I picked a weird time in history to get myself together.
I think pretty much everyone would agree that 2020 has been a weird year at best. No one was prepared for a pandemic and all the chaos and unrest that accompanied it. As we prepare to leave this year behind us, I want to take a look at my journey from last January to now.
(Before I begin, I would like to note that I intend to keep politics and current events out of this post as much as possible. While I do have my own political beliefs, this is a mental health blog, not a political page, and I’d like to keep it that way.)
I began the year by taking a trip to Minnesota with my mom for a psychiatric evaluation at the Mayo Clinic. It took several months to get the ball rolling for this evaluation, so by the time it was actually feasible for us to go, my mental health had greatly improved.
The silver lining of the trip was that I realized I could travel again! When I was deeply entrenched in psychosis, I felt terrified of leaving my hometown. When my family would visit my brother in South Carolina, I consistently felt paranoid and delusional, afraid that wherever we were staying was haunted or that I was being followed.
The Minnesota trip, however, was a refreshing change. No, there wasn’t much to do in the town where we were staying, but my mom and I made the best of it and had a blast. The subsequent test results from Mayo were mixed. There’s nothing medically wrong with me, and because the symptoms of PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and schizoaffective disorder are so similar, they couldn’t give me a more specific diagnosis.
Regardless, the combination of medication I am currently taking is working for me. You know what they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
The other notable event of January was that I was transferred to a new store at work. I’m a cashier in a grocery store, and I’ve been with the company for about 7 1/2 years. When I started, I was seventeen and I’d been at the same store since then. Because of all of my mental health issues, my performance at work as less than stellar for a good bit of my time there. Additionally, because I was in high school when I was hired, I was still learning what was and was not appropriate for the workplace. Basically, I had no problems sharing just about anything with coworkers, and people talk. As a result, a lot of people knew details about me that were better off kept private. On top of all that, I was known for call-outs and being late. One year, I was suspended twice because of excessive tardiness and call-outs.
Last year, my store closed down so it could be renovated and I was transferred to a store about ten minutes away from the old one. It was a fresh start, an opportunity to reinvent myself in the working world. It was weird adjusting to a new mindset that maybe I should be careful with what information I share and with whom. I frequently reminded myself, “I’m here to make money, not friends.”
I did end up deciding to stay at my current location when the old store opened back up, and much to my surprise nearly all of my coworkers were pleased when I told them I’d be staying. I’ve come a long way from being pulled into the office every week to discuss the latest infraction. In fact, on my most recent evaluation, my manager told me that I have great problem solving skills and characterized me as helpful. While I don’t want to be be a cashier forever, I am very thankful that the company I work for strives to retain its employees the way it does and hires very caring people. Plus, with the way this year has gone, I think many people are seeing grocery store employees in a new light and it’s nice when customers tell us that we are appreciated as well.
How fitting that in February, the month that culminates in Valentine’s Day, I would meet the unlikely love of my life. This boy is the reason I wake up in the morning, he’s by my side every night, he always makes me smile, and he is the best listener. Who is he? He’s Archie, of course!
It took about a week for him ot warm up to me when I brought him home from the Humane Society. He hid under my bed, and at one point, I thought I’d lost him. He was under the kitchen sink. But now, we are best friends.
I have always been creative, but this year, I began to get serious about expanding my comfort zone and pushing boundaries with my art.
Self-harm and the self-loathing that accompanies it are very difficult to cope with. I have struggled with self-harm for nearly a decade, and although I want to find better ways to cope, sometimes I simply cannot. When I took this photo, I was asking myself, “What would these emotions look like?” Regardless of the quality of the art (I do realize this isn’t something you’d hang in the living room), it is meaningful to me to create these images.
In April, I reconnected with my good friend Kerry from Daytona State College. It is rare to meet a person as kind hearted as he is, and I’m glad I’ve been able to hang onto him throughout the years. Kerry knew me back when I was first beginning my descent into madness, when I was at my most self-destructive, and in the most emotional pain. For a few years we sort of lost touch and were friends at a distance; we followed each other on social media and would sometimes exchange a few texts or comments.
Luckily, though, I was able to reconnect with Kerry over our shared love of photography. We were able to take a day trip to St. Augustine and on the drive, we caught each other up on the events of our lives over the last few years.
There are a few authors whose work I would read no matter what the subject was. Jenny Zhang is one of them. Her second collection of poetry, My Baby First Birthday, was released in May of this year and I ordered it the second it was available. I first became a Zhang fan in high school when I read her contributions to the now-defunct Rookie Magazine, which was an online, feminist publication for teen girls. They covered all kinds of topics ranging from craft tutorials, street harassment, eating disorder recovery, how to create a zine… They also published short fiction, poetry, the list goes on and on. Chances were, if you were a girl born in the late 90’s, Rookie would’ve had something that appealed to you.
The magazine had a huge impact on me as a high school student, and I still keep up with some of the original Rookies. My Baby First Birthday got me reading again, a pastime I had all but abandoned. After I finished that collection, I read another of Zhang’s anthologies, her short story collection, Sour Heart.
As a photographer, I always told myself I’d NEVER shoot a wedding… until my brother asked me to do his. Although I was incredibly nervous, I actually had a fantastic time at this lovely and small backyard wedding. My sister-in-law is an intelligent and fun girl and I’m so glad to have her as part of the family.
This was my favorite of the shots I captured. I have a hard time posing my subjects without making them look awkward, so I usually ask them to pose themselves, which can be equally awkward if they’re not comfortable in front of a camera. Pinterest and other similar sites can lend inspiration, but they frequently end up being points of comparison for me. This photo, while posed, was one that Adam, Emily, and I came up with all together on the fly.
At the beginning of July, I decided I wanted to continue my education. It had been two years since I’d graduated with my Associate of Arts from DSC, and I knew I was just kind of spinning my wheels, unsure of what direction I wanted to take in life. I’ve always been a writer, so I thought the natural course for me would be to pursue an English degree. Ultimately, I decided to apply to Stetson University as a transfer student.
I ran the decision past my therapist and one or two other close friends–but not my parents. I was fairly certain I would not be accepted, after all, I didn’t look great on paper with my multiple failed classes, my circuitous path to my degree, and so many grades of SP and W on my transcript. However, in order to transfer into Stetson from another institution, I was not required to submit any test scores, I didn’t need many details of my transcript, and a writing sample was optional. Luckily for me, DSC (my prior institution) offered grade forgiveness, so even the classes I had to take three times before I passed didn’t pull my GPA too far down.
I am terrible at keeping secrets, so within a few days of my submitting the application to Stetson, I told my mom that I was anxiously awaiting their decision. Obviously, since test scores and writing samples were optional, I chose to keep the tests to myself and try to wow them with my writing.
It worked. I was also awarded a hefty scholarship, which worked out well because I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell my parents I’d secretly applied to the most expensive school in the state. I was finally one step closer to my dream of being a writer.
Classes began in August, amidst a pandemic, no less. As I mentioned above, I hadn’t been in the habit of reading much when I wasn’t a student. That changed quickly as the semester progressed. I think I cried more times during my first semester than I had in the entire two years during which I wasn’t in school. Everything we read was incredibly sad, but the fact that I was crying in response to something I’d read indicated good writing. The class that required the most reading was aptly titled Writers Read. We did, indeed, read a variety of texts that reignited my love for good writing (even though they made me cry). Notable highlights from the class were “Naked and Vulnerable, the Rest Is Circumstance” by Sylvia Chan and “Black Queer Hoe” by Britteny Black Rose Kapri (you can access her website here. She’s worth checking out.)
Another accomplishment from my first semester was having a piece of my own work accepted for publication in an online magazine. The piece was a video I made for another class, The Personal Essay. My professor encouraged me to submit the video to a specific magazine, and to my surprise, it was promptly accepted. I have yet to see it on their website/social media pages, but it is forthcoming (I hope!) This class gave me both the freedom and the structure I needed to create several pieces I was very pleased with.
In all honesty, September was a weird month, in which I had to face some facts I didn’t want to deal with. I kept starting journal entries with, “I’m not saying I have BPD, but if I did…” or “Because of my allegedly disordered personality…” And we all know denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.
It was another visit to the Mayo Clinic that emphasized the fact that I really do have borderline personality disorder. I saw it coming, though I did everything I could to deny and fight the inevitable diagnosis. Nobody wants to be diagnosed with any mental illness, but when my diagnoses were based on things I did or did not do, I had hope for a complete recovery. For instance, if the problem was that I wouldn’t eat, then the diagnosis was anorexia, and the treatment was refeeding. (Obviously, I’m being very simplistic here, but you get the point.) But if the issue was my personality, basically the clinical equivalent of a soul, what then?
I briefly worked with a different individual therapist who I found extremely frustrating and harsh. After that, I returned to my current therapist and dabbled in an online dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) group. This group was run by an intern and another therapist who wasn’t exactly the sharpest tack in the box. I found myself crying with frustration over the simplest exercises in this workbook we were using.
The group was more aggravating than helpful, and having it over Zoom wasn’t doing it any favors either. I ended up leaving that group and I don’t miss it!
September wasn’t all bad, though. For my Personal Essay class, I wrote an essay titled “How to Lose a Friend,” which was about my best friend from summer camp, Jon. He and I had been best friends for years despite living in different states. There was a time when we could tell each other anything, and he was also my go-to person for writing and editing advice. But life happens, we grew apart, I got sick, he left the country, and I grieved a friendship I thought would’ve lasted forever. Finally, enough time passed and I realized I hadn’t been the friend to Jon that I thought I was. For months, I ranted to my therapist about how much I missed him and what an awful friend I’d been to have driven him away. She kept urging me to try to contact him, but I was sure he didn’t want to hear from me, and I felt that if he told me that he didn’t want to continue the friendship, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Ultimately, I bit the bullet and sent him and email, which he responded to. We both aired our concerns, apologized and explained, and agreed to start over. My mom always assured me that Jon would come back to me, but I had to see it to believe it.
I hate Halloween. The idea of strangers obscuring their faces with masks and coming to my door is my idea of personal hell. I don’t like spooky things, I don’t like blood and gore, I don’t like ghosts. Because I am sometimes susceptible to psychosis and its accompanying delusions, I try to avoid things that involve horror or have paranormal aspects. It’s not all bad, though. Halloween decorations make very good props for the self-portraits I take. I was able to stock up on all kinds of weird things including butterfly wings, antlers, fake vampire blood, and silly string.
October also found me in a new relationship. Like a great many other things in life, relationships, too, are a learning experience. As much as I wish I could be the hero in everyone’s story, sometimes that’s just not feasible. As one of my former therapists used to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
I was extremely creative in this month. I tend to swing back and forth between visual and written arts, and October was a photographic month. I was angry and still stuck ruminating on the past, desperately trying not to self-harm. It was in this month that I hit my lowest point of the year: seriously contemplating death and hating myself for feeling that way because I couldn’t identify what was wrong. I had been ignoring the fact that I do, indeed, have mental illness and not doing the things I needed to do to actually take care of myself. Suddenly, I was crying on the couch because I felt so stuck and everything was just too much. Archie was roused from his slumber in a sunbeam, and he came over to me as if to say, “Hey, what’s wrong?” And while I can rationalize how my family wouldn’t be surprised by my untimely death, I couldn’t convince myself that it would be okay to leave Archie behind. I couldn’t leave him a note or otherwise explain to him why I’d never be the one to feed him promptly at 6:00 PM every evening or sing him a silly song. Obviously, I do know that my family would be forever fractured if I were to die, but when I’m in that dark, low place, it’s hard to remember that.
As the weather cools off and the odd customer parts ways with, “Happy holidays,” what I call “Trauma Season” begins. The last few months of the year have never been good to me, nor have I been good to them. This is usually the time of year I would find myself in a hospital or treatment center. However, this year and last year were different. Right on the cusp of this month, I had a very healing conversation with a friend of mine who had also experienced sexual violence. We talked about the lingering effects of our respective assaults, and the ensuing shame and stigma that surrounds being a survivor. What was different about this conversation, though, was that it wasn’t a contest to see who’d been treated the worst or who’d been the most traumatized. The underlying theme of the messages we were trying to articulate was, “I believe you,” and while I can’t speak for my friend, I know that being believed was hugely important on my path to healing.
The other main event of this month was that I made it through my first semester of undergraduate college unscathed. I was satisfied with my GPA and also made the honor roll. I wrote several pieces I was very proud of and I got to read a huge variety of texts, some of which really inspired me. One of my professors personally knew the poet Lucy Grealy, who is the subject of fellow author Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty. I selected one of Patchett’s essays for an analysis assignment, and my professor and I fangirled over how much we loved both authors’ work. Another professor told me that she believed I had the potential to get my MFA when I finish my Bachelor’s. She took the time to get to know me outside of class, and I will be taking a poetry class with her in the spring semester. Even my least favorite professor, who taught the class I came to dread, spoke highly of me and helped me to expand my horizons when it comes to fiction writing. I don’t mean to brag here, I am merely trying to illustrate the point that I’ve gone from being a student who never shows up to class, can’t be counted on to participate, and never does readings to a student who actually takes pride in her work. Because of this, I finally feel like a valued member of my classes, not just a passive bystander.
My biggest accomplishment of this month (and possibly of the whole year) was that I quit smoking/vaping. I smoked for about six years and at one point I was smoking two packs a day. I switched to a vape because I thought I’d save money. The friendly dude at the vape store told me that if I really wanted to quit smoking, I should use “salt-nic” in my vape. Sure, seems legit, I thought. Salt-nic is basically a vape juice with an insanely high nicotine content. So yes, I didn’t crave cigarettes anymore, because they had very little nicotine compared to what I was using. I didn’t care that it sometimes made me vomit or that it made me dizzy.
The final straw, though, was that I felt I was missing out on opportunities in school. I found myself sitting in my car in between classes trying to get that nic-fix. What really got me was seeing an ad on Instagram that told my story. It depicted a student whose work was suffering because she was vaping so much and couldn’t focus in class. The comments section was a mess, “What a loser! It’s not like that at all!” “Grow up and smoke real shit!” “Lmao, what a bitch!” However it resonated with me. I knew I couldn’t quit completely cold turkey, so I used patches for a week, then got a vape juice that contained no nicotine. I planned to use that until the bottle was empty and then be an ex-smoker. However, when I dropped my vape in a cup of ranch dressing on a lunch break at work, I knew the universe was telling me, “It’s time.”
Although the month has not yet come to a close, I know I have already done the hard part: I survived. I used to keep a photo of Tim and me on my phone for no other reason than to trigger myself. I deleted it a long while ago, but I could still visualize his face perfectly. Now that it’s been four years since the rape, I have forgotten the details of his features. All I remember is the long, blond hair and the mouth ravaged by years of meth addiction. While I rarely have flashbacks or nightmares, there are a few things that still do trigger that fight-or-flight response in me. One of those is men with long hair. I still usually do a double-take when I see someone who fits that description, but I can always talk myself through it without too much thought. In the aftermath of the rape, I was incredibly wary of men. I operated on the assumption that pretty much every man in my life (with a few obvious exceptions) was a potential rapist. I felt that I had a target on my back and that it was just a matter of time until I was attacked again. Now that a substantial amount of time has passed, I’m learning to trust.
As we say goodbye to 2020 my hope is that we can take whatever lessons we may find valuable from this year and apply them to the next. Let us never stop aspiring to grow and let us always first be kind.