I sat at his bed side. For weeks we’d been watching the whites of his eyes turn more and more yellow, his skin the same. I remember telling someone that I knew he was dying, but we weren’t saying it within the family yet. Saying it would mean we’d given up hope for a miracle. I sat next to him watching as the simple task of breathing was complicated and trying. As if breathing wasn’t hard enough, talking was nearly impossible. His breaths labored, he pushed until the words he wanted to say, weakly left his mouth, “promise me you’ll be ok.”
I understood the gravity of this request because for a while I hadn’t been. The years leading up to this point were my hardest, bringing me to the lowest points in my mental health. Multiple hospitalizations for my anxiety and depression, constant seeking to find what was causing my inner turmoil, treatment after treatment, psychiatrists and therapists in numbers I can’t even remember and pills by the handful, represented my recent past. I wasn’t ok. My feelings of worthlessness took over my daily thoughts. Daily tasks felt impossible. I didn’t want to live anymore. But as a family, we kept fighting and kept trying to find the answer. We kept fighting to find me peace. I was too consumed to even realize, though, through all of this, he’d been fighting two battles, one for both our lives. One of the battles though, he wouldn’t win.
I squeezed his hand and said, “I promise.” I wasn’t sure at the time how I was going to keep that promise, but I very much meant it. A day or two later, his lungs began to fill with fluid. A late night coughing fit, a fight for any sign of oxygen able to fill his lungs, left his eyes wide in panic. His eyes, a faded glimpse into what he had been, were the only thing you could see as the oxygen mask covered his thinning face. Nurses rushed in, oxygen levels were raised and the realization that none of us wanted to come to was at our feet. The doctor came in and looked at all of us and then looked at him. He matter of factly but sympathetically said, “I know you can’t talk, so just nod.” Over the machines and the beeping he asked him, “do you know what’s happening?” My dad responded with a single nod. “Do you understand you’re dying?” My dad’s wide eyes bravely looked back and nodded again. “Do you understand that it’s time to make you comfortable?” My dad, again nodded. At some point between this and the sleep my dad would never awaken from that began that night, he reached for all of us, my mom, my sister and I. He hugged and held each one of us. But when it was my turn, he wouldn’t let go. He held me closer than ever and when I’d start to pull away, he’d pull me back again. He did this so many times, eventually bringing me from numb to laughter to tears before he finally let go. If I had any regrets, my only one would ever be pulling away. In a moment that felt like a lifetime and no time at all, that hug was all I had left before he slipped away. That hug sealed my promise, one that now 8 years later, I have kept.
It hasn’t been an easy promise to keep. My mind has played tricks on me for as long as I can remember. But these last 8 years have been one of tremendous seeking and growth. Every day, I fight to remember that happiness is a choice that I make. It’s not always an easy choice, but it’s a choice. I make the choice to turned my head toward the sun each day, to take the time to feel its warmth on my skin, to smell the air and the earth and to be present. Every day, every moment, I feel like slipping, I make the choice to be mindful, to remember that things are as simple as a single breath and as complicated as all of my swirling thoughts. I’m in charge of deciding where to focus my attention to.
The farm has brought me the peace that I had been seeking. Being a mother and that type of pressure to care and love is a natural pressure, the ability to care for Ellie, mostly had always come easily. Making the conscious effort to put every single living creature on my farm first, is a choice I make. Their needs pressure me to not only get out of bed in the morning, but to get outside, to get dirty, to physically move my body, to be in the present with them. Fulfilling their basic needs, without hearing the word “want” come from their mouths, reminds me of the things that I actually “need.” It has reminded me to keep things simple, not over complicate things. This farm has been challenging, the learning curve steep, the financial burdens heavy. On my bad days, I say that I want to quit. On my worst days, I have said I wished I wasn’t alive. It isn’t true though, it’s my mind playing its games, telling me I’ll never make it or be good enough, telling me I’m not worthy of success, telling me I’ll never find success and we will always struggle. It’s my mind’s sick way of trying to tell me that my coping isn’t working and that I need to take a beat and reevaluate because something isn’t clicking inside. And on those days that are so few and far between, I think of my father and how he never met his wild little granddaughter and I remember the promise I made him at his bedside. I remember to confide in James and tell him that I’m struggling, to ask him for his support, to help remind me that I am worthy of all the good and that I am also worthy enough that all of the bad will pass too. If an argument between us happens to be the reason I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I’ve learned to remind James to fight fair and remember that we need each other, that we are a team and that we need to help each other through. I let myself be vulnerable and admit my weaknesses even if James doesn’t always admit his first. I try to stop myself before I spiral. And in the event that I do spiral, the land, the animals, the sun and soil and my family help to bring me back.
It’s been 8 years today since we watched my dad as he took his final gasping breath. It’s been just under 8 years that I finished my last out patient treatment for my depression and anxiety. Every day since has been a journey to acknowledge that I make the choice every day to choose happiness. I make the choice to see the beauty, to see the good in myself and in others. Choosing farming has given me the opportunity to celebrate the simple things that nature bestows upon us, like the sun and the rain, life and even death. Connecting to my community through our farm has helped me see that my life can make an impact, my life is worth fighting for because even if my impact is small, it’s still an impact.
Join me on Saturday, May 23rd at Shelter Cove Town Center Park as we celebrate Mental Wellness with NAMI Lowcountry and Island House on Hilton Head Island. I will be there chatting with everyone in attendance about how my journey with our farm has helped me find clarity and gain happiness through my own battle with Mental Illness.