An Honest Dialogue About the Realities of Mental Illness

I woke up this morning to a message in my inbox on my Twitter author account.  Admittedly, I rarely open up messages on that site these days because the majority of them are either bots or phishing scams.  But, even by the small preview pane, I could see this one was different.  They began by explaining they had been reading through some of my writing.  I immediately opened it up to read through it and respond.

I won’t divulge any of what they wrote about because it is not my place to share their story, but as I read over my responses, I couldn’t help but believe that I needed to share my own words further.  To them, I wrote:

…Good morning. No need to apologize at all. I’ve written so very much that unless you’ve stumbled onto certain pieces, it’s unlikely a specific question would be answered. Honestly, it took me hitting a horrible low before I could find my voice. I had to reach a point where something desperately had to change or I knew I was not going to survive..

…As for overcoming my depression, I honestly don’t think there is such a thing, at least in my case.. It was more a matter of accepting my diagnosis for what it was and recognizing my limitations instead of letting the stigma surrounding mental illness control my perception of myself. I still very much have good days and bad days, but at the same time, I’ve gotten better at identifying when it is my depression versus when it is reality.. I’ve also filled my coping toolbox with so many different things so that I have different tools to help me cope with bouts of depression and anxiety.. I’ve learned to look at my mental illness much like diabetes – it’s an illness that causes one of the organs in my body to not function properly – there is currently no cure and it needs regular monitoring and care – but it is possible to exist and live with mental illness just like it is possible with diabetes.. I find myself still struggling, as well, to find a combination of medication that works right for me but I have sincere high hopes that in the future, when that combination is discovered, things will be much better and it will become easier for me to function..

…I apologize if you were hoping for some sort of secret cure all, or some way to make it go away on it’s own.. I don’t think something like that exists at this point, at least in cases such as mine.. I think, for me, it was a matter of changing how I viewed my illness and changing how I viewed myself.. Accepting that I am not broken or crazy but that I have an illness that affects my brain and that I deserve not only treatment but compassion and understanding, as well. I speak out and write a lot about what it is like living with mental illness because I want others to know, as well, that they’re not alone.. that others are struggling to fight similar battles and that we cannot buy into the stigma surrounding our illness, that we are not to blame for our illness, that our illness does not define us and that there is no shame in being mentally ill.

…I apologize for all the typos.. I was typing in the dark on my laptop.. I wanted to answer your questions right away and found my fingers struggling to keep up with my mind as I threw my answer out there.. I hope some or all of that helped.. I thank you for taking the time to read so much of my story and I sincerely wish you the best.. Please stay strong and don’t lose hope.. A mental illness diagnosis does not define you and it doesn’t have to be the end of anything. I truly love that the mental health community has embraced the semicolon ( ; ) as a symbol because it is used when a sentence could have ended but the author chose, instead to keep going. None of our stories are over either. We just have to keep fighting. If you are able, have a wonderful day. If that isn’t possible, please at least have a day. Keep going, keep powering through. And know that you’re not alone.

…Reading over all of this, part of me honestly feels horrible if anything I had written gave the impression that I had in any way found a path beyond my illness. As you can tell by much of my writing, I still struggle with horrible lows and have days where I consider getting out of bed, eating and doing my dishes as a victory. I’ve learned to differentiate between my illness and reality but that in itself does not change the physical things going on within my mind and body. My mind and body still go haywire regularly – I am working with my doctors to find a way to get them under control much like a diabetic manages their illness with insulin and glucose.. I know talking about looking at my illness differently doesn’t sound like much but it has been a huge stepping stone for me because it has allowed me to stop beating myself up for being ill, to stop hating myself and treating myself as if I am broken or crazy. By recognizing it as an illness and not something messed up inside myself, I was able to take back some control and begin working towards getting my illness under control. Things may be rough right now but this illness can be treated.. It just takes time. I’m not sure there ever will be a point where I’ll be fully functional, but I’d happily settle for being more functional than I currently am.

I honestly felt I needed to put this out there, to make sure everyone reading my writing understood that I am in no way touting any magical cure all for mental illness, nor am I implying in any way that mental illness is anything that a person can overcome by sheer willpower alone.  Mental illness is just that – an illness – and it needs treatment.  It won’t go away on its own.

I do believe, however, that we can destigmatize our illness and take back control over our lives.  We cannot will away how our symptoms present themselves but we can change how we view them and how we treat ourselves.

Please know that I’m a realist.  I’m not going to throw out those tired cliches about trying harder to be happy or how life will somehow magically be better if you let go of your past because I’ve been there myself and I know how infuriatingly useless they are.  I’ve worked through issues from my past and my mental illness still remained – because it is an illness that needs treatment.  I know firsthand how rough this illness can be and I won’t sugarcoat it because it does none of us any good to minimize our symptoms for the comfort of others.  I speak openly and honestly about what it is like to live with mental illness because I know holding it in and pretending things are okay doesn’t work.  Those of us suffering can barely wrap our own heads around our illness – how can we expect those who have never experienced it themselves to understand unless we throw it all out there and tell them?

I apologize if anyone who has been following my journey feels misled, hoping for some panacea, some advice or trick that will help their mental illness magically go away.  As far as I know, no such thing exists.

I may be a realist, but I’m also an optimist.  Since I have changed how I view my own illness, I have newfound hope for the future.  I have seen marked changes and improvements in the last couple years alone.  Though my fight is far from over, I truly believe that further advancements are possible and that things can and will continue to improve over time with continued treatment.

I write about mental illness not because I have all the answers but because I know it is a problem we cannot solve by pretending it isn’t there.  We need to talk about mental illness.  We need to fight the stigma.  We need to share our journey with others who are struggling so that they know they are not alone.  We need to stop blaming ourselves, stop hating ourselves, and accept our condition for what it is – an illness that needs medical treatment.

For everyone else out there fighting their own battles with mental illness, please stay strong, keep fighting, don’t give up hope.  See a doctor.  Talk about everything you’re going through without minimizing or sugar coating it.  Stop blaming yourself and hating yourself for your condition.  Please know that you’re not alone.  And most importantly, even if you cannot have a good day, at least still have a day.  None of our stories are over and we can get through this together.


What it is Like When PTSD Gives You Flashbacks of Abuse

I had a flashback today.  They don’t happen very often, but when they do, they shake me to the core.

It started with an argument at home.  In a moment of anger and frustration as he stormed out of the room, he shoved a floor fan on the other side of the bed, knocking it over.  He hadn’t meant to scare or startle me.  In that brief moment of frustration, he had lashed out without thinking, not even realizing the effect it might have on me.

It was an instant trigger for me.

I know he has never hit me or laid his hands on me in any way and that he would never do such a thing.  I know he isn’t even normally explosive like that.  I know he’d never hurt me nor would he ever intentionally do anything to scare or trigger me. Yet, in that moment, everything I knew flew right out the window.

I was suddenly that 8 year old girl again, that girl that knew when things went flying it was only a matter of moments until the pain began.  I was that little girl again, scrambling off the bed and cowering in the corner of the room in a tight ball, wishing I could shrink down to nothing and fade away.  I was that girl again, panicked because my arms were too tiny to shield myself, that I didn’t have enough arms to block the whirlwind of hits and kicks I knew was inevitably coming.

I don’t know if my flashbacks are the same as other people’s because I wouldn’t dream to even ask anyone else with PTSD how their attacks play out.  I do know, though, that my mind works differently than many people’s.  You see, among other issues, I have a condition called aphantasia.  In simplest terms, I cannot visualize.  When most people are told to imagine an apple, they can create an image of an apple in their mind.  Though I know what an apple is and can list all types of factual things about an apple, I cannot form an image of one in my mind.  The same goes with memories.  I can list all types of facts about an occasion but I cannot create an image of it from memory.

Because of that fact, my flashbacks do not have images from my past.  My body, however, remembers other things.  I’ve always considered it a type of muscle memory of sorts, triggered by my PTSD.  My mind has retained how those blows felt raining down again and again so when I am pulled back into my past for a flashback, it is those sensations and memories and not visualizations that I experience again.

As I lay curled up in a ball in the corner, I swear I could feel that barrage of swings and kicks as if they were happening right that moment.  My ribs ached from blows delivered back when I was a child.  I struggled to catch my breath as the wind I breathed decades ago felt knocked out of me again.  I felt I needed to protect myself, shield my head and my body, bracing myself for damage long healed.  I could feel bruises blossoming on my skin as a far off voice that felt disconnected and not my own pleaded to not be hurt, cried for it to stop, begged to be left alone. I was trapped in that moment, reliving the abuse of my childhood.

I was vaguely aware of his presence and of disjointed words being said that seemed to disperse before they ever reached my ears.  Though some small part of me recognized his presence, he felt no more real at that moment than I did.  The only thing that felt real was that scared little child who desperately wanted to protect herself from any more hurt.

It felt very akin in a way to the sunken place described in that movie Get Out, where a part of myself was watching and witnessing from afar, though disconnected and unable to do a thing.  I felt trapped in the past, cemented into a nightmare from my childhood, lost within my own head.

A small fragment of my consciousness wanted to scream that this isn’t real, to force myself awake and claw my way back to reality.  But it felt so real.  It was like I was trapped drowning in a memory, unable to catch my own breath.

After what felt like an eternity, I was slowly able to wrestle my way back to myself.  I sat there in the corner, shaking and sobbing, rubbing and squeezing my arms and legs, trying to convince myself that I was myself again, back in the present.  I kept reminding myself it was over, I was safe, that none of that had really just happened.  But it felt so real.  My ribs still ached as if blows had recently landed and my limbs all still stung as if they were bruised.

I sat on the floor, shaking and crying for almost an hour, searching deep within for the strength to even pull myself up off the floor and onto the bed.  I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted from my journey back in time.  I felt like I was freezing.  My teeth chattered whenever I tried to close my mouth, though it was not from the cold.  I was shaken to the core by the whole experience.

I eventually eased myself back up onto the bed and pulled the covers protectively around myself though they did nothing to stop the chill that went down to my bones or to quiet the sobs that still wracked my body.  He held me, doing his best to comfort and soothe me, apologizing again and again for ever even getting upset, pleading for me to talk to him, to let him know I was okay.  It was the first flashback episode of mine that he had witnessed and it scared and shook him to the core as much as it had me.

I laid here in bed, thinking about how badly I needed to share this experience, to try and explain what it was like while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to explain the fear and the terror before the inevitable numbness set in and I shut down in order to recover and recuperate.  I know I didn’t truly go back in time, but I felt just like that little girl again, experiencing one of the many beatings I had endured all over again as if it was happening right in that moment.

I had a PTSD flashback today.

It may have been all in my mind, but it felt devastatingly real to me.

Resolving Trauma Doesn’t Cure Mental Illness

When I explain that I am struggling with mental illness, I am often faced with people questioning why.  I usually start off with a fairly terse and technical response about it being a combination of genetics and life experiences but that answer rarely seems to appease anyone.  Though I am not quite sure why so many people feel I owe them an explanation about my medical condition, more often than not, people continue probing, wanting to know what could have possibly happened in my life that could cause a lifelong mental illness.

It is at this point that I usually explain that I grew up in a dysfunctional, often abusive, household.  I have endured physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse multiple times each over the years.  I have been knocked down, stepped on, crushed to the core and had my very soul completely obliterated so many times I have lost count.

In response, I usually get the inevitable lecture about not holding onto the past, learning how to forgive, let go and move on.  Sometimes, they even throw in an additional reminder that I shouldn’t allow myself to be a victim for the rest of my life.

What I cannot seem to get through to anyone, though, is that my life experiences are only one small part of a bigger picture.  The traumas in my life did not cause my mental illness but rather they exacerbated it.  They also contributed unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviors and thought patterns.  Though they made a very difficult  situation much worse, resolving the traumas I have endured would not magically make my mental illness disappear.

The truth is that I have come a very long way to resolving and coming to terms with many of the traumas of my past.  I have gone through a lot of therapy over the years and have come to terms with many hard truths.  For instance, I have accepted that my mother shooting my father was in great part due to her often untreated, always undertreated mental illness.  I have accepted that one of the main reasons I had tolerated  repeated infidelity from my romantic partners in the past was due to the fact that I never was able to hold my own father accountable for his transgressions against my mother.  I have accepted that everything in life is not clear cut black or white, good or bad, and have done my best to put myself in the shoes of others and accept the past as something that cannot be changed, letting go of the torment within myself and even forgiving in some instances.

I have even taken things a step further, systematically pulling apart many of my thought processes trying to rout out any dysfunctional or unhealthy behaviors and patterns.  I have put myself under the self-awareness microscope again and again, examining why I react like I do and making a conscious effort to change anything that I believed to be self-destructive or unhealthy.

Most importantly, I have learned to forgive myself and to accept myself for who I am.  I have accepted that I had done nothing wrong to deserve any of the abuse that I was subjected to over the years.  I have even learned to like myself as a person and to identify different traits I possess as being assets.

I don’t consider myself a victim.  I consider myself a survivor.  Though the traumas I have been through have greatly contributed to the person I am and they deserve acknowledgement for that fact, I refuse to let them control my life or dictate the person I am going to be.  I am not looking for pity.  I just want acceptance and understanding.

Though I have fought extremely hard to work through many of the traumas I have endured in my life and consider myself very self-aware, I still struggle with mental illness every single day.  Why?  Because it is a medical condition.  Much like a person’s diabetes may be made worse by a large intake of sugary foods, removing those foods will not magically make their diabetes disappear any more than working through my traumas will make my mental illness disappear.

Part of my diagnosis is a genetic mutation.  This mutation greatly hinders my body’s ability to make a substance my brain needs to moderate my moods.  In essence, my brain has been starving for what it needs my entire life, getting at best 20% of a specific chemical it needs.  Though the traumas I have experienced contributed greatly to the severity of my condition and have negatively impacted my life, my mental illness would have existed even if none of them ever occurred.

Another portion of my mental illness is genetic in general.  Both my parents struggled with various mental illnesses over the years.  My mother suffered from bipolar disorder and my father struggled with depression throughout his life.  Though a parent having a mental illness does not guarantee the diagnosis in their children, studies have shown that the five major mental illnesses can be traced the the same inherited genetic variations.  So much like parents can pass along their eye or hair color, they can also pass along the predisposition for mental illness.

I struggle every single day with my mental illness.  Regardless of whether the rational part of my brain tells me that today should be a good day, another large part of my brain is constantly sending out negative emotions and responses, which in turn sometimes presents itself in physical ways.  I am in a constant battle with my own brain and body.  Though difficult times might contribute to the severity of my downward spiral on a given day, the absence of bad days does not negate my mental illness.  It is always there.

Yet that technical explanation is rarely enough to placate anyone looking for answers.  Many people seem to believe that mental illnesses like depression occur when something bad happens and can be just as easily solved by resolving the underlying issue.  They look for key life events to target, assuming the person struggling will magically be cured if they can just get past that traumatic event.

I can tell you that it rarely is that easy.  Yes, there are some cases of mental illness that are predominately situation-based where the person’s mental health greatly improves when the trauma is resolved, like increased depression caused by bullying, for example.  Likewise, there are milder cases of diabetes where the person’s sugar levels can be moderated predominately by life changes such as diet and exercise alone.  But that does not make that person any less of a diabetic.  For the majority of diabetics, though, addressing their lifestyle is not enough.  They need ongoing treatment and monitoring in order to stay healthy because their illness causes one of the organs in their body to not work properly.  The same can be said for mental illness.  The only difference is that it is our brain that is malfunctioning.

Providing a detailed list of our traumas does not give a run down of how to magically cure our mental illnesses.  Time and again, we throw out our trauma lists out of frustration because some people cannot seem to wrap their head around the fact that we have a medical condition that affects the way our brains work.  It is approached as “mind over matter”, that if we just try hard enough to work through things and learn to let go, we’ll be happy again.  Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

There is no shame in having a mental illness.  It is a medical condition that statistics show now affects one in five people in the world to varying degrees.  We need to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness and stop judging everyone who is struggling to live with one.  Nobody would ask a diabetic why they had their condition because it is accepted that sometimes bodies don’t work as they should and people have to seek medical treatment in order to live a healthier life.  People accept that giving up candy bars or soda won’t magically cure a diabetic.  Likewise, working through the traumas in my past will not magically make my mental illness disappear.  No one should have to justify why they have a mental illness nor should they be met with accusations that they are just not trying hard enough to get past their medical condition.  We don’t owe anyone an explanation nor do we deserve being blamed for our illness.

A Day in the Life with Depression

It is 10am. I woke up an hour ago. An ache in my bladder woke me up yet I lay here immobile.

It is 11:30am.  I am still in bed.  My stomach has begun to growl and grumble yet I’m honestly not feeling hungry.  The cramps have increased as my stomach and bladder vie for attention.  Yet I am still laying in bed.

I know that I have to get up, that I should give up, but there’s a booming voice in my head asking “Why bother?”, reminding me nothing is going to get better, there’s nothing I can do to change anything, that I might as well just stay in bed.  I cannot disagree.  I’m too mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted to argue.  So I just lay here.

It is 1pm.  I have been laying in bed for 4 hours now, tormenting myself over my inaction.  I have drifted back to sleep here and there for a few minutes but it was a fitful, restless sleep.  I cannot remember the last time I slept well.  If I stay awake long enough, I might pass out from exhaustion for a few hours but otherwise my sleep come in random spurts.  My mind never stops racing, never stops running, reminding me of all I should be doing, all I haven’t done, the person I believe I should be and the reality of how broken I feel.

I manage to pull myself out of bed to pee.  My stomach is still growling and grumbling.  I know I have to eat but I have no desire.  Nothing sounds good.  I curl up on the couch with my legs tucked beneath me, wrapped in a blanket.  At least I’m out of bed.

I mindlessly snack on some stale chips or cookies left out nearby or I pop open a can of soup.  I don’t bother heating it up or even putting it in a bowl because I don’t honestly want it anyway.  I rationalize that I’m dirtying less dishes this way and figure at least I’m eating something.  It’s about all I can do for self-care today.

I hate my life.  I hate myself.  I hate that I cannot function.

I feel like I’ve let everyone in my life down, that I’ve let myself down.  I don’t understand what is wrong with me.  I pull my blanket more tightly around myself and just cry.

I wish I knew what to do.  I wish I knew how to fix things.  I wish I could stop feeling like this.  I wish I could just be happy.  I wish a thousand things that I know will never come to pass because this is just what my life is.

As hard as I try to cling to something positive, any glimmer of hope, my world feels hopeless.  I desperately want to be happy.  I just want to be okay.  I just don’t know how.

It’s 5pm.  I’m still sitting on the couch in the same pajamas I have been wearing for three days now.  I know I should shower but I haven’t really done anything to get myself dirty so I figure it can be put off another day.   At least I got out of bed today and I ate something.

I’ve wasted the last few hours halfheartedly browsing the web, looking at reminders of all my friends and family happily going on with their lives without me.  I’d reach out and touch base but why bring them down?  I wish I could have things together, too, something, anything.  I wish I wasn’t such a mess.  I miss them but at the same time I can’t help but believe they’re better off when I keep my distance.  Nobody needs my mess in their life.  Maybe I’ll reach out next week or next month or whenever I finally find a way to pull myself together.  But not today.

It’s 9pm.  I’ve spent the last few hours attempting to watch something on television or Netflix or to read a book.  I can’t really tell you what any of it was about, though, because I kept zoning out.  I must have watched the same scenes or read the same pages three or four times before giving up.  I tell myself that it doesn’t really matter anyway.  I was just trying to pass the time.

I wander into the bathroom to pee, hoping to empty my bladder so it doesn’t wake me up tomorrow.  My stomach has started growling again but I don’t feel like eating so I make excuses about it being too late anyway and that I don’t want to add any more dishes to those I should have washed yesterday.  I figure I’ll just eat when I wake up tomorrow.

I crawl back in bed.  I know that it’ll be hours before I fall asleep but it really doesn’t matter.  I just want to lay down.  Even though I haven’t done anything today, I feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.

I’m not being lazy.

I’m not having a pity party.

I am suffering from depression.

This has been me on so many days.  These days are so alike they’re interchangeable and bleed together into one another.  It is just a small glimpse of what one random day with depression looks like behind closed doors.


Trying to Help Others Understand Anxiety

Whenever I start to explain that part of my mental illness diagnosis includes severe anxiety, I always receive confused looks.  They are usually followed by judgmental comments about how “everyone has problems and stress in their lives”, telling me that I need to “learn to cope and work through it all”.  I get told that I “shouldn’t let every little thing get to me” and that I’d be so much happier if I “stopped stressing over everything and just mellowed out”.

I have others that have gone so far as to make accusations about whether my anxiety is even real or just in my head.  They’ll question how I could claim I’m “too anxious” to go somewhere to fill out paperwork yet am “perfectly comfortable attending things like farmer’s markets or street fairs”.  I’ve tried to explain that it isn’t the same thing.  I don’t have social anxiety.  People and crowds are not my issue.  My anxiety is situational and builds upon itself, making it harder to function in some situations than others.

I’ve tried to explain my anxiety again and again until I was blue in the face, yet I’ve been met with blank stares or judgments more often than not.  I finally sat down and made an overly simplified chart, similar to the pain level chart used in doctor’s offices,  in hope that it might be more  relatable and help others understand.


The average happy and well-balanced person starts an average day with 0 anxiety.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, their rent and car payments have been paid, their family is healthy and happy.  Life is good.

Little daily stresses might raise things to a 1 or a 2, but it’s nothing they can’t handle.  Every now and then, there’s a 3, 4 or 5.  Life happens.  It isn’t always easy but it’s nothing that can’t be smoothed out and they know it won’t be long until they’re back down to a 1 or two again, or even enjoying one of those blessed days with 0 anxiety.

People struggling with an anxiety diagnosis never see a 1 or a 2, let alone a day with 0 anxiety.  Their good days start around a 3, their average days around a 4 or 5.  It isn’t even that any major crisis may be going on in their lives causing their heightened anxiety.  It is that their body and their mind are reacting and responding as if it was.  And, being already frazzled, every little added thing that goes wrong just adds to their anxiety until inside their heads they are in a complete panic, running around with arms flailing, screaming that the sky is falling, Chicken Little-style.  Or even worse, they just wrap themselves in a blanket and shut down completely.

Now to get back to explaining the situational anxiety I mentioned earlier.  High stress situations already start off at a higher anxiety level than normal for us because our minds are already considering every single thing that could go wrong.  Every time there is a bump in the road and things don’t work out like they should, it adds more anxiety to the pile for next time.  All it takes is a couple times where things go wrong before our bodies and minds start to panic when it comes to anything associated with that person, place or thing.

Managing our anxiety is not as simple as taking a deep breath, learning to think positive or not sweating the small stuff.  We are not intentionally causing our anxiety.  Our anxiety fires off somewhere in our subconscious.  We have no control over it.  Our mind starts sending out warnings and our body responds.  We find ourselves on edge, our chests tightened, our thoughts muddled, our mouths dry, our palms sweaty.  There are times we’re not even sure what we are anxious about, only that the anxiety is there.

Once our anxiety has reached a certain level, we begin to have anxiety attacks.  Our body goes into auto-pilot in a full blown panic.  Anxiety attacks present themselves differently for different people, but in every case it is our body’s way of saying that it cannot take any more.  Beyond the anxiety attack is the shut down, that numbness where you’re mentally, emotionally and physically too exhausted to think or function.  I have not included a level 10 anxiety level because, though I have experienced many anxiety attacks and shut downs, I have never personally experienced anything beyond that.  I do imagine there is something worse, though I am not sure what could possibly be worse than everything I have already been enduring.

That is not to say that conscious breathing exercises, meditation or other such exercises do not help.  They can help pull us back into a state of self-awareness that can stave off a full blown anxiety attack.  But they are not a panacea.  They will not magically cure an anxiety disorder, just facilitate in pulling some people some times back into the here and now.

That is because an anxiety disorder is a mental illness.  It is not something we are doing to ourselves because we are easily panicked or excitable.  It is not something we’ve made up in our heads.  Much like a diabetic can help regulate their highs and lows by eating at regular times and monitoring their sugar intake, someone with an anxiety disorder can use tools such as conscious breathing to help moderate their anxiety.  But getting exercise or not eating that candy bar won’t cure diabetes any more than meditation will cure anxiety.  It is our medical diagnosis.

I know the chart I made is extremely simplified – anyone suffering with anxiety can testify that it is so much worse, but I wanted to give examples that the average person could relate to, as well as providing a build up they might be able to imagine in their own lives.

I know that it can be hard for those who have never experienced a mental illness such as anxiety to truly understand what we are going through.  Please try to keep in mind, though, that it is not something we are intentionally doing to make our lives, or yours, harder.  Our brains are always reacting and responding to the world around us at a heightened state.  We have no control over it and are trying our best to manage our anxiety to the best of our ability.  But it is a medical diagnosis that needs treatment.  It is not something we can magically cure on our own.

Stop Blaming the Entire Mental Health Community Whenever a Senseless Tragedy Happens

Mass shootings are commonplace in the United States these days.  One community has barely had a chance to mourn and bury their dead before another incident appears somewhere else on the map.  After the school shooting yesterday, a jaw-dropping statistic began to appear across the internet: In the U.S., there has been a gun incident at a school every 60 hours so far in 2018.  That is one every two and a half days.

Everyone is so quick to point fingers and lay blame.  One of the biggest scapegoats is the mentally ill.  Mental illness has become a dirty word.

When someone does something senseless and tragic, one of the first things you hear is that it wouldn’t have happened if not for better mental health treatment.  When there is a shooting, people question how someone who was mentally ill had access to guns.  When someone drives a vehicle into a crowded area or a parent kills their children, people question why someone who was that mentally ill was even allowed out on the street.  People clamor for more laws restricting the rights of the mentally ill for the protection of communities at large.  Politicians respond by shouting promises that there will be change in lieu of this mental health epidemic.

As someone who has struggled with mental illness my entire life, what I see are torches and pitchforks, what I am hearing is one step away from “lock all the crazies up for the safety of everyone else!”  It is a slippery slope.

Please know that I am in no way disputing that those people who commit senseless atrocities like mass shootings are severely mentally ill and desperately in need of help.  What I am saying is that mental illness exists on a broad spectrum.  Mental illness is  term to describe a wide variety of conditions that originate in the brain.  The scope of mental illness extends from diseases of the brain to diseases of the mind.

Everyone suffering from a mental illness is not the same.  The Diagnostic and Statistical manual, or DSM, is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used to diagnose mental illnesses.  The current APA list has around 400 different diagnosis, covering a wide range of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.*

Yes, there are people that are mentally ill that are violent and commit unspeakable acts.  It might even be fair to say that someone has to have something wrong in their head to even be able to carry out anything as heinous as a mass shooting.  But the majority of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are non-violent.

According to recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI**, 18.5% of adults in the United States, over 43 million people, experience mental illness every year.  If a mental illness diagnosis alone was enough to determine a person was dangerous and likely to commit violent acts, with 43 million people suffering from mental illness every year, the numbers of violent crimes would be astronomical.

With millions of people in prisons across the United States and over a million more being sentenced each year to incarceration***, you would assume that prisons would be a hotbed of mental illness.  However, again according to NAMI statistics**, only 24%, not even one quarter of inmates, have had any recent mental health diagnosis.

The fact is that a recent study published in the American Journal of  Public Health shows that a person with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator****.  Based on this study’s statistics, almost one-third of adults who have been diagnosed with mental illness had been victimized in some way during the previous 6 month period, with over 40% being victimized multiple times.  Of the 23% of mentally ill persons in the study who had committed any sort of violent act in the previous 6 months, roughly 2/3 of the violence had occurred in a home or other residential setting.  A meager 2.6% of violence occurred outside the home in a school or workplace environment.  The most startling fact to come to light in this study, however, is that the victims of violence were 11 times more likely to commit violent acts themselves afterwards.

Yes, something has to be done in regards to mental health treatment in the United States.  But it is NOT because the mentally ill population is inherently violent and unsafe to wander the streets unrestricted and unregulated.  Mental illness and the way it is regarded in this country is a societal epidemic.  Those who have been diagnosed with mental illness must deal with constant stigma.  We are ostracized as being crazy and unbalanced, simultaneously a joke to be mocked and a dangerous monster who needs to be locked up for their own safety and the safety of others.  We often hide our diagnosis for fear of judgment or minimize our struggles to reassure others they have nothing to fear or worry about.

The way a mentally ill diagnosis is handled in this country has to change.  We need to be able to speak up, speak out and receive the treatment we need.  Though NAMI statistics show over 43 million people struggle with mental illness each year, only 41% have received treatment for their condition**.  Roughly one-fourth of the disability applications for Social Security list mental illness as their primary impairment.  Though NAMI statistics** show that 9.8 million people annually experience a severe mental illness that drastically impairs their ability to function, statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that only roughly 2.7 million people are deemed eligible for SSI or SSDI*****.  As I can attest, anyone who is applying for disability due to mental illness is advised to get a lawyer and to expect to be denied at least once, if not multiple times, regardless of how much documentation you have for your diagnosis.  Though my mental illness is due in large part to a verifiable genetic mutation I was born with, combined with well-documented trauma, I, myself, have been denied multiple times and still am deemed ineligible by government standards.  For years, I have struggled with red tape, jumping through hoop after hoop, hoping to get the help I need, only to hit brick wall after brick wall, having to begin the process all over again.

The lack of adequate treatment for mental illness in this country has grown rampant.  Suicide is currently the 10th highest cause of death in this country, 3rd highest among 10-14 year olds and 2nd highest for 15-24 year olds, according to NAMI statistics**.  Recently, a video of a disoriented mentally ill woman being cast out on the street by a hospital staff has gone viral.  According to the National Coalition for Homelessness, between 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from “a severe form of mental illness”********.  Mental illness is listed as the 3rd highest cause of homelessness.  People are falling through the cracks, wandering the streets untreated, people are dying, our children are dying, and yet nothing is being done.  The lives of the mentally ill are one by one becoming nothing more than statistics.

It should not be so hard to get help in this country.

There are others who are afraid to reach out for help due to government restrictions on the mentally ill.  There is an epidemic of mental illness and substance abuse among our military.  According to the APA, almost one-fourth of our soldiers, up to 24.4%, are struggling with mental illnesses such as PTSD******.  A recent study published in Science Daily from The University at Buffalo observing the mental and physical effects of law enforcement determined that not only was PTSD and depression a substantial issue, but nearly one quarter of police officers admitted to suicidal thoughts, much higher than the 13.5% of the general population*******.  And these are only the statistics of those who have willingly come forward seeking treatment.  Due to the push for politicians to pass laws regulating gun ownership, a mental illness diagnosis could result in losing the right to even own a gun.  How do we encourage our soldiers and police officers to get the help they need when it could mean giving up their livelihood in the process?

I personally know many people who are afraid to have a record on file about their struggles with mental illness.  They are people who hunt for recreation and are legitimately afraid that a diagnosis would take away their 2nd amendment rights and their ability to feed their families.  They are people who fear a diagnosis would negatively impact their career or their ability to advance due to the stigma attached.  They are people who have seen firsthand how poorly the mentally ill are treated in this country and do not want to be labeled as crazy and unbalanced, as well.  So instead, they suffer in silence, without treatment, until something cracks and breaks.

Yes, there is a mental illness epidemic in this country that is leading to horrifically tragic events.  But it is NOT due to people with mental illness having access to guns nor is it due to mentally ill people wandering around free and unfettered.  It is a direct result of society’s treatment, and lack of treatment thereof, of the mentally ill population.  Please take a second again and consider the facts.

Fact: Over 43 million people every single year struggle with mental illness**.

Fact: Only 41% of those with a mental health condition have received medical help for their condition in the last year **.

Fact: One third of people with a mental illness are victimized and abused every six months and those who are victims of abuse are eleven times more likely to commit a violent act themselves****.

We desperately need to change how mental illness is viewed and treated in this country.  The mentally ill population does not need more restrictions and regulations.  We need more access to health care, better support and protections.  We need assurances that it is okay to seek help and guarantees that the millions of us with a mental illness diagnosis will not all become vilified due to the actions of a minute few.

We need the stigma and persecution to end and the help and healing to begin.

That is the only way that things can change.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 2/20/18.

* AMA literature with the DSM codes for the broad spectrum of mental illnesses can be found at:

** NAMI’s Mental Health by the Numbers statistics can be found at:

*** Bureau of Justice Statistics page that provides incarceration numbers can be found at:

**** Study entitled “Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With Mental Illnesses” can be found at:

***** Statistics from National Institute of Mental Health can be found at:

****** APA Statistics on Veterans can be found at:

*******Study on Law Enforcement done by the University of Buffalo, published by Science Daily can be found at:

******** The National Coalition for Homelessness report on Homelessness and Mental Illness can be found at:

The Frustration of Explaining Mental Illness to Those Who Have Never Experienced it Themselves

I would not wish mental illness on anyone else.  Having a mental illness is like waging a continuous war within yourself where half the time you are not even sure what is being fought over, only that the battle rages on.  There is never a true moment of peace.  You may have good days, yes, but even on those blessed days there is never peace because you can feel its presence, always looming, weighing down on your soul, preparing to strike again.  There might be small periods of respite here and there, the calm before the storm, but anyone fighting their own battle with mental illness knows it is only a matter of time before another downward spiral or another period of numbness, appears.  One of the worst things about having a mental illness is that we don’t even fully understand what is going on within our own minds and bodies, let alone have the words to adequately explain it to others.  Even more frustrating is when someone else puts us on the defensive because they do not fully understand what we are going through but assume they do because they have been exposed to it from a sideline view.

Someone who has never been in a car crash cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has been in one” or “because I’ve taken care of someone who has had one”.

Someone who has never had cancer cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has had cancer” or “because I’ve helped to take care of people who have had cancer”.

Likewise, someone who has never had a mental illness cannot truly understand what it is like to live with one, regardless of whether they worked with people who had one or had a family member diagnosed with one.

You can sympathize with someone else who is struggling but you cannot truly understand what it is like to live with mental illness merely by being exposed to it second-hand in others.  Witnessing others being traumatized is not the same as experiencing the trauma yourself.  It is not something you can experience vicariously and fully understand the suffering.  As much as we might try to explain what it is like in order to help others somewhat understand, there are no words we possess that would adequately explain all that we are going through.  And anything we say is usually just the tip of the iceberg, minimized for the benefit of others because we don’t want to overwhelm or scare anyone else with the horrors of our reality.   Mental illness is something that you truly have to experience firsthand to fully understand.

Nothing is more frustrating than having someone verbally attack the core of our illness as “making no sense”, expecting us to fully explain something that we ourselves have trouble understanding.  Or to be called out, as if we are somehow inherently wrong for even being mentally ill at all.

I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression and P.T.S.D.

Due to severe anxiety attacks during periods of high stress, one of the agencies I work with recently arranged a home visit as an alternative to my having an office visit.  I had someone interject that their mother is bipolar and has done the same thing, claiming that it is ridiculous that her mother can attend highly populated events such as street fairs but cannot go to a downtown office to complete some paperwork.  She then demanded to know whether I was equally unreasonable, attending random public events while claiming I was incapable of going out to an appointment.

I tried to explain that it isn’t how generalized anxiety works.  I am not anxious being around people.  I do not have social anxiety.  With generalized anxiety, I live in a constant state of heightened anxiety that is worsened by stressful situations.  On a scale of 1-10, most people start off an average day around a one or a two.  If there is nothing to worry about, there’s no reason for an average person to be anxious.  If someone’s rent is coming due and money is tight, their anxiety level might be raised to a two or three.  If, on top of that, they’re worried about being laid off, their anxiety might be raised to a three or four.  Not getting enough time with your kids, needing unplanned repairs on a home or vehicle that you cannot afford, unexpected illnesses and deaths all increase anxiety.  With each newly added stress, anxiety continues to compound and raise.

Now imagine starting every day at a 4 or a 5.  Even worse, most of the time you’re not even sure why exactly you’re anxious.  You just know that feeling is there.  You’re notably on edge, you’re distracted, you’re hyper-vigilant.  Your body is physically reacting to the stress.  You are visibly flustered, your chest is tightened, you find yourself shaking or bouncing your limbs or no reason, you have trouble focusing your thoughts and forming coherent words.  Each new added stress only raises everything higher.  It doesn’t take much until you find yourself at a 7 or 8, in a full blown anxiety attack.

Consider going to an office to do paperwork, starting at the 4 or 5 those with anxiety might begin each day with.  If a previous visit there did not go well, your mind relates the two and it adheres the past to the present situation.  If there were subsequent visits that did not go well, each of them is an added stress, as well.  Your mind is hyper-vigilant, constantly reviewing situations and drawing connections, trying to protect you from duplicating a previous bad experience.  After a few bad experiences somewhere or with someone, that compounded anxiety becomes too much to bear.   Your mind begins firing off danger warnings and your body reacts accordingly.  Your fight or flight response kicks in.  You want to run away, to scream, to avoid it at all costs.  You freeze like a deer caught in the headlights or you become agitated and aggressive because you feel an overwhelming need to protect and defend yourself.  It all occurs subconsciously in the brain.  Your anxiety rises on its own without any conscious decision on your part.  You are not intentionally overreacting or being melodramatic.  Your mind and body are just reacting to the situation at hand based on the data it has compiled.  It is the truth of living with anxiety.

Attending a populated event is another situation entirely.  In all honesty, each situation is different depending on our previous experiences with the location, the people involved and many other contributing factors.  We cannot even reasonably predict ahead of time whether a situation will feel safe or not because literally anything could trigger a raise in anxiety.  It never takes long before that heightened anxiety reaches dangerous levels and an anxiety attack ensues.  We have very limited control over situations.  Our mind and body are steering the car and we are just along for the ride.

My explanation fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps even worse than trying to help others understand anxiety is trying to explain depression.  Too many people who have either never experienced depression or who have only experienced a temporary or situational, mild bout, have a habit of aggressively attacking those suffering from more severe, debilitating depression for not being able to “bounce back” quickly enough to meet their standards.

We are accused of being lazy and having pity parties.  We are told that they “know what it’s like but..” you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself, you have to be more positive and at least try, you have to pull your shit together and do what has to be done.  We are accused of not trying hard enough, of not even trying at all.  We are asked why we are not even working part time and told of a myriad of other people who were able to magically pull themselves together, shamed into feeling like we are horrible people for being unable to function as well as they or someone else they know did.

I have tried explaining the realities of severe depression, only to have it fall on deaf ears, as well.

Those of us suffering from depression are not having pity parties.  Depression is far more than just being sad or feeling negative about our circumstances in life.  There are days when the world feels bleak and hopeless, where you are convinced you are completely alone and become trapped in an empty numbness that renders you virtually immobile.  It isn’t that you are not aware of everything that needs to be done or that you don’t want to do it – you are trapped within yourself, unable to pull yourself up to do even the simplest of tasks.  You might lay there for hours, beating yourself up as your inner dialogue drums into your consciousness everything you could be doing, should be doing, and how broken, worthless and useless you are for being incapable of doing anything at all.  There are days you spiral down into negativity, tearing yourself apart viciously for being garbage because some part of your brain believes that is what you deserve.  You tear yourself apart for being broken, damaged, and flawed worse than anyone else could ever do.  There are days when the tears keep flowing even though you cannot pinpoint exactly why, beyond “life itself” and days you’ll sit in a fog, doing nothing or randomly puttering, losing hours at a time.

Whether we’re trapped in numbness or spiraling down, our minds are constantly whirling, reminding us of all we should be doing and how much of a failure we are for not accomplishing everything we believe we should.  We desperately want to do more, to do better, to do anything at all.  We hate ourselves for not being able to do everything we believe we should be able to do.  We feel like a failure that has let everyone down.  But our minds have betrayed us.  We are in a constant battle within our own heads.  We have so many emotions, so much hurt, pain, anger, self-loathing, sadness and confusion swirling within our heads that it is hard to sort it all out and think straight.  Though we can pinpoint the cause of some of it, the majority is so broad and vague that we don’t even understand where it is coming from let alone know how to begin explaining or addressing it all.

Any job, even part-time, is difficult when we cannot plan from one hour to the next, let alone one day to the next, whether we will be spiraling down into that abyss or frozen in numbness.  Yes, e may have good, functional days, but they do not appear on any set schedule.  We have no idea how or when our depression will strike next or how long it will last. We are not being lazy or just not trying hard enough.  We just cannot reasonably commit ourselves to a schedule when we don’t know how well we’ll be able to function an hour from now, let alone a week from Tuesday from 8am to 4pm.

Perhaps the most asinine assertion I have ever heard from people who did not understand and had never experienced what I was struggling with was the claim I hve heard numerous times that “only soldiers suffer from P.T.S.D.”, as if I was somehow disparaging the armed forces with my diagnosis.  Post traumatic stress disorder is more broad-reaching than the military.  It is fairly common with those who have suffered from years of abuse, especially during their childhood as I have, or have experienced traumatic or violent events in their lives such as rape, as I have.  Flashbacks, nightmares and night terrors are not exclusive to those in a uniform.  Do not minimize my trauma because I fought a different kind of war on a different type of battlefield.

I truly appreciate when people acknowledge my diagnosis and attempt to empathize with all that I am struggling with because it really is a daily battle.  It is heart-wrenching and honestly makes me want to cry whenever someone has been through something so similar that they can truly relate to what I am going through because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.  My heart goes out to everyone fighting a battle within themselves that they cannot seem to fully explain and constantly feel judged for having because I have been there and understand how exhausting it is to have to defend yourself for your diagnosis.  But please don’t ever use the second-hand experiences you’ve witnessed others having to minimize what I am going through.  Knowing someone who has mental illness or even working around people that have been diagnosed with a mental illness is not the same thing as living with one yourself.  Even individual diagnosis can differ greatly, as well, so you cannot measure two personal experiences by the same bar.  You cannot truly understand what a person is going through before walking a mile in their shoes so please stop judging me for my diagnosis when you have no idea of the battles I am fighting inside.  I truly appreciate compassion and empathy but please leave your judgment at the door.

What Suicidal Ideation Looks Like

I am not suicidal.  I have no active plans to kill myself.  I just honestly don’t want to live right now either.

Most people don’t understand there is a distinct difference between being suicidal and suffering from suicidal ideation.

When someone is suicidal, they actively want to die.  People who are suicidal rarely talk about how they are feeling because they have already given up.  They see no point in bothering anyone with their decision and aren’t looking for anyone trying to talk them out of it.  They’ve already made up their mind.  They spend their days taking a mental inventory of accessible means to follow through with their decision and planning their departure from this world.

I have been suicidal in the past.  Before each attempt, I had a mental tally of all the medication I had access to, I knew which knives in my house were the sharpest, and had pinpointed where in my house I could string up a rope that would hold my weight.  Thoughts of death consumed me.

Suicidal ideation is different.  I am not actively looking to die or making plans to end my life rather I am struggling with wanting to live.  To anyone from the outside looking in, they might think it is the same thing.  I can assure you it is not.  There is a big difference.

People struggling with suicidal ideation are usually vocal about their exasperation with life.  However, they are usually afraid to fully open up about it because whenever many people hear the word “suicidal”, they panic, assuming that if they don’t intervene right away, the person might harm themselves.  Others respond cruelly, claiming the person is having a pity party or just looking for attention, that they would have just killed themselves if they were truly serious.  Either way, the moment anything involving suicide is mentioned, most people stop listening altogether and just react and respond out of fear or judgment.

I spend a good portion of my days feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted.  I feel almost constantly overwhelmed and weighed down by the pressures of life.  My mind is filled with repetitive thoughts about how I can’t keep living like this anymore.  I am not looking to kill myself or making any plans to do so.  I’m just so tired of struggling.

Not too long ago, I had a very bad bout of suicidal ideation.  I laid in bed for hours crying because I just could not handle my life anymore.  Curled up in a fetal position, I sobbed about how I could not take feeling like nothing ever works out no matter how hard I tried, that I was so tired of fighting, so tired of being stepped on, so tired of not being heard.  Again and again, I cried out that I can’t keep going like this, can’t keep feeling like this, that I’m just not strong enough, that I’m broken beyond repair.  I sobbed and I shook, coughing as mucus poured both out my nose and down my throat.  I rocked and I cried, feeling so lost, so hopeless, more of a mess than anyone should be saddled with.

I cried and I cried until I eventually wore myself out and went numb.  Never once did I start to coordinate a plan to kill myself because I was not suicidal.  I just had the overwhelming feeling that I just could not take living any longer.  I was suffering from suicidal ideation.

After my tears subsided, I laid in bed shaking and shivering.  Eventually, I wandered out into the living room, curling up on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest and a blanket wrapped around me.  I sat there in a fog for hours, mechanically sipping from a cup in my hands.  I didn’t watch anything, do anything, think anything.  I just sat there.  I felt empty, numb, exhausted, worn out.  Never once that day did killing myself cross my mind.  I just was overwhelmed by the feelings of not wanting to live.

I won’t lie.  Suicidal ideation can eventually lead to suicide if gone unchecked for too long.  There is only so long that a person can struggle through life feeling like everything is pointless and all hope is lost before they eventually break.  But if someone is talking about not being able to take living their life any longer, what they need more than anything is for someone to be there, to listen.  They don’t need panic and to be locked up against their will and they don’t need to be called out for “just wanting attention”.  They just need to know they are heard and they are not alone.

Suicidal ideation is a common part of depression.  When life begins feeling like it is too much to bear, it doesn’t take much to trigger that downward spiral into hopelessness and despair.  If someone is talking about feeling this way, they are trying to help you understand just how bad things are inside their head.  No one struggling from suicidal ideation wants to scare anyone else nor are they looking to have some sort of pity party.  They are overwhelmed with life itself and desperately need someone to understand.  Even though there is nothing anyone can say or do to make things better, those suffering do take solace in knowing that others care enough to be there and to listen.

Suicide Without Dying

Suicide without dying.  It happens more often than you might think when someone is suffering from depression.

I have suffered from depression my entire life.  I was born with it.  Due to a genetic mutation, my liver was never able to metabolize a usable amount of a simple substance my brain needed to function properly.  The chemical my body could not metabolize is needed for the manufacture and transportation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Because my body could not make the substance my brain needed, my own body struggled to make the neurotransmitters it required and the paltry amount my body was able to make had no way to get where they were needed.  Even antidepressants did not work because my brain lacked the substance required to transport them where they were needed.

The discovery of my genetic mutation is fairly recent.  For most of my life, I struggled with a depression that appeared untreatable without ever knowing why.  Over the years, I have seen multiple doctors for the treatment of my depression.  I have rotated through a myriad of combinations and dosages of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.  Nothing worked.  I was labelled treatment resistant.

I have never experienced a single day without depression looming over me.

Nothing any of my doctors did seemed to help.  They would increase dosages until the side effects were unbearable or until I was a nonfunctional zombie.  Then the process would begin anew with different doctors, different medications, different combinations, different dosages.  It was a living nightmare.

No one around me understood.  They were all confused by the fact that I had been in treatment for years and had taken all types of medications without any results.  Their questions were hounding and relentless.  How was I not better yet?  Was I even trying to get better?  Was it really THAT bad that I was struggling to function and needed help?  Was I even being honest about how I felt or was I exaggerating or faking it?  What did I even have to be depressed about anyway?  So many people in my life who I tried to turn to for assistance were unsupportive and quickly became tired of dealing with my depression.  The nightmare just kept going and going.

Life felt unbearable.  Nothing my doctors did helped.  I had very little support system or assistance.  Every single day, it felt like I was not only fighting against myself and my own brain, but the rest of the world as well.

I couldn’t keep living like I was.

So I gave up.

I didn’t kill myself.  Instead of ending my life, I just stopped living it.

I stopped going to see doctors because nothing they did helped anyway.  I stopped turning in or following up on paperwork for assistance for my depression because it all felt futile.

I was too tired to fight anymore so I just gave up.  I began shutting down and isolating myself.  I put off responding whenever anyone reached out, tossing out apologies for not seeing their messages sooner and making endless excuses to friends about being busy or being sick.  I kept everyone away so they could not see how bad things had become.  Avoidance was easier than explanations.

I stopped talking about how I was doing and feeling because there was nothing anyone could do to change things anyway.  I’d mutter something about being fine then clam back up or changed the subject.  In truth, I was the farthest from fine a person could get.  I had given up.  I didn’t have the energy to explain how I felt or to defend myself from their judgments.  I didn’t want to burden anyone.  I didn’t think anyone would want to be there anyway if they knew how much of a mess I had become.

As I spiraled farther down into the dark abyss of depression, I began avoiding things that used to spark even the slightest happiness.  Why bother partaking in anything that used to give me joy when my numbness would only serve as a painful reminder of how bad things have become?  I cleaned up less often around the house, hiding dirty dishes, clothes and clutter if anyone was coming by.  I put off even basic self-care, showering once or twice a week instead of daily and keeping my hair pulled back so I wouldn’t have to tend to it.  I’d stay in pajamas for days because it wasn’t like I had anywhere to go, anything to do or anyone to see.  After all, my friends all thought I was sick or busy and going to my doctors was a waste of time.

I spent whole days laying in bed crying.  Even more days, I sat or laid around feeling completely numb, bingewatching shows I barely paid attention to or remember, puttering around the house doing nothing in particular and just napping on and off, letting the days pass me by.  I often didn’t bother eating because it felt like too much effort to even move.  I would ignore the growls of my stomach for hours much like the cramps in my bladder until the pain became too much to bear.  What I did eat was usually chosen for ease and convenience not desire.

Days and weeks blended together in nothingness.

I tried to put on a brave face, a smiling face for my children on the portion of the week they were with me, but it was just going through the motions.  Instead of fun outings, we had more and more family movie nights at home.  Instead of the bigger meals I used to make, I would throw together quick and easy cheater meals.  I made endless excuses to them for the funk I was in.  I was tired.  I just wasn’t feeling well.  But I was fine.  But I wasn’t fine.  I had given up.  As much as I tried to shield them from it, looking back, I have no doubt that on some level they knew.  That my depression had such an impact on their childhood will always be one of my biggest regrets.

I have gone through this cycle where I have pulled away from everyone, isolated myself and stopped living numerous times over the years.  It always seemed to happen the same way.  Treatment wasn’t working, getting assistance began feeling impossible, nothing felt like it was ever going to get better and no one else seemed to understand or truly care.  I felt completely broken and all alone in the world.  It was not a world I wanted to live in so I just gave up and stopped living altogether.

Finding out about my genetic mutation and its role in my depression has changed my perspective on many things and has sparked a new journey in self-reflection and self-improvement.  It has also forced me to accept many hard truths.  Perhaps one of the biggest is the fact that every time I gave up, every time I pulled away and isolated myself, every time I stopped living my life, I was committing suicide without dying.

Yes, I was still technically alive but I was barely doing anything more than existing, going through the bare minimum of motions to get from one day to the next.  I had stopped living my life, stopped finding reasons to enjoy life, stopped taking care of myself and shut myself off from the rest of the world.  I may have been breathing and had a pulse, but I was not living.  I had given up just as surely as if I had taken my own life.

I was also putting those I cared about in the position of having to mourn me again and again, to deal with the loss of who I used to be and the bonds we used to have.  I was removing myself from their lives, forcing them to face that loss again and again.  Every time I would resurface and reenter their lives, I considered it a victory that I had climbed back out of that hole, never stopping to consider how much they must have struggled to reconcile with the endless roller coaster I had put them on, being slingshot repeatedly between mourning my loss and having me back to varying degrees.

I know there are some who will question my comparison of severe depression to suicide without dying.  There will be others who will angrily declare they are nothing at all alike, swearing that they know because they have lost loved ones to suicide and I am still here, still breathing, that it is not at all the same.  Please know that I am in no way diminishing the tremendous loss that comes with suicide.  I have been on both sides of that fence, having been both suicidal myself and having lost people I loved to suicide so I would never trivialize it in any way.

People ask so many questions after someone commits suicide.  Why would they do this?  How did this even happen?  How did their life get so bad that they felt giving up was the only option?

As someone who has struggled with suicide myself, I can tell you – it all starts with giving up.  It starts with that feeling that you just can’t go on anymore like you are, that everything is hopeless and that nothing is ever going to change.  It starts with that feeling that you just don’t want to live anymore so you don’t.  You pull away from everyone, you stop taking care of yourself or seeking out help or treatment, you turn your back on anything that used to bring you joy.  You sink so deeply into depression that you just don’t see the point of doing anything anymore.  From that low point, it isn’t a far leap to physically ending your life because you have already stopped living it anyway.  After you’ve already mentally and emotionally committed suicide, you can rationalize physically letting go, as well, because you believe you have nothing left to live for.

I can also tell you that it is a slippery slope.  At first, it’s easy to consider withdrawing and isolation as a kindness to others because you’re still around in some way.  But isolation often leads to thoughts of others being better off if you were completely gone, if perhaps you never existed at all.  While not everyone who pulls away due to depression is actively planning to physically kill themselves, that isolation makes it easier to rationalize taking that final step.  When someone has reached the point of wanting to give up and stop living, it’s not a far stretch to decide to stop breathing, too.

What starts as feelings of hopelessness and despair transitions easily into suicidal ideation, where you don’t want to die but you don’t want to keep living like this anymore either.  Many people suffering from depression experience suicidal ideation from time to time, sometimes frequently.  When thoughts of suicidal ideation turn to action or inaction, and someone stops living altogether, it is not a hard transition from not going through the motions of living anymore to deciding to stop living anymore altogether.

Even consciously knowing and acknowledging the cycle, I still find myself pulled down towards it again whenever my depression gets bad.  When things in my life aren’t going as planned or they begin to fall apart, everything starts to feel hopeless again and I struggle to pull myself up, keep myself going, to not give up.  It is a dangerous edge to walk on and one I fight daily to distance myself from.  I fight a constant battle to stay vigilant and self-aware, to catch myself whenever I start to spiral down and begin to withdraw from life.  Whenever someone is struggling with depression, it’s important to watch for those markers of isolation and giving up because once someone has decided life is no longer worth living, it becomes so much harder to justify continuing to live it at all.

If you see someone in your life start to withdraw, talk to them.  If you notice they are lessening their self-care or beginning to cut everything they enjoy out of their lives, talk to them.  Don’t buy into their excuses and allow them to isolate and pull away.  Be there.  Be persistent.  Listen even if you don’t have any resolutions to offer.  Listen just so they’re heard.  Chances are their feelings might feel uncomfortable or overwhelming to you at first, but know that they need to get them out.  Better out than in.  Encourage them to get help and stay positive but don’t judge them for their struggles to do so.  They need support and encouragement not judgment.  Be a consistent presence in their lives, a counter to the negativity trying to pull them down.  Just be there because them being alone and isolating themselves is the worst place they can be.

If you’re struggling to find reasons to keep going yourself, let those feelings out.  Don’t hold them in.  Talk about them even if they don’t make sense to you just to get them out.  Talk to someone whether it’s a friend, a doctor, a clergyman – anyone.  Just don’t sit home alone in the dark and let those feelings fester because they will only continue to grow and get worse over time if you never let them out.  Don’t push away people that care enough to ask whether you’re okay or lie to them that you’re fine if you’re not.  Don’t worry about scaring them with everything you are going through – if they truly care about you, they would rather deal with some discomfort and worry now than to lose you entirely down the line.  Don’t give up things that make you happy.  If anything, keep seeking out other things to make you smile, even if you have to force yourself to multiple times a day.  Surround yourself with positive things, good things, things that remind you that the world is not completely dark, ugly and hopeless.  Take care of yourself the best that you can.  Eat.  Go to the bathroom.  Shower.  Even if the only thing you manage to do today is take care of yourself, that is enough.

When someone commits suicide, it is permanent.  There is no bringing them back, no changing anything.  It is final.  When someone takes those first steps and decides to stop living, it is often a precursor to suicide.  We need to be more vigilant, with ourselves and with others, when we see those signs of withdrawal and isolation, when we see ourselves or someone else starting to give up and stop living their lives.  We still have the power to change things before they reach that point of no return, before that loss becomes permanent.  I have stopped living a few times before and am still alive to tell the tale.  It is possible to die inside, to give up on life, while still breathing.  It is also possible to come back and live again even after you’ve mentally and emotionally given up.  It is not an easy task but it can be done.

Please know that I understand how hard, lonely and hopeless life can feel.  I know how low depression can pull you.  I know all too well that feeling of not being able to take anything anymore, of just wanting all the pain, all the stress, all the struggling to stop.  I know how unbearable it can all feel.  I understand how someone can reach a point where giving up feels like the best option, the only option.

But it doesn’t have to be.  Please stay strong.  Choose to live.  Choose to keep going.  Even if you can’t do as much as you’d like or as much as you feel you should be able to do, do whatever you can do.  Just don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Don’t stop living.  Don’t allow any part of yourself to die.

“..Must Be Nice..”

Whenever my ex and I used to fight, one of his favorite go to mudslings was always that “it must be nice to..”, usually followed by something like “sit home and do nothing but wallow in your own misery” or “sit on your ass feeling sorry for yourself while others actually work for a living” or a hundred other potshots that minimized my struggles with mental illness.

Sadly, it’s not an uncommon sentiment when it comes to mental illness.

“Boo hoo.  You’re sad?  Lots of people have problems. Guess what? Everyone does.  You know what everyone else does when they have problems? They get off their ass, deal with them and keep going.”

“You think you have it bad? What do you even have to be depressed about?  Plenty of people have it worse than you do.  You need to stop making excuses and get your shit together.”

“Everyone has shit they’re dealing with.  What makes your problems and your feelings so special that you should get to sit home while everyone else has to bust their ass?”

I have heard those words, and many other sentiments like them, for years.

I have struggled with mental illness, more specifically depression, anxiety and ptsd,  my entire life.  A good portion of my diagnosis is based upon a genetic mutation which has, in essence, been starving my brain for the chemicals it needs to moderate my moods.  I cannot remember a time when I didn’t struggle, didn’t suffer from severe bouts of anxiety and depression.  My mental illness does not come and go.  It is a battle every single day.

I fought for years to be semi-functional, collapsing again and again into mental breakdowns as the compounding stress of trying to keep myself together proved time and again to be too much to bear.  I became a pro at wearing a smiling mask so that everyone else wouldn’t worry even though I felt like I was dying inside.

“..Must be nice..”

I can tell you, without a doubt, that no it is not.  I would not wish this on anyone.

I spend my life smiling through the tears, lying to everyone I love that I’m okay because I don’t want anyone to worry because I know there’s nothing they could do even if they wanted to.  I’ve learned it’s just easier to pretend I’m okay than try to explain things I know they could never understand.

I spend my life going through cycles of numbness where I feel immobilized, incapable of functioning at all, and downward spirals where my own brain urges me to destroy myself, to tear myself apart, because it says I am useless, worthless, a good-for-nothing waste of space.

I spend my life struggling to find joy in anything.  Food often tastes bland, music nothing more than background noise.  Things that make others smile and laugh are often met with apathy because I am so mentally and emotionally drained just from existing that the pleasure centers in my brain often don’t even respond to happy stimuli.  I am not being a Debbie Downer – I honestly often am so numb I feel nothing at all.

I spend my life fighting with myself, with my own brain, because when even the slightest thing goes wrong, I blame myself and my brain begins another tirade about how worthless I am, how I am a burden to everyone in my life and the world would be better without me in it.  No matter how many times I’ve told myself that it’s all lies, that voice never shuts up, never goes away.  It began as other people’s voices but over the years, it has become my own.

I spend my life teetering on the edge of not wanting to die but not exactly wanting to keep living like this, either.  Everything feels too hard, too much, too overwhelming, too agonizing.  All I want most days is just for the pain, the pressure, to just stop long enough for me to catch my breath.  I often curl up in a ball and cry because I just can’t take anymore.  Through my tears, I beg “no more”.

I spend my life worrying constantly about everything that has gone wrong and every scenario in the future that might go wrong because they all feel not only plausible and possible but probable.  My mind is always racing, always thinking, always calculating, always warning me of everything bad that could ever happen.  It never shuts off, never shuts up, going on and on for hours.  It’s the reason I have so much trouble sleeping.

I spend my life taking everything personally because I honestly believe it all must somehow be my fault.  Somewhere deep in my subconscious, I believe I am fundamentally broken so I always seek out my blame in everything, even when my common sense reassures me that I am blameless.  I apologize constantly, even when I’m unsure what I may have done wrong, or if I know it was something I had no control over, because there always has to be something or someone to blame and it might as well be me.

I spend my life in fear of every dark corner, every raised voice or hand, because my past has shown me that nothing is safe so I wander through life like a deer caught in the headlights, jumping at every little thing and withdrawing at the first sign of danger, real or imaginary.  I’m obsessive about many things like locking doors and keeping my shower curtain slightly open because I never feel safe, not even in my own home where nothing bad has ever happened.

I spend my life struggling to love myself enough to do basic things like eating and showering because there’s a constant booming voice in my head that asks “why bother?” and tells me I’m not even worth the effort.  Though I would bend over backwards for others or give them the shirt off my back if they needed it, I have trouble some days even justifying “wasting food on myself” because someone else might enjoy it more.

I spend my life feeling alone no matter how many other people are around.  My illness isolates me, convincing me that no one else could possibly understand, nor would they even truly care.  I feel like a constant burden, a bother, that it would be better for everyone if I just stayed away.  Even in a room full of people, I feel alone in all the world.

I spend my life afraid to open up to anyone I care about about all I am going through because I do not want to scare them away.  I do not want them to see me as too broken or too damaged, not worthy of their time or their love.  Whenever any of my mental illness surfaces around others, I am sure it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the reason that they, too, go away.  The worst part is that I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

I spend my life going through cycles of physical ailments like severe chest pains and throwing up blood because my mental illness keeps presenting itself in physical ways.  I’m not honestly sure whether I might have other digestive or heart issues because they’ve been so often linked to my anxiety in the past that I don’t even bring them up to the doctor anymore.

I spend every single day of my life in a constant battle with my own mind, a battle nobody else can even see that I am fighting.

..and I can thoroughly assure you, it is NOT nice at all.

There is a reason my doctors have listed me as disabled.  There is a reason they say I cannot work.  They are among a very few people who I have been completely honest with about my struggles because I opened up to them knowing that they were trained to deal with cases such as mine.  Admittedly, though, there have been times I have minimized some of my struggles even with them because seeing their eyes water at my pain is heart-wrenching for me.

No, I do not have a physical disability that you can see.  I am not in a wheelchair nor am I hooked up to machinery to keep me alive.  No, I am not wearing a cast, a brace nor have lost my hair to chemo.  I have no physical signs to point to that would illustrate my disability for those around me.  But that doesn’t mean that I am not disabled.  It doesn’t mean that I am not suffering, not struggling, not in need of help.

I am not being lazy nor am I sitting home taking it easy.  I wish I didn’t have a mental illness.  I wish I could do more, contribute more.  I wish I could even take better care of myself.  I wish a lot of things.  But I would not wish this diagnosis or this struggle on anyone.  I am trying my best to take care of myself, trying to keep living, trying to make it to each new day.  I am fighting to survive, whether anyone else can see it or not.

I am not looking for anyone to feel sorry for me because of my diagnosis.  It is what it is.  Pity won’t take away mental illness any more than it will cure cancer.  All I truly hope for is compassion and understanding.  Acknowledgment that, even though you might not be able to see it, it still exists and deserves treatment just as much as a physical ailment would.

..and please don’t say “it must be nice..” that I am at home dealing with my mental illness because I can assure you, it isn’t nice at all.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 3/2/18.