Invisible Illness
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Invisible Illness

A Sign From My Mother

My depression became more severe after high school. Most of my friends had left our small suburban town for college. I had no direction or goals in life and was spiraling in despair. I spent a lot of time in bed.

One afternoon, I woke up and saw that my mom had hung a sign on the wall next to my bed. It was a quotation from the novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. “Finally…without remorse for the past, confident in the present, and full of hope for the future, (s)he went to bed and slept the sleep of the brave.” She had printed it (on her cool laser printer — back when everyone else was still dot matrixing) and painted soft watercolors onto it. I cried for hours. I got out of bed.

I bumbled around for a bit and then found some focus competing for my local community college in intercollegiate speech and debate. I had been a competitor in high school but didn’t win very much. Things were different in college.

Every tournament I went to except for my first state and national tournaments, I brought home hardware. It got to the point that I expected to win something. I didn’t like losing and clearly something was clicking for me. While I showed my teammates and competitors my good sportsmanship, inside my head the internal dialogue was anything but respectable.

If I won first place, it didn’t matter. In my head, I had already beat myself up for the missed page turn in minute 4 of my program. How fucking stupid could you be? It didn’t matter if nobody else noticed. If I got third place? It was worse. If I didn’t advance to the final round? I’d probably be staying in bed for a few days after we got home.

The thing about being a good performer is it’s hard to go backstage. Everything is a performance. Most people never knew about my battles or that I was depressed. If you asked most of my acquaintances, they would tell you I’m a happy, positive person. Like I said, I’m a good performer.

The battle with depression plays out in the mind, you get stuck in your head. Internal voice(s) can be especially cruel. Anything positive or good can be destroyed by these voices. When I stepped in front of judges to perform speeches, the voices became super intense. I finally reached a breaking point.

I began a thought experiment: I began to think of the voices in my head as actors in a play. I started by listening to the voices like a casting agent. Who are they? Are they useful to me? How?

My critical voices were the loudest. The nit-picky perfectionist. The depressed sloth. There were a few different voices, all negative and debilitating. I drew them together as a composite character and named them: Sarah Parker.

After that, my public speaking career really took off. When I got up to perform and my internal voice started criticizing, I’d remind Sarah Parker to leave. I could talk to (or tolerate listening to) Sarah later, when her feedback could be more helpful. It was an awesome strategy. I won a state championship in Speaking to Entertain. I transferred to San Francisco State and found more success in Debate. Having Sarah Parker under control meant I could do anything. I was truly sleeping the sleep of the brave.

Depression comes in waves. It pulls back from the shore and recedes into the distance, giving the illusion that the beach is larger. And as you’re enjoying the open feeling, it returns, crashing you into the dirt.

For years, I taught my public speaking students about Sarah Parker and how to manage negative self-talk and communication apprehension(CA). Many students also named their negative self-talk and then were able to quiet them during performances. I had so much confidence in the technique.

Second week of a new semester, I began my lecture on CA and introduced the idea of Sarah Parker. I noticed a student tilt her head to one side and look at me with a confused, furrowed brow. She fiddled with her binder, looking for information. Then she found it. Her head tilted the other way and with the same confused look, her hand went up. I immediately acknowledged her.

“My other teacher’s name is Sara Parker.”

“What?” I stopped and returned the same tilted head, furrowed brow look to her.

“My Political Science professor…her name is Sara Parker.”

“Here? At this school?” I asked.

“Yes.” She waved me over to look in her notebook.

There at the top of another professor’s syllabus it read: Dr. Sara Parker.

It never occurred to me that I would run into a real Sarah Parker. I collected myself and returned to my lecture.

“Wow. Ok. So… you can pick any name. The name doesn’t matter. It’s the idea that you’re disassociating yourself from your critical voice. Naming it allows you to direct it, to manage it. The name doesn’t really matter.”

I think I was trying to convince myself that more than convince them. Did the name matter? I left class determined to find this new colleague, the real Sara Parker.

My mind raced as I walked across campus toward our faculty office building. Although these were my internal voices, Sarah Parker had emerged as a salient entity. And I held power over her. I was the director. I don’t need Sarah Parker anymore, I repeated to myself. I hadn’t heard from her lately— not much since I had been tenured. I’d let her speak sometimes when I wanted a critical perspective. But she wasn’t the dominant narrator in my mind anymore, she hadn’t been for years. I didn’t need her anymore.

I found the new Political Science professor and my heart was racing. She’s going to think you’re crazy, Sarah Parker whispered in my head. I introduced myself and the real Sara Parker turned to greet me. The real Sara Parker was kind, sincere, and warm. We chatted for a bit exchanging details about our studies and our personal lives. It was surreal. Finally, I told her about the lecture I had given and the student’s response. (Better she hear this one from me than them.) The real Sara Parker tilted her head and looked at me, curiously. I admitted to her that I never anticipated meeting a real Sara Parker and how relieved I was that she was cool and different than the one I had created.

It wasn’t my best first impression, I’ll admit.

Depression comes in waves. It pulls back from the shore and recedes into the distance, giving the illusion that the beach is larger. And as you’re enjoying the open feeling, it returns, crashing you into the dirt.

When I got pregnant, I should have expected it. I thought I had prepared for everything and it had been so long since I had felt severely depressed. But postpartum depression crashed in hard. I worked with doctors to find medication; I focused on my diet, trying to eat healthier; I adjusted my workload attempting to fight back. I cried driving myself to work every day. Every. Day. I was exhausted and spiraling into despair.

The Voices Formerly Known As Sarah Parker emerged much more distinctly. The stage in my mind was being taking over by dozens of angry, sad, critical, despairing characters and I, as the director, couldn’t manage the production anymore. I knew I needed significant change if I was going to survive or thrive again. I sat down and evaluated my life, my goals, my needs, my assets, my desires. Then I quit my job and sold my house. It was time to focus on me.

“Finally…without remorse for the past, confident in the present, and full of hope for the future, (s)he went to bed and slept the sleep of the brave.”

Recently, I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of my dear friend Dr. Gladys Ato’s new book, The Good Goodbye. After reading it, one of the things I realized was that I never really got closure with the loss of Sarah Parker. It may sound silly, but losing her was losing a significant strategy I had depended on for many years in my battles with depression and anxiety. I had never fully said goodbye to her; I had just dismissed her.

I thought about who she had become to me and I started writing on a blank piece of paper — she was the bitter one, who allowed me to be sweet. She was the mean one, who allowed me to be kind. She was the critical one, who allowed me to be nonjudgmental. She was the lonely one, who allowed me to be surrounded by friends. She was the pessimist. I could have hope.

Sarah Parker had allowed me to live in a more meaningful way than I had been living before. She was the yin to my yang. She grew with me over the years, filling gaps, withstanding pain, and absorbing humiliation. She helped me find balance. I realized my gratitude for her and to myself for creating her. I didn’t understand her depth until I dug deep to find her.

I took the paper and crumpled it up. I walked out onto the patio and put the paper in my outdoor fireplace. I lit it and watched the flames lick the crevices, words revealing themselves as the fire passed through layers of paper.

Lonely.

Pessimist.

Hope.

Tears streamed down my face. It was a good goodbye.

One of the things I’ve realized over the last year is that I was only focused on managing negative self-talk, when these strategies could be useful in deeper ways for me. To be a better director, I have to concern myself more with the plot and developing stronger narrative voices: voices I need and want to listen to. It’s one thing to silence debilitating self-talk. It’s another to pull forth sincere positive self-talk. (I can only tell myself you can do it a few times before it’s not funny.)

I was going through a box of mementos and keepsakes the other day. I knew what was on the other side of the paper before I turned it over. The edges were bent and the colors were faded. It was the sign from my mother (and perhaps now the Universe for putting it in my hands again) reminding me to not have remorse for the past, to be confident in the present, and full of hope for the future.

With my new composite character Wendy Wanker™ all things are possible.

Christine Warda can be found at www.seedubinternational.com.

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We don't talk enough about mental health.

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christine warda

christine warda

Communication. Civic Discourse. Critical Thinking. Self and global. Mother. Teacher. Friend. Traveler. she/her/ella

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