Something To Think About Before You Consider Killing Yourself..

There are many quotes that resonate strongly with me on a very personal level.  One of my favorites is by William Goldman:

“Life isn’t fair.  It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

What makes life more fair?  I believe it is the fact that you still have possibilities and options.  No matter how bleak and hopeless today might feel, there’s no way to know what tomorrow or next week, next month, next year might bring.  Life is fairer than death because death takes away all your options, all your possibilities.

I won’t ever throw out empty promises that tomorrow will be better if you just hang in there because none of us knows exactly what tomorrow may bring and whether it will be good or bad.  But one thing I can guarantee you is that it will bring possibilities.  The possibility of action and of change.  The possibility of a future beyond today.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been there myself, if I hadn’t tried myself in the past.  I understand how it feels to feel lost and all alone in the world, to believe that you have no more options.  I know exactly how scary it is up on that ledge.  I know all too well that siren’s call, promising an end to the pain if you just give up, just give in.

Unfortunately, that’s all suicide gives you.  An end.  It doesn’t remove any of the problems that existed.  It just robs you of the ability to do anything to fix them.  And it’s final.  There are no do overs, no second chances, no tomorrows.  It is emptiness.  Nothingness.

Yes there would be no more sadness, heartache or pain.  But there’s no more happiness, either.  You’re robbing yourself of the chance to heal, to overcome, to see better days again.  You’re allowing the worst days in your life to steal the possibility of all future happiness from you.  You’re depriving yourself of a future that is completely within your power to transform into anything you wish.

Giving up means giving up your future and giving up the chance to make your life better.  It is final.  When you give up, there are no more possibilities.

There are also no more hugs.  No more drippy ice cream cones or licks from cute, fuzzy puppies.  No more bad puns that make you chuckle and no more all you can eat taco bars.  No more sunny days or breezes blowing through your hair.  No more singing songs loudly and off key and no more cups of cocoa with too many marshmallows.  There are no more bonfires or camping trips.  No more joyrides with friends or late night pizza runs.  There’s no more movie marathons or teaching your children to ride a bike.

There’s no second chances to fix things and no way to say you’re sorry or make amends.  There’s no new friends or new jobs.  No new children or new pets.  There’s no new hope and no second wind.

There’s nothing.

I could go on and on, listing all the things you could be giving up, but the possibilities are endless.  By choosing to live, you have millions of doors available to open, millions of lives you could live.

There’s only one thing you get from suicide.  Nothing.

I won’t guilt you by saying you should keep living so you don’t hurt others because I believe you should be living for yourself, not someone else.  Don’t get me wrong – it would devastate everyone in your life and change who they are forever but it isn’t fair to ask you to live your life for someone else.  You ultimately need to choose to live for yourself.

But please know that I have been right where you are now.  I was sixteen the first time I tried to kill myself.  I can tell you without a doubt that I am grateful I did not succeed.  I won’t lie to you and tell you that my life has been a bowl of cherries since then, but I still have been blessed beyond anything I ever imagined for myself.

I have wonderful children I would not trade for the world.  I have reconnected with my first childhood crush and found a lasting love.  I am a published author of a handful of books and with blogs that have been republished and shared world-wide.  My life has not been perfect by any means, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative which is nothing.

I know others who have survived suicide attempts, as well.  Years later, we’ve talked about all that has happened since their attempts.  Children.  Marriages.  Careers.  Vacations.  Celebrations.  Memories.  Life.

I have never heard a single one of them say they wish they had been successful.  No matter how many highs and lows they have gone through since then, every single one has been glad they are still here.  I’ve heard stories on television, as well, from people who have survived suicide attempts like jumping off bridges.  They all share the same narrative about regretting that one moment of weakness and being grateful that they did not succeed.

Because you know what they would have had if they had been successful?

Nothing.

“Life isn’t fair.  It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

Life is fairer than death because life is full of possibilities.  Death takes every last possibility away.

Don’t keep living for anyone else.  Choose to live for yourself because living means that you still have a chance to be happy, a chance to make amends, a chance to find love, a chance to be a parent or to pursue your dream job.  Keep living because by living, you still have a chance.  With death, you have nothing.

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Explaining My Aphantasia

I frequently write about mental health topics, particularly ones that directly affect me because I firmly believe it is easier to explain conditions when you write what you have experienced firsthand.  Though more often than not, I write primarily about mental illness, there are mental health-related conditions that exist outside what would be considered an illness or disability.  One such mental condition, one that I live with personally, is aphantasia.

Growing up, I honestly did not realize that my mind worked any differently from anyone else’s.  When I’d sit in a classroom with my fellow classmates and the teacher would tell us to imagine something in particular, my mind would race through a database of sorts, pulling out words to describe whatever we were instructed to visualize.  I did not know back then that my mind was different.  I had assumed that was how everyone’s brains worked because nobody had ever told me any differently.

I was in my early twenties when I first discovered just how differently my mind worked.  I was a young mother back then, watching random children’s programming with my toddler.  On one random educational children’s show, I honestly do not remember which, one of the characters suggested all the kids close their eyes and imagine something or another, walking children through some exercise in imagination.  They ended by asking the children watching if they could see it and what colors had they chosen for their creations.

I remember sitting there completely dumbfounded, one of those “wait.. what?!” moments.  The whole concept that anyone could create images within their head, actually see pictures, blew my mind.

When I close my eyes, all I see is blackness.

When I try to pull up a recollection of something, all I ever get is a long series of words, of descriptors.  The best way I can describe it is that my mind is like a vast room of file cabinets, all containing various data.  Whenever I start thinking of something, my mind races, looking for facts to connect to the recollection in question.

If someone tells me to close my eyes and imagine an apple, I never am able to see an apple in my mind.  Instead, an inner dialogue starts, spewing out everything I know regarding apples.  Apples can be red or green or yellow.  They can be solid colored or speckled or mildly striped or splotchy in appearance.  There are crab apples as small as a cherry and honey crisps as large as a grapefruit, but most apples are around the size of a fist.  They are somewhat round but not completely.  They have little bumps on the bottoms, similar to the base of a pepper.  They are usually sweet but some, like granny smiths, can be tart.  The best time for apple picking is the fall. Apples can be used in recipes for…

My mind races on and on, yanking out every fact it can find that has anything to do with an apple.  There’s times it’s almost like a data overload because so many facts will surface at once.  After all, I KNOW what an apple is.  I’ve had many apples over the years.  But at no point can I conjure up even a simple picture of one.

When my brain first made that connection that other people could see things in their minds, I couldn’t help but feel like THAT was the abnormality because the very idea felt so foreign and alien to me. For months, I questioned friends with seemingly stupid questions. “If someone tells you to close your eyes and imagine an apple, can you actually see one?  Like not just KNOW what an apple is but clearly see one IN YOUR HEAD as if it was sitting right there in front of you?”

Again and again, the answer came back as a resounding yes, of course they could.  Everyone I knew seemed to be able to conjure up images in their brains like their own personal movie screen.  Everyone, that is, but me.  It was like that one game we all played as children where one of these things was not like the others and it turned out I was the odd man out, the one that was different.

Over the years, I’ve periodically looked for others who might be experiencing something similar.  As my children grew older, I even questioned them to see whether they had the ability to visualize.  I do not know whether the condition CAN be hereditary or not, but none of my three children share this trait with me.  They can all visualize just fine.

It wasn’t until recently that I even stumbled across the term aphantasia.  For decades, I just referred to it as an inability to visualize, doing my best to explain that all my brain could ever muster up was a series of words to describe and connect things but never a single picture.  From time to time, I would randomly still ask others if they could visualize in their mind’s eye, hoping to find someone else who might be like me, but I never had any such luck.  That is, until around two years ago when I stumbled completely by accident onto a research study being done in the UK for Aphantasia.

I was beyond excited.  I was elated.  I was no longer some random ugly duckling, alone and unique in all the world.  My brain wasn’t broken, flawed, some freak abomination that existed outside the realm of everyone else.  It turned out this was an actual medical condition that affected as many as one in fifty people to varying degrees.

I found myself reaching out to the scientist that was heading the research study into aphantasia, explaining that it affected me, too.  I was sent a series of questionnaires to fill out for him to add to his research data.  We emailed back and forth a few times over the next few weeks.  It was wonderful just knowing that I wasn’t broken or crazy after all.  When I found out about my mthfr genetic mutation a short while later, I contacted him about that, as well.  I do not know whether it is in any way related, but I wanted his data on my case to be as complete as possible.

Aphantasia is not a disability.  It is more of a nuisance.  Where other people can immediately conjure up images from thoughts, my brain is left to sort through piles of data, an inner dialogue of words, for what is relevant to every situation at hand.  I often joke about how, though most people put in their two cents, I stop closer to a quarter, but in actuality that is just how my mind has always worked.  I have frequent data overloads in my head and tend to ramble on subjects until I get it all out.

I’ve been complimented numerous times on my writing, how people love the comparisons I draw and the flowery words I use to describe everything.  It is not anything I have ever done intentionally.  My mind is just chock full of words because it is void of imagery.

Over the years, I have felt the impact of my aphantasia in many ways that other people take for granted.  For instance, I am absolutely horrible with facial recognition.  I might look at someone that I have seen dozens of times and have trouble putting a name to the face because they have changed something as simple as their hair color, gotten a hair cut or put on some weight.  I know that I know them, that there’s something about them that is familiar, but until I dig through the databases in my mind looking for other connections beyond physical traits like their eye color, nose shape or height, I’m often at a loss.  I wait for someone else to mention a name or a location or occasion connected to them, something to make that connection click.

I have no memories of my past, at least not in the way that others experience them.  Others can close their eyes and be transported back to a sunny beach they visited years ago, reliving the beauty of the moment.  For me, all I have is a stream of facts.  I can tell you the approximate dates I was there, can tell you how blue the water was, comparing it to other recollections I have to similar shades of blue.  I can tell you how warm the air felt by comparing it to other types of warmth, but I can never relive that day.  My mind catalogues data.  It does not retain memories.

Perhaps the worst affect that I feel from aphantasia is the weight on my heart.  When my children leave to go to their dad’s house or to go back to their dorm, I cannot close my eyes and picture them here again with me.  I can look at a photo of them but that is the only image I’ll have until I see them again.  I am very partial to photographs and videos because it gives me actual glimpses back in time, something my own mind cannot do.

I lost both my parents in 2010.  I don’t possess any pictures of either of them so their faces are lost to me forever.  I can list off basic facts like the crows feet that spiderwebbed beneath his eyes or the fact that my mother used to furrow her brow when she was upset or deep in thought but I can never close my eyes and picture their faces ever again, can never see the way the corners of my dad’s mouth would turn up into a smirk when he was about to tell a punchline of a joke or see the way my mother’s nose would crinkle when she would sample a taste of something she was cooking.  I know those things happened because the words are locked away in my brain’s database, but the actual images of those moments have been lost forever to me.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how often everyone else relies on visualization and it makes my condition feel even more glaring.  Last year, for instance, I began taking meditation classes hoping to add to my mental wellness toolbox.  I sat in a group with several others talking about breathing exercises and conscious breathing.  Then it came time to begin our first actual group meditation.  We were all told to close our eyes, uncross our legs, loosen our muscles, to place our feet squarely on the floor and rest our hands flat on our thighs.  We were guided to pay attention to our breathing, the slow in and the out, to feel the air around us and to be in the moment, fully aware of ourselves and our bodies.  So far, so good.  Then the instructor told everyone to imagine a small ball of light glowing inside themselves, in their core, to see its brightness, feel its warmth, to imagine it growing inside us, filling us, to see the light expanding beyond ourselves, encircling us, filling the room, expanding outwards, continuing to grow.

And THAT was completely where she lost me.  When I closed my eyes, all I could see was black.  There was no glowing orb and there never would be.  I had words within my head to compare to lights with a soft glow or of lights expanding similar to the approach of dawn, but no matter how hard I might try, I could never visualize that ball of light, or roots connecting my feet to the earth to center me or any of the other visualizations commonly used in meditation.  Meditation techniques commonly used by everyone else are completely lost on me because they rely heavily on visualization.  For me, meditation has become about situational awareness, of feeling my breath flowing in and out, of feeling my heart beating and feeling the sensation of the air on my skin.  I cannot imagine and visualize anything flowing and growing around myself so instead I use meditation to pull myself into the here and now, to concentrate on my body in the present and to try to silence my mind.

In the last year, I have realized my aphantasia goes beyond an inability to visualize.  In another “mind blown” moment, I had someone ask me whether I could mentally recall other senses, such as the way things tasted, smelled or felt.  I realized all recollections of those senses were just words, as well.  I could tell you that I remember the sweetness of a cupcake or how well water smelled similar to hard-boiled eggs or how a fleece blanket felt soft and furry like a baby animal.  But they are all words.  I cannot taste that cupcake again nor smell that egg smell nor feel the sensation of that soft fleece again on my fingertips.  I have the words to describe them all because I have experienced them all before but I cannot relive any of those moments again.

Perhaps the only sensation I am able to recall to any extent is pain and that is very limited.  I suffer from PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse over the years.  There are times when I have flashbacks, reliving those moments of abuse all over again, where I swear I can feel the blows again.  I am not sure if it is a matter of muscle memory tied to the PTSD itself or if it is a genuine recollection of some sort.  All I know is that it only occurs during flashbacks and it is only physical pain that my body can recall.  Unfortunately, following PTSD flashbacks, I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted so I have never been able to delve into those recollections more.

These days, I often describe my aphantasia as a type of blindness in my mind’s eye.  I think back to watching The Miracle Worker, the story about Anne Sullivan teaching a young, blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate.  Helen Keller couldn’t see the water because she was blind.  Again and again, Annie Sullivan signed the word for water into her hand until her mind made that connection.  She could not see the water, would never see the water, but her mind was able to make that connection.  That word meant water.  That is how aphantasia works within my head.  I close my eyes and my mind’s eye is blind.  My mind cannot see the water, cannot see an apple, it will never see anything.  But it makes those connections of words to items.  I might not be able to ever visualize an apple, but my mind possesses the words to know what an apple is.

Aphantasia is a condition where the brain is unable to form images or visualize.  It is a condition that often leaves its sufferers feeling broken and alone, as if their very brain is flawed and doesn’t work like everyone else’s.  Current studies show that it affects approximately one in fifty people.  It is not considered a disability or an illness but rather more of a hindrance or nuisance because it affects a person’s overall quality of life.  Unfortunately, though, there is very little research currently available on the subject to explain what causes it nor is there any cure.  It is just something that I, and many others like me, have learned to live with over the years.  Whenever we close our eyes, our world fades to black.

Why I Write Part II: Looking Back Over Two Years of Mental Health Writing & Advocacy

A couple years ago, right around my birthday, I began to write.  My life had begun unraveling yet again and I clung to my words as someone drowning might cling to debris floating downstream, hoping something, anything, might keep me afloat and stop me from going under.

It began with a book about my own experiences.  Sink or swim, live or die, I didn’t want the truth of my story going down with me.  But a miraculous thing happened as I threw my words out into the wind – I was finally heard.  For the first time in my life, I was heard.  Even more miraculously, words floated back to me, telling me that others understood, others had been there, that I was not alone.

And it saved my life.

Knowing that I wasn’t broken, wasn’t crazy, wasn’t alone in all the world gave me renewed strength to fight, to keep going, to not give up.  In that moment I was forever changed.

I suppose some could have dusted themselves off, walked away, and continued on with their lives, grateful for another chance at life.  But I couldn’t.  I had a lifetime of silence to make amends for, over forty years of pain to release.  Once I got to the shore, I added my voice to the collective.

For years, I had drifted along seemingly alone, being pulled under, almost drowning, again and again.  Those voices that reached out to me from the shore, other survivors who encouraged me to just keep swimming, showed me I was never as alone as I had believed.  If there were others on the shore, there had to be others in the water, as well.  Others who needed to know they were not alone, either.  Others who needed encouragement and empathy to keep fighting and not give up.

I had this overwhelming urgency to pay it forward.

I began writing more often, sharing the gritty truth of what it was like to live with mental illness.  I also began speaking out more and more about fighting stigma and discrimination.  I was like Ebenezer Scrooge, awoken on Christmas morning to see the world in a whole new light.  It was not too late for me.  My story wasn’t over.  I could still make a difference in the world.

How have I endured in regards to my newfound passion?

Though personally, I’d consider my venture into writing over the past two years a huge success, I know many would consider it middling at best.  I have a handful of books about mental illness and mental health published and others in the works.  I have an active blog, averaging 2-4 new pieces a month.  Many of my blogs have been republished elsewhere, most notably The Mighty who has republished well over 35 to date with others sitting in a queue, earmarked and waiting to go live.  I have been on my local NBC news station for an interview about my book.  My pieces have been discussed by television and radio stations as far away as Australia and have been shared by advocacy groups, private practices, schools and government agencies in one hundred different countries around the world – that I know of, at least, according to the stats page on my personal blog.  I have a milestones page filled with events in my short writing career I would have never dreamed possible a few years ago.

The majority of the people who have read my writing have read blogs that have been published and republished for free.  I do sell a book or two here and there, as well as an occasional anxiety chart poster, but it is nowhere near enough to make a living from or to pay any of my bills.  As much as I would love to make a living at this, doing what I have come to love, I am not sure whether it will ever be in the cards for me.  Why, then, do I keep writing?

I write to make a difference.  My voice might not travel far – mental illness is a very niche topic that is unlikely to ever truly go viral – but I have seen firsthand that my writing is reaching others.  I see it in the messages sent to my inbox, thanking me for putting their own struggles into words.  I see it whenever someone else tags someone they know on one of my pieces, trying to help them better understand.  I see it every time any group, organization or agency who works with the mentally ill shares my writing.

Admittedly, even two years later, it all still feels surreal and makes my eyes water.  I still feel honored and humbled every time anyone reads my words and relates, reads my words and shares them with others.  I truly feel blessed.  It has in many ways become my calling.

But still, in a day and age ruled by the almighty dollar, why continue devoting so much time and energy to something that can’t even pay the bills?

The answer is simple – I write because I know I can make a difference.

I don’t ever imagine I will be world famous and renowned.  I am honestly beyond amazed that my writing has reached as many people as it has. I know I won’t be able to save everyone, to make a difference in everyone’s life, but I am making a difference in some people’s and that is enough for me.

I am reminded of a bittersweet story about a young child walking along the ocean shore after a big storm.  It comes from a book called The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley.  This young child walked along the beach, one by one throwing starfish that had washed ashore back into the ocean.  After some time, an old man approached the young girl, asking her why she was wasting her time, telling her there was no way she could ever save all the starfish that had been washed ashore.  At first, the young girl was discouraged but that feeling only lasted a moment.  Then she picked up another starfish at her feet, returned it to the ocean and proudly proclaimed that at least she made a difference to that one.

I relate so very strongly to that little girl.  I cannot save everyone.  I know that.  But I am determined to keep writing, keep making a difference, continue to help others as much as I can.  Even if my words only touch one life here or there, I have made a difference in the world.  I have left an impact and made the world a better place than it was before.  And that is enough for me.

Anxiety & Jumping to Conclusions

When someone suffers from an anxiety disorder, our minds are always in overdrive, racing at top speeds trying to figure everything out. For each and every problem that presents itself, our brains reason out hundreds of possible reasons why, usually settling on the worst possible scenario or the one that bears the most personal responsibility. We see ourselves as broken and flawed so we naturally assume the fault ultimately must always rest with us.
When a friend does not acknowledge our messages or respond back right away, our mind races to decipher what we must have done to upset them without realizing it. We ponder whether we’ve been such awful friends, caught up within our own misery and personal problems, that we must have devalued their friendship, damaging it irreparably, causing them to give up on us and walk away. Somehow, the worst possible probability always seems more likely to us than the sheer possibility that they might just be busy, distracted by their own lives at the moment.
When our boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives do not respond to us with absolute elation or passion, we start to wonder whether they are falling out of love with us. We dwell over how much of a handful we have always been in the relationship, whether real or imaginary. We wonder whether they’ve stumbled onto someone else they mesh with better and we honestly could not blame them if it were to happen because we know how horrible we can be. No matter how much or how often they tell us they love us and they cannot imagine their lives without us, our anxiety leaves us with an overwhelming sense of insecurity that convinces us that anyone else in the world would be a better choice than we are for them.
If something goes wrong at school or at work, we automatically assume we must be to blame and seek out how we must be ultimately responsible. Even if we know for a fact we had nothing to do with a situation happening, we look for areas where our intervention may have prevented the mishap and blame ourselves for our inaction. We feel as if we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but either way, we’re still to blame.
If something breaks or stops working, we trace back to our last time using it, considering every irresponsible action we have done that may have contributed to its demise. Somewhere in our heads, we rationalize that forgetting to shut off a machine when we were done using it once 6 months ago must have ultimately caused a chain reaction that led to its deterioration and destruction. It doesn’t matter if a dozen other people have each done a dozen different things since then to contribute to the situation at hand. In our minds, our mistakes are so glaringly horrendous that we cannot fathom any other explanation being more likely. It doesn’t matter if an item was past its prime or threadbare and past due to be replaced. Our anxiety tells us it would still be usable if not for us.
We internalize everything. We assume that the chaos within ourselves is constantly leaking out into the world around us, seeping into everything we come in contact with, making everything ultimately worse. Our minds race straight for the absolute worst possible scenario, making a pit stop at every other negative possibility along the way. Our anxiety tends to blind us to the positive possibilities or even to the simple likelihood of coincidences or happenstance. It discards any randomness, always looking for a definitive answer and cause. There must ALWAYS be a reason why, must ALWAYS be someone to blame, and our minds have designated us to be the sacrificial lamb.
We do not do this intentionally. It isn’t that we’re just being a Negative Nancy, refusing to listen to reason or see the positive side of things. When we blame ourselves, we are not having a pity party, expecting others to feel bad for us, too.  We genuinely feel responsible whenever anything goes wrong.  Part of having an anxiety disorder is having a brain that is constantly, consistently, working in overdrive, looking to connect and explain everything around us, whether those connections are real or imaginary. Even if those links seem ludicrous to others looking in, when our minds make those connections, they feel genuine to us. Our brains are often on autopilot, with us just along for the ride. Whenever the rational side of our mind tries to speak up, speak out, to even suggest we might be overreacting or making something out of nothing, that voice is drowned out by a hundred other voices, a thousand other possibilities, of ways and reasons that we might be, must be, wrong.
If we have ever had a friend in the past who have distanced themselves because they felt we were too much of a handful, part of us assume other friends will follow suit and discard us, as well. If we’ve ever had a partner fall out of love with us or cheat with someone else, part of us braces ourselves for the next time it will happen, leaving us abandoned and alone. Because of this, we have trouble letting people in, trouble trusting others and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.  We are terrified of being hurt, of putting ourselves in that position again.  As much as part of us knows that our current friends and partners are not those people who hurt us in our past, our brains keep pushing to link everything together, to make connections even where none truly exist. Even worse, when we are faced with pain or abandonment from others, we still question ourselves, looking to take personal responsibility for the choices and actions of everyone else.
Perhaps even worse than the initial blame game we play with ourselves is the way our minds will keep building and compounding our theories upon themselves, escalating them to unfathomable proportions. We build these fragile houses of cards in our minds, adding new card after card until we’ve created a precarious tower of self-loathing and blame. We tear into ourselves with a never-ending monologue that continuously harps that if we had just tried harder, just been better, not been so broken, been more responsible, none of would have happened. Our minds taunt us, telling us we should have known better than to even try, reminding us that everything we do, everything else we try, will fail, too, in time. We tell ourselves the lie that we are destined to be alone, that sooner or later everyone always leaves, then push everyone away, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We allow our anxiety to convince us that failure and loneliness is an inevitable part of our lives and that we don’t deserve any better. We sincerely believe that it’s just what we do, just how our lives go, that you cannot fight the inevitable.
Even if it eventually comes to light that we were not to blame, even if the situation had a simple explanation that has nothing to do with us, it does not quell our anxiety. Instead, we tell ourselves, “it might not have been us THIS TIME..” as we begin to mentally brace ourselves for the next time we actually will be at fault. We chalk it up to sheer luck and we don’t see ourselves as ever truly lucky so we consider it a rare free pass, unlikely to ever happen again.
I often catch myself travelling down that anxiety-ridden path, needlessly panicking before I even know all the facts. I find myself looking to rest all the blame on myself even before I fully understand the situation or its underlying cause. I often find myself taking any distance from family and friends personally, without considering that their lives are busy, too and that life happens to us all.  I feel like I have to be ever-vigilant, ever self-aware, so I have even the slightest chance to rationalize with myself before the inevitable self-blame-game begins. Even then, it is a struggle within myself because my body automatically reacts to the anxiety festering in my mind. Even if the logical part of my brain is able to determine I am not at fault, there’s always that kernel of doubt bouncing around in my head, asking “..but how do you know for sure?”
Years ago, I had a friend that used to jokingly tell me, “Beth.. get off the cross. We need the wood”. It’s a sentiment I’ve come to relate heavily to my own anxiety. After all, I have been needlessly carrying the burden, real or imaginary, of everything going on around me for my entire life. I am slowly learning to differentiate between the rational and irrational, taking ownership of my own actions and decisions without carrying the weight of the rest of the world on my shoulders. While I cannot will away my anxiety disorder with mind over matter, being able to catch myself and separate what is probable from what is unlikely is a good start.  I may have to live with this anxiety monster on my back, but I don’t need to keep feeding it.

The Double Standard of Mental Health Support

Ever since Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson spoke up about his own struggles with depression, the story has been everywhere, appearing again and again on all my social media feeds.  Everyone loves The Rock.  It’s a great story.  It’s all everyone wants to talk about.  And beneath his story, you see the same sentiments being shared again and again.

“The poor guy having to suffer through that..”

“Good for him to speak out..”

“How brave..”

It’s a story that we’ve seen dozens of times before.   Celebrities speaking out about mental illness is quickly becoming a huge movement as more and more share their story.

We applauded and cheered when Kristen Bell talked about her battle with depression and anxiety because it made her so much more real. She wasn’t that perfect, ever-smiling, ever-happy Hollywood darling with no problems.  She was one of us!

When Demi Lovato spoke out about her own struggles with depression, bipolar disorder and drug addiction, her fanbase surged.  People admired her for being brave enough to speak up about such difficult topics.

Since he spoke up about his depression and thoughts of suicide, Jared Padelecki is continuously swarmed at cons by fans who love him even more for his brutal honesty and his “Always Keep Fighting” campaign.  The whole Supernatural cast has begun speaking out about mental health and have never been more beloved.

We admire and idolize Carrie Fisher for speaking so frankly about bipolar disorder and called her a national treasure.

When Patton Oswalt talked about the depression he went through after losing his wife, our hearts all went out to him.  We grieved with him and felt his pain.  We all wanted to hug him and to find the right words to say to lessen his pain.

J. K. Rowling.  Lady Gaga.  Selena Gomez.  The list goes on and on.  Speaking out about their struggles with mental illness makes them more relatable, less larger-than-life.  Our hearts all go out immediately to them when they share their stories and confide with us about their pain.  We sympathize, we empathize, we want to reach out to tell them that we’re here to listen even though they don’t even know us.

Whenever we see an actor, musician or a professional athlete taking time off from making movies, touring or playing a game to seek treatment for mental illness, we all say to ourselves, “Good for them, getting the help they need.  It’s such a difficult thing to admit or to face.  I hope they get the help they need.”

Robin Williams.  Chris Cornell.  Chester Bennington.  Whenever we lose an iconic celebrity to suicide, the whole world mourns for months.  The mourning is renewed each year on the anniversary of their death, as well.  Crowds weep together and share stories about how their lives were impacted by their presence and how greatly their loss will be felt.  Newsfeeds are filled with scores of pictures sharing quotes and sweet sentiments along with prayers that their souls are finally at peace.

If you only looked at how society treated mental illness by how we respond to our celebrities, you’d assume we are the most compassionate, enlightened society to ever walk the earth.  It’s truly laughable.

Please know I am not minimizing or trivializing any of their battles with mental illness nor am I diminishing the tremendous losses the world has endured from celebrity suicides in recent years.  It is incredibly brave to fight for your mental health, perhaps even more so in the public eye.

I personally admire them all for taking a stand to fight against the stigma of mental illness.  Like many others, I’ve cried when I read their stories and so many others like them because I could relate.  I’ve mourned those needless deaths because I have walked that edge myself on more than one occasion so I understand all too well how it feels to be suicidal.

I say it is laughable not because I take mental illness lightly or because I am mocking their pain but because the way mental illness is regarded with celebrities is so far removed from the responses the rest of the world gets.  It truly sickens me that the overwhelming support they receive rarely extends to normal, average, everyday people with the exact same diagnosis.

When the average person opens up about their struggles with mental illness, we’re rarely met with any support and encouragement.  More often than not, we’re hit with judgment and persecution.  We’re treated as if we’re exaggerating or making something out of nothing.

“What do you even have to be depressed about?”

“Have you even tried to just be happy?  It’s not that hard.  You just have to be more positive.”

“You’re still not over that yet?  You need to just learn to let go of things that get to you.”

“Everybody has problems.  Stop being such a drama queen and learn to deal with them like everyone else does.”

We mention going to our doctor and getting on medication and are confronted with comments and memes about how we don’t need pills, we need things like sneakers and fresh air.

We talk about seeing a therapist and are told we shouldn’t be putting our private life out there to strangers who are only listening because they are paid to do so.

We’re told it’s all in our heads and that we should be grateful we don’t have “real problems”.

We’re told we’re just not trying hard enough, not doing enough.  Told we just need to try harder, do more, and we’ll get out of that funk.

Everyone has an answer for how to “get rid of our illness” but none of them have anything to do with the actual medical treatment needed for a medical diagnosis.  Be on your phone and computer less.  Go outside more.  Join more activities.  Start more hobbies.  Get a dog.  Get a girlfriend or boyfriend.  Make more friends.  Watch happier movies.  Read more positive books.  Listen to more upbeat music.  None of this would cure any other illness but that doesn’t matter.  Since others cannot see our illness, it must not be worthy of any real treatment.

We see those with mental illness painted as monsters or mocked as jokes.  We’re told that only the weak-minded can’t deal with their feelings.  We’re portrayed as unhinged, broken, unbalanced and unsafe, someone to avoid at all costs so that our crazy doesn’t rub off or spill out onto others as if we’re contagious.

We’re expected to suck it up, hold it in, don’t talk about anything that might make anyone else uncomfortable.  We’re supposed to pretend everything is okay, pretend we don’t feel anything at all even though we feel like we’re slowly dying inside.

When we reach out for help, we’re more often than not denied because it is an invisible illness that they cannot see.  We’re forced to fight, to prove there’s anything wrong and that it’s bad enough to justify getting help.

And Heaven forbid someone loses someone they love to mental illness.  They can’t even mourn without others commenting about how selfish suicide is, as if no longer being able to live in constant torment somehow makes them a bad person that deserves to be forgotten.  If an average person kills themselves, you’re not even supposed to acknowledge their life or their death because it might make others uncomfortable.

For the average person, mental illness is a bad word.  It’s that gorilla in the room that everyone knows is there but nobody is willing to talk about.  It’s that monster on our backs and in our souls that is eating us alive that we’re supposed to pretend isn’t there.

Mental illness doesn’t just happen to celebrities.  It does not discriminate.  It affects everyone around the world regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, race, occupation, political party, or socio-economic status.

Mental illness isn’t some rare fabled unicorn that only lives in legends and fairy tales, some mysterious creature whose very existence is highly doubtful.  It is all around us.  Millions suffer from mental illness every year.  An average of one in five people struggle with it.  It is an epidemic of global proportions.  It is a very common health problem.  And average, everyday people deserve the same compassion, admiration and support as celebrities do for fighting the exact same battles.

I am an average person with an average illness that affects one in five people in this world.  I am fighting the same battle as millions of others fight to varying degrees every single day.  I’m tired of being treated like I am invisible just because my illness is.  Whenever a celebrity speaks out about their own battles with mental illness it reminds us that they are just ordinary people, too, with the same problems we all face.  If we support some “ordinary people” in their battles with mental illness, shouldn’t we support all?

 

We Should Not Be Afraid To Embrace Our Happiness

I have been struggling a lot this past year, mostly fighting bureaucracy and red tape.  Unfortunately, the more heavily the battle weighs down on me, the more it bleeds into and invades every aspect of my life, particularly my writing.  The more anxious I feel about the possibility of losing my battle, the more I find myself writing about how harshly anxiety affects my life. The more depressed I feel about the struggles I am having getting my disability case fixed and open, the more I write about the negative impact of depression.  That is because I write what I feel and unfortunately, when someone has struggled with mental illness their entire life as I have, my words often emulate the negativity and hopelessness felt inside.

But please know that DOES NOT mean I never experience any happiness or that I am not allowed to be happy because I have a mental illness.  Having depression doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from ever experiencing happiness.  Finding a reason to smile or to laugh when you can DOES NOT take away or in any way minimize your struggles or your diagnosis.

I honestly don’t know why so many people expect mental illness to be an absolute, all or nothing diagnosis.

Someone can have arthritis so horrible that they often stay home because it hurts too badly to move, yet still have days between flare ups where they might go for a walk around the block in the sunshine or plant a few flowers in their garden.  People applaud them for their strength for being able to still do things that they enjoy.

Someone can be fighting cancer and lie in bed for weeks, too exhausted to do anything in between their chemo treatments.  When they manage to pull themselves up to sit, talk and laugh with a friend while catching up over a cup of coffee, people cheer them on.  People applaud them for being able to set aside their pain and their struggles for even a few moments to enjoy the world again.

For any other visibly debilitating illness or health struggle, people receive overwhelming support and accolades for managing to embrace even a momentary slice of happiness in the midst of their battle.  They’re commended for their great strength just for still being able to smile.

Yet, for anyone struggling with mental illness, anything even remotely resembling even momentary happiness is met with accusations.  If someone smiles, laughs or talks about having a pleasant time or a good day, people swarm in to attack, assuming we must have been exaggerating or outright faking our illness because in that specific moment we “look just fine”.

They post rude comments on pictures we share where we’re smiling that we “don’t look very depressed to them”.  When we talk about enjoying a few hours out with family or friends, they throw out snide remarks about how they thought we “had too much anxiety to do anything” or that our “depression made it too hard to function” yet they saw us out and about, having fun.

Their barrage of comments often makes us feel even more trapped and isolated by our illness.  We are left feeling like we have to hide or make excuses for even momentary happiness, as if it is a forbidden luxury not extended to the mentally ill.  We worry about even having a more functional than normal day, too, because others assume if we can manage something one day, we can do it every day.  We debate with ourselves whether to even mention those sweet few happy moments to family and friends because we want to avoid those “I thought you were past that whole depression thing” conversations that inevitably emerge later on when we mention our illness has flared up again.

We’re supposed to “get help” and “get better”, to “get over everything” and “just be normal again”, but we’re not allowed to experience anything in between that horrible low and that “back to normal” state we’re pushed toward and expected to achieve.  It is even worse if it is a long-term or life-long struggle.  Many of those on the outside looking in can’t understand the ups and downs, highs and lows, the forward progress and backslides we go through, assuming we should be on a straight track from sick back to healthy again.  They claim we seemed “just fine, even smiling” when they bumped into us at the grocery store last month so they figured we were “over that whole depression thing” as if it is some fad we were doing for fun, something they believed we would be over by now.

People can be in physical pain or be struggling with health conditions that make it harder to function and it’s okay.  Even not being able to work is considered acceptable because others can see the pain.  Those momentary bits of happiness are seen as a wonderful treasure for someone who needs and deserves it after the battle they’ve been fighting.

Just because you can’t see my mental illness does not mean I am not struggling with it.  It does not mean that I am not fighting just as hard to function and to be as healthy as possible just like others with illnesses you can see.  And I refuse to relinquish the little pieces of happiness that I experience just because others assume that, in order for my depression to be genuine, I must be miserable and suffering every hour of every day without break or end.

The truth is that, no matter how bad I am struggling on any given day, no matter how hopeless my world feels, I try to seek out at least one reason to smile every day.  I have been told that I am the sweetest, most upbeat depressed person many people have ever met because I fight very hard to be optimistic and not give up hope.  I refuse to drown in my mental illness.  I have waged war on it and every single day I strike, reminding myself that there is still good in the world, beauty all around me, that there are still reasons to wake up in the morning and things to be grateful for in my life.

I strive to create good moments and memories whenever I can, to find reasons smile and laugh.  We have family movie and game nights.  I snuggle up with my partner and  watch movies together or laugh at silly animal videos online.  Though I struggle most days to socialize outside my house because my mental illness causes me to naturally isolate myself, I manage to joke here and there with friends online and share funny stories and memes.  I even occasionally go out, whether to enjoy some time out while the weather is nice or to spend a little time with family and friends.

None of that negates my diagnosis.  None of that minimizes my struggles.

It is no different than what someone with one of hundreds of different visible illness does to try and bring some joy into their lives to distract themselves from the pain.

It does not change the fact that the majority of the time I struggle to even pull myself out of bed or to eat.  It doesn’t change the fact that I spend most of my life struggling to even function, overwhelmed and crying.  It doesn’t change the fact that my illness is still always there, right under the surface, beneath that smile, silently eating away at me, trying to drag me back down.

I won’t apologize for my little bits of happiness and I won’t stop seeking them out.  I need them for morale and for my own self-care and sanity.  I need to seek out happiness in this world wherever I can find it so I have a reason to keep going and not give up even when my mental illness makes the world feels hopeless.

Being able to sometimes smile and laugh or enjoy part of your day when you’re struggling with mental illness shouldn’t be treated as a cardinal sin.  It should be applauded as a sign of strength and self-care.  Having a mental illness should not mean that you are never allowed to be happy again.  It is not an absolute, all or nothing, you either have depression or happiness, choice.

If we manage to find a reason to smile or laugh for even a brief period in our day, please cheer us on for our ability to do so.  Don’t rain on our parade just because you cannot see our pain or understand our illness.  Any smile, any momentary happiness is a victory against an illness that is intent on dragging us downward into misery and despair.  Don’t try to take that victory away from us.

To those who managed to smile or laugh today, good for you!  Keep fighting the good fight and don’t ever let anyone else make you feel like you’ve done anything wrong by being happy because you haven’t.  Embrace your happiness.  Cherish it.  You deserve it!

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.

mamamia

Republished on MamaMia on 4/14/18.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 4/18/18.

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.