last weekend i drove down a road i hadn’t traveled in a long time. it’s funny how driving down a long stretch of highway can take you back to another time in your life. as i looked out the window and stopped and started in the never-ending northern virginia traffic, my mind went back. back down to the time when i took that road every day.
it was a bleak, desolate time in my life. in some ways, it was even worse than the time after my dad’s suicide. mentally, physically and emotionally i was out of hope and running on empty. i had completed two hospital stays and nearly six months in partial hospitalization. i knew my discharge from the program was coming, and i was scared to death. i had just resigned from my job, accepting the reality that the crawling pace of my recovery made it impossible for me to work. without work i felt like my life had no meaning. and without partial my days had no structure. i was truly, madly, deeply hopeless.
the dreaded discharge took place and i needed something to fill my days. i enrolled in a few art classes at the local community college. so for six months i made the drive from reston to sterling, from sterling to reston. up reston parkway, left on route seven and all the way down to the school.
my days went exactly like this.
i would wake up at 8:00am. my alarm would go off and i began to cry almost immediately. it took literally everything i had to get myself out of bed. some days i would take a shower but most days i just didn’t care. i cried as i went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, got dressed. i would wear the same sweatpants and t-shirts day in and day out. i never looked in the mirror – it was too sad to see my depressed, desperate reflection staring back at me.
i didn’t eat breakfast because i didn’t have an appetite. i would walk my dog, winston, then take my seven medications and gather my things for class. i would get in the car, start the engine and cry. really, really hard. i would think, “i can’t do this.” and then i would think, “yes you can.” like a robot i would make myself go to school. i would tell myself to back the car out of the driveway and drive up the street. i had a rule – by the time i reached a certain road i had to have eaten the granola bar i packed. i didn’t feel hunger but i knew i had to eat. i didn’t listen to music on the radio. any type of music somehow underscored the sadness i felt. the only thing i could handle was the news. dry. emotionless. impersonal.
right before i would turn onto route seven i drove by a beautiful pond. it was surrounded with leafy trees, flowering bushes and often had ducks and geese swimming on its surface. every time i drove by it, twice a day, i thought that it looked like the perfect place to end my life. i would think, “you don’t have to keep doing this. just pull over. make it stop.” but somehow i held on. i never pulled over. like a robot i kept driving.
as i got closer to the community college my anxiety would rise. i would begin to physically shake. i doubted my ability to make it through the class. i felt that i was terrible, the worst, at whatever we were learning each day. and i was sure that the professor and all of the students knew that i was mentally ill. totally unstable. different. damaged. broken.
once i got to the parking lot i would give myself five more minutes to cry. i would lay my head on the steering wheel and sob, my body shaking and my hands gripping the wheel. when my time i was up i would say “ok, ok, ok, it’s ok, you can do this, it’s ok.” i would collect my things and get out of the car. i never made eye contact with any of the other students. i never said “hi” or “how are you” or “wow it sure is hot out today.” i was too busy surviving. telling myself that i could walk up the stairs, get in the elevator, walk down the hall, find a seat. it took literally every ounce of willpower to push myself forward.
i would look around the class and think to myself, “you are a failure. you are a mentally ill unemployed disabled 31 year old failure.” i felt totally out of place. i was older than everyone and i was consumed with self doubt. i didn’t know what to say when people make small talk, asking how i was or why i was taking this particular class. i had to keep talking to myself as the instructor began the lecture. my mind ran on two tracks – listening and trying to hold myself together at the same time. “keep trying. keep breathing. ok, ok, ok, ok, you can do this.” every 20 to 30 minutes i would slink out the back and run to the bathroom, making it just in time to cry, cry, cry. i would kneel down in the stall and sob into the toilet – careful not to make a sound. nobody could know. during the long break between classes i would force myself to eat a snack, methodically chewing and swallowing without tasting or enjoying.
somehow i would make it though my classes, faced with the daunting process of surviving the next seven hours before the only time of day that i liked – bedtime. i did it like a robot. i drove home. i ate lunch. i went to the grocery. i did homework. i made dinner. i just made myself do it all. i cried the whole time. the whole fucking awful time. i called my mom and cried. i called my husband and cried. i called my sister and cried. and if nobody was home i cried by myself. finally, blissfully, i took my meds and fell asleep. the only break i got from the haunting depression, the gut-wrenching anxiety and the terrifying ptsd.
and then, at 8:00am the next day, i would wake up. and do it all again. and again. and again and again. it was one long day and one long night. one long drive and one long class. one long crisis and somehow i survived. day by day, minute by minute, second by second. like a robot i kept driving and like a human i kept living. i thank god that i was programmed to survive. that when everything about me seemed broken my default setting was to try again. and again.
ok, ok, ok, ok, it’s ok, you can do this, it’s ok.