After Naomi Judd died by suicide I remember watching an interview with Ashley Judd in which she was speaking about Naomi’s mental illness. She said, “Her brain hurt, it physically hurt.” I immediately pulled up a note in my phone and typed it in there. I felt this at my core. It resonated with me so strongly I began to cry. That’s the best I had ever heard someone explain it and it was so simple yet so nuanced at the same time.
I’ve always been open about my mental illness and my struggles but I don’t think I’ve been super specific about some of my darkest moments. I think it’s important for us to share these with one another. Not just because it helps others get to know us and understand us, but it helps others be more willing to be open and vulnerable as well. It creates a safe space for us to exist without judgement but, rather, with empathy and understanding.
I’m going to share some personal experiences that could be triggering so I want that to be known in advance.
While I’ve struggled with this for over 25 years, and probably longer as a young child without truly understanding my emotions and feelings, there are two time periods in the last 5 years that stick out and I thought I’d go into them a little here.
In December of 2017, less than two months after Boyd and I got married, I underwent a high tibial osteotomy in conjunction with an ACL reconstruction/replacement in which the surgeon used a piece of my own hamstring. If you are unfamiliar with an HTO, I wouldn’t be surprised, so was I, but here’s some more info. At this point in my life I had undergone 5 knee surgeries, I tried to tell myself this was no big deal…I was wrong. This procedure was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I couldn’t put weight on my right leg for three months, Boyd and I had to sleep downstairs on the couch because our master was on the second floor, we had to wash my hair in the sink, I passed in and out from the pain for days, the pain meds began to actually numb my lungs to the point I stopped breathing at night, and I felt so alone. Although my husband and family were there for me there wasn’t a single soul I knew that could relate to what I was going through. Nights were the hardest. It was at night when Boyd and the rest of the world were asleep that I would lay there in a medicated daze and my mind would wander. When I would fall asleep I would wake up in a nocturnal panic attack about every night. I’m claustrophobic and when I wake up in these (which is common) I’m stuck. I’m trapped. There’s no other way to explain it. It would take me 5-10 minutes just to get myself off of the couch onto crutches trying not to wake Boyd. I’d crutch to the front door unstably and stand in the doorway in the cold. It was winter, thank god, because the cold air is one of the only things that can seem to help even in the slightest. I’d stand in the 10-30 degree weather with tears streaming down my face and just breathe. When you’re in these panic attacks your mind isn’t yours. Your brain PHYSICALLY hurts. Your mind jumps from one crazy bad thought to another. None of them make sense and you want them to go away but you don’t have control. I couldn’t event walk or run to try and shake it off. Not that this would have helped but I was extra trapped. When I finally thought I was ready to go upstairs and sleep in our room I was wrong. I went up there that night and Boyd went to his shop to do shop things. I shot up in bed about an hour later in a total panic. I HAD to get air! I couldn’t breathe. But I was stuck upstairs, alone. I crutched to the stairs and threw my crutches down. I dropped quickly to my butt and started to painfully make my way down the stairs. I felt SO alone and scared. Trapped and embarrassed. I was a 35 year old woman that couldn’t sleep. That was a prisoner of her own mind. It’s these dark moments of solitude that people aren’t privy to. We talk about those that die by suicide and always say that we don’t understand. No, you don’t. You truly probably don’t know, and hopefully never will, how dark those moments are. Just because you may seem one way on the outside, you truly don’t know how hard it is to exist in the dark corners of your mind, on the quietest of nights, trapped in what seems like a closed off room…alone.
I got through that surgery and the close to two year recovery, and didn’t really battle the nocturnal panic attacks as much for a few years. They’d come and go, usually when I was sleeping away from home, waking up in an unfamiliar place, or when my anxiety was extra heightened. A lot of the time it’s when it’s cold outside and I wake up bundled, warm, and stuck in sheets and other covers. Bam! The perfect storm.
Then I got pregnant. I always feared that if I were to get pregnant I’d feel claustrophobic for the baby in my stomach. That’s not how it played out. It all started in my third trimester when I KNEW I would have to have a c-section. Jack’s head was already way too big and there was no way he was going to fit through my pelvis. A c-section. I get lightheaded even typing that. It wasn’t being cut open that phased me. I’ve had so many surgeries, who cared about that lol I was going to have to be numb from my chest down, they were going to strap me to a table, my arms would be out to my side, and a sheet would be put up about a foot from my face…TRAPPED! I was going to be TRAPPED! Once that was in my head I was ruined. I thought about it constantly. Almost every night for over 2 months I had nocturnal panic attacks. I would get up and waddle to the front porch, strip to my underwear, and sit on the front bench in the cold. My mind would spiral and I would work on my breathing. Eventually my therapist and I got Boyd involved and I’d wake him to help walk me through grounding exercises. I’d cry in pain and out of total exhaustion. I have medication I can take now when I have nights like this BUT you can’t take it when on pain medication (aka post knee surgery) or when you’re pregnant. The medication could effect the baby and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. The Sunday before my scheduled c-section I had hit rock bottom. I couldn’t live through another one of these. Boyd called the after hours line for the OBGYN office and we waited for a call back at 2am. The doctor that called wasn’t mine. I explained what was going on and that I needed to come in RIGHT THEN and have the c-section, that I needed to go under general anesthesia. What happened after all of that is the exact opposite of what I needed. The doctor told me that this was an emergency line, “Not that this wasn’t an emergency, but…”. She told me to take a Benadryl to help me sleep. That’s all. That’s the advice I was given. I told her I had taken my meds that I was prescribed because I HAD to and she told me to take Benadryl anyway. Interesting because those meds together have disastrous side effects. In that moment I felt more alone than I ever have. I was being open about my mental state and not only was it not being taken seriously, a medical provider put me in more danger. This is why people don’t speak up and carry the pain in silence. But I refuse to do that. I met my doctor the next day, took my mask off so she could see my face and the tears, and told her where I was. While she listened and tried to understand, you can’t if you don’t have these pains, these illnesses. I knew what I was saying sounded crazy coming out of my mouth, that I’d be fine, but that didn’t change ANY of the pain and late, lonely nights.
I had Jack and all went well until that first night in hospital. I woke up abruptly at 2am and was NOT doing well. Luckily the nurse I called came in and listened to EVERYTHING I told her. She heard me. I needed the catheter out, I needed the leg straps pumping my legs OFF, and I needed to get up and walk. So she made it happen. Less than 24 hours after my c-section I was up doing laps around the floor with my night nurse, talking about anxiety and panic attacks. I don’t know where I would have been that night without her. I just needed HER, that person to listen, to take me seriously, and do whatever she was able to help me.
I share all of this now because, once again, I woke up in the middle of the night last night in a panic attack. I’m once again recovering from a knee surgery in cold weather and woke up with the perfect setup for one of these episodes. I text Boyd while he was in his shop and he came inside immediately. We sat up and talked for awhile. We talked about tWitch and others the world has lost by suicide. We talked about the pain and the stigma behind mental illness and suicide. I was reminded again how grateful I am for my partner and his ability to listen and empathize even if he may not be able to fully relate. He supports me, he doesn’t judge me, and he continues to educate himself on ways he can help me.
Not really sure how to end this entry. I’ve just wanted to share about this for awhile and never took the time to do it. But, it’s important. You may not understand it but some people have so much pain inside that they can’t explain. Maybe it’s a lot of the time, maybe it’s every now and again, but it’s pain nonetheless. When you’re in these spaces your brain physically hurts. There’s not really another way to explain it. Maybe reading this makes you understand me a little better or other loved ones in your life. Maybe you can relate to it and find some comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone. Maybe it was triggering and, if so, I’m deeply sorry. It’s a little triggering for me to type it as well, I think that’s why it took so long. Maybe this helps you to step back and offer more grace to others. (Or stops you from telling me to have another baby because I truly don’t know if I’d survive.)
I hope you may also read this and realize that sometimes we do speak up, we do tell you how hard it is and how much we are struggling, but some people are so bad at discussing difficult things that they brush us off or tell us how strong we are. STOP DOING THAT!!! If someone is opening up to you about their pain and suffering, LISTEN! Don’t try and make the conversation easier for YOU, it’s not about you. When I opened up during pregnancy I got, “Oh yea, being a mom is scary.” “Oh yea, surgery is nerve wracking but you’ll be fine.” “It’s only about 30-45 min and then it’s over.” SHUT UP! No, really, shut up. LISTEN TO WHAT I’M TELLING YOU! And that’s just one instance for me. I’m more vocal than some but speaking up is still hard even for me. Are people not speaking up directly about their pain? That’s very likely. Look for the signs and cries for help under the change of behaviors in others as well. Don’t write off those gut feelings that something is wrong. And when they open up to you, close your mouth, open up your mind and heart, and listen.
I love you. Your feelings are real and they are valid. Your life is important and, yes, some days I know it takes everything just to open your eyes in the morning. I don’t have the answers for you but, I know that, for me, I have to make sure to take care of me. To talk to my loved ones about the pain, to seek support from a therapist, to read books and articles that I find helpful, and to cry for help when I know no other option. As cliché as it sounds, it’s okay not to be okay. I’m not saying it’s easy, just that it’s real. Let’s talk about these things. Don’t be embarrassed, and I know that’s easier said than done, but don’t be. There is NOTHING to be embarrassed about! Mental health is so important and nothing to be ashamed of.