A Love Letter to My Illness

Heben “Heaven” Nigatu, November 2012

My Dear Adversarial Friend,

After years of hostile companionship, I’ve finally discovered the courage and resilience to write you this letter.  Since such courage may only be fleeting because of your current absence in my life, I had to finally force myself to pen this note of honesty and pain to you, my friend.

I remember we first met in high school.  My plump, pimple-covered exterior gave you the all-too-easy road into my close circle of critical inner-friends.  Our conversations enriched your attraction to me and mine to you.  For the hurtful, pain-filled words I would utter silently to myself for years were finally heard and repeated back to me.  You will never be good enough. No one will love you. There must be something deeply wrong with you. You, my depression, my anxiety, always understood.  You knew me.

We continued our mutual relationship all throughout high school, although I never knew your name or why you chose me as a friend.  I did not want to ask those questions because at least you were with me, listened to me, and didn’t seem to ever leave me.  We continued like this for a couple more years.  You echoing these lines of self-hatred and perfectionism back to my isolated mind. For we only grew closer the more I saw myself as worthless, out of control and unwanted.  Yet I started to realize the stronger our friendship grew, the lonelier I found myself.  But I told myself, you were all I needed: my depression, my anxiety.

You followed me to college.  I heaved a large sigh of relief as I stepped into my freshman dorm and you were already waiting for me.  A friend, a familiar face.  We stayed together.  Making new friends had never been easy for me, except for with you.  So I enjoyed staying in my room that first year and so did you.  You started whispering to me new thoughts and fears. You don’t belong here.  You will never succeed in softball or class. You are different.  I believed you, but something inside me hoped to one day prove you wrong.  This moment was the beginning of the end.

I did not know that striving, endlessly to prove you wrong would mean bringing my own body, mind, soul to its very breaking point.  But I wasn’t able to stop because in those moments of silence, pause, peace you awaited me.  My college life was filled with a constant battle between trying to control you, my depression, my anxiety, and allowing you to control me.  Softball, something that once brought me pride and confidence, became the one way you could destroy any ounce of self-worth I had left.  You are alone. You must be perfect. You must numb your feelings. You must be someone you are not. You were always there to remind me of the worst parts of me.

But I started realizing you were not the friend I thought you were.  Your listening was no longer innocent but a way to gain more ammunition against me.  Your repetitions always seemed to leave out the hope in which I most desperately believed.  I began seeking ways to numb or silence you because your whispers had become deafening.

I finally needed to know your name, which led me to therapy.  She called you “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Depressive Episodes.” So clinical, so sterile.  You no longer seemed like a friend.  You were simply a disorder, an episode?  But how could your companionship be simplified to only that over all these years?

I finally began to learn more about you.  To learn more about myself.  To understand you as separate from me.  This was difficult for me to believe because, without me realizing it, we had become so intertwined.  I did not know how to distinguish you from me.  I often still don’t.  Medication helps, sure, but I always know that with any unexpected life event or sudden change you will be there, extending a friendly embrace. Through therapy, I have learned that you aren’t me.  I have learned that I can not blame myself for your presence in my life.  I have learned that you can be managed but I have also learned that you will always be my companion throughout this life.

I still call you my friend because of these many years we’ve shared together.  You worked so hard for me, so hard against me and I will never be outside of your constant influence.  Even though we are no longer close, for I know your name, your face, and your patterns, you will always be a part of me, a familiar and dangerous part.

Thank you for showing me the depth of pain and isolation for only in those depths did I learn the love of community.  Thank you for tearing me down because only through that experience was I able to rely and trust others to help me move forward.  Thank you for developing in me a sensitivity for emotion, for struggle, for hurt for only through that have I been able to connect with others.  Thank you for never leaving me because only through your presence have I learned the importance of resilience.  Thank you for knowing me because only through that am I able to see you in others around me and teach them your name.

I hope for a future day that I can pass by you on the street without pausing to entertain your whispers, without being drawn to your enticingly attractive lies, without recognizing your familiar taunts, but I know that we will probably meet again, my friend.  I have changed, though, since our last encounter so maybe you won’t recognize me.

With Hesitant and Undetermined Love,

Your Distant Friend

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A Field of Endless Possibility

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Chicagoans are nothing, if not hopeful.  We spend every day of at least five months out of the year (and that’s being generous) hoping that the sun hasn’t crawled into an eternal cave never to be seen again.  We hope that our snot can last the five minute walk to the bus stop without completely freezing our nasal passages solid (yes, this is a true story).  We hope that the icy-slush-puddle that we are forced to navigate through is only an inch deep and not the rabbit hole that brought Alice to Wonderland.  We hope that our car, which is buried in four feet of snow, has steadfast determination to start on command and get us to work in the morning.  But above all we hope we survive this year’s winter to make it to spring and summer.

We live in a city where most of the year we are miserable so that a few months of the year are paradise.  And we are proud of it.  Put a long-time Chicagoan in Southern California during a “rain storm” as all the bleach blonde, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing hippies run around  in terror with their hoodies, Ugg boots and scarves.  Come to Chicago, the Chicagoan would think. You wouldn’t last a day, even a day in March. But why is it that most of us voluntary choose this torture when so many great cities have vacation-like climates all year round?

I was thinking about this hope phenomenon walking home from work today on this year’s first 80 degree day.  (And, as usual, I was thinking too much and too deeply about it, because I have a tendency to do that). But I kept going back to the idea that this hope is a similar hope that we all have or wish to have about our own lives.  Most of the time, life is full of suffering, pain, disappointment, loss.  Most of the time our life is spent in the winter.  Clinging to warmth and safety but hoping that another day, a warmer day, a brighter day will come.

Depression reminds me a lot of a Chicago winter.  You feel like you are trapped, constantly inside.  The cold and unwelcoming outside makes even getting out of bed a struggle.  You don’t care to look at anyone in the eye or even give a friendly head nod in their direction when walking down the street because even a momentary glance will halt your eventual escape out of the bitter cold.  Winter is about survival.  A survival in hopes that a spring will one day appear.

And right as we all begin to lose hope, spring arrives (as much as Chicago can muster a spring) and reminds us all that the winter is only a season.  Winter is only a season.  Depression is only a season.  While we always seem to hold in the back of our heads the reminder that one day spring will turn into summer, which will turn into fall, which will turn into winter once again, we know that spring has come.  Chicago comes to life.  Those of us that struggle with depression know that a good day, week or month is something to be celebrated and enjoyed but we are always haunted by the day we wake up and the cold has engulfed us once more.  But we revel in those warm days, weeks and months, just like Chicagoans spend entire weeks outside when the temperature is a mere 40 degrees. For we know that even spring is a season.

As I walked home from work mulling over these thoughts, I came across an open field, which had once housed the many public housing projects that were scattered on the near west side of the city.  Now this field is home to knee-high grass, weeds and gleeful dogs playing endless games of fetch with their owners.  I walk past this field nearly every day but for some reason as I walked past, feeling the warmth of the sun on my conspicuously pale skin, it gave me pause.

Scattered in between the neglected blades of grass were hundreds of dandelions swaying gently in the soft spring wind.  This is why we hope.  For dandelions.  When the fuzzy white tops of these flower-like weeds float or are blown away, leaving the stem naked and vulnerable the plants look like they no longer have meaning, no longer have life.  But what I have always found mesmerizing about these weeds is that with each white seed that disappears in the wind, another dandelion is planted wherever it lands. In seeming death, new life is created.  Before me lay resilience. Before me lay a field of endless possibility.

I paused to take a picture of this beautiful image and continued on my way.  But before I reached the entrance of my apartment, I thought: this is why we hope.  This is why we Chicagoans are crazy about our city, despite our weather. This is why we can survive chronic depression even though we know it will always be our unwanted friend.  We hope for new life, for renewal, for a fresh start even in the face of cold, death, and isolation. We hope in winter that we will just survive the cold, bleak conditions so that we can thrive in spring. For, even in spring, when winter feels imminent once again and even though the warm wind can strip us naked, vulnerable, alone, we can have hope in knowing that, with that strong gust of wind, resilience is built and possibilities are endless. Image

My Therapist Dumped Me

I’m proud of my 1 for 1 record in the dating world.  I found a good partner and kept him, which means I’ve never been dumped.  That is, until now.  Last week, my therapist dumped me.  Talk about a bad break up.

I have been going to therapy for over a year now.  A year!  That’s a long time.  I thought we meant something to each other! We laughed together, she has watched me cry, and she knows about all my thoughts and feelings.  We were pretty perfect.  Or at least I thought so… Last session, after a twenty minute update on how happy I have been the last month and how I’ve felt more in control of my life, she said the dreaded word… “termination.”

What? NO? But.. but.. my life’s not that perfect.  I have more.  I need more help. I can’t…

Why do they call it termination, anyway? It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to leap out from behind her bookshelf and escort me out of the office in order to make sure I never come back ever again.  Termination.  It’s so morbid. Permanent. No one’s dying here, but in that moment as that word slipped out of her mouth, my world of control fell apart.  My anxiety is under control.  I haven’t had a panic attack in a few months and I rarely have the constant obsessive thoughts that use to keep me up till the early morning hours each night.  But termination?  I can’t be ready.

I looked at her with my best fake smile and said “Sure, of course I’m ready for that.  I’m in such a great place and I’m confident that I am ready to.. ehh, terminate?”  But in my head my mind was coming up with every worse case scenario that could possibly result from this decision.  What if I stop coming and then I have a major life crisis?  Or what if the only reason I have been doing better is because of this safety net that she has provided me?  Or even worse what if I’m actually crazy and she is just using this whole “termination” excuse to get rid of me? I snapped back out of that fear whirlwind to make sure that my smile continued to stay glued to my apprehensive face as she replied, all too cheerfully if I may add, “Great!  Next week will be our last session.”

NEXT WEEK!  Way to really ease me out of this. I only have a week to think of all the possible issues that could possibly arise in the next 20 or 30 years.  I’m sure there are hundreds of traumatic childhood experiences, repressed memories, and defense mechanisms to work through, right?  I kept circling back to the thought that “I thought we really had something special here and you just want to throw it all away in a WEEK!”  Bitch.  Oh, sorry.  “Yes, yes I’m sooooo ready to move on. I can totally take care of myself,” I replied.

I stepped slowly out of the office that day not knowing how to feel.  I guess that’s how it feels when you are dumped.  As I rode the elevator down three flights, I contemplated the many ways I could change her mind in next week’s session.  Maybe I could fake some family death or tragedy, maybe I could bring up another fight I had with a family member, or maybe I could just get really sick and postpone it one more week.  Yeah, that’s it.  But as I exited the building listening to my own anxious thoughts ruminate about the different self-inflicted possibilities of remaining in therapy.  I finally understood.

She didn’t break up with me.  I had broken up with her.  She had given me this choice since our first session and I had finally chosen it.  Freedom.  My life has always been about the approval and advice of others.  What does he want for my life?  Will she like me if I do this?  What can I do to make them think I’m worthy?  Constant.  No wonder I have anxiety.  Over the past few months (with the help of some medication) I have broken down (although not completely) those destructive cycles and released the anchors from my life.  Accepting that life is a shit show and moving through the shit instead of pretending that I can navigate around it has granted me a freedom beyond words.

So I stopped walking and busted out laughing.  I had finally broken up with the person that helped me find my own freedom.  She was the last person that I was fighting so desperately to seek approval from, but she knew that I didn’t need it anymore.  I still don’t think they should call it termination, but I do think it signals a kind of death.  My old self and ways of operating that I dumped on her and revealed to her die now with this relationship.  I no longer have to be that person.  I am free to live.

So, thanks, to the therapist that dumped me and thanks for letting me dump you.  Because it’s not you, it’s me.