Many Happy Returns

During my two years of junior high school, the business of being asked to stay after class became part of my typical school day routine.

Usually it was teachers going through the laundry list of homework and reading I had missed in the many days I didn’t bother to show up to school, sometimes sprinkled with chides about making better choices or applying myself or all that other rubbish teachers spout about living up to one’s potential.

I was career truant, missing at least three days a week and those days I did go to school were so saturated with anxiety that I could hardly follow along – with the anxiety came headaches and nosebleeds and a reliance on an inhaler, and a lot of trips to the nurse’s office. There were questions about what was ailing me and why I never came to school or why I was sick, sure, but there a lot more rumors than answers, and many of my teachers even bought into them… the reality was too difficult to explain, so I just kept quiet, which only brought more questions, more jabs from the bullies, and more sideways glances.

My language arts teacher was the exception. At the beginning of the year she did what she could to try and engage with me, and she made it a point to always talk to me on the days of school I managed to show up for. Out of the lot, I was certain she was the only teacher who would sincerely care if I just stopped going to school all together. She seemed to be the only one that actually believed it was illness and lethargy that were holding me back, not drugs or the wrong friends. Perhaps she believed the lie that was common among students, that I was terminally ill with some rare form of something. Either way, she always told me I’d beat whatever it is I was battling and make an imprint on this world.

I didn’t believe her, but I eventually stopped telling her that and let her go about the business of being kind.

Toward the end of my 8th Grade year, though, I started to pull my life together a bit and managed to attend and participate in class like any other student, and the biggest challenge was trying to crawl out from the ‘lost cause’ brand I had earned. By the time mid-terms came out, I was even pulling straight A’s.

One morning in the spring, Ms. Ranford asked me to stay after class to discuss our last big project of the year, a biography that included everything from family history before I existed to thoughts about my future in ten, twenty, and fifty years. Our rough drafts had been handed back and I flipped through mine to find the red marks I was expecting, undoubtedly why she needed to talk with me.

I had started “Ten Years From Now” outlining how I hoped my twenties would go, discussing graduating from college and starting law school and starting an internship with the county District Attorney’s Office (as well as moonlighting as a saxophone player in a jazz band), owning a cat, driving a red Mini Cooper, and maybe even getting married to some awesome guy and sharing a cozy flat in Portland. I got as far as listing “Twenty Years Out: Age 34,” but I didn’t write any more.

My teacher had written in red, “Then what happens?” with a smiley face and several question marks.

I stayed seated as she closed the door after the last students left for lunch and watched as she sat down at the desk in front of me.

“You did a great job on this,” she smiled. “But you didn’t finish it…”

I stayed quiet at first trying to focus on breathing normally so as not to ignite a meltdown, and avoided looking her in the eyes at all costs.

“I did…” I croaked. “I did as much as…”
She got up slowly and grabbed a box of tissue from her desk as tears began to fall down my face.

I tried again, “it’s done.”

Her face was a mix of confusion and sadness, but also kindness and compassion. I appreciated that she thought through what she was going to say.

“You can’t imagine your life that far out?”

I shook my head slowly as more tears began to fall.

“I can’t even picture graduating from high school,” I added. “All that stuff about college and being a lawyer… It’s just a stupid dream…”

I paused to swallow and wipe my eyes and took a long breath in.

 

“I won’t make it to 35.”

 

It was a quiet mumble, but I could tell by the hand she gently put on my arm that she heard it.

I wasn’t entirely sure how it would happen… perhaps it’d be complications from pneumonia that seemed to plague me every year. Maybe the unknown illness, whatever it was, that caused such fatigue and pain and dizziness would see a blackout where I’d crack my skull open. Or the boy next door, he might go too far one day and just flat out kill me.

 

Probably suicide, though.

 

I thought about it all the time and for a long while was ready to welcome an end if it came my way. It wasn’t hard to speculate that even if I did achieve all my dream accomplishments, deep inside my heart would be the melancholy that seemed to follow all the good in my life… and with those lows came that pervasive feeling of my days would be cut short.

The same lack of hope for the future was one of the primary reasons I attempted suicide in my teens, and it was suicidal ideation that put me in the hospital in my mid twenties.

It wasn’t just moods and emotions, though. From a relatively early age I started to also show signs I had inherited a good number of my family’s medical problems and conditions. In addition to mental illness (kept a dark secret until after my diagnosis opened the conversation), cancer, heart issues, serious female problems, and high blood pressure ran on both sides of the family, along with predisposition to alcoholism. My struggle with weight starting in my teens only added to what already looked like a life of health issues. Even if I did make it to 35, I didn’t have a lot in my favor for a long and healthy life thereafter.

I wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

I’ve spent the years wrestling with a whole host of other issues, including chronic pain, breathing issues, migraines, and problems with my, umm, girl bits and pieces that were so bad that I would missed at least one day of school or work each month due to blackouts and debilitating pain.

On top of this, I never went to the doctor with the exception of the sports physical I was required to have for high school activities, and in those I generally lied about anything that might raise eyebrows.

I don’t want to paint too grim a picture or imply that for years I’ve just sort of been a walking pile of problems; I had several good spells, some that lasted years.

After that conversation with my 8th Grade teacher about my future, I did go on to have a stellar high school career even though I still little hope of ever making anything of myself; I graduated near the top of my class and headed off to college with thousands of dollars in scholarships to my credit. My college experience was rich and eventful, and I took advantage of as many opportunities as were afforded to me, excelling academically and in extracurricular activities. I was a prolific writer and editor for the university newspaper (which nearly got me expelled a few months before graduation), and somehow managed to pull together a double major in history and journalism and again graduated with merit. Although I did start the process of applying to law school, a service project I participated in gave me a taste of classroom teaching and I realized I was actually enjoyed and was quite good at it – so I got my masters in teaching instead and landed my first job at a junior high not long after.

What’s astounding is that I was able to accomplish all of those things while still battling some of my maladies, including undiagnosed mental illness – which accounted for my serious mood swings and my occasional bouts of both depression and extreme mania when I’d go weeks with little sleep and managed to crank out twenty page term papers over night.

When I was hospitalized and diagnosed bipolar at age 24, though, any ideas I had about my future were completely crushed.

In my mind, I’d never crawl out from medical bills, never be able to reach my goals of working abroad, and never be able to live as an independent adult….

And who would want me? What man could love me like this, would dare to spend all his days me and all my baggage? What friends would actually stick around when I hit my next low?

How could I keep my job when I had a label on my head shouting that I was mentally ill?

I honestly believed I would never be fully stable enough to live a normal life… In fact, I’d probably lose my battle with the disease and become one of the statistics of manic depressives who take their own life at too young of an age.

The few days after I left the hospital, I made a conscious decision that I would at least try to work toward some semblance of a life. I would take my medication, see my doctor, and choose life. I relied on God for the purpose and reason to get out of bed in the morning, and on His strength to get through the day. And for a good while, I simply too life one day at a time, letting the future take care of itself for the time being.

My life was changed forever, not only because I was officially branded with a label that many read “unstable,” but because it meant learning how to live with a chronic illness. Medication, blood draws, doctors, and side effects became my new normal.

It was a crawl at first, but with the help of good friends and God working things together for good, I was able to get back into teaching and most of my regular activities. Soon I started to feel like a productive member of society. While I resented having to take meds and couldn’t stand my psych np, I had a growing sense that God wasn’t done with me just yet and that pursuing his best for me meant taking my disease and its maintenance seriously.

Crawling turned into toddling which turned into walking, and soon into a full sprint in the direction of thriving and success in many areas of my life – living abroad, a remarkable teaching career, solid relationships, even a savings and retirement plan!

It’d be hard to get any farther from the sad, sick, failure of a life I had imagined most of my life.

Well, until about four years ago when the medication seemed to have stopped working and I started having severe mood swings that included the instability of the manic high and the suicidal feelings of a low alternating every few hours. I was living in the former USSR at the time, not exactly a beacon of mental health care, serving as a teacher and missionary. It was decided I could come back to the States for a few weeks to get re-evaluated for mental health, get the medication adjusted, and come back as a more productive individual ready to be of more service to our work there. Of course, there was also a lot of fear; I was a sent missionary, and being mentally ill seems rather incongruous to that station in life. I was very guarded about the real reason I had come back and, in all honesty, terrified that my disease would ground me back in America.

But mental illness isn’t exactly like other disorders where you can just change medication at the drop of a hat. It takes weeks to get into your system and even longer to find meds that you tolerate with the least amount of side effects. With all that comes a sort of chicken-egg problem: some medications cause complications that then had to be medicated as well, and it’s sometimes difficult to sort out which came first.

For example, I started taking lithium during that trip back to the states in 2013. Three years on it saw me gain around 60 pounds, large in part because my thyroid started to slow down, possibly as a side effect of the medication… which caused me to have less energy to be more active, leading to blood pressure and cholesterol issues, which now required also treating through medication.

This also marked the first time I willingly saw a regular doctor in several years. My hormones also seemed to be on the fritz, making me constantly uncomfortable and all the more moody. I was prescribed another new medication, and my doctor had started murmuring about my blood pressure, which I more or less ignored out of the frustration of having to add even more medication to my regiment.

After that, I lasted a little over a year abroad before I was more or less too sick to continue overseas and had to let go of my teaching career. I simply didn’t have it in me to keep going.

The lithium was working to control my moods, but fatigue, migraines, and joint and back issues kept me in the States. Originally thought to just be a temporary setback, but I then started having complications due to PTSD that appeared to have come out of nowhere- including frequent suicidal ideation and reverting to the habit of cutting – which forced me to drop everything and start focusing on my health. My bipolar and PTSD symptoms aside, in the year that followed I was battling symptoms of hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary syndrome, and hypertension, not to mention migraines and regular therapy to address chronic back and neck pain. My kidneys were unhappy, my cholesterol worrisome, and my attitude was more or less that I’d never really be healthy again.

By the beginning of 2015, I felt the sickest I’d ever been since that conversation with my 8th Grade teacher, and often suffered the same grim thoughts about my future.
Working closely with my doctors, starting trauma counseling that sometimes felt like it might kill me, and trying different medication combinations seemed to help.

Ultimately I had realize that God was doing something different in my life and that I needed to let go of my dreams of going back overseas full time or returning a career in education. I had to stop the fighting my body and brain, and instead accept their challenges and work with them toward wellness.

I had to embrace change, start setting goals again, choose to look forward to what might come next, and choose to work toward health – mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had to realize that getting well would be hard and take time and energy I wasn’t sure I had, but that I was brave enough to endure whatever it took, trusting that I would emerge stronger and healthier than ever.

I had to let God do whatever he was going to do, holding fast that His goodness wouldn’t let me go, wouldn’t drop me, wouldn’t cause more harm, even when getting well meant walking through dark and scary things.

I had to trust, to have faith, be courageous enough to take the first steps, and bold enough to keep going.

That’s my Road to Wellness.

……

I just celebrated my 35th birthday.

I feel the best and healthiest I’ve felt in years.

I’m off lithium and on medications that I’m tolerating so well, they are even helping me with the energy to get physically better! It’s hard work – very hard at times, but I realize that unless I take each day as it comes and challenge myself to keep at it, I may see an even healthier year ahead.

I’m taking care of myself, my whole self –  breaking free from anxieties, addictions and habits that have held me back.

I’m making conscious choices that point me in the direction of a healthier and brighter future, being mindful of how I treat and what I put into m body – including things like exercise, diet, good habits and good company, and keeping on top of both my physical and mental health needs.

I’m watching God continue to transform each day into an adventure that has a destination beyond what I can even imagine.

While I’m still living the single life, I’m settled down for the most part, surrounded by a community who knows and loves and embraces me even with all my challenges. I’m even living the dream I had as a kid of working in law enforcement – not as an attorney, but in a position that uses all of my college degrees and training, that draws on my experiences overseas, and requires a compassion that could only stem from someone who has setbacks like mine.

For the most part, I’m more than satisfied with my life – I’m excited about it.

What’s more is that since hitting that low a couple of years ago, I’ve had to acknowledge that I not only have, but want a future.

I want to live.

I want my heart and kidneys and brain to make it to a birthday with so many candles on my cake that it risks setting the whole house on fire.

I want to one day take the wrinkled hand of my old and grey husband into my equally wrinkled own and walk down memory lane on our decades’ anniversary celebration.

I want to watch my niece and nephews – who knows, maybe my own children – receive their diplomas, toss their mortarboard, walk down the aisle to wed their beloved, and have their own children…

I want to be forced to retire because I’m too old for my job.

I want be the woman of noble character, who is known for her faith and passion for Jesus, who grows in wisdom and encouragement to share with others, who laughs without fear of the future (Proverbs 31).

I want to thrive.

But wanting to live life and life extraordinary, I have to take care of myself, even when it’s hard and I don’t feel much like it, and continue on the path by letting God Himself is direct my steps.

I wish I could say this optimism and motivation is going to last… but I know myself too well. In time I’ll grow frustrated and sad and become anxious because I don’t know what comes next.

 

But for now, I’ll welcome each day confidently as the road God’s giving me.

I like to think I’ve become the person my young self couldn’t even begin to visualize – let alone respect and strive to be. And that is an encouragement to keep going, to aim for years to come, better years, years with laughter without fear of the future…

Many happy returns.

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