2017 started on the wrong foot. I had only just shaken off some soul-crushing election blues when a wave of anxiety stopped me in my tracks.
The alarm on my phone became a cruel joke, always beat by a panic attack that rose with the sun each morning. I’d start each day heaving into a toilet, the thought of breakfast as far from my mind as any firm grasp of reality. Obsessive spirals kept me pinned to my parents’ couch, where I would relive my failings, faults, and worst fears over and over. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t do anything. It took four months of suffering and a new psychiatrist to finally cobble together a sense of normalcy.
Once I’d gathered together enough scraps of sanity to actually form a coherent thought about something other than a modern Civil War or the myriad car accidents that could befall my family on any given day, I jumped right into trauma therapy.
I was tired of the same wounds reopening themselves when my mental health took a nose dive, and I wanted to mitigate that while I was well enough to put in the enormous effort that sort of healing requires.
I worked with my therapist using a combination of EMDR and regular talk-therapy and found that for the first time in my life, therapy was actually working for me. Once I had fully “processed” my first memory, I started to see drastic and immediate results. I felt more open, more centered, more myself. I started reconnecting with hobbies and interests I’d had as a kid — things left abandoned while I took on the impossible Oldest Child task of attempting to singlehandedly rescue my entire family. “I feel like I’m blooming,” I remember saying. “Like something inside of me has been waiting to open up, and now that it has space to, is bursting at the seams.”
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I was encountering that rare and precious gift of true, unadulterated healing. It was intense and exhausting, but oh, it was so glorious! So THIS was what life could be like? So bright and hopeful and full of possibility? I couldn’t believe that weeks before I’d been unable to think beyond the next hour or even minute, for fear that the crushing weight of the unknown would send me into an existential tailspin. Now the future seemed to beckon me. I was filled with creative and intellectual energy, finally sure that I was safe and stable enough to not just heal, but actually live my life.
Finally, all the walls and borders I’d set up around my mind and my heart could begin to be torn down. I remember sitting in my apartment blaring SZA’s CTRL on a Friday night, alone with my cat and a celebratory glass of rose less than a week after my 21st birthday, more content than I’d ever remembered being. This is the first time in my life I’ve gone a whole year without the world being pulled out from under me! Stability is AMAZING. I love healing!
When I drove the 40 minutes down to my parents' place the next morning, I met my Dad in the driveway, sobbing. He and my mother were separating — for good this time. Forever. After 23 years of marriage, they were divorcing.
My knees gave out immediately.
I’ll never forget that feeling. The hot ground that caught my palms, the cool surface of the garage door that cradled my face. I didn’t want anyone to touch me. I didn’t want anyone to ask how I was. I just wanted to sit right there in the front yard forever, where at least the concrete would stay bonded to the hard valley soil for a few decades longer. Where at least the sun rose and set in the same place each day. Where my parents’ cars would never be parked side-by-side again, except to pick up kids or drop things off or do other Divorced People things.
When I was a little girl, I begged my mom for a divorce.
I pleaded and bargained and when that didn’t work, I daydreamed. I imagined a world where I had no family — no one to love me, and no one to use that love against me. I wanted nothing more than to escape the daily terror and pain of life with an addict. I wanted to wake up and not wonder whether today would be a “good Dad” day or a “bad Dad” day, whether I’d have a dad to wake up to at all.
It will never feel convenient or easy — and if by some miracle you come across a bit of it in a season of calm and stability in your life, give it a kiss and hold on tight. Things won’t stay that way for long.
All I ever wanted as a kid was for my parents to finally, for the love of god, give up the charade of our Perfect Mormon Family Of 6, admit how terrible things actually were, and figure out what sort of life we could create for ourselves anyway. It never happened. I learned to count on it not happening. It was one of the only things I could be sure of: my mom will never leave my dad. She had all the reason in the world to and she never did, so how could she do it now? It eventually became something that calmed me — my family will never ever be torn apart. I'd repeat it to myself during panic attacks, counting each family member on one of my fingers until they added up to make a whole hand. It was a grounding exercise — find a constant, name the constant, keep naming it until you feel human again. But now even that was out the window. Even my shitty little codependent certainty wasn’t certain.
I’m sure you can imagine the anguish I felt. I’m not the only one who’s had a wrench thrown in their life just when they’d just gotten all the cogs back into working order. The fates are called cruel for a reason. I couldn't help but think, why did I do all of that work when something came along to destroy it anyway? I can’t seem to get my inner world and my outer world to synch up on any frequency other than that of complete and total chaos. The pattern conjures up fantastical images of diligently making my way through the literal labyrinth of my psyche while an equally diligent goblin follows behind me, craftily undoing all my hard work before I even have time to turn around and get a look at the results.
But that isn’t altogether true. Because the thing that has saved me through this god-awful season of chaos? All that healing I thought was rendered useless ended up making me a pretty resilient little divorce warrior. In the past few months, I’ve stood up for myself more, taken time for myself more, and, yes, found new and even more profound avenues for healing than I ever could have imagined. I do not know how I would have survived this past summer were it not for that flicker of hope I felt in the spring.
The work I was doing before my life blew up in my face was not obliterated because it was my work — not my family’s. I am terrible at not sharing things with my family (see: multi-generational history of codependence), but if there’s one thing we simply can’t share with other people, it’s our healing. That shit is ours. Like our pain, we can never truly share it. We earned it. If you’re anything like me, you also waited for it. A long time. Too long. Stop doing that.
Healing is hard work. It will be hard today, tomorrow, next week, next month, 3 years from now.
It will never feel convenient or easy — and if by some miracle you come across a bit of it in a season of calm and stability in your life, give it a kiss and hold on tight. Things won’t stay that way for long. That’s not catastrophic thinking — that’s just entropy.
But when things do go bad — and they will — don’t take it as a sign to give up. Take it as a message from the universe to keep going: Heal, little human! Heal with all your might! It’s hard work, but it’s also the sort of work that stands the test of time. It’s the concrete foundation that’ll be there to catch you the next time you fall. Not a net or bed of feathers, but a step up from total oblivion for sure. Somewhere you can gather the shrapnel and build a monument to the life you had before, then break ground on the new life you're gonna have to start living — the new healing you'll need to start working on. Suffering won't wait, so why should you?
OCDame is a column about chronic mental illness by Jenni Berrett. While she’s no doctor or counselor by any means, she does have extensive experience in being batshit crazy — which she doesn't think is as bad a thing as the world would lead you to believe. Each week she puts that ongoing experience to good use by writing things that have been stuck inside her heart for too long in the hopes that they will help unstick somebody else’s heart, too.
Find more articles from OCDame by clicking here. You can also shoot Jenni an email (at any time and about any thing, just so long as you remember the whole aforementioned Not Being A Doctor situation) at firstname.lastname@example.org.