As early as the age of three years, my only life witness was a demon who held me down as it mocked quietly in my ear, “You’re nothing. You’re nobody. You don’t count.”
I count. I know this now. And I am my only witness. At age forty-four, something shifted in me. It was my unbound scream, after the same nightmare in which I knew something bad was close. It paralyzed me with my mouth open, without sound. I broke free that night. I still don’t know why then, only that I was ready. I could not fake my life for anyone anymore.
Who am I, this witness? I am fiercely loyal, protective, creative, sensitive, perceptive, an animal lover, and I have a wonderful sense of color. At times, I am easily distracted and discouraged. I am unforgivingly hard on myself. I do not trust many, as I believe this is earned. I am not proud of this, but life is a work in progress. I denied my rage for years. Now I own it. I see what happens when I become what I thought others wanted to see; what I thought would make me count.
The truth is, I have mental illness. Depression. Anxiety. Both led to a suicide attempt when I was thirty-six. In remission. Out of remission. I don’t care how the insurance companies or the DSM V defines it. All I know is that mental illness does not define me. It is a part of my mind, body and soul. It is both a stain and badge, but I prefer to think of it as my compass for living authentically.
My extreme anxiety lasted through childhood into young adulthood, only I couldn’t identify it. I marvel at how I functioned with so much anxiety. I grew up believing I was the burden. I learned much later in life that the mental illness was the burden.
A shroud masked this truth. I couldn’t see it for what it was while I was in the middle of it. I can blame it on childhood abuse, genetic disposition, or culture’s regard of mental illness at that time. All I know is that the message I received was that I was not normal. If I wanted acceptance, I better get my act together and be normal. Do as normal people do. Stay silent. Don’t make anyone else uncomfortable with the slightest glimpse of my pain.
My creed did nothing but practically murder me. Eleven years ago, the intense anxiety with which I functioned quite well during childhood returned. Only this time, I simply did not have the energy to cope. I remember at that time, I was tired, alone and isolated. My anger and despair crushed me. Faith and hope were absent as the bottom fell out.
I wrote a long note instructing my father on what to do about the animals I was leaving behind. That in itself made me feel like a failure. I dared not mention how I felt deeply saddened, abandoned and worthless. I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted it all to stop.
The medication overdose would do this. I didn’t remember much after drinking the bottle of seltzer water that washed them down.
The day after my thirty-sixth birthday, I woke up in ICU. I remember the clock hands pointed to just after eleven o’ clock. Was I alive? I felt no sadness and no joy. Just relief. A gentle voice whispered, “Begin again.”
Things were not instantly better. The long crawl back was like declaring bankruptcy on my life as I restructured my soul’s debt. I felt betrayed for a long time. I never caused my illness. I never asked for my robbed childhood or blighted young adulthood. No one would clean up the collapsed skeleton of my former life except me. It took a while. Years, really. The road was bumpy and filled with pits, potholes and a few sinkholes. I left them there to remember. –So I won’t drive over them again. I left them there for others to see the real me. To pave over them would not repair the damage, but simply mask the pain.
Just last year, I was aware of gratitude for the first time. And joy.
You know, if I were to meet myself in a time warp, I would take us on a drive on our newly paved road. I’d show her the sights, and I would want to tell her our story, even if it made time collapse. I would want her to know that she can find gratitude and joy. I would say to her, “Miss Roberts, you count. You always did. And I should know. I’m your witness.”