As much as it hurts, ain’t it wonderful to feel?
I’m not afraid.
I pushed through the pain
and I’m on fire.
I remember how to breathe again
Why must we fall apart
to understand how to fly?
I will find a way
even without wings.
Follow your heart till it bleeds
At the age of thirteen, I broke down and collapsed into a level of instability that would lead to months of indescribable pain, fear, grief and a sense of chronic hopelessness. I would be hospitalized (more than once) in a locked, inpatient psychiatric hospital where I would be put on heavy dosages of medications that ravaged my body and failed to fully — or even mostly — quell the demons that haunted my mind; I would lose my ability to function in an educational setting and, as a consequence, would have to be placed in an Intensive Outpatient Program; I would be alienated from my peers and thrown into a tormented state of social isolation during a time in which I was already awkward and insecure enough; I would become too paranoid to tolerate being alone for more than a few moments, causing me to require a level of supervision that made me feel as if I had been downgraded to the age of three and, with that, as if my dignity had been robbed; and, despite what I saw as my best efforts, I would struggle to stop myself from self-injuring, destroying property and slipping into nightmares of suicidal ideation, causing me to lose trust even in my own self. I would end up doubting — and for good reason — my ability to one day live independently, go to college, hold down a job or even make it past the age of 14. I would feel as if my life — past, present and future — had been brutalized and thrown away as if it was a piece of trash. The hopes and ambitions that I once held with such passion would be purposefully suppressed, as, in my mind, any hope of achieving them had long ago died and the reality that I thought would replace them was too painful to imagine.
That was all (a little over) two years ago.
A little over two weeks ago, I was driven an hour and a half and a state border away from home to attend the first day of New Student Orientation at the early college I would be attending for the next four years. At (barely) 16, I would meet friends who, like me, were tired of high school and yearned for a greater challenge; I would choose classes with titles such “Colonialism and Tribal Peoples” and “Life Histories”, along with more familiar names such as “Macroeconomics”; I would move into a dorm that, what it lacked in cell service, made up for with an amazing roommate; I would meet a boy — or two — who feelings would develop for; and I would adjust to the reality that I was a college student, 2 1/2 years early. In the midst of the excitement, those memories of crisis and hospitalization would seem startlingly distant.
Today, as I sit procrastinating and reflecting in my dorm room, it all seems a little bit (OK, quite a bit) surreal. Who would have thought that it was possible that I, the girl who was at one point convinced — was terrified — that she would die young of her own self-inflicted end, would get here? The girl who, for as as far back as memory exists, struggled to cope with the most minutia of everyday life? I certainly did not and, though family and friends spoke with optimism about the future, I could sense that even they too were losing hope in the possibility of me ever achieving a state of semi-normal existence. After all, despite being at an age in which I should have been asserting my independence, I was completely — humiliatingly — dependent on others to maintain something as simple to many as safety and, for quite some time, I was aware that I was only progressively deteriorating. Each day was a battle in a seemingly never-ending and exhausting war against myself in which I felt that I was bound to ultimately lose.
Then, slowly and without me noticing at first, my health began to improve. In the beginning, the steps forward were cautious and small, such as learning to tolerate being alone for not just a few moments; but a few hours at a time. Then it was ceasing to engage in the various self-injurious and destructive behaviors that I previously had. Eventually, I began to notice that the anxiety that once crippled me was no longer so disabling that I could not, for example, go to school, hang out with a friend or join an extracurricular club. For the first time in a year or so, I even noticed that I began reading — truly, truly reading — again, something I had once considered to be a treasured obsession; but had abandoned in the wake of my psychiatric storms. I was becoming myself again and, not only that, I was gaining (positive) parts of myself that I did have before The Breakdown.
It was at the end of my freshman year of high school, a year’s time after this process of regeneration began, that I first learned about the early college. I had discovered it after a night of disillusioned Google searching in which I was attempting to find an alternative to high school, a place that I found to be intellectually restraining. After a series of discussions with my mother, I sent in an application and was interviewed. I was told by my admission’s counselor that he wanted me there, that he felt I would be a good fit and that he would advocate for me. I waited, bent with anticipation. When the answer came back, I was told that I could not come in the Fall as I had submitted the application too late to get everything ready on time for the scheduled orientation; however, I was also encouraged to try again for January Admission. That time, I got everything in on time and, on a late December afternoon, I got notice that I had been accepted. While those around me acted excitedly, all I could manage was a sigh of relief; a sigh that stemmed from a relief so deep that I could feel it reverberate throughout my whole body and could feel it warm my core. After all the struggle that I had endured over the past few years, the acceptance was a validating “F**k You” to the world. I had won; it — all of it — had lost and been crushed under the stomp of my vindictive boots.
I still cannot believe that I am actually here…living it, breathing it and experiencing it. It is astounding to me how well things have turned out and, I am sure, it is for my family, friends and healthcare providers, as well. Furthermore, while I don’t know what the next four years will hold, I am beginning to allow myself to be optimistic, to hope and to dream; I am allowing myself to believe that I truly can find a sense of success and happiness one day, whatever that may mean to me at that point in time; I am, in essence, beginning to trust that, not only can good things happen to me; but that they can happen and not be maliciously torn away as soon as I dare I let my guard down. It is a good feeling.
For those still fighting in the trenches of the frontlines of this war, either in defense of their own sanity or that of one they love deeply for, I would challenge you to not to give up hope. Though your life may never be as it would have been had the demon that calls itself mental illness not touched and invaded it, that does not mean it cannot be a life in which you are able to find your own unique, adapted version of health, happiness and a successful, thriving future. It does not mean things cannot get better. You can have that life and things can better — you just have to be willing to hold on through the storms that rage on in-between. And, though you may not know me, I want to say that I believe — no, I know — that you can.
With Love, Hope and Sanity,
Erika The Strange
Do what you what you want, if you have a dream for better
Do what you what you want till you don’t want it anymore
Stand and face the unknown
Somewhere beyond the pain there must be a way to believe we can break through
Do what you what you want, you don’t have to lay your life down
Do what you what you want till you find what you’re looking for
Somewhere beyond the pain there must be a way to believe
Somewhere beyond the pain there must be a way to learn forgiveness.”
I "met" Erika when she sent me a letter that, with her permission, I turned into the most read blog post ever on The Mindstorm. Erika is anything but strange. She's thoughtful, caring, creative, intelligent, and beautiful. I feel blessed every day to have her in my life, and to call her my friend.