A Labyrinth of Twisted Abjection

“This digressed mind is a labyrinth of twisted abjection…”- Michael IX Williams

Abjection is a sort of perpetually bleak, depressed, hopeless, dejected state of mind and being. I have been feeling particularly abjected as of late, even after the most recent stay in the funny farm.

My memory of my struggle with mental health begins in my mid teens, when it all just seemed like grunge-afflicted adolescent angst. I experimented with self harm at that time, and generally felt apathetic and empty, but I didn’t really have a concept of depression as a mental illness, as far as I recall. Still, I began self-medicating with drugs and alcohol without even realizing that’s what was happening, under the guise of “having a good time.”

When I moved to Albuquerque after graduating high school to attend UNM, I sought help with mental illness for the first time. I knew I felt depressed, moreso than my teens prior, and could tell it was made worse by loneliness and adjusting to a new city. I went to the campus health clinic to see what they could do, and was put on Zoloft and had a few sessions of talk therapy. This would be the first of many times I dismissed a therapist as less intelligent than myself and lost interest, or perhaps faith, in therapy. I ditched the Zoloft soon after, as well. The self-medication progressed, unknowingly.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see that I had possibly my first psychotic episode in my early 20s, around the end of my third year of college. I was feeling grandiose and overzealous and wanted to graduate with honors in both of my dual majors of English with a Creative Writing concentration and Philosophy, as well as the Advanced Placement program. Soon, the reality of three full theses combined with a relationship breaking up and general weirdness compounded with all of the aspects of undiagnosed mental illness brought everything to a head, and I went on a bender of drugs, alcohol, and self-harm combined with delusional thoughts and a break from reality. The self-medication continued.

What I can now recognize as my next psychotic break / psychotic episode happened a few years later. I had been in the healthiest and most solid relationship of my life for several years, I had a decent job for a mid-20s college dropout, life seemed to be on the up and up. And then everything started crumbling around me. My brother committed suicide. My relationship was threatened by my affection shown toward another woman, as well as the worsening of my addiction to drugs and alcohol. That familiar feeling was creeping in, and soon I lost time, lost myself, lost just about everything. And I continued to self-medicate for something I didn’t understand was wrong.

A couple years later, after relocating back to my hometown of Farmington, NM and having started to rebuild my life, I was taking a holiday trip to Tucson, Arizona to visit my mother. This was my first time driving myself on this voyage, although I had made the trek many times as a youth with my parents. I didn’t expect any issues. However, as soon as I rounded a bend and saw Salt River Canyon open up before me, I started to get dizzy and disoriented. I had never had a problem with heights before, but something was different here. I started to hyperventilate. I tried driving the tiny, two-lane, winding road as best I could from one pullout to the next. I made it nearly to the top of the other side in this manner until the panic finally took me over.  That familiar fizzy sensation in my spine. The coke bottle tunnel vision. Labored, harsh breaths. The panic. The fear.  I recovered and continued to my destination, and damn sure took a different route back home. This is the one that really got my attention, though…

The panic attack and the lingering raw-nerved feelings afterwards convinced me to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. If I had more knowledge of Bipolar disorder at the time, and more self-awareness, I would have been able to tell him about some of the other symptoms I experience so often I just thought they were universal, and perhaps we would have arrived at a correct diagnosis, but that wouldn’t happen for several more years…

Some of the insights gained through my interactions with this new head shrinker did prove to be beneficial, however. I let myself stare, eventually with some acceptance, into the face of my obvious addiction issues (“self-medication”) for the first time. I was an alcoholic. I was able to admit that first. And I tried a little to do something about it. It didn’t take right away. I didn’t let it. I wasn’t ready to let go of the security blanket of booze, however obviously toxic it had become to my physical and mental health and well-being. Eventually, an intervention by friends and co-workers and the offer of help balanced against the threat of losing everything pushed me to choose the former. I certainly didn’t have any intentions of buying into any saving graces, but I was willing at this point to go along.

With some difficulty, we got me into a psych ward in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a skip from both the Texas and Mexico borders, to dry out and start to detox while we worked on getting me the rest of the way in to the hospital’s drug and alcohol rehab program. I got as loaded on booze, Librium, Valium, and pain pills as I could and got through admission, somehow. Whatever meds they put me on in the psychiatric hospital went right on top of everything else, and I remember only hazy images and moments from my week or so there. My roommate was a schizophrenic teenager who whispered to someone in the corner during the night. Someone checked my vitals every half hour at first, then every hour, and eventually every three, day or night. The food was plastic and cardboard with lots of sugar and seasonings to help it all go down. The people were…interesting, really.

One guy had tried to decapitate himself with a razor knife and was giving himself over to the gods of his native ancestors. A girl had scammed her way in there to escape – temporarily, surely – an abusive relationship. One afternoon out of nowhere, a kid who had been institutionalized by his family for antisocial behavior suddenly sprinted for the vine-covered lattice wall of the courtyard during exercise hour to climb his way to freedom, only to land on the other side, look around hopelessly, and sit down in exasperation and wait to be caught.

Word came back my fourth or so day there that my stupid expensive insurance might not cover the rehab stay. All of a sudden I was in a panic. Maybe I was starting to come out of the self-medication haze and realize what it meant to be clean and sober – sort of, with all the psych meds – or maybe I just knew how serious my situation really was, but for whatever reason I was terrified. I went to a corner, weeping quietly, and begged…SOMETHING…to help me, to let me stay here, to let me get help and get over all of this. I didn’t know what or who I was talking to, but I was willing to ask. And maybe that’s the important part.

When being admitted, the staff only let me have one of the several books I had brought with me. The one they grabbed at random turned out to be the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings and teachings attributed to the Buddha in scripture form. I desperately dug into it. The more I read, the more everything seemed to fall into place. I was experiencing extreme suffering because of where I had brought myself in the world, by my attachments to the wrong things and my disregard for those things that might provide some relief. The words weren’t a haughty preaching of ungraspable, lofty aspirations, but sensible concepts and more straightforward ways to think about and approach the reality around me. It made sense, intuitively. It felt…RIGHT.

Those pages and the words on them hit me at the exact moment they needed to, and the rest began to fall into place. With some help, everything worked out with my insurance. I got into the rehab program. It was just the thing I needed at the time, and I embraced it, in my own way. I earnestly began to take stock of my life, my role in it, better ways to think about and approach the things this life can throw at us, and better ways to deal with the toxicity inherent to all of the behaviors and realities and modes of existing that had brought me to where I was.

The deeper I got into really exploring where I was, and how I had gotten there, the more I began to see all of the ways I had unwittingly become the author of my own downward spiral. Instead of continuing to point fingers at all the people and things I had been blaming for the shitty state of my existence, I began to really look internally and take stock of myself and my role in my existence and the quality thereof. I realized that everything I was doing was centered on numbing myself to the pain of existence and to the mental and emotional wounds I hadn’t even realized had been festering all along. And by numbing myself to all this, I was allowing the rot to set in and spread. I had become a deeply sick and diseased thing. And I had done this by miring in my own displaced misery and marinating myself in the substances that were compounding my suffering under the guise of “treating” it.

Over the course of the next 28 days I spent in treatment, I threw myself into recovery with the same compulsivity and impulsive abandon with which I had previously consumed substances. I went at the bookwork and individual recovery assignments with a focused determination beyond what my peers would generally do, something I only realized after the attending psychiatrist remarked that I was approaching my recovery like a truly desperate addict. This is when I first began to really understand a lot of things about myself and how I operate, and through this I set out on the path of self-discovery, mindfulness, and self-awareness that I am still to this day ever working to hone and perfect. I saw how I was often a slave to my impulses and desires. I realized how obsessively and compulsively I engaged in reckless behavior. I was learning to see why, in small, isolated glimpses that slowly began to form a picture.

At the end of my rehabilitation stay, I came out of the hospital revitalized, feeling renewed, and with a fresh and charismatic sense of possibility. At home, I continued to feed my recovery with regular fellowship meetings, volunteer work, socializing with other addicts in recovery, and be refocusing my addictive tendencies on exercise and outdoor activities. I also continued to seek out professional help via psychiatry and talk therapy. It was important to bring all of these tools together in my exploration of myself. I needed to find out and really understand who I was, who I am, and why I had ended up where I was. But most importantly, I began to know for perhaps the first time in my life where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be, and how I could get there.

And the people around me took notice. I was told I seemed renewed, newly energized, and even genuinely happy for perhaps the first time in a very long time. Vigor and passion had returned to me. I was charging ever forward into a bold and exciting future. For a while.

It never felt like a conscious decision. I don’t even really remember thinking about it. Two days before the new year, after just over seven months of sobriety, I found myself back in a familiar place, full of pills and booze. Being winter in a town at the southern base of the Rocky Mountains, winter had come to town, and my untended driveway was a sheet of ice. I ventured out to my Jeep to retrieve my cigarettes, and I suddenly slipped and went down. In my inebriated state, I didn’t realize how hard I had fallen or what actually happened until I tried climbing back to my feet and felt a strange feeling in my lower left leg. Grinding. Bone on bone. I couldn’t get to my feet. I looked down and saw my left ankle and foot dangling sickly and strangely off a fold in my calf that…shouldn’t be there. I had broken my tibia and fibula, a slight compound fracture that tore slightly through the skin of my shin. To make matters worse, I had left my phone inside. After a grueling few minutes of army crawling into the house, my dad was on the way. He took one look at me and the state of my mangled leg and called an ambulance.

If You’re Gonna Be Dumb, Ya Gotta Be Tough

The next twelve or so hours were a hazy blur. What I assume must have been I.V. pain medication administered by the paramedics settled into my bloodstream full of alcohol and other opiates, and I was in clouds. I came out the other side in a new year, with a repaired leg full of metal hardware, stories of incessant flirtation with the nurses, and a renewed painkiller addiction. My job, which had been so supportive of my recovery, was now fabricating reasons to fire me. With no income, I couldn’t pay for the house I had signed on only months earlier. I was again absolutely drowning myself in booze and filling myself with pills. My options were gone, and I ended up doing what I always do, running away from my problems and seeking a new place to destroy, never fully realizing that our problems always come along with us.

I relocated to Tucson, seeking refuge with my mother while I tried to piece my life back together. I didn’t realize until I was there that she was in much the same space as I was – relapsed to our old ways of self-medication and in denial of the extent of the problem. The next several years saw us both struggle like hell to put a few days, sometimes a few weeks, of sobriety together at a time in between self-destructive and emotionally violent benders. We had absolutely lost our course. For my own part, the fellowships of AA and NA no longer made sense to me. It felt like focusing on the fact that I was an addict only served to keep the desire to consume substances at the forefront of my mind. However, without that as a guide, I was rudderless.

Somehow, at some point, a few years later, I managed to string together enough days of sobriety to equal just over a year. I unexpectedly reconnected with someone from my past, and we entered into a relationship together, albeit long-distance between Tucson and Las Vegas. Without the destructive effects of booze and drugs, I was performing well at my job. I had been under the consistent care of a psychiatrist for perhaps the longest period of time yet. I was doing a lot of effective self-exploration and exercises in mindfulness. I was finding comradery and like-minded peers within the Tucson music community. Things were looking up. What I didn’t realize at the time is that, under the surface, my inner demons were rising and gaining momentum. Before I knew it, I had impulsively walked out on my job, unable to deal with severe panic attacks that had begun plaguing me again. I gave into my reclusive tendencies and withdrew from the outside world. I spent days, even weeks, interacting with almost no one. I was spiraling out again. But I had lost my sense of self, and with it any semblance of mindfulness or self-awareness, and I had no idea how dangerous my mental state was becoming.

I went to visit my girlfriend in Las Vegas for Valentine’s Day. Most of the week I spent with her was at best uncomfortable, at worst tumultuous and chaotic. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was almost completely to blame. I was becoming unhinged, and I had no idea. I got back home, got a day or so settled back into my routine, and then my head exploded. It would prove to be my most destructive psychotic break yet. I blacked out and lost an entire day, almost two, during which I exploded toxicity all over my girlfriend (causing the end of that relationship), I relapsed hard on alcohol, I beat and cut myself on my head and body, and who knows what else in my fractured and unpredictable state of delusion and psychosis. My thoughts on what happened at the time it happened can be read here.

I came out of this psychotic episode more fractured and beaten down than ever. I couldn’t leave my room for several days, and even then couldn’t venture out of the house into the “real” world. I couldn’t face people or situations or deal with almost any interaction at all. I spent several weeks paranoid, frightened, unbearably anxious, and shaking uncontrollably. Outside of my head, the situation was equally bad. With both my mother and I out of work and in the midst of our own suffering and bullshit, we were losing our home. We had no prospects, nothing we tried was working out. With our options dwindling to near non-existence, we were fortunate to have my sister and her husband offer to take us into their home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, until we could get back on our feet.

The act of packing and moving and the trip to Cheyenne itself was a nightmare. I was emotionally volatile and unpredictable. The smallest thing would set me off into a fit of rage or panic. My mother was exasperated in trying to deal with me without setting things off. I realized later just how monstrous my behavior during this time was. I was a wounded animal backed into a corner, and I absolutely behaved as such. Looking back, I must have been terrible to be around during this period of time. All of the facets of what I had no idea was still improperly diagnosed mental illness were coming to the surface. The years I had spent stifling these symptoms and misunderstanding them had left me wholly unprepared for everything to come up at once and at full force.

Still, somehow, we made it to Cheyenne and began to settle in. I spent hours and days at a time in the room my sister gave me, at the sacrifice of her children, with just my dogs, my records, and my thoughts. Interactions with my sister and her family were thankfully often healing and nourishing, but also occasionally difficult and volatile. She got to really see part of the worst of me when a small confrontation over cohabitation triggered a severe panic attack. After this, she let me know about a community health center in town that operated on a sliding fee schedule, and encouraged me to try reaching out to them.

I scheduled an intake appointment with their outpatient mental health department. During that evaluation appointment, the intake coordinator took my use of clinical terms and other insider knowledge of psychiatry as suspicious and accused me of researching symptoms so as to appear mentally ill. Despite this, I persisted, and was set up with a therapist and psychiatrist, who, for perhaps the first time, really got to the core of my issues. I was what I believe finally correctly diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder with psychotic features (borderline to schizophrenia) and Borderline Personality Disorder, compounded by likely PTSD stemming from unknown factors during my childhood and early adulthood. I found out that some of the SSRI medications I had been on leading up to my latest and greatest psychotic break are not only ineffective in treating these disorders, but almost certainly contributed to the compounding symptoms that triggered the psychotic episode itself.

With accurate diagnoses and now on a more effective path of treatment with correct medication as well as talk therapy, I started once again to rebuild and piece myself back together. I started working again. I explored a limited social life, mostly centered around music. I resumed my practices of mindfulness, meditation, and self-exploration. I undertook creative endeavors for the first time in a long time. Things were getting back on track.

Until they weren’t. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, there was building tension and resentment coming from my sister and her family and directed at my mother, my dogs, and I. We had outstayed our welcome. Just when things were starting to feel like they were coming together, it was time to make another change, to start over yet again.

The options in Cheyenne seeming limited and unappealing, my mother and I were able to make arrangements to move into one side of a small, quaint duplex back in my hometown. I was headed back to Farmington, New Mexico, again. While not mired in the same volatility and unrest as our move to Cheyenne, the trek from Wyoming back to New Mexico was not without its challenges, this time mostly owing to paltry means and uncooperative weather. But we made it! Life was going to begin anew in Farmington.

Things soon seemed to kind of level out as we fell into a routine again in our new old town. Nothing was great, in fact there were still challenges around every turn. Violent, unruly neighbors. Job losses and money troubles. The ebb and flow of trying to find the right combination of psychiatric medications. While I had managed to string together nearly a year of sobriety at this point, my mother was still struggling off and on, which began to put a strain on our relationship to an extent I didn’t even realize at the time. And even with more effective means of treating and dealing with my mental issues, it still often felt like one step forward, two stumbles back. We spent just over a year in Farmington, trying to reconstruct our lives, with varying degrees of success.

On the plus side, I was learning a lot about myself and my issues. Self-reflection, mindfulness, and meditation served to ground me in my current state while also opening up exploration of my past and the issues that had plagued me for years. I was recognizing patterns in my thoughts and emotions that helped me to understand what state of mind I was in at various times, where my mental state was headed in it’s constantly shifting flux, and thereby I was able to come up with ways of dealing with my mental and emotional turmoil in more constructive and less volatile ways. I was developing healthier coping mechanisms. I was learning things about myself that revealed deeper meanings and effects of aspects of my existence going back to childhood. I still couldn’t – and even still, can’t – remember a lot about my childhood and adolescence, making me wonder if there are in fact specific traumatic things I have unwittingly blocked from my consciousness, but more and more was being revealed.

At some point, my mother brought up the idea of returning to Tucson. Her parents, my grandparents, were getting up there in years, and it was becoming apparent that they were going to start needing a lot more help. My mom wanted to be there, be closer, so she could be available when they needed her. I think perhaps subconsciously she intended this to be a means of saving herself, too. We got things figured out and set in motion to move, again.

To be ever continued…

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