I told myself I would never talk about IT publicly – which means at some point, I subconsciously knew I would.
I thought, “Maybe when I’m fifty.”
Not, “Maybe three years later.”
Somehow, IT got brought up in a meeting with my publisher.
“You need to write a blog post about IT,” said the vice president. And my speaking manager. And my husband. And just about every other person in the room.
I’ve resisted…all week long, I’ve resisted.
Yet, here we are.
And this is it.
In the year 2010, I spent Christmas in a psychiatric hospital. I’ve referred to it as “inpatient counseling” a few times in passing, but hey. Let’s just stick to the facts:
I was admitted December 8, 2010 to a psychiatric hospital in southern Arizona.
My friend Brian drove me there from Phoenix. We listened to Elliot Smith, an ironic choice to say the least, and ate chocolate-covered honeycomb as we buzzed down the interstate pretending like we were two friends on a road trip; not that I was about to surrender myself to the most intensive counseling and loss of control I’ve ever experienced.
We arrived into a gated entry and a technician in scrubs promptly removed my suitcase from Brian’s car and barely let me say farewell before telling him to leave. I checked in and a tiny German woman searched every inch of me and the things I brought with me to make sure they were in “compliance”…nothing sharp, nothing with any kind of alcohol in it (like my facial cleanser, for instance, which was confiscated by the tiny German woman unapologetically.)
My phone was turned off and taken away, locked into a safe. It would not be turned on again for the next month. I would now be on their schedule. No TV. No phone calls (except 8 minutes every other day) and no caffeine. Or sugar.
There was no way to escape, physically or emotionally.
The counseling process started right away with intake sessions and nosy psychiatrists asking about every detail of my life. Traumas. Any and all medication I’ve ever taken. Addictions. Fears. Family history.
“Why are you here?”
“I’ve had really bad depression for the last six years and I’ve been having suicidal thoughts for the last two months.”
Later, I was told I wasn’t suffering from depression. Instead, grief and trauma manifested as depression. Those sneaky little buggers. Some of the grief and trauma was from my past and some of it was as a result of my marriage ending months earlier. I started therapy to address those issues and finally received the diagnosis that had been hiding.
I was clinically diagnosed with PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the months before entering this psych hospital, I felt so down, so worn out from fighting through a marital roller coaster, from working in the middle of all this grief and anxiety, and I found a new coping mechanism. Cutting – something I never imagined doing. The college students I spoke to and my younger friends wrestled with self-injury, but not me. Not a 30-year-old woman. But I did and it became my secret release for a very short time. Into my arms I would cut a horizontal path, each tear of my skin told me what a failure I was.
My appetite also failed. I stopped eating for the most part, and lost ten pounds in a month. Except for necessary trips to the restroom or to get tea, I stayed in bed asleep most days. Just walking downstairs to get a glass of water exhausted all my energy. My roommate was terrified for my wellbeing. I finally hit my breaking point right around Thanksgiving, and after telling a friend, was able to get the help I desperately needed.
I was going to check into a psychiatric hospital to get help over the holidays.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve 2010…
I sat with my new friend Sam. Sam was a twenty year old from the East coast who was cocaine addict in recovery. The small auditorium in the hospital was full of a holiday sugar buzz (it was the one time they let us have sugar), and I was about to get on stage to read a poem I wrote.
I asked Sam to hold my two cookies – a Christmas tree and the other, half a snowman – while I was on stage. Sam agreed but only with the understanding he could have a bite. I gave into his compromise and he shoved the half snowman into his mouth. Kids.
Danny, a counselor and the emcee for the evening’s talent show, called me up to the stage. My hands were sweaty and I took a deep breath as I looked at the sixty patients in the room. I felt like a nervous eighth grader reading a book report in front of her class. Speaking in front of thousands of people? Not a problem. Anytime. In fact, I kind of enjoy it. But read a small poem to a group of sixty patients in a psychiatric hospital? Terrifying.
Up on stage, I made a couple of remarks to bring in the audience’s attention. I looked at each person quickly as I scanned the room, now, after 18 days, knowing most of their stories and how they too found themselves in the middle of the desert, confined to a hospital that mends different kinds of wounds: Eating disorders, suicide attempts, compulsive behaviors, addictions, depression, anxiety, traumatic experiences, and mixes of all the above.
I thought of the stories I heard of murder, incest, violence, death, and unspeakable pain. Many people would consider finding themselves in such a broken place like a psych hospital the equivalent of hitting rock bottom. Maybe at first, I did too. There’s no questioning the uncomfortable pain I processed over the time I had been admitted.
But I wasn’t at rock bottom. Instead, on that stage and after that healing, I was completely centered, perhaps for the first time in as long as I can remember.
Before the Christmas Eve talent show, I sat down to write in my journal. I was over halfway into my treatment and after hundreds of hours of counseling (and prayer), I could see hope. And light. It was the first week in months I didn’t rationalize the thought of killing myself. The first time my body, mind, and spirit felt at peace.
How, in such a place of hurt and loss could I find joy, gratitude and peace?
How could I feel joy and sadness at the same time?
My rock bottom wasn’t on the stage of this treatment center, it was on a stage where “The Anne Jackson: Author, Speaker and Advocate” stood. It was where bright lights shone on me as if I were enlightened with the answers. On that stage, I may have had the right look, the right words, and even the right intention, but my soul was empty and my body a container which held my identity that was crashing into a million tiny pieces.
Was it a paradox? Absolutely.
The year 2010 was full of monumental moments.
I rode my bike from San Diego to Myrtle Beach for Blood:Water Mission. I had a critically acclaimed book release. I was speaking almost weekly to rooms full of wonderful people. I traveled to far away lands to tell stories of beautifully broken hope and despair.
Then, a disease in my mind almost took my life were it not for the intervention from friends.
Reconnecting with your soul and your spirit and God isn’t a formulaic equation. There is no system, no perfect grouping of rules or steps. You can’t tiptoe into it. You have to leap into a vortex which will suck the life out of you until you are detached from the self you once knew.
As it spins you around, you become filled with a painful yet beautiful Gift that touches all who are near you. If you allow it, life as you know it will never be the same after you leap into arms that have always been ready to catch.
Such has been the case for me.
On the night of Christmas Eve 2010, I read my poem, took a bow, and sat down next to Sam, ready to eat my Christmas tree cookie.
Although it’s been over three years since the grief and trauma fired its lies saying I had no reason to continue living, I know the battle is not over. Now I really do live one day at a time, often simply one moment at a time.
Like a newborn, this life needs complete, uninterrupted care.
It needs nurturing. Acceptance. And grace.
Grace that a newborn child brought to us over 2000 years ago in a messy, putrid, glorious room of wood and straw.
There is beauty in every broken Christmas.
Lord, have mercy on me. On us.