I’ve always been anxious. When I was in nursing school I asked how to tell when an idiosyncrasy crossed the mental illness threshold. It seemed to boil down to whether or not a person could function in society. Can you hold a job? Can you make friends? What I’ve learned from personal experience is that mental health is on a sliding scale. Functional and dysfunctional are relative to the load of one’s burdens and triggers.
When I was growing up my triggers were a test, a performance, certain people, and oftentimes my mother. I was headstrong and competitive, so I quickly learned to compensate for or avoid my triggers. I studied constantly. I knew I would freeze up during a test so I would make sure to never miss a homework, participation, or extra credit point. I avoided my house, or stayed in my room and avoided my mom. I was socially awkward and seemed to be the doormat in my social circle. I couldn’t wait to get away from it all.
I went to college on the other side of the country and flourished in my new environment. I developed fresh friendships and embraced life. Sadly, my new confidence sparked my competitive nature and I transferred to a rigorous school back home. It was big and I relied on old high school friends as a social anchor. I would not accept that I shouldn’t try to overcome certain things and fell back into the hornet’s nest of my triggers.
Things didn’t go well for me. I studied constantly, slept very little, and I didn’t have a reliable friend. I clung to a relationship ridden with red flags and married that person when I was barely 23. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. My degree wasn’t employable and my husband was starting an elite doctoral program.
The abuse started a few weeks into the marriage. Initially, it was mental and verbal. We were in a new state and I was isolated. I couldn’t explain what was happening. When I tried to say something to my parents over the phone, they told me to try harder; “marriage is hard”.
I was seriously depressed and suicidal less than six months in - was it supposed to be this hard? Mom had always said I was “too sensitive”. My husband told me I was bipolar. He kept telling me that things I remembered happening had never actually happened. I had an aunt with schizophrenia. Was I schizophrenic too? I went to therapy a few times and started an antidepressant. The counselors insinuated that my husband was abusive, and I couldn’t fix that, so I stopped going.
After a year I became desperate. One last effort to reach out to my husband led to a physical threat. I said I would leave and he gave me six days to vacate. He made sure I left with no financial or human resources.
I had already planned to enter massage school where I would clean the place for a small income and have access to a shower, fridge, and field to camp in. I couldn’t handle anything else. I spent the next eight months homeless, scared, confused, and grasping for anything tangible that felt good. Alcohol, sex, alternative medicine and religion, and new friends with their own problems.
Are you familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy? It’s a pyramid divided into five levels of wellness. The bottom represents the lowest level of functioning when you can only focus on your basic needs like food, water, and shelter. If you make it to the top you are capable of self-actualization and creativity. You can’t move up until you have met the needs of the lower levels. I was functioning at the bottom of the pyramid.
It took me a decade to actualize what happened during that time of my life. Many of the details were temporarily blacked out. The mind has a self-preservation mode that it will retreat to when things get too hard.
I was fortunate because I had the ability to get jobs and make friends quickly while in my mental hibernation. I also had the guts and cowardice to completely pick up and move to a new place whenever things weren’t working out.
Flight was my reaction to fear. I abandoned so many friendships always assuming that they would not last. I mean, I was a mess. I learned that I couldn’t burden new friends with too much.
It was not easy to claw my way back up Maslow’s pyramid. I had to pick up and start over. I had to pick up and start over many times.
The healthier you are the easier things become. You can see things for what they are. You can make friends without having to try so hard. You can be comfortable in your own skin. You can actually take care of other people.
If illness leads to a downward spiral, then health leads to an accelerating upward spiral. I’m not entirely sure where the threshold between up and down is located, but I know it is blurry. You start going up, then something knocks you down a bit. Your resources solidify and you rebound a little faster the next time. Eventually the hits you take may only be a side-step.
I am in a far better place these days. I was able to complete a degree in nursing and secure a decent job, home, and build a family. I won’t say that I’ve accelerated to the point that I have a surplus of emotional strength, but when I look back at where I was, I can’t complain. I know that I received a lot of help from the people who crossed my path. I probably hurt many of those people. From time to time I try and make amends. I don’t always have the ability to be selfless, but more often than not I find that I can. It is the best feeling.