This is the beginning of a story I am sharing for some people I have met who are walking their own journey in the dark. It is also a story I am telling to remind me of the lights that have shone along the way. The story is long but needs to be told, not to rehash the causes but to remember the things that make a difference for those who deal with depression and anxiety.
From the time I was in my teens I have had an interest in people who were limited by societal expectations of what was “normal”. In those days, there were not ramps on the corners of any sidewalks or commercials that raised awareness of the many ways of communicating for people who either could not see or hear in the way that was considered normal. I wanted to understand what that was like for them so would cover my eyes and spend the day trying to do everything without seeing. The best I could devise for experiencing the lack of sound was to turn the volume down on the TV to watch shows. I know it didn’t teach me the full impact of the differences because I could choose to change the situation at any time, but it did help me have some empathy for those times when someone’s normal was outside what the culture considered in the culturally acceptable range.
Perhaps it is this experience of wondering that helped me move forward when my world went dark – not from a cause that could be seen on the outside, but from chemical imbalances in my brain of the which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg variety. The dimming that had been a part of my world at least since I was 9 years old, fell into the blackness called severe depression. What happened when that hit my 30 year old self and the stages I have gone through until now reflect back to the people who stood out in my life during my younger years.
Some of the factors that create the struggles with relationships go back before my memory of events. I truly believed the people in my life were doing the best they knew how. Some of it wasn’t good but without knowing their story, I could not know what led them to the actions they took. Research would later show that some of the factors of what happened make an actual difference with people like me. However, lights in the dark in the form of people who gave something extra to that young girl could go a long way to helping her hang on. The person mowing the lawn who gave me the butterfly with the broken wing to care for and the teens in churches who would be unofficial big sisters to me at various times would remain beacons to healing throughout my life.
Early years, Lesson 1, small actions matter. The simplest expressions of caring can add strength to the heart of a child. The smallest symbol can become a sign of hope.
My grade 4 teacher was the first to tell my parents that help was needed. I am not surprised. If I saw a student in our school acting like I did when my world began crashing in that year, I would have risked telling the parents the child needed help. Of course, nothing happened with the request and I can only imagine the helplessness that teacher felt. I was told he quit teaching after that year and some people said I was the cause. I don’t know if that was true as I was only a casualty of other things that occurred that year, but I know how I feel when students exhibit symptoms of deep inner pain. You can only give them as much of a feeling of safety as you can. At the same time, you need to believe in them enough to keep teaching them through it, while recognizing that what they can give may be limited by the experiences of their lives.
Grade 4, lesson 2, being intentional in dealing with bullying is important. Sitting back and letting things work themselves out may seem like a good idea at the time when popular students decide to start a grade-wide class war, but watch out for the casualties. If a student does not have a feeling of safety somewhere else in their lives, you may be risking more than they are able to handle. The aftermath in their school relationships may have a strong resemblance to a tsunami wave after a major earthquake.
By grade 6 when we moved away from that school, the damage had been done. The little girl who happily played with her friends at school had become the child no one wanted to sit by. The two month hiatus in one school then transitioning to a third school in a neighborhood with a gang mentality would not help matters any. It would depend on the resiliency of the child and the child’s ability to fill aloneness with activity and to find unconventional relationships. Luckily, both were true of me.
Someone who I reconnected to on line gave me this summary of my high school years. People could never quite understand why I was friendly one day and the next I would pull away from everyone. This inconsistency would become the norm that drove my life. I had the desire to make friends, and the ability to connect people to each other. The thing is, often my insight would be strong enough that they would become best friends and somehow I would be left to find someone again. Like many others, being different didn’t necessary connect me to others who were different. Holding a secret belief that there is something wrong with you doesn’t let you connect well with others. I will always be thankful for the teacher in the 10th of my 11 schools before I graduated from grade 12 who gave me extra time for a research project when my anxiety began affecting my school work. She saw the potential in me and found a way to let it shine.
Grade 10, lesson 3, focus on the strengths. This teacher gave me time and support without diminishing me by focusing on the weakness. She helped me to be successful even when I missed a month of school to journey with my parent because my anxiety was interfering with my school attendance.
Not being from a well-to-do family, I relied on my grades and bursaries to attend university. When my grades were threatened by new bouts of anxiety, I made use of the counseling services on the campus. The counselor relied on the parent-adult-child model for counseling and mixed private and group counseling in her methodology. She also introduced me to the use of dreams to help hear what it going on inside. In a group exercise, we were to tell a dream saying the word “I” after each thing or person in the dream to help us see the symbols in relationship to ourselves. She made the mistake of jumping on the symbolism of the dream I shared and using it to analyze deeper than I was willing or able to face at that time. I ran from counseling with the same surface logic that had began to become my way of dealing with life. The dream haunted me though and in holding it, I learned to listen within.
University, lesson 4, dreams help us hear what is hidden behind the walls within. I would continue listening to dreams and over the years would come to understand why my counselor leapt on that dream that day. Throughout the years I would find my dreams talking me through the journey and showing me where I needed to go to continue healing. I would learn to trust the world of sleep with some of my deepest hurts and questions. My dreams would keep me connected to who was home inside even when the walls I built in life were so thick my waking self could only see emptiness within.
Young motherhood was something I cherished. Holding my children in my arms was the most amazing experience. When my first child came, I felt the world was mine. I felt confident and purposeful in those first months before the expectations of what I should be began to play into our home. In my late 20’s we moved to a new town where my husband was a pastor of a small church. I would begin my time there seemingly strong. I even would hold a lead role in a musical and be ask to play a lead in a second musical production. My two young children would play with the other actors children at practices while we would be going through lines on stage.
Whether that played a part or not, judgment became a part of my life and I began closing in. Pregnant with my third child, I would feel symptoms of a hiatal hernia that would later manifest in my child as a stomach valve that did not close properly and muscle tone that wasn’t developed enough because of my gestational diabetes. Her symptoms would be invisible on the outside because I had developed an inability to let anyone to close to me. I had become “someone (they) didn’t want to know, so (they) stayed away” as one woman, a medical worker, in the church would later explain.
Late 20’s, respectful support matters. The woman’s comment was not the whole story of that time in my life. Another pastor’s wife would see what was going on and have the wisdom to recognize that I could not directly accept help. She would purchase tickets and sign up and pay for classes that she wouldn’t be able to take so that I could be talked into using them so they wouldn’t go to waste. When I wasn’t sleeping after the birth of my last child because of a mixture of postpartum depression and the child’s breathing issues, she allowed her daughter to come and stay with the kids for a couple of hours so I could take a nap. Her medical background and the fact that the children’s hospital had assisted me in getting CPR classes would be her reason for trusting that I could deal with it if my daughter stopped breathing while the girl was there.
I think she had an ulterior motive to this as well though. When she picked up her daughter, she could check on me. After my youngest daughters last stay in the hospital it would be this woman, Merna, who would recognize I was not all right. I will never forget the day the word-worn young mother told Merna she was fine rather than get another tongue lashing like she had gotten from another woman in her church. Merna wasn’t going to accept it and told me to call my husband. They were going to take us out to dinner. I was not going to cook that night.
When a week later, Merna got the news that she had leukemia, she let me return the favor by being there for her.