Aug. 23rd, 2014

Sometimes I forget just how far I have come. It always takes a certain person or a certain circumstance to remind me that I am too hard on myself. Every once in a while, we all need a good wake-up call.

Last weekend, my best friend, Alisha, was over for several hours. Near the end of the evening she said, "You know, you've been doing that all night." I raised an eyebrow. "Doing what?" I asked, genuinely confused. "Putting yourself down." I just stared at her, my mouth slightly agape, pondering. My initial reaction was to tell her no, that's not true. I don't know why I felt I should deny it. I suppose because that's a terrible thing to do to yourself and I didn't want to be guilty of it. Had I really? She stared back at me, knowing I was trying to place each negative comment. "Yes, you have," answering what I was not saying, "You've done it every time you've seen an opening." It was painful to hear, but I knew she was right. I had been putting down my physical appearance and I had been calling myself emotionally weak. And I don't know why I was doing it because, growing up, I did it to myself so that other people wouldn't have to do it for me. The defense mechanism had been 'make fun of yourself so that others don't have to.' And actually, it worked for quite some time. But as an adult, and sitting in a room with my best friend and one of my only friends, who exactly was I protecting myself from now? Was I that bruised from what has happened to me that I still feel the need to put those defenses up even when there is no need? Do I do it just as a precaution?

All week, I thought about what Alisha had said. I thought about where I was just a year ago, completely devastated for the third time by the same man, the man I was so sure I was going to marry. I thought about two years ago when everything started going downhill, right after the second break-up with him. Though it was not all solely caused by him, he was the trigger for my decline. He was the cause but not the effect. Depression had been laying dormant in me for a while, as it has most of my life. It just took an instance of severe trauma to awaken it again. At the time, I was just moving out on my own for the very first time. Or actually, I was taking over the lease and my father was the one moving out. I had just started a new job after a long bout of unemployment. Suddenly, I was entirely responsible for a new apartment, all the finances, getting up on ladders to change light bulbs. It was scary. There were a lot of very big changes happening and suddenly, I felt like I had no anchor. My father was suddenly gone and the apartment was quiet, more quiet than I thought it would be, and more lonely than I thought it would be. You don't realize how comforting it is just knowing someone is in another room, even if you're not talking to them. I was supposed to be moving in with that man in a month's time but I came home one day and everything was gone. There were no warning signs. He just moved out. It was the end of my most beloved relationship and a fifteen-year friendship. And I felt very, very deserted. By everyone.

I thought about the intense anxiety I had pushed through after the depression hit, how I was wasting hundreds of dollars every month on cabs just to get to work because, for whatever reason, I had experienced so much trauma that my social anxiety had come back with a vengeance and I could not face public transit without crying and hyperventilating. Cabs were the only way I could convince myself to go to work. Convincing myself to get out of bed was even worse. Of course, I could only afford a cab half the way, to the subway, essentially just skipping half an hour on a bus. And the subway was just as bad as the bus. On my way home, my sunglasses would be permanently glued to my face as I sat in my subway seat crying behind them, trying to do breathing exercises in a way I hoped no one would notice. Some days I would just have to get off at a random stop because I felt like I was dying, unable to catch my breath or just about to go over the edge. I would panic if anyone touched me. I was so confused why that started to happen but it did. If anyone so much as brushed my shoulder (and on the TTC, that is an inevitability because it is practically like Tokyo here now), I would whip around and back away. And on the rare days, I would stand closer to the edge of the subway platform and wonder if I would ever get the courage to jump. It scared me. It always scared me that my mind could go to a place that dark.

It also didn't help that I thought I saw my ex everywhere even though I knew his workplace was in the opposite direction. I was so terrified to run into him and I had no idea why. He lived only five minutes away, so I avoided any and all places I could possibly run into him. I bought everything online and had it delivered to my work just to avoid our shared stores and post office. It didn't help that everything in my apartment reminded me of him because even though he had not officially moved in, he was practically living there, especially after his mother passed away just over a year into our relationship. Then, during the last six months we were together, he lost his job and we were both unemployed together. He spent all day here job hunting with me. I had to wake up in the same bed we woke up in together every morning. It made me sick. I wanted to get rid of it.

I was having intense panic attacks again. It had been so many years since I had had one and I was so sure I would never have to experience them again because they had landed me in the hospital before and I swore to myself I would never let it get to that point again. But sure enough, they returned and they didn't even need a trigger. I would be sitting on the couch, watching TV, and one would hit. I would be flailing my arms and grabbing on to furniture, trying to catch my breath, desperately trying to breathe into paper bags because I had seen that in a movie once and it seemed to work. I couldn't even call anyone when this was happening. I was too ashamed and, more to the point, could not catch my breath long enough to talk. I gasped and gasped to the point where I was choking and coughing, ready to call an ambulance so many times. Panicking about panicking, let me tell you, is never a good idea. You are supposed to just accept the fact that you are having a panic attack, instead of trying to fight it, and stay still. Me? I flip out. I can't breathe and think I am either going to pass out or die, so I panic some more. It was awful. And it happened almost every day for months on end, varying in severity.

As depression goes, fatigue became my identity. Many nights, I would get home from work, get into pajamas and go to bed. Most nights, I would sleep at around seven o'clock, an hour or so after getting home. There was a point, right after the break-up, where I did not eat for two full weeks. I had no idea that was even possible to do, but it is because I survived. I drank water and tea but could not stomach any food. It made me deathly ill. That is very typical for me though. Thankfully, I am not an emotional eater. But no better, I lose my appetite completely. It took about a month of slight food intake here and there before I could actually eat a whole meal again. Unfortunately, I started to gain weight after that and I got depressed about that too. It was all a vicious cycle and I could not seem to escape any bad part of it. It was all coming at me at once. And this fatigue... it consumed me. I could not function. I have no idea how I even got to work every day. I guess because it was my livelihood I had no choice, but looking back, and even at the time, I had no idea how I did it because I was just exhausted. Every day. I felt like the life had been sucked out of me. I felt completely drained. I didn't want to do anything, ever. I couldn't even clean my apartment. Laundry went weeks without being done because I didn't want to leave my apartment, even just to go downstairs. When I did finally do it, I looked like a spy, peeping out into my hallway before I left to make sure I wouldn't run into anyone, peeking into the laundry room to make sure I was the only one there even though I purposely did it during odd hours and practically ran from place to place in order to avoid any other human beings. When I got stuck in the elevator with one, I would quietly seethe and panic, as if they had no right to be there. It was ridiculous. I was barely talking to anyone I knew, not even my family. I sat, alone, in my apartment for almost a year doing nothing but going to work, coming home, and going to bed.

My most beloved hobby, gaming, was poisoned. That is what we did together, my ex and I. It was 'our thing.' I had been a gamer before him, of course, but I could not bring myself to be a gamer after him. My Xbox collected dust for months. I didn't even turn it on. Just the sight of it made me sick to my stomach. About six months later, I did turn it on but only for Netflix. I still could not bring myself to game. A year later, I attempted PC gaming, in the hopes that switching the medium would help. And it did, a little, over time.

The only other solace I had? My cats. My best buds. My furbabies. I don't know what I would have done without them. Unfortunately, this past December, one of them died. Shadow. 15 years, half my lifetime, and he died. And it was a terrible year of illness and pills and fighting. Shadow got the worst kind of feline cancer you can get. They removed the lump and they said everything was clear, but then he developed pancreatitis, deadly in felines. We tried everything. Thousands of dollars worth of medications, pills. Endless vet visits. Trying to give him these pills while he fought and fought, with me crying and trying to explain to him I'm trying to help him. I went broke trying to save him. I went broke and I was broken. I couldn't stand to watch it. I couldn't take all the bad news. Even the good news turned out to just be the calm before the storm. At some point, and it was quite far in, I knew the vets were simply allowing me to prolong his life and knew he was going to die. They wouldn't tell me that though. But I knew. He stopped eating for weeks on end and he was rapidly losing weight. The vets were so alarmed saying they had never seen a cat lose that much weight that quickly. I was panicking more and more each day, not knowing whether to put him down or let him keep fighting because he obviously was... and I swear he was doing it for me because he knew I couldn't take any more loss. (Ironically, this is the first instance of tears as I have been writing this. I'm sorry, Shadow. Mommy misses you so much still.)

Eventually, it was time. It was a few days after Christmas. On his last day, he couldn't even walk anymore. I had decided I was going to take him to be put down the next day. Only I didn't have to do that, which I also thought he purposely saved me from doing because he knew it would kill me too. In the middle of the night, Shadow woke me up by using the last bit of strength he had to claw at the couch. He had been sleeping in his vet crate with the top off because I wanted to prevent him from trying to walk, so I put the crate right beside the couch and slept there, feeling like I was close enough to him to keep an eye on him. So he clawed and meowed and I was so confused. It seemed like he wanted me to pick him up and I had no idea why; he hadn't let me pick him up in years. He always squirmed. But he definitely wanted up this time, so I grabbed him and put him on my chest and I won't even describe the rest because it was the most awful, most heartbreaking experience of my entire life. It even beat out the break-up. In the middle of it all I remember sobbing uncontrollably and saying, 'I am so sorry, Shadow! I am so sorry!' I felt so helpless because I knew there was nothing I could do. Shadow died in my arms a few minutes later. I cried and I sobbed so hard I thought I was going to choke to death. I held him for four hours. I couldn't let him go. Shadow still in my arms, I managed to grab my phone and I called my dad. He knew, of course, before I even said anything because it was three in the morning. He asked me if I wanted him to come down, and even though he was almost an hour away, he did. When he got there, I still couldn't put Shadow down. I just kept petting him and crying. Eventually, I let my dad take him from me and put him back in the crate. He was so stiff. It was so awful. I reverted right back to a childlike state and asked my dad to sleep over, something I would never have done under any normal circumstances. I have been haunted by it ever since. I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that I was going to take him to be put down the next day. It's like he knew. It's like he wanted to go here, with me, rather than in some strange, clinical environment. And in the end, he was where he should have been when he died: in the arms of the person who loved him the most on this entire planet. I am grateful every day that it was just the two of us, in the place he grew up, in the arms of his loving owner, in the quiet of the early morning while everyone else was asleep and the earth was still. It was bittersweet. And it was definitely not how I wanted to start my 2014. On New Year's Eve, I hid. I went to bed before midnight and pretended it wasn't happening. I shut down and I hid because I did not want to ring in a new year. I wasn't even finished being traumatized by the old one.

That wasn't my first experience with cancer in the last couple years. My ex's mom... that's what she had died from just a year earlier. She had a very severe cancer and I grew very close to her. At the time, my ex had his job still and I was unemployed so I offered to take her to all of her hospital appointments, waiting for hours until the chemo was finished, and pushing her in her wheelchair to get groceries or get her medications. I spent hours every week with her, just talking and keeping her company. We really bonded because we had a lot in common, much more than just her son. She told me I needed to take care of him, and I promised her I would, always. Her death was the hardest thing my ex and I had to get through together. He is an only child and his father had left before he was born, and his mother was his world. It tore him apart. The fact that he had been struggling with alcoholism only made things worse. I was terrified. I did everything in my power to help him. I helped plan the entire funeral. I got the music together. I prepared a speech. I never left his side. It was so hard for the both of us, in every way. She was the first woman I almost called 'Mom.' After losing my own mother when I was two, she was closest thing I had to a mother. My ex and I used to call her Momma Bear because she always worried about the both of us, endlessly, even when she started to get really ill.

Eventually, the hospice worker told her that she needed to check into the hospital. They never told us these would be her last weeks, but eventually, we knew. My ex and I visited her in the hospital every day for a month. Every day. We watched her decline and hallucinate. It was so, so terrible. He cried. I cried. But never in front of her. At Christmas, we cooked an entire feast and brought it to the hospital. We cooked for an entire day. We cooked a huge turkey breast, I made my special stuffing, he made some special Polish recipes that they ate every holiday season. We were so excited. But when we got there, she couldn't eat. Eating made her nauseated most days. I had a lump in my throat knowing this was probably the last Christmas we would ever get to spend with her and it was in a sterile hospital, and she couldn't even keep food down. One by one, other patients were disappearing from her room. During her last days she was moved to another room, and I was frank with the nurse one day when my ex was not around. I asked her to please just tell me how long she had left. I know it is against policy to tell people that and she could get into a lot of trouble, but she could see the pain and panic in my eyes and so she looked at me, heavy-hearted, and said quietly, "A few days." I walked down the hall toward her room and I felt the tears coming. How was I going to tell him? I had to tell him. I had to let him do whatever he needed to do before it was too late. As soon as I walked into the room, I burst out crying. I keeled over and almost fell on the floor. He grabbed me asked what was wrong. I told him we needed to go outside. We went outside the hospital in a small area, but there were lots of other people milling about and I was scared because I didn't know what he would do. I could tell he already knew. Soon he was clinging to me so hard it actually hurt, burying his face into my shoulder and crying so hard and so loud that it actually shocked me because I have never heard anyone cry like that before, not even myself. It didn't matter that people were probably staring. We were at a hospital. They knew why. I held him for about thirty minutes there, not saying a word because nothing - nothing - I could have said would have helped. He took my hand and we walked back upstairs to her room. He spent the night there with her, sleeping in the chair next to her.

The funeral was beautiful. We had arranged it all ourselves. We did our speeches. Mine made my dad cry and hug me. That is the first time since I was a kid I had seen my dad cry, and it was the first time he had hugged me in about fifteen years. I couldn't believe it. He told me my speech was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. A small part of me wondered if it was so heartbreaking because I would have said similar things about my mother if I had been old enough to speak at her funeral. It didn't help that my ex's mother was being buried in the exact same cemetery as my own mother. What were the chances? We'd both be going to visit our mothers on Mother's Day... in the same cemetery. It was bizarre, to say the least, and it brought my ex and I closer together at the time. It was less than a year later that my aunt, a strong, healthy, athletic woman, was diagnosed with breast cancer. 'Oh, come ON,' I thought. I prepped myself for yet another long haul. It was as close to home as the last experience, only this time I was severely worried about my grandmother, also a breast cancer survivor and also in poor health at the time, and her being able to handle it too. My aunt had both her breasts removed and she then had reconstructive surgery. It was the only way she felt 'safe' from it coming back. She wasn't taking the chance, and I completely understood her decision even though a lot of people were shocked. The pain she was in and the side effects from the pills... it was awful. It's still awful even today. I tried to be there for her as much as I could. Thankfully, she recovered and has been in remission.

So much loss. From 2012-2014 there was so much loss. So many endings. So many close calls. So many painful situations and terrible thoughts. A lot of my friendships had fallen away too, but I think I have delved into enough this evening! Just like old times, me writing novellas instead of entries. I can't say I have fully recovered from all of the above. I haven't. But I think the cleansing part of this entry has been that those things are over now. I'm working toward recovery. I've been in counseling, trying to work through things and somehow gain my strength back. Alisha reminded me that I need to stop beating myself up for things beyond my control, or for things within my control that any human being would struggle with at any time. I'm allowed to fall apart. I'm allowed to cry. I'm allowed to have bad days. I'm allowed to stumble back and stumble forward again. Grief and recovery are not linear. That is the most important lesson I have taken away from this. And everyone requires different things to feel better. For some it may be going out all the time. For me, it was just being with myself. It has been painful and lonely, but it has been what I needed. I needed to learn to love myself again. Forgive myself. Forgive everyone else too because walking around with anger is too hard, too heavy. I started reading up on Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation. It has sometimes helped me get through the day. I sometimes wrote in an offline journal, which also helped. And now here I am, still standing. Somehow.

I'm still not where I want to be, but that's not important. What's important is that I'm not where I was.



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