Mental Health Awareness Week is October 4-10, 2015. Each day of Mental Health Awareness Week, I will post a “STUCK” blog telling an anonymous story demonstrating a challenge faced by someone else. This person could be someone you love, it could be you or it could be me.
Everyday someone somewhere is struggling and feeling stuck.
If my blogs resonate with you, I’d love to hear your comments. Please share my stories and discuss. No one needs to suffer alone or in silence.
I first met Helen when I was working as a first time manager in the federal government. Helen was one of my subordinate who was a dream to work with. She was smart, engaged in her work and had great ideas. She was great support to me as she taught me the history of the organization. I came to rely on her expertise and trusted her abilities tremendously.
Helen had a quirky sense of humour too.
One day as I was working on a project, I looked up to see a picture of a chocolate bar taped to my window. I smiled to myself and kept working. A few minutes later, a note was slid under my door that said “You know you want to”. I laughed and opened my door to find Helen leaning on my bookcase casually swinging my favorite chocolate bar between her fingers. That was the first but not the last time Helen would humorously remind me to take a break. She grounded me.
That was Helen – dedicated, professional and hard-working but with a whimsical way of lightening up the serious moments.
When I left government, Helen was one of the ones I knew I would miss.
We worked together for many more years. We were a great little team and I became reliant on Helen’s abilities, efficiencies and dependability. She never wavered but I did notice that a melancholy began to replace the whimsical woman I had come to know. I never asked and I never knew what caused the sadness in her eyes.
I met Helen again about a year later when I was studying for my coaching certification. To complete my practicum, I was required to log a number of coaching hours with real people. I decided to reach out to a few people that might be interested in helping me. Helen answered my email immediately. She was that type of person always ready to help.
I explained to her I was not yet charging for my coaching but rather I was asking for a donation to the charity of her choice in exchange for my coaching fee and to satisfy my practicum requirements.
We began coaching together – once a week we would meet over skype and I would ask what I thought were my best coaching questions. Despite my best efforts, I was still unclear what I help I was providing to Helen. I was still struggling to determine what her issue was and what she wanted coaching help for.
As one of my first coaching clients, I was stuck – I really didn’t know how to reach her. I spoke to my advisor and said “I feel like all I’m doing is listening but not really getting to the issue” My advisor advised me to “keep listening”. She assured me I was building a relationship of trust and when the time was right and Helen felt safe she would open up.
That’s exactly what happened. We were scheduled to meet again over Skype when Helen texted me and said “Hey want to have coffee together instead?” I thought sure “maybe she will open up if we meet face to face. What happened next I was totally unprepared for.
Helen told me her story. As the oldest daughter in the family, the expectations were that she would be a good girl – she would do well in school and then she would marry and have children. Case closed. When Helen told her parents she wanted to study abroad, not only were they not supportive, they were angry that she would waste time getting an education rather than having children. Despite the lack of support, she went to university alone and lonely but determined to pursue her studies. She paid for her university herself by working tables in a restaurant, where she met her future husband who was working there as the chef. They soon had 2 beautiful sons together. Life was good.
Then something unforeseen happened that turned their happy lives upside down. One evening while John was putting out the garbage behind the restaurant, he was attacked and robbed. John was brutally beaten. He was in hospital for a long time healing and enduring surgery after surgery to repair his hand arm, chest and face that had been slashed during the knife attack. Unfortunately, his hand was so badly damaged that his career as a chef was over. He felt useless as a provider and felt like a spectacle out in public because of the scars on his face.
John began relying on large quantities of his medication to relieve his physical pain and to numb his emotional pain. He began seeking different doctors to get more of his prescriptions. When he could not get it from the doctors, he started buying pain meds on the street. When the pain meds no longer worked, he started taking cocaine and heroin if he could get it. One of the ways he was affording to get his drugs was by selling personal belongings. Helen told me one day she came out of her house to find her car was not in the driveway. John had sold it for drugs. She cried as she walked to the bus to get to work, phoned John and begged him to get help for his addiction. He refused. He also sold some of his family’s favorite possessions – a vintage violin, gymnastic equipment, stuffed animals, anything he could find. The final straw came when Helen was awakened one night by men pounding on the door demanding to talk to her husband. Fearing for her children, she moved herself and the boys to an apartment. She did not give her husband the address. She was afraid for her safety and told her husband she would only tell him where they were living when he agreed to get help for his addiction. Again he refused and blamed Helen for leaving him.
Helen never lived with her husband again.
When Helen told me her story it had been 4 years since she had run away with her children. And still the pain and shame of her story was as raw as if it just happened. She felt ashamed. Her shame and guilt kept her isolated. Helen’s grief turned to chronic pain and fatique. Helen lived like a victim – how could this have happened to her, why did this happen to her, what did she ever do to deserve this?
After hearing her story Helen said – “Are you shocked? I bet you don’t want to coach me anymore. I’m a mess!” I said I admitted I am overwhelmed and feel out of my element coaching her but I thanked her for trusting me with her story.
She then said she was tired of being angry, tired of the sadness, guilt and responsibility she felt for her boys. She was tired of being tired. She wanted to get her life back, to find happiness and vitality in living but she had no idea where to begin. She said she felt dead inside, she went through life doing what needed to be done but she took no pleasure in her sons’ activities or her work and she had isolated herself from everyone she had known before the accident. She felt more alone than she did when she first went to away to university. She suffered from chronic pain and chronic fatigue. She felt her life stopped having any meaning after her husband’s accident.
Over the next several months, Helen fought hard to take back her life. She began explore her old interests of language and religion but found there was too much reminder of the past. She began to challenge her shyness and explore new ideas that interested her and slowly began to infuse some joy back into her life. She learned to cook, began walking in nature and even went dancing one evening with her new friends from her cooking class. Helen began to realize all the things she had loved that she abandoned were still there if she paid attention to them. She began to study languages again. The more things she began to re-infuse into her life, the more pleasure she found in life.
She began to understand she had not done anything to contribute to her husband’s addiction, she had not caused it but nor could she fix it either. She began to let go of the shame and guilt that paralyzed her. Helen learned that shame was keeping her silent and isolated. She learned to accept that John was ill and that forgiveness was necessary in order to move on and find joy again in her life.
She made a conscious decision to forgive her husband for all the past transgressions. She now understands that addiction is a disease that causes people to react in ways that are completely out of character for them. She forgave herself for any role she felt she had in contributing to his dependency. She forgave herself for not knowing what to do. As she forgave, she began to find joy creep back into her life. Helen started really enjoying her daughters and not just doing to obligatory mommy role. She began to have a zest for life again that she never thought she would have again. Through her journey, she also learned to let go of the things she could not control (her husband’s addiction and disinterest in getting clean). As she embraced forgiveness, she began to feel less shame and guilt and more compassion towards her husband’s addiction. She still loves the man inside the drugs but she knows she must look after her own health and her children’s health.
John now lives on the street. He sometimes phones his kids. They are always happy to talk to him because they know that when he phones their father is safe in a shelter and not living on the street.
The last time I saw Helen, I noticed less pain in her eyes. I thought she looked 10 years younger. She says she is not yet happy but she is content, her sons are both doing well. Helen has rekindled her passion for learning and now speaks 7 different languages. She has joined a community group and participates in many of their activities. She still goes dancing once in a while. With each day, Helen is feeling more compassion and empathy towards her husband and less anger and shame.
When we parted, we hugged for a long time and agreed to meet every couple of months to stay in touch. As we parted, Helen placed a cheque in my hand and walked away. The cheque was a donation to the Ottawa Mission.
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