Warning…TMI ahead. I’ve thought a lot about writing this piece. I believe in the spirit of sharing experience; learning from one another—recognizing our own stories and finding we are not alone—when someone is willing to speak her truth. My gratitude to Carol Christ whose courage to share experience has empowered me to brave (I feel an overwhelming urge to insert emojis to express my emotion and gratitude; and although I am desperately trying to restrain myself… 🤗❤️🙏).
Being vulnerable is scary. It is uncomfortable. It requires us to share our deepest fears, that for which we feel shame. It can be embarrassing. We don’t want to be judged. And yet, our vulnerability can also promote our own healing and offer a sense of comfort to those who share in our struggle. And so, I feel like I should shout out Geronimo…
This month marks eleven years since losing my mother to violence. It also marks fours year since I chose to leave my seventeen year marriage. I hadn’t before made the connection about these two events occurring the same month until this very moment of my writing – but it occurs to me that there is a significance in finding strength during a time when I was grieving the anniversary of my mother’s passing. Perhaps a reflection for another post…
I remember the moment I knew that my marriage was likely going to end; I felt like I was dying. I begged my husband to stay. I recited prayers that have never brought me comfort. I went to a church that offered me no community. I sought counseling from a priest who devalues me because I am a woman. I turned to the traditional interpretation of my religion to keep me firmly placed in an unhealthy marriage. Power structure enforcing power structure.
I cried morning and night. I didn’t sleep or eat. And I began to fear that I would destroy every other aspect of my life if I did not choose my mental health over being married. I decided to take an anti-depressant.
It was with the courage of Monica Coleman who shared about her experience with depression that I made this decision. Monica has also given me the courage to acknowledge here that I needed help and chose medication in a culture that is so judgmental and dismissive of mental health.
Medication was hugely beneficial in the moment; it kept me from breaking down into tears every second of the day and allowed me to contemplate my situations and options in a more rational way. My colleagues were generous; but my grief was destructive and choosing an anti-depressant allowed me to nurture the other aspects of my life that needed to be maintained. Employment is important when you are about to embark on a journey of single parenting.
With new found clarity and strength, I decided to be preemptive and take control of what seemed inevitable. I woke up one morning, called a realtor and went to see a house in a development that was built when I was a child — and more specifically, during the time my own parents were getting divorced. I had always fantasized about living in this neighborhood. It signified many things to me: family, community, the so called “American Dream.”
The house was in desperate need of love and care – all was emblematic of my personal state of being. I made an offer and it was accepted within a matter of hours. That night, I went home and told my now ex-husband that I bought a house and was leaving. It was the beginning of a death that was necessary.
Although necessary, death is painful. As a friend once told me, you need to do your grief work. For a long time, I didn’t know what that meant. For the last four years, I continued to take anti-depressants and became wedded to the idea that I could not be “happy” without them and that I “needed” medication to steady my mood, to be a “nicer” person, and to keep my sh*t together. There is so much to be explored and deconstructed here – but again, for another post.
Medication helped me to choose a painful death so that I could birth a better life. It was the right choice for me in the moment. However, it also numbed me. I did not cry; I did not loose my patience; and things that generally sparked my anger no longer affected me.
Over time, my ability to function became significantly impaired. The sedating effect of the medication became overpowering. I slowly started to lose focus, lack ambition, and began sleeping more and more. When awake, I had no energy and often stayed in bed. When working, I made careless mistakes. Emails piled up, deadlines passed (things that would never have happened pre-medication), and because I felt so overwhelmed I shut down. I constantly felt like I was drowning and searching for a life preserver.
Those of you who know me, likely recognized a massive shift in my energy, productivity, responsiveness, etc. My relationships with friends, colleagues, and loved ones all withered. In looking back, the person I was had died. I did not recognize myself.
Beyond the lack of energy and shutting down, my cognitive abilities were waning and I began struggling with the use of my hands. Articulating a clear thought was a challenge. I often became confused or couldn’t remember simple things. Sometimes I could not type or hold a glass. After multiple doctors appointments and tests, this past year I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Treatment has been helpful and I’ve slowly started to find myself being productive again.
In a very random decision, I stopped taking the anti-depressant about four months ago. I didn’t plan it. It was something I thought I would never do. But it seems my cognitive abilities interfered and I simply forgot to take it for three days. I felt okay, and so I decided to just wait and see.
It is true what they say—you should not just stop taking an anti-depressant. I found that out the hard way. It was a journey with many peaks and valleys. But here I am on the other side and I have found that without the medication, sometimes I am sad, lose my patience, get angry, and sometimes I am not “nice.” But aren’t those human emotions we are supposed to have?
It has occurred to me that instead of masking my feelings, that I need to learn how to manage them. Four years later, I still need to do my grief work.
It is important for me to acknowledge here that I am not dismissing the benefits and need for mental health medication. What I am saying is that it benefited me greatly, but then became a crutch that I used to avoid grief and likely increased my depression. Here is a link to an insightful article on depression and how to avoid feeding it: What to do if you are depressed: avoiding paradoxes.
I’ve been listening to Brene Brown’s “Rising Strong as Spiritual Practice.” She says that in order to grieve, we must kill and bury something so that something new can be born. For me, the image of family I had created for myself (and is valued in my own family, culture, and faith) is one that will never exist in my life. I am divorced, my daughter is growing up in two households, I won’t ever give birth to a child, I won’t have more children, I won’t celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary with a “soul mate,” I don’t have a partner to share common goals with, nor a bank account, or life’s responsibilities (although I do I realize this part is still possible).
As I continually tell my daughter that family comes in many packages and embrace Margaret Farley’s commitment to “just love” – I am working on accepting that for myself. I’m also focused on honoring that what we value within a culture is not the only “thing” that should be valued. Interestingly, I’ve always supported these ideas for our greater community and value the many forms of relationships and families grounded in love that exist in our world, but have not able to do so for myself because my grief work is incomplete.
This “confession” is long with many pieces and parts. I share it here for three reasons. As I mention, the importance of learning from experience is something I know and I am embracing Carol’s and Monica’s courage and example to be vulnerable with purpose (and that of countless others).
Perhaps inappropriately, I do so as an act of contrition — I feel the need to ask for forgiveness from so many I have let down, haven’t been a good friend, colleague, or mentor to, have lost contact with, etc.
And finally, I do so in the spirit of closure; to finish my grief work and welcome my rebirth.
Rebirth is challenging. It demands that we be accountable, acknowledge failures and fears, recognize the ramifications of our actions, and the ways we impact those who share our journey. We often don’t realize that denying self-love and care in favor of sacrifice for others results in a double negative. If we don’t care for ourselves, we cannot care for anyone else.
Rebirth is radical in that we are challenged to confront all of these things and still choose to love ourselves, honoring that we are sacred beings with purpose. What if we choose to give ourselves the love we give to others? How would we change as human beings? How would it benefit those that we care for?
This is my journey. These are the questions I’m asking. I am embracing vulnerability, acknowledging my fears, naming my grief, and trying to be accountable. I’m working on it. And I think rebirth is coming.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of . She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again and Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.