Every morning the mountains would stand strong and silent against the dark sky. Then, the sun would slowly illuminate the treetops and the birds would begin to sing against a golden canvas. Those mountains would stand with their smooth scoops dipping into the valley below and greet me each morning. I would play with my cousins until the summer sun melted behind the ridge and the sky was left a cotton candy pink. Later, with my pajamas on and blankets resting on my cheek, the moon would light the tallest trees and the mountains and I would fall asleep together.
It was under that cotton candy sky and between those mountains–like bookends holding my life upright–that I began to hide. My temperament, childhood trauma, and desire to make others happy caused me to press on and act as if I was not affected by difficult times.
The Safest Place
“Please, help me. I don’t know what I need, but I need help.”, I begged with tears in my eyes.
I wiped my sweatshirt sleeve across my running nose and anxiously crossed my ankles.
“I can do that.” she said as she leaned in closer.
I was 28-years-old and was seeing a therapist for the first time. I looked around her home office and tried to count the books on her shelf to distract myself.
“I can see that you’re anxious right now. I want you to think of somewhere that brings you peace.”
I shifted in my seat and nodded my head in agreement.
“Where is that place for you?”
“The mountains.”, I said just above a whisper.
“What about the mountains makes you feel at peace?”
“Everything. I called them home for the first 19 years of my life. They’re so much bigger than I am and make me feel so small in the best way. I’m never alone when I’m in the mountains.”
“That’s beautiful. I want you to think of the mountains any time that you’re feeling overwhelmed during our sessions.”
Between Then and Now
I have used that technique in many sessions with my therapist since.
Maybe you’re on the edge of seeking treatment to work through past trauma, a new mental health diagnosis, or a combination of the two. It’s not going to be easy. As a matter of fact, it may be one of the most difficult things that you’ll ever do.
In all of my imperfection, I want to step forward and tell you that it will be worth it.
I’m holding space for you in the mountains. The sun is setting now; the sky turning golden pink. Soon, the moon will settle in for the night and the crickets will chirp by the creek. Then, lovely soul, the sun will rise and warm your face again.
Nicole means Victory for the People. I remember sitting on a green upholstered church pew when I was little and reading that on a bookmark that I owned. I’d twist the burgundy tassel top around my fingers and imagine myself helping people that needed help. I never realized that victory was meant for me, too.
To date I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder three times.
I have lived in denial for about two years and have avoided being medicated like the plague. I couldn’t reconcile that I was being diagnosed with the same illness that my father had, even though he had bipolar type 1 and I have been diagnosed with bipolar type 2. If you’re curious about the difference between the two types, I encourage you to read about it here.
Over time, the depressive episodes have gotten worse and lasted longer. The hypo-manic episodes have surfaced as severe anxiety and paranoia. Just this week, I hit rock bottom and realized that my misery outweighed my actual fear of going on medication. I saw the psychiatrist on Wednesday and began medication immediately.
I’ve lost too many precious days with my family to postpone treatment any longer.
I’m ready to redefine my normal and to discover facets of the “real” me again.
All those years ago when I was imagining myself being a helper, healer, and victor for those in need on a church pew in East Tennessee, I think I had it all wrong. I’m learning that victory isn’t always what we imagine.
Maybe I’m not running into a physical battle like I imagined as a kid. I’m not advocating for justice in a courtroom or championing for the rights of the oppressed.
I’m advocating for myself and because I’m doing that, I am fighting along some of the bravest people I’ll ever know. That’s you, by the way!
I believe victory isn’t about what you accomplish, but instead how you persist.
My middle name is Nicole.
I hope I can help you you acknowledge the victories you have every day.
Ten Novembers ago Ricky died of pneumonia at the age of 43 which was ironic since he had battled addiction for most of his life and attempted suicide eight times.
Ricky was my father.
The Early Years
His childhood ran parallel to my childhood experience. A young kid raised in East Tennessee, a love for art, and an alcoholic father.
I was held by my 17 year old mother when I was born. Ricky looked down into the incubator at me soon after with a huge smile on his face. There’s a picture to prove that he was there and that he cared. I looked at that picture a lot growing up. I needed the reminder. He was 22 and I imagine he was hopeful. That’s what I get from the photo–hope and pure pride.
Ricky was gone by the time I was 4. He sped away one morning in his car and squealed the tires around the curve at the bottom of the road near the treeline. I went back inside and went about my day. I think I played with Barbies while Mama cried in her bedroom.
I saw him on the occasional Christmas and Birthday where he’d shower me with gifts that his mom had paid for and wrapped herself. Nobody told me that, but I knew early on. There was no way he would have known what I wanted for Christmas, my favorite color, or that I loved my presents to be wrapped individually, but stacked and tied together with a large bow on top.
When I was 9 years old I told him I never wanted to speak to him again. The anger had caught up to me. Besides, Mama had remarried and I had a real dad that knew my favorite color and took time to play Frisbee with me outside.
I stewed in my resentment for a long time which I still believe is perfectly reasonable for any girl that’s been abandoned by her father.
When I was fourteen, I saw Ricky sitting outside of the assisted living home where he’d been living for a year, smoking a cigarette in his wheelchair. I had mom stop the car and as soon as she shifted the car into park, I opened the door without hesitating. I knew if I hesitated that I wouldn’t be able to muster up the courage. I had to do this on impulse. He spotted me almost instantly and said, “Hey baby!” I hated when he called me baby. I kept walking until I was by his side.
“I forgive you.”, I blurted out. “You left me and I forgive you.”
His blue-green eyes filled with tears and he exhaled the last of his cigarette.
I don’t remember what he said or if I went back to the car immediately.
Cigarettes and Cassette Tapes
When I think of Ricky, I think of three things: cassette tapes of 80’s rock n’ roll, cigarettes, and fudge Pop Tarts.
I’d love to say that my forgiving my dad changed everything and that we grew to become best friends. The truth is that I still cringed when he hugged me when I was leaving from our weekly visits. I hated when he said I reminded him of himself. It made me incredibly sad when he talked about his alcoholism and pleaded with me to always choose my future family over anything else. Even though it made me sad, I changed the subject or made an excuse to get off of the phone. I couldn’t comfort him because I didn’t know how.
He would stay up late in manic episodes recording cassette tapes for me.
Side A: Kiss, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses / Side B: more Kiss, U2, and AC/DC
He would meticulously write out the lyrics in tiny perfect hand writing on the cassette cover. He’d give them to me almost every visit and I’d end up throwing them away during my next visit to the car wash. I still don’t know why I did that. Maybe it was to keep myself from loving him too much. In case things didn’t work out then I wouldn’t have remnants of him around my car.
The Last Chapter
I did grow to love him, though. It turned out that I always had. The little girl that had refused to care for so long had actually cared all along. I began to notice that Ricky’s mood was always unpredictable. Some of my visits he would spend laughing and cracking jokes. Other days, he would go back to sleep while I watched TV. He’d wake back up to smoke a cigarette and then go back to bed. I’d let myself out without waking him and would drive the long way home to sort through the feelings of abandonment that would resurface.
He was sick. I knew that the bipolar moods were not his fault and that the depression had a strong hold on him. Still, I felt like a little girl yearning for her dad to pay attention to her.
The last time I saw Ricky was at my wedding. He had saved large portions of his disability check so that he could buy my wedding dress. After the ceremony, I gave him a quick hug on my way to have photos taken. He said he wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home. The hug felt awkward as always and I found myself pulling away before he was ready.
Two months later I was watching his casket get lowered into the heart of the earth. He was only 43 years-old. He had left me again. This time, I couldn’t reconcile. I wanted to dig through the landfill and find the cassette tapes. I craved an awkward hug and all I wanted was to hear him snore while I watched the same infomercials again and again.
More than anything, I wanted to know his favorite color. I never got to ask.
Lessons in Love
I have Ricky to thank for teaching me what love is.
Love is complicated. It isn’t always pristine and comfortable. Love is putting in the hard work. Love is forgiveness. Love is apologizing for the past and doing your best to be present in the moment. Love is allowing people to be imperfect and realizing that we too are imperfect.
Love is more than knowing someone’s favorite color. It’s knowing that you’d give your very life for them if you had to. It’s sacrificial and it’s ultimately the only thing we will die remembering.
Ricky, I know your life was really hard.
I know you tried your best.
Me forgiving you changed everything for you. Realizing you loved me changed everything for me.
Mama, I see you. I see beyond your pajama pants and messy bun in the school drop off line. Two panes of glass separate us–yours tinted darker than mine. There, in the shadow that the morning sun is casting on your face, I see the dark circles under your eyes and the taut thin line that your lips create just above your chin.
I look in the rear view mirror at my daughter.
She’s talking about how she doesn’t need her coat because the sun is out. It’s 34-degrees outside. I catch a glimpse of myself in that rear view mirror then I look back over at you. I see myself in you. We’re tired, aren’t we? Being a Mama is hard.
Nobody told me how hard it would be to navigate motherhood. No one took me by the hand and showed me that I can live with Major Depressive Disorder and still be a good mom.
Maybe you’re reading this as you’re rocking your newborn to sleep. Maybe this is reaching you as you’re sitting on your bathroom floor crying while your toddler throws a tantrum just outside the door.
I am writing this to you wherever you are, Mama.
I am writing this to me.
I know what it’s like to be full of enthusiasm and greet the day and your child with wide eyes and sweet kisses. The day ahead like a blank canvas–yours to fill with color and memories. Breathing in the scent of your kid as they lean in for a tired afternoon hug feels like magic.
Then there are the other days. Those days.
I know what it’s like to be full of dread and greet the day and your child with a hurried pace and tired eyes. The day ahead like a burden–yours to crawl through. Catching your breath at the end of the day as you lay your head on your pillow feels like magic. The regretful rush, lack of patience, and short temper sit heavily on your chest. Hot tears form in your eyes, but you never feel them fall because you’ve already fallen asleep.
Most Mamas can fully relate to both scenarios.
There’s the other days. The days when everything in the external world is just as it should be, but the storm rages inward. There’s a cloud so dark and heavy hanging above you and you can feel yourself fading–becoming it.
Then, there are the times adjusting to a new psychiatric medication. There’s the initial hope followed by the deep fatigue and other symptoms that creep in and take over for the weeks following. Finally, the medications sync with your system and you feel some sort of relief from depression’s weight and anxiety’s grip. You’re left wondering if the weeks of investment are going to pay off–the torture of adjusting to new chemicals swimming in your body.
The stigma associated with medication seems to find you on a cellular level and although you’re happy to feel more like yourself, you’re also struggling with feeling like a failure for having to need help.
All of this is so difficult. Yet, only the faithful few–sometimes the faithful one–check to see how you’re doing.
Motherhood is an all encompassing, invigorating, and absolute “play it by ear” song and dance. For those living with a mental illness it feels impossible to care for yourself–not to mention the tiny human that God has entrusted you with.
So, we prioritize those we love and let whatever treatments that may or can be wait on the horizon for another day.
Mama, this Little Hope Note isn’t a list of things you can or should do to make your mental illness more manageable. Thankfully and also ironically unfortunate, there are enough of those blogs awaiting you in your next Google search.
What can I give?
I just want to acknowledge you. I want you to know that you’re lovely and you are loved–as you are.
You aren’t broken.
There isn’t a day that I don’t think of you. In fact, acknowledging that you exist means that I’m not merely existing, but am part of a community–a tribe of Mamas suffering, but loving deeply despite it all.