Stranger to Myself

“It may happen when you first wake up, or while flying on an airplane or driving in your car. Suddenly, inexplicably, something changes. Common objects and familiar situations seem strange, foreign. Like you’ve just arrived on the planet, but don’t know from where. It may pass quickly, or it may linger. You close your eyes and turn inward, but the very thoughts running through your head seem different. The act of thinking itself, the stream of invisible words running through the hollow chamber of your mind, seems strange and unreal. It’s as if you have no self, no ego, no remnant of that inner strength which quietly and automatically enabled you to deal with the world around you, and the world inside you. It may settle over time, into a feeling of “nothingness”, as if you were without emotions, dead.”

When I first read these words in my college dorm room during the early weeks of 2005, I felt a fresh relief was over me. I was not crazy. Similar to my awakening with my strange social anxiety disorder, I felt comfort knowing that my condition had a name and there were others suffering like me.

But that did not make it much easier to deal with. While I was convinced this new condition was nothing like depression, the state I was in fueled a new or continuing depression. According to this same article, depersonalization disorder or “DP” can be a coping mechanism and often occurs in life threatening situations. As someone who is also a Highly Sensitive Person, I had gone through so many life changes in the last several months that my body and mind were simply maxed out. I couldn’t deal with life because of the stress the changes caused so I literally “zoned out” and became like “an automaton or as if [I was] living in a dream or a movie.” 

So as I stated in my last post, I moved back home with my parents at age twenty. It was a toss up in my mind whether it was the right decision or not. But my therapist-the head of the counseling department at Bethel-and my parents basically decided for me. I had to withdraw from all my college courses and ended up losing a lot of money which was super discouraging. I also had to quit working at the group home job I loved without giving them any warning, which created extreme guilt in me. All of these changes only intensified my depression, feelings of shame, worthlessness and self-hate. But somehow I kept hanging on and trusting God.

I got in to see a bunch of professionals both in the Twin Cities and in the city where my parents lived in Wisconsin. I went up on the anti-depressant I was on and began a mood stabilizer, which the doctor said would help with pain and ease up the depersonalized, out-of-body feelings. But I had a lot of concerns about being on all this medication and worried constantly about it.

Not being at school stripped me of worth in a lot of ways. I had prided myself in my academics, in my job taking care of disabled adults, in my work as a youth group leader, and in just being independent of my parents. Now I was back under their care and continually berated myself for it, calling myself “weak,” “immature” and a “baby.”

My parents could never be what I wanted them to be, though the rational part of my brain knew they were doing the best they could to help me. My dad would annoy me with his positive attitude and encouragement, as though I could just snap my fingers and be healed. My mom was either too smothering or completely ignoring. I would one minute resent my parents’ very presence. The next minute I would think, “What kind of parents are they?” by leaving me home alone each day. “Don’t they realize I could easily hurt or kill myself with all sorts of tools laying around?”

For a few weeks, I kept busy by finishing up some classwork for my half-semester classes. I also went to Christian counseling once a week, but didn’t feel I was making any progress. I would also spend time lots of time reading and journaling. I tried to stay in touch with some friends back at school. Sometimes I was encouraged; other times I felt overwhelmingly misunderstood and would fall back into feelings of loneliness and self-pity. I felt a lot of envy for my siblings and some of my friends who seemed healthy, happy, and even thriving.

I continued to have headaches or migraines almost daily, unexplained nausea, and panic attacks that would come out of nowhere. My body would literally shut down every day around 7 p.m. I’d be laying on the couch, watching a movie and suddenly be unable to breath deeply. It felt like someone was suffocating me. The only thing I could do was lay in bed; but I wouldn’t be able to rest.

On top of (and as a result of) this, my depression worsened. One morning, in the beginning of April, I woke up and thought, “I have no reason to get out of bed. All I will be doing today is sitting around, spending time alone. My friends won’t even call me back and even if they do, I am finding it harder and harder to explain why I get so down. The same with my family. They want to hear me say all is well, so why not give them what they want? Besides, if I were them, I would be dead annoyed with myself for not pulling it together by now.”

That’s when I started planning my suicide, which would be to drive the van in the garage, windows down, car running, garage door down. I would have to do it soon-before Dad got home for lunch. He would be the one to find me. Would I be dead? I thought about how my suicide would affect people. Since my friends often forget I exist anyway, it won’t be so bad for them. Then there’s my family; extended, yeah, it will be a shock but somehow in the run of a year or so, they’ll get over it. Then immediate; yeah, they will suffer, but how much do I really add to their life anyway?

I came to the conclusion that, yes, this was the best solution. Better dead than having to live a double life, where on the one hand I’m a strong Christian with a deep faith, a compassionate and committed leader; on the other hand, a suicidal wreck, someone who spends her days trying to teach others NOT to believe the lies she herself believes.

Then the biggie: what would God think? I had already thought about this a lot over the years, but that day I thought about it the most. I figured since murderers could receive forgiveness, so could people who kill themselves. Surely God wouldn’t banish to hell, someone who’s been a committed Christian her whole life and one day just snaps, would He? I was sure I’d receive judgment, but once in heaven, it wouldn’t matter, right? I couldn’t imagine a place I’d rather be, and I decided I would do anything to get there.

For the first time in my life, I had the sudden realization that I held life and death in my hands. It wouldn’t take much. It wouldn’t even be painful. I’d finally be free of all my sickness and pain.

I laid their for probably two hours, wrestling with God in my head. I never did attempt suicide that day. It is unclear how much the medications I was on were triggering these thoughts. Before this extreme suicidal episode, my mood stabilizer-Neurontin-had been tweaked. In later months and years, I would notice similar episodes after certain med changes.

At the time, however, I was clueless. I just kept surviving every day. Despite still having suicidal thoughts multiple times a day, I would look to God. I wrote in my journal obsessively; it was my source of survival. I didn’t often feel close to God. I cried out to Him often, “Where are you, God?” But glimpses of His truth would sometimes reach me: through His Word, Christian books, and unexpected cards or phone calls of encouragement from friends. I also learned to have gratitude in the little things: my dog, music, nature and being with loved ones.

That spring, my schedule picked up and I made several trips to and from the Cities. I was planning on going on a mission trip with my church that summer to Mexico (as a youth leader/translator). So I had several events related to the trip to attend. Additionally, I attended my brother’s graduation in Minneapolis with my dad.

Finally, I nannied for my three young cousins two different times at their home in Illinois. This was probably the most empowering time of my entire time away from college. It was interesting to see how much better I did with the kids the second time (in May) as compared to the first time (in April). Each time was only for a couple days, but still very challenging for me. By the end of the second nannying experience, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in caring for children and in helping my family. I felt freer because I wasn’t so obsessed with thoughts of myself. I also experienced something I hadn’t in a while: joy and fun. I bonded more with the children, ages 3, 5 and 7, and created some unforgettable memories with them. I got a lot closer to God during that time, too, and praised him for allowing me to have this experience.

By the end of the spring, I was getting anxious to get back to my life in the Twin Cities. I still was not completely-or even remotely-better. I was having the same symptoms that had landed me at home with my parents. The most troubling symptom was how unreal everything felt. This created incredible sadness in me because I couldn’t experience joyful experiences, such as my brother’s marriage, the way I hoped to. But I kept trusting in God and staying near the love of my friends and family. I came to believe that I could still receive love even when people couldn’t understand me.

Even though my illness raged on, I was dealing with it better, so I moved back to the Cities at the beginning of June. My sense of purpose returned as I started up all my activities again. Gradually, the out-of-body feelings started lessening over the course of that summer. The bizarre physical symptoms also eased up. I still had no idea what my body was doing and why it just “chose” to do what it wanted all the time. But I praised God for my healing with the hope that He’d continue to be there with me as I resumed college that fall.



Beauty, perfectionism and Christian dating

“I am not worth anything until I am dating or, by a certain age, married.”

I was always told I was “pretty” and “cute.” My mom was good at doing that. She would make me cute sweaters, bows and even clothing that matched with my dolls’.  As a child I always felt so happy wearing all those beautiful things.

My mom would also do my hair very “pretty.”As I got older, she taught me how to “do” my hair (and later makeup) correctly. I later realized being able to do one’s hair without help was a sort of a coming-of-age event for the girls in my family.

Most things I learned about girls and women I learned from my family. My mom, her sisters and my grandma, always presented themselves well. Always beautiful, hair styled, makeup on, impeccable outfits and matching accessories. The message I received from the women in my life is that a woman was expected to do everything possible to make herself beautiful (externally) to the world.

I began comparing myself to my family members especially as a teen. I wanted to be dating but we were not allowed to date until age sixteen. I knew most women in my family married very young (by age 20) so I had to make sure I got a “good start.”

Puberty struck me late in life; as a perfectionist, I constantly felt less than. I was obsessed with being on the “in crowd.” While my girlfriends talked about boys and periods at the junior high lunch table, I sat there pretending like I could relate. I had a lot of contempt for my slow-developing body; I longed to be taller and less flat-chested. I was also self conscious of wearing glasses. One of my brothers and I would often talk about our relationship woes. We both probably struggled with self-esteem and the need to look perfect for the opposite sex. One day, my brother made a matter-of-fact comment, that once I got contacts, the guys would “be all over me.” Through comments like these and the influence of my friends, I began lying to myself about the way I needed to look and the experiences with guys I needed to have.

Finally, everything started falling into place by my tenth grade year when I reached full puberty. At 16, I was finally “of eligible age” to date. I finally got a little bit more self-esteem; some days I even felt as “cute” and “beautiful” as when I was a child. Soon, I  did receive attention from guys, but they were not “quality” guys; my term for the guys that typically liked me was “messed up.” I would go back and forth between feeling flattered by their comments and disgusted. Then I would always question, what is wrong with me that no decent or popular guy would like me. I would find myself in a war when it came to relationships with guys. If a guy liked me I would initially act interested to comfort my wounded inner self, but later I would come to my senses and realize I didn’t want to spend time with these particular guys. I ended up having quite a bit of guilt for “crushing” guys, though my family and friends told me to forget about it.

During the later part of my junior year, I fell in love hard. I was head over heals for a guy in my youth group at church. I initially had no interest in him until he began giving me quite a bit of flirtatious attention. During a period of about six months, his actions toward me fueled my passion for and fascination with him. It’s so interesting because my feelings of that time come back so quickly. They were so intense yet I now realize they were all about me. I really had no love and care for the guy. I only cared about how I was perceived. My self-esteem finally sky-rocketed because I felt I was finally “worth something.” Any day now, this guy would ask me out and everything in my little life would be perfect. The world would finally love me. This never happened. The guy barely even talked to me much less asked me out and later denied even liking me. Even though my interest in him had died down, I was still crushed and found myself believing I was not good enough for good, popular guys.

These thoughts continued throughout high school and hit their peak my freshman year at Bethel University (formerly Bethel College), a Christian liberal arts school where the common ditty was “ring by spring.” The theory is that, since most Christians are virgins, they just have to get married young; a marriage proposal would come by the spring of the girl’s senior year of college. There was a lot of pressure to find “the One,” that perfect Bethel boy, especially for someone like me whose only dream in life since the age of eight was to be married. Not only married, but preferably by age 21 and to have all my children before age 30 like my mom. (I used to pretend to pop babies out of my stomach with my dolls growing up! I just couldn’t wait for the real thing!)

I continued to believe the lie I believed my whole life: “If I only work hard enough to look beautiful, people—especially guys—will notice me. If can just be perfect, I will be worthy of love.”  I would often daydream about certain guys I met who I considered perfect. Sometimes I had proof that they found me attractive but wondered why they never asked me out. The conclusion I came to was always the same: “I am not good enough.”

I continued to swing from feeling like the most sexy thing ever to feeling like the scum of the earth, not even worthy to be an ant under a guy’s shoe. The summer after my freshman year, I was working full time and living with my parents at my Wisconsin home. One day, I had to bring my younger brother Tim his lunch at his work—a car dealership. I knew that Tim worked with all men and, for that reason (though I didn’t admit it to myself), I made sure I looked extra attractive. Sure enough, when I pulled around to the back of the dealership where Tim worked I noticed his co-workers staring at me. My desires to be noticed were met and I felt really good about myself. A few weeks later my brother revealed to me the conversation that came about after I left that day. His coworkers told him I was hot and asked him if I had a boyfriend. Tim said no and they responded: “Why not?! Is she gay?” Tim, of course, was disgusted with them and stood up for me, but I couldn’t help feeling overwhelming grief and self-pity at that moment. There is something wrong with me, I continued to lie to myself.

My dating experiences in college and afterward became predictable. My obsessions with perfection clouded my judgement and my own sense of identity. The judgments I put on myself were extended to the guys I dated. I was often petrified that we weren’t “good enough” together. I was terrified of how others would perceive us as a couple. I often made decisions based on what everyone else thought. I never really figured out my own identity or, if I thought I knew what I wanted, I would constantly doubt myself. If my family and friends liked a guy, I would feel pressure to like him too. I would constantly berate myself for not feeling love for the guy I was dating, when in everyone else’s mind, he was “perfect.” This came with the territory of people-pleasing and performance addiction.

I had such a profound hatred for myself during those times. I intellectually understood I was beautiful “inside and out” as everyone always told me and that I was dating material. I believed I was worthless, like I, the “bad” girl, was hurting and scarring this “good” guy for life. I was a failure in my mind. I couldn’t live up to all those women in my family who had great men and had married young. I would scream and cry out to God, “Please help me like him the way he likes me, Lord!” My low self-esteem spurred on my depression which in turn negatively affected every relationship I had.

One minute, I would come to the conclusion that he was the wrong guy for me and I had nothing to do with it. The next minute I would think, it’s all me. I am too unlovable and I’m ruining his life. Either way, I would break up with him and look for the next “perfect” guy, a dream relationship that existed in my mind. I was searching for love and truly believed I couldn’t be happy until I found it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that it was probably best to heal before I dated, that I was able to separate my worth from my dating status. That I discovered this truth: I didn’t need to search for love because I no doubt already had it. Instead, I was searching for the ability in myself to accept this love. My profound inability to accept love from myself, others and God is what kept propelling my depression onward.


Six Days in a Mental Hospital

As I walked into the psych ward, there was a big plexi glass office on the left where the staff were waiting to violate you. By that I mean take your stuff and dig through it and give you only a few things back. I did not mind so much that my belts were taken away (although my pants were way too big and kept falling off) but I was kind of distraught when they took my spiral journal. (I had kept a journal for over ten years-my writing was an extension of myself, often my closest friend.) I guess there is a chance I would take the metal spiral apart and harm myself with it. Although it was plain and empty, they did give me a composition notebook inside which I would soon begin dumping the contents of my psyche. Also, they took the string out of my hoodie, which wouldn’t have bothered me, except it was my boyfriend’s and I knew he would be a little annoyed.

I entered the hospital on a chilly Tuesday morning.The night before, December tenth, 2007, in a blubbering, raging stupor, I told my boyfriend I wanted to ingest a bunch of pills. (And I had a lot of them from years and years of psychiatric treatment). “This has never happened to me before, Brittany, but the only thing I can remember about this sort of thing is that you shouldn’t take it lightly. I think you need to go to the hospital.” I was not the kind of person you see on the movies that resist getting psychiatric treatment. The truth is, despite feelings of abject guilt for “abandoning” my Kindergarten students and burdening my coworkers, I was ready to escape my life, and so I welcomed this new “opportunity.”

My new world was surreal. Hazy, foggy, I was so disoriented and out of myself but I just followed the directions the professionals gave me, as the dutiful “good” girl I knew how to be. I was showed to my “room,” stiff, white and cold who I shared with a girl named Ashley. Ashley was not a “good” girl. Blonde, heavier-set, and about eighteen years old, she was feisty and often had verbal fights with the staff. She and I left each other alone but I often wondered how I ended up in a place with someone like Ashley, someone who was so different than I was.

The staff said I would probably be able to leave on Friday. On the first day I was referred to an ENT for my horrible physical condition and was put on another antibiotic (I had been on different ones for the past few weeks for my sinus infection but none of them had worked.) That night I wrote in my composition journal: “I think it will be good for me here. I have this really nice nurse, Gretchen, who’s very kind and I feel well taken care of…Having some feelings of guilt but mostly feel like I’m taking a vacation from my life-which maybe is a good thing-or what they want.”

On Wednesday, a psychiatrist came and visited me a few times; based on the comments of the other residents I realized the doctor was in the habit of diagnosing everyone with bipolar and upping their already high levels of meds. Sure enough he said he thought I had bipolar II or Rapid Cycling Bipolar and put me on a mood stabilizer called Lamictal. (I recognized this as a seizure med I would often dispense for the adults with disabilities I used to worked with. It was a weird feeling being one of the “residents” instead of the staff person.) The psychiatrist also wanted to up my anti-depressant Cymbalta to 90 mg a day. I remember agreeing to all these med changes, thinking, “What do I know? Obviously he is the doctor and I am the crazy one since I am in the psych ward.” During one of our sessions, the psychiatrist looked down at his papers, “The staff have been documenting your sad affect has not changed since you arrived.” Inside I thought, “Why should I pretend to be happy when I am not?” and mostly, “I would be happier if I were at home.”

On Wednesday, Ashley went home  (or somewhere else) and I got a new roommate, Elizabeth, who I took an instant liking to. Liz was a beautiful young woman with long dark hair and huge brown eyes. She looked maybe Hawaiian or something. Liz had been admitted to the hospital after attempting for the second time to kill herself. She had overdosed on Ibuprofen PM and thought she would just die in her sleep. She woke up with severe stomach pain and decided to drive herself to the ER where they pumped her stomach (this was similar to what happened the first time she attempted suicide, she said.) Liz had three daughters and an emotionally abusive husband. I always wonder about Liz and how she is doing or if she is even alive as it is very common for someone who has attempted suicide several times to eventually succeed. She was so beautiful and had so much to live for; it was so painful to hear her story, yet it helped me realize (again) depression is not a feeling, something you can talk yourself out of. It is a severe medical condition. Depression takes ahold of you until you are so far in, it controls everything you do; there is no escaping its hideous claws. For me it was and has been a lifelong journey.

I also met a lot of other “residents”—very interesting people who I realized were not much different than me and nothing at all like the “crazy” people the movies display. A few people received electric shock treatment several times a week because, according to their doctors, no other treatments were working for their depression. One lady who had been in the hospital for several weeks, Kathy, told us not to tell her anything important in the morning before her shock treatment; she would not remember it because the treatment caused amnesia.

During one of the group therapy sessions, a woman named Karen really stood out to me. She was kind of quiet and delicate and I remember she started talking about how she was just now-five years later-dealing with her mother’s death. Later that day after a meal, Karen told me she, too, was a teacher. She taught kids with severe autism but for the past several months she had been abusing Immatrex (a medication for migraines which I also happened to use). She had been driving with a coworker under the influence of the med and almost got the two of them killed by driving through a red light. The coworker called 911 and Karen ended up here. I was so in awe of this beautiful woman who was sharing her heart with people she barely even knew; I was so grateful she and her coworker were okay and I also thought of her students. We both shared our feelings of guilt for “leaving” our students, but realized it’s nice to be taken care of once in a while. In talking with Karen I realized I was not alone.

On Thursday, I wrote in my journal, “God, I am miserable. They want to keep me til Monday. Because of the multiple sicknesses I have, sinus infection, pain and constipation, on top of the depression and sadness. They want to see if the new med and med increase will start taking effect. Since I can’t work anyway, I guess it makes sense…”

Despite missing home and agonizing over what my coworkers and family members were thinking of me at this exact minute, I tried to take advantage of my “vacation” in the hospital. The food was not too bad and it was nice not having to cook for myself or clean up. Plus I got dessert after every meal. I did things I never got to do when I was in the “real world”: jigsaw puzzles, painting, reading. I also got a lot of attention which is what I secretly wanted; during the week I was there I received visits from my parents (who drove 200 miles from Wisconsin), my brother Tim, my brother Greg and sister-in-law Sarah, my boyfriend Will, and my coworker and mentor.

While in the hospital, I realized while I was sick emotionally, I had been much worse in the past but without appropriate support. I wondered if I would have just gone to bed that night, not called my boyfriend and told him about my urge to overdose…would I have just gone on as I had so many times in the past? I had had so many urges that were even stronger in the past to harm or kill myself and I never had. While I feel I would have never taken the pills on that December night some many years ago, I still believe I made the right choice to go to the hospital. My life was forever changed by my experience there; the faces of the people I met will be forever imprinted on my mind. Their stories have become part of my story. I became a more compassionate, gracious and loving person because of my stay at a hospital psych ward. I hope to never enter one again, but I would not edit those six days out of my life if given the choice.

Still, my hospital stay forced me to face the reality of my life, however surreal and zombie-like I still felt. How did all the things that happened to me result in me ending up here, a mental hospital? And where would my life turn now as a result of this important milestone in my journey?

New Depression

I thought I would begin posting on my “new” blog (even though I started this depression blog four years ago.) I haven’t shared much about my personal life since I got married one year ago whether it be on social media or in person. Who knows if what I say will help anyone but I hope it does. I feel compelled to share so I am going with it.

I have been going through another “Valley of Baca,” a pretty intense season of depression. Depression used to give my life meaning. I used to live for both having the problem itself and for healing from my depression. And I used to feel closer than ever to God when I was suffering. The last year and half but particularly the last several months, I have felt a new kind of depression. I have felt further from God than ever and alone in my blackness. Few of my old coping mechanisms seem to get me out of my funk and the worst is I don’t care. Apathy is a new kind of pain I have rarely experienced.

I know I am not alone and I want others to know they are not alone so that’s why I am opening up.

The reason why it’s so hard to talk about is because I know my life is good. I have a great home, a good job and a wonderful husband. Not to mention family and friends who love  and support me. But as my counselor said, depression can strike anyone and I am sick and tired of blaming myself. Which is what spurs my depression on in the first place.

I am not discounting any positive thing in my life. But I also want to be real. A real approachable person that can maybe reach someone like me. I wish I could get excited about this life life I used to. But instead of being propelled by my suffering, I am hiding more than ever.

I guess I’ve had my share of shameful moments. But why I’m so ashamed now is different than all the other times. I can be different. I know what to do. I have all the tricks in the bag (Bible reading, prayer, devotions, positive thinking, yoga, mindfulness, eating health, exercising, taking supplements and on and on). I know the right things to do and the wrong things not to do. I could change. I don’t have any reason to be doing the wrong things. Except maybe I want to forget about why I no longer feel or experience life how I once did. I just choose to continue to hide. I like to feel vulnerable. I like to be the one who can hurt my body or mind. For some reason. I like the control I have.

I don’t want to leave this entry on a negative note. I know I am in a season and I am trying to learn from the season I’m in. Like every other time, I will get through and come out stronger because of it. Instead of fighting it. And I have been doing a few good things such as reaching out to those who love me and writing. For the sake of those who love me, I want to get better. And I know you will too. The world needs to hear my voice and it needs to hear your voice.

I decided I am done hiding and thanks to some inspiration from this wonderful woman, I want to tell my story. Like her, I want it to read like a book (I already have a lot of written for a memoir I have been working on). So start here, then click forward on the bottom left arrow to read it in order. I hope you decide to follow me on my journey!