Bearing Witness

If you read this journey I am on through anxiety and depression, it is important to understand that this is just that – My Story. It is the only one I can with integrity tell. I don’t have the permission, nor would I want to invade the privacy of the others I know who are also walking a road like mine. I write it to give insights into some of the ways one person is dealing with this. I can’t give you anything more than that. When we walk with a person dealing with a mental illness generalities can only go so far. Just as physical illnesses differ in length, in reoccurrence, in prognosis for recovery, in the need of treatments and medication, the same is true for mental illnesses. It doesn’t matter if most of my life I don’t have to take the medications that are used to try to stabilize these conditions in others. We are in this together and learn from each other. My teachers have been both professional and other people who struggle with mental illness, some who do not have the wide expanses of time where melancholy thoughts and agitation are the only undercurrent of the rolling torrents that accompany emotional rains.

P1050449bTwo years ago I missed several months of work and then was only able to work half time until the end of the school year. The summer’s confusing story of going home to spend time as my dad was dying of cancer, facing the beauty and horror of his dementia’s many faces, and the unfinished reconciliation him was a major catalyst in the breakdown. The heart attack and surgery, two months later, of the person who is closest to being my partner in life was another.

My friend’s family lived 2 provinces away so could not spend the full time with him. Wanting to support him and old memories of not being able to be as much as I needed to be in other situations roared and raged in my senses. Anxiety and grief were companions that didn’t stop me from being there but weighed heavily when I was alone. Yet through it all, I kept going to school, teaching the children I love and having a rest from all the anxiety in those moments of teaching. I was also dealing with parents and other staff at the school who had their own stresses so outside of my classroom door, the anxiety crouched.

I took my personal leave day on the day of his surgery. I sat in the room with all the others who waited in small groups or alone as their loved ones were under the knife. No one really could talk to anyone else in those moments. We would smile politely and exchange a few words. A few would tell what their loved ones was going through but in those moments, having a friend who could have sat there with me through the battling heaviness of the fear of loss and the hope for recovery would have been meaningful. There is such a feeling of helplessness as you wait. Prayer is a cry into the silence but without a human voice, sometimes the answering comfort and assurance can’t be heard in those moments.

P1050489My friend lives in a cabin far to the north of here. He wanted the view out on the lake, the grass and the trees to be a part of his healing. He would have stayed with me for a time, but I only have a one room bedroom with a stairway up to it. He also would need someone with him around the clock for those first weeks and I had a job to go to each day. As deeply as I wanted him near, it was not the right kind of place for him to convalescence. Because of this, his brother, a doctor was going to come stay with him up there for his first two weeks. However, the first night, a Wednesday, out of the hospital would be at my place.

I was wakened in the night by the sound of him struggling for breath. He was still sleeping but there was a catch in his breath that would sputter, cease and start again. With memories of an infant who had struggled for breath, memory and love for this special friend kept me from resting. The breathing settled and I let him just sleep while I sat vigil through the few times this happened in the night. In the morning I told him what I had heard. He trust in me was enough that he had his brother take him to emergency. There were still some blood clots left in his lungs, he would need to wait to travel. While I was at work, he was with his brother that Friday. He spent my work hours with his brother and his evening and nights at my apartment while I listened in the night and heard the struggle for breath lessening. By Saturday, his birthday, he and his brother returned to his cabin and their 6 to 7 hour trek north to the place I had gone for healing after my dad died began. I didn’t know that a journey of my own was waiting.

P1050494I made the mistake many caretakers make in that time. I let guilty feelings keep me from asking for the help I needed. I kept going to work each day and, fearing people would think I was “making it all about me” (In quotes because it is an old script given at another similar time), I would try to keep any conversation about my friend’s well-being and did the best I could to wear a mask to keep my own shaky infrastructure from showing. I kept trying to be strong enough to be present with my friend and still not let anyone else down. I even set aside my own grief work. When my friend finally left, taking the pump of adrenaline with him that helps us through crisis situations, to say I felt shaky would have been an understatement.

I felt the tears in the back of my throat Monday morning as I drove to school. I still wanted to get there. I had classes of students I cared about and believed that the calm I felt in their presence would be enough to help me stay while I took my evenings for my rest and recovery. I never made it to my classes that day. A parent, irate at a policy of the school became someone I had to deal with as I did my morning outside duty. Pieces of my armour fell off but I was scrambling to put it back on to get to my class P1050480bwhen another staff member came up to emotionally tell me I had forgotten one of the things I needed to do that morning. My armor fell into shambles. Neither of these confrontations were significant but they revealed the reality. I had no more outer protections left and I broke. Oct 17, the tears began and the journey of healing began in earnest.

It was not the first time I had ignored the signs and let the illness inside reach that level. There were old scripts in my life that I had bought into that undermined my ability to get the help I needed. By trying to do it on my own when the one who had been my support collapsed under their own physical need, I had undermined my ability to fulfill any of the things I had made priorities. Though I would come in to set up some lessons for the teacher who would take my place and would take a morning to get the sound equipment ready for their Christmas concert, I would not teach my students again until April. Even the one place where anxiety rarely enters would be gone because I didn’t listen to what I needed to be what I wanted to be for others.

In this present situation while I am struggling with this visitation of Anxiety and shades of Depression, I am going to remember that P1050465time. Knowing that in those moments I did the best I knew how, I will look with grace on the me I was and honour what she had wanted to do. I will also learn from her and the resources she found in her determination for stopping the cycles of anxiety and depression in her life. I will let the me of that time be one of my teachers as I journey forward in the now.

Her pshychologist had introduced her to the concept of Mindfulness. The author she found, David Richo, would lead her forward in that stage of her healing. It is in viewing the things she underlined and the notes and dialoge in the borders that I follow her course through the book and find the passage that had given me the guidance to allow the stronger parts in me to stand with that which is broken inside in this present journey toward deeper healing.

He writes:

P1050466“I am aware that I will always be broken in some way. But I do not have to be fear-based in my behavior or choices. I can hold my fear in one hand and my commitment to no longer act in a fear-based way in the other. Somehow that combination seems more doable than no fear at all….I can sit in my predicament as witness, not as plaintiff or judge”. David Richo (Five Things We Cannot Change . . . and the Happiness We Find in Embrassing Them)

I am reminded that mindful living is about living in the moment we have, not pushing away those things that don’t fit the scripts we carry inside but allowing what is to be our teachers, our guides, our support for the broken places. Not being able to hold back tears at our in school professional development day at school on Friday felt humiliating but there was gentleness on those faces who know that I will still be a strong teacher even while doing this healing of my own. There was acceptance and support in the vice principal who came with me to my room so we could relieve pressure by going over where things were in my room, in case, we needed to P1050456use the back-up plan of taking some time off during this journey. Those who were uncomfortable with the emotion they could see even if I didn’t ask them to share it, just didn’t talk to me at all and that was okay.

The matriarch controlling part of me knows all the scripts about how I should handle this in a different way and somehow magically or spiritually and presto! It would be all better. I have heard them before and younger selves have allowed the words to add to the feeling of unworthiness. This time, I am going to try a different approach. I am going to hear their words, speak up to them when necessary, and acknowledge those parts of me that are angry at the rest of me for not being able to just do that. At the same time I am going to listen to these broken pieces to hear what they are trying to teach me so that I can live stronger in my relationships with others. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen if I can live mindfully in the reality of this moment and trust that the strength I have gained through the memories of the past will help this moment take me forward into the future that is mine to live.

For now, I will paste David Richo’s reminder in a place I can come back to time and again. And I will accept this moment, who I am in this moment, and all that it holds.

P1050462b“Here I am in this situation and I sit squarely in it and breath into it. At the same time, I am aware that I can handle this and get through it without becoming devastated. I can trust my competence neither to become dramatically overwhelmed nor to be stoically untouched. This sense of competence frees me from fear, since fear strives in powerlessness. I imagine myself holding my predicament in one handand my power to work with it in the others. One hand is serenely mindful; one is courageously working. When I hold both realities this way, I am agreeable to things as they are, and I am doing all I can to change them for the better as well. As I grow in the courage to change what can be changed and the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, I find the wisdom to know the difference. As for now, I affirm that I am able to handle whatever may happen for the rest of my life. I have handled so much so far, I know I will be able to face whatever is left. And if I need reinforcements, I will find them. Nothing can turn my life so upside down that I will collapse under it.”

(David Richo)


All images in this post come from the above collage, “Healing Vines”, L. J. Andres, Winter, 2011-2012 created from photos, objects, paint left over from past artworks, excerpts from journals and other various witnesses to the healing that can grow when we risk the turning over of the soil of our lives. The artist me in 2011 collected these mementoes in this image. Today, I thank her for recording her witness of the past so that, in my today’s, I can be stronger and more confident as I face residuals of anxiety and depression in this present journey. Because she did the work she did and left this and other records for me, my now self moves forward with the hope she worked so hard to find.


One thought on “Bearing Witness

  1. Melinda Lancaster

    “I will let the me of that time be one of my teachers as I journey forward in the now.” So much wisdom in this post. Again I relate on many levels. Thank you for sharing your journey.


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