Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Suicide and Depression (and a Confession)

As most of you know, when I was nine I lost my mom to suicide. All of this discussion about Robin Williams has me kind of sad and frustrated with where we are with mental illness in this world. My heart was DEEPLY saddened when I heard of his death yesterday. I have always loved him. While I obviously don't "know" him, it hit close to home. My mind raced thinking about his family. In suicide, the ones left behind have so much to work through. I am still working through my suicide junk from my mom.

I have read articles today about how depression isn't really a disease, how it isn't a medical matter but one of joy and gratitude or lack thereof and I have to tell you I couldn't DISagree more. Depression isn't a choice. Truthfully...in most cases suicide isn't a choice. I feel compelled to share with you my personal journey with this topic. So here goes.

In the years following my own mom's suicide, I was so angry, so bitter, so hurt. I was consumed with guilt, grief and shame. No nine year old wants to have to answer questions about his or her parent's death...especially when it is one that is so difficult to understand and so taboo. I would speak of my mother with contempt. I hated her. I thought she was a selfish coward and if you look back in this blog you'll even find my words saying those things even just a few years ago. People would tell me she was sick and needed help....yadda, yadda, yadda. I felt like everyone was glossing it all over and remembering her as some kind of hero when in fact I believed her to be so cowardly. She betrayed me and I felt like she didn't feel I was worth living for. I'd get so angry when people would speak highly of her.

Then one morning I woke up and looked in the mirror. I saw her reflection. I was most of the time either crying or lashing out at the people I loved most. I was aware of how many blessings I had all around me and yet I enjoyed nothing. I put on a brave face and tried not to let on because I believed the term depression was just a cop out. I believed medication was something people used to numb and forget about what would have to be dealt with inevitably anyhow. I thought if I prayed harder, I'd snap out of my funk. Well guess what. All that pressure...just made it worse. The guilt mounted. I sunk deeper and deeper. I was in a fog. I felt like I was swimming and going about the motions of life but I couldn't come up for air. I almost just felt like a spectator. I wasn't really engaging in my own life.

In November of last year, I started counseling. I began to see what my mother was going through. There were times that I truly wondered if my family would be better off without me because I was just no fun. I never ever thought of killing myself, but I credit that largely to the fact that I am far too aware of what that choice my own mom made did to me and I don't want that for my kids. I want them to know that I love them and want to be here for EVERY event in their lives and I think they are worth fighting for. That is what this is...it is a fight. I have cancer. I will fight cancer with everything I have. I also suffer with clinical depression and anxiety as well as PTSD. That my friends is the first time I've admitted that.

It is easy to say, hey, guess what, I am a cancer warrior. People find that noble. No one will fault you for having cancer. They will rally behind you and build you up. It is NOT easy to say, I am a depression warrior. People think you're a debbie downer, or crazy or worse. There is such a stigma attached to mental illness and you know what...it is NO less of a disease or struggle than cancer. In the Christian community it can even be worse. People will say you don't pray hard enough, you don't have enough faith, etc. Those are all lies. If your brain chemicals are such that you can't see past the hurt you deeply feel, you can't see the hope. You can KNOW it is there, but you can't see it...your brain won't allow you.

So here's my confession, even after counseling, I was struggling. My brain would not let me find joy....I fought so hard that it exhausted me. My doctor was able to talk me into taking a tiny pill and within weeks, the fog began to lift. I had feared that tiny pill for so long. I thought it was the "easy" way out, I was adamant that I'd never need it. That little pill, makes my life manageable, it allows my brain to process one thing at a time. It made me a better mom, wife and friend. It helped to give me the boost I needed to deepen my faith and see the hope right in front of me.

I haven't really admitted to many people that I was diagnosed with clinical depression or that I take medication for it. It is time we all have this discussion. It is time we break free from the ridiculous stigma attached to mental illness and treat it like the disease it is. If we hide from it we become part of the problem. Biologically, sometimes we need some help. We need not be ashamed of that. The unfortunate truth is that some people won't get it. They'll still judge and think less of us for it...and that sucks, but truly, that's on them.

We need not glorify suicide, but be real. The people suicide hurts most are those left behind and if our dialogue doesn't honor God and prevent this from happening to others it is worthless. God teaches us to love one another above all else. I really believe IF we did that, this problem would be far more rare. I have come to a place of forgiveness and healing with my own mom through my own struggles with depression. I now know she truly wasn't able to think long term...she was thinking of the intense hurts at that moment and how she knew she wasn't the mom or wife she wanted to be. I truly believe she thought we'd be better off without her.

So, the moral of the story is that it is super easy to judge and have an opinion on this issue, but it is difficult to understand unless you've experienced it. Let's be kind to one another and show love and compassion. Mental illness is real and it affects more people than we realize. In the county I live in, there were EIGHT times more suicides than homicides in 2013. If that doesn't make us realize that this conversation needs to be had, I don't know what will. If you know someone hurting...reach out!

My heart and prayers are with the family of Robin Williams as they deal with this terrible tragedy.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Six Months Out

Thursday I went to the cancer center for my six month check up. Because childcare is tough to find for six kids, one of whom is a foster (oh, yeah, that's why I haven't had time for blogging...I am mothering SIX awesome kids right now) I went alone. At first I was apprehensive about this. I kept thinking of the "what ifs", and would I be able to handle being alone if I got bad news. God kept whispering, "you're never alone". He stayed true to that statement for sure.

Early that morning I began the hour and a half drive to the hospital where the nearest melanoma specialists are. Despite the anxiety that I'd been riddled with in the days prior, Thursday morning, I felt pure peace. I turned on some worship music and prayed my way to Cleveland. I prayed for many things. I prayed for good results, peace, compassionate doctors, ease of blood draw, clear chest x-rays, that the surgeon would take more than ten seconds to answer my questions and that my new oncologist would be someone I could trust my life with.

I arrived early, never having driven there myself before I felt a sense of accomplishment just in making it there without getting lost. I parked and made my way down the elevator and through the eerily lit tunnel to the building where the cancer center is. I took the stairs up to the cancer center. Thanking God with each step that I was able to in fact take the stairs. I waited my turn to check in and a cheerful woman greeted me, took my copay and looked at my schedule of appointments. She sent me to do my lab work first.

I headed over to the lab and had my blood drawn. It was quick and painless! Answered prayer! I then waited to see the surgeon (who is so busy and ALWAYS super late) I sat in the waiting room reading quietly until my name was called. I then went to the exam room where I waited an hour for the surgeon. While I was sitting there I tried to calm my mind while barraged with posters and pamphlets about chemotherapy, therapeutic sperm donation (what?), and hospice care.

The doctor came in, was very sweet. Looked at my scar and explained that it was turning hypertrophic/keloid, which is why it's been so painful. He said we'd need to wait a while longer to see what it does and to just massage it. Because so much skin was taken, there was a lot of trauma and tension on the wound. He then asked if he could refer me to the "MelaFind" program so that we could keep a better eye on my moles. After the nurse gave me the information, I headed back to the waiting area.

It was then time for my x-rays which took approximately fifteen seconds. "Hold your breath don't move, ok arms up hold your breath don't move, ok kiddo you're done" Back to the waiting area for me.

I got myself a glass of water (one perk to this place is the ice machine...they have really awesome crushed ice) and made myself comfy on a couch with my Kindle since my next appointment was about two hours away. As I sat, I read, prayed and people watched. In a place you'd think would be filled with despair, the hope in the room was tangible. As I looked around I could see some people getting great news and rejoicing with their families as others did not receive good news and tears flowed freely. As I looked around the vast waiting area, I knew I was sitting in the midst of some of the strongest people I'd ever be in the presence of.

I sat there thanking God for the peace I was feeling, for the quiet time to reflect (since that is a precious commodity as a mother of SIX), and for the affirmations of hope in the good and bad that I was seeing all around me. My name was called right on time and I was taken back to an exam room. I was anxious to meet the new oncologist and had no idea why they'd changed my doctor. I knew the minute he walked in that God had his hands all over the situation the entire time. The doctor walked in, made eye contact with me and asked GENUINELY how I was. He sat down and focused on me. I felt more heard than I've felt through this whole ordeal. He listened to my every fear and concern and he didn't dismiss even one.

We talked about my tumor, the aggressiveness of it, the fact that I was a mom of six and what the prognosis is. The doctor looked at me and said, "You're 35 years old. 83% 5 year survival just isn't good enough. We need 99%. I'd like to suggest a change in your follow up. I believe that because of your age, we need to be as proactive as possible so you can live a long and healthy life. Immunotherapy is really coming along way with melanoma but it does best when used before the cancer really takes over, so I would suggest, and it is entirely up to you, that we do more scanning periodically to make sure there is nothing hiding internally." Tears flowed down my face, as scary as those words are...those are the VERY words I prayed I would hear. I did not feel like the previous doctors had given the attention to the aggressiveness of my particular tumor and I did not feel like they were being aggressive enough.

The doctor looked panicked and said, "Oh please don't cry! We're going to make sure you have every chance to beat this thing. It may never come back but if it does I want to be ready and waiting. You do not have to decide right now. Just please give it some thought." I choked back tears and said, "I would like the scans, I'd prayed hard to hear you say those words and not make me feel crazy for wanting them. I want to be as healthy as I can for as LONG as I can so that I can be the wife and mom my family deserves." He got kind of choked up (he is roughly the same age as me) and said, "Kristy, that is the most reasonable thing I've heard all day. You are really something. You make ME feel like a wimp." I laughed and he said, "I have two kids...and barely make it through most days."

We then went over my blood tests and x-rays which all looked good and we made plans to reconvene for scan and exams in November. I left the clinic that day, feeling God's hand on me. His presence was tangibly felt all day, and while these trials sometimes feel like too much, those moments are so sacred. He is there. He is in it all and we are NEVER alone. I truly couldn't be more grateful.

Cancer is another one of those things that no one wants to have to encounter, but I believe it is going to be another thing to teach me, heal me and help me be better. I believe God knows what he is doing and while it is hard and exhausting, He is forcing me to lean harder on Him and it is a good place to be.

So six months out...still no evidence of disease. With melanoma, they don't really talk cure. It is a disease that can rear it's head at any time...it travels in the lymphatic system and in the blood so the key is to keep up the immune system and be the healthiest me I can be. In the cancer world, time is often talked of in three month increments. Living life between scans can be super hard, but I am determined to live it to it's fullest. This IS the day that the Lord has made....I will rejoice and be glad in it. I no longer fear growing old. I pray each day that I get the privilege of growing old. I intend to be proud of each and every year lived...35 and going strong! :)