- Ashley Paz
Choosing Me: Part II
September is Mental Health Awareness Month. As such, I think it is time for me to pick up on my story that I began to share back in May. My journey with mental illness has been a lifelong adventure. That’s something that I haven’t acknowledged until recently. I have sat down many times over the summer and typed out this post only to recognize that still wasn’t in a healthy place to share my experience without creating potential triggers for myself or others. Brené Brown says that vulnerability without boundaries isn’t vulnerability, it’s oversharing.
I have Major Depressive Disorder with Anxiety and PTSD and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One of the symptoms of my depression is codependency. This means I tend to focus on the needs of others before focusing on my own. I also have people who I rely on for emotional support in a way that isn’t always fair to them. So it has been very important for me to identify and extablish clear boundaries before I could get to this point.
There are a few things that I want to make clear before I dive into this:
This is my story that I am sharing for me. This is part of my healing process. I am choosing to share it publicly because I believe that my experience might be helpful for others who feel overwhelmed. According to the Carter Center website on Mental Health awareness, Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States and around the world. Around one in five American adults experience some form of mental illness. I strive to normalize this conversation and experiences like mine.
I live under a microscope, and acknowledge that there will be people who pass judgement. You are welcome to have your opinions, just like I am not required to stress over them. If you choose to use my experience in attempt to delegitimize my leadership or undermine my credibility, then that's your decision. I'm not going to lose sleep over the actions of others.
There are parts of this story that may be triggering for some people. If you are in a fragile state, please come back another time. If you are in a place where you need to talk to someone immediately, then please call a mental health crisis hotline or a member of your support system. It literally saved my life.
I am not a doctor or mental health expert. Nothing I say should be interpreted as me giving advice for anyone’s personal healthcare.
I am fine. I am not “100% better” or cured in any way shape or form. I have found a good balance of medication, therapy, boundaries, and self care that allows me to be really happy and healthy. Some days I get sad. Some days I have anxiety. That is the human experience, a series of events and conditions that are followed by emotions and reactions.
I needed to acknowledge that mental illness is not an event that has a hard start or stop. It is an ongoing condition that I'm going to live with forever. This part of my story is a snapshot in time when I was very unhealthy. The same as I have periods in time when my body flares up with inflammation and I lose use of certain joints because of the autoimmune disease I suffer from. I believe it is critical to normalize these experiences because they are a symptom of a major health issue. That is why I am choosing to share my story in full now.
Back in May I shared a bit about my battle with Mental Illness, and some of how I wound up in a mental health treatment facility earlier that month. You can take a look at that post here.
I was working as an Executive Director for a non-profit that will soon celebrate their centennial celebration. I knew that it would be a challenging job when I took the position, but it is usually a challenge that I am after. The first couple of years were full of ups and downs, but my board of directors and I made a lot of great progress on implementing business processes and financial controls. We even deployed a design thinking process to design the organization’s first ever strategic plan with metric goals and a long term vision.
Things were all going very well until it came time to implement that strategic plan. Over the summer when it was important to
enact important repair and deep cleaning projects, I found myself being called away for more and more projects that were not strategically aligned with the plan that was developed and adopted by my board. Additionally, we were under staffed, which meant that I ended up taking on all of the extra responsibilities.
This is no one’s fault but my own. My members were simply acting as they always had, and I failed to put boundaries in place to protect the mission and goals. Instead I tried to do it all, and after a summer of working 80+ hour weeks I finally hired the help we desperately needed. The problem with working that much is that it quickly becomes the expectation, and at that point it becomes nearly impossible to put boundaries in place. Saying that something is a boundary is one thing, but actually holding the boundary is something else completely.
I was not on a sustainable trajectory for my career, my family, my social life, or my Health. I was sleeping on average about three hours per night. I was not eating regularly, and the food I was consuming rarely had any nutritional value. All of this combined with getting off sync with the medication that treats the autoimmune disorder that I suffer from triggered a massive flare up of inflammation. This was so severe that I lost complete use of my arms for several weeks straight, and many days I was unable to walk or drive. My board was very flexible with me by allowing me to work from home on days that were really bad, but that came with even more pressure to deliver.
In February I gave my board notice that I would be stepping down from my position at the end of our fiscal year. I knew that I would never get my body back to a healthy state until I made some major lifestyle changes. I’m not going to get into the details of what made it difficult. I love the organization and the people in it. I am still a proud member, and will continue to foster relationships with the women there. My board accepted my announcement with grace, and were thankful that I gave them enough time to recruit and vet a suitable successor who is now doing a wonderful job with the structures that we put in place.
The following week I had four major earth shattering events take place within days of each other, and my stress and anxiety blew up into full blown depression. I managed to pull it together and get through the weekend long enough to complete my budget forecast and film an online presentation for my board at work. I even held it together for my School Board meeting the next day. At some point during that meeting a colleague even commented on how well put together and nice I looked. If they had only known what was going on the inside. As soon as the meeting ended, I started to spiral out of control.
The next day was a complete haze. I made it through all of my zoom meetings and phone calls than needed attention, and as soon as I hung up from that final call I lost it. I spent the next several hours crying inconsolably. In a whirlwind of self doubt, negative self talk, and obsessing over things that were completely out of my control. Inside my storm it felt like I had failed at everything. The reality that I now know is that I was overworked and overcommitted, but still managed to get everything done beyond what anyone else could have ever realistically expected.
The only thing I could focus on was the narrative that I kept repeating to myself. All of the ways that I had failed myself, and how I believed that I had failed my family.
The story that I told myself: “I had given almost three years to an organization that wasn’t willing to take the necessary steps to save itself, and I would be blamed for its demise. I had given tirelessly for people who wouldn’t sincerely acknowledge my efforts. I had wasted time that I could have spent with my husband and kids, who I also had failed because now that I was in a position where my job was coming to an end and the world was shutting down. My poor judgement was surely going to drive us to financial ruin. No one could possibly understand what I was feeling. And I was all alone.” Of course these things were not true, but it was what I had allowed myself to believe.
At this point, the details get a little murky, but somewhere around 2 am I snapped out of a blur of emotion as I was standing in my kitchen holding two bottles of expired prescriptions. I remember thinking that these drugs combined surely weren't enough to be lethal. I put them down and started to think about what else we had in the house. That is when what I was trying to do hit me, and it hit me hard. I was looking for a way to end my life. I had even written a letter to my husband, and explained my plan so he or one of my daughters wouldn’t find me. I have no recollection of how I had gotten to this point, or of writing that note.
It was in that moment that I remembered a post on Facebook where my friend had shared the number for a suicide crisis hotline. I grabbed my phone and called it immediately. In less than two hours my bags were packed and I was checking myself into a behavioral health center. I ended up staying there for ten days under the excellent care of a world class psychiatrist and care team. The other patients came from all walks of life, ages, and diagnosis. I quickly found a place where I could openly discuss my traumas and fears in a safe and nonudge mental way. I do not believe that I would be alive today if not for making that call and getting help.
This is a difficult thing for me to share. It is embarrassing that I allowed myself to get to this point. I feel hypocritical because I’m constantly encouraging others through hard times, but never stopped to take my own advice. It’s hard for my family to comprehend. They knew I was stressed and sad, but I think this was out of nowhere for everyone. They were terrified for me, and this has forced a lot of hard conversations aming us. I have had to grapple with a lot of feelings. The one feeling I refuse to accept is shame over a chemical imbalance in my brain, and you should not either.
I have a lot of complaints about our mental health system, but when I needed help in a crisis, I was able to get it quickly. And I acknowledge that there is a significant amount of privilege with that response, but I also now know that there are paths around the roadblocks that prevent people from other walks from accessing that help. The important thing is that I am on the road to recovery and am making good progress in the little bit of time that I have had.
I can't imagine leaving my daughters or my husband with the trauma of being suicide survivors. Especially over something that now seems so menial. But it was a big deal at the time to me. I have done a lot of heavy work in a short period and am developing coping skills to continue the massive amount of healing I still have in front of me. My depression isn't gone, and even though I have spent a considerable amount of time working through this, there is still a lot of trauma to process. Recovering from mental illness is a process that sometimes lasts a lifetime.
If you are having trouble I want you to know that you aren't alone. I am happy to talk to you anytime, and I bet your friends are as well. If you need to go spend a couple of days someplace DO IT. The world will keep spinning, I promise. Need someone to take care of your kids? I promise you have someone in your life that would love to help. They might be fed a steady diet of sugar and cheese, but they'll survive. I can give you a great recommendation where they have a staff comprised mostly of conscious Black and Brown folks that are sympathetic to harm prevention, and respect the LGBTQ+ community. Representation matters everywhere, y'all, and I saw the importance of this from the way some of my fellow patients were treated when going through some pretty intense situations.
You have been on this journey with me now for a little while, and I hope that you are beginning to pick up on some themes. I'm going to be fine. My family is great. I am in a very privileged position, and have a lot of positive things I can pour myself into. My hope is that by putting this out there, someone who needs to see it might feel empowered to seek help.
NAMI is a great resource, and we have a very active local chapter here in Fort Worth.
One final note. I know that I have everyone's thoughts and prayers and well wishes, so please refrain from those types of comments for now. It is actually detrimental to my recovery, because it perpetuates my issues with codependency. Instead, maybe share a resource that you know of for people to get access to mental health assistance, or to cope with stress or anxiety, or even an article or blog that you follow that has helped with your own struggles. And if you really really want to post an affirming comment then please do it after making a small (or large) contribution to The National Alliance for Mental Illness NAMI or OD Aid Fort Worth.
Thank you for your support, and please take care of yourselves.