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Friday, April 26, 2013

No Shame

I have some mental health issues. And no, I am not making a joke. If you are familiar with my writing over the past year, you know that I have had an unusual life, to put it mildly. I have survived the death of my mother at the hands of my father. I spent several months in a cockroach-infested orphanage under the care of a woman who thought that any child who ended up there deserved it because they were a dreadful sinner. When she wasn't telling me how unworthy I was and how certain I was to experience the eternal fires of Hell, she was shoving food down my throat with a spoon while another nun held me down. 

I also lived with a woman who was disgusted that she had to take in her husband's relatives, two Hungarian brats, rather than the Native Americans she wanted to adopt. That would have been more cool, more artsy, more fun. At her hands, I continued hearing the message that I was worthless, accompanied by beatings too painful and punishments too degrading and too numerous to count. My body survived, but I began to lose my soul. I was eventually shuttled off to her mother, who was not related to me, but I was told before I went there that Gram had hated me from the first time she saw me. This was a brilliant confidence-shattering strategy because Gram lost her own mother when she was not yet two years old, so she never learned to be huggy, cuddly, or otherwise demonstrative.

During the years living with Gram, and let me say we loved each other fiercely, there was always a double-edged sword dangling above my head. On the one hand, her family would tell me how relieved they were to have me there to take care of her. So I felt this obligation to be a caregiver along with the love I had for her. At the same time, I was given constant reminders that I was not a member of the family, and if I didn't behave according to their wishes, they would make sure that I was removed from Gram's home. 

Then, of course, my health declined. Although it did, I tried to do my best to take care of Gram. It should come as no surprise that when her health began to decline in her ninetieth year they tried to say it was my fault, that I was neglecting her. It was an incredibly difficult time for me, and I learned a lot from this horrible time. After being told that I could not tell my own sister that Gram was probably dying, and couldn't have her over to the house, and that various booby traps had been set in case Liz or I attempted to steal anything from the house, a dark rage began to grow in me. After Gram died, I was free to release it. There was nothing tying me to them anymore, so I no longer tolerated them even suggesting that I might take anything that was not my own. The degradation and accusation were at an end.

I went on with my life and work, and I bloomed in my job. I became a trainer in my department. I was reasonably good at it, and enjoyed doing it. Then things at work became very complicated. Due to staff changes and overturn in our department, I found myself in the training room every day. I was working to the point of exhaustion and illness. The trainers in our other facilities told me that for every hour in the training room, I should have been allowed two hours of preparation time. I was in the class so much that if I were to follow that rule, I would have been at the job twenty-four hours a day. I found myself sending the class to breaks simply so that I would have time to look up accounts. I spent lunches working. On one notable occasion, my manager scheduled me to do an upper-level training the day after finishing a five-week new-hire program. I said something about my stress at having no time to prep and she said, "Well, it's not like you haven't trained it before." 

I was wearing down. It was evident to everyone that I was doing the bulk of work in our department, even though there was another trainer. Trent, who had always expressed amazement at how strong I was, and who wondered how I had survived my past so unscathed, was seeing me start to break down. I was working with another trainer, a large and tall man who had a very volatile and loudly expressed temper. He would start yelling about things but my manager never told him to calm down or control himself. 

At the end of March 2005, I was getting close to a week of vacation time. Trent was going to training at the hospital for peritoneal dialysis and was being unsuccessful. It was discovered that insertion of the dialysis tubes had resulted in a hernia. My manager was on vacation, and the manager of the call center called her boss in Minneapolis to say that my fellow trainer was not training effectively. The Big Boss called me to say that I would have to take over the training of the class effective the next day. I had to tell her that it just was not going to happen. My husband was having emergency hernia surgery the next day, and I was scheduled to be on vacation the next week. I knew she wasn't happy about it but I just couldn't care.

So Trent had surgery, he came home, and we carried on. On Monday, the first day of my vacation, I started crying and couldn't stop. I was scheduled to see my regular doctor that Friday, and when he saw me, he knew I was dealing with depression. I don't want to go on and on about the intolerance to medications and so forth. It was hard, but there was something much harder. The day I saw my doctor I called my manager to tell her my doctor was putting me on short-term leave. When I told her it was for depression, her response was, "Get over it! Oh, just kidding." No you aren't, you hag, I thought. I tried to express the depth of the emotional hole I was in by telling her that I had a hard time even caring if I took a shower. Her witty comeback? "I certainly hope you took a shower before you went to see the doctor!" I knew it was a lost cause.

Due to challenges with medications and the fact that I had not only depression but PTSD and anxiety, my leave ended up being longer than expected. There were things that happened regarding my manager that I want to talk about, but probably should not. But I will tell you about the unkindest part of this whole experience. The numerous people I had trained or been friends with in the department started coming around to ask where I was and if I was coming back. My manager would not tell them why I was gone because it was "too embarrassing." She allowed rumors to spread through the department that I was dying of cancer because mental illness was too shameful.

I took numerous Psychology courses and could have minored in that field of study in college. I knew that mental illness wasn't my fault. But I still felt that I should have been stronger, that I should have gotten over it in a week or two. But that didn't happen. I'm not sure that it ever really will happen completely. But I am bothered on behalf of everyone that deals with attitudes related to their mental health issues. I could see my manager finding it embarrassing or shameful if I had become mentally ill as a result of some behavior on my part. But I did nothing to bring this on, just like I did nothing to bring on the lupus and fibromyalgia that bother my body. I didn't get it from drinking or smoking or overeating or being carelessly sexually promiscuous. I ended up with these problems because of the numerous experiences that I had had to deal with.  I just lived and experienced enough to finally hit my breaking point.

I didn't tell you all of this to make you feel sorry for me, or to depress you. You may find some of your own experiences in the things I have shared with you. It may also be entirely foreign to your experience, which is a good thing, right? My main purpose in spilling all of this is simple. We are not this way because we are weak, or lazy, or like the attention. We are this way because we are human. We have an illness, just like someone who has problems with arthritis or congenital heart disease or kidney failure. Should they be ashamed? Should we be ashamed for them? No. I hope that eventually people with mental health issues will be thought of in the same way. And if you are one of the people who already knows this, thank you. You are the angels in our lives.