Invisible sick

by Tami Herzog

Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting. That is what it feels like for those of us who suffer from any type of mental disorder. Most people seem to forget that the brain can become sick. I like to call it “invisible sick.” No one can see the disease because we don’t wear bandages and we don’t park in handicapped parking spots. No one brings us cards or flowers or bakes a cake or calls. There is just a silent pain that only those who suffer can fully understand. There is no magic pill, no one-size-fits-all. But make no mistake, what we feel is real. When the brain becomes sick, the disease becomes somatic, meaning the whole body begins to feel the pain. Aching joints and muscles, fatigue, headaches and, sometimes, I swear even my teeth would hurt. You lay in your own filth for days as you only get out of bed to use the bathroom or, maybe on a good day, brush your teeth. Self-loathing becomes the norm. You lose sight of your surroundings and those who love you. In order to ease the pain, self-medicating becomes a necessity. People choose drugs or alcohol, self harm, constant sleep or any kind of medication they can get your hands on. My son chose cutting, and I turned to sleeping pills. Both my son and I have “danced with the devil,” the devil that is depression and anxiety. It’s a two-for-one deal – if you have one, chances are you will get the other as well.

My son is gay and he was mentally tortured by other students in high school. Food was thrown at him in the cafeteria; he was pushed into lockers, shoved into closets, called every gay slur you can imagine. He fought as hard as he could until the pain became too much to handle. The cutting began and it was a sense of relief for him. As his mother, his sole caretaker, I watched in sheer horror as my once full-of-life son wilted away into a deep, dark hole. The sicker he became, so too did I. In the midst of this, I was struggling with a mentally abusive marriage to my second husband. He took the TV out of the living room so that my son and I could not watch TV together. He was an angry man with health issues that went untreated. When he drank, it was even worse. He would allow my son five minutes a night to spend with me. He would make us put garbage in the freezer and empty bottles in the refrigerator. Groceries were bought from the dollar store and any gift from a loved one was hidden. He was controlling us with fear.

I was called names on a daily basis and he tried to, as he put it, “make a man out of my son” by making him play baseball and basketball. He said my son was a mama’s baby and, therefore, he wanted us to be apart. If I went anywhere by myself, he would soon find me and humiliate me in public. After awhile, work was the only place I would go to escape. Pancakes and white rice was what he tried to make my son eat for dinner most nights. I didn’t know any of this because by the time I got home from work he told me my son ate already as he proceeded to feed me something delicious. My son was too scared to tell me he was hungry, and when he tried to sneak into the kitchen he would be screamed at so loudly and violently that he just stopped trying. You may ask yourself as a mother how I allowed this to happen to us. My only answer to you is that it was a slow infusion of abuse, and I now believe you can be brainwashed. Fear of anything can paralyze you to the point of motionlessness. Somehow I found the strength to escape, but only after he called my son a faggot, smashed up our kitchen and I was able to call the police and get a restraining order. I thought we were finally going to be free of him. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Even though we had moved into a new place, we still acted like he was there. I guess you would call it the “beaten dog” syndrome. We were physically free but not mentally free. The combination of that marriage, my son being bullied, and the PTSD we were suffering from made the next few years an even bigger nightmare.

It happened a week after my son’s 18th birthday. He could take no more and he hanged himself right in our bathroom – but we were lucky and we saved him in time. The police came, the ambulance came and the hatred came. My son was mortified as he screamed that he hated me. The disease and the bullying had made him stone cold. His angry outbursts had scared me in the past, but this one was different; this time he hated me. Let me take a moment to tell you what it’s like to be taken to the local hospital for mental health treatment. It is like having the plague. They put my son in a back room that looked as cold and uninviting as it was. A guard stood outside the door as my son screamed from his internal pain. No one came, no one helped. All I was told is there are no psychologists on staff ever. We waited and waited and waited. Finally, a nurse recognized me and only because of her was my son given something to calm him down. She brought him food, a pillow and a blanket. At about 3 a.m., after waiting for 10 hours, an ambulance took my son to be admitted as an inpatient at a local facility for children with mental health issues. The hardest thing to do was to leave him there knowing when he woke the next day he would be scared.

Looking back, I now realize just how strong we both were. Our journey was more than six years long and so hard. Today, we are healing and we are both taking medications, which we will most likely take for the rest of our lives. The brain is an amazing thing, as it can make you believe anything. It is called twisted thinking. My son believed he was ugly, unwanted and, most of all, not worthy of life. He twisted his thinking to believe what those who tortured him had told him. The anger you develop is like no other. You are not sure of whom or what you are angry, but anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. They won’t. Anxiety is unrealized fear. It’s so powerful you isolate to protect yourself from the unknown. We joke that depressed people are like vampires because we love the darkness. It gives us permission to lie down and be at peace because no one is expecting anything of us.

I sought therapy, and the help I received was and remains priceless. I taught my son what I had learned. I gave him all the tools he needs to live and survive with this disease. We have a mother-son bond like no other; we “get it.” Only he and I can help each other through our darkness. The spells of anxiety and depression for him are becoming less common as time passes. As for me, the depression has left me, however, the anxiety remains.

Choose your words and actions carefully, what you say and do can and will affect others. We are living proof. There is one powerful word I have taught my son and that is to always BELIEVE, for when you believe in yourself you can overcome anything and thus anything is possible. |

Tami Herzog is a Lehigh Valley native and currently resides in Allentown. She is the proud mother of two sons, Matthew and Corey. She attended The Wilma Boyd Career School in Pittsburgh, Pa. Tami began her career in the health insurance industry 25 years ago and was a founding partner of the broker firm The Equinox Agency, which she sold in 2011. She is now a sales executive for Capital Blue Cross and was a previous employee of Highmark Blue Shield. Tami currently serves on the board for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and is a huge advocate of bringing awareness to mental illness and trying to remove the stigma associated with the disease. She has been published in Renew Magazine, where she spoke about her journey to recovery. Tami frequently speaks publicly to help others who suffer from depression, anxiety or any mental health disorder. Her focus is to bring awareness to the effects of bullying in our schools. Currently, Tami is writing a book in the hopes of reaching others through the story of both her and her son’s personal battles with the disease.