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/