Coping Mechanisms: My way or the highway?

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

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

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

bumper sticker

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

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

  1. Medication

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

  1. Blogging/Writing

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

  1. Arts & Crafts

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

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

  1. Reading/Audiobooks

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

  1. Sleeping

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

  1. Quality time with animals

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

  1. Positive friends & family

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

 

 

References

 

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas to the misunderstood and the lonely

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Silent Night, Sleepless Night

insomniaI’m trying to do a better job of being positive, or at the very least attemptingto put a more optimistic spin on things. After a lifetime of sleep issues, I can confidently say that Insomnia is an artform and I am a skilled artist. I utilize diverse mediums such as anxious thoughts, wide-eyed stares at the ceiling, and burrito wrapping myself in the sheets, which all allow me to become unproductive for many additional hours a day. While other people are busy sleeping and rejuvenating their spirits, I am awake solving all the world’s nonexistent problems and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Everything would basically collapse without my added efforts each night. To borrow a phrase from my friend Sandy: “I have to tuck the moon in each night and then worry that the sun won’t be able to rise without my help.” I kick ass every night so everyone else can shut their minds off and not worry about a thing. That’s right. I graduated summa cum laude with a double major in insomnia and anxiety, plus a double minor in loneliness and problem solving.

I’m all out of positivity and BS now. That was exhausting. Let’s talk about insomnia.

According to the National Sleep Foundation (2018), one in ten people suffer from insomnia-related “daytime functional impairment.”  I promise you…it’s as bad as it sounds. If you think about it, a prevalence of 10% makes insomnia relatively common. But what is it? The Journal for Clinical Sleep Medicine explains that insomnia is “the presence of a long sleep latency, frequent nocturnal awakenings, or prolonged periods of wakefulness during the sleep period” (Roth, 2007). I personally prefer definition number four from Urban Dictionary, which states that insomnia is “when little demons keep poking your brain with little pokey things to make damn sure you can’t sleep” (Insomnia, 2007). That basically sums it up.

I have struggled with insomnia for as long as I can remember. It certainly goes hand in hand with my anxiety. My earliest memory of my sleep problem is when I was only a few years old. I remember going down to the living room to sit with my mom so she could tickle my back until I fell asleep again. (If only I could make a machine that could tickle my back the way my mom does, I wouldn’t have any more sleep issues!) In that memory in particular, I recall the neighbor’s bug zapper going off on a regular basis. Even at that point, the noise disturbed me and caused a great amount of anxiety. I’m sure I thought our house was 1) about to be overrun by all the bugs that were missed by the zapper or 2) the zapper was actually a bad guy coming to get us.

pug

Another memory is from when I was seven years old. My family was vacationing in Oregon, visiting family, and enjoying the ocean. I distinctly remember lying in the living room in a sleeping bag, listening to my dad and my uncle discuss this terrible thing called HIV and AIDS. I was awake for much of the night because I was so terrified that my entire family was going to contract and die from that disease. That fear lived with me for weeks afterwards and caused ongoing sleeping issues.

There was a tape player near my bed growing up, so each night my sisters and I would put on various children’s stories, audiobooks, or recorded radio programs. I will never forget the sense of dread I developed if I knew the tape was almost over. If it finished and I wasn’t yet asleep, the anxiety would creep in and I’d be wide awake in a flash. Just in case, I kept myself surrounded by an army of stuffed animals. If all else failed, they stayed awake to keep watch over my family and me while I tried desperately to drift off to sleep.

Over the years, I certainly have not discovered the secret to overcoming insomnia. I no longer surround myself with beanie babies, teddy bears, and a larger than life purple dinosaur named Grape. I have traded those guardians out for sleeping medication and the occasional glass of wine. Unfortunately, this still does nothing to stop the flow of internal chatter. Insomnia is more prevalent among women (Medline, 2016), which makes sense since our thought process is like a plate of spaghetti – all jumbled together…can’t tell where one thought ends and the other begins. My stream of consciousness is comparable to the black hole that is YouTube –  you start by watching one video about puppies, then six hours later you find yourself watching some obscure foreign language documentary with no subtitles and no recollection of how you got there. One anxious thought leads to a semi related thought, which leads to something vaguely correlated, and then it’s all downhill from there. Good luck making any sense of anything. Someone somewhere was describing my nighttime brain when they sent this statement out into the internet world: “My mind is like my internet browser: 19 tabs open, 3 of them are frozen, and I have no idea where the music is coming from” (unknown author). Spaghetti and internet tabs that are permanently frozen or loading. That’s me. Every. Single. Night.

spaghetti

In all seriousness, the sleep debt that piles up night after night is pretty devastating. In fact, “insomnia is associated with substantial impairments in an individual’s quality of life” (Roth, 2007). For me personally, I get pushed into this vicious game of which came first – the anxiety or the insomnia? The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (2016) puts it far more eloquently by stating that “a comorbid psychiatric disorder such as depression or anxiety may be a consequence of – as well as a risk factor for – disrupted sleep.” Great. So I already have anxiety and depression, which is going to make it difficult to sleep, which will in turn exacerbate my anxiety and depression. I just can’t catch a break! Throw in the other vicious cycle of no sleep, then caffeinating to get through the day, which also makes it difficult to sleep that night. I’m losing the battle AND the war.

The hardest part for me is that the dark, quiet wee hours of the morning are where my demons live. Just as that Urban Dictionary definition suggests, that is when they come out to play. One of my all-time favorite songs is “Inner Demons” by Julia Brennan. The first verse in particular always speaks to me:


They say don’t let them in
Close your eyes and clear your thoughts again
But when I’m all alone, they show up on their own
‘Cause inner demons fight their battles with fire
Inner demons don’t play by the rules


It’s easy to tell yourself to just stop thinking about everything and go to sleep. It’s something entirely different to actually accomplish that task. Think about how much deeper shadows seem at night. Now take the stuff of nightmares, throw them into those shadows, convince yourself that every worst case scenario that could happen is going to happen, and remind yourself that you are facing all that alone in a cold bed. More than once I have been relieved to see the first glimpse of dawn, if for no other reason than because the sun chases away some of the fears and I can get to sleep. Unfortunately, that’s usually about two and a half minutes before my alarm goes off. Medline Plus (2016) explains that one symptom of insomnia is “feeling as if you haven’t slept at all.” It is a terrible feeling that lingers and can really bring down the entire day. Keep all that in mind when you see someone who looks tired or mentions that they have insomnia and didn’t sleep well. It can be devastating and makes life so much more difficult than it already is. Be kind to everyone – you never know what kind of demons they fought the night before.

In closing, I can tell you that I have two wishes when I wake up each morning (if I have actually slept):

  1. To feel rested
  2. To have 20/20 vision

I can’t remember when the last time the first one happened. I’m still holding out for the second.

 

Good night. I hope you all sleep like babies and have wonderful dreams.

Namaste.

 

References

Brennan, Julia. (2016). Inner Demons. Tunecore Inc, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

MedlinePlus. (2016). Insomnia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/insomnia.html

National Sleep Foundation. (2018). What is Insomnia? Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-is-insomnia

Roth, Thomas. (2007). Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978319/

Insomnia. (2007). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Insomnia

Photo credit: Unsplash.com