When I was a toddler and preschooler, my life was idealistic. I had a younger sister, two parents, living in middle class America. My father worked at a papermill and owned his own locksmithing business. We lived in a white house with a white picket fence- the American Dream.
When I was five, my uncle, who was just six months younger than me, came to live with us. My grandmother died unexpectedly at the age of 42. My grandfather was an alcoholic and it was felt my uncle would be better cared for in our home.
Then when I was eleven, my life changed dramatically. My father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He stopped working and my parents’ roles changed. My mother began working at the papermill where my father had worked and my father stayed home and took care of us kids. At that same time, my father’s best friend died of cancer. My dad’s personality changed dramatically. He became controlling and abusive – this was directed toward my uncle and me. Somehow, my sister was spared. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. I’d come home with an “A”, he’d berate me for not getting an A+; my friends were “hayseeds” because they lived in the country, my clothes were ridiculous, yet they were purchased by my mother. He’d tell my sister over and over, “I hope you never grow up to be like your sister”. He would send my uncle and I to church on Sundays while my sister stayed home and watched cartoons. We were told we needed to ask for forgiveness for everything we’ve done wrong. He also told me, “When you die, you better bring a shopping bag this wide and this big to fill all your sins because you are bad- not even God loves you”.
By the age of 13, I began to believe I wasn’t good enough. I attempted suicide, something that was never talked about in our family to the point where all family members covered up the circumstances of my grandmother’s death. They didn’t have the intervention programs back then as they do now, and once I was medically cleared I was returned home. Back at home my sister told me, “You can’t do anything right, you can’t even kill yourself”. I don’t blame her: she was merely mimicking my father.
At the age of fifteen, I thought I was in love. One night I skipped gymnastics practice where I was the manager and went to my crush’s house. I can still recall the gold and green colors of bathroom carpet as I was raped and sodomized repeatedly by his friends. Again, I told no one.
Also at the age of fifteen, although I had issues with food and body images way before then, I developed an eating disorder. I never knew it was an illness, I figured it would be my secret and if my friends overate, they could deal with the ramifications of getting fat.
Eighteen. All my friends were choosing colleges based on their career choices and programs. My only criteria was that my dorm room have its own bathroom.
By second semester of my freshman year, my eating disorder was way out of control. I choose my class schedule to accommodate the eating disorder. During spring break things came to a head when my friends intervened and took me the hospital where I was treated for dehydration, low blood pressure, and an irregular heartbeat. During the next three years I was hospitalized multiple times. My last hospitalization occurred in 1988- the year I started dating my husband.
I went into recovery, making the necessary changes- I got rid of my scale, stopped comparing myself to others, and continued with counseling… Life was good.
I got married, had two wonderful boys, finally graduated from college and started working in mental health. I also had a successful side business called Starlight Images where I performed decorative painting.
One day, my youngest son came home from school and told me his class was studying poetry. He asked me what my favorite poem was. I told him “When I’m an Old Woman” by Jenny Joseph. I told Devon the poem was basically about living your life without regrets. He looked at me and said, “But mom, you are an old woman!” Well, that got me thinking. There were plenty of things I wanted to try to accomplish. I didn’t want to reach to the age of 80 and look back on my life with regrets. I wanted to make a name for myself. So, I excelled at my job, joined many coalitions and serviced the community and pursued a music career- at one point I was even on the same label as Collin Raye and met many influential people in the music industry!
Then in 2009, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was devastated. During the previous years, she acknowledged the abuse I suffered as a child and became my best friend, my confidant.
I didn’t know how to handle it. My world was going out of control. So, I once again began to control the only thing I could- my weight. I initially started dieting, but after a twenty-year hiatus, the eating disorder took its grip on me. I lost a considerable amount of weight. I was hospitalized again.
After my mother died in March of 2012, I continued to struggle. In October, I went to the ER for a migraine. I woke up in the ICU 40 miles away where I was hooked up to heart monitors, feeling tubes, and a central line. I was dying.
The day I returned to work in December, I returned to a new director. A Director who believed anyone with a mental illness should not be working in the mental health field. For four days, I was harassed as I was told I could no longer see clients, I was placed on a 90-day probationary period, and I was told I could be fired at any time so I better watch myself.
I immediately began to relapse. My doctor’s suggested I file for disability. I quit my job of 17 years and filed a complaint with the EEOC.
In October I was shopping at a department store when I saw a “help wanted” sign. I was feeling like a worthless loser, hoping that maybe getting a job would help me structure my time and give me a sense of purpose – help me gain some confidence back. But the size numbers on the clothes and my constant comparisons got the best of me and I started using behaviors again.
In May 2014, my sons were evicted from the apartment they were sharing due to not paying their rent. Against my husband’s wishes, I allowed them to move back home. The stress was unbelievable. I was still “flirting” with the eating disorder and working 20 hours a week at the department store. I felt like I had no future.
Then June 17, 2014. Anything that could go wrong did. A customer at the department store asked me, “Didn’t you use to be somebody?” When I returned home, I received another job rejection letter, my husband and I got into a fight and then my youngest son came home high on something. He had already destroyed our garage under the influence of something and the basement where he was living was trashed. I asked him to pick up his clothes and he went off on me, gathered his things, and left. I never felt so alone in my life. I was missing my mom, thinking about what an awful wife, mother, person I was. There I was- on disability, making minimum wage- I felt like a failure. I was a failure. In that dark moment, I attempted suicide and was hospitalized again by one of the same deputies only 1.5 years before I had been working with on crisis intervention calls.
So, there I was in a psych ward, on disability in a dead-end job making minimum wage-wondering what the hell happened. I decided life can only get better.
Just as a business develops a mission statement to develop the scope of an organizations purpose, I developed a mission statement or motto for my life:
KEEP MOVING FORWARD and my goal was to get my life back!
Which brings us to what I believe is the most important factor in recovery:
I lost my hope the night of June 17, 2014. I couldn’t see beyond the darkness that consumed my life. However, my hope was slowly renewed. So how do you obtain hope?
- Set (obtainable goals) and go after them. My goal was to “get my life back” and to me that meant being healthy and working in the mental health field again. However, there were steps or mini goals I needed to achieve along the way. I needed more education and needed to become a certified social worker. Which leads to…
- Utilize supports and resources. I continued with therapy, sought out the services of DVR (Division of Vocational Rehabilitation) and surrounded myself with POSITIVE people. I had my own team of “supports” cheering me on.
- This also ties in with step 1. With setting goals, I found a new-found purpose for my life. I settled out of court regarding my harassment suit, and as I was attending school I obtained a substitute teacher license and started using my first degree. That sense of purpose gave my life back its meaning.
- Don’t Strive for perfection. Instead, strive for Happiness. Perfection is what probably got you in trouble- or at least stuck- to begin with. Striving for happiness allows us to enjoy all the imperfections of life. We can be successful without having a perfect GPA. We can be beautiful without having the perfect body. (Besides, who defines perfection??- Others). When you strive for happiness, we’re the ones defining what makes us happy. This empowers us, also giving us Hope.
- Believe in Yourself. It’s like a chain reaction. The more we believe in ourselves, the more confidence we obtain, the more we accomplish, the more we believe in ourselves…And if you don’t yet believe in yourself-FAKE IT- and follow the steps. From there, Hope is born, nurtured, until you truly do believe in yourself.
It has been said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait, watch and work; You don’t give up”- Anne Lamott
My friends, Don’t give up on yourself. There is always hope. – Debbie