Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sometimes, Validation Is Everything

Last weekend, Zachary and I took a trip down to NYC to visit long-time family friends. Paul has known me since I was probably 2.5 years old, and he knew both of my parents. He and his wife, Hilda, Zachary and I got together last Saturday to visit and have dinner. Paul is a bright spot in my childhood. When my mother could no longer take me shopping because the conflict was just too high between us, it was Paul she designated as the adult in charge for my clothes shopping. He never ridiculed me for being fat (which sometimes she did), and he never made me feel badly for not having the same taste as he had in clothing.

There were many times I know my mom vented to Paul about her feelings towards me...her anger, disappointment, hurt. So many things I did caused her great pain...never did I intentionally try to inflict pain on her though. Never. As I grew up and eventually started becoming healthier mentally, I was unable and unwilling to tolerate the poor treatment that was a result of some of her own issues. When she died, our relationship was very, very strained because of the constant conflict.

Over the years, I knew that Paul heard things about me from her that I suspected made him think less of me. I only hoped that he knew enough of my mom and her own troubles that he was able to have some perspective on things and not hate me. I lived with a great deal of shame around most of my mom's friends...fearing that they thought I was a wretched, ungrateful and selfish daughter.

I sent yesterday's blog entry to Paul and Hilda to read. They have been there for me since well before my hospitalization. Hilda sent me an absolutely lovely response, and below is the response that I received from Paul. Maybe I can finally cast aside some of the shame I felt, thinking that he thought less of me as a person. He wrote:


Dear Amy,

I read your blog twice and it saddened me that a child would have to endure a life cloistered within the disturbed patterns of two people. Fortunately, Amy, an inner strength probably surfaced and helped you through unseen exits. But the conflicts that always hung around the two people--separate or together--found you.

You lived with a mother who herself lived with demons inside. They rose with Catherine in the morning and accompanied her to bed. Only she would know if they wrote the scenario for each dream. Of course there were breaks when the demons had to rest from overwork--not too often. Catherine was very intelligent, and used it not for the benefit of creating a harmonious family atmosphere, but to work in executive positions. But the inner demons voted, and none (there were many) of the positions were, after awhile, considered acceptable.

When Harvey worked at Otis elevator on 3rd Avenue and 48th Street, I would meet him often for lunch. I ended my workday around 1:15. I never, ever, saw a piece of paper or anything else connected to work on his desk. Except for himself, his cubicle was always empty. Although our conversations ranged far and wide, he always expressed a very negative, almost misanthropic, attitude. Also he was always sarcastic. Our meetings began to, and then eventually drifted into, nothing. This was before MS took over.

Of course this is only a small peek into your world where you were forced as a child to live with Catherine and Harvey. And yet Amy, you have emerged and shaped yourself into a strong and attractive woman. On Saturday there was a glow to you with a strong personality. Not one to take small steps but to stride in the world.

Zachary is a beautiful child with, apparently, a sense of self. Now I am sure, Amy, there are times when he upsets you...but then he would smile that smile--he has to melt you. You have to be very proud, particularly as a single mother. On Saturday, Zachary was the fourth adult at the table.

I am personally very sorry that you had to endure what you endured--no child should. It was a walk through Hell.

Welcome to the world, Amy. You did it. An excellent example for Zachary, who is one terrific kid.

Love, Paul


This may sound weird, but it's really reassuring to get validation like this. I think that much of what went on as a kid, I minimized in order to survive...and so sometimes, I find myself wondering if it really happened, or if I'm just making mountains out of mole hills. The validation from others reminds me that there were good reasons why I struggled as I did and ended up needing a two-year hospitalization. All those people weren't misled or lied to by me.

I never expect people to believe me. I live with this constant fear that people will think I'm lying. That in itself is another issue from childhood. There was a therapist who told my mother that I was a liar when I was 12 years old. Why? Because I expressed fear of my mom. This therapist felt that since my mother wasn't physically abusive to me, my fears were unfounded. For the record, there are lots of things to be afraid of as a child beyond physical abuse--losing the love of a parent, having their disapproval, rejection by them, etc. With that edict handed down, so many of my feelings were discredited as not being based in reality. I started to believe really that I was the problem...not everyone else.

Anyway...I feel like the people who are in my life and give me any of that validation are dying off in a way. And I fear sometimes that I will discount all that I lived and worked through when they are no longer there to say "yes, this stuff was real, the things you experienced were horrible and hellish and I lived them/saw them too." So yeah, sometimes validation is everything.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Musings on an Anniversary

It was 20 years ago today (no, not that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play) that I began an inpatient hospitalization for depression that lasted just short of two years. Yes, you read that right...two years. Absolutely unheard of these days. This is a summary of the events leading up to my hospitalization and a bit about its progression.

At the age of 20, I had for the first time in my life lost about 40 lbs. in a healthy manner, following Weight Watchers. I didn't binge, I didn't purge, I didn't starve myself. I followed the plan and I exercised. I had a new body image to deal with...and the resulting attention it drew from others.

The therapist I had seen since I was 12 years old decided that he didn't believe in long-term therapy...and as such, was preparing me for termination with him. There were times in my life where I thought he was the only human being/adult that actually cared about my well-being. I took this termination as a personal rejection and my incredibly fragile self-esteem and self-worth plummeted. He also felt that due to my history of sexual abuse, it was probably advisable that if I felt the need to return to therapy, I might want to seek the counsel of a female therapist. Within probably a month or two of his terminating with me (which was in June of 1988), I did just that...and I began seeing Martha Page Burkholder who was, at the time, working out of the outpatient mental health clinic at St. Vincent's Medical Center in the Village (NYC).

In early August of 1988, I came home one Friday night after being out drinking with some of the NYU law school students who lived in the dorm I had worked at. My mom had been to an AA meeting that night, and had seen one of our old family friends there. He informed her that my dad, who I had not seen in over four years, was in a coma at Holy Name Hospital. He had suffered with Multiple Sclerosis for many years...went on disability from work in 1974 as a result of it. I was 6 years old then. That night, mom and I went to see him at the hospital. He was brain dead but being kept alive on a respirator. Once his wife found out we'd been there, she was pretty livid and made sure that my mother would not be allowed to visit my dad again. She had no ability to stop my brother and me from seeing him, as we were also next of kin. I think she'd have done it if she could though. My grandparents on my father's side hadn't called to tell us about his condition, so I suspected they did not know and I called to tell them. Apparently, they'd had a falling out with my dad's wife and so because of her anger, she refused to communicate with them. When she found out that I had called to tell them of his condition, she was furious. The next time she saw me in the ICU visiting my dad (my brother was there as well), she launched into a tirade with me about my grandparents and mother, claiming that SHE was the real wife, and my brother, who typically stayed out of conflict with her, told her "No Ann, you're the real BITCH." Ann proceeded to yell at us that we were not his children; we were merely his biological offspring. You can imagine how well all of this went over with the nurses in the ICU. They came in to figure out what was going on, and my father's wife proceeded to tell them it was no big deal as my father had heard it all before anyway. From that point forward, she was not to be anywhere on the hospital grounds during certain hours that were deemed visiting hours for me and my brother.

My grandparents drove up from Texas and stayed for a couple of weeks. In Ann's anger, she made sure that my father, who was brain dead as determined by EEG, was on a "full code" and would be resuscitated if he went into arrest. And she made sure to hand write a sign she hung over his bed letting us know this, lest there be any confusion. She was a really hateful woman. My dad went into cardiac arrest at least three times over the two weeks my grandparents and aunt and cousin were there. Because of the full code though, he did not die and so they did not have the closure of attending his funeral. I think the hospital's way around this was to move dad down to another room from ICU that had less monitoring. He was taken off the respirator; they said he was breathing enough on his own that he didn't need it. Instead, the nurses checked on him every 15 minutes or so. My brother and I were there to visit him, on August 31, 1988, in the evening. It was the day before Andy would be heading back to college in PA, and we told our dad this. I told him that I would do my best to try and make it there every night. After we left, we went to hang out with a friend of ours. Mom called around 11 p.m. to let us know that the hospital had called and dad had died at about 10:10 p.m. that night...probably within about half an hour after we left. Ann had not made it back to the hospital to see him by then, and so Andy and I were the last to visit with him before he died. Ann was sure to tell people that we were actually there when he died and watched him die and did nothing to stop it. None of that was true, but I guess it made her feel better to tell people that.

At this time, I worked for NYU in their Graduate Housing Office. I was also attending nursing school at NYU. The union at NYU had gone on strike. It didn't take very long for me to figure out that I wasn't very good at not working during this period of time, and so I made the choice to cross the picket lines and return to work. My mind being idle wasn't a good thing at all. My boss and several of my coworkers, as well as the union president and treasurer, who sent me a sympathy card, understood...a few others did not. Despite studying for hours and hours for a chemistry exam, I failed it. First exam I ever failed. I was devastated and went to speak with my nursing adviser. She was on leave, and so I spoke with someone else about withdrawing for the semester. When I explained all that was going on, she was incredibly understanding and agreed that a leave of absence from school would probably be best. And so, I withdrew from my classes before I had opportunity to fail them.

The strike at NYU eventually ended and everyone else returned to work. Some had hard feelings towards me, and some did not. My therapy appointments continued and increased from once weekly to three times weekly. At the end of each appointment, Dr. Burkholder and I would "touch base" on our verbal contract. I'd been thinking about suicide a lot...and I'd been hoarding some of my fiorinal (for migraines), as well as trying to ascertain just how much other OTC meds I might need to complete the job. The deal with Dr. Burkholder was that I agreed to call her if I was feeling like I was in serious jeopardy of hurting/killing myself. On November 14, 1988, I told her point blank that in all honesty, if I wanted to die that badly, the last thing I would do would be to call her because she'd only try to stop me. She told me that she couldn't let me go home, and that she felt I needed to be hospitalized. I'd already been down that road before, as a 14 and 15 year old (yeah, twice), and didn't want to do that again. I begged and pleaded, and she asked me to at least let her call my mother so that she could be assured that someone at home would keep an eye on me. I was very reluctant to do that, as my mom's reaction to my self-destructive tendencies was typically one of outrage directed at me...and I wasn't up for more hatred, I already hated myself enough as was. But, given the choice between hospitalization and enduring mom's wrath, I opted for mom's wrath. After Dr. Burkholder's conversation with her though, they both apparently agreed that I needed to be hospitalized. And so Dr. Burkholder walked me over to the hospital that evening, with my backpack on my shoulder. So it began.

I stayed there until May 9, 1989. I was the youngest patient on a primarily geriatric ward for patients with depression. They felt that was a better choice for placing me than the floor that housed the neighborhood patients who tended towards the drug addicted and psychotic, as I was neither and those units were far less "stable" places for me to be. For a while, they played with different medications to see what, if any, helped my depression. By December of 1988, they concluded that my depression was more environmentally than biologically based. In other words, the situation at home contributed more significantly to how I was coping than did any chemical imbalance. As such, it was their recommendation that I be placed in a longer-term facility that offered intense therapy to help unravel some of that stuff.

In May of 1989, after completing a lengthy application and screening process, and waiting many months for a bed, I was transferred to the New York State Psychiatric Institute's (PI for short) 5th Floor. They had a research program affiliated with Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and their College of Physicians and Surgeons on character disorders. Apparently, that was the "bucket" I fit into. So many things happened while I was there...the biggest, though, was that I was actually finally allowed (and encouraged, no less) to feel and express what I felt, without being told that I was selfish, self-centered, etc. It was made clear that stifling my feelings was self-destructive in many ways and I needed to find new ways to cope and navigate my way through life. There were still plenty of times that I wanted to die there, but they kept me safe...sometimes to my great dismay at the time.

In August of 1990, I left...not entirely with their blessing as I did it pretty abruptly and without a specific discharge plan, but they offered me their support as best they could. I moved to Bridgeport, CT and began my transition back to the "real" world. I got a full-time job at Hewitt Associates, lived with my fiancée (who was another patient I met while at PI...he was there as an alternative to incarceration...sign of things to come in hindsight), and started a whole new journey. Lots of stuff transpired during those years in CT...and even in the years since I've moved to MA. But I continue to grow and cope and deal with life on life's terms.

Here I am, 20 years later, a single mom to an amazing little boy who is the best thing to have ever happened in my life. For many years, I have kept secret my past...the shame of mental illness, depression, my hospitalization, all weighed very heavily on me and I didn't want people to judge me or write me off because of the things in my past. In therapy this week, we talked about how I'm not ashamed anymore...and while I don't go around telling everyone about this, I won't hide it anymore either and live with it being a dirty secret of sorts. I survived. I have grown. I have become, and continue to become, someone I am proud of and think is a pretty amazing person. All of my past has contributed to that...all of the people in my past and present contribute to that. It's an amazing journey, this is what we make it...bottom line.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Liberty, Freedom and Patriotism...GO VOTE!

This morning, as my 7 year old son accompanied me to the polls to vote, I was just smiling at the huge turnout. I was so full of pride to be showing Zachary how we check in, the ballot, how you fill in the ovals, check out and feed the form through the many people are part of this magnificent process. They've done a lot of mock "voting" at his school. Probably a month and a half ago, he came home from school and told me he had voted for President that day. And he told me he had voted for John McCain. I simply told him "Excellent! Now tell me why." He didn't have an answer to that question. I highly suspect he chose his candidate because it was what he heard many of his peers saying. I explained to him then that it's very important that he understand WHY he is choosing the candidate he selects and not to just "go with the flow." Yesterday, when I picked him up from his after school program, he was awfully cute. Over the past many weeks, he has heard many, many talks at home about the election, he has watched some of the debates with me, asked lots of questions. So yesterday he told me again that he had voted for President...and he said "mom, do you want to know who I voted for?" I said "do you want to tell me?" He said he did. I said "ok, who did you vote for?" He said (with a huge smile on his face) "Obama!" I said "Great! Now tell me why you voted for him." You know what he said? "Because I love you!" It's so simple at his I told him that was wonderful and great, and that as he got older he would want to find out what each person believes in and then choose his candidate based on what feels right to him in his heart...that he'll have to make that decision for himself at some point. It's so amazing to be teaching him how to think about these things...and it's really eye-opening to think about how we form our opinions and beliefs so much from what we are raised with...I want him to (of course) have my values, but make sure they are HIS as an adult...internalized and suited to who HE is. He will get so much of what he feels and believes from being raised by me...I have to trust that he will find the best way to make that work for him in his life. I want him to be able to think clearly, critically, for himself...know the right questions to ask...and then, listen to his heart. Yeah, admittedly it is sometimes difficult to hear him say he voted for one person or another when it isn't who I voted for. I really did try to think "big picture" there. And so yesterday, after he told me who he voted for, he asked me "Mom, will Obama make the war end sooner?" I said I really didn't know for sure. He asked if McCain would make it end sooner. I told him that I didn't know that either...that I believed they both want the war to end, but they may have different beliefs and approaches as to how that should happen and when. Big picture...for a 7 year old.