” As sung by Patsy Cline
Crazy used to have sizzle. One need not look too far into popular culture to see and hear the connection drawn between madness and mad sexiness.  Rihanna’s latest video for the techno-flavored “We Found Love” is one in a long line of songs/films attempting to capture the allure of the insane(and not a necessarily false portrayal but that’s a reflection for another day.) Meanwhile, so many people, myself included, have been drawn to the eccentric, the edgy, and the downright unstable.  But is that particular thrill gone? 
Real-life events have served as an antidote to the glamorization of mental instability. Columbine, Virginia Tech,  Tucson, and Oslo have gone from being places of study and residence to scenes of tragedies.  The perpetrators have become the faces of mental illness turned outwards in anger and violence.  At the other end of the spectrum, thousands of young people like Tyler Clementi and Phoebe Prince remind us to better serve those whose pain is directed inwards in depression and suicide. 
The very public breakdown of certain celebrities has also opened our eyes to the  detrimental aspects of mental illness. Despite career comebacks, no one will ever forget that Mariah Carey and Britney Spears were once hospitalized for the sake of their mental health.  Jokes aside, these women , like millions of non-famous people, have survived and recovered with the support of loved ones and medical treatment.  The challenge of maintaining a healthy mind may be a greater reward than a renewed career. 
On the personal level, I can honestly say there is nothing glamorous or sexy about crazy.  If I have to spend time and money in individual sessions or support groups because of myself and/ or my relationship, then it’s time to be alone for my health and well-being.  There is no cool soundtrack when all hell breaks loose in real life. 
Sane may be boring but it is also safe. Those  of us who have confronted mental illness and put in the work to recover will attest to that. 

If the diagnosis don’t fit…

Ahh labels. They’re meant to be stuck on and then peeled off, right? When they’re on boxes or bottles, apples or oranges, they’re little more than an inconvenience. But placed on people and their physical/mental maladies and suddenly they’re not so easily shed. Mental illness, for example, despite its increased prevalence in pop culture, is still very much a label people disdain.

I’ve been working like mad(pun absolutely intended) to manage and overcome my preliminary diagnosis. Reviewing the basic list of symptoms, I can conclude the label doesn’t fit quite like it used to. In fact, the only symptom, often called the trademark of folks struggling with my condition, that somewhat still applies would be “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.” And the words “frantic efforts” would best be replaced by “heightened anxiety or worry.” Because I have a new label now: first time mom.

This morning, I panicked. My daughter hasn’t been very active this weekend, probably lulled into a food coma by the feast we had at my cousin’s last night or the cold weather or her dad’s usual departure to Vallejo/Concord. Combine that with a couple of painful cramps and some other discomforts and I was weeping on the phone with the hospital. One large glass of water and 90 minutes later, I have decided to not visit Labor and Delivery and continue to treasure the weeks before my baby’s arrival. I wouldn’t call this morning’s nervousness a borderline moment. But yes, if there’s anyone I hope stays with me, it’s my daughter. And that has nothing do with personality dysfunctions.

So as my therapist has recommended, I cling less and less tightly to my perception of myself as someone with mental illness and move gradually to accepting myself as a grown woman as my child’s mother.

Coming undone in a fishbowl

A lot has been made of Britney’s recent breakdowns. Everyone from E! to Dr. Phil to the average Joe or Maria has something to say about the latest casualty of kid fame. But I knew Ms. Spears was on the verge when she donned a sweatsuit to marry Federline. I hadn’t yet learned the term borderline or recognized it in myself but I was alarmed by Brit’s under-the-influence YouTube rant and her pattern of impulsive behavior. The girl needed help, not publicity. Now a possible 5150, Ms. Spears has truly lost control.

Mental illness isn’t fun or glamorous. It is ugly and tragic. I feel for her. Losing your mind is painful without the addded stress of constant flash of camera bulbs and microphones being thrust in your face for soundbites. The woman has lost her children and dignity yet the media blitz doesn’t seem to be letting up. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Dr. Phil and his ilk helped push Brit to the edge of the edge.

I hope she heads home to Louisiana. She doesn’t need the luxury cars or the Hollywood home or her paparazzo boyfriend or her manager/producer. She needs time and love, real love, not the fish food America has been feeding her since her “Oh Baby, Baby” days.

Next steps

I have gotten over my initial grief/shame/anguish/indignation at my diagnosis. I have begun to embrace it. After all, it has been part of me from at least my teens and more than likely my early childhood. I have lived with it and struggled to be as high functioning as I am.

On Monday, my psychologist released me from her care. I have her card and I am welcome to call but we are done. She feels I have made significant progress(Look Ma, no depression!) I am also two weeks into my intensive work with my old/new therapist. Next week, I will join a group at the hospital. It is actually similar to my depression group in that it will combine group support and skills-based instruction in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.(DBT) DBT was created specifically to help people with borderline personality symptoms manage their emotions. I also have the option of staying with my Women’s Support Group(which I plan to continue). Both my doctor and I were excited about the next phase of my journey.

For me, it is reassuring to know there are others. I know there are approximately two million of us but meeting them and working with them will be important. My doctor has forewarned me that I may be the highest functioning and that I will meet those who are low functioning. I am intrigued. I know it will change my thinking about my condition but more importantly, about myself.

In the meantime, I’m continuing my Hermione Granger(Harry Potter’s brainy best friend who is always hitting the books) approach to mental illness. I’m now reading a third book and plan to continue to explore other material. I’m sure I’ll be raising my hand to share in group and volunteering to take part in exercises. It’s time to learn as much as I can about me.

Making it official

My partner in crime, my work mentor, has taken a job in a neighboring district. How could she pass up only two night duties and a three-minute commute? It sounds like my dream job. While I support her choice, I can’t help but feel scared about this coming fall.

Goodbyes are hard for me. The thought of being abandoned is even more difficult. But I know that Mentor will stay in my life, that our friendship which has endured for nearly 12 years will continue.

After our lunch at her home today, I cried on the drive home. Yes, it’s a familiar scene, me falling apart all by myself, after parting with a loved one on positive terms. But I did not let it overwhelm me. I called Izzy and he helped me refocus. I used my Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques to monitor my thoughts and create alternative ones. By the time I got home, I felt alright, if a little drained.

Izzy said something very wise and valuable this afternoon. He pointed out that I have kicked ass for years, that my anxiety disorder has been a part of my life for years, and I have done well living with it. I am committed to managing it so that I can handle goodbyes and changes in a more healthy, balanced manner.

The support of good friends doesn’t hurt, either.

Step by step: The journey begins

Once,several months ago, Soldier wrote that he felt his mind was broken. I have thought of that phrase often since Friday afternoon when my psychologist alluded to the fact that we might have discovered my core problem. She suggested I read, I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me and to assess if I agreed with her diagnosis. She did not name my condition. An hour later, as I scanned Amazon for the book, I was chagrined when I saw that it was the first, and best-known, book about borderline personality disorder. As I told her in her office, I felt so damaged.I sat at the computer in Kinko’s, feeling my face get red, that lump in my throat get bigger, and tears spring into my eyes. I took a few deep breaths, ordered my books, and drove home, stunned.

In the past few days, I have begun the process of acceptance. After all, I have lived with these symptoms for all of my life but never recognized it. Now, I can bring it out of the far reaches of that vast continent of my mind, understand and befriend it. Now I know I am not manipulative or cruel or faking for evil’s sake. Now I can start to love myself completely because the missing piece is in my hands.

This morning, I started reading Stop Walking on Eggshells, which is a guide for people who know and love people with borderline personality. I only read one chapter but I did have to take two crying breaks. For the first time in my life, I know what I am dealing with and that there is a name for my pervasive sense of fear. It is a relief but it is not without pain, shame, and sorrow. I have reflected on all my loved ones I have hurt over the years, simply because I fear abandonment. I take responsibility for the poor choices I have made, for my negative thoughts and actions. I am taking responsibility for making changes in myself.

On Thursday night, before my diagnosis, my mother and I were delving into the roots of my insecurity. At one point, she became defensive and was ready to walk out of my house and out of my life. I began to cry, “No, please, Mommy. Please don’t leave me. Not that. Anything but that.” The signature cry of a borderline .

I am reminded of a blog I wrote on March 2 about my fear of abandonment, titled “The Anguish, 2007 Remix” which included an anecdote about waiting at a bus stop when I was in kindergarten and my irrational fear that my mother would not come for me. I wrote,” I was five years old and already my mind was convincing me that the love anyone could be feeling for me wasn’t all that strong.
I cry now as I remember that feeling because it’s the feeling that always returns. It is the feeling that I allow to take over my entire being whenever I am scared or anxious. My doctor says it is my extreme stress reaction and she is right. It’s like a reverse game of possum. I start to die even before the threat arrives. I tell myself to stop living because I am afraid of abandonment. I am afraid I am not lovable.” So yes, I am recognizing myself as I begin my research into this condition.

As with any description of mental illness, some traits fit and others don’t. Five traits are required for a diagnosis. Diagnosis should only be made by a trained professional after months of observation and therapy. Some clinicians are comfortable naming BPD at diagnosis whereas others, like my doctor, are vague, perhaps in fear of the emotional effects on the person with BPD. While my doctor’s vagueness scared me, I am glad I was the one to name it. It empowered me to complete the diagnosis. Over the next few months, I will continue the process.

So what now? My doctor has recommended that I pursue intensive therapy through an outside source as my insurance plan won’t cover this kind of work(according to my research, many health plans do not cover BPD). She recommended I continue the work I have done to diminish and heal my depression: cognitive behavioral therapy exercises, my support group, continued self-treatment for depression and anxiety, sessions with my psychologist. Yesterday, I spoke with my former therapist, the one who helped me during my last severe bout of depression 8 years ago(also the most severe acting out of my BPD though I did not realize that until these last few days.) As before, she was compassionate, helpful, and wonderfully familiar. We worked together for two years so it is fitting and comforting that we should do so again.

And my loved ones, those I cherish, perhaps too desperately at times? I am speaking to them one by one. So far, they have been what they have always been, the most loyal and loving friends a woman can have. I am truly blessed. Unlike many people who have BPD, I have a strong support network. They will continue to hold my hand as I begin this new journey. I will make amends with Soldier and hope that he too will be with me.

And me? I am giving up alcohol. I recognize that I can use alcohol in efforts to hurt myself and others. Until I get a handle on this situation, I will not drink.

My mind is not broken. Just unexplored and misunderstood. It is still beautiful and good. I am still beautiful and good.