2nd Place Winner in Nonfiction: “What If Counting Your Blessings Isn’t Enough?”

Posted on: July 23, 2012
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By Shana Lehrmann
 

 
I woke up in the darkness, screaming, sweating from brutal nightmares of absolute helplessness in life-threatening situations. I started staying awake all night and sleeping all day. I questioned my judgment; I became terrified to leave the house alone or even make simple decisions like what to wear.

My husband came home from work every day to find me cowering under the bedclothes. He resorted to arguing with me and, while I ran to the shower to avoid the confrontation, he stripped the bed. I had to decide: put on pajamas, remake the bed and get back in it; or put on sweats, go downstairs and lie on the couch to watch television with him. The couch usually won because it was less work.
 

 
All the things I used to love seemed dull. I hated who I became, couldn’t be who I once was. I felt the only hope of ending the overwhelming pain was to go home to my Lord. Yet I still wanted to please others and worried how my weakness might reflect on my husband’s military career. So I tried to fix it myself like I had all the other times I’d wanted to end my life. I relied on the old cliché: “Count your blessings.”
 

 
We were newlyweds, we had managed to get housing quickly at my husband’s new station, it was summer and we were young. What did I have for which I might not feel grateful? In twenty years, I’d already experienced myriad chronic ailments including osteoarthritis, so I was dreading the long, frigid North Dakota winters. When we had arrived June of 1988, neither of us knew a soul there and all social activities were beginning the three-month summer hiatus. And before leaving our last base, I had watched a movie which triggered delayed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
 

 
I had survived rape and a resulting Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), but doctors had only given me a twenty-five per cent chance of conceiving a viable pregnancy. I had felt my fondest dreams of becoming a mother crushed. I repressed the worst of my memories for two years to keep moving forward. Suddenly, all the panic, humiliation and despair escaped my subconscious and imprisoned me. I lay awake beside my husband, piling up my few blessings to see over the prison wall.
 

 
I obsessed about his handgun, lying in his nightstand for home-protection, and thought of taking
it downstairs and shooting myself. I tried to combat those ugly ideas with reasons why I should live. Every night or two, a rationale would lose its appeal and my resolve would weaken. Ultimately, Conscience had one bid left: “My husband will never forgive me if I leave him behind.” Temptation whispered: “Then it’s only logical to take him with you.” Then I knew I needed professional help no matter what. I prayed all night to stay strong and how to tell my husband when he woke.
 

 
Next morning we made an appointment with the base clinic to get the referral I needed. The military counselor agreed I needed immediate help and regretted the few qualified staff members they had were booked solid with active-duty members. He checked the approved list of civilian providers and discovered the soonest available appointment was in six weeks. My only choice was to accept it. He said, meanwhile, if I had any difficulties, I should call them. They would call periodically to check on me, confirm my appointment and give me directions to the doctor’s office. They didn’t.
 

 
Fortunately, I began going to chapel and met some people who supported and prayed with me. I also cross-stitched a sampler I had started earlier that year. It quotes a Holocaust victim: “I believe in rainbows before the rain. I believe in love through all the tears. I believe in God even in the dark and silent night.” That became my motto.
 

 
The morning of my appointment, I looked in the phone book for the doctor to whom the base clinic had referred me. There were two doctors with that last name. I called the clinic to verify which I was supposed to see that afternoon. The admin asked my appointment time and assured me they would call me back promptly with the information. Driving to town from base takes half an hour, finding parking and walking to the building approximately twenty minutes, and filling out new patient paperwork at least a half hour. The clinic had not returned my call with an hour and a half left, so I called them. The admin said the staff was all in a meeting right then, but somebody could call me when they got out. I said that would be too late and hung up.

 

 

I experienced a great deal of anxiety, but taking a few deep breaths, gathered a little courage and common sense, and called the two doctors’ offices to see which had an appointment scheduled for me. Neither did. The assistant at the second office, hearing me burst into tears at her simple “no,” immediately realized there was a desperate need. She said, “There’s been a cancellation for forty-five minutes from now. Can you make that?” I told her barely and she said it was fine, we could do the paperwork after the appointment and gave me directions. God bless her.
 

 
The doctor scheduled me for three appointments a week for a while. It took that first week and my husband accompanying me to the third appointment just to make the decision to take antidepressant medication. It was a few more weeks before the dosage became high enough to see improvement. During that time, we explored my issues (childhood head trauma, bullied for seven school years, dysfunctional family, surviving Reyes Syndrome, chronic health problems, etc.) and determined I had been clinically depressed for about thirteen years. The PTSD had inevitably made the gradually-increasing burden unbearable. The doctor said, “I believe those who survive clinical depression are some of the bravest people in the world, to withstand such intense pain and resist the urge to commit suicide.”
 

 
He also gave me articles and books to read and workbooks to complete. This educated me about my condition and helped me learn steps for overcoming depression, but I also realized how much I missed studying. Because of the PID, I didn’t quite complete two years of college before taking “incompletes” that last semester and leaving to marry my husband. So I now enrolled in a couple of courses at the local college.
 

 
The base activities began again and I attended spouses’ meetings, volunteered in wives’ chorus
and chapel choir, and my husband and I went to official functions and bowled in the couples’ league. The base had a tight-knit community despite, or perhaps because of, its remoteness and difficult winters. Through many years and moves, keeping in touch with the majority of friends we’ve made in military life is hard. However, while we were there, I had no trouble getting to know wonderful people. That became crucial our first winter stationed there.

 

 

January of 1989, my husband was given seven days notice of deployment. A few nights after he left, the worst blizzard in nearly half a century hit. I had my first appointment that morning to meet a rape crisis counselor. Fortunately, my neighbors dug both my doors free of snowdrifts. But when I checked the truck, it did not start. My neighbors had all left for work by then. It had taken months to determine I needed specialized counseling and get it approved and scheduled, and they required 24-hour notice of cancellation, so I began to panic again. Our squadron commander’s wife had told me to call if I had any problems, so I did. She came to get me, had me drop her off at her house and let me use her car to get to town. When I drove back at lunchtime, her husband drove me home and took a look at my truck. He somehow managed to get it jump-started and followed me to the service station where he made sure they took care of the right things. God bless this couple.
 

 
My arthritis and Reynaud’s syndrome had me in constant pain through the -40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Our Siberian husky loved the snowdrifts that had piled as high as his kennel fence. He wanted out as much as possible, but the -80 wind chill would bite even his nose and paws after just a few minutes. The problem is a husky’s memory is only about ten minutes long. I thought I would go out of my mind before the snow was blown away.
 

 
My husband would call from Guam at 0200 CST and I would barely be able to draw myself out from
under the dark layers of quilts and hibernation to answer the phone. “Hey, baby! You wouldn’t believe the weather we’re having! It’s 80 degrees here every day and a we’re playing golf and going SCUBA diving!” I answered, “Great, honey! You wouldn’t believe the blizzard we’re having! There’s an 80 below wind chill here and your dog is driving me crazy wanting to play in it, so I’m thinking about skinning him to make a fur coat!”
 

 
My sense of humor was coming back, at least. My crisis counselor noticed that about me, too. I
don’t remember much of what I said that made her laugh so hard, but I do remember that most of it was my point of view about the pitiful nature of rapists. I also remember that a few years after that comedians like George Carlin were making similar jokes in their routines. Who knew I had so much comedic potential?
 

 
I went through thirteen months of treatment on the antidepressants. A couple months after going
off the medicine, I got pregnant with our first child. I stayed in counseling through the pregnancy and her first few months of life because I did not want to risk another depression from the hormone changes. I had some nightmares again and worried more than some mothers might about how dangerous this world is for my child, but otherwise did well. I felt truly blessed.
 

 
At the same time as my pregnancy, I began my volunteer work at a violence crisis center. I trained with all the volunteers who would be answering crisis calls, transporting clients or become safe house monitors. But I decided I was not ready for any of that yet, and worked in the office helping with any jobs the staff needed. Eventually, I submitted poems and articles to their newsletter and overhauled their library of newsletters received from similar organizations across the nation. When they saw my work, they asked me to take over editing the newsletter. The last year we were stationed there, I won Volunteer of the Year.
 

 
Since then I experienced other struggles with my physical and emotional health and difficulties in accomplishing all I want in life because of them. But I learned a few important lessons coming out of the darkest time in my life. First, I realize the significance of having the wisdom and courage to ask for help no matter how difficult it may seem; as a rabbi once explained to me, “If we don’t ask for help, not only do we deprive ourselves a blessing, we deprive others a chance to receive a blessing through helping us.” Next, constantly building a support network is vital; we are social creatures, thriving on contact, weakening with isolation, and since anything can go wrong along the way, many back-up plans are necessary. Finally, faith in something greater and more permanent than our fallible flesh, family and friends is a tremendous comfort through pain and disappointments of this life, lifting us up and carrying us when we no longer have the strength for ourselves. Remembering these truths, I always feel able to bounce back and strive for my dreams.

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