Fighting Phantoms

April 23, 2015
Memorial Day Poem: Silent Soldier
May 20, 2015

Fighting Phantoms

podcast-icon Listen to: Fighting Phantoms
Read by: Rebecca Balko
Length: 13:49

As a young girl, a vivid imagination provided endless hours of adventure. Being an asthmatic, there were many days spent sick or having to remain indoors due to my health. However I don’t recall experiencing boredom or even loneliness, because I could always escape those moments into a world of pretend, playing quite contently, (even when confined to my bed), for literal hours. With one simple act of the will, situations I didn’t care for could be easily abandoned – instead journeying off to faraway places that existed in the unlimited landscape of my mind. While young, this happened most in school during lessons I had little to no interest in or at home after being sent to my room for getting into some sort of mischief.

Like most things in life, there was another side to this gift of imagination; one that I believe opened the door to what I would come to view as phantoms. I can recall drifting off in thought and struggling to “reel myself back in” when, (for example), my teacher wanted me to “focus” – (a recurring term I heard throughout my adolescence). It was like being in a current of water beginning as a subtle and pleasing drift, only to become a strong flow that was not so easy to get out of. At age 11, things began to change in that the pleasant day dreams became what I called “bad thoughts”, which generally would be triggered when something startled or upset me. They would begin as fanciful thoughts about gaining control over whatever was causing the distress – but often changing to invasive thoughts that I had seemingly no lasting control over. I will note here that these invasive thoughts were never good and would inevitably lead anger to become what felt like an overwhelming rage – fear to become extreme anxiousness and sadness that became an almost unbearable sense of despair, leading to unwanted overwhelming thoughts of suicide.

Initially the means by which I chose to try and handle this problem was to avoid potentially painful situations by being selective in my choice of friends and by staying physically active in outdoor activities and sports. I’d also found that an effective way to make the thoughts stop was in self injury, as the physical pain seemed to work quite effectively in overriding the emotional, hence causing the thoughts to subside. However, by age 15, (a year after a sexual assault), the “bad thoughts” (phantoms) had become dominate to the point of thinking about suicide daily and my newest solution, anorexia, had taken hold. It was in this year that I first tried drinking and the following year that I discovered my favorite drug – pot. Alcohol numbed me, but I did not function well with it, while on the other hand pot was like magic – in that it made ALL the phantoms go away, and I could function well. This solution worked beautifully, except when I couldn’t get high, because then the phantoms were far more intense. So my life became a vicious cycle of getting high to live and living to get high, with an absolute conviction that if people had any idea what my mind was like without it and the certainty that my life would end by my own hands…well, they wouldn’t try to stop me from living the way I was. But as it would turn out, I was an alcoholic/addict and because of that, the sad day came where there wasn’t enough dope or booze in the world to make me “OK” anymore, and so I resigned to end my life. With the gun in my car on the way to kill myself, thankfully, an intervention happened and I was hospitalized.

Ultimately I got clean and sober, was active in recovery and strived to help others, but the phantoms were always there. Throughout the first 14 years of my sobriety there were many blessings in my life with my career in addiction counseling, healing in my biological family and growing in my relationship with God. There were also the struggles of two difficult and painful marriages that resulted in divorce, several difficult losses and on-going battles with the phantoms and subsequent depression. Self-injury and anorexia prevailed through most of this time, but several years of therapy provided much needed insight, healthier techniques and an awareness of where I needed God – ultimately leading to these issues finally leaving my life. Though the phantoms continued to be an overall presence, I had come to a place where I understood that while “I” was not more powerful than them…God was. This lead to an ever deepening reliance and relationship with Him in my daily life, so that I could function and have a life despite this issue that seemed to have such a hold. In recovery I learned that God removes some things quickly and some slowly…but that if we continue in relationship with Him, they would one day be gone. It is interesting to note that the phantoms were never simultaneously present when I was helping someone else. I had been told long ago, “You cannot be selfcentered and God-centered at the same time”. To help others requires the actions of listening, caring and sharing and I came to realize that while God had not chosen to remove this area of difficulty in my life, He did provide a daily means to bring balance to it, by providing unlimited opportunities through a career in counseling to get out of the root of my problem, (self), where the phantoms thrived.

I had several doctors over the course of my teen and early adult life, who told me that I had clinical depression and needed to take medication. To say that I was resistant to that would be putting it mildly! I had long held to a belief that if I loved the Lord, worked the 12 steps of recovery hard enough and just pushed through…it would be “OK”. I also had long believed that the occasional “explosion of emotion” that came with this issue didn’t really affect anyone by me. What I mean by that is, there were times when I would resort to relying on my solutions, (like staying busy), to handle the phantoms, rather than relying on God and the result would be pent up fear and anger that would inevitably blow. When that happened it was like turning on a water faucet and pulling off the handle – meaning it would run its course and the best I could hope for was that I didn’t cause emotional pain to anyone or get myself physically hurt in the midst of it. Most often I would jump in my car to get away from what was fueling the episode and to distance myself from anyone else being affected by what was happening, driving at excessive speeds down lonely country roads, risking what at any moment could have been a deer or dog coming out in front of me.

I married again at 35 to a very kind and gentle man, who is my best friend. Early in our marriage this exact situation happened – adrenaline rapidly spiking and a deep fear driven desire for him to not see me as I was, I jumped in the car (around 1am) and sped off. Later, after realizing the danger I’d once again put myself in and calmer I drove home, trying to think of how to play down what had happened. But pulling in the driveway, I found that my husband’s truck was gone. I recall thinking that perhaps our marriage was over and that he had left – it had never occurred to me that there would be a different reason for his absence. Sitting on the sofa with my mind blank, (as often followed these particular episodes), I heard the door open and my husband came in – eyes red from crying and stress visible on his face. He proceeded to tell me that he had been afraid that I was going to hurt myself and that he didn’t understand what had happened “because it happened so fast”.  I remember clearly in that moment being both confused and stunned, as this was the very first time for two things: A spouse to ever care one way or another AND the realization that I wasn’t “just hurting me”. At that moment I became willing to take a solution, which I believe God had been giving me many times over the years, to find a medication that would address my on-going inability to have a choice to stop during those explosive moments.

It was not easy and took about 6-9 months of hit and miss (mostly all miss), but eventually I found a medication that, while it did not take the depression OR the phantoms away, I never again: had an inability to make a decision rather quickly about my behaviors; Put myself in situations where I could have been hurt; Struggled with overwhelming thoughts of suicide. Having what was once a loss of choice restored to me, was more than I had ever really dared hope for! The one question that troubled me for much of the first 15+ years of my sober life was:  “How can I be sober this long, help others, love God and STILL have these kinds of problems?” No matter the insecurities that those phantoms tried to give me in response to my question, the unshakable answer that came to my mind EACH and EVERY time was always the same – “God either IS or He isn’t…He is EVERYTHING or He is nothing…what is my choice to be?” To which my reply would remain the same, “God IS EVERYTHING and more powerful than ANYTHING!” Turning back each time to Him and the actions I knew to take, the moment would pass and life would continue along.

It has now been 26 years as of this past October 4, 2014 – My dear husband continues to be my best friend, my step daughters now almost grown – one going to college and one to be a senior soon and my career continues in the field of addiction recovery. I have remained free: from the inability to make choices at moments when emotions run high or acting out on the many old behaviors of the past. Depression still comes and racing thoughts still get stirred up – though they are no longer phantoms to me, as I realized that even the name gave power that should not be given to anyone but my God. I learned in recovery that the most important thing was continuing to enlarge my spiritual life. Odd as it may sound, (though not a fan of these areas of struggle), I’ve found gratitude in them, because they have kept me in a state of ongoing need for God and afforded me the blessing of developing such a deeply personal relationship with Him and love for Him. I would not trade my life for a “do-over” – even if I could. There have been, and I’m sure will continue to be, times where “I” am running the show and these issues gain some footing; But I can say that the length of time it takes to realize what is happening and to get back into the solution is thankfully, quite short.

If you are someone who suffers from depression, invasive thoughts (including those of suicide), impulse control problems or anything like it and you are tired of the fight and ready for a better life – I strongly encourage you to reach out to a trusted friend, clergy, doctor, hot line, support group, etc… and begin the road to a new life TODAY. If you are a person of faith, yet struggle with areas like this, (or others not mentioned here), it is not a reflection upon your relationship with God…rather it is, (in God’s goodness), an opportunity to deepen that relationship, by reaching out to someone for help. If you are a recovering alcoholic/addict and you have felt fearful because you are struggling with your own phantoms…KNOW that it doesn’t mean that you aren’t serious in your recovery or that it’s some “omen” of a relapse still to come! What it means is that everything doesn’t get fixed just because you got clean…rather getting clean now allows you the opportunity to address these matters and get well!

©2015 Rebecca Balko