I’m going to apologize upfront for the formatting of this post. While I’m going to attempt to make it as coherent as possible, the reality is these topics lead me to follow a more “stream of consciousness” style of writing that may be disjointed at times. Bear with me.
When I was in college, I had a breakdown. It wasn’t a quick onslaught of crazy the way most people think breakdowns appear. It was a slow and steady decline from a rather narrow and precarious plateau. It started small and it creeped in slowly over the course of my 3 years at Wittenberg.
I had an extremely rough set of teen years. Well above and beyond what most people experience. It wasn’t bullying or classmates that made it so, it was my home life. My dad, a long time alcoholic, hit rockbottom, after years of slipping, some time around my junior or senior year of high school. He didn’t just suffer from alcoholism though, he had a hodge podge of other compounding issues that only served to make things worse for him and for us kids. While I can say I was never physically abused (with the exception of that one time), I was mentally abused at every turn and feel now that my life was a living hell I didn’t quite comprehend the scope of until years later.
The icing on this very nasty cake came one evening in the form of my dad suffering pancreatitis and alcoholic DTs. DTs make people see, hear, and do crazy things. My dad? He felt he was possessed by the devil. I always checked the driveway when getting home to know how to prepare myself mentally. If the car was in the driveway, the walls went up. That afternoon, there was no car so I breathed a silent sigh of relief and went in to wait for my brother, do my homework, clean, and get dinner started. But my dad was there. He was off. He was rambling. He cornered me and, in the most eerily calm voice I have ever heard a person in real life use, said, “Evalyn, I swear to you I think I’m possessed by the devil. I’m scared. There’s a gun in the house. It’s mine. I’m afraid I’m going to use it. I’m afraid I’ll kill you and your brother first. Then I’ll kill myself. Do something. I won’t be mad. But get help.” I will remember that verbatim for the rest of my life.
While that moment encompasses the lowest point, it wasn’t all of it. For years I’d been busy shielding my brother from the worst of my dad’s crazy. I’d been acting as the mother not only to myself and my brother, but also my dad. I had taken on the brunt of the housework, cooking, cleaning, and caring for us all while following an advanced and AP track, maintaining a high GPA, and joining way too many clubs and organizations in high school. I didn’t get to party, sneak out, or do a lot of the things I witnessed classmates doing. I had a small core group of friends and an amazing high school sweetheart who kept me sane at the time, but I lost that when I went to college and I think that’s where my breakdown began.
If you haven’t been, Wittenberg is a stunning campus. The students, professors, and staff are (usually) incredibly friendly. It’s easy to fall in love with it. And I did. I was determined to go there despite my family’s terrible financial ruin and my need for a break from the craziness of my life to that point. While I don’t regret the people I met or the time I spent at Wittenberg, I know now I made a terrible mistake in going there and forcing myself to stay there as long as I did. I’m stubborn and pig-headed. What can I say?
You see, Wittenberg is easy to get into, but the programs are strenuous and it’s much harder to stay. I started struggling very early on. When my high school sweetheart left me to be with someone else, a mutual friend, I was understandably devastated. He had been my rock for so long I didn’t know where to anchor myself anymore. The fact that many of our mutual friends also disappeared at the time made it even harder on me. I chose to throw myself in to meeting people and joining a sorority in order to hide my hurt from that and my residual pain from my situation waiting back home. I got incredibly ill with something the doctors couldn’t diagnose (though we know now that was probably the first showing of my gluten sensitivity issues) and I gave up on making it to class but 50% of the time. For the girl who gave herself pneumonia from refusing to stay home sick during high school to the girl unwilling to get out of bed for a 10am class, it was a mighty hard fall.
Sophomore year, things got worse. I struggled harder with my grades. I struggled harder finding money to pay for the school and the sorority I had committed myself too. I started falling back into my very disordered eating habits and exercise bulimia routine. I started having strings of one-night-stands to try and make myself feel even just a little bit better. I became a mess.
Junior year was the worst though. I was living in my sorority house and I was sick nearly all of the time. I had strep throat or tonsillitis at least once a month for a solid 12 months and had to have my tonsils and adenoids removed. Thinking that would make me all better was an error. I was still sick most of the time. Never anything truly life-threatening (apart from one bought with a 104+ fever and several asthma attacks that landed me in the ER) but constantly annoying. I was also suffering from migraines more often than I had ever before. They went from a once a month annoyance to a twice a week debilitating condition. When I wasn’t having migraines (and sometimes when I was, if I’m being 100% honest), I was having ever escalating panic attacks and terrible bouts of insomnia. When I look back on it now, it is a damn miracle someone didn’t approach me sooner or even begin to catch on to my mental state. I’m not sure how I functioned well enough to hide the bulk of what’s going on. I know I didn’t hide everything well because I heard the whispers from my “friends” and sorority sisters from time to time (“She’s such a faker.” “She’s a hypochondriac. She can’t be *that* sick.” “She’s just crazy.” “How’d SHE get a little.” and on) but I hid it well enough that that’s as far as the speculated.
My primary doctor was monitoring me as closely as he could from two hours away. He was running all kinds of tests on me to try and diagnose whatever was causing my cornucopia of mismatched symptoms but always coming up short. When I think about all the different disorders we thought I had, everything from certain types of cancers to pituitary brain tumors and moderately rare and serious autoimmune diseases, I can’t help but shake my head. I was definitively diagnosed with extremely bad generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), mild hypomanic (or type II) bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality traits (not to be confused with actual OCD), extremely bad migraines, and some autoimmune disorder of unknown name. And still I kept pushing.
In the fall of 2006, I hit my lowest point. I couldn’t function. I had a small absence seizure precipitated by all the stress, anxiety, and a particularly bad migraine. It scared my mom pretty badly. She and my doctor decided enough was enough and issued an ultimatum. I either had to go home and stay home until I was sorted out or they were going to admit me to the hospital against my will. As the control freak I was then and a person who has never done extremely well feeling comfortable or sleeping well in strange places, I decided being home was a better option. After three years and way too much money spent, I left Wittenberg for good.
I write this and share it with you all now for one reason and one reason alone, I’m beginning to back slide and I’m scared. Being unable to find a job despite my best efforts and stellar recommendations; being forced to take unemployment money from the government; losing my health insurance and thus my care for my (now finally diagnosed) autoimmune issues, migraines, and anxiety is well, quite frankly, taking a very big toll on me. I’m less afraid to admit it now than I was in college, but I’m really worried and I’m scared. I catch myself regularly thinking thoughts I know I shouldn’t; thoughts I’m not comfortable putting out there and having linked to myself. I’m pouring myself into cheap crafts and hobbies, reading, wedding planning, anything to try and force myself not to allow the disordered thinking in, but it’s getting harder.
I don’t know what the future holds and right now that makes me incredibly anxious (go figure) but I’m trying really hard to remind myself every day that I have things to look forward to; that it’s going to get better. Again I find myself relying heavily on someone else to get me through this (much to my chagrin) and while I know we’re engaged and that’s “what husbands are supposed to do,” I feel incredibly guilty for it. To be honest though, I know without John, I’d be so much worse off. He really is the best partner I could have ever asked for.
When I was suffering through this in college, two songs really “spoke” to me. I listened to “Let Go” by Frou Frou and “Be My Escape” by Relient K on near repeat. I’m not doing that now, but the lyrics for the song “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine move me in the same way right now. The line “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is something I’m trying to drill into my brain. Say it enough and it’ll be so, right?