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  • julietertin

Dear Reader

Sandy Skoglund: Revenge of the Goldfish

I’m going to talk about some things that are uncomfortable. Some people might use the word ‘triggering,' which I despise. To me, it seems pop psychology has shined up that buzzword like a badge when in my experience it is deeply disturbing. The risk of talking mental health publicly is that the afflicted sometimes feel misunderstood, pigeonholed, or wallpapered over. I know I have. It pisses me off when someone who hasn’t lived with the soul hole speaks for me, so I will speak for myself.

I’ve spent three decades feeling predominantly misunderstood because the sunny, warm side of the boulder is much more inviting than the wormy underground. I’ve rioted against my crisis of identity for a long time, traditionally tucking my reality deep down inside what the Buddhist author Pema Chödrön calls “the large heart” and slipping into your reality, like an overcoat. I have conditioned myself to do this because asserting one’s reality and having it denied is quite painful. One book goes as far as to label it abusive.

I am writing this particular story because shame requires things three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment. I am ok talking about things that I have not yet fully processed because I can’t carry them alone anymore. I have learned a lot of little quips recently but the one that convicts me every time? You’re only as sick as your secrets. My favorite? Your opinion of me is no business of mine. I’m returning the overcoat I’m drowning in and slipping into something more my style.

Well, shopping for it anyway.

Five weeks ago I shuffled into a small inpatient treatment center beneath a gray Hanes hospital-issue sweatshirt, wide-eyed and tightlipped. Have you ever been so depressed that the world staggers by in slow motion, frame by frame? It feels as if the axis of the earth’s gravity rests in your spine.

My big sister introduced us at the office; I sank into an armchair and disappeared behind a clipboard. I glanced at my duffel bags stacked in the hallway, Tahoe 200 on top, and tried not to feel like a piece of shit.

I handed back the paperwork and turned in an uncracked bottle of antidepressants stamped with my name black and bold. The intake administrator shook it beside her ear and started copying information off the label. I folded my hands between my knees and thought back to the first time I’d read a label like that: I was sixteen. Flashbacks regularly knocked me to the floor and I was waking up in the middle of the night screaming. A friend’s mom took me to a doctor two cities away because I was scared my parents would find out. The doctor said words like situational, dysthymic. I looked up those words. They meant temporary, mild. So I didn’t take the pills. I would grow out of it.

Eventually, the writhing nightmares and memories did stop shattering my thought life, but my freshman year of college I slunk into student health services. It was the autumn after I’d run away from home and finally admitted that I was bulimic and cutting myself. I knew something was wrong. The doctor used the same words but prescribed new pills. I took them, at least until the bottle was empty, but I still felt wrong — and fuzzy. I decided I would rather white knuckle it and know myself and my truth than ride a cloud.

It was a beautiful thought, but it didn’t work. I began self-medicating within a year. Not intentionally, but certainly effectively. Relief is the right word. I felt relief when alcohol numbed and insulated (as did pills and powders and plants). Instead of caring about and feeling everything, I didn’t care about or have to feel anything. Because that’s how my emotions were at that time: they insisted on being known. They dominated me. Drunk emotions, however, are easily forgotten or fade away by the next morning like magic. You don’t dream at all when you pass out. I zipped up the jacket festie girl wears, party girl.

At twenty-three I ran away from a diamond ring, a city, an entire state and into a psychiatrist’s office after a supernaturally interrupted suicide attempt landed me my first emergency room visit. Without making eye contact, a balding man with horn rimmed glasses prescribed Naltrexone to stop drinking, Trazadone so I could start sleeping again, and more antidepressants. Big ones. This time he used new words: post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline tendencies (that last one haunted me until earlier this year when I finally worked up the courage to be re-evaluated). I walked out of his office puzzled how I could supposedly need so many pills from such a short interview. But when I was sober, my heart hurt. My head hurt. I tried. The Naltrexone prevented alcohol from setting off my endorphin fireworks storm (alcohol is not a depressant for my brain, it's an accelerant) plus I had to be sober for seven days before taking it, I didn’t need Trazadone when whiskey was working fine, and I didn’t trust the antidepressants. No follow up appointment needed. I did take his advice and go to dialectic behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapies, both group and individual (CBT and DBT).

Eventually, the purging and the cutting stopped. Not because I outgrew it, but because I could dress up my self-destruction—my shame—in any costume available to me, and they became more nuanced with age. I smoked. I snorted. I stopped smoking. I started running. I drank less. Then I drank more. I had a new relationship, then a new family. It wasn’t their fault that I was cracking; I was in a failed relationship with self. I would try to implement the coping skills I learned — but not consistently. If no one has already told you this, therapy is the hardest job you will ever have. I was exhausted and still using.

I carried these things alone. No one likes the complicated fucked up chick, right? That message is everywhere once you start seeing it. I was told early that she is a hard woman to love. In fact, I was very recently told it again in a very poignant way. So I tried to be simple.

At one point, I wasn’t even sure love existed (although I love Keith Haring, I know that). Love is just a marionette. It is the most complex theory there is. It makes littles sense, has no laws, but can create and destroy life. I couldn’t possibly enter any sort of intimacy with others if I couldn’t be authentically me. Ironically I lost the tenacity to hold onto my truth and know my own reality by striving to do exactly that.

Now thirty years old, I signed the med book, shook out one little pink pill, and swallowed hard. Another solution in a bottle. Yeah, you’re a piece of shit. I sat back in that arm chair. The woman beamed at me at said, “And how are we doing today, Julie?”

“Just fine,” I said sweetly. I was still keeping secrets.

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon

I read a book last week that described shame as an emotion that indicates a healthy accountability and reminds us of our imperfection, but the shame I felt in each of those offices was palpable on my skin. With the right kind of eyes you probably could have seen it in the air that afternoon. I’ve hit bottoms before, but they've all had basements, trap doors, or secret stairwells. This time broke me on the bedrock. Flat on my back looking up I could see the sky, but it was so very far away.

I only remember the three days leading up to the hospital between blackouts. I had disappeared somewhere in North Dakota on my way back from an ultramarathon in California, and my family had filed a missing persons report.

When I blacked in, I was staring into shark eyes. There was a small amount of light coming from somewhere. I was still drunk. I had no idea what day it was or whether it was morning or night. As my vision came into focus I started to trace the outline of his figure. I lifted my head to sit up and pain ripped through my body. Every inch felt beaten. I started to whine and squirm away. I couldn’t get out. For some reason I couldn’t move but I couldn’t tell how I was pinned. My chest felt caved in. Panic shot through me. I left my body.

For the third time in my life, the person saving me from myself was killing me for his satisfaction. Trauma is like hallucinogens: once you see how the universe works you cannot unsee it. Stone sober, when I watch wind pull through trees I still trip on it because I can still see how all of the cells breathe together. My world was never given to me simply, and I have never been able to be simple since.

I was standing beside the bed, watching it happen. I tried to tell her to get out. My gaze locked onto a black curly tattoo on his bicep that said Bitches Over Money. I watched her tire and give up the struggle. Her head fell limp like a doll’s and stared at the nightstand. Suddenly I was back in my own body, looking out of my own eyes. There was a sealed bottle of golden liquor within arm’s reach. The light was coming from somewhere behind it.

Thank god. Then I blacked out.

The next time I blacked in, I was alone. I picked up the hotel phone and tried to make a call. I couldn’t see the numbers. I vaguely figured I might drink myself to death but I didn’t care anymore. My life was over and I was stranded. Part of me was disappointed every time I woke back up in hell, furious at my own mind for continuing to come back. It was as if I was running a burn under a cold faucet, and every time I tried to take it out of the water the burn seared unbearably.

I looked around the room. No food, no water, just more alcohol. When had I eaten last? I had no idea. I wasn’t hungry. I tried to dial again. I only knew one number by memory and I guessed that he was probably too hurt because of me to answer. It didn't matter, though, because I could not get the buttons right. I sat on the edge of the bed listening to the dial tone and my bottom lip trembled. I briefly considered dialing 911, but I was the one who got myself into this desperate place. I deserved this. I gave up and bashed the phone into the receiver. Then I picked up the bottle. I tipped it up until I couldn’t breathe and blacked back out into nothingness.

The next time I blacked in, I heard a man’s voice. A different man. It seemed like a lot of time had gone by. I couldn’t understand his words. I was laying face down with a mouthful of sheets. I pushed myself up and felt a hand on my shoulder. I saw black pants and handcuffs and shot my hand up for help. I knew I was safe. He carried me down the stairs and brought me to the hospital. Before we even arrived, my sister 2,000 miles away had a flight booked.

The hospital was one of the longest nights of my life. They confiscated my clothing and processed me from midnight until six in the morning, which is how I came to possess the charcoal Walmart sweatshirt I wore to rehab. An angel stood beside me and held my hand for the hard parts. I wish I could remember her name. They released me in the morning and I went down to the empty chapel for grieving families and sat for six hours. I tried to eat, but I threw up. “Our lives had become unmanageable” was an understatement. I knew then I was a low-bottom drunk. I always have to dig to the absolute core of things before I believe they are true. Some of us are like that.

The next three days, my sister detoxed me in a vrbo. She gave me organic vitamins and cooked for me, made me drink gallons of electrolytes, took me to a spa and a lake and a farmer’s market, stayed up with me and checked on me in the night. I sweated, tremored, didn’t talk much at first, and couldn’t sleep. For days. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the shark and the burn seared again. My ribs felt bruised. Things hurt all the way through. I asked to go to inpatient treatment because the toll for the road I was walking is the ultimate sacrifice.

It was the best decision of my life.

For the last month I've been learning continuously from 6:30am to 9:30pm every day, aside from eating and running. I've filled half of a journal and an entire notebook. I will have a lot to flesh out around the revolutionary ideas that I've been exploring and adapting to, but for now I am still extracting from the core and compiling as much information and time as possible.

I’ve been reading like a madwoman lately, and one interesting and outdated theory I still find relevant in principle is Maslow’s revised hierarchy of needs. I am enchanted by the idea of self-actualization and experiencing the ineffable, right? It’s so beautiful, more aesthetic than music or politics, law or science.

What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself. If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness. The story of the human race is men and women selling themselves short.

-Abraham Maslow

Want to know another of my favorite quips?

All you have to change is everything.

My communication with the world has been unpredictable, convoluted, I've mostly been too tired to stay in touch, and probably erratic. Still, I am absolutely floored by the compassion that has been poured into me from unexpected places and people. I don't deserve it, but love and worth cannot be earned. I'm not ashamed anymore. Still, I didn't think others would give me something so precious freely or without expectation. That's not how the hustle works. I am brimming with humble gratitude for the people who get it and reached out to me. I didn't realize you were out there all this time. I was too busy coat shopping. Thank you for finding me. It is tangibly saving my life.

Yours truly,