Monty, Madison and Sherman are just a few of my recovery supports. These supports listen at anytime and no matter what I say they love me. In my darkest moments just knowing they rely on me for life has kept me alive. Yes, I consider them my children even though they are not of the human kind. They are my furry and feathery pets.
Through the years of my illness I have had pets. Their enthusiastic unconditional love is always apparent If it is my ferrets licking my chin or my bird climbing up onto my shoulder I knew they needed me.
I have been inpatient in psychiatric hospital 80 plus times during my dark days and the one thing I always made sure I packed in my bag was a scrapbook containing pictures of their precious faces. During these stays I would covet that book, flipping through the worn pages I saw hope. My longing to see them again turned into determination to get better, to move forward and integrate back into society.
Being released from the hospital was always overwhelming. Although I felt ready to go back out into the world it never failed to seem overstimulating. After being in the mundane setting of a hospital, where all I seemed to do is eat, sleep and take medication the outside world moved at an unsettling speed. It was coming home to my sanctuary and holding their soft little bodies is when I knew life was worth living.
Dissociation has been a counterproductive coping mechanism I developed from childhood. I often have times when I feel outside my own body and have difficulty returning. One of the tools I use is cradling my pets in my arms, using all of my senses to help bring me back to myself. It never fails that the pattering of their tiny hearts brings focus on my own beating heart returning me to feeling alive.
If I was a psychiatrist I would prescribe pets as part of the medication regime. I would write a script directing myself to hold at least one pet, several times a day. I would recommend laughing at their antics, care for their needs and have a heart to heart conversation everyday.
I have risen above many obstacles in my life. I have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness since the age of 17. The labels schizoaffective disorder, PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder are just some of the words doctors have used to describe what was happening to me. The most difficult diagnosis for me to come to terms with was Borderline Personality Disorder. I can hardly say the name without feeling sheepish. For me I took that diagnosis to mean that my personality was inherently flawed. I felt I was given that label mostly because of my cutting and eating disorder behaviors. Other factors probably played a part too, but the self-harm was what I saw to meet the criteria in the DSM-IV. I didn’t see any other “defects of character” in who I was that the psychiatrists seemed to agree on.
Cutting never seemed to be concerning for me. I thought that I would be able to keep doing it for the remainder of my life, however long that may be. It helped to cut. The world was so chaotic that harming myself was the only thing I could control. The secrecy also felt safe. I had something that was mine and mine alone, a secret identity. I was a “cutter” and I had found myself, so I thought.
Gradually through the years the cuts became more and more severe. They required stitches and trips to the emergency room. Because I was so removed from myself, the cutting never hurt. I never felt any physical pain. It always played out like this: I would dissociate, then I would complete the act. Following the cut euphoria set in, if only just for a moment. Then coming back to my body I would see what I had done. Finally, overwhelming feelings of shame and disappointment set in and I would crash.This was how it was for so long, I saw it as a life style until one day something changed me forever.
It was in the middle of the night when I awoke my parents because I knew I would need to go to the ER after the harm I had just inflicted. This was not unusual for me to jolt them from their slumber in tears and bleeding. I had yet to see the damage because it was dark in my room when I hurt myself. I got to the ER and I revealed the mess to myself and everyone in the room. Hysterics overtook me and I collapsed into a ball. This time it was bad.
That day was my bottom with my self-harm. I almost loss the use of my left arm. It was that day I realized I could accidentally commit suicide and it was that incident that prompted me into recovery. The allusion of control washed away and cold reality kicked me in the stomach. I needed help!
I was 28 years old when I finally moved out of my parents home and burst out into the world with vigor and fear. I had spent 10 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals with my emotions blunted by medications. My time was spent mostly doing arts and crafts and partaking in group therapy where I would process my goal for the day. Life was… dull. How did I find myself housed in the walls of institutions? Let’s look back to high school at the young age of 17.
I had many wonderful friends and a great family. I was to graduate soon and then off to college. My life looked promising and exciting on the outside. Internally, though, was a rage so volcanic and an anxiety that never let up. There was so much pain contained in a body that was without a voice. The truth was I had never developed a voice to express anger because to me it was an unacceptable emotion that I did not possess. Little did I know my “bad” emotions were seeping out in ways that were far more destructive than words.
My rage turned inward and I was repulsed by my existence. I found things so wrong with myself that facing each day in my body was unfathomable. So I self-destructed by taking razor blades to my arms and keeping food from my lips. I spoke with my actions of self-harm and an eating disorder. In my delusional world, everything was under control and I could live with myself.
I wore long sleeves and baggy clothes to hide my secrets. My arms were never exposed to the outside world because I knew they would not understand. I wept, but with my own blood instead of tears. My weight-loss I concealed with bulky outfits. I was undercover as a happy young woman, though inside I was a mess. This is how I lived for a year, until the day the silence broke…(to be continued).