Transcending My First Memory

I’m going to share with you some things that have been kept quiet in my family for many years. It starts with my first memory. My first memory is of my dad beating my mom. It’s a sad memory and I’ve rarely told it to many people. I can still see my mom, in desperation, trying to fend off my dad.

We never talked much about abuse in my family, but it regularly occurred. It’s time to shine a light on this and move forward.

I am a survivor of traumatic neglect and a witness to domestic violence and child abuse.

I was a quiet and somber child, very observant. I rarely got in trouble. I also experienced a lot of anxiety.

At about the age of 8, I was asked by a judge who I wanted to live with–mom or dad–as my parents went through a divorce. I picked my mom. I thought this would be better and in some ways it was. However, my mom soon married another abusive man, who not only chased her around the room with an ax, but who also abused, in various ways, my two younger brothers.

As a bystander, as a child, I didn’t know what I could do. But when the man my mom married came into my room and told me to pull down my panties, I knew what to do. I pushed him off the bed. But there was little I could do to prevent the abuse happening to my mom and brothers. Occasionally, the man my mom married would want us other kids to participate in abuse and torment. I always refused.

The man my mom married died in a blizzard. I’m sure this was sad for my mom, but it was liberating for me. I attended his funeral and, when a box of Kleenex was passed to me, I looked at it like, “What do I need this for?”

However, I had to live with my dad again for a while. It was during this time I experienced neglect. I was about 12 years old. Although my dad sometimes cooked–and I remember the things he did cook–there was often very little in the fridge. I remember ketchup sandwiches. I even remember stealing money from my dad to buy food from Taco Delight.  Some of my friends’ parents noticed these things and reported them to my mom, who was doing her best to tie up loose ends with the man who had died in the blizzard.

When I was about 13, while living back with my mom, I experienced my first bout of extreme sadness. It was depression.

At 14, I became pregnant. I also moved to a different state–Florida.

Florida has a law which states that every county has to have a school for teen parents. I attended one–now called The Chiles Academy. Of course, I gained a high school diploma, but I also took parenting classes and learned about various kinds of abuse and neglect. I tried to raise my daughter differently from how I was raised. I went by the book. I never, ever wanted her to experience the things I experienced.

My time at The Chiles Academy was great. My relationship with my daughter, I think, was great. After four years–and after meeting many different politicians and leaders–I graduated with a high school diploma.

I decided to go to college. I applied for Daytona Beach Community College (now, Daytona State College). I did fairly well in all my classes–except Math. However, I decided I was ready to transfer, so I applied to Stetson University. I was accepted.

Being a non-traditional, working class, commuter student at Stetson was, well, different. I didn’t come across many other students with my background. Very few of them could related to the experiences of being a young parent.

And, all the while, I was barely treated for the abuse and neglect I experienced growing up.

However, even though I didn’t make too many friends on campus, I did find solidarity and support in the campus culture. Many Stetson faculty, staff and students are involved in the community and social justice activities. I got involved in social justice issues.

I wrote two theses: one on facial affect (for psychology) and one on colonialism (for philosophy).

Not long after I graduated undergrad, my dad got sick with cancer. I had to travel back to Texas to deal with his death.

Soon, I applied for graduate school at the University of North Florida. While there, I did very, very well in academics, teaching and research.

Still I had not gotten help for my abuse.

I had learned to be distant from my feelings. I didn’t take time to process things and transcend them. However, I spoke out about injustice toward anyone else whenever I could. This was empowerment for me. It was as if I was making up for all the times I couldn’t do anything for my brothers and mom. I sometimes wonder if other people who are passionate about social justice are survivors like me.

While in graduate school, I had my first experience of psychosis. Of course, the current routine is: drug them up and hospitalize them.

I wasn’t seen as a survivor of horrific things who had accomplished so much. I was seen as a “schizophrenic.”

New research sheds light on the traumatic experiences people have which lead to psychosis. Instead of seeing these as “ill people” with an “incurable brain disease,” we should look at them as potential survivors of domestic torment and adversity. After all, if you don’t think I experienced adversity, you don’t know the statistics on teen moms. Merely graduating high school is a very real accomplishment for people with my background, let alone going on to college and grad school.

If you glance around my portfolio, you’ll find I have indeed accomplished a lot. My most recent accomplishment is what I’m doing now: transcending my negative childhood experiences.

 

 

When Having a Disability Means You Can’t Work

Right now, my doctor doesn’t want me working. I’m simply not ready, and I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never be ready.

I have a very good friend who has bipolar disorder. He is also on disability, and we recently discussed working. He was feeling like he should work, but was unsure about whether he could handle it.

He’s been stable for a few years, and here’s the conclusion we came to: He remains stable by (1) taking meds, (2) going to counseling, and (3) maintaining a therapeutic lifestyle 24/7.

We concluded that, without any one of these, he would probably go back to the hospital.

It’s the same for me.

I continually do things that are therapeutic—whether it’s participating in poetry, painting, writing, reading, photography, walking, and so forth. I maintain a therapeutic environment for myself 24/7, under the advisement of my doctor.

It’s only been a year since I have been in the hospital, and just under a year that I’ve been on my current medication. That’s far too early to tell whether my medications will prevent me from having a psychotic break if I should try working. I have, in the past, had a psychotic break every six months to a year. I still vividly remember my last break, and I don’t want it to happen again.

Keep in mind that I was given a poor prognosis. The very first psychiatrist I saw told me I should expect to lose a lot of cognitive functioning. I’m lucky to have not lost as much as they thought. I chalk it up to having good care, and fighting like hell.

But I still struggle with not working. The feeling of not working for a living.

If you browse around my website, you will see that, from an early age, I have been involved in many things, and have been very career oriented. For a person like me, not working is devastating.

This is true even though I have doctors’ orders.

I know I have a legitimate disability. There’s no doubt about it. I have had serious psychotic breaks. I am trying, each day, to maintain my health, above all else. I don’t like becoming psychotic, and it’s not like my medicine is so magical that it will, with 100% efficacy, prevent a psychotic break.

They know that, for example, stress can exacerbate psychiatric symptoms. So, I try to limit my stress, and engage in stress-reducing activities, like practicing mindfulness.

Currently, I have to come to terms with the fact that I cannot work—my doctors says so, even—and that I may never be able to work again.

For me, coming to terms with this myself is one thing; a big thing. Realizing this is but one step in coming to terms with my condition and lot in life.

But the even bigger thing is having regular people understand this. When people meet me—when I am out in public—they may not know I have a mental illness. (Unless I am symptomatic. In that case, I may be in my pajamas in public, or looking a huge mess.) I have an “invisible disability.” Not to mention, many people still have stigmas about mental illness, making them think a mental illness is not a real illness just because you can’t really see it.

So making other people understand that I may not be able to work—and that I may be on SSI (and poor)—for the rest of my life is difficult. But it’s something that’s important.

I hope that, if you are reading this, you will not judge people who have to be on disability and who cannot work due to disability. There’s a segment of society that makes people feel like it’s not a legitimate option. This often stems from conservatives who tout the notion that people exploit the safety net system. For so-called Christians (as most of them allege they are), they are highly skeptical and not especially loving when it comes to caring for the wretched of the Earth. (WWJD?)

In my experience, it’s very difficult to get disability. It wouldn’t be easy to fake it. I had to be hospitalized eight times and given a poor prognosis from several doctors before I was given SSI. I was suffering, and denied SSI (and, thus, healthcare) for several years. The whole process is insult to injury. And then you end up living in poverty, anyway.

But my whole point is that each of us can make a difference. We can change things so that people like me, who have to be on disability, do not have to constantly feel like we have to justify this to people who have no business prodding for our medical information.

The fact is, I have tried working several times. Everyone who knows me knows I didn’t want to go on SSI. I wanted to work. Take a look around my website—I like professional accomplishments. But I had to go on SSI because I simply could not work.

Let’s try to make things easier for people who are already suffering enough.

Poor People and Mental Illness

Because I am disabled by mental illness, and am on SSI, the topic of being impoverished while suffering a mental illness is a dear one to my heart. I will tell my story.

I suffered a psychotic break in graduate school. I was one of the people who was trying to escape poverty. I worked hard, and tried not to make any mistakes. But one cannot account for illness, and, after discussing things with my doctor, I applied for disability. This leaves me with about $8,000 a year to live on. On this amount, I cannot afford a roof over my head of my own, so I live with my mom and stepdad.

Currently, I have a 2004 Ford Focus that was paid off before I got on disability. It needs work, and I cannot afford to have work done on it. I certainly cannot afford a new car. I give myself $100.00 per week to live on, which is the definition of extreme poverty in the United States. This covers my clothing, hygiene products, entertainment, and so forth. I use the rest of the money to make payments on the computer I am using to write this, and, occasionally, I have enough saved up to buy a new pair of glasses, or a new phone, which is the only way I have a smart phone.

I have been in the hospital for psychosis eight times. I regularly go to the clinic to get medications. I go to a place for low income people. So, I associate with poor people with mental illness all the time.

One of the travesties in our country is that we make people with mental illness poor. Social Security is not enough to live on. It’s supposed to cover housing, food, clothes, and entertainment. But it barely covers my costs for gas, clothes, and hygiene products. Think about it: $8,000 per year. Can you live on that?

Before I got on disability, I tried to work because I did not want to be on disability. I was hospitalized five times before I got approved for disability. After that, I struggled with finding the right medication for me. I am currently on an antipsychotic, but it gives me some side effects.

Every month, I go to the clinic for my medication. There, I see many poor people with mental illness. For all of the good qualities I have mentioned of poor people, let me make one thing clear: Being poor is not fun. It’s not great times.

I don’t know what percentage of the poor population suffers from mental illness, but I’d wager quite a bit. If you are disabled from a mental illness, you are bound to be living in poverty.