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It's movie night when it happens. The family is all together, watching something off of Netflix. Your husband is in the bathroom. His cell phone vibrates again, almost falling off the coffee table. You grab it for him so it doesn't break, and your eyes automatically take in the text message he just got: "You're better than I thought you would be." You are stunned. Your heart sinks through the floor, and you feel like throwing up - like you just got punched in the gut. You tell yourself that it isn't what you think, that there is no way he would ever do that to you, not after all these years together, not after your beautiful kids, not after everything you've been through to get where you are. You let the children know that you're going in the other room for a minute, and you'll be right back. Your voice must sound more normal to them than it does to you, because one of them just nods, and the other two don't even seem to notice.
You run into the next room and swipe open his phone, hurrying to try to find out what you desperately need to know, before he comes back. It takes less than a minute to confirm what your intuition knew instantly. There is someone else.
A wave of insecurity, helplessness, panic, and blind rage hits you. You think of the life you've built together, brick by brick, all washed away by eight little words. You wonder who to kill first, her or him. Then you think of your children, and now you realize that you actually are going to throw up, because if he isn't here for you anymore, how will you ever manage? Doesn't he know how important he is, to all of you? How much everyone loves him? How much you love him? How could he do this? How could he do this to you?
You're sitting in the bathroom, feeling like throwing up. The woman keeps texting you, even though you haven't responded for a couple of days. You don't know what to do. At first it was fun, and exciting. It made you feel alive in a way you hadn't felt for years. You felt virile, attractive, strong, appreciated. You felt wanted.
You still can't understand what happened. You love your family - they're the reason you're alive. Caring for them is your greatest accomplishment. You're a good person, and a good man. You know you are. How could you do this?
You suppose it crept up on you somehow. At first it was just a flirtation, some back and forth banter you thoroughly enjoyed. It seemed harmless enough. You've never been one to sit around and think about what's going on inside you, so you didn't really notice how you started seeking out her company more and more, or when you started talking to her about the less-than-stellar parts of your relationship with your wife. You didn't notice how she seemed to reach out to you, promising to give you everything you needed...everything you weren't getting at home. You can't blame it on her, though - after all, you reached back. Maybe she was lonely, too.
It hurts to think about all of this now. You realize that you stopped feeling important to your wife a long time ago, after the kids started coming, and her focus seemed to shift from you to them. You realize that you never told her when loneliness stopped being something to tolerate until you could see her again, and instead became your relentless, everyday existence. You think about all the times you desperately wanted to hold your wife and didn't even try, because you knew how tired she was. For the first time it hits you that she might not have even known that anything was wrong. Confused and full of shame, you drop your head into your hands.
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You wake up to darkness. It's 5:00am, far earlier than you should be awake. The sick, familiar pit in your stomach blooms, then begins to spread up through your chest and heart. All the reasons why you feel this way fall and creep slowly into your mind, and you roll over, covering your head with your pillow and trying to block out the pain. You can't block out what's inside you.
After lying in agony for some unknown length of time, uselessly trying to feel calm, uselessly trying to feel safe, you hear your family start to move around downstairs. It's the first day of a new school year for your daughter, and she's excited. You hear your husband giving her breakfast, packing her lunch, and telling her how wonderful everything will be for her today. "Where's Mommy?" she asks. You can't quite make out what lie he tells her this time. Part of you wonders what he dressed her in, and this almost gives you the energy to get up, at least to see how she looks today, but in the end you decide that it just doesn't matter. It's not like you could do any better for her right now.
They all come up before they leave for school, work, and daycare. Your daughter stands in the doorway, as if she already knows that there's no use coming in. That's right, you think to yourself. You know that I have nothing to give you. Nothing at all. Then she surprises you by walking up to the bed. She reaches out to hug you, and as she does, you notice a red dot on her arm. Your heart begins to race. This is it. This is my punishment for not being a good mother, you think. She has the measles, or the chicken pox, or probably something worse. She'll probably die. It's what I deserve. You grab her arm, push up her sleeve, and search frantically for more spots. There aren't any. Your gaze moves up to her face, and what you see on it is terror. She bolts from the room, her daddy trailing after her, saying comforting words and trying to explain.
Your tiny son has managed to crawl up onto the bed, and is lying next to you, holding your hand. "Play with me after daycare Mommy?" he asks, looking up at you hopefully. "I don't know, little dude. I'll try," you answer through your tears. His face falls. He's heard this many times now, and he knows that what you really mean is no. His dad comes back and scoops him up. "Time to go, bud," he says. "David..." you croak hesitantly. Your husband just looks down at you. Exhaustion runs rampant in every corner of him, in the lines of his face, and in every heavy movement he makes. When you don't say anything else, horror-struck with the realization of how tired he is, he turns and walks away, carrying your youngest out of the room, away from you.
When they all have gone, there is nothing left but you torturing yourself. You think of all the times you've let them down. You think of all the dreams you had: for yourself, for them, and how all those lovely dreams have evaporated, leaving nothing behind but a burning sense of loss and emptiness. You think of how much better off they would be without you. Without the shell of darkness you've become. You're a black hole, you think. Better that they don't get sucked in.
When you finally go downstairs, you don't notice the flowers your worn-ragged husband stopped last night to buy you. They bloom brightly in a vase on the table. You don't see the handful of shiny rocks near the base of the vase, rocks your son proudly collected one by one from his daycare sandbox "for my nice Mommy." At school, your daughter wears the outfit you bought for her the last time the two of you went shopping together. She picked it out herself.
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You wake up tired from being up too late the night before. You just couldn't sleep, and trying to sleep made you feel bored, so you got up and played with your legos instead. You played quietly, so your parents wouldn't hear, because you know that they'd just tell you to try harder to fall asleep. They love you, but they don't understand you much, and that makes you feel lonely sometimes.
You want to see your parents, so you go to their room. They're mad. They tell you that it's too early to get up, and ask you why didn't you wait until your clock says 7:00am like they've told you to so many times before. You feel shame, because you forgot...again.
You try hard to wait for breakfast, but boredom starts to creep in right away: the boredom that's always one step behind you, waiting to overtake you and suck the joy out of every moment of your life. You're an expert at avoiding it, because don't we all avoid what's painful to us? Movement helps, so you start jumping on the bed. Your dad, still trying to sleep, yells at you to get out of the room.
You play alone in the living room until your parents finally get up. It seems like forever. Your mom calls you for breakfast, twice, but you don't hear her because you're hyperfocused on the awesome lego robot you're making. All of a sudden she's in front of you, looking angry and telling you to sit at the table right now. You feel awful. You think your mom is the prettiest, most wonderful lady there is. Why can't you ever make her happy?
When it's time to go to school, your dad notices that one of your mittens is missing. It's the third pair we've gone through in a month, he says. You'll have to get the other one from school. You nod, smiling, knowing there is no chance that you'll remember to check for the missing mitten, and wincing inside at the thought of how cold your hand is going to be later.
You enter your classroom with dread. It's been a tough year so far, and it started not that long ago. Your last teacher was really nice, and actually kind of seemed to understand you, but this teacher is new and you don't think she likes you at all. She starts teaching about science - you love science - and all of a sudden a million interesting thoughts fill your head at once and come pouring out of your mouth. You ask her why people's hearts are in their chests instead of their heads, and why grass is green instead of purple or blue, passionately joyful and grateful for this moment when torturous boredom is gone and you feel fully alive.
The teacher glares at you, and tells you to be quiet and to raise your hand before you speak. It's a slap in the face, and it's come so many times before that something inside you dies a little bit, and you decide not to try asking questions anymore.
You don't stop trying to be good, though: you'll never stop trying, even though failure is always guaranteed. So you hold yourself still, still, still, still, still, until you can't take it anymore and you just have to move, and then you end up having to stay in for recess because you were disrupting the class. You sit at your desk, screaming inside the whole time, with boredom winning again and again and laughing in your face, until everyone finally comes back. At least you didn't have to freeze your hand, you tell yourself.
You don't hear the bell at the end of the day when it rings, because it's free choice time and you're playing with your friends and all your attention is on the funny one who makes the jokes you like. Your bus leaves first, and your teacher tells you to hurry up and get it to it. You grab your backpack and run out the door, never realizing that you forgot your lunch bag, and your hat. You remember them on the bus and start to cry a bit, knowing how mad your dad is going to be. A bigger kid laughs at you and calls you a crybaby, so you stop crying.
You get off the bus and your mom is there, smiling. She asks you how your day was. Good, you say, but I just lost my recess a little bit. Your mom's face falls. Her disappointment sinks into your heart. You need to try to do better at school, she says. I know you can do better if you try. You nod. OK, she says, it's time to do your homework now. I'm going to wash the dishes. You stare mutely at her back, not knowing how to get started on your homework; knowing it will be boring and so, so hard to focus on.
You feel like an alien, and a failure. You wonder what's wrong with you, why you can't ever do what you want to do, and why you aren't like everyone else. You wish your parents got a different kid, a better kid, instead of you.
I've started a new blog series titled "What It's Like." The purpose of these articles is to let you know that if you're going through or have gone through one of the struggles I'm writing about, you are not alone. Some of these experiences will be an amalgamation of my clients' experiences, and I'm hoping that you and others will be willing to contribute your experiences as well. To submit an article to be posted in this series, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also let me know if you would like your article to be published anonymously, or with your name attached. You can find a way to get through whatever challenge you're facing and thrive - it always feels impossible at the time, but you can overcome this, and you will.
I've been reflecting all day about mental health, and the stigma that still surrounds it.
I have a wide breadth of experience working with people who are struggling, including people who were inpatients at a hospital, and people seeking counselling to heal past wounds and better their lives.
What all those people had in common was resilience, strength, and beauty - the beauty that is the birthright of every human soul.
I've met people who survived things some can't even imagine, and who refused to give up on life. I've met people who were so depressed that they sometimes wanted to die, and then they would casually mention doing wonderful things, big and small, for others. I've met people who were scared of the world, and yet they decided to give humanity another chance and broaden their horizons. I've met people who went through intense trauma and pain at the hands of others - some of these are the gentlest beings we have been blessed with.
Every person has a story. I have found that even those who seem most incomprehensible can be understood in the context of their experience.
Understanding is the key to compassion, and it is the key to ending stigma.
So the next time your human, categorical mind tries to put you in one box, and those who are struggling in another, remember this: that person you don't understand has a story. And if you knew it, you wouldn't be judging. You'd be cheering.
Thrive Counselling is the long-time dream of Winnipeg therapist Ailia Mikolash (me). My goal was to create a beautiful healing space that people could visit to resolve the past, dream the future, and create the present. It has been quite the journey to get this place up and running, and I am pleased to announce that we are now open, and currently accepting new clients for individual therapy, couples counselling, play therapy for kids, family therapy, EMDR therapy, and life coaching. We also have wellness and support groups available for those who might benefit from them.
It is my hope that this place will be a safe haven and a healing gift to every person who enters it. I am immensely grateful to my family, friends, and colleagues for the support they provided during this time. This place would not exist without you.
Wishing you peace and happiness,