Breaking Is Easy. Healing is Harder.

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: Reproductive justice issues including miscarriage and stillbirth and abortion rights, COVID-19, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm.

“Just tighten your shoulders..just clench your jaw ’til you frown. Just don’t let go ’cause you may drown.” Rent, book by Jonathan Larson.

The skylight in the living room of our apartment shattered last October after a glass object of unknown origin fell from the sky. It took seven months for our landlord to find a contractor who had the correct replacement part and could install it. Seven months of staring at the hole in our ceiling, hastily covered with plastic and duct tape. Seven months of feeling frustrated and concerned every time the tarp flapped in the wind and seasonal rainstorms caused water damage to our walls and ceiling. After seven months of emails and phone calls to our landlord, we wondered why such a seemingly simple issue took so long to address. When the contractors finally came to install the new skylight last week, the entire process took 15 minutes. 

My partner and I were relieved, but there was also a sense of….“That’s it?” After months of phone calls, reminders, and promises, we suddenly looked up at the light streaming clearly through our brand-new skylight and marveled at how long we put up with the version held together by tape and crossed fingers. Houses break quickly and can be fixed just as easily. Human beings are different. Sometimes we break instantly, and sometimes slowly, over days and months and years. And putting us back together isn’t as easy as finding a suitable replacement part. 

I recently went through an experience I’ve been struggling to process because the things that broke me happened so insidiously, by attrition, over a long period. I’m struggling to understand how healing is possible in the times we’re all living through. I’m struggling to understand the systems and circumstances that broke me and the myriad ways I let them break me, day after day, year after year, until I finally shattered. I’m struggling to understand how a generally healthy body and mind get to the point when it not only doesn’t want to live but actively wants to die. 

I’d started a new job in July 2021. The job was remote. The nonprofit I work for defends people, primarily women, accused of crimes or imprisoned based on pregnancy or pregnancy outcomes, including abortions and pregnancy losses. It’s a niche within the reproductive justice/abortion rights space, which is currently grappling with the end of Roe v. Wade and state laws that increasingly surveil, oppress, and punish pregnant people, especially women and trans folks of color. 

The first major case we were involved in after I started was that of a 19-year-old Native American woman, Brittney Poolaw, in Oklahoma. She experienced a miscarriage at 15-17 weeks and then was charged with manslaughter on the unscientific theory that substance use caused pregnancy loss. Her court-appointed attorney didn’t preserve any of her rights to appeal or try to get the case dismissed. In a one-day trial, the medical examiner stated that none of the evidence conclusively proved that anything she did or didn’t do during pregnancy caused the miscarriage. And yet, the jury found her guilty and sentenced her to four years in prison. 

I struggled to translate my outrage into social media posts and emails that would respect Brittney’s story while energizing our supporters. I worked hard. I worked harder. COVID surged and waned, then surged again. I fought with my body to keep working as I experienced chronic migraines, worsening anxiety, depression, and isolation. My partner went back to the office. We tried to keep up with our house, take care of our dog, and occasionally see friends and experience NYC. War broke out in Ukraine. I was hospitalized for migraines. The Omicron surge kept us mostly home all winter. I reached for anything I thought would help me pass the time and quiet my thoughts, that would take me out of my body and away from relentless bad news: television binges, weed, antidepressants, social media scrolling, comfort food, another beer, more hours of work creating the illusion of productivity.

In April, my parents came to visit for the first time since 2019. We had a perfect weekend of dining indoors, wandering through Central Park, browsing vintage shops, and clinking wineglasses as we toasted to being together and the return of travel. The morning they left, a man on a Brooklyn subway car put on a gas mask, threw two smoke grenades, and fired a handgun 33 times. Twenty-nine people were injured, ten from direct gunfire. The world was opening and simultaneously proving itself further unsafe and fragile. 

I struggled with diminishing energy in the face of a remote job that challenged my ADHD brain to be on high alert all day and help support the losing battle for reproductive rights. I had 15 migraines in April. Ten in May. I flew home to see my four young nephews, and the brief contact with family was joyful and healing. I dreamed of moving back home to be closer to them, to simplify my life with a backyard and a dishwasher. I worried about whether the love of my life would want to give up a job he loved to follow me and whether we’d be happy if we left New York.

I flew home to Brooklyn. 

My partner got COVID. Then I got COVID. Fully vaccinated and boosted, we’d managed to avoid it until May 2022. We were each sick. Surprisingly, scarily sick. I was nauseous, dizzy, achy, congested, and exhausted. 

My partner and I returned to total isolation. I was too sick to work. I felt guilty about not working. I wondered if recovering just to return to a stressful, heavy, lonely work situation was worth it. I felt ill and useless. I hated my body. I feared my body. 

On week two of COVID, I could barely walk around the block, fatigued, coughing, and miserable. My doctor prescribed me a steroid to help ease the congestion. The steroid made me feel like I was crawling out of my skin, triggering a severe panic attack that convinced me my body was shutting down. I told my partner that I had been thinking about suicide for the first time since I was 18 and experienced my first major depressive episode. 

I reached out to my therapist and psychiatrist. But suddenly, I was unable to control my terror and sadness, unable to stop myself from thinking about the fastest and most painless way to remove myself (and my sick, hurt body and mind) from the planet. I started to dissociate and kept asking my partner if he thought I was dying. If it were possible the universe would kill me as punishment for having suicidal thoughts in the first place. I begged him to keep making sure I could breathe, that I had a pulse, that I wouldn’t slip away during the night. 

My dad flew out to help, but even his calming, familiar presence couldn’t soothe the storm raging within me. Was it COVID? The steroid? A mental breakdown? All I knew was I couldn’t stop thinking about hurting myself, couldn’t stop thinking about dying. 

The following day, in the ER, my dad by my side, I tried to explain how I both had COVID and was experiencing severe anxiety and thoughts of suicide. I learned a lesson I thought I’d learned before: a hospital isn’t necessarily where you go to get better. It’s where you go to keep from dying. COVID or not, my disclosure of suicidal ideation triggered a response I was unprepared for. I was immediately assigned a 1:1 watcher (someone I came to think of as a guard, but I know that’s not the correct term) who instructed me, in front of my dad, to remove all my clothes (including bra and underwear) and place them in a bag along with the rest of my belongings. I started crying and repeating, “This is terrible. I shouldn’t have come here. I ruined my life.”

A nursing assistant accompanied me to the bathroom, where I gave a urine sample. A large folding table was placed outside my ER room, and someone sat there constantly, watching me through the glass. The room was freezing. There were no blankets, only thin sheets. I was told I couldn’t have my phone, a book, or outside snacks. I didn’t get a meal or snack until five hours into my stay. Luckily, a kind ER psychiatric nurse slightly loosened the restrictions, possibly due to my balding, authoritative (white male) father visiting me in rotation with my kind, authoritative, tall (white male) partner. They took my vitals and ruled out anything physical (other than COVID). They recommended that I be transferred by ambulance to a psychiatric hospital. Because I was COVID positive, I could only be sent to one facility about an hour outside the city. Finding a bed for me could take hours, or it could take days. Until then, I’d have to stay in this blank room with a broken TV and no clothes, under watch. 

I was only allowed two visitors per day, and they couldn’t come and go, so it was impossible for me to make decisions without my partner or dad in the room to ask the questions. I was too anxious and dissociated to advocate for myself. I was easily confused. Some of that time is foggy and half-remembered due to anti-anxiety meds, COVID brain fog, and my mental state. Still, I remember my dad tearing up as he described me to the consulting psychiatrist who joined via video chat. My dad told her I had a loving family, including two parents, two sisters, and four nephews under the age of three I adored. He told them I was sensitive, a writer, and an openhearted empath who struggled with anxiety and depression and received a late diagnosis of ADHD. He told them I worked hard at a stressful job and was in a healthy long-term romantic relationship.

He also told them about our extensive family history of anxiety and depression. This history includes my father’s father, Nathan, in whose honor I’m named. My grandfather, a successful physician who struggled with severe depression and was likely bipolar, committed suicide when my dad was 13, just two weeks after his Bar Mitzvah.

 There has never been any stigma around suicide in my family, yet I was fearful of Nathan’s fate and triggering my dad’s trauma. My sisters and I have always been encouraged to treat mental health with as much care as physical health, seek support when necessary, and not feel ashamed of our brain chemistry any more than we’d be ashamed of diabetes or a heart murmur. And yet, there I was, ashamed to put my dad through this again, wishing to disappear and stop being a burden, a problem.

But that’s not what my dad told the psychiatrist. He listed all the things about me he found beautiful and worth saving, worth loving. Looking back, I see that he was telling the doctors to look at me and really see me. I was a person, not just a patient. I was loved. That the things that broke me didn’t break me because I was “crazy” or “broken” or “bad.” They broke me because the world is broken, and people are breaking under the strain of constant personal and global crises. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. 

Other than a voluntary psychiatric hospitalization, my other option, which the staff didn’t recommend, was to be discharged into my family’s care with a safety plan and the understanding that the hospital was not liable if my condition worsened. It was nearing evening, and I was told I’d need to stay overnight for observation. My dad was instructed to take my bag with my phone, clothes and any potential diversion when he left. I tried to sleep, aided by anxiety meds and sheer exhaustion. I tried not to think. 

My assigned watcher met my eyes every time I shifted or got up to stretch. I didn’t know if I was allowed to use the hospital phone to call my boyfriend and find out when he was coming with a toothbrush and a snack. The idea of going to a psychiatric hospital for an unknown length of time was terrifying, but I worried that putting my loved ones in charge of my safety would be too much for them. And I was so terrified by the suicidal ideation that I thought maybe the doctors were right. Maybe I should be put away somewhere until I was “fixed.”

When my boyfriend arrived late evening, I burst into tears. The ER staff sorted through the books he brought. I assume it was a policy-mandated check for… what? Hidden weapons? A burner phone? Content that would make me more suicidal and grief-stricken than I already was? They let me keep a book, a toothbrush, and a few snacks. My love sat by my side and held me, reminding me that I was safe. He also wanted to make sure I understood what it would mean to be admitted on a psychiatric hold, even voluntarily. I would still be confined with little control over my environment and a lot of time to ruminate and panic. He said he’d be with me through this no matter what, that he loved me no matter what. I believed him. When he left, I felt more alone than ever. I cried myself to sleep under three layers of sheets in the freezing room.

I woke to my guard and a nurse having a loud conversation outside the glass. At first, they were talking about me, questioning why I was allowed a book, why I was allowed to keep my eyeglasses, and why I had a bag of pretzels on my bedside table. They spoke about me like I wasn’t there, like I couldn’t hear them, like I had committed some crime other than being ill.

Then, their conversation turned to the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children (who reminded me of students I used to teach back in Denver) were murdered by a young man with an assault rifle. I hadn’t yet heard about the shooting. The nurse said, “If something happened to my child, I think I would kill myself.” I believe she knew I was on suicide watch. I don’t know if she knew I could hear her. I didn’t take it personally, but I wondered why that particular conversation was the one I woke to that morning, in a place of alleged healing.

It was an hour until I could have visitors. I had to ask to go to the bathroom. I hadn’t showered. The hospital social worker told me it could be days before they found an inpatient bed for me at the psych hospital. Days in this room? Naked under paper pajamas? Alone and under guard? I began to panic. I felt the weight of systems and approaches my logical mind told me were in place to protect me, but which me made me feel less than human. I am grateful that the hospital protected me from myself at my worst. I am grateful that psychiatric inpatient facilities exist, and that there are resources to help people in need. And yet, I hope to never need the emergency room for a mental health crisis ever again.

When my partner arrived, I told him I would do whatever it took to be able to leave the hospital. I would go to therapy every day. I would find a support group. I would take time off to heal. But I knew being away from my community, from my home, my dog, my person, would break me more than I was already broken. I also doubted the psychiatric hospital would do much to treat or even consider my remaining COVID symptoms. Luckily, our angel of a psychiatric nurse was working again that morning. She approved my discharge. With my boyfriend, we went through a comprehensive safety plan where I listed my reasons for living: my nephews, parents, sisters, dog; the upcoming premiere of my partner’s documentary, summer weddings. We listed the people I could call in an emergency and the ways my partner could keep our environment safe in case of future mental health crises. And then I put my clothes back on, and we left. 

Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”  Hamilton, lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda

I walked out into the May afternoon feeling like I’d been hit by a train. I was still anxious and sick and exhausted and sad. I felt sad about the trauma I had put my family and partner through. I felt sad for myself, for my weary body and spirit. Most heavily, I felt a paralyzing sense of uncertainty. While traumatic in its way, at least an extended hospital stay would have provided me with a structure and a plan. Instead, I was given a sacred and complicated quest: to take responsibility for my recovery. I knew I had the right support around me, including an incredible therapist, but I would have to be vulnerable and open. I’d need to draw on the strength of others to get through this liminal time between crisis and the elusive ideal of “wellness” ahead. 

My mom flew out to join my dad and partner in supporting my transition back to “real life.” She stroked my hair and told me I was safe, that I could close my eyes, and the world wouldn’t disappear. I wasn’t given a plan specific to my recovery. I was encouraged to rest. To take time. To dip my toes back into the world. To sit in parks. To read. To take an art class, try out a support group. To be brutally, uncomfortably honest with my loved ones about how I was doing and what I needed. To continuously sit with my internalized and irrational guilt and shame about the ways I broke and how I was slowly healing, approaches that didn’t fit our society’s ideas of productivity and value and a quick fix. 

My therapist sent me meditations and exercises to help me tune into my body and shift my mood without relying on medication. My partner is learning the signs of my increasing anxiety: clenching hands, hair tugging, pacing around the apartment. He offers me hugs, walks, and ideas for moving from one moment to another. My sisters text me pictures of my nephews. I get back in touch with friends and family members, and reignite so many connections I had let wither or substituted with social media “likes.” I sit and notice my breathing. I walk to the library and pick out any book that looks interesting. I bring pastries to our neighbors. I have no idea what I’m doing. 

I think about the systems and circumstances that broke me and how intertwined they are: capitalism, mercenary politics, healthcare, ableism, male privilege, sexism, racism, technology, media, chronic illness, and isolation. I ponder how the systems that break us are designed to keep us addicted to them and make us feel like opting out of them means we are bad people, bad citizens. I think about how many people I know who are struggling deeply and how many feel forced to pretend they’re not drowning. I think about how we chalk it up to “burnout” or laziness or inability to cope. I think about how Americans commodify self-care and how this eludes community care and desperately needed systemic change. I don’t blame myself for letting my body and mind shatter, filling it with bad news, bad food, too many meds, and chronic stress and exhaustion. 

I pull weeds in my garden. I try to ignore my phone. I sit in coffee shops even when I don’t feel like being around people. I’m writing again, suddenly, a tide of words I don’t understand or question. I feel open, and sometimes that’s terrifying. I wonder how the things I decided are part of my healing will be compatible with returning to work. I see how easy it would be to go back to the same bad habits, to let the world slip away again, to fall back on my hiding places, addictions, self-loathing. I think about how alone I thought I was and how surrounded by love and community I am.

I think about what would have happened to me in the hospital if I was alone, elderly, or a non-native English speaker and not white, cisgender and privileged. I think about how I would have been funneled into yet another system, shut away from the very things I need to feel human. And that it might not have worked for me at all. I think about how we’re tricked repeatedly into abandoning ourselves and one another in favor of these systems of dominance and control, systems that don’t see our worth beyond our labor. 

Today I will call my mom and listen to her laughter. Today I will do some of the dishes in the sink. Today I will notice how blue my boyfriend’s eyes are. Today I will throw my dog the squeaky rubber ball that delights her. Today I will notice my heartbeat. Today I will wonder what the fuck I’m doing. Today I will read a poem. 

I am feeling better. I am uncertain. I am scared. I am living moment to moment. I remind myself that I matter to this world for more than my capacity to “get things done.” I want, achingly, to live and heal. To be part of healing the world. I have no idea how. I am looking for teachers. I am trying to be patient. I am trying not to fix myself with the same approaches that broke me. I am unfinished. I am hopeful.

Published by adventuresofaschmidiot

Writer, media scholar, feminist. I was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD and hope to document my "journey of becoming" as I approach 30.

One thought on “Breaking Is Easy. Healing is Harder.

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