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

Mental Health: Get your FAQs straight

I appreciate people who ask questions about mental health struggles – it shows that they care enough to dig a little deeper and are trying to understand. I should clarify here that I know some people ask questions because they are fed up or at their wit’s end. I would argue that as long as they have the patience to listen to the answers, those are still valuable questions.

Why is it important to ask questions? Because mental illness affects everyone. It affects those on the inside, as well as those on the outside looking in. In 2017, 43.7 million adults in the US suffered from some sort of mental illness (MHA, 2018), which means that chances are pretty high that if you don’t suffer from one, you know someone who does. According to a journal article from World Psychology, “Many people with serious mental illness are challenged doubly. On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002).


Misconception: “A conclusion that’s wrong because it’s based on faulty thinking or facts that are wrong” (n.d.)


You might argue that a journal article from 17 years ago isn’t relevant anymore. Coming from someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I can tell you that statement is still incredibly relevant. Stigma is a toxic byproduct of misconception, which is the direct result of lack of education. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that “stigma and misunderstandings about mental illness prevent families from facing the problem and seeking help” (NAMI, 2019). On the other hand, “education provides information so that the public can make more informed decisions about mental illness” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002). How does education happen? By asking questions.


Question: “A sentence or phrase used to find out information” (2019).


With all this in mind, I thought I would share some of the questions that get asked of me. Some I hear on a regular basis…some I’ve only heard once or twice. All are welcome. I urge you, though, to always consider how you pose your questions. You know the old adage – it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness, it’s easy for some people to get defensive. This is due to the fact that they have likely been bullied growing up or have experienced less than compassionate interactions with the public and health providers as adults. The uneducated masses can be horribly unkind. If someone doesn’t seem comfortable answering questions, don’t push the matter. It might be a trigger for them. I would like to think, though, that open minded people would be willing to share their experiences for the sake of education. As mentioned before…that is the only way to end the stigma. It can all start with one person asking one question and waiting to hear the answer.

These FAQs are in no particular order. I am typing them as they come to mind. Bear with my stream of consciousness.


Is it okay that I don’t know what to say?

This was asked of me very recently by two different women who mean the world to me (my mom and my aunt). It was striking to me how similar and genuine the sentiment was in each separate conversation. The answer is quite simple: Yes, it’s okay that you don’t know what to say. No, it does not add to my anxiety that you don’t know what to say.

One of the difficult lessons I have learned over the last few years is that if someone has never experience anxiety or depression (or any other mental illness, for that matter), they will never truly understand. By this I mean truly empathize. You can still try to understand what I’m going through from an education standpoint, without actually knowing how it feels to be depressed or so anxious you don’t even want to leave the house.

It’s okay to not fully empathize or understand exactly what I’m going through on an emotional level, which means it’s okay to not know what to say. Most of the time I don’t even know what to say, so how could I place different expectations on anyone around me? Compassion and a little grace are all I ask for when words fail. Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with some Hallmark greeting card sentiment. And certainly don’t put pressure on yourself to say something that will make this whole thing better – that’s what medication and therapy are for!


Is it okay for me to laugh while reading your blog or is that insensitive?

Please laugh! I deal with stress, pain, and general unease with humor. I’m sure it’s hard sometimes to know exactly how to take some things I pen, especially if you don’t know me on a personal level. But if I’m making fun of myself, I am doing so to show the world that life is too short and too important to be taken seriously. Some days, poking fun at my own depression is all that gets me through the day. Laugh with me…just don’t laugh at me. There’s a difference.


Have you thought about seeing someone for this?

I get this one ALL. THE. TIME. Here’s the thing: therapy is expensive. If I could sit down and talk to a professional once a day, I would. We live in a society that doesn’t take mental health coverage seriously. We live in a society where 3 therapy sessions are considered adequate for many Employee Assistance Programs. For someone with chronic mental health, routine therapy sessions can be very unkind to the pocket book. Although I just started seeing a new therapist a month ago, I realized it’s not a financially viable option for me long term. This is the world that we live in. When therapists charge $100/hour (as they should…they have so much expertise and education backing them up), but insurance waves my high deductible in my face, guess who doesn’t go to therapy?

That was a long, somewhat bitter way of saying that yes…I have thought about seeing someone. I’ve thought about it a lot throughout some of my emotionally traumatic experiences in the last few years. When you think about bringing this up to someone, do so with sensitivity and keep in mind that it’s not as easy as finding a therapist you mesh with and having coffee with them. Oh how I wish it were that easy. Remember that there are often extenuating circumstances that prevent ongoing therapy. If someone isn’t going, don’t assume it is because they are lazy or in denial. Maybe someday mental health benefits will be where they need to be. Until that day, I fight my battles without the help of a professional counselor.


What do you do when you are stuck obsessing over something?

When I begin to experience obsessive anxiety, it can quickly spirals out of control. It sometimes gets to the point that I can’t focus on any task at hand. My mind goes into hyper-analysis mode and starts exploring all the worst possible outcomes to whatever situation has caught my eye so thoroughly. Often I know that I am being irrational, but by then it’s too late. Usually, the key for me is to pull someone I trust aside, explain to them what I’m worrying over, and let them talk me off the proverbial cliff. Sometimes it takes talking to a “normal” person (i.e. someone who doesn’t have irrational, obsessive anxiety) to realize that everything will be okay.

I’d like to quickly draw your attention back to the phrase someone I trust. I have learned over the years that not everyone is willing to talk you down. Not everyone is capable of understanding what obsessive anxiety is. They don’t want to acknowledge that, while I know my fears are unfounded and irrational, I can’t stop the invasive thoughts that interfere with just about everything except breathing. Sometimes even breathing is threatened! The trusted people in our lives are often family members, significant others, or close friends. It becomes easy to go to these people over and over, which can unfortunately become frustrating for them. In my experience, my significant others are the ones who become most hard on me and tell me to “just stop worrying” or that “obviously that won’t happen…forget about it.”

In those moment of blind panic, having someone say “you worry too much” is the most defeating answer to my cry for help. What I need is this: don’t point out how crazy I am. Instead, walk me through the reasons that the expired macaroni and cheese I just ate isn’t going to kill me. Walk me through the reasons why driving up over a curb unintentionally isn’t going to cause Armageddon to fall down upon us. Although my extreme anxieties may seem silly and irrational to you, please acknowledge that for me, they are very, very real. When everything is out to get me, a patient person who is willing to talk me off the ledge is the most helpful thing I can ask for.


Does it help to talk about it?

See above. For me, it helps for a number of reasons. 1) It gives someone the opportunity to talk me down, 2) it helps me feel like I am spreading education, and 3) it is an outlet when I have been bottling up emotions and fears.

One thing I will add here is that I am a much better communicator through the written word. Talking in person can be incredibly difficult for me. I fumble for the correct words, forget what I am saying mid-sentence, and trip over my own tongue. This generally triggers my social anxiety and things just go downhill from there. If I struggle to express my feelings to you verbally, don’t think it’s because I don’t know what I want to say. It’s usually because I need to write it down first.


Is all that medication really necessary?

For some people, medication works better than any other forms of treatment. If you remember that mental illnesses are due to genetic makeup and chemical imbalance in the brain, you have to view it as a physical disease, not just an emotional disorder. Would you go up to someone with cancer and say, “Do you really feel that chemo is necessary? Have you tried meditation instead?”

So my educational takeaway is this: I wouldn’t put chemicals into my body – chemicals that have almost certain side effects – if I didn’t feel it was necessary for my sanity and survival. My psychiatrist started me on a mood stabilizer a couple months ago. I can quite confidently say that it saved my life. I take antianxiety/antidepressants so that I can go out in public and function on a daily basis. I take sleeping medication so that I can get a decent night’s sleep, which raises my threshold for both anxiety and depression. There is a method to the madness. Instead of asking someone if all that medication is necessary, it might be better to ask what the medication is for. You might be amazed by how much you learn!


Are text messages an impersonal way to check in on you?

I hate talking on the phone. The awkward silences (most often caused by my verbal constipation) generate an insane amount of anxiety and distress for me. I most certainly do not consider it impersonal to reach out to me via text. Just the fact that you are reaching out is enough to bring some light to a potentially very dark day.


Can’t you just stop worrying?

Let’s talk about this one. I get it a lot. I mentioned earlier that it is usually the people who are closest to me – who live with me on a daily basis – who start to push this question to me. My very first serious boyfriend gave me a book on my birthday about how to stop worrying. Each significant other after him proceeded to tell me to just stop worrying so often that it got to the point that I felt I couldn’t talk to them about anything. I felt shut down inside a relationship that should be a safe place.

That being said, this can still be a valuable question…but only if you listen the first time or two it is answered. Try to keep in mind that I don’t choose anxiety for the sheer joy I get out of it. No. It is a devastating illness that spreads into every area of my life. If I could just flip a switch and turn it off, I would do that. As you seek to further educate yourself and ask more questions about your loved one’s mental illness, this question should answer itself. It is not a choice.


Does being around other people help?

It depends on my mental state, so that answer may change from one hour to the next. Sometimes I want to be in the company of people I care about for an afternoon or evening. Sometimes I want to barricade myself in my apartment and not come out for days. If you ask someone with anxiety or depression to come out with you and they say they aren’t feeling up for it, it doesn’t often help to say something like “Oh come on…it will make you feel better.” I can tell you that in my experience, depression and chronic anxiety are EXHAUSTING. There are times where the mere thought of going out in public brings me near to tears because I don’t have the energy. I’m not saying no simply because I’m feeling antisocial or don’t like you anymore. I’m saying no because my very sanity depends on it. The same applies if I come over and end up leaving after only an hour or so. I get overstimulated and anxious, even when I’m with people I know and love. If I suddenly stand up and say I need to get going, don’t try to change my mind. Instead, acknowledge that I know my limit and I have reached it. The only thing more exhausting than facing the world is feeling guilty for not having the energy to face the world.


How are you today?

I can never actually tell if people ask this because they genuinely want to know or if it’s just to be polite. I fall into the category of people who tends to say “Fine, how are you?” instead of being honest. It causes me a lot of anxiety to think about opening up to someone in the elevator when all they were doing was acknowledging my presence.

When it’s obvious that someone is asking because they genuinely want to know, sometimes it’s enough to make me cry. If you are honestly worried about someone and are concerned that they are a danger to themselves or others, try to press a little bit when they only want to give you the standard “I’m okay” answer. Don’t be bossy. Just encourage them that you are there for them. It may be the tree root that that person is able to grab as they plummet off the cliff.


Have you considered [insert diet or health trend here]?

I think even the most sane and mentally healthy people would tell you that diets are difficult to follow. They would also tell you that if you stick to it, they can be wonderful stepping stones to a healthier you. I’ve considered a couple different diets recently, based on the positive results people experience on a physical, mental, and emotional level. While I am of average build and don’t necessarily need to lose a lot of weight, it’s the lifestyle change that appeals to me. So why didn’t I do it? I realized that the diet plans I was looking at involved strict self-control, a ton of meal planning, and denying myself some of life’s simple comforts. Pretty much describes any diet, right? Exactly.

What I realized is this: my perception is that I have failed at so much leading up to this point, so why would I set myself up to fail something else? One of the diets allows no alcohol, but I’ve learned that every now and then a glass of wine is exactly what I need to take the edge off. I am not an emotional eater, so why should I put so much added pressure on myself when I am in such a delicate emotional state? It was an important lesson is acknowledging and respecting the fact that there is a time and a place for everything. Maybe in a year or two I can say goodbye to alcohol and carbs for 30 days. Until then, my self-care inner voice is telling me to enjoy a piece of cheese, savor a Dr. Pepper, or nibble on an Almond Joy if I need to. All good things in moderation, right?


You know you can call anytime, right?

Depression does not foster a proactive mentality. I understand that I am surrounded by people who are only a phone call away. However, usually when I am in a bad enough place that I truly need to talk to someone, I have become numb to that option. If I am in a bad place, I don’t deny that I can call people. What my mind and body deny me is the energy to do so. The idea of explaining my mental state seems like too much to bear. Just picking up the phone seems exhausting.

On top of that, I don’t want to be a burden. I know that everyone has their own struggles. I often don’t feel that I am worthy of placing more to their list of worries. That does nothing but make me feel guilty, which pushes me deeper in depression and higher into anxiety. Sometimes it is easier to just curl up in a ball and cry my way through it.

Thank you to everyone who remains just a phone call away, though. I hear you.


How do you put yourself out there like you do in your blog?

It’s all for the sake of education for every player in this elaborate story that is mental health. I don’t do it for attention or pity or accolades. One of my new favorite quotes is this: “I hope that if you read yourself in my story, it will hold up a mirror for you” (Hollis, 2018, p. 53). If putting myself out there for all the world to see – the good, the bad, and the ugly – helps one person realize that they have worth because of their unique struggles (not in spite of them!) or helps one family member better understand what their loved one is experiencing, then it is worth it. Ending stigma and misconceptions are worth it.


 

References

Corrigan, P. & Watson, A. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1489832/

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

MHA. (2018). 2017 State of Mental Health in America – Prevalence Data. Mental Health America. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/2017-state-mental-health-america-prevalence-data?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIyvvR-I-A4AIVj8DACh0BhAzkEAAYASAAEgILffD_BwE

Misconception. (n.d.). Vocabulary.com. Retrieved from https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/misconception

NAMI. (2019). Family Education and Support. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Public-Policy/Family-Education-and-Support

Question. (2019). In online Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/question

Gaslighting: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”

it's you

Trigger warning: Emotional and Mental Abuse

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

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


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


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

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

dating

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

scream

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

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


gaslamp

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


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


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

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

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

blind


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

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

game over

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


 

References

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

“Cry that shame juice out!” (and other t-shirts)o

kristina-tripkovic-649227-unsplash

The other night I was thinking about how people must view me as a train wreck. Why would anyone want to be with someone who is such a disaster? If they could choose anyone in the world, why would they choose to join their life with mine, when I seem hell bent on setting the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of bad life decisions? I’m like a ticking time bomb. I should have a t-shirt made that says, “I am a bad decision…stay away.”

That was my oh-so-healthy internal dialogue. The more I beat myself up and degraded myself for my mistakes, the more I snuggled up with my old friends depression and despair. Then out of nowhere, a former therapist’s words poked through the unworthiness bubble I had created. It was during a session in which she and I were discussing my various fears that come up while out at social events with friends or strangers alike. I told her I am deathly afraid of spilling food on myself, throwing up if I get drunk, tripping over my own feet when I’m standing perfectly still, etc. She told me, “Do you think a single person you’re with has never once dropped food on themselves? Don’t you think the majority have at some point thrown up when drunk? I know I have. Many times.” She didn’t address the tripping issues, so I’m convinced that is a skill only a select few have mastered. She went on to remind me that every emotional and mental health struggle is collective. Humans experience these things together, yet think they are alone in their distress.

This all goes back to the idea of shame. Brené Brown (2010) describes shame as “that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough” (p. 38). And shame, as I talked about in my very first post, is what stops us from reaching outside of ourselves and realizing we aren’t alone. It’s scary to speak up. Terrifying, in fact. Brown says that “shame is all about fear. We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring (sometimes it’s just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles)” (2010, p. 39).

fear

That hit me pretty hard, Brené, I’m not going to lie (side note…oh how I wish I was on a first name basis with Brené Brown). The fears she lists are exactly what had me spooning with depression a couple nights ago. I am so afraid that I will go on feeling worthless and insignificant as people continue to come into my life, learn about the darkness inside me, and then leave in search of greener pastures and light. Then, as life has a habit of doing, I received a message today. It came from the brilliant Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the main character in a novel by Louise Penny called Still Life. As I drove down the road listening to the audiobook, the Chief Inspector tells me, “This is the key: it’s choice. We choose our thoughts. We choose our perceptions. We choose our attitudes. We may not think so – we may not believe it – but we do. I absolutely know we do. I’ve seen enough evidence time after time, tragedy after tragedy, triumph after triumph. It’s about choice… life is choice. All day everyday… Our lives become defined by our choices” (Penny, 2007).

Ho. Lee. Crap. No one can make me feel ashamed but myself. Regardless of how others treat me, perceive me, or value me, I am the one choosing to let shame and fear rule my life. I’ve heard the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt many times that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” but for some reason the Chief Inspector put it out on the table in a way that leaves no room for argument…no offense, First Lady Roosevelt.

choice

I haven’t yet figured out how to choose to see my own worth, regardless of my mistakes, and to own the fact that if people don’t want me in their life, I don’t need them in mine. I know the choice needs to be made…and sooner rather than later. Brené Brown talks about an intriguing idea that she calls Shame Resilience – “the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience” (2010, p. 40). The trick is learning to see and understand shame in the moment. That’s my new challenge: let shame wash over me, say hello and then a quick goodbye, and come out a better person on the other side.

Recently a friend of mine experienced something that she said brought her a great amount of shame. We talked about it for a while. She exclaimed, “I am a piece of s**t!” I told her, “Look. We all make mistakes. If making mistakes makes us a piece of s**t, then I’m a big one too. And if we’re all one, that means no one is. My piece of s**tness cancels out your piece of s**tness.” I quickly added that we needed to copyright that last bit and slap it on a t-shirt, like, tomorrow. But in all seriousness, “our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together. Imperfectly, but together” (Brown, 2010, p. 61).

broken

Here’s the thing: my friend was brave enough to tell her story. She had the courage to stand up and say, “I feel ashamed and this is why!” If she hadn’t spoken up, the experience would have festered inside her and gained momentum until it pulled her under. Toward the end of the conversation she told me, “I’m going to cry myself to sleep tonight. I’ve been holding it in.” To which I replied, “Then do it! That’s probably the best thing you can do for yourself! Cry all that shame juice out.” And again quickly added, “OMG. Put that on a t-shirt too! Cry all that shame juice out!” If you need to get rid of some shame, talk it out and cry it out. There’s nothing wrong with that and it doesn’t make you weak. Plus, you might end up with some killer t-shirt ideas.

I tend to seek out the humorous side of anything serious or, conversely, to see poetry and metaphors within my own emotions and experiences. It’s a coping mechanism. Perhaps the way for me to beat shame each day is to come up with funny tag lines or descriptive imagery. For example, today I was mulling over the concept that overcoming shame needs to be a collective effort between all people. If we try to tackle it on our own, it’s like someone who is standing on ice and puts all their weight onto one foot, hoping and praying they don’t fall through. Compare this with the collective approach where we all share our stories and find strength in each other’s shared experiences and emotions. This is like someone who lays down on the ice and spreads out their weight onto multiple points. They are far more likely to make it to solid ground without falling through and plunging into the ice-cold water that wants nothing more than to drag them down into its darkness. Next time I’m feeling particularly alone or unworthy, I must remember to reach out for help so the person (or people) can help spread the weight and get me/each other to solid ground. We need one another.

“Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we’re all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives” (Brown, 2010, p. 73).

together

References

Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Penny, Louise. (2007, May 1). Still Life. St. Martin’s Paperbacks/Mass Market Paperback.

If conclusions were a ledge, we’d all be jumping…

cliff

Big Trigger warning: Depression/suicide

There is a thought that has snuck up on me several times since I started entertaining the idea of this blog. Sharing stories about mental health can be risky for several reasons. My biggest perceived risk is that people will jump to two conclusions: 1) they think I’m being overly dramatic and am just looking for attention, or 2) they assume the only option is to send me away to the ER on a mental health hold, where I will be forced to ingest three-day old sandwiches and tiny cans of Shasta cola. (note: to anyone who ever has been on a mental health hold in the ER, I do not say that to make light of your experience. I worked in an ER for several years and saw so many kindred spirits – others suffering from mental illness who had nowhere else to turn or were hanging on by a thread. I see you.) (second note: to anyone who works in an ER: now would be a good time to check the expiration dates on the sandwiches. They’re gross. I don’t think that’s even real meat.)

Two memes popped up on my Facebook feed within a few hours of each other. I took it as a sign that I should share what’s on my heart regarding this topic. Both pictures hit close to home on so many levels. They are similar, yet different. Both have to do with our society’s affinity for jumping to conclusions.


not attention seeking

The first one speaks to me on a very personal level due to recent happenings in my life. It also speaks to me from the perspective of someone with a blossoming passion for mental health awareness and education. The subject of suicide is just about as welcome in everyday conversation as Lord Voldemort is at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For those of you who aren’t Harry Potter nerds…that is very unwelcome indeed. Psychotherapist Stacey Freedenthal (2018) states, “I don’t fault those who avoid naming suicide. Instead I fault society and social conditioning for teaching us to treat suicide as unspeakable. If we can’t acknowledge suicide when a person has died, then how can the living expect to talk openly with friends and family about their urges to end their life? It’s awfully hard to help suicidal people – and for them to ask for help – if we treat suicide as if it is a dirty word.”

A dirty word.Because I love the power of definitions, I decided to look up “suicide” in the oh so tactful Urban Dictionary. I was curious to see how Joe Shmoe off the street might define this concept. Definition #7 tugged at my heart strings because it addresses the emotional side rather than the physical act of permanently stopping one’s breath. It says that suicide is “what people do when they start to fear life more than they fear death” (Suicide, 2016). Take a moment to absorb that.

Now imagine that sense of fear and despair magnified a million times over because this society makes it nearly impossible to be open about our struggles – it pours stigma on top of shame on top pain. It is naïve and reactive, rather than educated and proactive. Our vulnerability backfires!  Instead of openly discussing depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other illness that may lead to suicidal thoughts, society has done a damn good job of brushing feelings, and the people who feel those feelings, under the rug of social propriety. Then, when someone has the courage to ask for help, it’s far more comfortable for someone else to call 911 and have them carted off on a mental health hold than it is to see their pain…to feel their pain…to understand their pain. How tragic that “this silence about suicide can be deafening, making it exquisitely hard to hear those whose cries most need to be heard” (Freedenthal, 2018).

Obviously comments about suicide should not be taken lightly.Never assume they aren’t serious or that they are just looking for pity. By all means, call 911 if it is genuinely the right thing to do. But take a quick second to go back and reread that meme. Sometimes it’s a cry for help and empathy, so don’t jump to the conclusion that it is an egocentric plea for attention. Sometimes we just need to talk. Sometimes telling someone that you have entertained ideas or have formulated a plan provides the reprieve you need to NOT go through with it. Giving up that secret is a powerful motivator to survive, while harboring that secret only encourages it to grow and swallow you whole. If someone comes to you and says they are having suicidal thoughts, talk to them. Their fear of you jumping to conclusions may be what keeps them from asking you to pull them back from the ledge and to stop them from jumping themselves.


See the difference. See the similarity.

tell you about my past

In her 2004 article Coming out about Mental Illness, Sarah Albert shares a powerful quote by Joyce Burland: “Our cultural understanding of mental illness is that you are just not trying hard enough. We never say that about cancer or heart disease. America thinks mental illness is something that can get self-corrected, and that is a vast misunderstanding.” Misunderstanding stems from ignorance. You know how they say ignorance is bliss? Yeah…not so much. Ignorance and misunderstanding cause humans to jump to conclusions. If you don’t take the time to educate yourself on the impact of chemical imbalances in the brain, for example, of course you might conclude that depression or anxiety is just an excuse to be lazy or to seek attention.

More and more I am realizing that surviving my ongoing battle with anxiety and depression is part of my identity. I have battle scars that run deeper than any physical wound. Like that meme says, I want you to understand what has led me to become the person I am. It’s what is actively making me into the person I will become. This blog, and any conversation that requires me to open up and show those ugly scars, is NOT a pity party. Each day I survive brings me one day closer to the real me. I want to take pride in my scars. I want to help others take pride in their scars. That is the purpose of my exercise in risky vulnerability.

One of my recent favorite authors, Jenny Lawson, wrote this incredible book called Furiously Happy(2015). I am going to share a paragraph from that book that literally turned my life upside down several weeks ago.

“When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive. We come back to life thinner, paler, weaker…but as survivors. Survivors who don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it. Survivors who wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand. I hope to one day see a sea of people all wearing silver ribbons as a sign that they understand the secret battle, and as a celebration of the victories made each day as we individually pull ourselves up out of our foxholes to see our scars heal, and to remember what the sun looks like.”

Jenny Lawson’s words inspired me to permanently ink myself with the anxiety awareness ribbon. A lovely teal ribbon. It is a constant reminder that I am who I am because I have survived many battles and am surviving the war. I have some ugly scars because of it, but I would not be me without them. I am proud of who I am and want to share that.

tealribbon

You can jump to the conclusion that I’m crazy. You would be correct. But don’t jump to any other conclusions about people who want to – no, needto – feel they can safely talk about their suicidal thoughts or internal demons. It is risky. But you can make it worth their risk.


References

Albert, Sarah. (2004). Coming Out About Mental Illness. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/coming-out-about-mental-illness

Freedenthal, Stacey. (2018, June 14). Let’s (Really) Talk about Suicide. Speaking of Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2018/06/14/lets-really-talk-about-suicide/

Lawson, Jenny. (2015, Sept. 22). Furiously Happy: A funny book about horrible things. Flatiron Books.

Suicide. (2016, August 18). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Suicide

Why tell my story?

Hi. My name is Amber and I struggle with mental illness. Hint: this is where you all say “Hi Amber” back to me. Generalized Anxiety wreaks havoc in my daily life, Social Anxiety makes it nearly impossible to act “normal” before, during, and after certain situations, and episodic Clinical Depression is a source of debilitating feelings of insignificance and unworthiness. Hiding these struggles has led to a life of playing chameleon – trying to become someone I am not so that those around me might feel more comfortable and can in turn accept me for who they want me to be, not who I am.

A therapist reminded me last year that although I might feel completely alone and isolated in my struggle with mental illness, every single person I walk by is also affected by mental illness in one way or another. While many of those people are themselves sufferers of mental illness, the rest know or love someone who is.

This begs the question: Why do those of us who are haunted by the demons of anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, or any other number of illnesses feel so extremely alone in our daily struggle? And why do loved ones feel so unable to help or understand?

I realized recently while reading Brene Brown’s 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection that the answer to this question is simple: SHAME.

Shame (n.d.) can be defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”

With this in mind, I have started piecing together an equation. Those of us who experience any type of mental illness are made to feel that our thoughts/emotions/behaviors are “wrong or foolish,” which results in is a deep sense of shame. I’d love to see a show of hands for how many people would happily talk about something that causes “painful…humiliation or distress.” It just doesn’t happen easily or often. With shame comes an inability to be open and vulnerable. In one of his TED Talks, author Andrew Solomon (2014) states, “When we are ashamed, we can’t tell our stories. And stories are the foundation of identity.”

Here is the basic equation*:

(A + B) – C = D

If A = mental illness, B = shame, C = ability to tell our stories, and D = Social and emotional Isolation

*Disclaimer — math is not my strong suit, so please don’t judge my equation! (<– I almost deleted this statement, by the way, but left it in as a perfect example of social anxiety induced self-doubt…my stomach is in knots right now)

This equation results in a world full of people who are barely surviving each day, even though they are surrounded by individuals who know what they are going through. Mental illness is a collective human struggle, yet we are each held prisoner in socially imposed emotional silos. Even more tragic is the realization that someone ends their own life every 40 seconds because they no longer have the ability to face their uphill battle alone — in fact, the WHO (2018) also suggests that “for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.”

This brings me to the subject of those who do not suffer from mental illness, but know or love someone who does. Because those of us with mental illness have been conditioned to feel shame, and therefore have been stripped of our ability to share our experiences without being stigmatized, there is very little opportunity for loved ones to understand us or our illness. This can be just as difficult for the loved ones as it is for us. While we feel unable to ask for and receive support, our loved ones feel frustration and helplessness. It is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Relationships can break down or even end due to misunderstandings and expectations that go unspoken and unmet.

Because of recent life events that have led to these dawning realizations, I have quickly developed a passion for mental health awareness. I am setting out on a journey to reach out to two different populations:

  1. Those who suffer from mental illness
    1. To empower
    2. To accept
    3. To tell stories
  2. Those who do not suffer from mental illness but know someone who does
    1. To educate
    2. To let them know it’s okay to not understand completely
    3. To tell stories

This will hopefully be the first post of many more to come. Please keep in mind that the stories I share and the emotions I describe are MY stories and MY emotions. We are all unique individuals, which means we all experience mental illness, support, and treatment differently. What works for you won’t necessarily work for me, but THAT’S OKAY. I want this to be a safe, judgement free environment where people can use my stories and vulnerability as an opening to share their own struggles, concerns, dreams, and fears in the comments. Any hurtful or malicious comments will be removed. If something I say comes across as hurtful or malicious, please let me know.

I share your struggles.

ME TOO can be two of the most life changing words you will ever whisper or shout.

 

 

References

Shame. (n.d.). In New Oxford Living Dictionaries. New Oxford Press. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/shame

Solomon, Andrew. (2014, March). How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are. Retrieved from (https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_solomon_how_the_worst_moments_in_our_lives_make_us_who_we_are

WHO. (2018). Mental Health: Suicide Data. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/