Even now I can hear the grandfather clock’s pendulum swinging. It is more difficult for me to pull up the other sounds that once made up a more detailed and rich soundtrack but this loss is what my therapist would call a gain. For a significant part of my life I would have been able to build my grandfather’s house in my mind with distinct detail – the sounds, the smells, everything – without even realizing it. It frightened me and I never told anyone.
Late at night when my father would come home from work, I would listen to my parents fight in Spanish and feel terrified. Helpless. I didn’t know anything they were saying but I could feel the anger resonating through my home. The negativity vibrated through the hallways and even at twelve years old I imagined the screaming to be like monsters, creeping down the shadows, feeding off the darkness, until they would get to my bedroom. I would hide under the covers to block out the sound and somehow I would step through my own looking glass.
I would hear the clock first. It would calm my fears. Then I would hear my grandpa in the backyard whistling, the radio playing show tunes or talk radio. The church hymns from my grandmother’s room would be buzz in and out. Their home always smelled like Murphy’s Oil furniture polish in lemon with an unmistakable pinch of old people smell mixed in. It might have been dust or it could have been 30 years of leftover dinners, but something makes up that universal old people smell. There was the smell of comfortable furniture with hard to reach dust and out of style lampshades. The lampshades reminded me of corseted women with impossibly thin waists and flouncy skirts, and they were all over my grandparent’s home. The seagulls appeared over the couch, the shelves with framed photographs, the coffee table with piles of magazines… and the clock’s pendulum always kept the time.
When I left for the university my anxiety only escalated. However, I didn’t know words like “anxiety” or “escalation”. All I ever learned about mental health I learned from soap operas, so that meant a person either had multiple personalities, unknowingly had an evil twin and everyone thought he or she had multiple personalities, or was faking mental illness in order to steal a twin’s love interest. I was not in any of these categories so I just thought I was having a hard time. After I was raped, though, I became an entirely different person. Sadly, nobody around me noticed.
The anxiety worsened and my ability to hide it became more sophisticated. If I checked out in my mind to this safe place I created – even if I didn’t understand it myself or remember doing it – I made up an excuse. I allowed myself to control what I could control and limit my exposure to what I couldn’t. I understand all this now but at the time I thought I was losing my mind.
By the time I entered my 30s and was sexually assaulted by student, my tenuous grip on reality broke. My social anxiety became so extreme that I gradually began to wake up earlier and earlier to dress myself for work just so I could mentally prepare myself for facing people. Soon I was waking up as early as 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning when I didn’t have to be in the classroom until 9:30. I would take two hours just to curl my hair. I would sit down in my rocking chair after work and stare out my window and then not be able to account for my time once three hours had passed.
After I retired from teaching, and after a ten-day suicide watch, I experienced a severe panic attack in a parking lot. I swore I wouldn’t leave the house again, and I didn’t for several weeks except to take my son to school. I needed more help than the typical antidepressant.
Labels are hard to accept when you live in a culture that has told you to reject them since childhood. But I have found them to be liberating. It is not an issue of what is wrong with me. It is coming to understand that this is who I am. Yes, I am agoraphobic. Yes, I have an anxiety disorder. Yes, I have depression. Yes, I have been suicidal. And yes, I also have a disassociation disorder – I have to work damn hard to not escape from reality. All of this is work that I gladly accept because my mental health matters, just as my physical health matters.
If I could honestly project one message as a mental health advocate – rather than a mental illness sufferer – it would be this one: I’m not responsible for filling a person’s negative empty space with my positive energy. I have finally reached a certain level of comfort in who I am to accept that some people will just be either ill-informed about mental health issues or just plain make shitty comments because they’re ignorant. I am happy to move a conversation into a positive direction of educating and informing, but I refuse to wrangle with someone over if my depression is in my head. I’m not in the business of converting shit into renewable energy.
This doesn’t mean that I am “cured” or I am “over it”. Medication is constantly adjusted and I still have stretches when I fight myself to leave my home or to even get out of my car. Mental illness is something I live with daily and it is my most steady companion. All I can do is just breathe each morning and tell myself I made it through another day each night. Breathe in, breathe out. Renewing my energy from the inside out, from the outside in.
And somewhere, still, the pendulum swings, now in my heart instead of my mind.
Of all the fools I’ve met, I admire Don Quixote most of all. If only because it is from him I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter that the dragon turned out to be only a windmill. What matters is that the dragon was fought at all.
Fighting windmills and dragons since I could tell the difference between the two and could give a damn. I am soul. I am fire. I am red. I am me.
Have tea with me: