Grief, Depression, and Love

Grief has been on my mind lately. Specifically, I have been thinking about how grief plays a part in mental health. I had an appointment with my psychiatrist this last week and she mentioned something interesting during our discussion about my ongoing struggle with depression. She said, “This is all part of your grieving process.” Up until that point, I hadn’t really considered myself as still grieving the loss of my marriage. I felt the depression was due mainly to the loneliness that plagues me day and night. However, upon further self-examination, I believe she is correct. I am not just grieving my broken marriage – I am grieving for the life I had envisioned for us, as well as for the person I thought I was.

While these thoughts were swirling around in my head this morning, I came across this quote:

“Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

This reminded me of the saying that “it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” I have questioned the truth of this thought many times over the last few years. In my experience, the love I have given so fully in my relationships has always led me to a place of grief. I have certainly not been convinced it is worth it. Finding that quote this morning put a different spin on things for me. I would not go so far as to say that grief should be worn as a badge of honor. However, grieving for a lost relationship shows how much I cared…how much I loved…how much I gave.

That is no small realization.

Grief is a part of life. Bad things happen to everyone: a relationship breaks, a loved one dies, or the rug gets pulled out from under us in some other monumental way. These experiences affect us on so many different levels – emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically. For me, my grief over a deep love lost spiraled me into depression. My depression is centered around 1) not having someone to love and 2) not knowing who I am without having someone to love. That self-discovery piece, according to my psychiatrist, is part of my grief. It makes sense. I am grieving the life I expected to have as a wife and care giver. I was stripped of my identity the day I was stripped of my marriage.

This new way of looking at grief, and its subsequent manifestation in my depression, has reminded me that I did not lose myself. I did not lose my ability to love someone else. I did not lose my ability to love me. I know I have not lost that part of me because I have evidence that I have loved greatly in the past. I will only lose that and become bitter and jaded if I allow myself to do so.

I know there are so many people out there who have experienced far greater losses than my own. We all have our crosses to bear. My encouragement to myself and to anyone out there is this: Don’t give up. When you feel that your grief will swallow you whole, remind yourself that you are grieving because you loved. That loving person is still in there. I am not so foolish as to think or say that your lost loved one or relationship will be “replaced” someday. Nothing and no one can replace the loss of a dear one. However, if nothing else, allow that loving person inside you to show some grace and compassion to yourself.

My marriage failed miserably, but it was not for lack of trying. I gave everything I could. That is something no one can take away from me. I know I tried. I know I loved. Just because I wasn’t enough in the eyes of someone else, does not mean I don’t have worth. The other piece of my depression that I mentioned is not knowing who I am without having someone to love. I found a piece to that puzzle this morning. I am someone with a great amount of love to give. That is who I am. I have to give myself permission to accept that.

Grief does not mean the end. Depression does not mean the end. Keep going. Keep loving. Keep fighting.

I see you.

Brain Fog: When words are on the tip of my tongue

brain fog

I haven’t written much lately because I’ve been struggling a bit with brain fog, which is exactly as unpleasant as it sounds. According to WebMD, “‘Brain Fog’ isn’t a medical condition. It’s a term used for certain symptoms that can affect your ability to think. You may feel confused or disorganized or find it hard to focus or put your thoughts into words” (2018). I found another description that perfectly captures my recent thoughts, or lack thereof: “It seems as if your thoughts are illusive, and things that you once knew seem hard to comprehend or recall” (Folk & Folk, 2019).

It’s not as if my mind has been erased or I have dementia. I believe it’s a combination of constant anxiety, stress, depression, and recent frequent mediation and/or dosage changes. I have struggled to put my thoughts into words – at least into words that seem half-way intelligent. I notice it at work when something that should make sense just doesn’t. I notice it at home when I want to write, but can’t. I even notice it when I try to do things I typically enjoy and lose motivation or interest almost at once.

In an effort to combat this without making it worse, I’ve gotten into Zentangle and ink sketching, which requires little rational thought. I like Zentangle because there is an element of chaos to it, and the whole point is that no mistakes exist and judgment should be suspended. I know I’m not the only one who experiences this. I would highly recommend this type of art therapy/mindfulness to anyone struggling with a foggy brain. It has helped me immensely.

This is about all my mind can handle today, but I thought I would share some of my tangles with you. All of the sketches in this post (including the cover photo) are by me.

References

Folk, J., & Folk, M. (2019). Brain Fog, Foggy Head Anxiety Symptoms. Anxietycentre.com. Retrieved from https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-symptoms/brain-fog.shtml

WebMD.com. (2018). Reasons You May Have Brain Fog. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/brain/ss/slideshow-brain-fog

Highly Sensitive People: Give yourself permission to wear your heart on your sleeve

It took me a while to understand that my anxiety, both general and social, go hand in hand with how sensitive I am. In fact, according to an article from Psychology Today, “Because highly sensitive people absorb so much stimulation from their environment, we are more susceptible to these feelings of anxiety. A recent study showed that people with a more sensitive ‘startle’ reflex, that is, highly sensitive people, are more susceptible to anxiety disorders because we have different genes than others, making it harder for us to deal with emotional arousal” (Ward, 2012). I would also argue that depressive disorders come in the wake of high sensitivity. Here’s the kicker that I am only just now coming to terms with: it’s okay to be a highly sensitive person (HSP). It’s also okay to be an anxious or depressed person, as long as that anxiety and depression does not control your life. Genetics often play a part in mental health disorders – I can no more deny my anxiety and depression than I can deny my hair or eye color. It’s part of who I am.

“It’s okay if you are an intense person with deep feelings. You think and feel everything with your heart and that’s so rare nowadays. Just because the world always mocks a sensitive soul, you don’t have to feel left out and alone. The truth is that them not understanding you doesn’t make you any less amazing than you are. Always be proud of wearing your heart on your sleeve.” – Madiha

I would take being highly sensitive over calloused and unfeeling any day. How true, though, that the world doesn’t seem to know what to do with those of us who experience higher than normal doses of emotions and the corresponding mental illnesses. There are plenty of times during which I become so overwhelmed by my emotional response to something that I have to either talk about it or risk being consumed by it. I have found out the hard way that I can only talk about these things with certain people. The majority of people will 1) look at me like I’m crazy, and/or 2) tell me that I worry too much and need to get a grip on reality. I urge you to not hold those feeling inside, which can lead to the slippery slope of letting them control you. Believe me…I know! You just need to know who you can talk to and who will listen with respect and empathy.

I write a lot about self-discovery and loving who you are because that is the roller coaster journey I am currently on. My entire life I have tried to be someone I’m not. Or at the very least, I have tried to hide who I really am because I never felt good about the glimpses I saw of my real self. This culture often views highly sensitive people as weak – feeling so much is never a good thing, right? Wrong! I am learning that denying that part of me is what can lead to heightened anxiety and deeper depression. By developing the ability to feel, and then let those feelings go, I hope to loosen any power that mental illness has over me. I am not my anxiety or my depression; rather, I am someone who feels so deeply that the energy created by those feelings needs somewhere to go. I know that I will never be rid of my anxiety or depression, but I do know that there are healthier channels for that energy.

I am currently reading Stephen King’s 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes. In that book, he references a quote from Woody Allen: “80 percent of success is showing up.” I had to pause the audiobook and really stop and think about that quote. Far too many times in my life I have not “shown up” because I am afraid of what I might feel or experience as a result. I worry that stepping out of my comfort zone will cause me to feel too much. I worry that I will fail, which will kick off a whole new set of emotions and anxieties. The anticipation of what might happen to me emotionally has stopped me time and time again. Part of my current journey is getting a grasp on the concept that, even if I do fail, the fact that I tried – that I showed up – is all that really matters. And if I do have a highly emotional reaction, it’s okay. The important thing is recognizing that it may happen and that I shouldn’t let it control me or stop me from pursuing my dreams. People may call me crazy, but that’s okay!

“Take being called crazy as a compliment. It means you’ve found the courage to be yourself when so many others have not.” – Unknown

One major stumbling block for me is worrying what other people will think of me. I often try to remind myself that people are far too self-absorbed to really care what I do, why I do it, or how I go about doing it. That may sound harsh, but I believe it’s true. For example, if I wear the same shoes to work two days in a row, are people really going to notice? Of course not…they’re too busy worrying that people will notice that they too are wearing the same shoes two days in a row. My point is this: you do you. As long as you try, it doesn’t matter what others think. If someone else wants to judge you for your approach, that’s on them. As long as you aren’t hurting yourself or other people, go for it! You don’t need the world’s approval or permission to be yourself.

The last thing I want to bring up is the fact that you aren’t alone. Dr. Elaine Aron, a leader in the research and development of the concept of being a highly sensitive person, states that 15-20% of people are highly sensitive (2019). She goes on to explain that “in cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told ‘don’t be so sensitive’ so that they feel abnormal” (Aron, 2019). Don’t let people make you feel like you are the only one who has anxiety or depression as a result of how deeply you feel everything around you. You have an ally in me. I see you.

“Some of the most comforting words in the universe are ‘me too.’ That moment when you find out that your struggle is also someone else’s struggle, that you’re not alone, and that others have been down the same road.” – Unknown

 

References

Aron, E. (2019). The Highly Sensitive Person. Retrieved from https://hsperson.com

Ward, D. (2012). Coping with Anxiety as an HSP. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sense-and-sensitivity/201210/coping-anxiety-hsp

What does it mean to heal?

I am realizing that learning who I am is the greatest form of healing. As usual, I have multiple quotes that illustrate my thoughts, emotions, and overall journey. I suppose you could say I have been meditating on the concept of healing and what it means for me. I have felt beaten, broken, and like I have been used up and tossed aside. I’m tired of feeling this way. I’ve been tired of feeling this way for my entire adult life. I have found that there are two parts to the pursuit of healing: recognizing patterns and recognizing that I am a real person.

“You will not heal by going back to what broke you.” – Unknown

“We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.” – Max Depree

I have a pattern. We all have patterns if we really stop and think about it. I like the two quotes above because they show the importance of recognizing a couple different types of patterns. The first one is key because it refers to patterns we have in the way we let people treat us. I didn’t read that quote so much as going back to the same person or situation repeatedly (though that is a thing for many people), but rather the same type of person or situation. For me, I find myself drawn to broken people because I feel that all the love I have to give might make them happier or more stable. What I ignore is the fact that the people I find are users who will suck that love out of me until I have nothing left to give. I will never find healing or fulfillment by repeatedly stumbling back into that same pattern of infatuation, giving too much without receiving in return, and then ending up alone. It’s a dangerous cycle and can quickly spin out of control.

The second quote refers to another pattern: inability to face personal change. We get comfortable. We feel safe. We become stagnant and start to suffocate. For me personally, giving of myself to others is where I am comfortable. It makes me feel needed, even if I am not receiving the same level of commitment or love in return. This last divorce made me realize that the only way to find true healing is to force myself out of my comfort zone. Instead of always looking after others, I also need to look after myself. If I don’t learn that skill – and learn it quickly – I will burn out completely and be of use to no one. Instead of throwing myself into another relationship to distract me from the heartache and loneliness, I am going way outside my norm and taking art classes, spending more quality time alone, and trying to become comfortable with me. I will never find healing if I can’t be alone with myself.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” – C.G. Jung

“Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.” – Unknown

I am becoming. I cannot define myself, or let others define me, by my circumstances. Sure, I’m divorced, single, lonely, and have been through some real crap, but that is not who I am. By acknowledging that, it takes power away from the hurt. It by no means diminishes how much something hurt, it just diminishes my ability to make excuses for myself based on that hurt.

A year ago I broke my wrist. It was my first broken bone and is certainly one of the most painful things I have experienced. That pain was real. To this day I still have some pain. I would be lying to myself if I said it was false or nonexistent. However, I pushed through physical therapy and am a better person because of it. Yes, I walk more gingerly on ice when I’m out with the dog, but that’s because I learned a lesson that will stick with me for the rest of my life. In the same way, I have to take emotional or mental trauma, acknowledge that the pain is real, but then push through the healing process and come out on the other side having learned an invaluable lesson. If I let myself forget the pain or the lesson that came with it, I will likely repeat the behavior that caused it in the first place. See my thoughts on patterns. To truly heal is to break the pattern.

“Trust issues have everything to do with trusting yourself and nothing to do with trusting someone else. Because when you trust yourself, you’ll never entertain someone who makes trusting him or her an issue.” – Kyle D. Jones

My ability to trust has taken a real beating over the years. Once you have been betrayed on as many levels as I have, there’s no real going back. It has been a struggle for me for many years now. I honestly don’t believe that I will ever be able to blindly trust anyone again, and that makes me sad. I remember my most recent ex-husband saying to me once, “We’ve been together for six months. If you don’t trust me by now, there’s something wrong.” He was very aware of the fact that my husband before him had kept up a secret life for four years and had been an expert in the mental abuse technique of gaslighting. I tried unsuccessfully to explain my trust issues, but he thought I was just worrying to much. He admitted, though, that he had never been cheated on, so he didn’t quite understand how significantly that experience changes you.

I bring this up for two reasons. The first is this: trust your own instincts. Like the quote suggests, until you can trust yourself and have confidence in your own insights and intuition, it may not be possible to trust anyone else. I currently don’t trust myself to not mess up another relationship, which means I have no ability to trust someone else. Most people deserve to be trusted. Give yourself a chance so you might give them a chance. This is the difficult challenge I am facing right along with you. Big time growing pains associated with this one.

The second reason I bring up that story about my ex is this: be understanding. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you have a difficult time with trust. There are a lot of people who deserve trust, but there are also an awful lot of people who don’t. Be wise. Again…trust your instincts. And if you happen to be with someone who has been cheated on in a previous relationship, give them time. Unfortunately, you have to earn back trust that someone else lost. Don’t take it personally. It’s easier said than done, but please try.

“Your healing is about you. It doesn’t need a stamp of approval. Don’t worry about how long it takes or how ugly it may seem. It’s about you.” – Unknown

Healing is like anything else – it is unique to each individual. It looks different for everyone because we all process and perceive things differently. The way I feel about betrayal is vastly different to how you might feel during the same exact situation. If the manifestation of our individual grief and pain can be so unique, how can we expect any different of our individual ability to heal? Give yourself some credit. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It’s impossible for us to really know where anyone else is at with the healing process, so comparisons make absolutely no sense. I appreciate the use of the word “ugly” in this quote. The healing process can be extremely ugly. But there is nothing wrong with that. You’ve been through something ugly. Let yourself feel that ugliness so that you might release it, all the while remembering that the ugliness is not a reflection of your beautiful self.

“She once believed that the damage to her mind and heart was permanent, until she met wisdom, who taught her that no pain or wound is eternal, that all can be healed, and that love can grow even in the toughest part of her being.” – Yung Pueblo

I love this quote. I love it because I can relate to it on so many different levels. In the moment, it can feel like healing will never happen. It can feel like the agony will swallow you whole. I know how easy it can be to sink to a place in which you wish the agony would swallow you whole. But nothing lasts forever, right? I’ve learned that even in the darkest and most lonely nights, the morning light usually brings hope and some sense of healing.

The love that is growing in the deepest, hidden corner of my being is a love for myself. Some people might say that’s just arrogance or selfishness. But I disagree. When I say I am learning to love myself, I do not mean that in a conceited way. I mean that I am learning to embrace who I am at my core. I am learning to embrace who I becoming as a result of all I have been through. I am not my experiences…I am not my pain…but I am becoming a new and better person because of those experiences and that pain. I have a greater capacity to love because I know what it’s like to be hurt so deeply. I have a greater capacity to extend grace and acceptance because I know what it’s like to have conditions put on love. I have a greater capacity to offer those things to others, but only if I am able to first offer them to myself. I will only truly heal if I can acknowledge that I deserve healing and deserve to be loved for all parts of me.

Coffee Shops and Life Lessons

When I was a teenager, I worked at a quaint little coffee shop. It brought together two of my passions: coffee and people. I’ve always said being a barista is like being a bar tender without the alcohol – you have your regulars, you know what they drink and often have it ready for them before they get up to the counter, you build a rapport with them, they learn to trust you, and before long they are spilling their life stories and struggles. I’ve had some pretty heavy conversations in the span of a few minutes before someone’s daily cup of joe. I’ve had people tell me that I am easy to talk to, so this may be something to do with it, but I have a feeling most baristas have similar experiences.

It took courage and some tact to learn exactly how to deal with this level of interaction. My Social Anxiety Disorder can make any interactions painful for me, but working as a barista helped me learn how to internalize those feelings and focus on the people I was serving. I wasn’t just handing them a coffee or latte or mocha…I was handing them a piece of sunshine in what might be an otherwise frustrating day. My smile or words of encouragement might be the last ones they receive for a while. I took that very seriously. We all know the importance of getting a day started off on the right foot!

Over time, I developed what you might call a portfolio of regulars. They were mine. I had several people who would only let me make their drink. Was it because I was some award winning barista who made a better latte than anyone else? Of course not. It was because I cared. For example, the lady who wanted her mint mocha with only a quarter pump of mint and a half pump of chocolate, 190 degrees, and with absolutely no foam, knew that I cared enough to make sure her drink was correct AND that I would ask how her son was doing in school. The man who wanted his breve with three quarters steamed half-and-half, a quarter steamed 2% milk, five shots of espresso, and filled to a specific level in his travel mug, knew that I cared enough to make it right every time AND ask how his job was.

Why am I telling you all this? Because in spite of my depression and my anxieties about so many, many different things, I can still show people that care. Just because I struggle with mental illness, this does not mean I am incapable of being a loving and kind individual. Some people hear of certain mental illnesses and believe that individual is defined by their illness and incapable of any other emotions or kindness towards other people. I know people do that because I have been guilty of that plenty of times.

Now let me tell you another story from my coffee shop days. When I started training to become a supervisor, I was paired up with another supervisor so he could mentor me through my first few months of the new position. To this day, Glenn remains one of the most positive and caring individuals I have ever known. He went out of his way to make people laugh and to ensure that everyone was taken care of. I was always inspired by the way in which he interacted with both his coworkers and the customers.

Only about a week or so into my training and mentorship, I had just gotten home from work when my phone rang. It was a team member named Hannah. She said, “Please come back! I think Glenn is having a seizure and I don’t know what to do!” I rushed back to work. As I walked in the door, the paramedics were walking out, with Glenn on a pram. He was in a daze, yet still managed a smile as they all rolled by me. As a brand new supervisor who had barely gone through any training, I had to calm down the customers, clean up the blood in the back room where Glenn had hit his head or bit his tongue and bled profusely, as well as run the shop with a traumatized Hannah until our manager was able to make his long drive into work. Let me tell you…my already fragile nerves were shot by the end of that day.

The next day, my manager asked if I could go to the hospital to pick Glenn up and take him home. I was honestly surprised he didn’t have anyone else to come pick him up (surely someone as vibrant as Glenn would have a million friends to call), but I was happy to do so. On the way back to his house, Glenn opened up to me, saying that they believed the seizure had been caused by some medication he had just started. I remember asking him what kind of medication would cause a seizure. He said it was a medication his psychiatrist prescribed for depression. I couldn’t believe it. I would never have guessed that Glenn struggled with depression. I was also incredibly naïve at the time and thought that only people who were truly “crazy” took medication for mental issues (I had yet to really, truly explore my own). I remember looking at him differently then, thinking that he must be faking all that positivity and kindness he always displayed. Surely if he took medication because his depression was so bad, he couldn’t be genuinely happy and kind toward others, right?

It’s kind of embarrassing to tell you that I thought that way. As I said, I was incredibly naïve, did not yet understand much about mental illness, and only knew what I saw in movies. I think we can all agree that Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness is not always spot on. All that being said, Glenn launched into telling me his own story, which did a great job educating me in a hurry. That was the first time I realized how debilitating and devastating clinical depression can be. Glenn was the good and positive person I always perceived him to be, yet he had this demon that continually clawed its way to the surface and tried to snuff out the light that was my mentor. He had turned to medication as a last resort, but he and his doctor were struggling to find the right combination of medication (boy, do I understand that struggle now!).

Why am I telling you all this? As a reminder that mental illness, or taking medication for mental illness, does not define us. Glenn is a poster child for remaining kind and loving, in spite of wanting to die inside from extreme depression. Although he was masking his depression, he wasn’t faking that kindness or desire to make other people happy. That’s truly who he was. He knew and understood how life threatening depression can be, so he did his best to make sure other people knew how important they are.

I have one more story about Glenn. This has stuck with me for well over a decade and remains a pivotal part of my world view and approach to life, work, etc. One day when we were sitting at a table in the coffee shop, drinking coffee and discussing leadership, Glenn said to me, “Amber, to be a good leader you only have to remember two things. The first is this: a good leader always leads by example. If you are unwilling to do certain things, you can’t expect your staff to do it either. They should be able to watch you and learn from you, rather than just being told by you how or why to do something. The second and most important thing is this: you must remember that you are there for your employees, not the other way around. Your job is to make them successful. As a leader, you must do everything in your power to make it possible for them to do their job efficiently and successfully. They are not there to advance your career or make you appear more successful. Remember those two things and you will be a great leader.”

To this day, I still use that criteria to not only hold myself accountable as a leader, but also to determine if my own managers or higher ups are quality or not. More than that, though, I took that criteria to heart and applied it to my daily life. We should all lead by example. This, to me, is integrity. Vocabulary.com explains integrity in this way: “Having integrity means doing the right thing in a reliable way. It’s a personality trait that we admire, since it means a person has a moral compass that doesn’t waver. It literally means having ‘wholeness’ of character, just as an integer is a ‘whole number’ with no fractions” (Integrity, n.d.). Don’t be a fraction, people! Being a good person, as well as a good leader, requires integrity and the strength to not break when pushed to do something that would betray either yourself or anyone else. It is Glenn’s second point that has always stood out to me, though. Remembering that we are there for others, rather than the other way around, can truly alter how we live our daily life and interact with others at work or any other environment in which we are leaders. Stop using others. They aren’t stepping stones to get you where you want to be. Grant yourself permission to be there for other people and your life will change along with theirs.

References

Integrity. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/integrity

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/

 

Warzones and Gollum: Anxiety on a good day

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

I came across an interesting quote earlier today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thousand Words (Part 2)

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


“You have to meet people where they are

and sometimes you have to leave them there”

– Iyanla Vanzant

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


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

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


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

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

 

I see you.

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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