Radical Acceptance & Mental Health Recovery
by Emilia Zsuzsanna Rak
The second of three essays by Emilia in a series, this post contains descriptions of abuse. The artwork in this post was created by Emilia.
CRUSHED AND SHATTERED
And then I met my first husband Dick in Apollon Gym in Highland Park, NJ. I was nearly 21 years old and I fell madly in love with him. We were married. I was nearly 23 and he was 29 years old. Yes, I loved him very much. But the root of my decision to marry him was as an avenue to leave the home in which I had been raised without “shaming my family name.” I was desperately eager to begin my own life. This new life would be free from abuse and degradation and constantly mixed signals — “I love you,” while beating me beyond recognition, or calling me a whore because I wanted to attend a university that would require me to live on campus, away from home.
My life was going to be different now that I was away from my “loving abusers.” Little did I realize just how poor a selection I had made when I chose Dick as my life partner. How could I possibly know given my life experiences thus far? Though I took my commitment and my vows extremely seriously, I didn’t realize at the onset that my first marriage would be filled with control in every sense of the word, constant jealous outbursts, baseless accusations, verbal abuse and physical abuse.
During the course of my first marriage I was blessed with four of the most wonderful children imaginable. As long as I had them, nothing else mattered. The sun rose and set on my precious little miracles. However, as my children grew, I realized that I could no longer tolerate the escalating abuses from their father. There was no way that I could stay in a marriage where my husband would put his hands on me. So, in my mind, our marital covenant was forever broken that fateful night my head hit the ground. There was no way that I could show my children that physical violence was ever acceptable as I had been raised to believe. Our own mother didn’t leave our abusive father until we were all grown and living on our own, independent of them.
And so at the age of 33, in the year 2000 a vicious divorce and custody battle began where the abuse will never end for me, as the only thing that ever truly mattered to me was ripped from my arms: my four precious children. I didn’t squabble over money or custody or any of the things that divorcing couples often quarrel over. But no matter how amicable I tried to be, Dick would constantly make one false accusation after another, gaining temporary custody of the children. The court would then conduct extensive examinations into the baseless and frivolous allegations and return custody to me for a little less time after each draining court appearance.
My children lived with constant stress and drama, never knowing whose house they were going to sleep at that night, who would pick them up from school which day, whether there would be another ugly fight that day between the two people they loved the most.
There were never-ending interviews with police, social workers, court-appointed psychiatrists and evaluators. And so my innocent children suffered mind-boggling trauma as they were constantly being used as pawns by their father in his never-ending quest to punish me for “daring” to leave him. They were punished by Dick if they dared to express any affection for me and were rewarded if they reviled me and my family. He and his family members would constantly tell the children, “Daddy might kill himself if you say you want to live with your Mami.” There was no “official label” at the time for what was happening to us. Years later, I learned this was all a part of the abusive behavior known today as Parental alienation.
Finally, in an act of desperation in May 2002, my children begging me, “Mami, make the fighting stop!” I succumbed to all of Dick’s demands. This included physical custody of our children even though I had at the time — and would acquire several more — independent, court appointed psychological evaluations that would recommend sole custody be awarded to me.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned why so many women with children will stay with their abusers (as my own mother did). As the control and violence escalates when women attempt to leave, most abusive men will stop at nothing (sometimes murder) to take the children from their mother. In fact, I remember my father would always threaten to take us away from my mother the few times she ever talked of leaving him. As a matter of fact, victims of domestic violence are at greatest risk if or when they attempt to leave their abusers.
My sister and I judged our mother quite harshly for “never having the balls” to leave our abusive father. Life then taught me an extremely harsh lesson: our mother stayed and risked her life in order to raise us. The alternative was that we would be raised without her by an abusive man, or that he would quite simply kill us in order to hurt her or “teach her a lesson” for daring to try and leave.
I gave Dick everything in the settlement of divorce, but it wasn’t enough. On the first of May in 2006, my children would leave my home early on a seemingly average Monday morning. Unbeknownst to me, Dick would deliver the final blow that day.
I bade my children farewell in my customary fashion. I said, “Have fun. Learn lots of neat stuff and don’t forget that I love you!” I had no way of knowing that I would never have the privilege of mothering them again. Early that morning Dick filed an “emergency application” alleging that I was abusing the children and I would, again, lose “temporary custody pending an investigation by the NJ Division of Youth and Family Services.”
This investigation, however, the agency flat out refused to conduct as “they were not parties to the litigation” thus rendering my temporary loss of custody a permanent situation. (I had no lawyer at the time. Lack of funds caused me to represent myself pendente lite. It wasn’t until several years later that an attorney informed me of this gross breach of law. But as you will read, by this time, it was too late.)
The deep physical and emotional longing for my children was exponentially compounded by the knowledge that for the remainder of what childhood they had left, they were damned to be neglected and abused in every way, constantly told that their mother was an amoral and terrible person, that she didn’t love or want them. And there was literally nothing I could do to save them.
To make this surreal, hellish nightmare all the more intolerable was the public humiliation that I had suffered as a mother who lost custody of her children because “everybody knows that the courts always favor the mother” and “a judge would never take custody from the mother unless she must have done something pretty bad!” as per the pervasive stigma regarding mothers who lose custody of their children.
I bankrupted myself twice financing the desperate attempts to save my children. I would have no more holidays, no class pictures, no birthdays, no back-to-school preparation, no more cookies to bake or boo-boos to kiss. There would be no first kiss, no tear-filled first heart-break, no first job, no family vacation or graduation pictures to be taken, none to share online. There would be no student drivers to teach and no college applications to prepare. It was all gone in an instant and I just couldn’t find a way to move on with my life. How could I? These were my children, not my favorite pair of shoes. My children’s suffering was constant and so was my own.
No matter how the other areas of my life seemed to continue, I was permanently stuck in this dreadful reality that had spiraled out of control. Superficially, I seemed to move on with life. I was able to meet and marry my husband, Dale, in late October of 2006.
We met online and just clicked from the beginning. Our first date lasted two weeks. Our second date also lasted for two weeks and we were married on our third date on Halloween in full costume in my apartment in NJ. We had relocated to a lovely home in Texas (where Dale was living and working) and then to Arkansas several years later as work had required another move. We made many wonderful new friends, got reacquainted with dear old friends, and for a time we were quite successful business consultants.
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We were going to build a wonderful life together, rescue my children and live happily ever after.
I tried so hard to keep fighting for my children. But as time went on, my children became more distant and ever more severely alienated. So my sadness worsened and my previous resolve turned to hopelessness, especially once my children became extremely cruel and unloving to me. I eventually stopped mentioning to anyone that I had ever had children because how could I explain why they weren’t in our lives without the judgment, shame, and sorrow? I sank into a deep depression. I withdrew from everyone, even my husband, Dale. I was regularly plagued by terrible nightmares and sleep paralysis. I felt a constant sense of shame, self-hatred for being such a failure, confusion, anger, disbelief, and pain that simply can never be put into words. I just wanted to die.
Over the next several years it did not matter how hard I fought, how much money I squandered or who I begged for help with my nightmare. The nightmare had no end. I can still remember the day I first suffered hallucinations after being awake for the majority of time for a few days tortured by violent night terrors and sleep paralysis during the scant few moments when I could get to sleep.
But it wasn’t until several years later that I was finally diagnosed after a suicide attempt where I woke up at the University of Arkansas for Medicine and Sciences in the ICU on a ventilator. This was followed by my first visit to a psychiatric ward at the age of 44. I vividly remember the panic that ran through me as the doors locked behind me. For the next 2 1/2 years, I would attempt suicide a few more times and have several more visits to a couple of psych wards. There would be countless medications. Most would help very little, if at all, or cause horrible side effects. There would be endless hours of therapy.
I would be literally abandoned by what family I had left or I’d be jeered or judged by strangers and acquaintances alike if I dared to let them “know me” even the slightest bit. I hated what my life had become and wanted desperately to go back to life before. But no matter what, I just couldn’t shut off all the black noise in my head. Negative thoughts and suicidal ideations were constantly plaguing me in my mind.
Even during the short periods when I would be free of all the black noise there would be little respite. I would always eventually be led back to the thought, “What kind of a human being who has gone through what I went through wouldn’t feel permanently devastated?” And then the cycle of self-hatred, anxiety, withdrawal and suicidal ideations would again crowd out any other thoughts.
Between periods of total withdrawal and severe depression I would manage to “put on a happy face so that I could inspire other survivors to do the same.” I honestly don’t know what was more exhausting: the depressive periods where I wouldn’t shower, put on clean clothes or even answer texts or emails or calls for days at a clip or the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-put-on-your-happy-face periods.
Truth is, that I was in total denial about the fact that I had any serious mental illness until I was literally wide awake for three consecutive days without so much as a 10 minute catnap. It was at that point that I finally admitted that my brain was not functioning properly because you can’t “just fake staying awake” for three days, especially when you were desperately trying to sleep.
Shortly after my first suicide attempt my current husband, Dale, moved out. He would find me unconscious, unresponsive and barely breathing after I’d decide to wash a handful of my medications down with a rocks glass full of straight vodka. The day wouldn’t pass where he wouldn’t visit or call me during my subsequent confinements to psychiatric wards. I would be hospitalized after they’d bring me back to life after flatlining, again.
I kept telling Dale that I understood how challenging this must be for him, to have a wife that was “broken”, a partner who didn’t want to live and that I wouldn’t be angry if he asked for a divorce. In the midst of the myriad of negative feelings and thoughts I had towards myself were the constant nagging questions, “What kind of a partner would be so cruel as to continuously put their loved one into a position where they would be left to find the body?” and “What kind of person puts their loved ones through this kind of hell?” And the answer to both those questions is:
I’M NOT PUTTING ANYONE THROUGH ANYTHING. I AM A THINKING, FEELING HUMAN BEING WHO IS WORTHY OF LOVE AND RESPECT. I MERELY HAVE A DISEASE THAT REQUIRES TREATMENT.
So, to describe my reality starkly and without any candy-coating, I am mentally ill. Were you sitting before me, I’ll bet that you’d be rather shocked to hear me say those words. But I can promise you, that your surprise is actually dwarfed by my own shock. I knew that I had a family history of mental health issues — everything from paranoid schizophrenia to dementia and substance abuse issues. But never in a million years did I imagine that I would say the words, “I am disabled due to my struggles with chronic mental health issues.”
My diagnosis is post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder with borderline traits. I never imagined that my current marriage would be pushed to the edge due to the stresses of this reality. I never thought that I would be abandoned by a once-loving and supportive family, be judged by acquaintances and strangers alike for a condition that I didn’t ask for (nor that I did anything to cause) making me feel that I should be deeply ashamed of my illness. I never thought that I might lose all hope of recovering any relationship with my children now that their mother is “legally crazy.” I never imagined that my life would literally hang in the balance due to serious and permanent mental conditions.
But whether I like it or not: medications, therapy, ECT, struggle, stigma, serious memory loss, cognitive impairment, the rare insane high, seemingly limitless lows, fury, anxiety, nightmares, occasional crises that end in the hospital, the constant gnawing in the back of my mind that if I don’t treat my symptoms seriously, I will likely lose my life . . . all of this is just a small part of my daily reality 24/7/365. And that will likely have little variation for the rest of my life.
It’s not fair. As a matter of fact, it blows chunks! But the good news is that no matter how much my life has been altered due to mental illness, that doesn’t mean my life is over. It just means that my life has changed. I’m not a bad person. I didn’t ask for any of this. I can’t “just snap out of this” any more than I could get up and walk were I to have had my spinal cord severed as the result of being hit by a drunk driver.
Radical acceptance dictates that change is just another part of life. I’ve finally gotten to the point in my journey where I had to accept that I could either make the choice to literally lie down and die or I could make the choice to accept my circumstances and find positive and effective ways to handle these changes.
There is no doubt that mental illness has robbed me of many things including the ability to live life like “normal” people do. But I say, “Normal Shmormal. Who wants to be normal?” By my estimation, normal is average and average is booooooooooorrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnng. I can assure you, that you will come to see that I am anything but boring. And I like that just fine! *coquettish grin*
The third installment of Emilia’s story will be posted on Wednesday October 28. Sign up for our mailing list to get an email when we publish the next part of Emilia’s recovery story.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Glenn Holsten | LAYOUT: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | ART: Emilia Zsuzsanna Rak
See Related Recovery Stories: Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Mental Health First Person Essays, PTSD