The hard part with writing a post like this is where to begin. In June of 2014, after trying to poison myself in April and coming very close to hanging myself, I started getting counselling here in Ireland. This was a huge step for me as I’ve hated even the idea of therapy. The help I’ve had in the past was anything but.
So getting help this time was not something I wanted to do for myself, it was something I did for my younger brother (who never even knew how bad things had gotten). The point is, if you’re like me and you resist bullshit with the armour of crusaders, you probably won’t get help for yourself. I never in a million years believed I would ever say this, but get help. Get help for your friends, your family, even strangers – get help for yourself if you know you need it – get help if you think it will never help at all. At the very least, making the effort to get help might help on its own.
I need to say that for all the griping about Irish health care here in Ireland, I’ve never had better treatment. I went to a GP near my flat and spent €75 to get a referral. It took 6 weeks to get an appointment, which was a difficult time, but once I got an appointment, I was seen every 2 weeks by a psychologist and had a check-up every 6 weeks at the psychiatric office and I never paid another dime. I was seen for over 10 months and only stopped at my request not theirs. There is nowhere in America that I know of that could or would provide that kind of service and support. I can’t evaluate the Irish system for the Irish but as a Yank, this was like manna from heaven.
I don’t know how things changed. There was a lot going on in my life while I was in therapy. My heart was broken in a relationship that mirrored a lot of the issues I have/had with my father. A lot of that anger oozed out of me like lava. Lots of little professional failures were haunting me and I was exhausted and at the end of my rope. Therapy needed to work or I was done. I just couldn’t go on the way things were going. There might be something to the fact that this had to work or I had to die. In my mind there was no middle ground – not any more – and that may have given me the drive to make it work.
I started with the assumption that I should quit working in the theatre. I constantly felt overwhelmed, over-looked, under utilised, frustrated, jealous, overly ambitious and the pressure to succeed was excruciating. It was one of the first things I brought to therapy. I wanted the stress and strain to end and I felt like giving up the work I loved, but that was costing me so much, had to go.
I need to backtrack to when I was first diagnosed with hypomania. I was immediately prescribed Lithium, and the focus of the treatment was on the depression that resulted from my manic crashes. When I started treatment here, I was adamant that they not put me on medication. I don’t think they would have even if I had begged. The psychiatrist also surprised me when he told he didn’t believe in manic/depression as a clinical, observable state. I have to admit, this made me sceptical, but it’s not like I had another choice. He referred to it as an American diagnosis.
In a refreshing and unexpected approach my psychologist dealt with my mania – which I always felt was an asset. I could work up to 20/21 hours a day, sometimes longer. I could get huge amounts of work done, teach classes, direct and produce shows, do all sorts of things because I was in a constant state of panic. I existed on adrenaline. I woke up every morning afraid that the world would swallow me whole every day, that everyone was against me and with a certainty that at some point I would fail at whatever I was doing. I lived like this every day for as long as I could remember. As far back as being a young gymnast at the age of 8 or 9.
When I was in ballet, I was supposed to be a prima ballerina. When I was a gymnast, I was supposed to go to the Olympics. When I was an actor, I was supposed to be on Broadway and win Tony awards. I was good at most things (except gymnastics) and people seemed to have or put a lot of faith in me. When none of those things happened, somehow I took this on in a way that created a sense of personal failure. It was all just pressure and failure, pressure and failure.
When I looked to the horizon in the Spring of 2014, all I saw was black. Who would I be if I wasn’t striving for greatness at everything? What right did I have to breathe if I wasn’t working my ass off every single day. If I wasn’t working as hard as I possibly could, I wasn’t working hard enough. Enjoying my life never even occurred to me and so it really didn’t occur at all. (It’s strange writing this because it’s almost hard to believe how I lived like that.)
I think the first thing that began to shift last November was that I didn’t have to do or be anything to have a right to be here. I was born. That’s the ball game. I don’t have to prove I should be here in order to get to stay. That might sound absurd, but that’s how I used to think. With all the horrors in the world, all the people who starve and struggle and have a reason to live, I didn’t – and I felt a kind of guilt for taking up space that I can’t put into words. Bleak doesn’t really begin to describe it.
I had a very bad Christmas. On December 23rd I had an anxiety attack that was so bad I walked the River Liffey for 4 hours from 10pm to 2am. I can’t access that panic again so I can’t describe it, but it was awful. The surge of adrenaline was off the charts. I was nauseous and out of my mind with panic. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas day alone. At some point, I had this epiphany about failure. I was working so hard to keep everyone from seeing that I was a failure, so maybe I should just give up trying to mask it and let it be. Why not be a fool and a failure out loud. What was the point of working so hard to hide it?
As I started to let go of the Herculean efforts I had been making to keep that inevitable failure at bay, I started to find a calm and peace that I hadn’t ever felt before. It was wonderful. It took time and is still evolving but I stopped waking up every day in a panic. I stopped feeling like every day was a marathon that I had to gear up for. Most importantly, I started to let myself off the hook. If mistakes happened, they happened. People stopped being threats. Life stopped being threatening. The ground felt secure under my feet for the first time that I can ever remember – even from childhood.
The biggest hurdle was the simplest (and possibly the silliest). It was my front door. I’ve always hid behind doors. In my own space, I can just be me. Walking out of my front door always took the most effort and if I could avoid it, I would at all costs. On weekends, I would finish work on Friday afternoons, come home and not leave my apartment until Monday mornings.
I knew things had really changed when walking out of my front door wasn’t the scariest part of my life. Now it’s not scary at all. Now I look forward to getting out. Now I don’t judge myself into the ground for things I’ve said or things I’ve done and socializing has stopped being a horror and has even started to be fun.
I think it was about late February or early March that I really began to feel that my life had changed. I told my doctor I had never been in the world this way before. I was 46 and I had no idea that life could be really enjoyable for no reason whatsoever. I wanted 40 of those years to do over without the anxiety. I don’t regret my life, but it could have been a lot easier.
A lot of my life now seems new and sometimes strange. But the crux is that everything feels effortless. I feel like I’ve spent my life with 100lb weights on every limb and now I’m free. I don’t have to prove anything. I don’t have to earn the right to walk the earth.
Along the way I faced my darker, hairier demons. I won’t go into them here but the one thing that has really helped is talking to a friend about all of the things that I’ve done that I thought were terrible and that up until that point, I had never spoken about with anyone. Having someone on the planet that knows all of me and who still accepts me without hesitation has been one of the most important parts of recovering. Find that/those friend(s) and talk to them. The thing you might find is that they are just like you with very similar monsters in their closets (or at least monsters that would get along if they ever ended up in the same wardrobe.)
I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that my work since February has been good. My theatre work as well as my civilian work has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done – and it has also been easier than it’s ever been – although, I sleep a lot more and though I’m not really tired, I can’t do 20 hour days any more.
I started teaching with laughter instead of anger and resentment. The revelation that I could teach with joy and still be disciplined and get to the meat of it was a game changer for me. I’m still working on this, as well as many, many other things but life is different now. I’m having new experiences in situations I’ve been in hundreds of times and sometimes I’m taken aback by the difference in what is happening now compared to how I was before. Sometimes I find myself not knowing what’s happening because I don’t feel the same way about what’s going on now. It’s all new. All of it.
At the beginning of September, after finishing teaching at PCPA this year, a former student posted a comment on Facebook about her experiences in my class 10 years ago. I was completely overwhelmed reading how the class had affected her. On my drive back to the Bay Area, I realized how thankful I was that I had never been able to kill myself when I had tried on numerous occasions. I realized that everything good I had ever done for others would have been wiped out if I had succeeded. I had not ever been glad about surviving before. I had only felt resigned to having to try again at a later time. At those times, death seemed like the only answer for me. Until I got help and until things changed, life was far too difficult to sustain and to manage. Not only is it wonderful not to be scared of the world, it’s really great not to be furious at it. I never in a million years would have thought I would ever be glad to be breathing. I was always just proud of the fact that I continued to struggle to breathe. Now there is no struggle and now there is ease and often joy and hopefully in the future grace in everything I do.
If you’ve read all the way through this and you have struggled or are struggling, with all the generosity in my heart, I offer you this: that with help, life can get better. When I was struggling, I couldn’t see that there is a different way to exist, an easier, simpler way, an enjoyable way, a way that lets me define what matters and what doesn’t, a way that does not leave me at the mercy of others, a way that isn’t full of pressure and strain and exhaustion. If you don’t believe that is possible, I guarantee you, neither did I. I’ve not been more deeply relieved and thankful to be so completely wrong in all my life.