Why I Prefer My Thanksgiving Alone

Thanksgiving, for many, marks the start of the holiday season.  It’s also a day, for better or worse, that many spend surrounded by family, friends and loved ones, contemplating and giving thanks for all their blessings in life.

It is a day I prefer to spend alone.

It isn’t that I hate holidays or am bah humbugging my way through life.  I’m not intentionally avoiding Thanksgiving to honor my Native American roots or in some silent “meat is murder” type protest.  I am not morally opposed to the concept of being thankful nor do I believe I have nothing to be thankful for in life.  Quite the opposite.  I thoroughly enjoy most holidays, including Thanksgiving, at least in theory.

The day is just hard for me.

My children are with their father on Thanksgiving.  When we split up and began dividing up the calendar, I knew that my ex’s mother, their paternal grandmother, had lavish spreads every year on Thanksgiving and never wanted my children to feel torn about where to spend the holiday.  I kept their best interest instead of my own desires at heart, and willingly gave up Thanksgiving day.  I celebrate it each year on the Friday after Thanksgiving so I can have them with me and they never miss out on festivities with the other side of their family.

A holiday is not a holiday without my children.

Six years ago, I got a call that my mother had passed away.  On Thanksgiving.  We had been estranged for a few years at that point, which made her death feel even more tragic and jarring, because I had never made peace, never received closure.  Some of the worst trauma of my life had been a result of her actions.  I have since come to terms with the fact that it was due to her mental illness that went untreated and undertreated for years, but acknowledging such things does not make her loss any easier.  Though I normally do not say anything, I feel her loss the greatest now every Thanksgiving day.

My mental illness, sadly much like many workers these days, doesn’t get the day off.

Holidays are extremely hard for most people struggling with mental illness.  My depression and anxiety are always on high alert, but even moreso on holidays that revolve around togetherness.  And I am not alone.  In every single one of over a dozen online support groups I belong to, page after page, post after post, about people struggling to cope with the holidays have begun to appear.  I’m drained by my own feelings today.  The bombardment of emotions from others on top of that is downright overwhelming.  On any average day, we feel lost and alone.  During holidays that emphasize togetherness, that chasm of loneliness and hopelessness spreads farther out into an endless wasteland.  It isn’t that we’re just not trying hard enough to be happy or that we are ungrateful at heart.  Depression drags us to a place of absolute negativity against our will.  We are trying, are fighting, harder than anyone even realizes just to avoid succumbing to that utter hopelessness that is trying to consume us.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time for togetherness and a time to give thanks for all your blessings in life.  Though many, often with tongue in cheek, will complain about spending mandatory time with family, it is for the most part a happy, albeit somewhat stressful, day.  I refuse to mar it for anyone by dredging up my own issues throughout the day.

I firmly bolt on that mask I’ve become accustomed to wearing over the years, reassure people that I’m “just peachy”, I grit my teeth and I smile. I send warm wishes on and off throughout the day and encourage others to enjoy and make the most of their day.  I prepare food for tomorrow, my Turkey Day, throughout Thanksgiving day.  But I keep mostly to myself.  I will talk to others about how their day is going, though I remain vague and distant about my own.  Because today is not an easy day for me.  Not a good day.  And I do not want my own issues to tarnish anyone else’s holiday.

There are many days that I can embrace a saying an old friend used to love throwing at me:

“Get off the cross Beth.. We need the wood..”

I know I do not have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.  I understand that it is okay to lean on others and that I do not have to deal with everything by myself.  But holidays for me, even though some may be rough to get through, are a beautiful and sacred thing.  This time of year I will willingly make that sacrifice and carry my burden on my own.  I will use that wood I have hoisted on my shoulders today to make a yule log later for my fire.

My Thanksgiving holiday is my own burden and some burdens I choose to face alone.

—————

I truly hope that everyone had a wonderful, or at least bearable holiday today.  I intentionally waited until the early morning hours to share this because I wanted no one’s holiday to be marred by my own.

If any of you who are reading this are struggling yourselves this holiday season, please stay safe, stay strong and know that, no matter how hopeless and alone you feel during this time of year, depression deals in lies.  You are not walking this path alone.  Don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Reach out if you need.  Talk.  There are people who truly care.  Please stay strong.  We can make it through this holiday season.  Never lose hope.

I have begun a resources tab above if anyone is struggling and feels they have no one to talk to and nowhere else to turn.  There are suicide hotline numbers in it, not only for those within the United States, but many other countries, as well.  There are also links to various mental health groups to help built a support system so you do not fall between the cracks.  There is no shame in reaching out if you are on that ledge and need someone to talk you back off of it.

Advertisements

Even I Don’t Understand My Anxiety

It’s 4:30 am and I’m wide awake.  An hour and a half ago, I bolted awake feeling anxious.  There wasn’t even a specific thing weighing on my mind, just this broad, generalized sense of urgency, a feeling that things just weren’t right and I needed to wake up.

I know there will be no more sleep tonight because my mind is already racing, my thoughts bouncing around from one topic to the next.  My leg bounces a mile a minute.  I try to focus my thoughts but my brain won’t stay on anything long enough to process it.

There’s many times when my anxiety locks tightly to something and wont let go.  The thoughts become repetitive and increasingly louder and more urgent.  There is no way to focus on anything else.  It beats down on me like a hailstorm, cold, wet and jarring.  There is no ignoring it because its voice is booming, drowning out anything else going on.

There’s other times, though, that I cannot even pinpoint why I am anxious.  The urgency is still there, though it is surrounded by a dull fog.  I know that something is eating at me because  I cannot focus on anything else.  For the life of me, though, I cannot put my finger on it.  Yet my anxiety is in full force just the same.

I’m jittery, uncomfortable, unable to focus.  My chest is tight.  I have trouble catching my breath.  I try to calm myself with breathing exercises but I cannot center myself.  I have this strange burst of energy but no will to use it.  My brain has grabbed that energy to fuel its racing.  I’m wide awake.  My thoughts, like my sentences, are choppy.  Nothing quite seems to flow.  I cannot focus.  I cannot rest.  I cannot get comfortable.  My anxiety is jarring, like percussion being banged on haphazardly without any rhyme or reason.  It is loud and bracing, impossible to ignore.

I feel itchy, shaky, edgy and uncomfortable.  I am annoyed and agitated though I cannot even explain why.  Some days, my anxiety wraps its head around a thought or concept and will not let go, holding it in a stranglehold, allowing me to focus on nothing else.  It will often link itself to other things I am struggling with, making it even harder to cope.

When my anxiety attaches to my depression, it becomes that parrot that repeats all the bad in my life on an endless loop.  It asks me what else I could have expected and makes me question how much is ultimately my fault.  It is unyielding, unwavering and unforgiving.  It eats at me, making me feel inherently and hopelessly a mess.  My depression feeds it a steady dose of fuel, so my racing thoughts never seem to slow or falter.  My anxiety pushes for me to beat myself up for everything, whether it was my fault or not.

When my anxiety combines with my PTSD, I am bombarded by a steady barrage of emotions that threaten to push me into a bad place.  One of the most common themes my anxiety clings to that triggers my PTSD is safety.  Once my anxiety has grabbed onto that fear, my brain reminds me repeatedly that I am not safe, not safe, NOT SAFE!, I can no longer concentrate on anything else.  Though I try to reassure myself that everything is okay, doors are locked, everyone is safe, it is to no avail.  My brain won’t listen to reason.  It becomes a battle to fight off an anxiety attack or worse, yet, to be yanked back to those times when I truly was not safe.

One of the most frustrating parts about struggling with anxiety is that nobody truly seems to understand or sympathize.  People suggest to just breathe, not realizing that it feels like there is a weight on my chest and I can barely catch my own breath.  I’m told I should just try to calm down and try to focus.  I would love to do that, but I feel like I have no control over my mind at this point.  I swear I’ve yelled at my mind a million times Stop! Enough! but it never listens.  It has gone on a hundred mile an hour joyride along a dangerously winding cliff-side road and I’m just along for the ride.

The worst, though, is when I am asked what exactly I am anxious about or when someone tries to use logic and reason to convince me that there is nothing to stress about.  Often, I honestly don’t have an answer about why I am feeling this way.  I don’t understand it myself.  As I try to explain it, my hand shakes and my mind just cannot form the words.  I know I’m anxious, I’m restless, that something is definitely wrong, even if I cannot always put a finger on exactly what it is.  I know they mean well, want to understand what I’m feeling and try to talk me down, calm me down. But how can I explain my anxiety to anyone else when I don’t even fully understand it myself?

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 11/21/16.

Depression Kills

I began this day like most others, pulling my laptop into bed with me, scrolling through emails and social media as I slowly wake up and try to gather enough motivation to start the day.  One of the tweets that crossed my path was a chart about suicide awareness, listing many of the contributing factors.  As I looked through them, though only one was labeled directly with mental illness, the majority of the others could be linked to depression, as well.  Half-awake, I hit the button to share, and added in my own two cents:

We need to stop treating mental illness as a dirty secret that we can’t talk about. Depression is killing people. Silence is killing people.

I continued my scrolling, continued waking up.  Grabbed a leftover piece of texas toast to take my pill with and continued on with my day.  I changed out the cage set for my sugar gliders, cleaned their cage, continued on with my regular routine.  Yet that post about suicide risk factors lingered in the back of my head, drumming along, refusing to be silent or to fade away.  My mind kept going back to it and my sleepy response to it.  Sometimes those thoughts that form when my mind is still muddled with sleep are clearer than anything I think about when wide awake.

Depression kills.

I think back to when I was a young teenager.  The son of one of my father’s friends killed himself.  He was in his late teens, a popular kid who played sports and had a long-term girlfriend that everyone assumed he would one day marry.  He was a few years older than me, around my brother’s age, so I didn’t know him well beyond the fact that our fathers were friends and we both were involved with sports at school.  He seemed happy enough.  Nobody saw it coming.  It blind-sided everyone, especially his father.  I always remembered his father as being this sweet, goofy guy who was always joking with my dad.  The last time I saw him, his eyes had a hollow, empty look to them, like part of him had died and would never fully recover.  It was my first exposure to suicide.

Depression kills.

I’ve known many people who have walked that ledge and attempted to take their own lives, myself included.  I remember my mother taking too many pills and my father frantically pleading with the emergency room to let her come home, that it was an absent-minded mistake, not an attempt, as my mother kept repeating “Jim, you can’t leave me here.. you can’t let them keep me,” and I sat quietly in a row of chairs they assumed was out of earshot.  Pills would be my choice, as well, the first time I tried.  Nobody wants to talk about struggling.  We make excuses and minimize situations.  We don’t address the gorilla in the room because it’s a hard conversation that nobody wants to make.

Depression kills.

Someone very dear to my heart almost lost his mother to a suicide attempt.  He was the one that found her, had to call the ambulance, pull her out of the tub, try to revive her and wait, praying someone came in time.  It scarred him for life and damaged their relationship beyond repair.  She had been struggling but, like many of us parents, always put on a brave face and pretended things were okay because no parent wants to appear weak in front of their children, but that is no excuse.  No child should ever have to see their parent like that, to fear not only for their parent’s life, but theirs, as well.  Every time now that I walk that ledge myself and consider giving up, I think of him and how that experience still haunts him years later and it snaps me right back.  I could never put my children through that.

Depression kills.

Not too long ago, I found out someone who had been a close, dear friend and much more years ago had lost his battle.  He was an incredible man with so much passion, so much to give the world.  He was the type of person who lit up a room just by being in it and made my life brighter just for knowing him.  He will forever be my one that got away.  He was struggling hard and couldn’t take the weight of his life pressing down on him.  He felt lost and alone, like he had no one, even though he had a brood of children who loved him to death and friends who adored him.  Everyone knew he had been struggling here and there, but figured that everyone struggles sometimes so nobody gave it a second thought.  Nobody really saw it coming.

Depression kills.

I receive letters and emails here and there from people who have read things I’ve written and related enough that they wanted to reach out and say something.  I always try to respond because I never want anyone to feel they have to struggle alone, that they reached out but were unheard.  I never spend as much time, though, as I do with anyone who messages talking about being affected by suicide.  I’ve spent entire days messaging back and forth with complete strangers because they lost a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, and just can’t seem to get past it.  I find myself going back and forth, trying to help explain everything from both sides, as the one who wants to die and as the one left behind, because I have been on both sides of that fence. It destroys people on both sides of that fence because, whether or not an attempt is successful, nobody on either side will ever be the same. Walking that ledge and wanting to die kills a piece of you, whether you actually die or not.  Having someone you love give up on life, feeling like your love wasn’t enough reason for them to keep going, kills a part of your heart just as much as if you had been the one to die.  I know how it feels on both sides.  But some things aren’t able to be explained.  Even if you know how it feels because you’ve been there, some things will never make sense.

Depression kills.

Every now and then you see stories in the news about celebrities killing themselves.  Whether it was a direct act or labelled as an “accidental overdose”, it is always followed by some vague statement about a “history of mental illness”.  Memorials are set up, posts are made.  The world seems momentarily heartbroken because someone in the spotlight has died.  Everyone remembers fondly their lives and mourns their death, yet everyone avoids focusing too much on what snuffed out so bright a light.  Mental illness is uncomfortable to talk about, even when viewed from a distance, because it forces us to consider how it may be affecting our lives, as well.  It sits there, the gorilla in the room that we all know is there but are afraid to address.

Depression kills.

The fact is that people are dying every single day because of mental illness.  Whether their depression is caused by the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship or job, bullying, struggles with physical illness or whatever other reason, it is there, it is agonizing and it is unbearable.  People are struggling through life, feeling completely lost and alone, feeling like they have nobody to turn to, no one that understands.  People are suffering in silence because we’ve made them too afraid to speak up.  They’re afraid of being labeled, seen as weak, a danger to themselves or others, or a joke.  We’ve told them too often to suck it up and reminded them that others have it worse rather than acknowledging and addressing their pain.  These are people who are loved, cherished and adored, even if they themselves cannot see it.  They are our parents, our siblings, our partners, our children, our friends and our co-workers.  They are faces we see every day and names we carry imprinted on our hearts.  They are people who should never have had to die but they’re too afraid to speak out and we’re too uncomfortable to have that hard conversation.  So nothing is being said and the body count keeps growing.

Silence kills.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 11/14/16.

Today was a Good Day

There’s an old adage that even a blind pig finds a truffle sometimes.  The saying also applies to those suffering from depression.  Every now and then, we’re surprised by a good day.  Our condition hasn’t vanished.  It never fully goes away, lingering in the shadows even on the brightest of days, trying to lure us back into a dark place.  But on some lucky days, the stars all align and everything seems to miraculously fall into place.  The last day and a half has been one of those days.

The evening before last, my first television interview aired.  I had been worried about it honestly.  We had filmed for over an hour for a relatively short piece.  I wasn’t sure what would be kept or discarded.  I would not see the finished product until it aired.  It was short and sweet.  I loved the feel and the flow.  The camera itself wasn’t kind – I felt I looked pudgy and pale, but this wasn’t about appearances, it was about a message, a mission, so that was inconsequential.

An offer also came in the night before last to hang out and spend some time with a blast from my past.  I honestly hesitated at first, my depression and anxiety making me question whether it would be a good idea.  My life has been a bit of a mess these last few months as I worked to pull my life back together.  I’ve had a lot on my mind and even more weighing on my heart as I worked to heal and move forward.  Ultimately, I decided I not only needed this, but I deserved it and agreed to hang out the following night.

Yesterday morning, messages began rolling in about my interview.  All wonderful and supportive.  I arranged my appointments for next week and scheduled an art class.  I got an email that two more pieces of mine were going live on a larger site that was looking to republish a handful of my work.  I could feel my Deplin was really starting to work.  It doesn’t lessen my depression but it gives me more clarity, more focus, makes it easier to fight.  The day was definitely off to a good start.

I’m honestly glad I had arranged to go out last night.  I had an incredible time.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself that much.  It wasn’t even that we had made incredible, once in a lifetime plans.  Everything just fell together perfectly and everything felt right.  A large part of it was that I spent the night out with someone who has known me well over twenty five years, someone who I appreciated for being there through some of the hardest times in my life.  There was a comfort and security with them.  They KNEW me inside and out.  I didn’t have to pretend or wear masks.  I could be me.

I was smiling and laughing when he dropped me home in the early morning hours, and still smiling and laughing when I woke up today.  I found myself craving lasagna and decided to once again treat myself.  It has been a day and a half and the smiles are still going strong.  The sun is shining and that darkness has been pushed out of sight, for the time being at least.

Days like this feel surreal to me because they’re rare and differ so greatly from the norm.  I know my depression will rear it’s ugly head again soon because it always does.  Depression has always been my normalcy.  But when these beautiful unicorn days appear, I enjoy them thoroughly and cherish each moment because they are truly magical to me.

Even on your darkest days, never lose hope.  Never give in to those feelings that everything is horrible, terrible, hopeless and will never get any better.  That is the depression talking and it speaks in lies.  Stay strong and hold tightly to the memory of past good days and the prospect of new good days to come.  Accept that good days aren’t about incredible plans as much as sharing them with good people and appreciating the good that is happening in your life.  Good days DO happen and they’re worth holding on for because they make life worth living.  Good days aren’t a myth.  They may be rare for those of us struggling with depression, but even a blind pig finds themselves a truffle sometimes.

Please Bear With Me When It Comes To Emotions- My Brain Just Doesn’t Work Correctly

I have a very logical mind.  I did wonderfully in school, particularly in the areas of math and science.  My brain has always been quick to analyze and decipher.  I have an incredible knack for problem-solving.

Yet, when it comes to anything within the emotional realm, I am completely and utterly lost.

I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life.  Unlike many others who can pinpoint the onset of their mental illness to a particular traumatic event, mine has been caused, in large part, to a bonafide chemical imbalance caused by a mutation on a genetic level.  Because of this fact, I have struggled with my emotions throughout my entire life.  I have never experienced a single day that was not marred by depression.  Yet ironically, despite the fact that my life has been ruled by my emotions, it is those same emotions I struggle to understand the most.

I usually have at least a basic grasp of how I myself feel, though I am sometimes not entirely sure exactly why I feel that way.  My emotions are often raw, unfiltered and overwhelming.  I am always weighing my own feelings, questioning whether or not they’re rational and trying to determine their origin.  I search for validation in my own feelings because many of them make no sense to me.

I have serious trouble understanding where other people are coming from when they share their own feelings.  Others frequently become frustrated and angry with me because they feel they have to rehash the same things with me again and again.  It isn’t that I haven’t been listening.  I have heard everything they said.  I just honestly have trouble interpreting it.  Because my brain struggles to process emotions, my logical side is quick to take over, deconstructing everything others have said and done, looking for sense and causation.  There are times when one statement and feeling has been interpreted by me five different ways and still ultimately makes no sense.

My own emotions are often raw and unfiltered so unfortunately that is the only experience I have to relate to when interpreting the feelings of others.  I have been wounded often so I also naturally find myself hearing what you say from that approach since it is what I know best.  The old adage that you live what you know applies.  I only have experience with my own feelings and the emotional states that I have experienced so I can only relate based on what I know.

I am also very empathetic, so the feelings of others often bleed off onto me, especially anything related to sadness, depression, panic or despair since those are the emotions I experience most often myself.  It is hard for me sometimes to differentiate where someone else’s feelings end and my own begin.  It all becomes one large garbled,  distraught mess without a definitive beginning or end.  When I cannot even determine which feelings are my own, it becomes impossible to even attempt to understand where any of the emotions I am feeling are even coming from, let alone whether or not they’re even valid.

There are also days when my depression leaves me feeling completely numb.  On days that I am feeling nothing at all, it is hard to relate to the emotions of others.  I try to put myself in other peoples’ shoes and experience what they are feeling, but when there are no emotions there on my end, it is difficult to understand where others are coming from or relate to how they are feeling.  On those days, no matter how badly I want to empathize and sympathize, the emotions of others are often met with my apologetically blank stare.

Some emotions are particularly overwhelming and immediately trigger my flight response.  For instance, I do not handle anger well.  In my past, when others were angry, it ended in abuse.  These days, when anger is aimed at me, I automatically want to flee.  It is honestly not even something I stop to consider.  Rage equals abuse.  I instantly become afraid that if I stay to try and determine whether that anger is justified, I am leaving myself vulnerable to be hurt.  Anger makes me shut down, makes me want to run away, to hide and get somewhere safe.  It doesn’t matter whether a person has ever laid a hand on me or hurt me in any way.  When met with rage, my brain starts flashing a neon light to get away, get somewhere safe.  I have no control over that overwhelming urge to flee.

The situation becomes increasingly difficult when talking about matters of the heart.  I am truthfully clueless about Love.  Though I know whether or not I love someone, I am oblivious about anyone else’s feelings for me.  Like or Love, it’s all lost on me.  Though others may feel they are being completely clear with their feelings and intentions, most of what they say has been interpreted and reinterpreted multiple times with differing outcomes and has been completely lost on me.  I find myself asking for clarification again and again because I honestly just don’t know where I stand.

Part of it is the long-instilled and reinforced self-deprecating belief that I am not worthy of love on some basic level.  I have been told for so many years, in both words and actions, that I am unlovable, so much so that I have begun to accept it as truth.  Regardless of whatever good others may see in me, I have trouble seeing beyond the flaws.  Because I have trouble accepting that I am lovable on any level, I am constantly looking for other, more reasonable explanations for other people’s emotions than love.

It goes even beyond that, though.

I am not entirely sure what love looks like or feels like coming from someone else.  Though admittedly I’m not entirely sure how love is supposed to be, I know how I feel, how I act and how I treat others when I love them.  I have trouble, though, identifying love from others.  I know the jumbled, dysfunctional, abusive mess that other people have told me was love, but that isn’t love to me.  When people use the word love but their other words or actions contradict it, I am left thoroughly confused.  Again, the logical part of my brain looks for reasonable alternative explanations.

Even when people have outright told me that they love me, I find myself questioning it.  My logical side immediately wonders whether they said it to try and make me feel better in some way, whether they are afraid of being alone or are more in love with love itself than they are in love with me.  I have trouble believing in things that are good or positive, not because I automatically mistrust the feelings of others but rather because I have trouble on some level believing that anything that good could happen to me.  I keep waiting to hear someone elaborate that while they do love me, they are not in love with me, or that though they care, they have fallen out of love with me.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  It always has.  It always does.  The logical side of my mind is quick to remind me of that fact.

My very logical brain is always thinking and over-thinking, analyzing and over-analyzing.   Though my mind cannot seem to wrap itself around anything emotional, the logical part of my brain has always been quick to step in, question everything, yank it apart, weigh it all and prepare me for the worst.  The logical side of my brain never settles on one outcome, either.  Instead, it searches for every and any possible meaning and reason and continuously shuffles through them all, weighing the probability of each, until I am even more confused and overwhelmed.

I honestly hate that I cannot understand where other people are coming from and read situations better.  It seems like others are constantly angry and frustrated with me because they feel I’m just not listening or hearing them.  I honestly don’t mean to be like this.  I truly wish I had a better handle on my own emotions so that I could better relate to others and be able to respond accordingly.  Unfortunately, though, most things within the realm of emotions are completely lost on me.  I genuinely have trouble understanding and processing feelings.  I don’t mean to be like this.  My brain just doesn’t work correctly.  The emotional side of my brain barely functions and the logical side has been stuck in overdrive, trying to pick up the slack and make sense of everything.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 1/29/17.

What It Is Like To Live With The Stigma of Mental Illness & Why We Need To Fight It

More and more often, you see blurbs and motivational pics across the internet from people talking about fighting the stigma of mental illness.  People bravely proclaiming they are no longer afraid, no longer ashamed of their diagnosis, encouraging others to speak out, as well.  For those who haven’t ever suffered silently through their own battles, it might seem like no big deal.  A non-issue.  You might think we’re attention-seekers, making mountains out of molehills.  You may rationalize that the majority of people don’t fully understand many different illnesses, yet all those other people aren’t going around proclaiming they’re battling any stigmas – they’re just going on with their lives, playing the cards they were dealt.  You may wonder why we cannot just quietly do the same thing.

Those suffering from mental illnesses have faced years, decades, lifetimes of persecution and discrimination.  We have been painted in books, television and movies as everything from dangerous monsters to dim-witted jokes.  We are looked at with fear, as if every misdeed and violent crime that occurs was due to mental illness.  Instead of sympathy or compassion, we are turned into one-liners and punchlines.  Though the majority of us have done nothing wrong, we find ourselves needing to reassure others that we are not a danger to ourselves or others.  We often bite our lips to keep from yelling out that we are not a joke, not wanting to be accused of having no sense of humor.

People assume that we are lazy, or just being negative.  They assume we’re just not trying hard enough to be happy, as if feeling this way was a choice.  We’re treated as if it was all in our heads and told our lives would be better if we just tried a little harder to be positive or if we truly accepted one religion or another into our lives.

We’re painted as being flawed, looney, touched in the head.  We’re told we have a screw loose, as if we’re broken.  We’re told we’re mental or basket cases because we cannot rein in our minds and force them to function properly by sheer will-power alone.

We’re treated like we’re weak because we may need therapy or medication.  We’re told our lives can’t be that bad or reminded that others have it worse, leaving us feeling like we either have to hold things in because others have minimized them, or forcing us to defend and justify our feelings as being worthy of acknowledgement.  We’re looked upon with pity, like we’re poor damaged souls who aren’t even strong enough to deal with our own emotions.  We’re told big kids don’t cry, women don’t cry, men don’t cry – only babies cry.  Suck it up.

We’re surrounded every day by people talking about mental illness in a negative light.  The media is quick to highlight if anyone has a history of mental illness when covering a crime, but is slow to report that, according to recent studies, we are three times as likely to be the victim of a crime than the offender.  According to these studies, the overwhelming majority of violence committed by the mentally ill occur in residential mental health facilities not in the public.  A large majority of the mentally ill that had reported abuse had been victimized on multiple occasions.  Yet we are treated as if we are the dangerous ones that need to be avoided.

North Carolina State University. “Mentally ill more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence, study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 February 2014.

Popular culture has portrayed us all as blossoming psychopaths, well on our way to committing heinous crimes.  People openly talk about how we should all be locked away, not only for our own safety but the safety of others, as well.  People petition for us to have our basic rights stripped away, like the right to bear arms, and demand databases where we must all be registered and tracked, as if we have all guilty of some crime just in being ill.  Whenever one person who happens to be mentally ill commits a crime, we all hold our breath because somehow we know we’ll all be painted with that same broad brush.

We are forever biting our tongues as our illness is being treated as a joke.  Some use our diagnosis as an adjective, like it somehow defines us, sometimes interchanging it with derogatory slang like crazy.  Others misuse clinical words that refer to integral parts of our illness to describe mundane things, like using the word ‘triggered’ to describe something that just randomly upset them.  Whenever anyone has anything seriously wrong with them, they are labelled as mental.  Since we are all painted with the same broad brush strokes, people assume we’re all equally “unbalanced”.

There is no other illness or disease that carries the stigma with it that mental illness does.  It is an invisible illness.  Since people cannot see it, they are quick to doubt it or to minimize its effects.  Nobody would look at someone with a broken leg and suggest they should just try harder to walk.  Likewise, nobody would shame a diabetic for needing to take insulin to regulate their sugar and stay healthy.  It is acceptable to treat other organs and body parts that are not working properly, but for some strange reason, things are different when it comes to our brains.

There is sympathy for people suffering through cancer or Crohn’s or other illnesses and diseases where a person’s body began going haywire, fighting against itself.  People reach out in droves, wanting to help, to make sure they’ll be okay and know they have support.  We’re battling our own minds on a daily basis, yet instead of sympathy or support, we’re met with accusations and anger.  Asked why we haven’t just gotten over this yet.  We’re called drama queens and accused of being attention seekers.

We face this stigma every single day.  We hear it in the hallways at school and around the water cooler at work.  We hear it from family and friends.  We hear it from those who mean well but are uneducated about mental illness and think it will all fade away if we just smile and pray a little more.  We hear it from those who think they “know better” who tell us because they’ve gotten past their struggles, we should suck it up and get over ours, too.  And we hear it from those doubting mustafas who assume it’s “all in our heads and are just plain tired of hearing us whine”.  We hear it in your jokes and your angry rallying cries that because one mentally ill person committed some crime, we should all be rounded up and locked away.  We face the stigma EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. from every avenue of our life.

For those who still do not get why the fight against the stigma is such a big deal, please try to imagine being surrounded by people who make you feel, by their words and their actions, that your entire existence is inherently wrong, including every single thing you are feeling inside.  That you are broken and flawed, that you are both dangerous and a joke for things going on in your body that you have no control over.  Then take into consideration that many recent studies have shown that one in five people will struggle with some type of mental illness over the course of their lifetime.  That’s millions and millions of people: fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, children, bosses, co-workers, friends.  If you have a family of five, chances are one of your family members will struggle one day.  If you work in an office of twenty, the odds are high that four of your co-workers are suffering.  If you cannot fathom what it is like living with mental illness yourself, count yourself blessed.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health By The Numbers” NAMI.

Most of us who are suffering from a mental illness have spent our lives afraid to speak up, afraid to speak out because of this stigma.  We don’t want to be labeled as crazy, batty, looney or touched in the head.  We don’t want to pitied, or treated like we’re fragile, broken or damaged.  We don’t want to be doubted or forced to justify our own suffering and struggles in order to have them validated.  We don’t want to all be painted with the same broad brush, treated as both a criminal and a joke because we are mentally ill.

When we speak up, speak out and declare we’ve had enough of the stigma, it isn’t making mountains out of mole hills or crying out for attention.  It is an amazingly huge thing.  It is one of us speaking out that we can no longer suffer in silence, struggling alone to fight our illness.  It is one of us finally accepting that we are not broken, flawed, damaged or mental as society has made us feel our entire lives.  It is us saying “I will no longer allow anyone else to make me feel ashamed of my illness”.  It is one of us stepping up and saying “I am NOT my mental illness and I WILL NOT let it beat me!”.  It is us speaking out, hoping to add our voice to the collective, hoping to be a force for change because we don’t want our children, and our children’s children to hide in the shadows, ashamed of their own diagnosis, afraid to speak out and ask for help.

I am both extremely proud and grateful to each and every person who has faced the stigma head on and found the strength to speak out about their own struggles.  Please never doubt that your words have mattered or carried any weight because for each of us that speaks up, there is someone else still suffering in silence who needs that extra little bit of courage, to know they’re not alone and that others truly understand.  We need to be that voice of strength and to continue that chain until our voices one day can all shout in unison “ENOUGH!”  Never give up.  Never stop fighting.  We CAN make a difference.

ENOUGH!

 

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 1/27/17.

Stunted by Abuse

On my more lighthearted days, when my depression and anxiety don’t hang quite so heavily on me, I will sometimes joke about being a big kid trapped in an adult’s body, or a not-so-big kid, because I am shorter than most kids over the age of twelve.  However, on those deeper, darker days, when my mental illness bears down more heavily on my mind and soul, I’m painfully aware that all the abuse I have endured has stunted me in many ways.

I always try to embrace my inner child because there is such a pure sweetness inside of me, a love for life, thirst for knowledge and a hunger for anything creative and fun.  Even at forty, I love swinging on swings and having water balloon fights.  I can never resist twirling in sun showers, catching raindrops on my tongue or making snow angels in the first real snowfall of the season.

Yet the other side of that little girl inside of me is present more often and is far more vocal.  I rarely talk about her, though she is present more often than the sweet, little playful youth I so thoroughly adore.  Emotionally, I don’t think I ever fully matured beyond the child I was when the abuses and traumas were at their worst.  While I might fully embrace my inner child, with her innocent wonderment and playful silliness, beneath that resides this scared little girl who has been battered and abused, who never learned the tools to cope and lives her life terrified of the monsters in the closet, under the bed and in my own head.

Like a child, I am often over-emotional and easily wounded.  Like a child, I cannot understand the cruelty and indifference of other people.  Deep down, a part of me still clings to those innocent fairy tale stories with their happily ever afters and knights in shining armor.  A large part of me cannot understand why my life is so hard, my struggles so arduous and my heart so broken.  Like a child, nothing quite makes sense to me and I have that overwhelming desire to just ask “WHY?” a thousand times a day.

I have trouble processing, trouble understanding and trouble coping with everything, whether it is a smaller, every day occurrence or an event with a larger impact on my life.  I cling too tightly to those I care about and need because I am terrified of being alone, abandoned, and left to fend for myself again.  Like that child I was years ago, I find myself starving for approval and love, willing to do anything, be anything, just to have someone stay and love me.  I reside in a terrifying place of confusion, loss and desperation.  My inner child wants to cling to everyone and cry out “Please don’t leave me!  I’ll be good!  I promise!  I’m scared!  I don’t want to be alone!” over every single thing in life because it all seems too big, too overwhelming to deal with on my own.

While the other facets of my mental illness can be approached with practicality and reason, addressed with therapy and medication, I honestly have no clue how to deal with the fact that I have been stunted in many ways.  How do I learn to grow up when I am already a grown adult?  How do I stop being that frightened little girl inside, overwhelmed by the entire world, scared to come out, terrified of being hurt again?  Children are usually nurtured as they are ushered into adulthood, being taught how to cope and given the tools to adjust along the way.  I was thrown into the harsh realities of a cruel and unjust world before I was ever ready to face them and have spent my entire life scampering around, stuck in the mentality of that terrified little girl who just wants all those monsters to go away and for everything to be okay again.

I honestly don’t know how to address or change that part of myself.  I don’t know how to stop being that clingy, confused, lost little girl who is terrified of the world around her.  Part of me wishes I could be stronger, braver, more grown up and able to adjust, cope and problem solve all my issues away.  Unfortunately, a much larger part of myself cannot stop crying inside and just wants someone to scoop me up, hold me tightly and reassure me that everything will be okay, that this has all just been a bad dream.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 1/26/17.