Sunday, July 12, 2020

Many Busy Days

Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today

There is a story here. It is the story of a journey. A seven year journey. And a six year journey. And a one year journey. And a seven month journey. This is the story of one journey and many journeys. 

I'll start at the beginning, seven years ago.

In 2013, inspired by the counselors who (I believe) helped to save my son's life, I registered with CCAPP (California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals) to become a drug and alcohol counselor. As with many social service vocations, certification (credentialing) was going to be necessary to work in the field. At the time, this required taking 12 academic classes and working just over 1,800 practicum (internship) hours. And all of this needed to be completed within five years. These requirements were non-negotiable. As soon as I registered, the clock started ticking.

But I didn't take any classes in 2013 or in 2014 either. You see, in late 2013, I'd had a relapse and overdose. So the year of 2014 was dedicated to creating a foundation for not just my son's recovery, but my own recovery, as well.

After my overdose, I moved into a sober living house (SLE) and I lived there for close to two years. In 2015 I spent many late nights sitting at the kitchen table of that house, studying for classes and exams. My roommates (also in new recovery) were very patient with me when, night after night, half that table was taken up by textbooks and note paper.

In May of 2016, I was taking one of my last classes at Cal State University, East Bay. At that class, (the amazing) Jimmy Isch was invited to speak. He was recruiting interns for the agency he worked for - Second Chance Recovery Center in Hayward, California. When he talked about Second Chance, he explained that they worked with underserved communities, including the homeless. Many clients were dual diagnosis, as well (dealing with illnesses such as PTSD in addition to their addictions). And there was one other thing he emphasized when he was recruiting interns. "You need to be able to write," he said. I knew then, this was the internship I wanted.

I started right away, but only worked a few hours each week. My plan was to complete the bulk of the hours I needed by working full time, starting in April of the following year (2017). Everything went as scheduled and I was set to begin my full time hours on April 3rd. But then something happened.

On April 2, 2017, John died.

Everything in my life came to a halt as I tried to recover from his loss. My practicum hours had to wait. Second Chance was incredibly supportive. Everyone was very patient, taking my shifts when needed, and helping me with my work on the days that I did make it to the office. So I continued as I had before, a part time intern. It was all I could manage. Suicide loss stays with you always, but for me, the first year was particularly hard. By the time 2018 rolled around, I was in trouble. I simply wasn't going to complete the hours I needed in order to apply to take the statewide chemical dependency counselor exam (the IC&RC). My five years were up.

So, I filed an application for a one year hardship extension. Armed with medical records from my 2013 overdose and a copy of John's 2017 obituary - my one year extension was approved. I made plans to work more hours. I believed that I could do it. That I could finally complete the bulk of my hours.

But 2019 was another brutal year. Loss after loss, yet again. Family members, dear friends, clients, and many other people I knew. Midway through the year, I was on the verge of a breakdown. Still, in August of 2019, I was finally ready to apply to take the official IC&RC exam. I filled out my application papers, and added documentation. The documentation included my transcripts from Cal State, and signed proof of those 1,800 internship hours. As I was filling out the application, I re-read the requirements in order to ensure that I had everything needed. As I read, I noticed there was a discrepancy between what I was submitting and what was required. I was confused. I still remember that moment. I was at work sitting in the room where staff completed their notes after a counseling shift. No one else was in the room, and I was glad. Because suddenly, I couldn't breathe. I fought off tears.

You see, in the six years that had passed since I first registered to become a counselor - the requirements had changed. For the first time, I realized that I was missing multiple required classes, and I was over 300 hours short of those that were now required in a practicum. I was already deeply overwhelmed by the grief of loss, and desperately fighting to control the beginnings of an eating disorder relapse. I was too ashamed to talk to anyone about the fact that I was likely to lose the six year long goal of becoming a fully credentialed counselor, too.

I was angry and overwhelmed and extra sensitive to absolutely everything. I lashed out at people I loved. One particularly hard night, my son asked me if I would go into the hospital. So, I did. The truth is, I didn't want to live anymore. I just wanted to be done.

I did live through the next several months though, but only because of the unwavering love of my son and my closest friends. More than once, the people who cared about me sat me down and said, 'Please make it through this.' In fact, on Christmas night, my son told me this same thing. "Mom, I need you to live." It was the greatest gift he could give me, I suppose, telling me that he needed me in his life. So I kept trying, even when I didn't want to. I complained to one friend that it was too much to ask of me. She told me something that we often hear in our circles of recovery. "Well, act as if," she said. "Act as if you want to live. That's enough for now."

I have two close friends whom I met in eating disorder treatment many years ago. Each one reached out to me. They buoyed my hopes when it came to the eating disorder part of my treatment this time around. "You can do it" really means something when the words are coming from people who've done it before, themselves.

There is an amazing man in my life. More than once, he was the target of my lashing out. I was mad at him for loving me and I was really mad at food in general. One night, I threw a sandwich across the room and it almost hit him in the head. After it landed with a splat on the floor, he remained patient and said to me: "I hope you're going to clean that up. Because I'm not." Later he reminded me that he loved me even when I threw sandwiches at him. I was worth loving, he told me. Period. He loved me when I fell apart. And he was willing to wait, he said, for the non-sandwich-throwing Chelise to return.

Another friend came to my house one night with two matching pairs of pink onesie pajamas. She told me that we were going to put them on and sit on the couch and watch a stupid movie together. You don't have a choice, she said. It is amazing to me that there are times when I have no idea how to help myself, but sometimes there are others who know exactly what I need.

Equally important, John Macaluso's mother (and we'd lost John only two and a half years earlier) called me every single day for months. She wanted to make sure I knew that when a person deals with mental illness - even if, while suffering, they lash out at people they care about - it doesn't mean that they themselves are less lovable, less forgivable, or less of a valued person. My own mother is not living, but there were many nights that I spent at Jo Macaluso's house, just so I could be near a mother who loved me.

Always, all of these people reminded me that even if did cruel things while sick - those actions did not determine who I was as a whole. One friend reminded me that what you do while having a nervous breakdown does not take away the value you have as a friend.

I was in day treatment when my counselors encouraged me to apply for a second hardship extension. They believed in me, they said. They believed I would be able to complete the additional classes and the additional hours I needed in order to take the IC&RC exam. I was desperately trying to find a will to live and they were telling me I should be applying for something that would happen in the future. I knew enough about suicide prevention to know what they were doing. Any step I took that spoke to the promise of a future, was a good step. And so that is what I did. I applied for a second extension. It can be hard to get the second extension. If you are approved, it's your last chance. You will get no more extensions beyond the two years. That's it. Period. Once again I gathered transcripts and medical records, and once again I submitted a copy of John's obituary. I included a letter from my supervisor at Second Chance that verified that I was a good intern with lots of promise and who was well liked by staff and clients alike. I submitted the application. Two weeks later, I received a letter telling me that the second extension was approved.

October 5th of 2019 marked six years since the day in 2013 that I'd overdosed. And the next day, October 6th, 2019, marked six years from the day that I began my journey of recovery. Meanwhile I was bouncing between inpatient and outpatient day treatment. Just like they had done six years earlier, my treatment team and the people who loved me made sure I lived through the last months of 2019 and the first months of 2020. I sure didn't know how to do it on my own, I leaned into all these people and learned to pick up the pieces of me that shatter when grief is too heavy for me to bear. And I leaned into this too - the one thing that has remained constant from October 6th, 2013, until today:

I stayed sober.

Staying clean and sober when you are in eating disorder treatment can feel so very unfair. My primary addiction had been to anxiety medications, and for the past six years I have had to manage learning to eat again and all the accompanying anxiety inherent in that, without medication.

This time around, it felt too hard. Just getting to day treatment felt impossible on most days. Seven years ago when I went through this process, even my doctors and my treatment team were at a loss as to how to help me. How to keep me in treatment at a time when my PTSD was so activated that I could barely breathe, much less eat. At that time, they suggested a service dog. So, from 2013 - 2015, I'd had a wonderful service dog - Butter - who came with me everywhere. He came with me to the hospital when I was in treatment. He came with me to the meetings that supported my sobriety. He came with me to work and he came with me to school. Butter ushered me into the life that I have today. But Butter was an older dog. In 2015 he passed away. Although I was heartbroken, I knew I was ready to move on without a dog at my side.

She needs a service dog again, is what my doctor said this time around. And so, that is what we did. We trained my tiny dog Peanut to be of service. Most often, the service she provides is to sit quietly for hours at a time. Peanut is a spitfire ball of energy, but she learned her service skill right away. That dog can sit beside my chair or in my lap for up to six hours, without complaint. So again, a dog accompanied me to treatment. Slowly, we noticed that I could eat again. Soon after, I could sit through a day of treatment without crying the entire time. One week though, people were particularly scared for my life. Once again, the people who loved me pleaded with me to go into the hospital. So in I went, yet again. My doctor knew that my efforts at eating would be lost if I was hospitalized without help for my anxiety. So my sweet little service dog came with me. She slept beside me in my hospital bed. Sometimes in the middle of the night she would bark at the nurses as they passed by my bedroom door. One of the nurses put a sign on my door, so that others wouldn't be startled.

"Beware of Service Dog," it said. "She may bark if you enter the room."

Beware of service dog. I thought that was the funniest thing. I just laughed and laughed.

I left the hospital two days before Thanksgiving, but I was in day treatment for a total of seven months. I've never been in treatment for so long. I just couldn't find purchase for a way to forgive myself for struggling so much.

Perhaps the beginning of my true journey toward healing began one February day, while I was at day treatment. I was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, with my face in my hands. I didn't know what to do with the self hatred that had been so unrelenting. Sarah, a fellow patient, sat down beside me. She knew that I couldn't forgive myself when my mental illness has impacted the people I love. "Maybe you can't do anything to change the way you behaved when your struggles were at their worst - but today you can do the thing that you wish your boyfriend who died could have done for you, and the thing that the people who are in your life are asking of you, now." She looked at me, and then she finished. "Find a way to stay alive."

During those seven months that I was in treatment, I continued to work towards my counseling credential. I had to complete multiple classes. My friends and family cheered me on as I completed one class, and then another, and then another too. I was still in treatment, but I had to work as many hours as I could. Second Chance accommodated me every step of the way. At one point I apologized to one of my supervisors. I couldn't return to taking day shifts, because my treatment was going to last for yet another month. And his response was to tell me that he didn't care how long it took, Second Chance just wanted me back healthy and ok. So I worked as many part time hours as I could. My little Peanut came with me to work, and soon she became more popular than I was. More clients at Second Chance know Peanut's name, than they do mine. By March, I'd completed the last of the hours I needed in order to apply for the IC&RC exam,.

Staff at Second Chance Hayward Recovery Center.
Left to Right, Andrea Caracol, Wendy Love, Chelise Stroud, Jimmy Isch
Dan Castro in the right forefront.

With all of this love and support surrounding me, and because of the extraordinary team at Alta Bates Herrick Hospital, in April of 2020 I was ready to leave day treatment. My feet were shaky but they were there, underneath me, once again. That same month, I submitted my shiny new application to take the statewide IC&RC exam, so that I could finally be fully certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. I held my breath and waited. Within a week, I received notification that all of my requirements had been met, and I received my hard-fought Candidate Admission Letter. Now I could schedule my exam. Except for one thing. There was a worldwide pandemic and all exams had been suspended. So I waited. I worked at Second Chance. I played with my dog. I mended some relationships, and I surrounded myself with lots of love. Maybe not physically, but through the phone, and zoom, and even through the mail. Week after week passed, I waited, still. With the expiration of my second hardship year looming, I began to get worried. I called the credentialing agency. What if I can't take the exam in time? Will I be allowed another extension, even just for a few months, because the exams had been suspended? The answer was no. The state had not, as of yet, made any allowances for that. So, I kept waiting. Finally, in mid May, they opened up exam registration. The first appointment I could get was two months away, on July 10th, 2020.

The next two months were a flurry of studying. I'd taken so many of my academic classes five years earlier. I was worried that I wouldn't remember what I needed to know in order to pass the exam. Did I remember anything about pharmacology? The difference between agonists and antagonists and the partials of both? What about the differences between statewide and federal regulations and assembly bills? 42 CFR Part 2? AB109? It was disconcerting when I realized how little I'd retained of these types of details. I read and I researched and I pre-tested, nonstop for eight weeks in a row. People worked with me as I memorized hundreds of flashcards. My job gave me time off so I could study. On the week before the exam, one person stayed up, twice, until the wee hours of the night, so that he could quiz me on 450 potential exam questions. Likely, he could pass the exam himself, now. Finally, the exam day came. I prepared the people close to me for the inevitability that I was going to fail. I just could not remember enough. Too many flashcards and too many practice exam questions. My brain couldn't take it all in.

The exam was three hours long, and it was harder than I expected. It did cover a great deal that I hadn't studied. There were many questions where I wasn't sure about the answer - I just had to pick the best one I could. When I finished the last question, I still had time left. But I used every minute of the three hours in order to check and re-check my answers. I was still checking answers when 'Time is Up' flashed on the screen and locked me out of the test. I blinked, and then the exam result appeared.

Congratulations! Your scores indicate you have passed the IC&RC exam.

I realized I was holding my breath. I don't know. Maybe it was the only real breath I'd taken in over a year. If you had sat down with me one year ago, I was so enmeshed in all the loss in my life, in many ways I myself had become the walking dead. But that is not who I am today. How beautiful it is, what can happen if you just don't give up.

So yeah. I did a thing. A great big little 'ol thing that was seven years in the making. That same night, one of the women in my online suicide loss survivors group posted a request. In that group, we do whatever we can to share hope. This was her request:

Share something positive that happened today.

So I wrote it down there, first.

I passed my IC&RC exam to become a fully credentialed drug and alcohol counselor here in the state of California. 

That was where I wanted to write it. On that thread, in that group. I know there are a lot of people who are proud of me. That amazing man who is in my life, and John's mom, and the people I work with, and even more friends. And I know that wherever John is, he is proud of me, too.

I also know this: Whether you are a suicide attempt survivor, a suicide loss survivor, or someone who is dealing with thoughts of suicide right now - I have been where you are. Please hold on. You may have a lot of heartbreak ahead of you. But, you will also have many busy days ahead, and there will even be moments of joy, and miracles too. I promise.