About tealmhawareness

A girl with mental illness who wants to end the stigma.

The Semicolon: Choosing to live

cropped-semicolon2.pngpainted by me

Trigger warning: depression, suicide

 

The semicolon, a form of punctuation whose use is not well understood by many (myself included), is used “to make a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop” (Semicolon, 2019). In recent months, I have come to appreciate the semicolon for a reason that is related to, yet different from, the original definition. Have you ever seen someone with a semicolon tattoo? Chances are there is a more meaningful reason than because that person just adores punctuation and grammar, right? That’s correct – the semicolon is “about mental health and destroying the negative stigma attached to it. If you’ve seen a person with a tiny semicolon on their wrist or arm, you’re facing someone who has overcome serious mental health issues – from depression and anxiety, to schizophrenia – and has chosen not to end their lives, but rather to move forward anew” (Bushak, 2015). Put in even simpler terms, “the semicolon is intended to encourage people to keep going in life” (Grisham, 2015).

 

The reason I am so passionate about this topic right now is because I have struggled with depression the last few months at a depth I have never before experienced. To say I hit rock bottom is an understatement. To say I have had no energy to climb out of that hole is an understatement. To say I have wanted to close my eyes and never wake up is an understatement. It’s an ongoing struggle as I work my way through one of the darkest times of my life. I don’t bring this up looking for attention or a pat on the back for getting out of bed this morning – I bring it up to communicate that this is real life for many, many people. We paste on a smile each day so we can go into work or school and act like a normal person (whatever “normal” means). We splash our faces with cold water to reduce the swelling from a night of hopelessness and tears. We put on makeup to draw attention away from the dark circles under our eyes.

 

To those who may know someone experiencing the suffocating effects of depression, check up on them. Don’t let the makeup and cheery smile fool you into thinking they’ve “gotten over” depression. I’m a firm believer that depression never truly goes away. It’s more of a remission, or “a period of time when an illness or disease becomes less severe” (Remission, 2009-2019, emphasis mine). It seems like it’s gone, but there’s always a high chance that it will come back bigger and meaner than ever before. Make sure you check up on the people in your life who may or may not be in remission.

 

To those who are the ones lost in the deep, dark forest of depression…I SEE YOU. You are not alone. I know it seems like life isn’t worth living. I know it seems like God has abandoned you. I know it seems like you don’t serve a purpose. I know it seems like no one would notice if you just disappeared. I know it seems like you will never be yourself again. I know it seems like your life is meaningless. I know it seems like you don’t have the strength it takes to get out of bed and shower. It seems like it. But it is a lie that has been woven and spun to perfection by the demons inside your mind and heart. It simply is not so. Remember the semicolon…I beg of you.

 

Remember the semicolon. It is so simple, yet so profound. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how important the “low lows” of our life can be. They can literally either make or break us. If they break us completely, we may end up choosing a period instead of a semicolon. But, my dear, how I do hope you choose the semicolon. I don’t say all of this flippantly as someone who has never struggled between a period and a semicolon. I plead with you not to choose a final and irrevocable period, but know I am pleading because I too have to beg of myself to choose the semicolon. If we give ourselves permission to keep fighting, to keep holding on for one more minute, and then another and another, we can experience transformation.

 

“Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

“I know this transformation is painful, but you’re not falling apart; you’re just falling into something different, with a new capacity to be beautiful.” – William C. Hennan

 

Transformation is hard. Transformation down right sucks. They don’t call them growing pains without reason. We know where we would like to be – happy, motivated, energetic, making a difference – but first have to cross the hot coals that stand between us and our destination. Would it be easier to give up and end it all? Yes. Would it be selfish to end our suffering? I honestly don’t believe so. HOWEVER, just because something is easier doesn’t make it right. You will get through this day, just as you’ve gotten through each day leading up to this one. Sometimes getting through the day is all in the little things. Taking a shower. Eating a lunch that we love. Taking an extra five minute break or two to walk outside and soak up the sunshine. When you are at your lowest low, try to focus on the little things. I certainly understand how overwhelming it can be to focus on other, bigger matters – you can deal with those later.

 

You will make it.

 

Let me tell you one other thing that has made me realize the importance of the valleys and facing difficult transformation. I. Have. Worth. So do you. Just because every significant other I have ever had has treated me in a way that makes me believe the opposite, this doesn’t mean I am worthless. Start every day by looking at yourself in the mirror and telling yourself that you are a beautiful person, that the world is a better place because of you, and that you were put here for a reason. That reason is not to take the easy way out. That reason is to face your demons, become who you need to become, and maybe even help those around you who are unable to face or fight their own demons.

 

“The softest people I know are the strongest people I know. They have stories that could have broken them, but they manage to take all of those pieces and reinvent themselves.” – Unknown

 

Your scars, whether physical, emotional, mental, or all of the above, make you the unique and special person you are. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Above all, don’t let yourself tell you otherwise. Don’t listen to yourself on the days that you want to give up. Tell that still, small voice to go take a hike when it whispers that you would be better off dead. It’s simply not true.

 

A friend encouraged me the other day by telling me that all this pain and heartache is not reducing who I am, but rather building me up and turning me into a stronger person. This can only happen, though, if I grit my teeth, roll up my pants, and walk my way across those burning coals toward the future I want for myself. If I shut myself inside and do nothing to better my mental state, I will surely succumb to the wishes of those demons. Thankfully, I have wonderful friends, an incredibly supportive family, and an amazing psychiatrist who understands the power of the right combination of medication.

 

Let’s talk about medication for a minute. There are definitely two opposing views – people either have faith in medication or people stay as far away from it as possible. Let me share from my own personal experience. I have been on and off antidepressants for my entire adult life. The reason I go off of them is usually because I feel a sense of weakness because I have to rely on my “happy pills” (or “crazy pills”…I call them both names, depending on how I am feeling). I want to be able to get up in the morning and be able to get through a day without needing pharmaceuticals. But I always go back to them. Is it because I am weak? Is it because I am a lesser person than people who can manage life without medication? Certainly not. My psychiatrist told me something that really made any aversion to medication crumble for good. She told me, “When you are depressed, you aren’t thinking rationally. We need to get your brain chemistry stabilized so that you can go to therapy or practice self-care and actually be in a place to experience the benefits.” It’s not a sign of weakness to take medication. I believe that if you are facing a period or a semicolon, and medication is all that might stop you from choosing the period, go get on some GD medication! People tell me they don’t want to deal with the side effects or remembering to take a pill every day. So you’re telling me that killing yourself is a good option, but taking a pill that might cause a little weight gain is just not worth the risk? Read that again. Isn’t life, and serving your purpose in that life, more important? That’s my take on it. I’m not saying the only option is medication. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t discount the benefits. For me, medication has given me the fireproof boots I need to begin walking across those burning coals. Once my brain chemistry is a little more stable and I have more than one serotonin molecule hanging out in my brain, I will be in a better place to recognize how much I really do have to live for.

 

“Depression is not selfish. Anxiety is not rude. Schizophrenia is not wrong. Mental illness isn’t self-centered, any more than a broken leg or the flu is self-centered. If your mental illness makes you feel guilty, review the definition of “illness” and try to treat yourself with the same respect and concern you would show to a cancer patient or a person with pneumonia.” – Unknown

 

My final thought on this topic is simply this as: you are beautiful because of (not in spite of) both your light and your darkness. As the above quote suggests, you shouldn’t be any more ashamed of your mental illness than you should be of a broken bone or the common cold. It may be a little gross when you accidentally sneeze bright green snot all over yourself when you have a cold, but no one can judge you for being sick. It happens to everyone, right? What I so desperately want to communicate is that there is nothing wrong with having depression. There is nothing wrong with having chronic anxiety. There is nothing wrong with struggling with PTSD. In fact, I would argue that you are stronger than the majority of people out there who have never experienced mental illness. You are made of bold stuff, my friend. Take that strength and devote it to the sentence that comes after the semicolon. You are not alone. You are beautiful. I see you.

 

“At any given moment, you have the power to say: this is not how the story is going to end.” – Christine Mason Miller

 

References:

Bushak, L. (2015). ‘Project Semicolon’: How a punctuation symbol came to represent Mental Health. Medical Daily. Retrieved from https://www.medicaldaily.com/project-semicolon-how-punctuation-symbol-came-represent-mental-health-341916

 

Grisham, L. (2015). Semicolon tattoos raise awareness about mental illness. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/07/09/semicolon-tattoo-mental-health/29904291/`

 

Remission. (2009-2019). Retrieved from https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/remission

 

Semicolon. (2019). In online English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/punctuation/semicolon

 

Thinking Outside the Box: Learning to love everyone…I mean EVERYONE

Trigger Warning: Self-harm, depression, suicide

 

Birds of a feather flock together, right? Or so they say (whoever “they” might be).

 

We as people like everything to be organized by any number of qualifiers, whether it be size, color, species, etc. – “the tendency to classify and categorize objects is a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature” (Kaufman, 2012). If it is so deeply ingrained, it must serve a purpose, right? If I didn’t know how to categorize colors, I wouldn’t know how to put a cute outfit together. If I didn’t know how to categorize animals by “safe” and “not safe”, I might bring home a poisonous snake as a pet instead of a loving puppy. If I didn’t know how to categorize food by “healthy” or “not healthy”, I might end up eating junk all the time. (We’ll ignore the fact that I do eat junk all the time. It’s an example, people!) The reason we have communities, clubs, churches, and work organizations is because unique individuals find something in common with others and they choose to build on those similarities. Countries are based on shared national pride. Support groups are based on a shared need that would otherwise go unmet. Categorization can be a very good thing!

 

However… “this fundamental skill can also be extremely damaging, especially when it comes to categorizing people” (Kaufman, 2012). A fact of human nature is this: people or things that are different scare us. Have you ever had someone come up to you who doesn’t speak the same language? It’s absolutely terrifying (maybe not for everyone, but certainly for someone with Social Anxiety like me). This person doesn’t communicate like I do. While I don’t see it as a bad thing, it’s still scary. It makes me uncomfortable. I start to panic and wonder how on earth this is not going to end in disaster. Are either one of us right or wrong? No. We’re just different. I should rejoice in those differences, but instead they make me shake in my boots.

 

That is a very literal way of saying someone scares me because I don’t understand them. I actually cannot understand the words coming out of their mouth. What’s the solution to this? If I am never going to interact with this person again (or anyone else who speaks that language), I might do my best to draw or mime until we get somewhere. Or I might just pretend I’m about to miss the bus and go running in the other direction as fast as I can. It’s hard to say. On the other hand, if I am going to spend time around this person (or others who speak this same language), it would be in my best interest to quickly devote some time to learning not only the basics of the language, but also build some general knowledge of their social customs and culture. Why are both important? First, learning the language will obviously foster communication and make interactions a little less scary. In addition to this, learning a bit about their culture will help me move forward with communication and interaction in a way that hopefully won’t come across as offensive or ignorant. The only thing I would ask from the individual(s) is that they have a healthy dose of patience and the ability to forgive as I inevitably make mistakes throughout the learning process.

 

I used to be very involved with the Deaf community. I was going to school to be a sign language interpreter, spent most of my time around Deaf people (including my then boyfriend, who was born profoundly deaf), and was planning a career around this beautiful language and culture. To become fluent in the language and comfortable with various interactions, I chose a total immersion approach. Besides interacting with my family and coworkers, I devoted all my free time to putting myself in potentially uncomfortable situations in which I would gain experience and exposure to the Deaf world. I put aside the idea that Deaf people need a hearing person’s help – I realized quickly that this perception would get me nowhere in such a tight knit community (never mind the fact that it is 100% false). Instead, I took on the mentality that I had a chance to grow as an individual and expand my comfort zone by mega proportions. Not only did I meet wonderful people (my best friend of 12 years is a perfect example!), I learned how to be comfortable with a form of communication that requires expressiveness to the extreme. Without dramatic facial expressions and big sweeping gestures, the meaning of some statements or words may be completely missed. This forced a very shy and introverted girl to become more comfortable in her own skin and with her own facial expressions. The amount of patience I received from Deaf individuals made my learning experiences far more positive than they could have been. This is a perfect example of how stepping out of our comfort zone can lead to incredibly valuable (even necessary!) personal growth. Although I did not complete the interpreter program, those experiences forever shaped my life and my ability to express myself in a more meaningful manner.

 

Now let’s take that concept and apply it to a different form of not understanding someone. Whether it’s because of differing faiths, cultures, health circumstances, political persuasions, sexual orientation, etc., there is no shortage of ways in which I may not understand someone’s experiences or their chosen lifestyle. Does that mean I should pretend they don’t exist or even demand that they change who they are so I feel more comfortable around them? No! If someone is different or I don’t understand them, it just means I have been given a wonderful learning opportunity. Instead of building walls and sticking within my very limiting comfort zone, I must learn as much as I can about whatever difference may exist between us. Hopefully they will return the favor, along with respect, patience, and understanding as I try to bridge the canyon that separates us.

 

I am specifically thinking about how we as a society and as unique individuals interact and react to individuals who suffer from mental illnesses. We all know there is stigma. We all know there are many mental health needs that go unmet or unnoticed. I’m sure we would all love to say that we would never treat someone with a mental illness any differently than any other person with whom we might cross paths. But if you think long and hard, this might not be the case. I struggle with Depression, Generalized Anxiety, and Social Anxiety, but even I react poorly to others with mental illnesses I don’t understand. I say this to point out that we all struggle, whether we have personal experience with mental illness or not. Let me give a few common examples – think about how you would likely react (not how you should react…how you would react). Think about the thoughts that would immediately jump into your mind.

 

  1. You are out to dinner and your server reaches for you glass to refill your water. You notice an abundance of scars on her wrist. She clearly was, or perhaps still is, a cutter.
  2. You just parked your car and noticed an individual kissing the roof of his car, walking away, then returning to do it again before finally entering the store.
  3. Your seemingly happy cousin attempts suicide.
  4. You invite a coworker to your Fourth of July BBQ, but they refuse to stay for the fireworks. They get sweaty and start acting strange when you insist.
  5. You overhear a girl who looks to be about 90 pounds complain that a certain dress makes her look fat.
  6. Your colleague brings their brother to a work-sponsored softball game. The man will neither make eye contact with you or shake your hand when you first meet, then later tells you that your hair cut is sloppy.
  7. You are at the store and witness a mother walking down the aisle while her child repeatedly kicks at her and tells her how much he hates her.

 

Are any of those scenarios similar to something you have experienced? If so, did you laugh or go home to tell your spouse or friends about the crazy person you saw or met? Do any of those examples make you feel uncomfortable by simply reading them? I’ll be the first to raise my hand. For the sake of conversation, let’s expand on each example.

 

  1. You are out to dinner and your server reaches for you glass to refill your water. You notice an abundance of scars on her wrist. She clearly was, or perhaps still is, a cutter.

When people see another person with cutter scars, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they must have gone through a broody phase as a teenager during which they hurt themselves for attention. In some cases this might be true, but not in most cases. Self-harm is an extremely common coping mechanism. According to Psychology Today (2019), “self-harm, or self-mutilation, is the act of deliberately inflicting pain and damage to your own body and can include cutting, burning, scratching, and other forms of injury.” That means a cry for attention, right? Not necessarily. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains that “hurting yourself – or thinking about hurting yourself – is a sign of emotional distress”  and that “when a person is not sure how to deal with emotions, or learned as a child to hide emotions, self-harm may feel like a release” (NAMI, 2019). You might be asking, “How on earth could cutting, burning, or any other form of self-harm be a release?” Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that physical pain can go a long way toward relieving emotional pain. I thankfully never got into cutting, but I was a burner and have always been a skin picker. As someone who has always struggled with healthy coping mechanisms for emotional pain, I found relief in self-harm because 1) physical pain is something I can understand and 2) I was controlling what was causing me pain, which is typically not the case when it comes to emotional pain or trauma. I have found more socially acceptable forms of causing physical pain (i.e. tattoos), but that doesn’t mean I am not still tempted by other forms of self-harm. If you know someone or come across someone with scars, don’t judge them. Understand that they have been through things you can probably not comprehend and that they need kindness and support more than anything. Don’t treat them like they are lesser individuals. Encourage them to get help – therapy is a great way to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Sometimes even just providing them with a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on provides enough of an outlet that they don’t feel the need to hurt themselves. You may not understand it, but acknowledge their pain without being one more judgmental person in their life.

  1. You just parked your car and noticed an individual kissing the roof of his car, walking away, then returning to do it again before finally entering the store.

Lets talked about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It’s not uncommon to hear people say “I have OCD” just because they like their Tupperware organized or their piles of paper neat and tidy. This is not OCD. True OCD “is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over” (NIMH, 2016). I dated someone who had severe OCD. He was literally unable to walk away from his car without first holding his arms out to the side, leaning over, and kissing the room of the car. Likewise, he could not leave his apartment without kissing the door frame on the way out. When he would try to practice self-control and walk away from his car or apartment door without doing the kissing ritual, his subsequent anxiety was debilitating – he would either have to return to the car or return home to complete the ritual so he could continue with his daily life. He also struggled with obsessive thoughts about taking a large kitchen knife and stabbing himself. Look back at the NIMH definition, though – these behaviors and thoughts are uncontrollable. Can you imagine knowing how ridiculous you look kissing your car, but being unable to control the need to do so? Take care when flippantly saying you have OCD or laughing at someone who appears to be doing something bizarre. Remember that it is a truly life-changing struggle for many people – as many as 2.5% of our adult population have this illness (BeyondOCD.org, 2018).

  1. Your seemingly happy cousin attempts suicide.

How many times do you hear it said of people who attempt or commit suicide that “they seemed so happy and normal”…? Does this mean they were liars, really good actors, just seeking attention, or possibly so emotionally distressed that they couldn’t bring themselves to open up to anyone about their struggles? According to the World Health Organization, “close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds” (WHO, 2019). Do the math. How many people have died just while you’ve sat here reading this blog post? They may be strangers to you, but it is still a devastating loss of human life. Here’s the deal, though – “people can be so quiet about their pain, that you forget they are hurting. That is why it is so important to always be kind” (Unknown). Seriously…telling someone who feels suicidal or has attempted suicide that they shouldn’t be so selfish or that they have a lot to live for will only make them feel guilty and put them into even more emotional turmoil. Suicidal ideation is a very real thing, whether you have been personally touched by it or not. My best suggestion is to look beyond someone’s outward behaviors and words. Really look them in the eye. When you ask someone how they are doing, listen to their answer. You might be thinking to yourself, “How the heck am I supposed to know someone is depressed if they don’t come out and tell me?” I have news for you – people who are truly depressed and suicidal likely won’t come out and tell you. That’s why we need to be so in tune with those around us and learn how to see the signs – withdrawal from social interaction, absences from work, extreme pessimism, maybe even frequent references to death. And remember: just because someone has started seeing a therapist or taking medication, this does not mean they are out of the woods. Always keep an eye on people. Your kindness might just be what gives them enough hope to carry on for one more day.

  1. You invite a coworker to your Fourth of July BBQ, but they refuse to stay for the fireworks. They get sweaty and start acting strange when you insist.

It may very well be that your coworker has severe Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is triggered by fireworks or other loud noises. This disorder “can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault” (Psychiatry.org, 2017). Perhaps they are a war veteran who does not speak of his experiences because they had such a profoundly negative affect on his life. Perhaps he was a gunshot victim in a terrorist attack. Perhaps he was beaten by his father during a fireworks show. It could be any number of things. What’s important to remember is that people have a reason for declining invitations or saying they need to leave early. If they want to share those reasons, great. However, if they are clearly uneasy about doing something, don’t force them to do it if you do not know or understand their background or experiences.

  1. You overhear a girl who looks to be about 90 pounds complain that a certain dress makes her look fat.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “there is a commonly held view that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors” (February 2016). Let me drawn your attention back to the words often fatal. I was surprised to learn that “anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder” (NEDA, 2018). Instead of judging someone for being too thin or self-absorbed, remember that true eating disorders can be incredibly dangerous and life-threatening. If you have children or are around children, look for the signs early. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that “the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness,” and lists bullying/weight shaming as a huge issue (NEDA, 2018). Teach your children to be kind to other children, regardless of how they look or how much they weight. Teach yourself to be kind. Yes, it is someone’s own choice to go down the road of an eating disorder, but if we aren’t teaching our kids to not bully others, aren’t we as much to blame as that individual? It is our responsibility to change the societal view that both women and men must be a certain pants size to be appreciated, valued, and loved. No one deserves to feel less than perfect.

  1. Your colleague brings their brother to a work-sponsored softball game. The man will neither make eye contact with you or shake your hand when you first meet, then later tells you that your hair cut is sloppy.

I came across this incredible meme about autism the other day:

autism

It moved me. It reminded me that just because I don’t understand what it’s like to have autism (or any mental health disorder or illness), doesn’t mean I should call someone weird or crazy for their exhibited behaviors. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) “refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication” (AutismSpeaks.org, n.d.). If you know or find out that someone has ASD, this doesn’t mean you should avoid them. This means you should pay close attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. If they don’t feel comfortable shaking your hand, don’t force them to shake your hand. Also, remember that ASD is 100% unique to each individual – it’s called a spectrum for a reason. The Autism Speaks organization (n.d.) has this powerful quote by Dr. Stephen Shore on their website: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Read that again. Think about how that applies to ASD or to any other mental illness. You might know ten people with ASD, but that doesn’t mean the 11thperson you meet will have the same needs as any of the other ten. Doesn’t that apply beautifully to humans in general? We simply cannot generalize, regardless of the disorder – especially if it has anything to do with the human mind!

  1. You are at the store and witness a mother walking down the aisle while her child repeatedly kicks at her and tells her how much he hates her.

This example hits home for me for a number of reasons. I have witnessed this in the store before. If I hadn’t known someone who has a child with similar behavioral tendencies, I probably would have thought the boy was abused and/or the mother simply didn’t pay him enough attention. The mother I witnessed was simply continuing her shopping, despite the stares coming from all directions, and she kept telling him “I know” every time he stated that he hated her or that she was a horrible mother. So whose fault is this? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the child is either spoiled rotten or completely neglected, could there be another explanation? I’ll give you a little hint: there can always be another explanation. Any number of mental illnesses could cause that kind of behavior. In this case, my heart goes out to both the boy suffering from something, as well as the mother, who has probably tried just about everything to get her little boy back – psychotherapy, psychiatric care, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, etc. Mental illness is particularly challenging with a child. How long should one experiment with medication dosages and combinations? How far should one push the child with therapy? How does one deal with the behavioral outbursts at school? How can one cope at home when there’s no escape for anyone involved? My point with this example is as follows: don’t assume the child is a spoiled brat and don’t blame the parent. You have no idea what they might be going through. You have no idea what measures they have taken to try to get any sort of behavioral issues under control. Show some grace. Show both the child and the parents that grace. They are trying and they didn’t choose this.

 

I hope you’ve learned something, as I did during my research for this post. I hope you remember that categorization and labels don’t always improve a situation. What improves already difficult circumstances is education. Learn about the disorder, illness, etc., and learn how to talk about it and interact with those affected. Putting yourself out there in a non-offensive way will result in more kindness toward others, as well as increased personal growth and understanding. I hope that next time you are in public and see someone “different,” that instead of pointing and laughing, you hold out your hand, an open mind, and a willingness to learn about what makes them special and unique. Think outside the box. Celebrate the differences and the light we each bring to this world.

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegrut

“…every single person on this planet has their own unique combination of traits and life experiences” (Kaufman, 2012).

 

References

AutismSpeaks.org. (n.d.). What Is Autism? Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

 

BeyondOCD.org. (2018). Facts about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Retrieved from http://beyondocd.org/ocd-facts

 

Kaufman, S. (2012). The Pesky Persistence of Labels. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beautiful-minds/201210/the-pesky-persistence-labels

 

NAMI. (2019). Self-Harm. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/related-conditions/self-harm

 

NEDA. (2018). Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

 

NIMH. (2016). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml

 

NIMH. (February 2016). Eating Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml

 

Psychiatry.org. (2017). What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd

 

Psychology Today. (2019). Self-Harm. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/self-harm

 

WHO. (2019). Suicide Data. World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/

 

When Playing the Blame Game, No One Wins.

How many of us blame our job troubles, financial instability, broken relationships, or other negative life situation on our family, loved ones, or anyone else but ourselves? At some point we all do it. Unfortunately, there are those who never acknowledge that they can only blame others for so long before it’s obvious who is responsible for their current situation.

“One of the most destructive human pastimes is playing the blame game. It has been responsible for mass casualties of war, regrettable acts of road rage, and on a broad interpersonal level (social, familial and work-related), a considerable amount of human frustration and unhappiness. The blame game consists of blaming another person for an event or state of affairs thought to be undesirable, and persisting in it instead of proactively making changes that ameliorate the situation” (Cohen, 2012).

I think back on many different conversations that took place with my second husband after finding out about his ongoing affair and secret family with another woman. There are a few statements I want to dissect, all of which illustrate the thoughts above. Before I delve into the things he said to me, put yourself in my shoes for a minute – imagine the sense of betrayal I am feeling at this point. Imagine having your entire world turned upside down in a matter of seconds. Imagine what a situation like that does to someone with extreme anxiety, not to mention the depression that was lying in wait for the opportune moment to pounce. Now imagine listening to these words coming out of someone who had just been caught in his own web of lies and deceit:  

“I never wanted any of this to happen. I believe she intentionally got pregnant so I would leave you. She tried to railroad my whole life, and has now ended up succeeding.”

First, he very clearly believed one of two things: 1) that he genuinely was her victim, or 2) that by making me believe he was her victim, I would have pity on him, forget it ever happened, and move on with our life together. I am honestly inclined to think that he believed both to be true to some extent, but his history of gas lighting clearly points to the latter as the belief with deeper roots in reality. Either way, he actually thought those words would help his case. Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne states, “Blame is an excellent defense mechanism. Whether you call it projection, denial, or displacement, blame helps you preserve your sense of self-esteem by avoiding awareness of your own flaw or failings” (2015). I sprang the news on him that I knew, so he went into defense mode. What better defense than to say it was all her fault? Never mind the fact that it obviously takes two to have an affair, to continue having an affair, and then to make a baby after two years of said affair. It’s not like she can intentionally (or even unintentionally) get pregnant without his help. Last time I checked, it takes more than eye contact to make a baby.

To railroad someone means “to force someone to do something before they have had enough time to decide whether or not they want to do it” (Railroad, 2019). I would argue, dear sweet ex-husband, that there is no such thing as railroading someone’s life when you’ve made the conscious decision to sleep with that person for years on end.

“I couldn’t trust her any longer after she told me she was on birth control and then got pregnant intentionally.”

First of all, birth control isn’t 100% effective. Condoms aren’t 100% effective. The only effective way to make sure someone who is not your wife does not get pregnant is to…I don’t know…may not sleep with someone who is not your wife? Just a suggestion.

Second, what a lovely use of projection, which “is a psychological defense mechanism in which individuals attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves to another person” (GoodTherapy, 2016). Place yourself in my shoes again. I just found out that this man – a man I trusted with my whole heart – has been cheating on me for years. In his hurry to paint himself as the victim, he tries to earn pity by saying she betrayed his trust. Really? In that moment I found it unbelievable that he would seek to make me feel sorry for him by bringing up a term as volatile as “trust” in that moment. Especially after years of gas lighting me by making me feel crazy when I would question why he went somewhere or came home so late. It was all a big blame game so everyone was at fault except himself.

“She is a pathological liar. Don’t believe anything she tells you.”

Again with the projection. This statement came hot on the heels of me informing him that I had spoken with her before I confronted him. I had her side of the story, though he did not know this until I also had his side of the story. This might come as a surprise, but the only thing their stories had in common was the fact that the child was his. All other details (time frame, activities, etc.) were completely different. After lying to me for nearly our entire marriage, he expected me to disregard her side of the story because she makes things up. Apparently they were a match made in heaven.

“I hate who I am. But I am the way I am because my parents never wanted me.”

This was coming from a 51 year old man who left home when he was 17. After 34 years of making his own decisions, fighting in two wars, and moving to the other side of the world, he thought it was still acceptable to blame his parents for his low self-esteem. His rationale was as follows: “My parents had me late in life, they both worked and were never home, they didn’t spend time with me when they were home, and I had a rough child hood because of it.” He stated that this led to low self-esteem, which in turn caused him to behave in ways that he hated (including, but not limited to, his affair). After sharing this lengthy sob story with me, he asked me to move to a different state and start over with him. His goal was again to win my pity by blaming his parents for a childhood that apparently directly caused his infidelity. He even managed to squeeze out a few tears for effect.

He is a narcissist who has clearly perfected the skills necessary to play the blame game. That being said, “unlike other games, the more often you play the blame game, the more you lose. Learning to tell when you need to own up to your role in a bad situation will help you grow from your experiences, and ultimately help you achieve more fulfilling relationships” (Krauss Whitbourne, 2015). He sought control and blamelessness by pointing his finger at other people each step of the way.

“Please don’t tell our friends why we are really getting a divorce. I would like to save face as much as possible.”

In the end, he still wouldn’t be honest with some of our closest friend. He proceeded to tell them that our divorce came about because we simply “grew apart.” I did not provide the truth, though I still wonder if I made the right choice. He acted in a despicable way, but still wanted to come out of it clear of fault in the eyes of others. I chose not to tell the truth to several people because I didn’t see the point in ruining his reputation. Our life together was over, so it was time to focus on myself and not cause additional pain for either one of us. I can’t help feeling, though, that if he was truly sorry for his actions, he would have owned up to them before everyone. Let me give anyone reading this a piece of advice: if you ever hurt your significant other by choosing someone else over them, don’t make things worse by trying to pretend it never happened. It’s like spitting on someone after running over them with your car. Do the world a favor and take responsibility for your actions.


I’ve spent a lot of time and energy (this is a very emotional topic for me) talking about how someone else plays the blame game like a strategic chess match. However, I am not innocent of the blame game. Although I learned the value and freedom of forgiveness after that experience, I struggled (still struggle!) with a couple different things as a direct result. The first is that I habitually play the blame game with myself. Although my ex and his girlfriend were the individuals who chose to behave as they did, to this day I battle the idea that if I had just been a better wife, if I had just been a little less anxious or depressed, if I had just given a little more physically, he never would have sought comfort or passion in someone else’s arms. He even told me that the reason he looked elsewhere was because I wasn’t meeting his needs. That almost did me in. For someone who has an chronic issue with overthinking and taking things to heart, these were some of the worst words he could have said to me. I am one of those people “who blame themselves for everything, even when they’ve had nothing to do with an unfortunate outcome. This isn’t just false modesty or fishing for reassurance; some people do believe that they cause every bad thing all or most of the time” (Krauss Whitbourne, 2015). In much the same way that it takes two people to have a long affair and two people to make a baby within that affair, I also believe that it takes two people to let a marriage get to the place where one feels the need to find someone else. The rational part of me chides myself for believing that, but the emotional part of me will always believe it to some extent. This has bled into many different areas of my life and will probably be an ongoing internal battle. I take responsibility for too much, even when I am not at fault. Whether it’s healthy or not, that is part of who I am.

The second way that experience forever changed me is how I perceive my relationships with other people. Trust does not come easily, small things are blown out of proportion, and motives are misjudged. That’s all on me. I cannot say that I do those things or think those things because of my ex’s actions. His actions scarred me, yes, but they do not rule me unless I allow them to. I make the choice to not trust someone’s actions. I make the choice to blow something out of proportion. I make the choice to misjudge someone’s motives before I give them a chance to explain themselves. My own struggle with the blame game lies in my desire to blame past experiences for current and future responses to others. To say that I can’t trust someone new is no different than my ex saying that the way his parents treated him as a child caused him to shatter my heart. It’s just not true. By forgiving my ex on a daily or hourly basis, I am setting myself free of the excuse that he is to blame for any relationship issues since our divorce.

It’s hard to trust again, but trust I must. It’s hard to forgive him, but forgive him I must. It’s hard to forgive myself, but forgive myself I must. The game of life does not need to be synonymous with the blame game. Take responsibility for your own actions and hold others accountable for theirs. Pointing fingers unjustly serves no purpose in the end.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” – Mary Oliver

 

References

Cohen, Elliot. (2012). Stop Playing the Blame Game. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201207/stop-playing-the-blame-game

GoodTherapy. (2016). Projection. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/projection

Krauss Whitbourne, S. (2015). 5 Reasons We Play the Blame Game…But Rarely Win. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201509/5-reasons-we-play-the-blame-game

Railroad. (2019). From online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/railroad_2

One Obstacle at a Time: Overcoming the fear of healing

“It just occurred to me that many people are actually afraid to heal because their entire identity is centered around the trauma they’ve experienced. They have no idea who they are outside of trauma, and that unknown can be terrifying.” – Unknown

According to my favorite source, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an obstacle is “something that impedes progress or achievement” (2019). What an interesting concept that an obstacle to healing is fear of healing itself. I totally buy it. I, for one, have achieved a sense of identity in the fact that I have three failed marriages. Whatever emotional or mental trauma led to each divorce is unique, but the fact that all three marriages ended ties them together into a package with an ugly little bow called pain. It is terrible that I would find identity in that pain, isn’t it? My past experiences helped to make me who I am, but they aren’t who I am, right? Try convincing my heart of that. Good luck – I’ve been trying for years. That would require healing.

The other day, my Uncle shared some thoughts with me from a book he is readying called  Healing for Damaged Emotions by David Seamands. He said that the point made in the book that really hit home for him is this: “Ask yourself if you want to be healed. Do you really want to be healed, or do you just want to talk about your problem?” Wow. I really do believe that God brings about quotes and conversations exactly when they are needed.

I think back over my adult life and see many partnerships with people. I see betrayal. I see fleeting moments of love. I see some good times. I see an ocean of tears. I see brokenness. I see extreme highs and extreme lows. I see depression. I see a lack of empathy. I see selfishness. I see too many chances given.

How on earth am I supposed to separate all of that from all of me – the person who is deep down inside me somewhere? It’s difficult to say “He didn’t love me” without also thinking “No one can love me.” It’s hard to accept “He didn’t understand my anxiety” without also accepting “My anxiety makes me unworthy.” How do I leave “I loved you until I got to know you” in the past and only see “Someone will love all of me someday”? I am the common denominator is all my failed marriages. How can I not take that and make it part of my tainted being? How do I not see myself as a blemish on the face of love? I am a failure on so many levels.

There is my trauma: That I was denied the love and acceptance I have so desperately been seeking from a life partner. To heal from this trauma means that I am willing to dry my tears, pick up the pieces of my heart, and either go it alone happily or try another partnership one day. Both options terrify me. Both options depress me. I have no confidence in myself as part of a healthy relationship, but the idea of spending my life alone is almost enough to do me in. I don’t believe God made me to be alone, yet alone is where I keep finding myself. I am afraid to heal because none of the options seem sustainable to me.

While I have been struggling with this off and on for years, it has been in the forefront of my mind and heart this week. While feeling particularly down and anxious today, I came home with the intention of sitting down and trying to wade my way through some of these emotions. As so often happens, I came across someone else’s beautiful and tragic words just as I sat down to start this blog post. It hit me right in the emotional gut. It’s a short article by Kate Rose called All She Ever Wanted to be was Someone’s First Choice (2016). These portions in particular made me ache.


“Sometimes she was partially chosen, in pieces and bits for those parts of herself that they loved to taste. But regardless of how sweet her smile, or how hot her bare skin burned, no one’s ever stayed and said they wanted more.

Perhaps if she’s honest, she’ll admit that sometimes she’s wondered if she was unlovable – that maybe it was her lot in life to remain without someone to hold her close during the dark nights that sometimes seemed too long.

She doubted her truth and wondered if there was something wrong with her – if she just loved too strongly or too differently. Possibly she was just a little too passionate, or maybe it was just that the fire burned so bright behind her eyes that anyone who dared to come close enough feared they’d be burned up within the flames.

Yet even on occasions when she’s wondered what was wrong with her that no one ever chose her, she knew deep down it had nothing to do with her at all.

She doesn’t doubt her worth anymore, and instead she knows that it’s just going to take someone truly spectacular to understand the song her heart sings.”


Reading this makes me want to not fear healing. I want to get to the point that I know deep down that my failed relationships are not all because of me and my shortcomings as a human being. I want to give myself permission to love passionately and not be afraid that I will scare someone off or get my heart broken again. I desperately want to be that confidant woman who knows what she deserves and will accept no less. I am worthy…aren’t I?

“Stop apologizing. You don’t have to say sorry for how you laugh, how you dress, how you make your hair, how you speak. You don’t have to be sorry for being yourself. Do it fearlessly. It’s time to accept, this is you, and you gotta spend the rest of your life with you. So start loving your sarcasm, you awkwardness, your weirdness, your unique sense of humor, your everything. It will make your life so much easier to simply be yourself.” – Unknown

In an effort to feel better about myself and more confident, I have been trying to put my very best foot forward each day this week. I have put a little more thought into what I’m wearing, doing a little makeup, and recognizing that I am beautiful on the inside and out. The trouble is, by the end of the day, I come home exhausted. Am I trying too hard? Am I being fake? Am I just pretending? And then my buddies Anxiety and Depression sidle up next to me and settle in for the night.

Going back to the idea of being afraid of healing, I must confess that part of me is afraid that true healing means I will indeed be alone for the rest of my life. And that thought breaks my heart. I just can’t wrap my brain around having so much love to give, but no one special to whom I can give it all. Regardless of faith, friendships, and family, I just don’t know how I would get through life as a single person. I can’t face growing old with Depression as my only soul mate. Clearly I have a long way to go down the road that is hopefully leading to healing. My first obstacle to overcome is fear of what healing may bring.

References

Obstacle. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obstacle

Rose, Kate. (2016). All She Ever Wanted to be was Someone’s First Choice. Elephant Journal. Retrieved from https://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/04/all-she-ever-wanted-to-be-was-someones-first-choice/

Warzones and Gollum: Anxiety on a good day

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block, mainly because the last few days have been decent for me. It probably sounds crazy, but it is easier to write – to pour my heart out – when it seems like everything is going wrong. It’s borderline scary when I have more than one good day in a row because I am waiting for it all to come crashing in on me again. What does anxiety look like on a good day? Maybe a little more like pick up sticks than a plate of spaghetti. Dark gray mixed with a little light gray, instead of just black. That awful prickly sensation once circulation is restored, instead of having a foot that is completely asleep. Driving with the Check Engine light on, instead of trying to start a car with a dead battery.

I came across an interesting quote earlier today:

“Mental illness is like fighting a war where the enemy’s strategy is to convince you that the war isn’t actually happening.” – Unknown

I’m still trying to decide what this even means. There are probably several different interpretations. The first one that came to my mind is this: if mental illness is the enemy, its goal is to sneak up on you when you least expect it. If you have been lulled into a false sense of security, it can come out of nowhere and really do a number on you. This is what makes me paranoid, even when I seem to be having a great day. The enemy is waiting for me just around that corner, behind that bush, or under that rock. It’s only a matter of time. Wouldn’t it be better to realize this problem is never going away, that there’s no way to fix me, and that I will always be fighting this gruesome internal war?

However, that is not the most meaningful interpretation I have come up with. The longer I thought about it, the more I decided that the enemy is the stigma and judgement that surrounds mental illness. If I had a penny for every time someone said “You just worry too much” or “can’t you just stop worrying for once in your life”, I would be a rich woman. What these statements communicate to someone with anxiety is this: It’s all in your head…what you are feeling isn’t real…what you are feeling doesn’t matter…you are choosing this.

Imagine sending an army of soldiers out into the middle of a war zone, then saying, “None of us believe those enemies are real. We aren’t going to support you in any of this. Stop acting like you are going to die. It’s all in your imagination.” All the while, those soldiers are trying to find some sort of cover from the flying bullets, grenades, and whatever other weapons the opposition might have. How long do you think the soldiers will be able to fight without reinforcements, supplies, and support from home? The answer is obvious: not very long. So how much do you think the opposition is benefiting from the lack of awareness or intelligence, not on the part of the soldiers, but on the part of their commanders and society?

Welcome to the warzone that is my head. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: it’s dark, it’s scary, and it’s ridiculously hard to go it alone without backup and support. I imagine two different individuals living in my head – one looks just like me, talks like me, thinks like me. The other looks more like Gollum from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This creature stays in the shadows and torments the other me. It is cruel, obsessive, and doesn’t know when to stop.

Even on the good days, my internal Gollum reminds me that anything could go wrong at any minute. I might remind it that my antidepressant and antianxiety meds seem to be stabilizing me, but it would come back with, “Well what if something clicks in your brain and they start causing seizures?” I might remind it that I am thankful for the roof over my head and the good job I have, but it would come back with, “What if your neighbor starts a fire and you can’t go to work because you couldn’t escape the flames?” I might remind it that I am working on my self-esteem by exercising, dressing a little nicer, and putting on some makeup, but it would come back with, “You’re fighting a losing battle…no one likes you anyway…why feel good about that?” I might remind it that I am intelligent, but it would come back with, “Then why do you struggle with so many different irrational fears or simple problems?” I might remind it that I am eating healthier to get my body back on track, but it would come back with, “You can’t afford to eat healthy.” My point is…there is always something. Even on the best of days, my own personal Gollum is pointing out how futile my attempts are when I try to live a normal, rational life.

Now let’s go back to the warzone example. I have all this going on in my head, but people I think I can trust are assuring me that I can simply stop worrying if I really put my mind to it. There is no way to truly describe what that feels like, but there are plenty of words that, when combined, come pretty close. Below are just a few examples. All of these definitions come from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2019).

  • Discouraged: “To deprive of courage or confidence”
  • Broken: “Not working properly”
  • Foolish: “Having or showing a lack of good sense, judgment, or discretion”
  • Alone: “Without aid or support”
  • Lack/Lacking: “The fact or state of being wanting or deficient”
  • Betrayed: “Treacherously abandoned, deserted, or mistreated”
  • Small: “Of little consequence”
  • Crazy: “Full of cracks or flaws”
  • Ashamed: “Feeling inferior or unworthy”

What if someone with diabetes told you they felt all these things because you kept telling them that insulin is overrated and they should just will their blood sugar to normalize on its own. Wouldn’t you feel like a bit of an a-hole? Why is it so acceptable, then, for people to have this attitude towards those with mental illnesses? Whether you believe it is all made up or not doesn’t change the fact that a chemical imbalance in my brain has made me a unique, over-thinker who assumes the worst will happen in any situation. I don’t see the world like you do. I see the world as a dangerous, evil place where disaster is waiting just around the next bend.

I definitely feel like I’m rambling. I guess the point I am trying to come to is the fact that stigma and denial do a huge disservice to anyone suffering from a mental illness. There is nothing that makes me feel more alone than someone I care about telling me I should just stop worrying. Don’t ask me why I’m worried about something – BECAUSE I HAVE ANXIETY…THAT’S WHAT I DO. If it was as easy as flipping a switch and turning that Gollum part of my brain off, I wouldn’t be taking medication and wishing I could afford therapy! While on the one hand, I acknowledge that no one forces me feel any of those words I defined above because only I allow myself to feel anything. On the other hand, we owe it to each other to be supportive and kind. A lack of support for those soldiers we talked about doesn’t mean they can’t try and defend themselves and maybe even succeed, but it’s going to be a heck of a lot easier if they have all the support their country can muster. Why would anyone ever ask a soldier to fight alone? So why do we ask each other to fight our own personal battles alone? Don’t let your own ignorance rob you of the opportunity to be the life raft someone so desperately needs. Don’t let your fellow human being sink.

Stigma comes from ignorance. Ignorance often comes from a lack of exposure. If you have questions about anxiety or depression, but don’t know how to ask your loved one, send me an email! I’m happy to be a sounding board. I have a lifetime of anxiety and depression experience to pull from. I understand that this post was a little unorganized and random, but that is how my anxious brain works, even on a good day. I’m all over the place all the time. So is your loved one who suffers from anxiety. Please realize that they are fighting an internal battle that you may know nothing about because they have been burned so many times by people in whom they thought they could confide.

Let’s light a fire and start a revolution. We need to stop sending soldiers into a warzone without support.

References

Alone. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alone

Ashamed. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ashamed

Betrayed. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/betrayed

Broken. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/broken

Crazy. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crazy

Discourage. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discourage

Foolish. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/foolish

Lack. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lacking

Small. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/small

Expectation versus Reality: Am I here to love without being loved in return?

I have had many conversations of late with my loathsome friends, Anxiety and Depression. They like to present to me all the reason I am not good enough for anyone. They enjoy mocking the goodness in me. They seem to thrive on reminding me that I am full of love, but still can’t find someone who will accept that love. I know this has been a common theme in some of my blogs. Hopefully it’s not too repetitive. I just know that if I struggle with it so regularly, there are others out there feeling the same things too, so I might as well continue to write about it.

The crux of my ongoing dilemma is this: If I can accept the fact that not all people have the same love language – the same way of showing they care – then why shouldn’t I go on loving people without expectation? As long as I take care of myself along the way (this is the piece I have been missing up until this point), is it really that terrible to give without receiving in equal quantity or quality? Yes, boundaries need to exist. But maybe I can find a balance. It’s hard for me to not take on an “all or nothing” attitude about everything – either I give all of myself or I give none of myself. Considering how much joy I feel when I perform random acts of kindness or help someone in need, why should I rob myself of that simply because I don’t know if the sentiment will be returned? It’s like a dance – without the right balance between expectations, boundaries, and self-care, I will topple over regardless of who my partner might be. (note: if you know me, you know I’ll likely topple over anyway due to my extreme lack of delicate grace or lightness of foot)

Henry David Thoreau says that “there is no remedy for love but to love more.” That tells me that if I have been hurt as a direct result of loving someone, the only way to overcome that pain is to continue loving others. It’s the same idea as getting back on the horse when you’ve been thrown off. If you don’t get right back on, you may develop a fear of riding. I don’t want to develop an aversion to loving others. To not love others would be to deny the very core of what makes me who I am.

Author and life coach Gary Bishop tells us, “The expectation of people loving you or respecting you is a pointless exercise, too. Be free to love them the way they are and be loved the way that they love you. Free yourself from the burden and melodrama of expectation; let the chips fall where they may” (2016, p. 183). I had to read that several times over when I first came across it in Bishop’s book Un#@%! Yourself. I love that he uses the phrase “be free” – the idea of loving someone without expectations really does seem liberating to me. It is also incredibly liberating to give myself permission to accept the ways in which someone shows me that they care. Just because it is different to the way in which I would show love to them, this does not mean they don’t care. To expect something means “to consider reasonable, due, or necessary” (Expect, 2019). Who am I to think it is necessary for someone to show me love in a specific way, and to then refrain from showing them love because of that unmet expectation? Dr. John Johnson explains that “if I believe that my expectations alone will bring me what I want, I am using magical thinking and setting myself up for disappointment” (2018). Johnson goes on to say, “What happens if the other person has no interest in living up to that expectation? We feel shocked, morally indignant, and resentful. Expectations are premeditated resentments.” What a powerful perspective. If I expect someone to show me love in a certain way, all I am doing is setting myself up to be disappointed. Whereas, if I offer love with no expectations one way or another, I will be pleasantly surprised if they care about me in return, but will not be disappointed if they do not. In the case of the latter, I can go on my merry way with the knowledge that I showed love and appreciation to someone else. That is enough. That is what I’m here for.


“What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it is supposed to be.” – Unknown


With all of these epiphanies happening in my mind right now, it doesn’t change the fact that I feel lonely and wish for my person. I would be naïve to think that I can go flitting around like a fairy, throwing love on other people like fairy dust, without feeling alone in the dark times. While I throw expectations out the window, I recognize that I must also keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. The reality is this: if I don’t show myself as much love as I am showing other people, expectations and weariness will climb back through the window and pounce when I least expect it. Depression and anxiety will not be far behind. All that to say, I want to love without hesitation or expectation, but I also want to respect myself and make sure my cup is constantly being refilled. That is the key to making peace with my loneliness.


“Sometimes I worry that I won’t find someone. That the person who deserves all this love I have to give is out there with someone else. I worry that I won’t find a love to believe in, that I won’t find a hand that fits with mine. I don’t know how I can miss someone I’ve never met, but I do” (Peppernell, 2018, p. 92).


If I let myself focus on what I don’t have, how will I not become depressed? I don’t have the one person by my side who has my back and will be with me until we’re both old and grey. I don’t have someone to snuggle with at night. I don’t have someone to talk to about my day. I don’t have someone with whom I can go on adventures, eat dinner, or share in this crazy roller coaster called life. But what are all of those? EXPECTATIONS. I realize more and more with each passing day how devastating expectation can be. So get rid of them. Or expect the worst case scenario (my friend Anxiety likes this idea). If I expect to spend the rest of my life single, showing myself and others love, while never finding that one person to love me wholly in return, then I won’t be disappointed when it happens. On the other hand, if I assume I will be alone for the rest of my life, I will be ecstatic if I do happen to find someone. It will be a happy and unexpected blessing. I think there’s a reason that thesaurus.com lists “amazing” and “wonderful” as two synonyms for unexpected (Unexpected, 2019).

Another gem from Gary Bishop is that “the only thing that’s guaranteed in life is that it’s uncertain” (2016, p. 113). I interpret that in this way: life is short and nothing is promised. Each day could be our last. Each hug could be our last. Each compassionate word could be our last. Each random act of kindness could be our last. Each intentional act of love could be our last. Why waste time wondering if we will receive any of those in return? Just do it. For God’s sake, just love others without an agenda. Don’t let expectations get in the way of your purpose. That is my challenge to both myself and to you today.

 

References

Bishop, Gary. (2016). Un#@%! Yourself. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Consumed. (2019). In online English Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/consume

Expect. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expect

Hollis, Rachel. (2018). Girl, Wash Your Face. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.

Johnson, John. (2018). The Psychology of Expectations. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cui-bono/201802/the-psychology-expectations

Peppernell, Courtney. (2018). Pillow Thoughts II: Healing the Heart. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Strayed, Cheryl. (2015). Brave Enough. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Unexpected. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/unexpected

A Thousand Words (Part 2)

I realized the other day that I am not the only collector of sayings. I was reading a book that my best friend gave to me – Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed. In the book’s introduction, the author put my exact feelings about quotes into words. She says, “I think of quotes as mini-instruction manuals for the soul… I believe in the power of words to help us reset our intentions, clarify our thoughts, and create a counternarrative to the voice of doubt many of us have murmuring in our heads” (2015, p. X). Besides the fact that this is in and of itself a wonderful quote, it explains why I insist on taking pictures and making notes when I see or hear a meaningful quote. To hear my own heart’s contemplations in another’s words reminds me that life is a collective struggle. Obviously someone didn’t write a quote for me…they wrote it because their own heart is feeling its way through this ugly thing called life. You are not alone. I am not alone. We are in this together.


“Tears are words that need to be written.” – Paulo Coelho

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

I paired these two together because, in my mind, they are essentially saying the same thing. As someone who has always best expressed herself through the written word, I can very much relate to the idea that my writing is simply my emotions and internal battles laid out using letters, words, and sentences. My best writing usually comes when I am the most emotional. I often cry as I write. It’s like my tears are crying out to be heard. They have a story to tell. Who am I to not tell it? I also believe that in order to write well, I must be willing to open up emotional wounds and poke at bruises on my heart. I write to dissect my spaghetti mess of jumbled up thoughts and feelings. For anyone out there who doesn’t trust their ability to write or think they will do it wrong, I’ll tell you what I tell myself: Be real…be honest…be kind. Close your eyes and compose a masterpiece.


“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve been there. Oh, how I’ve been there. The is an almost indescribable moment when the penny drops – when you know that your life will never be the same. Regardless of inklings or evidence to that effect, there is that one moment when you realize the truth of your situation. Fitzgerald is right – in that moment, the rest of the world seems to fade away as you are faced with something coming to an end. It might be your job, your health, a relationship, your living situation, or the life of someone you care about. It might be a million other things.

For me, I think back to the time I found out that my husband of five years had been cheating on me and had a child with her. It was complete coincidence that I found out – a friend of a friend was taking a class with her. My friend opened up Facebook to show me a picture of my husband with her. I remember feeling like I was in a tunnel. There was a roaring in my ears, yet everything seemed silent. I remember holding my breath. I remember focusing on that picture, while the rest of the world faded away completely. I remember thinking, “This is who he really is. I’m married to a monster. I am now free.” It’s strange that I vividly remember that thought: “I am now free.” It was like I replayed our entire relationship in that millisecond – our life together literally did flash before my eyes. All the signs I’d been avoiding were brought to the forefront. His behavior suddenly shone with clarity. It’s bizarre how the rest of the world truly does disappear in a moment when you receive such devastating news. I remember my friend saying, “Will you please say something or cry or get angry? Do something!” That’s when I stopped holding my breath, looked away from the picture, and told her I needed to go home. I knew I had to start over and that it had to happen that day. Life would never be the same. I would never be the same.


“I love when people that have been through hell walk out of the flames with buckets of water for those still consumed by the fire.” – Unknown

I value the idea that, while struggles are there to make me stronger as an individual, they are also there to make me more empathetic and kind toward other people going through something similar. Consumed means to “completely destroy” or “use up” (2019). Not only have I felt consumed by anxiety, depression, and grief, I feel consumed by them. I am not out of the woods yet. The most important thing I have learned is that my struggles with anxiety and depression are worth it if they teach me to look outward instead of focusing on myself. By recognizing that I am not the only one who suffers from a chemical imbalance in my brain, I also recognize that I am not the only one who wonders if I am going to survive one more day. With that recognition comes a sense of faith in the power of solidarity. Who am I to mope around when so many thousands of other people are feeling similar thoughts and struggling with similar fears. Why not use my experiences to reach out to people and remind them that they aren’t alone. And in doing so, I remind myself that I am not alone either. We’ve all been to hell and back as a result of some experience or situation. Let’s acknowledge that fact and use it to positively reinforce a community of support. My pain may be different from yours, but we are both experiencing pain. Let’s help each other out. I’ll douse you with buckets of water, but only if you douse me as well. We’re in this together, friend! Don’t ever forget that.


“Have a heart soft enough to give love and mercy, but that is wise enough to know boundaries.” – Kayil Crow

This quote resounds with me for a number of reasons. Anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m a pushover. I go above and beyond to do anything for anyone, even to my own detriment. I am realizing, though, that to show true love and true mercy, it is not necessary to sacrifice myself. If I don’t protect myself, I will be unable to continue showing love and mercy in the future. True kindness does not come at the cost of self. It’s taken me a long time to see the wisdom in the establishment of boundaries – I still struggle with it on a daily basis! At least now I see that having boundaries can make me an even more loving and kind individual. Only when I take care of myself can I truly take care of others. I’ve always hated the saying “Look out for number one,” but it might actually be the best advice out there. If number one gets burned out, loses faith, and dies a painful death of the spirit, there will be no other number anything to watch out for. It’s okay to tell people you aren’t up for hanging out. It’s okay to tell someone you can’t afford to go to dinner with them. It’s okay to say no! Believe it or not, the world won’t fall apart, implode, or go into civil unrest. (I know! I was shocked to find that out too!) Be good to others by being better to yourself.


“The broken will always be able to love harder than most. Once you’ve been in the dark, you learn to appreciate everything that shines.” – Unknown 

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” – Hafiz

Realizing how well these two quotes go together kind of blew my mind. Read them over again a few times. While we are lost in darkness, other people see this vibrant light that somehow still manages to break through all that black fog. As long as we are surrounded by the right people – the people who are willing and able to remind us that we have goodness and light that outshines the dark – we will not only learn to recognize and appreciate the light in others, but also in ourselves. I firmly believe that the true lesson in many struggles is to learn and respect how strong we are because of (not in spite of!) all we go through. We do shine bright. Everything, including ourselves, will seem so much more brilliant and beautiful after dawn finally breaks. If you have been trudging through the dark, feeling lost and alone, let me be the first to tell you that you are beautiful…you are brave…and your light is showing! I see it. I see you.


“You have to meet people where they are

and sometimes you have to leave them there”

– Iyanla Vanzant

The first part of this quote is important. It is the definition of empathy. Regardless of where we are at, we have to be able to walk up, down, backwards, or sideways to get to someone right where they are. As soon as we stand up and act all high and mighty, that person is going to be running the other direction. By getting on eye level, offering unconditional love and acceptance, we may find the opportunity to make a rare difference in someone else’s life. That being said, the second part harkens back to that other quote about setting boundaries. Sometimes, no matter how hard I want to make a difference in someone else’s life, I just can’t. Regardless of how much love, empathy, or respect I feel I have to offer, they do not return the sentiment. Don’t kid yourself by thinking that if you just keep trying and trying and trying, they will eventually cave and let you love them. Some relationships, whether platonic or romantic, just aren’t meant to be. And it’s 100% okay to accept this and move on. Don’t burn yourself out trying to prove to someone that you empathize. Don’t put your own mental, emotional, or physical health on the line to love someone who doesn’t want or appreciate your love. It’s just not worth it.


“Finding your passion isn’t just about careers and money. It’s about finding your authentic self. The one you’ve buried beneath other people’s needs.” – Kristin Hannah

Hmmmm. I’m starting to see a pattern in my own collection of quotes. Clearly I have had (still have!) boundary issues. I have a tendency to put aside my own hopes, dreams, and aspirations so that I might help someone else realize theirs. Now that I am once again single and trying to start life fresh, I am for once seeking my own personal passion. For far too long I have tried to find joy and meaning in someone else’s passion. I lose myself in whatever hobby or interests my significant other or friends might have. I think that if I mirror their passions, I will possibly feel more whole or complete. I also have let the opinions of others influence whether or not I do more of what I love. I’ve never been with someone who likes wine, so I’ve always confidently said that I dislike wine. Well, guess what? Now that I don’t have anyone else’s opinions to hide behind, I’m realizing that I love wine! Now that I’m not spending every weekend with someone else’s friends or at whatever sporting event I’m expected to happily attend, I’m realizing that I love to paint! I’m realizing that it’s okay to work on a craft for myself. The world doesn’t come crashing down around me if I don’t gift everything I make. Now that I am able to manage my finances in a way that is both responsible and wise, I was able to quit my second job and focus on pursuing my new interests. What I’m getting at is this: your identity and your passions matter too. Don’t hide behind what everyone else wants, needs, or desires. You. Matter. Too.


“You can survive losing a piece of your heart without losing the core of who you are” (Hollis, 2018, p. 157).

Not to sounds dramatic or pathetic, but I feel like I have lost way too many pieces of my heart. I give them away like I give away almost all of my crafts. I have always done that because in my heart of hearts, I believe that people are basically good. I have faith that they will take that piece of my heart and be kind to it. Unfortunately, not everyone has good intentions. Also unfortunately, never once has my piece of heart been returned to me so that my heart becomes whole again. There are quite a few people walking around this planet with a part of me forever in their grip. Here’s why I love this Rachel Hollis quote: each little piece of my heart does not make up who I am. When you pull a grape off a big cluster of grapes, yes you have one less grape, but you still have so many more. Who you are is not defined by the small pieces you relinquish to other people. Your identity is not tied to that tiny bit of you that you will never get back. You are a vibrant, resilient individual. Hey…you heard me…your resilience is showing.

 

I see you.

 

References

Bishop, Gary. (2016). Un#@%! Yourself. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Consumed. (2019). In online English Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/consume

Hollis, Rachel. (2018). Girl, Wash Your Face. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.

Strayed, Cheryl. (2015). Brave Enough. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

When Life Gives You Lemons: Dealing with disappointment and defeat

We all have good days and bad days. Sometimes, though, the bad days seem to stretch into bad weeks, months, or even years. Even the most positive of people can be brought down by their circumstances. Whether we like it or not, bad things happen to us. Sometimes they are the consequences of our own actions, but sometimes they are a direct result of someone else’s actions. The former I get (karma, baby!), but the latter is a bit more difficult to swallow.

I love the definition of Karma as “an echo of the past [that] creates the future” (Dadabhagwan, 2000-2019). Regardless of your spiritual belief system, I think most people agree that eventually we all get what’s coming to us. What goes around, comes around. Your actions will catch up to you. You get a taste of your own medicine. And whatever other sayings come to mind. I don’t necessarily believe in a past life influencing a future existence, but rather see a pattern in actions and consequences. Sometimes the consequences are immediate and sometimes they happen years down the road. The point I’m getting at is that if we behave badly, hurt someone else, or make incredibly unwise decisions, it will come back to bite us eventually. Even if no one finds out about our actions or behavior, we spend the rest of our life ruminating over what we did that one time to that one person.

When our own actions cause us pain or unfortunate circumstances, I think the best thing we can do is acknowledge that we messed up, appeal for forgiveness from whoever was negatively impacted by our actions, and try to forgive ourselves so we don’t spend the rest of our life in misery.

What are we supposed to do when our life is turned upside down, or even just minorly inconvenienced, by another person’s actions? Can we play the victim? Yes. But not so fast. Should we play the victim? That’s a different story. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a victim as “one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment” (Victim1, 2019). Sure, that sounds like what a few of us have been through. I continued reading, though, and was decidedly put off by the fact that a victim is also “a living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite” (Victim2, 2019). Scratch that…no victim here.

Gary John Bishop explains perfectly why we should not play the victim, regardless of who has hurt or wronged us. He says, “While there are things that have happened in your life that you had no say in, you are 100 percent responsible for what you do with your life in the aftermath of those events” (2016, p. 31). Even if hardships come into our life at no fault of our own, we are still responsible for our own reaction. I used to know someone who would routinely say, “If I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” Granted, this is the same man who cheated on me for four years and had a secret family with another woman. I would argue that karma was at work there, not just good or bad luck. But the point is, regardless of what or who we want to blame, the amount of grace with which we face adversity rests solely on our own two shoulders.

That can be bitter medicine to take, especially when one thing keeps happening after another. I, for one, have felt like life has been out to get me for the last three years. On top of all my relationship trials and tribulations, little things seem to just keep stacking one on top of the other. A neighbor has been making my life incredibly unenjoyable with illegal activity in his unit. I’m faced yet again with uprooting my life because one person won’t follow simple rules and the people in charge won’t do anything about it. Just today the actions of an unknown and unseen stranger left me feeling violated, exposed, and borderline unsafe. Sometimes all these things leave me wondering what I did to deserve them. But in the end, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is my ability to stand strong and move forward in spite of what other people are doing around me to tear me down.

I’m not saying this to sound all high and mighty…like I’m some strong person who isn’t fazed by anything. Clearly my depression and anxiety are evidence of how far that is from the truth. My hope is that by acknowledging my own reactions to events, I can make a conscious decision to not play the victim. The more I can learn to monitor and control my reactions, the less power other people (and their actions!) will have over me.

The other difficult lesson I am faced with at the moment is not letting all the minor things snowball together and overwhelm me. It’s so incredibly easy for the bad to overshadow any good that is happening simultaneously. Whether each major or minor event is self-inflicted or caused by another’s thoughtless actions, they are still individual events. This seems so much less overwhelming than looking at the all contributing factors at once. Dealing with individual situations changes my perspective of my pain, grief, or loneliness. The world is not ending.


“Face your problems as they come, one by one; give them the attention they need and move on. Bundling them all together into a morass of confusion and letting them overwhelm you just won’t help. It takes precision, patience, and discipline of thought. Work through each item pragmatically and with a solution in mind. Remember, everything is solvable, and if you can’t see a solution, it only means you haven’t worked it out yet” (Bishop, 2016, p. 89).


A few months ago, my mom sent me one of the more brilliant Hallmark cards I’ve seen. See below. What I love about this is it drops the sickeningly optimistic verbiage that makes it seem like life is made of butterflies and unicorns. It simply is not. It’s hard. It’s dirty. It’s messy. Yet we can still acknowledge that all our struggles, despite their source, are an opportunity to become a better person. If we play the victim card all the time, we rob ourselves of a valuable opportunity to change for the better.

reason

While venting to my aunt a few days ago about my crazy neighbor, I confessed to her that I am discouraged by the fact that so many big life changes (moving, career changes, financial status) have come as a result of someone else’s actions. Sometimes I do get stuck in the victim rut and feel like I am the one dealing with their consequences. I’m over here trying to be a good person and minding my own business, and then out of nowhere…BAM! I get hit with some other struggle while the offending party continues living and behaving like nothing happened.

I quickly realized how pathetic I sounded. I added, “But I suppose that’s just life, right?” And she said something so profound that it will probably stick with me for the rest of my life. She said, “Yup. Doesn’t mean you have to like it.” Stop and read that again. It made me realize that taking responsibility for my own reactions does not mean I have to roll over and accept everything. I can react in a way that will help me grow, but I can also acknowledge that life just plain sucks sometime. It was such an epiphany. When life gives you lemons, it’s okay to not have the energy to make lemonade. It’s okay to want to cry. It’s okay to shake your fist at whatever higher power you believe in. Give yourself permission to feel disappointed. Give yourself permission to feel defeated. Give yourself permission to cry over spilled milk. If we don’t, that’s when all the bad stuff starts to build and build and build until the weight is too much to bear. Just don’t stay disappointed. Don’t stay defeated. Dry your tears.

I feel like I’ve been rambling, so I will leave you with the following quote. Even when we’re slogging through the gunk and muck that is life, remind yourself that your reaction to that gunk and muck will determine your future. Just because someone hurts you doesn’t mean you should wallow in the muck until you drown. Pick yourself back up, learn something new about yourself, and face the next batch of lemons with coping skills you would never have learned otherwise.

“Trust me when I say – when it is right, everything that you love ruthlessly, will love you back with the same conviction. Trust me when I say – when it is right, the things you reach for in life, the things you deeply hope for, they will reach back. And I promise you, when that happens you will understand, that all of the things you ached for that did not work out, all of the hearts that failed to appreciate the home you made for them inside of yourself, they were not the things that broke you, or ruined you, or made you less worthy. No, instead, you will see that they built you. They taught you about yourself. They led you to the person you were born to be, and they guided you to the person you were meant to be with. They shaped you. They challenged you. They grew you.” – Bianca Sparacino

 

References

Bishop, Gary. (2016). Un#@%! Yourself. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Dadabhagwan. (200-2019). The True Definition of Karma. Retrieved from https://www.dadabhagwan.org/books-media/spiritual-articles/definition-and-theory-of-karma/

Victim1. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/victim

Victim2. (2019). In online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/victim

Mental Health: Get your FAQs straight

I appreciate people who ask questions about mental health struggles – it shows that they care enough to dig a little deeper and are trying to understand. I should clarify here that I know some people ask questions because they are fed up or at their wit’s end. I would argue that as long as they have the patience to listen to the answers, those are still valuable questions.

Why is it important to ask questions? Because mental illness affects everyone. It affects those on the inside, as well as those on the outside looking in. In 2017, 43.7 million adults in the US suffered from some sort of mental illness (MHA, 2018), which means that chances are pretty high that if you don’t suffer from one, you know someone who does. According to a journal article from World Psychology, “Many people with serious mental illness are challenged doubly. On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002).


Misconception: “A conclusion that’s wrong because it’s based on faulty thinking or facts that are wrong” (n.d.)


You might argue that a journal article from 17 years ago isn’t relevant anymore. Coming from someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I can tell you that statement is still incredibly relevant. Stigma is a toxic byproduct of misconception, which is the direct result of lack of education. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that “stigma and misunderstandings about mental illness prevent families from facing the problem and seeking help” (NAMI, 2019). On the other hand, “education provides information so that the public can make more informed decisions about mental illness” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002). How does education happen? By asking questions.


Question: “A sentence or phrase used to find out information” (2019).


With all this in mind, I thought I would share some of the questions that get asked of me. Some I hear on a regular basis…some I’ve only heard once or twice. All are welcome. I urge you, though, to always consider how you pose your questions. You know the old adage – it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness, it’s easy for some people to get defensive. This is due to the fact that they have likely been bullied growing up or have experienced less than compassionate interactions with the public and health providers as adults. The uneducated masses can be horribly unkind. If someone doesn’t seem comfortable answering questions, don’t push the matter. It might be a trigger for them. I would like to think, though, that open minded people would be willing to share their experiences for the sake of education. As mentioned before…that is the only way to end the stigma. It can all start with one person asking one question and waiting to hear the answer.

These FAQs are in no particular order. I am typing them as they come to mind. Bear with my stream of consciousness.


Is it okay that I don’t know what to say?

This was asked of me very recently by two different women who mean the world to me (my mom and my aunt). It was striking to me how similar and genuine the sentiment was in each separate conversation. The answer is quite simple: Yes, it’s okay that you don’t know what to say. No, it does not add to my anxiety that you don’t know what to say.

One of the difficult lessons I have learned over the last few years is that if someone has never experience anxiety or depression (or any other mental illness, for that matter), they will never truly understand. By this I mean truly empathize. You can still try to understand what I’m going through from an education standpoint, without actually knowing how it feels to be depressed or so anxious you don’t even want to leave the house.

It’s okay to not fully empathize or understand exactly what I’m going through on an emotional level, which means it’s okay to not know what to say. Most of the time I don’t even know what to say, so how could I place different expectations on anyone around me? Compassion and a little grace are all I ask for when words fail. Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with some Hallmark greeting card sentiment. And certainly don’t put pressure on yourself to say something that will make this whole thing better – that’s what medication and therapy are for!


Is it okay for me to laugh while reading your blog or is that insensitive?

Please laugh! I deal with stress, pain, and general unease with humor. I’m sure it’s hard sometimes to know exactly how to take some things I pen, especially if you don’t know me on a personal level. But if I’m making fun of myself, I am doing so to show the world that life is too short and too important to be taken seriously. Some days, poking fun at my own depression is all that gets me through the day. Laugh with me…just don’t laugh at me. There’s a difference.


Have you thought about seeing someone for this?

I get this one ALL. THE. TIME. Here’s the thing: therapy is expensive. If I could sit down and talk to a professional once a day, I would. We live in a society that doesn’t take mental health coverage seriously. We live in a society where 3 therapy sessions are considered adequate for many Employee Assistance Programs. For someone with chronic mental health, routine therapy sessions can be very unkind to the pocket book. Although I just started seeing a new therapist a month ago, I realized it’s not a financially viable option for me long term. This is the world that we live in. When therapists charge $100/hour (as they should…they have so much expertise and education backing them up), but insurance waves my high deductible in my face, guess who doesn’t go to therapy?

That was a long, somewhat bitter way of saying that yes…I have thought about seeing someone. I’ve thought about it a lot throughout some of my emotionally traumatic experiences in the last few years. When you think about bringing this up to someone, do so with sensitivity and keep in mind that it’s not as easy as finding a therapist you mesh with and having coffee with them. Oh how I wish it were that easy. Remember that there are often extenuating circumstances that prevent ongoing therapy. If someone isn’t going, don’t assume it is because they are lazy or in denial. Maybe someday mental health benefits will be where they need to be. Until that day, I fight my battles without the help of a professional counselor.


What do you do when you are stuck obsessing over something?

When I begin to experience obsessive anxiety, it can quickly spirals out of control. It sometimes gets to the point that I can’t focus on any task at hand. My mind goes into hyper-analysis mode and starts exploring all the worst possible outcomes to whatever situation has caught my eye so thoroughly. Often I know that I am being irrational, but by then it’s too late. Usually, the key for me is to pull someone I trust aside, explain to them what I’m worrying over, and let them talk me off the proverbial cliff. Sometimes it takes talking to a “normal” person (i.e. someone who doesn’t have irrational, obsessive anxiety) to realize that everything will be okay.

I’d like to quickly draw your attention back to the phrase someone I trust. I have learned over the years that not everyone is willing to talk you down. Not everyone is capable of understanding what obsessive anxiety is. They don’t want to acknowledge that, while I know my fears are unfounded and irrational, I can’t stop the invasive thoughts that interfere with just about everything except breathing. Sometimes even breathing is threatened! The trusted people in our lives are often family members, significant others, or close friends. It becomes easy to go to these people over and over, which can unfortunately become frustrating for them. In my experience, my significant others are the ones who become most hard on me and tell me to “just stop worrying” or that “obviously that won’t happen…forget about it.”

In those moment of blind panic, having someone say “you worry too much” is the most defeating answer to my cry for help. What I need is this: don’t point out how crazy I am. Instead, walk me through the reasons that the expired macaroni and cheese I just ate isn’t going to kill me. Walk me through the reasons why driving up over a curb unintentionally isn’t going to cause Armageddon to fall down upon us. Although my extreme anxieties may seem silly and irrational to you, please acknowledge that for me, they are very, very real. When everything is out to get me, a patient person who is willing to talk me off the ledge is the most helpful thing I can ask for.


Does it help to talk about it?

See above. For me, it helps for a number of reasons. 1) It gives someone the opportunity to talk me down, 2) it helps me feel like I am spreading education, and 3) it is an outlet when I have been bottling up emotions and fears.

One thing I will add here is that I am a much better communicator through the written word. Talking in person can be incredibly difficult for me. I fumble for the correct words, forget what I am saying mid-sentence, and trip over my own tongue. This generally triggers my social anxiety and things just go downhill from there. If I struggle to express my feelings to you verbally, don’t think it’s because I don’t know what I want to say. It’s usually because I need to write it down first.


Is all that medication really necessary?

For some people, medication works better than any other forms of treatment. If you remember that mental illnesses are due to genetic makeup and chemical imbalance in the brain, you have to view it as a physical disease, not just an emotional disorder. Would you go up to someone with cancer and say, “Do you really feel that chemo is necessary? Have you tried meditation instead?”

So my educational takeaway is this: I wouldn’t put chemicals into my body – chemicals that have almost certain side effects – if I didn’t feel it was necessary for my sanity and survival. My psychiatrist started me on a mood stabilizer a couple months ago. I can quite confidently say that it saved my life. I take antianxiety/antidepressants so that I can go out in public and function on a daily basis. I take sleeping medication so that I can get a decent night’s sleep, which raises my threshold for both anxiety and depression. There is a method to the madness. Instead of asking someone if all that medication is necessary, it might be better to ask what the medication is for. You might be amazed by how much you learn!


Are text messages an impersonal way to check in on you?

I hate talking on the phone. The awkward silences (most often caused by my verbal constipation) generate an insane amount of anxiety and distress for me. I most certainly do not consider it impersonal to reach out to me via text. Just the fact that you are reaching out is enough to bring some light to a potentially very dark day.


Can’t you just stop worrying?

Let’s talk about this one. I get it a lot. I mentioned earlier that it is usually the people who are closest to me – who live with me on a daily basis – who start to push this question to me. My very first serious boyfriend gave me a book on my birthday about how to stop worrying. Each significant other after him proceeded to tell me to just stop worrying so often that it got to the point that I felt I couldn’t talk to them about anything. I felt shut down inside a relationship that should be a safe place.

That being said, this can still be a valuable question…but only if you listen the first time or two it is answered. Try to keep in mind that I don’t choose anxiety for the sheer joy I get out of it. No. It is a devastating illness that spreads into every area of my life. If I could just flip a switch and turn it off, I would do that. As you seek to further educate yourself and ask more questions about your loved one’s mental illness, this question should answer itself. It is not a choice.


Does being around other people help?

It depends on my mental state, so that answer may change from one hour to the next. Sometimes I want to be in the company of people I care about for an afternoon or evening. Sometimes I want to barricade myself in my apartment and not come out for days. If you ask someone with anxiety or depression to come out with you and they say they aren’t feeling up for it, it doesn’t often help to say something like “Oh come on…it will make you feel better.” I can tell you that in my experience, depression and chronic anxiety are EXHAUSTING. There are times where the mere thought of going out in public brings me near to tears because I don’t have the energy. I’m not saying no simply because I’m feeling antisocial or don’t like you anymore. I’m saying no because my very sanity depends on it. The same applies if I come over and end up leaving after only an hour or so. I get overstimulated and anxious, even when I’m with people I know and love. If I suddenly stand up and say I need to get going, don’t try to change my mind. Instead, acknowledge that I know my limit and I have reached it. The only thing more exhausting than facing the world is feeling guilty for not having the energy to face the world.


How are you today?

I can never actually tell if people ask this because they genuinely want to know or if it’s just to be polite. I fall into the category of people who tends to say “Fine, how are you?” instead of being honest. It causes me a lot of anxiety to think about opening up to someone in the elevator when all they were doing was acknowledging my presence.

When it’s obvious that someone is asking because they genuinely want to know, sometimes it’s enough to make me cry. If you are honestly worried about someone and are concerned that they are a danger to themselves or others, try to press a little bit when they only want to give you the standard “I’m okay” answer. Don’t be bossy. Just encourage them that you are there for them. It may be the tree root that that person is able to grab as they plummet off the cliff.


Have you considered [insert diet or health trend here]?

I think even the most sane and mentally healthy people would tell you that diets are difficult to follow. They would also tell you that if you stick to it, they can be wonderful stepping stones to a healthier you. I’ve considered a couple different diets recently, based on the positive results people experience on a physical, mental, and emotional level. While I am of average build and don’t necessarily need to lose a lot of weight, it’s the lifestyle change that appeals to me. So why didn’t I do it? I realized that the diet plans I was looking at involved strict self-control, a ton of meal planning, and denying myself some of life’s simple comforts. Pretty much describes any diet, right? Exactly.

What I realized is this: my perception is that I have failed at so much leading up to this point, so why would I set myself up to fail something else? One of the diets allows no alcohol, but I’ve learned that every now and then a glass of wine is exactly what I need to take the edge off. I am not an emotional eater, so why should I put so much added pressure on myself when I am in such a delicate emotional state? It was an important lesson is acknowledging and respecting the fact that there is a time and a place for everything. Maybe in a year or two I can say goodbye to alcohol and carbs for 30 days. Until then, my self-care inner voice is telling me to enjoy a piece of cheese, savor a Dr. Pepper, or nibble on an Almond Joy if I need to. All good things in moderation, right?


You know you can call anytime, right?

Depression does not foster a proactive mentality. I understand that I am surrounded by people who are only a phone call away. However, usually when I am in a bad enough place that I truly need to talk to someone, I have become numb to that option. If I am in a bad place, I don’t deny that I can call people. What my mind and body deny me is the energy to do so. The idea of explaining my mental state seems like too much to bear. Just picking up the phone seems exhausting.

On top of that, I don’t want to be a burden. I know that everyone has their own struggles. I often don’t feel that I am worthy of placing more to their list of worries. That does nothing but make me feel guilty, which pushes me deeper in depression and higher into anxiety. Sometimes it is easier to just curl up in a ball and cry my way through it.

Thank you to everyone who remains just a phone call away, though. I hear you.


How do you put yourself out there like you do in your blog?

It’s all for the sake of education for every player in this elaborate story that is mental health. I don’t do it for attention or pity or accolades. One of my new favorite quotes is this: “I hope that if you read yourself in my story, it will hold up a mirror for you” (Hollis, 2018, p. 53). If putting myself out there for all the world to see – the good, the bad, and the ugly – helps one person realize that they have worth because of their unique struggles (not in spite of them!) or helps one family member better understand what their loved one is experiencing, then it is worth it. Ending stigma and misconceptions are worth it.


 

References

Corrigan, P. & Watson, A. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1489832/

Hollis, Rachel. (2018). Girl, Wash Your Face. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.

MHA. (2018). 2017 State of Mental Health in America – Prevalence Data. Mental Health America. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/2017-state-mental-health-america-prevalence-data?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIyvvR-I-A4AIVj8DACh0BhAzkEAAYASAAEgILffD_BwE

Misconception. (n.d.). Vocabulary.com. Retrieved from https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/misconception

NAMI. (2019). Family Education and Support. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Public-Policy/Family-Education-and-Support

Question. (2019). In online Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/question

The Oxygen Mask Theory: Why self-care can make or break you

flight attendant

Trigger warning: depression

People who fly frequently can probably recite the flight attendant’s safety spiel by heart. They always talk about how to properly use the oxygen mask “in the event of a decompression,” then remind people that “if you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person” (Halsey, 2018). This concept seems so counterintuitive – why would anyone put their own mask on before helping anyone else, especially their own child? The answer is logical: if you fail to put your mask on as soon as possible, you will fall victim to a nasty little thing called hypoxia. Hypoxia, which does not take long at all to set in, “is a condition or state in which the supply of oxygen is insufficient for normal life functions”…and symptoms include “shortness of breath, the inability to communicate, confusion, possible coma or death” (Davis, 2018). Obviously these symptoms would completely eliminate your ability to help those around you.

The Oxygen Mask Theory applies that same concept to emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. A former therapist referenced this theory all the time when discussing self-care. What is self-care and why would it be compared to life-saving oxygen? I’m glad you asked, because I’m learning too. It is “the mindful taking time to pay attention to you, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you” (Baratta, 2018). In her 2018 book Girl, Wash Your Face, Rachel Hollis states, “You should be the very first of your priorities! You cannot take care of others well if you’re not first taking care of yourself” (p. 31). Sounds a little like the flight attendant spiel, right?

I am drawn to this topic for a couple of reason. First, it is an area of my life that has some room for improvement. Okay, fine…it’s basically non-existent. Second, it seems to be a difficult concept for a lot of people – I would go so far as to call it a universal struggle. For the sake of solidarity, I want to share my own struggles, as well as some recent epiphanies. On this subject, I think it’s important to note that “the particularity of our problems can be made bearable only through the recognition of our universal humanity. We suffer uniquely, but we survive the same way” (Strayed, 2015, p. 97). We each have our own life to live. Within that life, we each have our own custom set of experiences, blessings, losses, traumas, victories, and painful events to deal with. What I love about the above quote is the very last part – just because we all have different experiences, we survive the same way. Apparently, self-care is one of the very first chapters in the Surviving Life Tactical Manual. Yes, I know that isn’t a real thing, but someone should totally make it happen. (Lynette, Heidi, and Emily…I dedicate that imaginary book to you)

What life looks like without self-care

I have spent my entire life making sure everyone around me is happy, cared for, and following their dreams. I am passionate when it comes to loving other people. However, focusing solely on other people, and never turning that passion inward, is what led to my current place in life. I am alone. I am depressed. I literally have no idea who I am. I have the emotional stability of a very small and scared thing that’s small and scared because it is so very small and so very scared. (if you didn’t get the hint…I’m not very emotionally stable)

I mentioned in a previous blog post that during a core value exercise several months ago, I realized that my core values revolve 100% around compassion and service towards other people. Do the math. This leaves 0% of my energy available to show compassion towards myself. That was the beginning of the life overhaul I am currently experiencing (more to come on that later). Once I realized how little regard I have for myself, I have been able to look back on my failed or strained relationships and recognize how my lack of self-care has not only burned me out, but resulted in the end of many relationships.

As I said before, I am passionate about loving others. Like, to the extreme. I believe great love can be shown in both big and small ways – it might be committing the rest of your life as a care giver to your family member or it might be buying someone a Pepsi because you know it’s their absolute favorite. I have spent my life allowing my great love for others to manifest in all sorts of ways, regardless of the mental, physical, and emotional harm it does to me. That’s pretty much the opposite of self-care.

An example is this: my most recent marriage ended because he desperately wanted a family, while I have never once thought being a mom sounds like a good idea. Although he initially thought he was willing to give up that dream to be with me, he later had a change of heart. Because I loved him fiercely and wanted him to be happy, I told myself, “Who am I to deny him the fulfillment of a life-long dream? Why does it matter that I do not want a child?” And so, we proceeded to try off and on to get pregnant. I say off and on because after a few weeks of trying, I would panic and try to stand my ground that I wasn’t ready or that I just couldn’t do it. That was my inner self fighting to the surface and trying to scream that it wasn’t right to compromise over such a life-changing decision. But then I would feel guilty for being so selfish and we would try again. The more we tried, the more depressed I became. I was at the point of feeling that the best possible outcome would be for me to get pregnant and then experience some complication during child birth that would cause the baby to survive, while I passed on. My rationale for this was that he would end up with his child, but I would be out of the picture. Suicidal thoughts increased as well. As I didn’t want to go through another divorce, I started to think that I could “set him free” by taking my own life. Can we all agree that this is not a healthy mind-set? Yeah. I was in a bad place.

I might be classified as a workaholic. A full time job usually isn’t enough for me. I often have a full time job and a part time job – and frequently take classes on top of that! Up until recently, I was working two jobs, which only allowed me one day off a week. Naturally, that one day off was spent running errands, doing laundry, cleaning, and doing whatever else I hadn’t had time to do that week. I had no social life, but more importantly, I had no me time. Fits in with the rest of my life, right? Why should I make time for myself when I could be working hard and serving other people?

Now that I’m thoroughly saddened by the obvious lack of self-compassion I have shown myself, let’s talk about what I’m doing to change this pattern.

What life looks like with self-care

My struggle with self-care is this: isn’t it selfish? According to Karyl McBride, a doctor of psychology, “There is a difference between self-absorbed, narcissistic behavior and sound internal self-care. Self-care is about taking good care of our own feelings so we don’t project them onto others, act badly, or cause problems in relationships. Being in touch with our own feelings and embracing them is one of the healthies things we can do” (2013). Bam. How can such endeavors be considered selfish? They may appear selfish to people who are on the outside looking in, but as long as our heart is in the right place, their opinion doesn’t matter.

My first act of self-care transformation was quitting my part time job. It has made finances much tighter, but I have two full days off and all my weekday evenings. Now I have the time to run errands, cook, and clean in the evenings. I can literally lock my door on Friday night and not leave the house again until Monday morning. I do occasionally spend time with friends and family, but my social anxiety causes me to prefer less of that and more alone time. Granted, the more alone time I have, the more loneliness I feel. To combat this, I am finding the value of filling my time so that I’m not just sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

Thanks to the local library, I have rediscovered my love of reading. I am currently well on my way to reading all of Stephen King’s books. I feel so much accomplishment every time I check another book off the list. I have found self-help books that offer some insight. My aunt recommended Louise Penny’s books to me and I’ve fallen in love with those as well. Reading allows me to step out of my depression and into a whole different world. I also find that by reading memoirs and self-help books, I give myself the chance to see that I am not alone.

I have always been a big fan of both knitting and crocheting. Fitting in with my previous inability to show myself any love or compassion, I’ve never actually made myself anything. I work hard on projects and then give them away as gifts. Well…I decided that it was time to change that. For the last month I have been working on crocheting a blanket for myself. I read a quote by an unknown author the other day that said something along the lines of “I won’t spend $7 on a blanket at the store, but I’ll make my own with $92 in craft supplies.” That’s essentially what this blanket has turned into. But that’s not the point. The point is that I am pouring blood, sweat, and tears into something for myself. I chose yarn that love. I chose colors that love. When it’s cold and I am able to wrap myself in this blanket, I can do that in the knowledge that I made something for myself.

Painting. That is the new skill I am trying to learn. I am trying to take a class each month, then take each newly learned technique and apply it to projects at home. I went out and bought painting supplies with the intention of gifting whatever I painted. But the first time I sat down to paint something for someone else, I stared at the blank canvas for a while, then put my Pinterest ideas away and just painted from my heart. That painting is mine. That painting has meaning. That painting represents that I am a warrior. This one little painting has revealed the power of not just copying someone else’s design. Instead, I took nothing and created something with deep meaning…something beautiful. What a great metaphor for what I’m going through at the moment, and what a great lesson in self-care. I do not need to try to be what someone else wants or even needs me to be. Instead, I am taking my nothingness – my blank canvas – and creating someone meaningful. I am learning who I was made to become. That person is inside me, crying to be heard and understood. Who I am meant to be is not determined by those around me. Once I can dig down and reveal that innate being, I can discover just how much love I have to give both others and myself. I will have the confidence put a brush stroke in the middle of the canvas if I want to. I will no longer compromise my own wishes and needs to try and satisfy the needs of people who don’t even appreciate the sentiment. I am becoming.

semicolon2

I have read many definitions of self-care while working on this post. I came upon the best definition on UrbanDictionary.com: “Self-care is putting absurd amounts of Parmesan cheese on your spaghetti” (Croissantboy, 2018). The reason I love this so much is because it shows that it is often the little things that make all the difference. It’s not going out and buying a new car, blowing $500 on new designer jeans, or spending a small fortune at some exotic spa. Rather, it’s figuring out what you love, and then doing it. If you love Parmesan cheese, put a little extra on your spaghetti! If you love wine, treat yourself to a nice bottle of wine every now and then. If you love crochet, make yourself a blanket. If you love to paint, paint yourself a picture. If you love to travel, take a day trip to somewhere you haven’t been before. If you love to exercise, make time for it. If you love animals, rescue a dog or cat. Whatever you love, do it for you…not solely because someone else will benefit. Learning new skills will increase confidence, which raises self-esteem, which results in a better understanding of the fact that you don’t have to tolerate mistreatment from others. You are better than that. You deserve more than that.

I hope that sharing my story helps others understand how important self-care is in the grand scheme of things. Don’t burn yourself out by telling yourself it’s selfish to practice self-care. Don’t sacrifice yourself to put someone else’s oxygen mask on first. The world needs you and all the love you have to offer. If you burn yourself out quickly and aren’t emotionally stable enough to offer your great love, the world is robbed of the gift that is you. Take care of yourself. Fill your empty cup. Remember that no one else can do it for you.


“Don’t be ashamed of seeking help on your road to recovery. As recovery is remembering who you are and using your strengths to become all that you were meant to be. By seeking help through self-care and therapy, you will begin to find yourself again. Mental health is as important as physical health and both your mind and body will thank you.” (Divinity, n.d.)


 

References:

Baratta, Maria. (2018). Self Care 101. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/skinny-revisited/201805/self-care-101

Croissantboy. (2018). Self Care. In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Self%20care

Davis, Charles. (2018). Hypoxia and Hypoxemia. MedicineNet. Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/hypoxia_and_hypoxemia/article.htm#hypoxia_and_hypoxemia_facts

Divinity, Jeremy. (n.d.). Never Be Ashamed of Seeking Help. NAMI. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Personal-Stories/Never-Be-Ashamed-of-Seeking-Help#

Halsey III, Ashley. (2018). Flying and that oxygen mask: Here’s the correct way to use it. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2018/04/18/flying-and-that-oxygen-mask-heres-the-correct-way-to-use-it/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d4336258129e

Hollis, Rachel. (2018). Girl, Wash Your Face. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.

McBride, Karyl. (2013). Is Self-Care Selfish? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201302/is-self-care-selfish

Strayed, Cheryl. (2015). Brave Enough. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cover photo: http://www.unsplash.com

Semicolon painting: painted and photographed by me