A Mom with PTSD: Getting Closer to Realizing My Dreams
by Emilia Zsuzsanna Rak
When I found OC87 Recovery Diaries about four years ago, my life was in shambles. I was trying to manage my PTSD (unsuccessfully), which was magnified by my newly received diagnoses of bipolar with treatment resistant depression and borderline traits. In addition to these monkeys which climbed onto my back, yet another old, unwelcomed nemesis returned to try and drain whatever energy and sunshine I had left. Regardless of the space the other monkeys took up there on top of me, there was room for plenty more.
Four years ago, I was completely alienated from my four daughters. They were still trapped in their own abusive hell, and I was incapable of helping them. My second marriage was hanging by a thread. I was in and out of “the Hotel California” after a succession of failed suicide attempts that were intermingled with a host of self-destructive behaviors. Each time that I was brought back to life, I felt less and less alive.
I did my best to totally isolate myself from the world around me because being a part of it had just become too painful to bear. I had all but silenced the dreams that I still dared to dust off on rare occasions. Sometimes they’d inspire me to hold on for just one more day. But all too often daring to bring them out to light just drove me deeper into the closet where I would howl for hours, alone, with the deepest, darkest grief and fury imaginable, because I saw no clear path to those few hopes to which I still clung. The folks at OC87 Recovery Diaries believed in me enough to ask me if I could muster the strength to come out of the closet and share my personal tragedy with the entire world. That one, small, positive thought would change all of the days that would follow.
But how did I get from here to there; a totally legitimate question. I think that the answer is about as complex as the (ever-evolving) diagnoses. Unfortunately, so much of mental health diagnoses isn’t as simple as an x-ray or mri or blood test. Sometimes mental health care professionals are faced with the question of whether it was the behavior that caused the malfunction or was it the malfunction that caused the behavior: the constant nature vs nurture question. As I delve deeper into my own education in the hopes of becoming a therapist someday, I am beginning to see that our physiology is inseparably tied to our genetics which are also tied to our ever-changing environment.
So, which came first: chicken or egg?
From my current vantage point all that I can say definitively is that once you realize that your life is out of whack don’t hesitate to seek answers and seek help. Mental illness is like any other disease of the body. So, arm yourself with information and get with good mental health care professionals that make YOU and your success a priority. Personally, I feel blessed to have excellent therapists and talented doctors who genuinely care about my well-being. This has helped me to have the strength to step away from those mental health care professionals who did NOT work for me. I’ve tried so many medications that I can’t even remember them all. But I didn’t give up, regardless of how frustrating the process is. I had great doctors and therapists and physician assistants on my team who have been working tirelessly to help me wade through the murky waters of mental illness.
Though I’ve attempted suicide several times, the combination of luck and a sliver of stubborn will have kept me here, in this reality. I have learned to ask for help. Tragically, this is something that society teaches us is taboo; that we should just “get over whatever it is that is bothering us, to put on our big girl pants and just snap out of it.” I don’t see very many memes about “just getting over” cancer or how “we can beat Parkinson’s disease if we just put on our big boy pants.” I’m still stunned as to why it is that this damaging myth is still so prevalent in our society today, and yet another reason why I choose to speak out publicly about my mental health struggles.
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There are many aspects of mental illness that need to be given the gravity they deserve and there is no quick fix, one size fits all permanent solution that equals a lifetime of stability; especially when speaking in terms of chronic mental illness. This is my story and my reality, my yesterday and my today.
Today I am an honors student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I’m in their School of Social Work finishing the college education that I was forced to leave after only four semesters because of PTSD thirty years ago. I am extremely proud of this accomplishment because, despite pronounced cognitive impairments, I have been able to achieve and maintain a 4.0 GPA while being a member of the Honors College program at UALR. School, especially after three decades, is very hard for me. The fact that my brain no longer functions the way that it once did gets me down on some days. But when I put those days into the proper perspective: I feel ten feet tall—not because of my grades— but more so because I didn’t collapse under the weight of all those monkeys. I’m still here, breathing. I am alive. I am LIVING AGAIN. And because I somehow had the strength to keep trying in spite of the countless setbacks and constant struggle, I am finally LIVING those dreams that I was afraid to dream.
After decades of shunning humanity, I’m allowing good people back into my life. I feel the camaraderie of having classmates who I love to see on the regular and who love to see me. I have structure and purpose in my life. I am connected to the human race in a way again that I never dreamed possible only four short years ago. Four years ago I could barely allow myself to hope that I would ever have any sort of meaningful relationship with any of my children and yet, I have two of my biological children back in my life and, as an added bonus, my marriage has blessed me with two more adult children. Like school, this part of life is hard. We didn’t “just pick up where we left off” when life cruelly snatched them from my loving arms. Fear, hesitation, distrust, anger, disappointment, abandonment, hurt …an entire host of negative emotions that are resultant from the nightmare that is parental alienation have made our true reunification extremely difficult. Geographical distance only adding to the abyss between us; a chasm that seems hundreds of miles deep and long, completely insurmountable. And yet as we discover one another once again through another phone call, another text, another visit, the impossible becomes possible, and real. It’s all headed in a positive direction so it’s safe for me to dream that, as I continue to work towards attainment of my educational goals day by day, so can I work towards my emotional goals in kind. My dream of becoming an art therapist someday gets just a little closer with each test, each paper, each project as will it with each level of education (I’m not going to stop until I get my LCSW and who knows, maybe even a PhD!).
I have created and am working on an “art therapy-esque” project that has saved my life many, many times. I’ve even been told that it has saved the life of at least THREE OTHER PEOPLE and inspired many more.. If nothing else, the premise of my project will be sure to make you smile.
I’ve even given a couple of warmly received talks about various aspects of mental health, one of which became a video that is now resident on the UALR School of Social Work website used as teaching tool!
My marriage, though shaken to its core, is also coming out of all the grief and confusion with both of us gaining a more profound appreciation for each other, a stronger sense of self, a deeper state of compassion for one another and new-found, hard-earned respect. When my cheese first slid off its cracker, we flailed and floundered; neither of us knowing what to expect. But now, four years into all the struggles that come along with a chronic and severe mental illness diagnosis we are bonded passionately and intelligently. We chose one another all over again, this time knowing full well what will likely be ahead of us. And as we prepare to celebrate our twelfth wedding anniversary (October 31), we look forward to lucky number 13 …as we look ahead to many decades more of wedded bliss.
It’s so hard to wait so long and work so hard for what one would think should be “just another part of life.” But as my mental health struggles have taught me that this is all “just another part of MY LIFE.” And MY LIFE IS WORTH LIVING, mental health struggles and all.