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/

 

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

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