June Converse

Thriving After Trauma - Author and Writing Coach

Most of you know, I suffer with bi-polar. Let me change that verb. I have bi-polar. I decided not the use “suffer” because I don’t live a life of suffering. I live a life of challenges – the challenge to stay out of the pit, the challenge to stay focused and not cave to impulsive behavior, the challenge not to judge myself for my “issues”.

Depression is often depicted as a deep hole in the ground. The depressed sit at the bottom. The walls are high and there ARE NOT many handholds. The bottom is cold and smells rotten. The light at the top is so far away it’s impossible to imagine the strength to make the climb. Sometimes it’s impossible to imagine ever standing to your feet in order to extend to the hands reaching down to help.

Another feature of the pit that most people don’t imagine is the ladder. For the chronically depressed, this ladder is the type that’s used in rocks – kind of like staples. They are hard to see, hard to wrap her fingers around. It takes a lot of strength because the climb is vertical.

For others – bi-polar and acute depression – the ladder is more like you’d find in a library. The ladder slants into the room and has handrails. The climb is hard, but the incline makes it more manageable. Thankfully, this is the type of ladder into my hole.

The Climb

When I was a girl, my father was building our house. He would stand at the top of his ladder (and to a little girl that was a damn tall ladder). He’d call down for me to bring up a tool or a box of nails. My little body would fill with excitement of adventure and fear of falling. I was going to climb the ladder. My hands would start to sweat and that would add to the experience.

With a tool strapped to my belt or a box tucked under my arm, I’d put one hand in front of the other and make the climb. That was hard but not the point of today’s blog.

The Descent

I always made it to my father. I’d hand over the requested item and then it was time to go back down. I’d look at the ground and my excitement turned to nausea. I couldn’t see the next rung below me. I’d grope and hang for a split second in the air. My father used to get angry with me, call me a chicken and shame me into moving. My mother would stand below, holding the ladder and coaxing me down. Once I found the first rung with my tiny feet, I gained confidence and moved to the ground with ease.

What’s the point? Over the last few weeks, my book hit the market. I got some unwelcome news. I’ve taken on “too much” and therefore I’m more stressed than normal. I’m at the top of the ladder and depression is calling me to come on down.

The First Rung

When I was a girl, once I moved my foot one rung down, I was able to go all the way without stopping. If I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, it was easier to reach the ground. It was the first step I would struggle to complete. The same is true for stepping down into the pit. If I can find the first step, I rush to the bottom. But I don’t want to be in the pit. I want to stay at the top where, like my father, I accomplish something. At the top, I pound nails and achieve my goals.

So, I have to recognize the first step and not put my foot on it. In the past, when I was really hurting, I didn’t even try to recognize the beginning of the descent. The pit, you see, was comfortable. Not pleasant but known.

But now, I recognize the pit for what it is, and I’d rather not go there.

MY First Step

In the last few weeks, I’ve been able to identify my very first step. It’s actually quite easy to see. When I’m about to descend, I start to question everything I’m doing.

  • “You should quit writing. No one wants to read your stuff.”
  • “You should quit the book clubs. You sound like a know-it-all and people hate that.”
  • “All that effort with social media is a waste of time. You’ve gotten two new followers in six months. What’s the damn point?”
  • “You can save money if you quit all this shit and focus on keeping your house in order. Just think, if you quit, you can scrapbook and read and volunteer.
  • “People only like you because you do things for them.”
  • And on and on

MY first step is ALWAYS the desire TO QUIT – give up what I’ve worked for (my career, my hobbies, my relationships) – judge what I’ve accomplished (or not accomplished).

When I recognize that step, I can turn around and climb back up. I can head to the roof and my bucket of nails. I can climb back to my goals and get to work. But I HAVE TO RECOGNIZE the start of the descent.

Recognizing the Step

It’s hard to recognize the first step once you’ve started the descent. But when you land at the bottom (or hopefully stop in the middle of the ladder) and take the time to think backwards, you have a chance to halt and move back up. Unwind the thought process. We don’t jump into the pit. We take a ladder down – one foot in front of the other. Take the time to find the first step. I think you’ll discover it’s most often the same. Your pattern, your trigger. For example, maybe your first step is:

  • A negative comment by someone (and this is especially triggering if it’s someone you respect)
  • A failure – big or small. A perceived failure.
  • The news (CNN, Fox, whoever)
  • Something bad happening to someone else
  • “Should”ing yourself
  • If you’re a creative – a bad critique or even a well-intentioned piece of advice
  • A financial problem
  • A disappointment of any type
  • A broken commitment
  • Falling back into a bad habit
  • Sometimes it’s as simple as eating the wrong thing (a massive amount of sugar-y dessert can send me racing down the ladder)
  • Etc.

When I recognize the step, I don’t automatically stop the desire to quit. But I can say to myself – “this is your first step. Don’t make any decisions at all. Don’t spend any $. Use some of your go-to self-help techniques.”

Does It Stop the Descent?

Yes and no. For me, I find myself recognizing the first step and still taking a couple more toward the pit. But I also find myself stopping and turning back to the light. I rarely get all the way into the pit. Even if I end-up in the mud, I don’t stay as long. I find the stairs easier and the climb faster.

What is your first step? Is your first step the same each time? How can you encourage yourself to turn around and head to the roof? Can you make a plan to stop your pattern or at least slow it down?

Click here to download the Journaling Activity that goes with this blog

A dear friend of mine chose to end his life recently. He was 33 and beautiful. Sweet, funny. Silly. Even when he was driving me crazy, he’d make me laugh. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth and sometimes it was so inappropriate all I could do was wipe the laughter tears from my face.

When I first was told, I heard the words but felt well …. I guess I would say I felt the shields go up and I wouldn’t let it in. Until someone said, “That was so selfish.”

The barrier has been blown and the feelings are crashing across and over me. I am sad. I am fighting feeling guilt. But what I mainly feel is RAGE.

You want to know what selfish is? – it’s a person who dares to call someone who hurt so badly that taking his own life was the only way to stop the intense hurt.

Selfish is the person who feels like they know what someone is going through and are allowed to give their opinion.  That’s selfish and arrogant.

Selfish is the person who, instead of thinking of the family and this victim, thinks of THEIR opinion. Their UNINFORMED opinion.

Let Me Inform You

I have tried to commit suicide once. I have sat in my bathroom surrounded by every pill in the house many many times. I have done the research on the “best” or the “surest” way or the “least painful” way. I have almost dialed the Suicide Hotlines. So, I know what I’m talking about. WHAT YOU NEED YOU TO KNOW:

I cannot know what Sam* was going through and I should not pretend I can.

I do KNOW his pain was so thick he could not see out of it. Imagine a fog so thick you have to pull over and wait it out. A fog that engulfs the car inside and out. It’s cold and horror movie scary. Even if someone is sitting right next to you, the fog is so deep you can’t see far enough to find that person’s hand. The fog is isolating, disorienting.

I do KNOW he was thinking of OTHERS and not himself. But he was seeing others through the dark grey the fog. He was afraid FOR his family. What if he brought them into the fog? What if he ____? (fill in the blank). A person willing to take that final step is TRYING TO TAKE CARE OF THOSE HE LOVES.

Is he misguided? Absolutely. But the fog is so thick, the sun can’t pierce through. And it feels never-ending. It just keeps rolling in and over. In the mouth. Up the nose. Clogging the ears. It’s a cold sweat and shaking hands and a racing heart.

Do I wish he would have reached out? Absolutely.

Selfish People Will Say

Selfish people will say “He should have talked to someone”. Those people have never sat in the fog. You think there is no one out there. It’s like being on a dark planet. Imagine you are surrounded in the stuff. You can’t touch it. You can’t smell it. You can feel it only as cold on your skin. You can’t even see it in any ‘real’ way. The fog is ephemeral. How do you sit in a therapist’s office and explain what feels at the time as completely inexplicable? How do you explain the imaginary fog that feels as real at the time as the therapist now sitting in front of you?

We’ve all been sad. But this is not sadness. This is not even despair. This is ABJECT FEAR the fog will NEVER float away.

Did he make the wrong choice? Yes, but not because he was selfish. He made the wrong choice because the fog will float away even if he couldn’t see it at that moment in time.

Do I think he could have gotten help and found healthy coping mechanisms? Yes. I have. But it’s hard to find someone who you trust and then the climbing out of the fog is misery – a different kind of fog. It’s all so embarrassing, shameful. If you have not been there, you cannot possibly know so please do not say “HE SHOULD HAVE ______” – if you want to judge someone, look in a mirror. That’s as far as our judgment is allowed to go.

Do I feel sadness for his family? Yes. Sam will be missed by many.

Do I think Sam was selfish? NEVER.

Please STOP

I know you would never say Sam was selfish to his family. BUT STOP THINKING IT and for damn sure, DON’T FEEL YOU ARE QUALIFIED TO SAY IT TO ANYONE. All you do is show your ignorance and shame the people who have sat in the fog. And, let’s be very clear, you have no idea who else may have  sat in the fog.

Just be compassionate. That would be selfless and loving.

To My Friend and His Family

I wish I could be there for you. I wish I could explain better what he was going through. I will tell you that he loved you and he was not being selfish.

Sam – The fog has lifted. Smile in the sun my dear friend.

To Those of You Who Feel Allowed to Judge

Shut up and I hope the fog never descends on you or those you hold dear.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- 1-800-273-8255

*The name has been changed to protect privacy.

I wrote last time about the selfishly aborted shopping trip the day before my mother fell and broke her hip. She died less than a week later.

On Sunday we were told she would not survive this fall and “if people wanted to come say goodbye, now was the time.” One of my jobs was to make telephone calls. I called cousins and one uncle, an aunt. I called one of my mother’s church friends (I’ll dedicate an entire blog to that call). I called their housekeeper, who also happens to be one of my closest friends. Her name is Sandy.

On Sunday, I returned with lunch around eleven AM and what did I see? Sandy sitting next to my mother, talking with her, calming her, stroking her arm, holding her hand. Even as I write this, the need to cry is overwhelming. Tears of gratitude but mostly tears of guilt and shame. But I won’t let the tears fall (a subject of another post).

As much as I needed to … as much as I actually wanted to … I could not sit and touch my mother like that. We are not a “touchy-feely” family. I can recall almost every hug my parents have given me because there are so few. I have never hugged my brothers or nieces or nephews. Even hugging my own children causes a low-level anxiety.

It’s not just me. My brothers and my father also didn’t touch her or each other (well, Dad did rub her arm in those final minutes).

She passed with me standing on one side of the bed and my father on the other. We held hands across that space until we realized what we were doing. Then – BAM – we dropped the hold. When my father started to cry (which I had NEVER seen him do), I walked around the bed to rub his shoulders. That was the best I could offer. No hug. No words of love or grief. A thirty-second rub. And I promise you he was not comforted by that – touch in our family is simply uncomfortable.

Others Try It

I have a few “huggy” friends and my in-laws like to hug too. I am so uneasy that everyone is tense. It’s so bad that many of these huggers just stopped trying. Others stand back, look me in the eye and say, “Hold on, I’m going to hug you.” Then I brace, hold my breath, survive. What most of these people don’t know is that I usually want to snuggle in and almost always choke back tears.

I have to give my in-laws credit. After 27 years of marriage, they haven’t given up on me.

My Own Nuclear Family

Whenever my son and his family visit (which is often), he and my husband always embrace. The same is true for my daughter and even her boyfriend. I sit on the couch so jealous and isolated. It’s horrible. But I cannot bring myself to enter that tenderness. Why is that? It’s more than just a family culture – it’s deeper and more insidious.

My husband wishes I was more touch-oriented. As a matter of fact, and sadness, touch is one of his love languages and I have the hardest time meeting that need. He’s adjusted but it should have been me to make adjustment.

Even writing about this is stressful to me. I want to be a hugger – to be tender with people. But more than that, I’d like to understand why it’s so hard for me and my entire family. Do we not think we deserve the touch? Did someone along the way make touch ‘wrong’ or ‘scary’? Do we not think people want our touch?

I’m wondering now why I never thought to discuss this with my therapist. I guess it’s one of those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ things. Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to investigate this deeper. Hopefully I can figure this out before my father dies and I’m left feeling sad that I didn’t/couldn’t reassure him of my love with hugs and caresses.

Instead of Hugs

I don’t think my son or future D-I-L read this blog, but if they do… Brian and Angelena, watching the two of you hug my mom, tell her you love her and then snuggling in close to my dad is one my most precious gifts. I’ll try to do better. I love you.

To Sandy P – Thank you for a million things! You made my mother feel special and my father smile. You accept me with all my idiosyncrasies. I love you.

June Converse with purple hair
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....


Copyright 2021 June Converse, All Rights Reserved.

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