I was a happy but nervous child. Either hardwired or nurtured that way, I remember plucking out all my eyelashes at the age of seven, just to handle the anxiety — jumpy as a flea on a drowning dog.
Our home was loving, but chaotic and alcohol-influenced. Christmas was the worst. My understaffed mother was overwhelmed with choosing, purchasing, affording and wrapping gifts for six kids. It did her in every year with a torrent of tears and drama. Though my father was a structural engineer and made a lot of money (buying plenty of expensive cars, toys and alcohol) there never seemed to be much for clothing or gifts.
As the first-born girl in an Irish-Catholic family I felt accountable for, well, just about everything. The house was a mess? Clean it up. No money for clothes? Get a job at 12 and buy my own. I was hyper-responsible, taking on the emotional burdens of everyone around me, including trying to raise my two younger sisters and joining an oppressive, controlling Pentecostal church to provide the parenting backup I felt we needed. Mine was a short and serious childhood.
As a teen, I never dated, but married at twenty, short-circuiting a normal social life, and having no fun in college. I only wanted to work and become an advertising star, make my family proud and support my husband through his education. However, having two children by the age of 27 sidelined any desire to be a famous art director.
Becoming the next female Darrin Stephens was not to be, but I would excel as a volunteer in a lot of activities: elder in the Presbyterian Church, Bible study teacher, program creator in an advertising club and as a Rotarian. Trying to be everything to everyone, I freelanced to stay at home with the kids, make money and be Supermom.
As a life-long singer, music was an outlet at first, but at mid-life became a compulsion. I was recording my second CD under an impossible deadline with a bi-polar producer who kept losing everything — including much of the work we did. Money was running out and my husband’s patience was fraying. I could almost hear the thin cloth of my marriage ripping apart.
A combination of willpower and terrifying obligation got me though my CD release party, but afterward, the wheels really came off the wagon.
It started with muscle twitches and then I couldn’t sleep or eat — visibly trembling. An emergency room visit determined my problems were probably psychological, not physical. A visit to a neurologist confirmed it. I was sick, but it was all in my head.
The nervous tremors were now accompanied by agoraphobia and cluster panic attacks. Previously extroverted, now I couldn't even bear to leave the house. My first anxiety attack occurred in a grocery store. The bright lights and noise became unbearable. My body felt as though jolts of electricity were shooting through it. I thought everyone could see it. After that, all I wanted to do was stay home, but home was not a sanctuary. Unable to sleep other than for minutes at a time, when it did come, slumber was jagged and filled with nightmares.
While accepting that my illness was mental and not Parkinson’s, MS or Lou Gehrig’s disease was a relief, imagining everyone losing respect for me was horrific. The self-perception as a world-beater was quickly deflating. Making my life an admirable and unassailable structure had failed.
One morning, I laid on my bed, limbs stretched out to the edges like a starfish and thought ”I’ve lost my marriage, the respect of my kids, most of my clients and any idea of who I am. I am nothing.” After 42 years, I gave up on being the perfect wife, mother, volunteer, daughter, artist. I finally surrendered and it felt … unbelievably good.
Breathing was easy and my body felt as weightless as a dry leaf. The sun shone bright through the bedroom windows, creating warm patches on the down comforter. Everything was perfect and complete. I was perfect and complete! That moment set me free.
A friend had once asked who I was without my accomplishments. There was no answer. Doing nothing meant being nothing. It was unthinkable. It was stunning to now realize I loved and respected myself in spite of cracking up and letting everything fall apart — fulfilling no one’s expectations, not even my own.
Healing was slow. A psychiatrist prescribed an anti-depressant and a tranquilizer, and while useful at first, meditation, dietary changes and a measured life soon replaced them. In a few months I was calm, mindful and definitely not back to normal.
Many changes resulted from that breakdown. Though I did lose my marriage, my career picked up where it left off, and the respect of my kids, family and friends were still there for me. The biggest changes besides peace and sanity were a new understanding of and compassion for mental illness, its causes, and the part balance plays in healing.
Though occasionally trapped by someone else's expectations, or volunteering reflexively for something that “must be saved,” I am no longer swept along in a slipstream of real or imagined expectations of others, setting my own course.
I had been on a mindless, relentless path to redeem my childhood and family legacy and finally got off. Life never looked so good or free.