I’m meeting Alyssa for the first time. She is a First Access counselor for Behavioral Health and she is facilitating my intake. She calls me in and asks me some questions. The questions are easy and difficult at the same time. I know all the answers, it’s the saying them out loud that is hard. I start rattling off about hospital stays, self-harm, suicidal ideation, accidental prescription addiction, withdrawal, fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, disassociating, past therapeutic experiences.
She applauds me on the different coping strategies I have employed like getting a tattoo on my left arm so I will see that beautiful inscription instead of seeing my wrist as a canvas for cutting. I tell her how I am terrified at night when I try to sleep, afraid of that space between closing my eyes and actually falling asleep. Afraid of not falling asleep. Scared of the memories, intrusive thoughts, anxieties, flashbacks that haunt me when the shadows come.
I’m sleeping so much better these days but those times still come, and I’m 5 years old and alone and scared. I don’t know why my my mom is gone or why my brother and I are living in a different home. I just know it’s a loss. A devastating loss that will never be healed. I live from that loss every day. It is a magnet that draws predators, tormentors, damaged peers, and it brands me as damaged, too.
I am a foster kid. A child of the system. I’m 10, 14, 17, and I’m damaged. I’m separate, I’m less than. I’m lost. Monthly visits with my birth mother do nothing to assuage the grief that has clawed itself into my heart. I have to leave. She has to leave. I have no certainty that she will show up next month. Kids ask why I leave school early or why my parents’ name is different than my own, and I am so ashamed to tell them. I am so other. I will never be one of them. I won’t have the security of a home that never crashes into shattered hearts, minds, and bodies.
I’m a number and a check every month. I’m a family appendage who is the perfect target for abuse. I’ve been groomed by loss. They can see it, these men and women, they know I am split right down the middle and will never be whole enough to tell the truth about the recreational role playing, about the boy in the basement, the neighbor, the foster father, the teacher, the youth pastor. I will never speak about the men I see everywhere, exposing themselves in alleys, touching themselves under train cars, sitting in their cars naked. I’m a magnet for depravity.
All of this seeps out of me when I am asked questions, It’s all of a piece. Why I can’t sleep, why I detach, why I collapse at 3 every day and wonder why it’s worth it? Why tomorrow? What’s the point of it all? When the sun starts fading, I do too. And it feels like grief. Every single day, I have to push through with truth, with the people who love me, with the belief that I have a purpose. It’s difficult for me to exist, to be present to myself and others, it is a challenge to be all there in that place at that time. It is physically exhausting to keep all this inside, not knowing who to tell, who will understand, who won’t judge me for all the things I have failed to accomplish while I am overwhelmed by fatigue and stuck in my dark reverie.
All this accumulates in the silt of my heart until it is stirred up and swirls inside me. I leave with mixed feelings. Being heard breaks my heart wide open, I am being drawn back to the earth, I am reminded that I am a bodily form, that the space I take up is okay, I’m worth sharing it with, it’s not too much, I’m not too much, I’m enough. Being seen at my lowest and weakest and not only accepted but affirmed, adds weight to my spirit and lands it back inside me. Reflecting on the fact that I now have two counselors and a psychiatrist can mean only one thing. I am mentally ill. I feel the shame of the stigma, the feeling of failure because I need so much help to maintain daily normal interaction and good mental health. I am dizzy and detached with the knowledge that this is lonely and long work.
What brought me to this place, physically and emotionally, wasn’t my fault. And that makes me angry. Angry at my family for sacrificing my life because they were selfish and wounded and sick and lazy. Angry at a system determined to help but falls short every time, they place you but you never feel placed. Angry at the system because there were few safeguards back then, there was no child advocacy to insure children had a voice and the words and the safety to speak the unimaginable experiences they’ve had. Angry at foster parents for not seeing me, for trying the wrong things, for not asking the right questions, for fulfilling the requirements but not hearing my heart. Angry at the foster parent who tucked me in at night and then helped himself to my self.
Angry that I had to carry this now, alone, burdened down with all the other abuse. The blind eyes, the manipulation, the power plays, the roving hands, the man of God who told explicit stories to impress me, who cornered me and kissed me in the dark church while the other kids played games. Angry at God for letting this all happen. Angry that I now carry years of shattering and I am doubled over by the weight of the secrets and sickness.
I now carry years of shattering, alone, burdened down with all the other abuse, and I am doubled over by the weight of the secrets and sickness.
I am mentally ill but it’s not my fault, but I have to do all the work, have done all the work for all these years to stay alive. That label rips me apart inside, makes me want to curl up so small until I am subtracted into nothing and sucked into the void that resides on the perimeter of my soul. The hours I’ve spent with therapists and psychiatrists and doctors and social workers and peer groups have added up to weeks, months, years of my life I’ve spent attempting to undo what was done to me. My feeble, faltering attempts at healing the wounds, becoming whole, filling up that gaping maw of need in the center of me, have cost me so much and cost my perpetrators nothing. I am furious that I have to enlist the help of so many people to keep me out of the hospital, away from sharp objects, distracted from thoughts of annihilation.
I am mentally ill, but it’s not my fault. And yet I pay for it. With strips of skin I peel off my body to expose what’s underneath. With fingerprints on my teen-aged throat as I choke myself into unconsciousness to escape the loneliness. With ink on my wrist to discourage the knife. With a medicated brain to help me not be overtaken by catastrophic thoughts or groundless worries, or the anvil of anxiety crushing the breath from my lungs. I pay for it with aching throat and tightened jaw that holds the tears at bay because most of the time I don’t know how to cry. I pay for it with numbness and detachment because I don’t know how to feel the pain anymore.
I am mentally ill but it’s not my fault. Yet I am branded by it. When I walk through the doors of the clinic marked behavioral, when I sit in the waiting room with the other clients who know why I am there, when I pick up my medication at the pharmacy from the same pharmacists I’ve known for years, who now know what I take every day. I am branded by it when I isolate myself and hide away because I don’t have the energy or presence of mind to interact, to make eye contact, to respond to questions. I am branded by it with all the appointments marked in my calendar, a constant reminder that I am not okay. I’m mostly okay. But mostly doesn’t get you off the meds or allow you to shrug off the shame of the depression and anxiety that are the evil twins birthed by PTSD.
I am mentally ill but it’s not my fault. I was born to an alcoholic who was unwilling to give up her addiction in exchange for her children. I was born into a family who would not keep me and called child services to take me away. I was born into a family of desperately broken people. I was born into poverty and fatherlessness. I was born into impossibility. Hopelessness. I was born into death.
I am mentally ill but it’s my responsibility. I have to learn how to care for myself when I don’t even want to be myself. I have to take the medication, lined up like straight-backed amber sentinels, on the shelf that takes up a third of the cabinet. I have to say no to events and invitations because I have to keep my appointments, the ones that rattle me and settle me. It’s my responsibility to tell the truth about how I’m feeling that day, that the darkness is closing in, that I don’t want to be present, that I’m having trouble coming out of my detachment, that I’m having hopeless thoughts about tomorrow, that I am paralyzed by fear and anxiety.
I’m mentally ill but it’s my responsibility to speak up and shoulder the shame with other survivors and sufferers. To not hide because I’m scared or embarrassed, to not care so much of what people think of me that I withdraw and withhold. It’s my responsibility to offer hope to others while my own hurt is crushing me and my own heart is struggling to beat. It’s my responsibility to bring awareness to the heaviness that is weighing people down, the weight of secrets, self-blame, self-loathing, and self-harm. It’s my responsibility to create a space in myself for others who need a space to be loved and seen and convinced they’re not invisible or alone or disposable. It’s my responsibility to not let someone else’s sickness make me sick, too.