Coping Mechanisms: My way or the highway?

I’ve been listening to the audiobook Insomnia by Stephen King (1994). About three hours and forty minutes in, the main character receives a letter from a friend. At the time the friend wrote the letter, she was staying in a home for women who had experienced domestic violence. In the letter, she says: “I’m finding more women who know what I’ve been through than I ever would have believed. I mean, you see the TV shows – Oprah talks with women who love men who use them for punching bags. But when it happens to you, you can’t help feeling that it’s happening in a way it’s never happened to anyone else…in a way that’s brand new to the world. The relief of knowing that’s not true is the best thing that’s happened to me in a long, long time” (King, 1994). This really speaks to me because it reinforces the idea that there is this collective human struggle with abuse, depression, anxiety, etc.. We feel completely alone until something happens that opens our eyes to the fact that we aren’t the only ones. There are others who experience what we experience.

I felt this was a great way to introduce a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while now: coping mechanisms. The reason it seems appropriate is because there are a million different coping mechanisms, thousands of self-help books, and just as many different therapists and gurus. How does this relate to the quote from the Stephen King book? I firmly believe that, although we all need to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles, we must respect the fact that we are all unique individuals with unique experiences. As soon as we get stuck in the rut of thinking our own coping mechanisms are the best, that is when we instantly reduce our ability to reach out to those around us.

I see this bumper sticker in my apartment complex on a daily basis. The well-meaning individual lives a couple buildings over from me. I say the individual is well-meaning because, at first glance, the bumper sticker may seem like a positive thing – it is encouraging people to not put chemicals into their bodies. However, as someone who takes medication daily for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, it comes across as a touch narrow minded.

bumper sticker

Let me explain. I personally have tried many different things to help me “fix” my issues – counseling, meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, medication, physical exercise, staying busy, diet, chiropractic care, crafting, socializing, alcohol (not healthy, I know), and some other things I’m sure I am forgetting. People recommend various coping mechanisms to me all the time – they’ve tried this or that and feel it is the best possible option. I’m happy for anyone who has found a coping mechanism that works best for them, but unfortunately, that does not mean it will work best for everyone else. Because my life experiences, support network, brain chemistry, personality, and any number of variables differ from you, it may or may not work for me. Therein lies my issue with that bumper sticker – don’t assume that meditation will work for everyone and that medication should not be a valid option. In her 2015 book Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson makes this incredibly powerful statement regarding those who live with mental illness: “I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.” If medication helps someone get up and face another day – helps someone survive – who is anyone else to make them feel guilty for that? For me personally, I can say with confidence that medication saved my life. What good does meditation do me if I’m not alive to meditate? Nothing about life is black and white, so we should not expect coping mechanisms to be the same.

To show how vastly different coping mechanisms can be, I thought I would share a few of my own. Based on what I shared above, I am not intending to offer a panacea or must-try coping mechanism. I simply want to show you that it’s never just one thing. My interests are different from your interests, which means my conglomeration of coping mechanisms will likely not reflect yours. I do think it is important, though, to recognize that our interests and strengths should be utilized when trying to identify the best way to get through an anxiety attack or decompress after a difficult day. If something I share speaks to you, give it a try! If not, DON’T give it a try. Always keep an open mind when talking to others about coping mechanisms. Try not to belittle something that works for them – it may be the only thing preventing them from jumping off the ledge!

  1. Medication

My number one coping mechanism is medication. I have been off and on various anti-anxiety and anti-depressants for my entire adult life. I have been with the same psychiatrist for about a year and a half now and we finally are figuring a good medication combination. As anyone with mental health issues will tell you, it’s difficult to find that “sweet spot” as far as medication is concerned. There are countless types of medication, and each individual responds differently to any one of them. My strongest recommendation with this coping mechanism is to have patience: sometimes it takes a while, but it’s possible to find the right dosage or combination to help you function on a daily basis. It doesn’t “fix” anything, but it helps you manage your symptoms in a way that allows you to live as normally as possible. For all the medication nay-sayers out there: please remember that we are all unique and that being alive is better than being off medication.

  1. Blogging/Writing

I have been shocked by how cathartic blogging can be. I have always been one to keep a journal, but this is taking written thoughts to a whole new level. I like to describe journaling as verbal vomit – it doesn’t matter how or what I say because I don’t intend for anyone else to ever see what I write. Usually, this translates to me writing down a bunch of emotional nonsense that I never read again. The blog, on the other hand, forces me to read what I write and think extra hard about it, as I know at least a few other people will be reading it. Because my goal is to reach as many people as possible, I obviously want my thoughts to be well-written and coherent enough for people to keep coming back for more. A surprising byproduct of this is that I am processing more of my emotions and experiences than ever before. Instead of angrily or emotionally “vomiting” on a page, I am wading through my feelings in a way that forces me to confront the demons within. According to Paulo Coelho (2011), “Words are tears that have been written down. Tears are words that need to be shed. Without them, joy loses all its brilliance and sadness has no end.” This is beautiful to me because it captures how powerful the written word is when processing complex emotions. In a way, this blog has set me free.

  1. Arts & Crafts

I enjoy learning new things and perfecting existing skills. These days I apply most of that passion to the realm of arts and crafts. Whether it’s teaching myself how to crochet, knit, cross stitch, paint, or draw, I find great emotional release in taking a ball of yarn, blank page, or any other form of “nothing,” and creating something beautiful. Not only does it occupy my hands, it reminds me that goodness and beauty can come as a direct result of my own hard work. It also provides me the chance to accept that I am not perfect, as very few projects actually end up looking as perfect as I would like.

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something” (Vonnegut, n.d.).

  1. Reading/Audiobooks

Books offer such a wonderful escape from reality. There are times when I just want to jump into the life of another – to experience someone else’s joy, someone else’s heartache, or someone else’s drama. The words on a page give me something to focus on when everything in my own life feels out of focus. I have also discovered a great love for audiobooks, which allow me to either rest my eyes or work on crafts while still keeping my mind busy. If my mind is not busy with something already, I will find situations to be anxious about or to worry about. There is certainly something to be said for distractions!

  1. Sleeping

Iris Murdoch states that “there is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race” (n.d.). How true! I would love to sleep for a solid 8 hours. I can’t even manage that with sleeping medication! My psychiatrist reminds me time and time again that lack of sleep lowers my threshold for both anxiety and depression. With this in mind, I take my medication religiously and do my best to clear my mind before I drift off to sleep. I never take any amount of sleep for granted, as that may be what determines whether or not I’ll be pushed over the edge on any given day.

  1. Quality time with animals

I started this blog a few days before I was gifted my puppy, so it’s really up in the air what/who has had more influence on my sanity. Maybe it’s 50/50. A friend of mine was looking for a new home for her pup, so I jumped at the chance to have a companion again. There is definitely something to be said for companionship – having another living thing that relies on me gives me incentive to make sure I am here to feed, water, and love him. He does an excellent job reminding me that I am here for a reason, that I am worthy of unconditional love, and that I can do good in someone/something else’s life.

  1. Positive friends & family

I can’t forget all the amazing people who hold me up when I have no strength left. I will never forget the time a coworker pulled me aside and asked if I was okay…she had noticed I didn’t seem myself. Little things like that can sometimes make all the difference. That coworker showed me that people do notice. Thank you to everyone in my life who continues to push me toward bigger and better things. Thank you to everyone who reminds me that life really is worth living. Thank you to everyone who tells me what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. Thank you to everyone who loves me exactly the way I am. You mean the world to me and I wouldn’t be here without you.

 

 

References

 

Coelho, Paulo. (2011). 1 Min Reading: tears are words that need to be written. Retrieved from http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2011/08/02/tears/

King, Stephen. (1994). Insomnia [audiobook version]. Simon & Schuster Audio.

Lawson, Jenny. (2015). Furiously happy: A funny book about horrible things (First edition.). New York: Flatiron Books.

Murdoch, Iris. (n.d.). Iris Murdoch Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/453940-there-is-a-gulf-fixed-between-those-who-can-sleep

Vonnegut, Kurt. (n.d.). Kurt Vonnegut Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/529521-practicing-an-art-no-matter-how-well-or-badly-is

Goodbye, 2018. And good riddance.

2018

Trigger warning: suicide

Years have a habit of surprising me. If you would have taken my hand at the stroke of midnight 365 days ago, led me to a chair, and explained that I would end 2018 single and living alone with a dog, I probably would have laughed it off and suggested the bar tender cut you off. At the beginning of the year, I would have envisioned myself spending this night with the person I had vowed to spend the rest of my life with – a kiss to ring in the new year and then passing out drunk on alcohol and love.

Instead, I find myself sitting alone in an almost silent apartment, save for the sound of my dog chewing his new bone to death. His slobbery kisses are the only ones I have to look forward to as I say goodbye to 2018 and take my first of many deep breaths in 2019. Perhaps it is good that I’m alone. Perhaps it is good that there is no music, booze, or distractions. Nothing is there to stand between me and quiet reflection.

 

2018 SUCKED!!!!!

 

Oh wait. Quiet reflection. Sorry. 2018 sucked.

I got up at the reasonable hour of 3:30 this morning to make the ten hour drive from Home to my current residential location (I will always have a difficult time calling anywhere that’s not Colorado “home”). Ten hours in a car with nothing but a sleeping dog for company can be heaven or hell for someone who suffers from chronic anxiety and depression. It’s basically a ten hour imaginary session with a therapist. Except I am both the therapist and the patient. You can see how it gets crowded very quickly in my head.

Today’s deep thinking session was brought on by a conversation in the Louise Penny audiobook I was listening to as I drove the never ending path that is I-80 through Nebraska. Nine hours into the book, A Fatal Grace (Penny, 2006), a character name Emily discusses her experience with nearly ending her own life after her family was killed. “At some point I was standing in my living room unable to move forward or back. Frozen. That’s why I asked about the snowstorm. That’s what it had felt like for months and months – as though I was lost in a white out. Everything was confused and howling. I couldn’t go on. I was going to die. I didn’t know how, but I knew I couldn’t support the loss any longer. I’d staggered to a stop…lost, disoriented, at a dead end…” When another character prompts her by asking what happened, she says, “The door bell rang. I remember trying to decide whether I should answer the door or kill myself. But it rang again and…I don’t know…maybe it was social training, but I roused myself enough to go. And there was God… He was a road worker. He wanted to use the phone. He carried a sign… it said ‘ice ahead.’” The other character again prompts her to continue by asking how she knew it was God. She replies, “When does a bush that burns become a burning bush? My despair disappeared. The grief remained of course, but I knew then that the world wasn’t a dark and desperate place. I was so relieved. In that moment I found hope. This stranger with the sign had given it to me. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but suddenly the gloom was lifted…” After some more back and forth between the characters, Emily says, “My life’s never been the same since that day I opened the door. I’m happy now…content. Funny, isn’t it? I had to go to hell to find happiness.”


“I had to go to hell to find happiness.”


I love how she describes depression and grief. In this conversation, I see how the end of 2018 must go, as well as how I must begin 2019. First, I must recognize that I’ve been to emotional and mental hell and back again in 2018. I’ve had to face my demons of anxiety and depression. I’ve gone nose-to-nose with feelings of insignificance. I’ve fought battles that were, quite literally, life threatening. I do not say these things as if the war has been won and my demons are permanently conquered. I say these things as a survivor who is slogging through each day, hopeful that although my demons will continue to haunt me, I will continue to survive each day like I survived the day before. I may be battered and bruised, but I am still here.

My sister asked me yesterday if I have any goals for 2019. I told her I have one goal:

To survive.

I do not offer this answer lightly. I very nearly didn’t survive 2018, so I feel it is both a lofty and yet attainable goal. And in that survival, I hope to find the same sort of peace and happiness that Louise Penny’s character, Emily, found. I have had my own burning bushes in my life this year, all of which have come in the form of people who have stepped into my life and showered me with a love so wide that it has inspired me to learn to love myself just as deeply. I am worthy. And in that self-worth, I will find a greater capacity to reach out and love those around me. I know I am here for a reason and I am fighting to wake up tomorrow and fulfill that purpose.


In that same audiobook, Louise Penny (2006) describes a character who “could see the future and it didn’t look good. It never had. Even in the best of times, Mother had the gift of seeing the worst. It was a quality that hadn’t served her well. Living in the wreckage of the future sure took the joy out of the present. The only comfort was that almost none of her fears had come true – the planes had never crashed, the elevators never plummeted, the bridges had remained solid spans. Alright…her husband had left her, but that wasn’t exactly a disaster. Some might even say it was a self-fulfilling prophecy – she’d forced him away.”


“Living in the wreckage of the future sure took the joy out of the present.”


In this I find another goal for 2019: Don’t be consumed by a catastrophic future that will likely never happen. If I envision only negativity, I will build a web of negativity into my life. If I reach for positivity and light, perhaps that focus will usher in the life for which I have been too afraid to hope. I know that I will always struggle with anxiety and that I will always be the worst of catastrophizers (it’s who I am at my core and I cannot change this!), yet I can make it my goal to actively seek out the positive on a daily basis. Slowly, but surely, I might be able to retrain my brain to jump to positive conclusions more often than it does currently.


I know there are so many others who have struggled and fought battles in 2018. I hope and pray that you too find peace, hope, and light in this new year. What do you say? Let’s walk into 2019 knowing we have the strength and courage to face our demons, to conquer our fears, and to come out on top. Let’s walk into 2019 with our eyes wide open – life may throw us more curve balls, but that doesn’t mean we will crumble and fall. We have each other. We have our common struggle. We have our own significant and worthy selves.

Hello, 2019. Namaste.

 

References

Penny, Louise. (2006). A Fatal Grace [audiobook version]. Macmillan Audio.

Photo credit: http://www.unsplash.com

Anxiety and Depression: What’s the big deal?

ripple

Trigger warnings: anxiety, depression, suicide

There’s a reason two of the most common things I hear are “You worry too much” or “Just stop worrying about that.” There is a deep level of ignorance in this society regarding mental illness. I would love to be asked “Why do you worry about that?” or “Are you able to stop worrying about that?” instead, but until people learn more about anxiety or any other mental illness, they will never understand what kind of questions to ask or things to say. I don’t believe most people are ignorant because they choose to be ignorant – the problem is a direct result of stigma, shame, and people being afraid to be open about their struggles because they will be… [insert whatever appropriate word here: bullied, not accepted, labeled, shunned, embarrassed, etc.].

So how do we fix this ignorance dilemma? In my mind, the answer is simple – if not easy – because it starts by looking in the mirror. Sometimes I doubt the fact that the world can start to change with just one person, but in this case, I think it’s true. If I do what I can to educate myself and a few others, then if each person I reach out to works to educate themselves and a few others, we have a ripple effect that might change the world as we know it. So what do you think? Do you want to change the world with me?


“We all experience emotional ups and downs from time to time caused by events in our lives. Mental health conditions go beyond these emotional reactions and become something longer lasting. They are medical conditions that cause changes in how we think and feel and in our mood. They are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing” (NAMI, Learn More, 2018).


I absolutely love the above statement from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It does an amazing job of succinctly stating not only what mental illness is (a medical condition), but also what it is not (weakness, cries for attention, or the result of being a bad person). The stigma, and subsequent deep-seated shame, come as a result of people clinging to incorrect ideas of mental illness.

For me in particular, I have the exhausting combination of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder, and Depression. I once had a primary physician (yes, a medical doctor) tell me that anxiety and depression are the same thing and should be viewed and treated as interchangeable. Ummmmm…no. Anyone who thinks anxiety and depression are the same has obviously never experienced either. It is frustrating when even medical professionals don’t take it seriously or don’t even try to understand the difference. What makes this scenario even worse is that this is someone who was prescribing a psychiatric medication. How could they possibly be trusted to know what or how much to prescribe when they don’t even acknowledge the difference between illnesses? There’s a reason I don’t have my PCP manage psych meds anymore! This is an example of why it is critical to find a good psychiatrist for medication management and/or a good therapist for behavioral therapy or psychotherapy – not all medical professionals are created equal when it comes to psychiatric care.

Every person’s story is unique. Every person’s experience with mental illness is different. In order to hopefully shed some light on and reduce ignorance about mental illness, I want to share a little more about my own demons. Please remember that my story is just one of thousands. My experience with a specific disorder may be completely different than someone else’s. It’s dangerous to generalize when it comes to mental health – each illness is so incredibly specific to each individual. Please keep that in mind as you continue reading.


Generalized Anxiety Disorder

What is it?

According to the Mayo Clinic, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by “excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and interfere with day-to-day activities” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). A more detailed list of symptoms include “persistent worrying or anxiety about a number of areas that are out of proportion to the impact of the events; overthinking plans and solutions to all possible worst-case outcomes; perceiving situations and events as threatening, even when they aren’t; difficulty handling uncertainty; indecisiveness and fear of making the wrong decision; inability to set aside or let go of a worry; inability to relax, feeling restless, and feeling keyed up or on edge; and difficulty concentrating, or feeling that your mind ‘goes blank’” (Mayo Clinic Staff, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, 2017). I have yet to see a more accurate list of mental and emotional symptoms. This doesn’t even include the physical symptoms one might experience on a day-to-day basis.

What causes it?

If I asked some Joe Schmoe off the street what causes an anxiety disorder, he might say, “It’s caused by someone worrying too much.” I use this example because that is what I have gotten time and time again from people who know me, yet don’t want to take the time to understand me. It is unfortunately not so simple – oh, how I wish it was…it would be easier to “get over it” if it was! Instead, it is caused by “a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors, which may include differences in brain chemistry and function, genetics, differences in the way threats are perceived, and development and personality” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). As much as people don’t want to admit it, anxiety can (and often does) have a biological source. In fact, more than one part of the brain can play a role in anxiety disorders (NIMH, 2016). Although overthinking and worrying are symptoms of anxiety, they are not the cause or sole factor.


Social Anxiety Disorder

What is it?

NAMI defines Social Anxiety Disorder in the following way: “More than shyness, this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation (e.g. saying something stupid or not knowing what to say). Someone with social anxiety disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class discussions or offer their ideas, and may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction.” (NAMI, Anxiety Disorders, 2017).

Speaking from my own experience, what seems to be irrational to other people is extremely debilitating. I went to therapy for several months to try and prepare myself for my own wedding because I was so terrified of all the social interactions and expectations. I often lay awake at night thinking about my various social interactions throughout the day, wondering if people think less of me because of how or why I said something. I hyper analyze every aspect of my behavior before, during, and after social situations. It is not uncommon for me to ruminate over other possible responses months or even years after the fact. I acknowledge that I likely invent perceptions that others have of me, which in turn influence how I perceive myself. I allow these perceived opinions of me to directly influence my own self-worth and self-confidence. At times, it makes it impossible for me to participate or even attend social gatherings. When I do attend social events, you will most likely find me sitting in a corner by myself observing the other event goers, hoping no one feels the need to come keep me company, yet wishing desperately for someone to rescue me from my misery. It’s really quite awful. If you have someone in your life with social anxiety, I would highly recommend sitting down with them and having a heart to heart conversation about ways in which you can help them manage their anxiety and even ease some of their suffering while in the midst of social interaction.

What causes it?

As with GAD and most other mental illnesses, there are many different factors that come together to cause Social Anxiety Disorder. Genetics and brain structure play a big part. According to the Mayo Clinic, “people who have an overactive amygdala may have a heightened fear response, causing increased anxiety in social situations” (Mayo Clinic Staff, Social Anxiety Disorder, 2017). The theory of nature versus nurture plays a big role with Social Anxiety Disorder sufferers. We may have been classically conditioned to exhibit a fear response due to some bad experiences in the past, but there also “may be an association between social anxiety disorder and parents who either model anxious behavior in social situations or are more controlling or overprotective of their children” (Mayo Clinic Staff, Social Anxiety Disorder, 2017).

I find the last one factor incredibly interesting, especially in my case. Anxiety does run in my family, but I was also homeschooled from kindergarten all the way through high school. Whether we like to admit it or not, homeschoolers have a pretty bad reputation for being socially challenged at best. This stems from having little to no social interaction beyond that of our siblings and parents. Some homeschoolers are more involved with extracurricular activities than others. In my case, we really only had social interactions outside of the home when we would attend church functions. I would argue that this kind of protective environment can backfire because a lack of social interaction comes with the heavy cost of non-existent coping mechanisms for awkward or uncomfortable social situations. Although I have been told that I don’t come across as the stereotypical homeschooler and that I seem to do okay with social interaction, the turmoil going on under the surface in indescribable. You may not see the anxiety, but oh is it there. It makes me wonder if greater social interactions growing up would have aided in development of appropriate social coping mechanisms.

Note: I know my mom reads this blog, so I’ll make a note here that I don’t blame my parents for my struggles with mental health. It is no more their fault than mine. It is no one’s fault! Although environment plays a key role in cognitive development, I believe I have a genetic predisposition. I am who I am for a reason and no one should be blamed for the good, the bad, or the ugly!


Depression

What is it?

The Mayo Clinic describes depression as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest… it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2018). If you take nothing away from this, take away the fact that depression is more than just feeling sad that your favorite TV show was just cancelled or that you went for ice cream and they were out of your favorite flavor. Depression is a life altering, sometimes life ending, illness. It is serious.

Speaking from recent experience, depression can be both devastating and terrifying for both the sufferer and their loved ones. I personally live several hundred miles from my immediate family and from my very best friend, so they felt helpless to do anything while I tried to deal with significant depression and even suicidal ideation. What made the biggest difference in attempting to pull myself out of my depression were three things:

  1. Emotional support system: Although my immediate family and best friend do not live in the same state as me, I have identified several key players in my local support system. I opened up to them about the ugliness going on in my life. Making others aware of what you are going through can be the game changer you need. It is a way to hold yourself accountable to seek help and treatment. It also provides an outlet when you need to talk out some feelings, as well as someone to reach out to when you are in over your head. I also adopted a dog, who provides companionship and a level of emotional therapy I never imagined possible.
  2. Medication management: I recognized that I was in trouble and scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist. We have been working diligently to adjust and modify my medication regimen to enable greater success in my recovery.
  3. Therapy: I am realizing that I can only process so much on my own or with the help of friends. Considering what I have been through the last few years and how volatile my emotional and mental states have been, I am finally realizing that I need to get a professional involved in helping me process everything correctly and in a productive manner. Hopefully some hard work with my new therapist will help me avoid future run ins with depression.

What causes it?

NAMI states that “depression does not have a single cause. It can be triggered by a life crisis, physical illness or something else – but it can also occur spontaneously” (NAMI, Depression, 2017). Emotional, mental, and physical trauma can be a major player in depression. Losing a loved one, going through a divorce, or experiencing abuse can really change the way we view ourselves, expect to be loved, or even love ourselves.

Physiological causes of depression seem to be better understood than the causes for the two anxiety disorders I discuss above. NAMI explains that “the frontal lobe of the brain becomes less active when a person is depressed. Depression is also associated with changes in how the pituitary gland and hypothalamus respond to hormone stimulation” (NAMI, Depression, 2017). These are some crucial bits of brain anatomy being mentioned.

  • Frontal Lobe: “Carries out higher mental processes such as thinking, decision making, and planning” (brainmadesimple.com, Frontal Lobe, n.d.).
  • Pituitary Gland: “It’s main function is to secrete hormones into your bloodstream” and one symptom of pituitary gland issues is “changes in psychological state, including mood swings or depression” (Seladi-Schulman, 2018).
  • Hypothalamus: “Controls the pituitary” and “influences the functions of temperature regulation, food intake, thirst and water intake, sleep and wake patterns, emotional behavior and memory” (Pituitary Foundation, 2018).

I mean, holy moly. If you look at just those three things, not to mention environmental stressors and traumatic life events, see what functions are influenced? My psychiatrist told me recently to “not make any big decisions while you are depressed because you are not thinking rationally.” I can see why! Think about that small list of brain anatomy next time you are tempted to think that depression is simply someone being sad, lazy, or “just” emotional.


Now….take all three of those and put them together!

“Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time. It’s the fear of failure, but no urge to be productive. It’s wanting friends, but hating socializing. It’s wanting to be alone, but not wanting to be lonely. It’s feeling everything at once, then feeling paralyzingly numb.” – Unknown

There are so many other mental illnesses and so many stories that are similar and vastly different to my own. I hope sharing a combination of objective facts and subjective experiences can help others understand a little bit more of what I and countless others go through on a daily basis. And I hope that having the courage to open up and be vulnerable about my own experiences inspires some others to open up about theirs. Yes, stigma exists, but it should not. So many of us suffer from mental illness. Let’s join together and fight this fight proudly. We are all survivors! As a dear friend of mine reminds me continually, “You have survived 100% of your days up to this point. You will survive today as well.” (love you, Steph!)

Come on…let’s be the ripple that causes a tsunami of understanding.

 


References

Brainmadesimple.com. (n.d.). Frontal Lobe. Retrieved from http://brainmadesimple.com/frontal-lobe.html

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). Depression. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20360803

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/social-anxiety-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353561

NAMI. (2017). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders

NAMI. (2017). Depression. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Depression

NAMI. (2018). Learn More. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More

NIMH. (2016). Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When worry gets out of Control. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml

Pituitary Foundation. (2018). What is the pituitary gland? Retrieved from https://www.pituitary.org.uk/information/what-is-the-pituitary-gland/

Seladi-Schulman, Jill. (2018). Pituitary Gland Overview. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/pituitary-gland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas to the misunderstood and the lonely

It’s Christmas Eve. So many familiar songs of the season fill the air as families and friends gather to exchange gifts, eat good food, and enjoy each other’s company. In particular, the words by Noel Regney stand out to me today: “Do you see what I see… Do you hear what I hear… Do you know what I know…Listen to what I say…” (1962). Although I know mental health awareness was probably not on his mind when he penned those words, I can’t help but feel that countless people with mental illnesses can relate as we are struggling to “fit in” or simply survive this Christmas.

Seeing those bits of the song pulled out and pieced together, I see a plea for understanding. Experience truly is a brutal teacher. Those who have never experienced mental illness can sit next to someone with anxiety, yet have no notion of how consuming the illness can be. Those who have never experienced depression can sit next to someone with depression, yet have no understanding of the hopelessness that accompanies the illness. The same can be said of all mental illnesses. Unless you have walked in my shoes, you unfortunately will never understand just how deeply these issues influence every aspect of my life, including holidays with family and friends.

With this in mind, I thought I would write this short Christmas post to say “I get it” to those people out there who are struggling through Christmas feeling misunderstood or alone in their struggles. You are unique, as are your individual struggles, but you are not alone. I’m right there in the thick of it with you. There are a few things I try to do or to keep in mind at social events. Whether I am with a group of strangers or with people I have known my entire life, sometimes one or all are necessary. 

  1. Enjoy the little things – focus on how delicious your food tastes or the sound of Christmas carols in the background.
  2. Think about what is happening right now, rather than what could happen or what might have happened.
  3. Escape to a quiet area when a group setting becomes too overwhelming
  4. Establish an ally – someone you can pull aside if you need help getting out of an endless anxiety loop.
  5. Don’t be afraid to leave early if you need to do so for the sake of your mental health.
  6. Set boundaries – don’t participate in activities that make you too uncomfortable.

Finally, if anyone is reading this and is struggling to survive this Christmas, reach out to me. My email is tealmhawareness@gmail.com. You are not alone. I am happy to commiserate or talk about shared or different experiences or coping mechanisms. Christmas is about love and acceptance, not pain and loneliness.

References

Regney, Noel. (1962). Do You Hear What I Hear? Lyrics retrieved from https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/1449506/Star+Bright/Do+You+Hear+What+I+Hear-The+Little+Drummer+Boy

Positively Pessimistic: confessions of a catastrophizer

glass

Trigger warnings: anxiety, depression, suicide

So there’s this thing called pessimism. It is “the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.” (Pessimism, 2018). We, the pessimists of the world, are the Debbie Downers…the-glass-is-half-empty-ers…the catastrophizers. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the optimists. They are the ones who bring joy into the world and remind us that life really is worth living. They are sometimes so positive it’s disgusting. Their cup is half full of vodka, while the pessimist holds a half empty glass of diet water. I love the following explanation of two vastly different perspectives:


“An optimistic person sees good things everywhere, is generally confident and hopeful of what the future holds. From the optimist’s point-of-view the world if full of potential opportunities. The pessimist, on the other hand, observes mainly the negative aspects of everything around. Thinking of all the potential dangers and pitfalls on the way, the pessimist is likely to have little hope for the future. Consequently, the pessimist tends to remain passive when encountered with a challenge, believing that his efforts are futile anyway” (Hecht, 2013).


I pulled the above descriptions from a 2013 article written by David Hecht about the biological and neurological factors that influence whether or not a person sees the glass as half empty. In the article, he discusses that pessimistic tendencies appear to stem from people who are right-brain dominant. These people tend to be more “intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective,” as opposed to the more “logical, analytical, and objective” left-brain dominant people (Cherry, 2018). I can definitely see this. Right-brained people are less likely to rationalize their way through a situation. Logic? What’s that? Don’t be silly…logic has no place in predicting outcomes or making decisions. Why apply objective reasoning when I can instead invent the most creative and catastrophic outcome possible?

There are some things you will never (or rarely) hear out of the a pessimist’s mouth. I suppose I should clarify that you will rarely hear them out of MY mouth. All pessimists are not created equal, so I can’t speak for everyone. I also don’t know if all pessimists have a closet optimist hiding inside them, but I definitely have one of those little things too. Sometimes she makes herself known.


It’s good enough…said no pessimist ever

That phrase is like nails on a chalk board. I don’t want anything I do or say to be “just” good enough. I want it to be perfect. But perfectionism isn’t particularly healthy. Hecht (2013) says research has shown “that unhappiness, low self-esteem, pessimism and depression are all linked to the chase after perfectness.” Reading this caused me to dig a little deeper into how pessimism and perfectionism relate to each other. According to Psychology Today, “what makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so there is a negative orientation” (2018). And there it is. Perfectionism is pessimistic because instead of striving for greatness, we strive for…ummm…non not-greatness? Sometimes wording makes a difference.

I had my first counseling appointment yesterday with a new therapist. At one point, I told her I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and insignificance (the opposite of perfection). I told her, “I am never enough for anyone.” I quickly amended this by saying, “I don’t include my family and close friends in that statement.” The therapist said, “Ah. So you have been enough?” I said, “Yes. To my friends and family. Just not to a significant other.” She said, “Then maybe instead of saying you aren’t enough for some people, you should say you are enough for the people who really matter.” I didn’t go into my first therapy session thinking my mind would be blown. But wow. My mind was blown.

On this crazy, difficult journey, I am slowly starting to realize that being enough does not mean being perfect to all people at all times. Being enough means being who I am with the people who matter.

I am good enough. And that is perfect. The closet optimist in me agrees.


Everything will work out in the end…said no pessimist ever

I have an extremely difficult time believing in happy endings. My brain goes to the worst case scenario with everything…every time. I am a catastrophizer. Dr. John Grohol, a Doctor of Psychology, explains catastrophizing in this way: “an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is.” He goes on to say, “Falling prey to catastrophizing is like striking out in your mind before you even get to the plate… It can affect our entire outlook in life, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, disappointment, and underachievement” (2018). Doom and gloom much? Welcome to the entire premise for all my internal dialogue. It’s not pretty.

The most recent example that comes to mind is my hotel stay last night. I came home for Christmas and decided to stop at a cheap, pet friendly hotel so I didn’t have to drive all the way through. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot of a hotel that will remain unnamed, I began to question my decision. The parking lot was not well lit and the building looked like it had seen better days. While checking in, the front desk person recommended I access my room by going to the poorest lit section of the parking lot, entering a back hallway, and going through a small outdoor courtyard. I took the battered room key, gathered my belongings and my dog, Toby, and quickly came to terms with the fact that I would likely get mugged and murdered before I even located my room.

Somehow I found the room without suffering anything traumatic or life threatening. The room key worked on the first try (much to my surprise!) and I quickly deposited my things on the floor. I just as quickly picked my things back up from the floor, as it was questionable whether or not the room had been cleaned in the hotel’s history. I checked under the mattress protectors and sheets for bed bugs and was sure to remain as clothed as possible so my skin didn’t touch anything. I already have an irrational fear of contracting bed bugs from a hotel stay anyway, but as this was a pet friendly hotel, I  also assumed Toby and I would both come down with a bad case of fleas. Scabies and skin mites were also not out of the question. Oh. And probably ring worm from the shower.

As I tried to fall asleep in the strange, run down hotel, I texted my best friend, seeking reassurance that all would be well. She has worked in the hospitality/hotel industry for a long time, so she is a more than credible source of information. She encouraged me to check for hair on the bathroom ceiling to confirm that they clean thoroughly. What?! The bathroom had a popcorn ceiling. How am I supposed to check for hair and proper cleaning of a popcorn ceiling?! I pondered how many dogs has peed on the smelly carpet or the surprisingly comfortable beds. For that matter…how many humans had peed on the smelly carpet or the surprisingly comfortable beds?

I did finally get to sleep, but got up early this morning and high tailed it out of there as fast as I could. Needless to say, I skipped the continental breakfast. I’m sure there would have been cockroaches in the eggs and mold on the toast. Upon finally reaching my sister’s house, Toby began scratching behind his ears. I panicked and said, “See! We have fleas from the hotel room!” My sister said in her calm, cool, and collected way, “Or maybe he just has an itch.”

Looking back on the hotel, it really wasn’t that bad. The staff was nice and it looked much better in the light of day. My initial discomfort when pulling into the parking lot managed to kick start my irrational fear factory, which turned a mediocre hotel stay into a night of terror out of some horror flick. The moral of the story is this: an anxious, pessimistic catastrophizer should not travel alone or stay in cheap, pet-friendly hotels. And I should listen to John Lennon : “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay it’s not the end.”


It can’t get any worse…said no pessimist ever

I hate to break it to you, but it can always get worse. It can and it probably will at some point.

Recently, I had dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. During dinner, my aunt pulled out Garry Poole’s The Complete Book of Questions, and we proceeded to go around the table and answer random questions. There was a two-part question that I found to be particularly profound: “How hard is life? How does your life compare?” (Poole, 2003, p. 113). The order of the questions is important to note. The point is to first identify how bad things can really get, which then gives perspective while you answer part two. If the question was just “How bad is your life on a scale of 1 to 10,” the answer would probably be different since you hadn’t first considered how bad life could be.

My ex-husband is a paraplegic. He used to say, “It could always be worse. I could be a quadriplegic.” I heard his quadriplegic friend once say, “It could always be worse. I could be a quad and have a traumatic brain injury.” There is always someone out there who has it worse than you. Time out, though. As important as it is to maintain perspective at all times, I also think it’s important to make sure we aren’t completely downplaying our own pain or suffering by always comparing ourselves to others who are worse off. If you’re hurting or going through a rough time, acknowledging that someone else has it worse doesn’t mean that your pain doesn’t matter. The reason to keep your struggles in perspective is not to minimize what you are feeling, but instead to bring attention to the things for which you can be grateful. Life sucks. It’s going to get harder. But that closet optimist in me sees that I have a lot to be thankful for because I have a loving family, amazing friends, a good career, a roof over my head, and food on my table every day. As my cousin so eloquently put it to me the other day while we were discussing mental health experiences: “It might get more difficult and be worse next year compared to this year, but I will have more and better coping mechanisms because of what I went through this year. So, yes, it can get worse, but I will be ready for it.” (Note to my cousin: if I butchered that, please forgive me)


I won’t be disappointed…said no pessimist ever

This one is actually a big struggle for me. One of the few areas in which I actually am an optimist is my belief that people are innately good. I want to believe this. In fact, I need to believe this so I can function on a day-to-day basis. If I maintain that people are basically good, I can look beyond any mistakes or malicious behavior and see the light that shines beneath their words and actions. It makes forgiveness possible. This unwavering belief in the goodness of those around me can be a good quality. Until it’s not. Then it’s a very, very bad quality because I set myself up to be hurt over and over again.


 “If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”

From The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1971)


I love this quote because it can be dissected in different ways. You can take it at face value and say the easiest way to lack disappointment in life is to lack expectations. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? However, I don’t actually believe it is humanly possible to have zero expectations in a relationship, whether it’s family, work, friends, or a romantic relationship. Declaring that you have no expectations is in itself establishing an expectation. The fact of the matter is this: people will always disappoint us. Is that pessimism or is that just being realistic and honest? Dr. Israel Charny (2018) says that, “like it or not, we will be the wiser and the better prepared to cope in life if we prepare ourselves in advance for the possibility – and ultimately the likelihood – of a certain degree of hurt, injustice, betrayal, and destructive acts against us from people…close to us.”

In my own personal life, I have been disappointed time and time again. I have also disappointed other people time and time again. I am certainly not innocent of this crime against others. The pessimist in me whole heartedly agrees with Dr. Charny – if I assume everyone is going to disappoint me, it takes a tiny bit of the sting out of it when they actually do. In fact, if I catastrophize and say they will disappoint me in the worst way possible, it will be a pleasant surprise when I am only faced with small disappointments. That being said, the closet optimist in me refuses to let go of the idea that, although this person is going to hurt me at some point, they are also good and worthy of my time, love, and forgiveness.

The following quote takes my breath away because it perfectly captures the dichotomy that is my pessimistic and optimistic view of those around me. I have the expectation that people are both good and destined to disappoint me. But that should never stop me from seeing their beauty.


“I would rather die, broken into a thousand pieces because I loved fierce, I gave of my heart, pursued my dreams and I believed in the goodness of humanity, than die as a whole, untouched and unbruised because I wanted to preserve myself from hurt, disappointment and things going wrong.” – S.C. Lourie


 Look on the bright side…said no pessimist ever

According to the oh so accurate Urban Dictionary (2003), a pessimist is “an optimist with experience.” In my own life and though my own experiences, I have determined that pessimism goes hand in hand with both my anxiety and my depression. In fact, according to Hecht, depression is “a pathological state of pessimism. Depression is characterized by overly pessimistic thoughts, a negative thinking style and a tendency to focus and ruminate on what is wrong and magnify it, while ignoring the good things in one’s life” (2013). On a bad day, looking on the bright side is the last thing on my mind. Just opening up my eyes to look at my bedroom ceiling can be a challenge.

Depression is the ultimate pessimism. A couple definitions of the word depressed are “being or measured below the standard or norm” and “pressed down, or situated lower than the general surface” (2018). To be depressed and pessimistic is to be pressed down, beaten down, to the point of being in the emotional negative. Lower than low. I had a recent conversation with a friend who described depression like the most constant and stubborn of rip tides – it pulls and pulls and pulls until it’s easier to just give in and let it carry you away. Then you reach the point of giving up. Amidst all the talk about pessimism and optimism, Hecht states that “suicide attempts reflect the ultimate pessimistic state and extreme hopelessness” (2013). Pessimism and optimism aren’t just about how we see the proverbial glass of water. It can be a matter of life and death.

Never dismiss someone as “just a pessimist.” Even some cheerful optimists are covering up the closet pessimist who is taking over their life. Pay attention to those around you. Check to make sure people are okay. Reach out to them and tell them that it’s okay to see the glass as half empty, just so long as the glass doesn’t fall to the ground and shatter.

One last quote from Hecht’s great article on optimism and pessimism: “Therapeutic methods for overcoming pessimism and unhappiness concentrate on setting realistically achievable goals for oneself, cultivating a non-judgemental attitude and practicing unconditional self-acceptance – applying compassion, generosity and love to oneself” (2013). It’s all about the self-love!

Namaste. I see you.

 

 

References

Charny, Israel W. (2018). The Nature of Man: Is Man by Nature Good, or Basically Bad?

Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/warrior-

life/201803/the-nature-man-is-man-nature-good-or-basically-bad

 

Cherry, Kendra. (2018). Left Brain vs. Right Brain Dominance: The Surprising Truth.

Verywellmind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/left-brain-vs-right-brain-2795005

 

Depressed. (2018). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/depressed?s=t

 

Greer, Daphne. It Could Always Be Worse: The power of gratitude and perspective. Tiny

Buddha. Retrieved from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/power-gratitude-perspective/

 

Grohol, J. (2018). What is Catastrophizing?. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-catastrophizing/

 

Hecht, David. (2013).The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism. Retrieved from

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807005/

 

Pessimism. (2018). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pessimism

 

Pessimist. (2003). Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pessimist

 

Plath, Sylvia. (1971). The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row.

 

Poole, Garry. (2003). The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 conversation starters for any occasion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

 

Psychology Today. (2018). Perfectionism. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/perfectionism

 

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

Soundtrack to a breaking heart

music

Trigger warnings: depression, abuse, suicide, lots of emotions

I am a musician at heart. I took many years of classical piano lessons, which taught me how to feel each note and appreciate each dynamic chord. Speaking of the word chord, I find the various definitions of the word to be incredibly fitting. According to dictionary.com (n.d.), one definition for chord is: “a combination of usually three or more musical tones sounded simultaneously.” Right below this definition on the website is the following definition: “an emotional response, [especially] one of sympathy.” Music and emotions are synonymous. You can’t have music without emotions. And emotions can be explored and interpreted with the aid of music. There is a reason that music therapy can “promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, [and] promote physical rehabilitation” (American Music Therapy Association, 1998-2018). Simply put: music is powerful.

For this very reason, a lot of people have playlists for different moods or occasions. Whether we are in love, heartbroken, feeling festive, or even just going to the gym, there’s a song for that. I personally have a playlist with a simple name: Heartbreak. It’s frustrating how frequently I turn back to this playlist. Maybe it’s bad luck to keep it on my phone, but it’s easier than recreating it every time I need to lose myself in some melancholy tunes. The songs represent some of the most painful moments in my life. They bring back memories of heartache, but also bring comfort and reminders that life isn’t as hopeless as I may think right this minute. Since they have been such a big part of me for so long now, I thought I would share them. There are so many feeling and emotions associated with each song, but I did my best to categorize their message. I have so much in common with people experiencing various types of heartbreak. Each of these songs are dedicated to you. I see you.


To the used and abused

Christina Perri: Jar of Hearts (2011)

I know I can’t take one more step towards you

‘Cause all that’s waiting is regret

Don’t you know I’m not your ghost anymore

You lost the love I loved the most

 

I learned to live half alive

And now you want me one more time

 

And who do you think you are?

Running ‘round leaving scars

Collecting your jar of hearts

And tearing love apart

You’re gonna catch a cold

From the ice inside your soul

So don’t come back for me

Who do you think you are?

 

I hear you’re asking all around

If I am anywhere to be found

But I have grown too strong

To ever fall back in your arms

 

And it took so long just to feel alright

Remember how to put back the light in my eyes

I wish I had missed the first time that we kissed

‘Cause you broke all your promises

And now you’re back

You don’t get to get me back

 

I don’t know which is more difficult: getting out of a mentally/emotionally/physically abusive relationship or staying out of one. It takes a special kind of person to use and abuse another human being. Thankfully, I have never been physically abused, but I have been to hell and back with emotional and mental abuse. I have been taken advantage of. I have been stabbed in the back. I have been used for my generosity and forgiving nature. And in spite of that, my abusers have had the audacity to request I stay with them. They make empty promises with their fingers crossed behind their back.

This song brings tears to my eyes for a number of reasons. The lines “who do you think you are? Runnin’ round leaving scars, collecting your jar of hearts” is a reminder that abusers don’t stop at one. If they have beaten you down, chances are they have beaten down others before you and will beat down others after you. That is a person to get away from. Don’t go back. On the other hand, I love the defiant strength that builds throughout the song. The rose colored glasses are off. The game is over. Find that inner strength and don’t go back to that life. You are strong! You are a beautiful soul! Don’t stand for abuse of any kind.


To those with regrets

Britton Buchanan: Where You Come From (2018)

I trade guts for glory
I trade love for pain
I trade my tomorrows
If you just say my name
This spoon and this needle
This blood in my veins
I’m an innocent victim
On a runaway train


But it’s time to let go
It’s time to break free
From these sins that I hold
And this blood that I bleed
Don’t say goodbye
You don’t have to hold on
The place where you come from is gone

This. I love this. It’s okay to set your regrets free. We’ve all made mistakes. We all have actions we wish we could undo, words we wish we could unsay, and pictures with 90’s hairstyles we wish we could burn (for those born in the 90’s or later….shut up…your time is coming). I get chills when I hear the line “Don’t say goodbye – you don’t have to hold on.” Give yourself permission to let go. Give yourself the go ahead to stop beating yourself up about things you can’t go back and change. Regret, guilt, personal grudges…they accomplish nothing except cause you pain. We can never move forward if we are constantly looking back. If you did things you regret (who hasn’t?), the present is your opportunity to change for the better, to shed that old self, and take the first step into the rest of your life. Don’t let past mistakes keep you from experience the life staring you in the face right now. My cousin recently reminded me of a brilliant Bob Ross quote: “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents” (n.d.). Each happy accident opens new doors and offers opportunities to learn humility or practice forgiveness. Acknowledge those experiences and move on, rather than focusing on them and holding on. You’ve got this.


To the fighters

Julia Brennan: Inner Demons (2016)

They say don’t let them in

Close your eyes and clear your thoughts again

When I’m all alone, they show up on their own

‘Cause inner demons fight their battles with fire

Inner demons don’t play by the rules

They say, “Just push them down, just fight them harder

Why would you give up on it so soon?”

 

So angels, angels please just keep on fighting

Angels don’t give up on me today

The demons they are there; they just keep fighting

Cause inner demons just won’t go away

So angels please, hear my prayer

Life is pain, life’s not fair

So angels please; please stay here

Take the pain; take the fear

 

They say it won’t be hard; they can’t see the battles in my heart

But when I turn away

The demons seem to stay

Cause inner demons don’t play well with angels

They cheat and lie and steal and break and bruise

Angels, please protect me from these rebels

This is a battle I don’t want to lose

 

What I absolutely love about this song is how it brings to life the fact that it’s so difficult for others to understand what people with mental illnesses go through. It’s easy to stand on the outside looking in and say “do this” or “do that,” without an appreciate for the emotional and mental anguish happening under the surface. I see this song as a cry to the outsiders to have compassion and acknowledge that my behaviors and mental struggles are not always a choice. No one would choose to live this way or fight such darkness. When people tell me repeatedly that I worry too much, that I’m overreacting, or that I’m being irrational, I want to shout, “give me a little credit!!” I know all that. But telling me that is not going to change the fact that the chemical imbalance in my brain makes it impossible at times to rationalize my way through a situation. It’s not always helpful to point out to us how irrational I am being. Rather, please acknowledge that I am trying and appreciate that sometimes all I need is a quiet companion on my journey to find clarity within my far from simple reality.


To the homesick

Lindsey Sterling (feat. Andrew McMahon): Something Wild (2016)

You had your maps drawn
You had other plans
To hang your hopes on
Every road they led you down felt so wrong
So you found another way

You’ve got a big heart
The way you see the world
It got you this far
You might have some bruises
And a few of scars
But you know you’re gonna be okay


Even though you’re scared
You’re stronger than you know

If you’re lost out where the lights are blinding
Caught in all, the stars are hiding
That’s when something wild calls you home, home
If you face the fear that keeps you frozen
Chase the sky into the ocean
That’s when something wild calls you home, home

 

My best friend shared this song with me shortly after I moved out of state. I’d never lived more than a few miles away from where I grew up, so moving 700 miles away was a bit of a system shock. I made this somewhat rash decision after having my heart ripped out by my ex-husband. Over the last couple years since the move, I have learned that there are different types of homesickness. There is the homesickness in which you yearn for the people you love. There is the homesickness in which you want to find your way back to a place of peace, security, and belonging. There is the homesickness in which you just want to feel safe in someone’s arms. All those things are home to me: people I love, peace, security, belonging, and safety in someone’s physical embrace. There are days when I still am scared to be so far away from home. My heart, or rather my heartbreak, led me on this adventure, for better or for worse. Someday I hope to experience less homesickness. Until that time, I listen to this song and remind myself that home is always closer than I think and that I am strong enough to find my way back at any time.


To the broken

Danny Gokey: Tell Your Heart to Beat Again (2014)

You’re shattered

Like you’ve never been before

The life you knew

In a thousand pieces on the floor

And words fall short in times like these

When the world drives you to your knees

You think you’re never gonna get back

To the you that used to be

 

Tell your heart to beat again

Close your eyes and breathe it in

Let the shadows fall away

Step into the light of grace

Yesterday’s a closing door

You don’t live there anymore

Say goodbye to where you’ve been

And tell your heart to beat again

 

This is a song my sister shared with me at a time I so desperately needed to hear it. Not long before, I had been over at a good friend’s house. It was actually the friend who found out about and informed me of my husband’s on-going affair, so our friendship was both strained and immeasurably strong. I could not determine whether or not I hated her for bearing the news that ruined my life or loved her for telling me what no one else could or would. Either way, no one else saw into my pain quite like she did. I remember standing in her kitchen, then leaning against the wall, sliding to the floor, and crying my heart out on the cold tile. This was only days after the bomb had dropped. I had reacted with little emotion up until that point – I had been too numb and in shock. I remember telling her I had no idea what I was going to do. I remember the feelings of complete and utter hopelessness, loneliness, and brokenness. Then this song came along, perfectly describing the state of my life. It certainly didn’t fix things – nothing could fix things – but it brought some element of piece. I’m not the only one who has been crushed beyond recognition. I’m not the only one who has survived. I’m not the only one who has started to rebuild again.


To the actors

Christina Perri: Human (2014)

 I can hold my breath
I can bite my tongue
I can stay awake for days
If that’s what you want
Be your number one

I can fake a smile
I can force a laugh
I can dance and play the part
If that’s what you ask
Give you all I am


I can turn it on
Be a good machine
I can hold the weight of worlds
If that’s what you need
Be your everything

 

But I’m only human
And I bleed when I fall down
I’m only human
And I crash and I break down
Your words in my head, knives in my heart
You build me up and then I fall apart
‘Cause I’m only human

 

This song speaks to me on so many levels. I am an actor. I can be whoever anyone needs or wants me to be. At some point, though, something must give. Even the best actors can only keep up their façade for so long before they break. For my kindred spirits out there, it’s okay to let others know that we have chinks in our armor too. It’s okay to remind others that we can’t be strong for everyone else. It’s okay to give ourselves permission to not be perfect. “I can hold the weight of world if that’s what you need” – but I shouldn’t have to bear that weight. It’s difficult when so many of us, myself included, have set a precedent for strength and reliability. Those are invaluable traits, but not if it means sacrificing ourselves in the process. We matter too. Be what others need you to be within reason. Don’t forget about yourself. Don’t forget that you are made of flesh and bone and human brokenness just like anyone else. Sometimes we have to let ourselves be weak so someone else can bear the weight of our world for a bit.


To the betrayed

Demi Lovato: Stone Cold (2015)

 Stone cold

You see me standing

But I’m dying on the floor

Stone cold

Stone cold

Maybe if I don’t cry

I won’t feel anymore

 

Stone cold

Baby

God knows I try to feel

Happy for you

Know that I am

Even if I can’t understand

I’ll take the pain

Give me the truth

Me and my heart

We’ll make it through

If happy is her

I’m happy for you

 

Stone cold

You’re dancing with her

While I’m staring at my phone

Stone cold

Stone cold

I was your amber, but now

She’s your shade of gold

 

God knows I try to feel

Happy for you

Know that I am

Even if I can’t understand

I’ll take the pain

Give me the truth

Me and my heart

We’ll make it through

If happy is her

I’m happy for you

 

Don’t wanna be stone cold

I wish I could mean this

But here’s my goodbye

Oh, I’m happy for you

 

So many emotions with this one. This song tears my heart out all over again every time I hear it. This was another song shared with me after I found out about my ex’s affair and betrayal. The line “I was your amber, but now she’s your shade of gold” is obviously one that cut me to the core. It took my name and slapped me in the face. Setting that aside, my interpretation of this song might be different from someone else’s. Some people might see this woman as a push over. A door mat. She’s standing by and letting some other chick steal her man. And that is probably all true. However, I see an underlying theme of forgiveness. Instead of getting angry, she let’s go and puts his happiness before hers. That is what I tend to do, whether it is healthy or not. In the end, I believe that mentality is what made it so “easy” to forgive his sins against me. I also recently told my new ex-husband that I genuinely hope he finds happiness and that his dreams do come true. I don’t see the point of holding grudges or wishing misfortune upon someone who has wronged me in any way. As with any grudge, it will do me more harm than the other person. For me, this song represents the pain and agony that goes with betrayal, along with the bittersweet relief that goes with forgiveness. Let go of the hate and bitterness so that you may see all the love that is out there waiting for you.


For the survivors

Brian & Jenn Johnson: You’re Gonna Be Okay (2017)

I know you’re trying hard to just be strong

And it’s a fight just to keep it together

I know you think that you are too far gone

But hope is never lost

Hold on, don’t let go

 

Just take one step closer

Put one foot in front of the other

You’ll get through this

Just follow the light in the darkness

You’re gonna be okay

 

I know your heart is heavy from those nights

But just remember that you are a fighter

You never know just what tomorrow holds

And you’re stronger than you know

 

When the night is closing in

Don’t give up and don’t give in

This won’t last, and it’s not the end

It’s not the end

You’re gonna be okay

 

Where do I even begin with this one? Depression is real. Depression is scary. As someone who has struggled to find a reason to take my next breath, these words are a war cry. If I had a fight song, this would be it. Don’t give up. It may be an uphill battle, but it’s a worthy fight. For me, the wars that rage on at night often seem a little less overwhelming at sunrise. Another Bob Ross quote is appropriate here: “You need the dark in order to show the light” (n.d.). Sometimes it’s so difficult to see beyond the here and now. The hope that comes with tomorrow is too far out of reach to actually be worth considering. I am here to tell you that you aren’t alone in these struggles. The sun will rise, bringing with it a promise of new discovery and grace. I have struggled, currently struggle, and will struggle going forward. We’re in this together. I see you. Please see me.


 

References

American Music Therapy Association. (1998-2018). Retrieved from https://www.musictherapy.org

Brennan, Julia. (2016). Inner Demons. Inner Demons. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/juliabrennan/innerdemons.html

Buchanan, Britton. (2018). Where You Come From. Lyrics retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/where-you-come-from-lyrics-britton-buchanan.html

Chord. (n.d.). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/chord

Gokey, Danny. (2014). Tell Your Heart to Beat Again. Hope in Front of Me. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/dannygokey/tellyourhearttobeatagain.html

Johnson, Brian & Jenn. (2017). You’re Gonna Be Okay. Bethel Music. Lyrics retrieved from https://bethelmusic.com/chords-and-lyrics/youre-gonna-be-ok-bright-ones/

Lovato, Demi. (2015). Stone Cold. Confident. Lyrics retrieved from

Perri, Christina. (2011). Jar of Hearts. Love Strong. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/christinaperri/jarofhearts.html

Perri, Christina. (2014). Human. Head or Heart. Lyrics retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/human-lyrics-christina-perri.html

Ross, Bob. (n.d.). From The Joy of Painting. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/65452/20-bob-ross-quotes-make-life-better

Stirling, Lindsey. (2016). Something Wild. Brave Enough. Lyrics retrieved from

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

Gaslighting: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”

it's you

Trigger warning: Emotional and Mental Abuse

Let me tell you a story. It is a difficult story to put into words, so please bear with me.

When my second husband and I first got married, he worked as a paramedic. Not long after we were married, he switched to working with a full time female partner. I would imagine that any spouse in that situation will tell you it makes them a little uneasy. There is a reason ambulance crews are called partners. They work long hours together, go through some very traumatic situations together, and often end up knowing each other really well due to conversations had when the call volume is low or when they are posting (waiting for a call to drop). They depend on each other in potentially dangerous situations and must be able to read each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues well enough to anticipate needs during emergencies. Trust is key in their working relationship.


Partner: “A person with whom one shares an intimate relationship: one member of a couple” (n.d.).


Initially, I had no issues with his new partner. She was married with several children, so I did not see her as a threat in any way. The thought really didn’t even cross my mind. The longer they worked together, the more he talked about her. He seemed to know every detail about her personal life, including her marital issues. It was clear they were forming a close bond, so a small bit of doubt began to worm its way into the back of my mind. I started making jokes about how she was the “other woman,” which always annoyed him. He said it was an unfair, tasteless joke. I felt bad enough that I kept my thoughts to myself, despite the fact that he literally spent more time with her than me and continued to gush about her every word or action.

One day, my best friend and I were out to lunch. Low and behold, my husband walks into the restaurant with his partner, unaware that I was there with my friend. I caught their attention and invited them to come over and sit with us. I ended up sitting on the same side as my friend, while my husband and the partner shared the other booth. My husband made no move to try and sit with me. The way they interacted made my stomach churn. They kept laughing and giggling and sharing private jokes. Later, my friend told me that she felt like they were a couple on a date and that she and I were their friends. Anyone observing would have thought the same thing.

dating

Partway through lunch, the partner says, “Tell them about the table.” My husband turned bright red and stayed silent, which immediately piqued my interest because he was the type of person who was embarrassed by nothing and had a witty comeback for everything. She said, “Fine. I’ll tell them. It’s a great story. We probably won’t ever be allowed in that store again.” She proceeds to explain that it had been a quiet morning, so they had posted at a local furniture store. She continued on by saying that they went in to look at kitchen tables. My husband and I had just moved into a house and were planning to look for a kitchen table the following weekend, so I was horrified that he would go do something so personal – something I had been so looking forward to – with her before he’d even gone with me. He took her furniture shopping for our house! To my horror, she then proceeds to say that when he found a table he liked, she hopped up on the table, made an action wholly inappropriate in public view, and suggested they make sure the table was sturdy. She maintained eye contact with me the whole time. In case you missed it: She. Told. This. To. His. Wife.

scream

Needless to say, there were words when he got home from work that night. I was a wreck. He became increasingly upset with me, saying that it was just a joke and that I should be more trusting. He said that I should know that he would never stoop so low as to cheat on the love of his life. He expressed disappointment that the thought would even cross my mind. I had no right to be upset because he’d done nothing wrong. He couldn’t help it if she had a raunchy sense of humor and no shame.

He played my guilt complex strings like a first chair violinist. His performance was flawless. And it worked. I felt so terrible that I would jump to conclusions and assume her joke could only mean his guilt. I told myself I had absolutely no reason to not trust him. Till death do us part, right? He made that vow right along with me. I owed it to both myself and to him to stop reading between the lines or imagining things that could never possibly happen. The trouble is, doubt kept creeping in, so I had to keep smothering it and shoving it back into a locked closet deep inside my heart.


gaslamp

The actual term gaslighting was only recently introduced to me. It stunned me when I did a little research. Gaslighting is a verb. The action “is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment” (Lancer, 2018). I also find the following Urban Dictionary definition to be alarmingly accurate:


Gaslighting: “An increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception” (Your Reality Check, 2009).


Doesn’t that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy?

Dr. Robin Stern, as quoted by NBC News, says that gaslighting “is always dangerous. The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.” She goes on to say that “the target of the gaslighting is terrified to change up [the relationship] or step out of the gaslighting dynamic because the threat of losing that relationship – or the threat of being seen as less than who you want to be seen as to them – is quite a threat” (DiGiulio, 2018).

Looking back on that marriage, if I had to identify one word that was constant through it all, it would be turmoil. The trouble was, all the turmoil was internal. The war that raged inside of me on a regular basis is difficult to explain. It was a combination of 1) mistrust because his words didn’t always line up completely with his actions, 2) negative self-talk over the fact that I was a terrible person for not trusting him completely, and 3) frustration over the fact that I was experiencing these volatile feelings but could not talk to him about them for fear that he would finally have enough of my unfounded concerns and be done with me. There were a handful of occasions during which I attempted to have a conversation with him about the fears that were eating away at me from the inside out. I always ended up in tears. I would even try writing out bullet point lists so I wouldn’t forget anything or miss any example or supporting detail. Inevitably, he always convinced me of the same conclusion: I worry too much and it’s just my anxiety creating problems that aren’t actually there. It was all in my head. I read an article in Psychology Today that suggested “the person gaslighting you might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse, with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive” (Lancer, 2018). This is what he did. He wore me down until I was blind to the truth and doubted my ability to identify red flags that were clearly evidenced by his actions.

blind


Fast forward a few years. I was actually at the point of being at peace in my marriage. I was happy. I felt that we were in a good place…a loving place. I really did trust him at this point. I had finally succumbed to the brainwashing and saw absolutely no reason to ever doubt anything he said. He wouldn’t dream of cheating on me. Ever.

Enter stage left: long-time colleague and friend who is taking a biology class. This friend is lab partners with a nice young mother. She talks non-stop about her amazing boyfriend, the father of her adorable baby boy. The more she talks about him, the more my friend begins to feel a sense of familiarity with this so-called perfect boyfriend. His name. His ethnicity. His background story. The act was up when the friend looked up his lab partner’s Facebook page and saw that her profile picture was of my husband snuggling her close and looking at her with utter adoration. The cover photo was a picture of a smiling baby who looked exactly like the man I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life.

game over

I never actually understood the term “having the rug pulled out from under me” until that moment. I was blindsided. I trusted him. I had convinced myself I was crazy every time I even considered his actions anything but innocent. I’d been a fool. Fool me once, shame on you. True. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’d been fooled, brainwashed, and had believed that it was all in my head.

When I confronted him with my knowledge, I did not tell him that I first went to the woman to hear her side of the story (It was not the ambulance partner from before, but was still someone from the EMS community). I wanted to see how much their stories differed. Of course they were wildly different. When I finally told him that I had already spoken with her and that the only consistency between their two stories was that he was indeed the father of the child, he had the audacity to tell me she was a pathological liar. He told me she had gotten pregnant intentionally to trap him into leaving me. He said she railroaded his life, that he felt betrayed by her actions, and that he was the one who had truly been wronged. She ruined his life. End of story. Oh…and would I please forgive him, make a fresh start, and forget it ever happened. I did forgive him (best thing I’ve ever done in my life), I declined his offer for a “fresh start,” and chose to never forget. Forgetting leads to repetition. I hope to never have a repeat of that experience.


I share this deeply personal story not to receive pity for being a gaslighting victim, an outpouring of sympathy for the pain I experienced, or praise for how strong I was to come out of that situation on top. I don’t want any of that. I want others out there to know that this happens. I want others to know that it’s not okay. You don’t have to tolerate that behavior from anyone, no matter how much they claim to love you or need you.

Dr. Stern, again quoted by NBC, lists out some big red flags that would have been wonderful to know back then. Think of it as a “you might be a gaslighting victim if…” list:

  1. “You’re constantly second guessing yourself or have trouble making decisions”
  2. “You’re ruminating about a perceived character flaw (like being too sensitive or not a good enough person)”
  3. “You feel confused about your relationship”
  4. “In a confrontation with the person that might be gaslighting you, you feel like you suddenly find yourself in an argument you didn’t intend to have, you’re not making progress or you’re saying the same thing over and over again and not being heard”
  5. “You feel fuzzy or unclear about your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs”
  6. “You’re always apologizing”
  7. “You’re frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior”
  8. “You can’t understand why you’re not happy in your own life”
  9. “You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what” (DiGiulio, 2018)

If you are noticing those red flags in your own life, or in the life of a loved one, do something. Say something. It is a toxic situation and I can’t even begin to explain how important it is to get away. Stop the abuse. Don’t be afraid to reach out or ashamed of being fooled. We are all human and all make mistakes. What’s important is what you do about it going forward. Stand your ground and find courage in the fact that you are an incredible individual who deserves to be loved by both yourself and others.

If you don’t know who else to reach out to, send me a message. I’ve been there. I’m here now. I see you.


“I can never understand which is more painful, the lies I believed or the truths I did not.” – unknown


 

References

DiGiulio, Sarah. (2018). What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866

Lancer, Darlene. (2018). How to Know If You’re a Victim of Gaslighting. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201801/how-know-if-youre-victim-gaslighting

Partner. (n.d.). In online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/partner

Your Reality Check. (2008). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gaslighting

Photo credit: Unsplash.com