My Journey of Hope
This webpage is not about the specifics of my life’s journey; but I want others to know of my own Journey of Hope which includes some of what went before and the ups and downs of what I now know as Bi-Polar 2 Depression and Generalized Anxiety that comes with occasional Panic Attacks as well as PTSD due to childhood trauma..
The telling of my story here is simply a story of hope. It does not seek, for the most part, to make the linkages of spirituality and mental illness a focus. It is a chronological telling. Overlaying the spiritual aspects of my journey is much too complex to relate in this already complex story. There are many other ways that I will do that. Some in other sections of this webpage; and, primarily through the book that I am authoring as I heal and long to share that healing with others who walk this special path with me.
I was 63 years old when my life fell apart. This is just for reference as to how long it took for me to receive an accurate and appropriately treatable diagnosis.
I was always a moody and sickly child, dark in thoughts and fearful of a great many things. Years later it was revealed that I was the subject of various kinds of abuse at the hands of my father, and aspects of my brain were already beginning to misfire. My first serious episode of depression and mania came when I was 17 years old and a junior in high school. Already addicted to Valium and Librium because I was depressed, I spent most of my time sitting on my bed crying and screaming “God, what is wrong with me?” I was seriously suicidal and was acting that out through a staunch and effective refusal to eat.
The only relief that I experienced was in church where I was considered a leader in the youth group and began my gospel singing “career” by traveling to local churches to hold concerts. Even so, I always felt like a fraud, because all that I was sharing and saying did not work for me given the grave depressions I was wading through. So, even my very active church life brought with it a sense of hopelessness.
I was, quite simply, always depressed. I do not remember a time when anxiety and depression did not rule my life. Now there were times when I felt energetic, getting many things done at once, staying up all hours of the night practicing as a music student in college. But, the depression was always there, literally lurking behind every rock or tree that I encountered. During my college successful years, I experiemented with several faith traditions but made a return to more mainline, though conservative, religion and went to an almost all-male seminary. Again, depression prevailed, lessened because I was in a high period and could stay up until the wee hours of the morning studying for tests. Spiritually, I continued to seek comfort in those things which seemed to bring others great comfort and peace and, I simply, failed. I married before my last year of seminary and within weeks of my marriage had entered into one of the many “black holes” of my life. It was not my new husband’s fault; it just happened. I wanted to die.
After a move to Austin, Tx, I found myself working as an clinical intern at Austin State Mental Hospital. While in Austin, I was ordained as a Southern Baptist woman, and also found myself pregnant. When my son was three months old we moved to Florida for my husband's work and the depression worsened. Three years later, now in Lousiville, KY, my depression worsened and made it almost impossible to parent or work. I just never really knew the best way to be the mom I wanted to be. it was clear to me that the marriage was over and I had to begin to do something about it. I finally had the courage to seek a divorce and I began one of the hardest periods of my life. Eventually leaving my son in the complete care of his father and enrolled in a Ph.D program in NYC. In NYC I stayed completely self-medicated so I actually remember very little of my time there. My son spent his summers in NY and I visited him in NC as often as possible. And, while I knew it was for his own good, I sobbed for days every August when it was time to put in on a plane to send him back to his father. I was in a black hole of despair in my life.
In 1986 I entered into what would become a 30 year (and counting) new journey into recovery from all the self-medicating I had been doing. The anxiety and craziness of early recovery was palatable. To make matters worse, my son lived 95% of that time with his father. Although we visited and called, my heart was breaking. My son was 19 when he moved in with me to attend college in NY. Because he is an amazing young man we were able to rebuild a significant relationship in spite of my guild and shame. It was he who begged me to let it all go and focus on the present. I continued to see my insightful therapist, but it would take another 16 years and a very different time to get an accurate diagnosis.
My two pets, Jonathan (dog) an Solomon (cat) came to me to help save my life. My dog became my weekend traveling companion and this time spent with my traveler dog sustained me during these years. I eventually quit my job and moved to Florida where I would be close to my now aging mother. I was, however, horribly depressed and anxious. Working again with abused children and families and hated every minute of it. Depressed and now without a support system, Jonathan and Solomon were sometimes my only source of comfort.
Eventually, and quite by accident, I found my way back to religion. I became an assistant pastor and church musician at an inclusive church, but I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout most of this position. After months of juggling a job that was unpredictable in hours, and providing support to my mother, I was in fairly bad shape. I was holding it together, had some friends but, in the dark of the night, I struggled mightily with depression and anxiety. Between caring for my mother, working a job with unpredictable hours and finding myself in a new relationship, I was frantic, depressed, and hiding it well I thought.
Two months after my mother’s death in 2009, my partner and moved and I begin to plant what would later be a flourishing church. Particularly in the early years, I worked long hours and often felt like, the man on the Ed Sullivan show, that I had many plates all spinning on poles at the same time. Just like him, I was running from pole to pole to keep them all spinning. I, too, was spinning out of control, working too much and trying to please too many people at once.. This relationship dissolved in the midst of this stress and chaos. We are good friends however.
My own theology as it had in earlier times in New York continued to evolve away from mainline Christianity into a more expansive view of God, the Universe and spirituality. I believed that the inclusiveness that the denomination espoused and the success of the church would encourage acceptance of my expressions of different ways to believe. For the most part, I was wrong. After a time I great pain, I decided to retire early to save my sanity and to give this church a chance to survive the conflict.
Six months later, two important things happened. I lost my trusted dog Jonathan. I almost immediately brought a new dog into my home and Finian became my constant companion. He would later become another traveling dog when I needed him the most. I also began a relationship with a woman with whom I thought I could build a lasting relationship.
Immediately after leaving the church, she and I moved to Asheville, NC, I, quite frankly, did not care where I ended up and thought Asheville was as good a place as any to escape the pain and disappointment that had overtaken my life. We moved to a cabin on a mountain where the views were beautiful and I hoped my healing would begin. The depression and anxiety deepened when I was separated from my small support system in Florida, and I knew I was headed for emotional trouble. Approximately five months after we moved to Asheville, my partner decided to return to Florida. I was left to pick up the pieces.
Anxiety and depression came close to overwhelming me. The Blue Ridge Parkway saved my life. Finian and I would spend as much time exploring the beautiful vistas as possible and that beauty sustained my hope that there had to be more than the pain that I was experiencing and that beauty would return to my life. When the anxiety and depression became so bad that my hands shook all the time, I couldn’t sleep and I quit eating, I woke up one morning knowing that I had to return to Florida. I began the long process of selling as many of my belongings as I could and making arrangements to drive a U-Haul truck back to Florida. Friends from Florida came to North Carolina to briefly sight-see and engage in a rescue mission to help me pack and help me stay steady enough to get through it all.
Relatively quickly, I moved into a senior living complex in a quite lovely apartment. I knew from the beginning that this was not a healthy choice for me, My financial situation left me few, if any, other options. I hated every moment that I lived there. Although I spent a great deal of time looking for work, my days were filled with walking my dog around and around the apartment complex. Exceptional levels of anxiety seemed to arise with no warning. I grew horribly depressed. I could not sleep. If I could sleep at all, I would awake in the morning and pace for hours trying to convince myself that I could handle my current situation. As I paced, I would pound on my chest so hard that I would sometimes leave bruises.
My same dear friends became more and more concerned about me. I was at their house often, but it was obvious that I was eating very little and that I was slowly coming unhinged. I eventually returned to their home for what I thought would be a day or two. I saw a doctor who initially prescribed medication for anxiety and I tried to return to my apartment. Mornings continued to be unbearable even with the anti-anxiety medication and it became nearly impossible to get through the day. I was afraid that I could not take care of myself or my dog, so I told them that I could not live alone. I returned to their home for a much longer time than any of us thought. I saw the doctor again and again. She added some medications and I began the long journey of seeking a medical solution. My days at my friends’ home consisted of very little sleep, crying until sometimes 11:00 in the morning and eating as little as I could get by on. I finally saw a nurse practitioner at a psychiatrist’s office and she began to experiment with medications as well. I had accepted the diagnosis of Bi-polar II and spent hours (mostly late at night) reading up on all I could discover about the disorder. The experimentation with medication continued and life was a constant roller coaster. Some of the side effects were more than I could handle and some just plain dangerous. Finally, I arrived at a workable "cocktail" of medications and I began to understand the ups and downs of my life in a different way.
Throughout all of this uncertainty, my dear friends kept watch, sometimes monitoring the constantly changing and confusing medication regimes and encouraging me to eat. For months they provided all the care for my dog and for me and gave me the safety that I so desperately needed. I do not believe that I would have been able to stave off suicide had they not care for me in the loving, compassionate way they did. On Christmas Day, I found out that I was going to be a grandmother and for the first time in months I experienced tears of joy. Soon after, I became quite anxious about what my illness would mean, my lack of finances, and my relationship with my son. However, I truly felt the joy and waited in anticipation for his arrival six months later.
I knew that I had to regain my independence and found a house-sharing situation with a lovely woman who sometimes rented out a room at an affordable rate. Living in someone else’s home was not what I envisioned for my retirement; but, I appreciated the ability to stay in my home community and for her welcoming spirit (and her liking my dog). I grew less suicidal as the medication became more stable and as my body began to heal and strengthen.
A few months after I moved into my new living situation, my grandson was born. My two wonderful friends again came to my rescue and we planned a RV trip close to where my son, his wife and now my grandson lived at the time. I spent almost 10 days loving him and trying to get to know him as best I could. Many of my concerns about my relationship with my own son surfaced and I had some difficulty with anxiety while I was there. Mostly, however, my medications kept me stable and I was able to enjoy their family. I was completely at ease with my grandson and felt none of the decades old concerns about my (grand)parenting qualities. Leaving him was hard, but I was able to distinguish between natural sadness versus depression. This was progress.
The depression lingered—sometimes unbearably so—but I began a long process of healing from the worst breakdown in my life. The medication routine ruled my life. It kept me relatively stable so it was worth it. I feared a return of my previous condition.
In the midst of the telling of this story, two things become very important in my ability to survive. First, I had the unfailing support of two wonderful women who I (to their chagrin) refer to as my angels. Not many are that blessed. For two people, not related to you, to give up months of their life to care for you and your dog, is a blessing that cannot even be described. They advocated for me when I could not for myself and kept me wrapped close in a cloak of safety. Secondly, I am an educated white woman of privilege. I was able to research my illness and ask critical questions of mental health providers. I came to trust myself to say “no” to questionable drugs. I eventually could differentiate between helpful interventions and non-helpful ones. I had access to medical care because I had insurance and enough spare money to pay for medication. Many, many people who carry mental illness with them have none of this. It cannot be said often enough, that people with mental illness cannot be and should not be expected to handle it alone. Uneducated people and those living in poverty have very little chance of finding adequate medical care. Even with these considerable “advantages”, it is an ongoing challenge. Financially, I was barely getting by; but, more than one year after my final breakdown, life returned to a strange sort of normalcy. Mood swings were more recognizable; but depression seemed almost unbearable at times. I cried more than most and had great difficulty sleeping. Morning anxiety was certainly less debilitating than it once was but it still controlled the first few hours of my day. There were times when depression and or anxiety exploded seemingly out of nowhere and I was immobilized until I could regain my footing either through medication or the other methods of distraction I had learned to employ. I returned to writing and planning for future projects.
I began my search for understanding and a way to describe it so that others could understand. I re-entered my study of and practice of Reiki and, in the course of beginning a book I discovered ancient and contemporary traditions that finally began to make my illness make sense. I am a wounded healer, but a healer in the truest sense nonetheless.
I continue to recover from the severe "episode" I experienced at the age of 63 more than two years ago. It has taken longer than I ever thought possible. My description of this episode is "disintegration" as my life, my psyche, and my experience of Spirit were completely shattered and have been slowly been emerging toward wholeness over time. I have begun to accept that because of the medications upon which I am now dependent in order to live a stable life and the depression and anxiety which continue to challenge me to a varying degree renders me unable to "fake it" as I often did prior to my disintegration. I have learned to be (and begin to love) this new radically changed and transformed person and continue to explore all the ways in which my life-view, my ability to care for others and myself and my spirituality have changed over the course of the last two or more years. I have accepted that change comes more slowly as we age and that the episodes I could recover from fairly quickly at 30, 40 or even 50 now take more time--often painful and difficult time.
I have discovered that my disintegration leads simply to one thing--integration! My mental health status, without diagnosis and medication, would have, more likely than not, been fatal. But, it wasn't and that leads me to where I am now--seeking to understand the transformation far more than the disintegration. With each passing day my search for an explanation changes into an exploration into the spiritual nature of all that I have experienced. And for that I am grateful. I have found the beginnings of different kinds of spiritual communities. The journey will continue and I will be gentle with myself as much as I can. I now have a new granddaughter and am a proud Nana two-fold.
This website and my ongoing project of writing a book on the working out of the inter- relationship between spirituality and mental illness from the perspective of one person who has lived a life surrounded by spirituality and a life perpetually affected by mental illness has become my life's passion. There is much to learn. We will walk on in the Light.