How personal challenges can break, then rebuild you—stronger
By Sandra Dee Owens
When I was 29 I lost my mental health.
It took nearly three years to get it back.
Though a nervous breakdown was the most painful thing I have ever endured, I learned so much about myself, that I am grateful for the experience.
A summer of homelessness and debilitating back pain caused by a degenerating spinal condition (Scoliosis) kept me in survival mode too long. Moving to a challenging living situation that lasted nearly a decade sent my physical and mental health spiraling into unwellness.
After four years of searching, my husband and I found a small, affordable (read: rough) piece of land we could live on while building a house, a dream my husband had held since childhood.
Clearing out the chest-deep trash, we moved our young family of four into a small, old garage that had survived a fire.
With no tools, experience, or resources to build, we spent the first two years, clearing away the burnt-down house across the yard, with a shovel and our first wheelbarrow.
Because there had been a house on it, the property had power, water, a driveway, a septic system—and a small, old garage. With these important components in place, we were able to live on the land while building.
Laying a makeshift floor over the garage’s concrete slab, we dragged a cast iron sink out of the weeds, made a 2×4 stand for it, and placing a 5-gallon spackle bucket under the drain, made a kitchen sink that doubled as a bathtub for our young daughters.
The 16-by-24-foot garage had a single light bulb in the open rafters. The girls shared an air mattress, while Bill and I slept on blankets on the floor next to them. A portable camper toilet sat in one corner of the room, and a tiny propane heater we found at a garage sale sat on the floor along another wall. We cut a hole in the garage wall to vent the tiny exhaust pipe outside.
Making his first furniture with two-by-fours, Bill made a fold-up table, attached it with hinges to one wall—and we moved in.
There was no running water in the garage.
For the next 8 ½ years, we hauled clean water in 5-gallon containers from a spigot in the burned-out cellar hole to the garage.
For 8 ½ years we hauled gray water out of the garage, and my husband (bless his soul) dumped the portable camper toilet in the septic system inlet at the burned-out cellar hole.
“Daddy, the potty light is turning red!” became his dreaded refrain.
“Everyone should have to deal with their own shit at least once,” he muttered a time or two, generally when kicking open the garage door, heavy, sloshing, toilet base in hand, on a snowy, below-zero night.
Moving to our property was incredibly exciting for us, we were young, grateful to own land, and blissfully unaware of how challenging it would be to hand-build every aspect of our home.
By Year 4, the day-to-day stress of living in a tiny garage with no running water, painfully slow progress on our house, and chronic back pain began unraveling my physical and mental health.
I did not know that I was headed for a nervous breakdown, as I had never had one before. I just knew something was wrong inside me and I was on a train heading somewhere I did not want to go—and could not get off.
According to Merriam-Webster: ‘logic’ is a reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something and ‘reason’ is the sum of the intellectual powers.
Did you know that ‘logic and reason’ are built-in gifts that allow us to stay grounded through a thousand mini tragedies like spilling a cup of coffee, stubbing a toe, or hearing news we did not want to hear.
I did not know that logic and reason could leave me. Until they were gone.
Survival mode is meant for short, intense bursts of stoic endurance. Survival mode is another built-in gift, that I am incredibly grateful for.
As a high-energy and impatient person by nature, I had simply been in survival mode too long. I was young and did not realize that my “glass of stress” had filled dangerously close to the brim.
Until one day, when a fresh load of stress arrived—and I felt myself hurtling toward a concrete wall at a thousand miles an hour with no steering wheel or a brake.
And I heard the crash from inside.
Then, wrapped in an eerie silence, I felt myself drift upward, spinning slowly into a night sky, as I became untethered from the earth and everyone on it.
And I felt logic and reason seep out through my skin like a gas.
And suddenly, my “glass of stress” poured over its rim like a burst dam, and the smallest, simplest tasks, and decisions—became unbearably difficult.
And for the next two 1/2 years, fear and anxiety ruled my world.
Editor’s note: Look for Part 2 of this series next month.
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