To the Mother I Never Knew..

As Mother’s Day came and went this past year, I once again found myself with conflicting feelings.  Part of me wanted desperately to join in with friends who were fondly honoring their moms or mourning the mothers they had lost over the years.  Another part of me, however, felt numb and empty, because I never had that type of cherished bond with my mother.  I honestly never knew her.

No, my mother didn’t die when I was born.  She passed away 8 years ago this Thanksgiving Day.  No, she didn’t give me up for adoption nor did she abandon me.  The truth is that my mother was there throughout the majority of my childhood and sporadically at best throughout my adult years.  I just never really knew her because the woman she truly was was buried deep beneath often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness.

Growing up, my mother was one of my biggest abusers, both mentally and physically.  She was prone to severe mood swings that would shift into bouts of rage at the drop of a dime.  She had bipolar disorder.

We were estranged for the last few years of her life.  I could no longer handle the abuse nor did I want my children subjected to it.  It seemed that her medication was never quite balanced nor were her moods.  It always felt like what little treatment she did receive was not helping, was not working, and she was doing very little to proactively work towards correcting anything.  She felt to me like a ticking time bomb, one I was afraid would go off at any moment and I did not want my children caught in the crossfire.

Over the years as I have struggled with my own mental illnesses, I have come to deeply regret those feelings.  I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD, labelled treatment resistant for years.  No medication ever seemed to work.  It wasn’t until the last year or two that I discovered via genetic testing that my resistance was caused in great part to a genetic mutation.  I’ve often wondered since then if my mother suffered from the same mutation.

The truth is that mental illness changes a person, or perhaps more appropriately it snuffs that person out, dimming their light and dulling their soul.  The person that you are is trapped underneath, desperately needing to come out, wanting to shine.  But there is this dark hopelessness that oozes over everything, making it impossible to fully be the person you truly are.

I think about my own children and how my diagnosis has affected them.  They have only seen glimpses of the real me over the years.  The creative me who would spend half the day drawing huge murals with sidewalk chalk on the tennis courts at the park with them on summer days.  The silly me who would make paper pirate hats and eye patches, transforming our dining room chairs into a pirate ship to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with them.  The nurturing and educational me who would catch tadpoles in buckets with them to show them how they turned into frogs.

More than anything, though, they saw my mental illness.  They saw the mom who was too exhausted just from going through the daily motions of life to do anything fun.  They saw the mom who opted for quiet family days indoors watching movies or playing board games because I was physically and mentally unable to do anything more.  They saw the mom who often emerged from the bathroom drying my eyes as I attempted to hide the tears I could never seem to stop from flowing.

They were vaguely aware of the person I truly was but they knew my mental illness well.

I remember when I first started taking the medication I needed for my genetic mutation and I had my first truly happy moment.  It was the first time in my life I ever felt that sludge of mental illness be lifted off of me, albeit for a short period of time.  The medication is not a panacea.  It in no way cures or stops my mental illness.  However, it does give my mind the ability to fight back in a way that it never could before.

That moment of happiness was beyond blissful.  I laughed, cried and hugged my boys, asking them again and again if that was truly what happiness felt like.  I had never experienced anything else like it.  That sludge continues to lift here and there sporadically and I have a genuine hope for the future now, that there might be a day when there’s more periods of happiness than illness.  But for now, more days than not, I still struggle.

I have heard from people that knew my mother at the end of her life, in those last couple years, that she had finally gotten the treatment she needed.  Her medication was finally balanced.  She was happy and more herself than she had ever been before.  She was doing crafts with the neighborhood children and even developed a fondness for Harry Potter.

Part of me envies them because I never knew that woman.  I never had the pleasure of meeting her.  All I ever knew was the sludge and taint of her illness.  On Mother’s Day, I mourned the ghost of a woman I never even met, a woman I would have loved more than anything to know.

Please keep in mind that when you’re dealing with people who are struggling with mental illness that they are not completely themselves.  The person they truly are is in there somewhere, beneath their diagnosis, fighting to get out.  Please don’t ever assume that we’re just not trying hard enough, that we’ve already given up or that we’ve lost who we are along the way.  It is a daily battle, a constant fight, against your own mind.  It is a never-ending struggle to push your way through a thick layer of darkness just to come up for air.

Looking back, I truly regret becoming estranged with my mother.  I had done what I thought was best at the time, trying to shield my children and myself from an illness that was not her fault.  She had no more control over her bipolar disorder than I do over my own mental illness.  I am sure she was trying harder, fighting more, than I ever realized.

To the mother I never knew – I’m sorry I was not there when you needed me.  I’m sorry that I allowed my fear to dictate my actions and choices and that I abandoned you when you needed me most.  I’m sorry I was not more compassionate and understanding of all that you were going through.  Most importantly, I am sorry I never had the pleasure to truly meet you.  Happy belated Mother’s Day.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 9/14/18.

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Republished on MSN on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 9/14/18.

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An Average Day Living with Depression and Anxiety

From time to time, I come across random memes that try to explain what it is like to live with both anxiety and depression.  Though everyone who has been there always nods in agreement because we understand the struggle behind those few words, unfortunately no meme could ever adequately explain what it is truly like to live with both.  Even simple, average days can feel unbearable and insurmountable.

Upon waking up today, I began jotting down random ways both my depression and anxiety presented itself throughout the day and how they interacted with each other.  This was just an ordinary day.  I did not expect anything monumental to occur.  I just wanted an honest portrayal of an average day living with both depression and anxiety.  Yet by the end of it, I am thoroughly exhausted.  Not because my day was particularly eventful but because the mental illnesses inside my head have left me yet again mentally and emotionally drained.

Anxiety is waking up far too early because the cat has dislodged the bedroom curtain, inviting the sun to shine in my face.  Anxiety is laying there as my mind begins to race, picking up where it left off the night before.  It is knowing there will be no more sleep today because I cannot shut my brain back off.  It is thinking of everything I should have done or still need to do, panicking over all that I might have forgotten and everything I know I won’t get to today.  Anxiety is my mind on an ever-playing loop reminding me of all that I’m doing incorrectly and all the ways my life could go wrong.  It is wanting to scream within my own head a hundred times a day “Oh God! Oh God! Make it stop!” even though I know full well that it will never stop.

Depression is laying there for hours after I wake, unable to move despite anything I might have to do that day.  Being hungry or having to go to the bathroom is irrelevant.  I’m not being lazy.  Though part of me knows I should get up, my depression has rendered me immobile.  I carry within myself a strange sort of apathy for the world again today though I’m not entirely sure where it came from.  Whenever one part of my mind attempts to prompt me into action, another louder part responds back, asking “What’s the point?”  That part of my brain reminds me that everything is hopeless, nothing will ever get better, that everything is a waste of time.  As much as I don’t want to listen, don’t want to believe, that voice is boomingly loud and self-assure.  It convinces me for hours that it is better to stay in bed than to start yet another day of misery.

Together, I have a combination of steady stress, apathy, hopelessness and despair.  I have one part of myself revving up, pushing for action, warning me of everything that could go wrong if I do not do something and another part refusing to budge at all because it cannot see the point.  Together, it is the combination of the panic of Chicken Little’s sky falling and that deer, frozen in the headlights the moment before it is plowed down by a tractor trailer.  It is a constant go go go and stay stay stay, a battle of opposites where I cannot help but feel the game is rigged and no matter what I do, I’m going to lose.  And all of that occurs before I even pull myself out of bed.

My depression and anxiety continue on throughout the day, sometimes sporadic, other times constant, wreaking even greater havoc whenever their paths cross.

Depression is barely eating for a couple days because I have no appetite or because I simply cannot see the point of wasting food on myself that someone else might enjoy more.  Anxiety is realizing I haven’t eaten much in days and worrying that I might be making myself sick and not wanting to saddle anyone else with taking care of me.  Together, I find myself going through bouts of not eating and then binging to make up for it.  Grazing on whatever is nearby, not because I want to eat or even that it is good for me or tastes good but because I know that I have to put something in my body.  I eat some soup straight out of the can without heating it up, because it is quick, close and convenient, telling myself that I’m making less dishes to wash, but in reality, I just don’t care.  Nothing tastes like it should anyway.  I’m just eating out of obligation so that nagging voice in my head will shut up.

Depression is wearing the same sweater for three days, making excuses that it is my favorite or most comfortable.  In reality, I have no plans to go anywhere.  Laundry is already piling up and wearing clothes longer means I can put off  washing clothes for yet another day.  My depression insists this is reasonable.  Anxiety is panicking and rushing to hand wash a spot out in the sink when I accidentally spill something on it.  One part of me is willing to wear that sweater until it is threadbare and worn, while the other cannot stand the thought of it being ruined or stained.  Though the two sides are so contrary that they make no sense together, somehow they both exist in my head.

Depression is having my laundry and dishes build up for days because I just don’t have the will or the energy to do them.  Anxiety is rushing to spot clean the apartment because someone is coming over even though I know there’s no way I could get it all done in time.  When combined, I find myself rushing to clean until the last possible moment, trying to tuck away, hide or set aside messes I don’t have time to deal with, breathlessly asking them to “please excuse the mess” as they come through the door.  That small amount of anxiety-fueled exertion to clean is enough to wear me out for days.

Depression is putting off showering for days because it’s not like I have done anything or that I am going anywhere to warrant it.  Anxiety is feeling like I have to do things such as pulling my hair back in a braid so that it doesn’t get tangled or unruly.  Between the two, I look more put together than I am, provided nobody comes too close.  I apply extra deodorant “just in case” and take an extra long shower when I finally do get in there, my anxiety trying to squeeze days of self-care into one tank-worth of hot water.

Depression is feeling completely alone sometimes, even if someone is right there with me.  It is simultaneously wanting to never let go of them and wishing they would just go away because I believe they would be better off without me.  Anxiety is wanting to talk to them, to tell them how bad things truly are, but being terrified it will scare them away, terrified I’ll somehow mess everything up.  Between the two, I find myself feeling lost and alone, afraid to speak up.  I’m afraid to let them in and afraid to let them go.  Even when they’re right next to me, I’m isolated and afraid.

Depression is sitting there for hours in a fog, unable to retain much of anything my mind has pulled in.  It is re-reading the same page or watching the same scene multiple times, before giving up because it all doesn’t really matter anyway.  There is a lack of enjoyment in everything.  Life feels stale and empty.  I go through the motions of living though it feels like a pale reflection of life.  Anxiety never shuts up, like a perpetual snooze alarm set to go off whenever my mind attempts to focus on anything else.  It is a constant distraction, constant reminder of everything I haven’t done, should have done, should be doing right now and should be doing later.  Between the two, I have constant distractions and a complete lack of interest.  It often feels virtually impossible to keep myself on track because my mind is all over the place and has no desire to cooperate.

Depression is putting off making phone calls for hours because I dread having to deal with other people on my low days.  When my depression is bad, any interaction is a struggle.  Anxiety is dwelling on those phone calls the entire time leading up to them and for hours afterwards.  It is having trouble verbalizing what I mean, reiterating some things repeatedly and forgetting others completely.  Between the two, I have scraps of paper filled with information that I keep with me whenever I make important calls because I’m afraid I might forget something important and I dread the possibility of having to call back again.

Depression regularly leaves me feeling physically worn out, tired and sluggish.  No matter how much I try to rest, I still feel drained.  Anxiety has me jumpy and jittery, my leg bouncing a mile a minute.  My body always feels revved up and over-wound, my mind won’t stop racing.  Between the two, I can never seem to get comfortable, never feel fully rested.  I cannot sleep well because my body never powers completely down.  Yet I cannot seem to harness that energy, either.  It is a nervous energy that serves no practical purpose beyond blocking me from even momentary peace.

Throughout the day, I am in a constant battle within my own mind.  It screams at me with the fierceness of a drill sergeant, nags at me with the persistence of an old world grandmother who believes they always know best.  Contradicting everything they throw at me and forcing myself into some semblance of functionality sometimes takes every ounce of willpower I have inside of myself.  I am fighting to do all I can, the best that I can, battling against my own mind to keep going though my depression urges me to throw in the towel and give up.  I know I will never accomplish everything my anxiety thrusts my way, but I have to keep encouraging myself that I have done something and that is good enough.  I cannot allow my depression to weigh me down or my anxiety to beat me up.

It has been an average, uneventful day.  I didn’t even manage to pull myself up out of bed until after ten in the morning.  It is barely ten at night and I feel exhausted.  It has been twelve hours, barely half a day.  Very little has been accomplished beyond a load of dishes, a handful of phone calls to schedule appointments, some basic self-care and one small glimpse of my mental illnesses, written down for all to see.  Yet I consider it a victory to have gotten through yet another day, managing to accomplish what I did.  I feel exhausted already and ready for bed.  It is not that the day was particularly eventful or busy.  It is the constant battle within my head and my body that has worn me out.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about living with depression and anxiety is that, even after sharing this, there will be some people who still don’t get it, who will insist it is just mind over matter.  They will suggest I just need to be more positive, just need to stay focused and try harder, to have more faith in God or to just stop making excuses.  Some people cannot seem to grasp that this is not anything I am intentionally doing to myself.  I would not wish this on my worst enemy if I had one.  I cannot wish away my diagnosis with happy thoughts, sheer willpower or positive mantras. The fact is that this is a medical condition that I struggle with every single day.   Some days are harder than others but even the simple days like today are not easy when I’m waging a constant war within my own mind.

Anxiety is Often Completely Irrational

Anxiety is often irrational but the fact that it does not always readily make sense does not stop it from rearing its ugly head.

Sometimes all it takes is something going badly once.  Every single time I’m in a similar situation afterwards, my anxiety is heightened and part of me fears that something bad will inevitably occur again.  Other times, I can have something bad occur repeatedly and nothing is ever triggered.  Each new time something bad happens again, I find myself honestly surprised at the outcome.

There’s no rhyme or reason to which will occur.  It is not based on the severity of the bad result.  It is not based on how pivotal the event was to my life.  Though I have struggled for years to understand my anxiety and pinpoint what causes it, I have not been able to discern any common factors to make it easier to predict my anxiety in the future.

A recent example of how my anxiety presents itself occurred a couple weeks ago. While preparing to shave my legs in the shower, I found a tick on my leg just below my kneecap.  Thankfully, he didn’t appear to have been there for long. I was able to get him out fairly quickly and easily.  There have been no rashes or bullseye rings around the site since then to warn of conditions such as Lyme disease.  All in all, I was pretty lucky. The whole situation was resolved quickly and without further or lasting complications.

This was my first experience finding a tick on myself in my lifetime.  It obviously was an isolated occurrence, unlikely to be repeated again any time soon.  I don’t spend a lot of time in wooded areas or anything where I’d be likely to pick up another tick.  Yet every time I have stepped in the shower since then, my anxiety easily goes up two points.

Whenever I step into the shower now my heart starts to race.  Though I begin an inner monologue telling myself that I am just being silly and paranoid, I can feel my chest start to tighten.  I stand under the stream of water, close my eyes and practice my conscious breathing techniques trying to calm myself back down.  I struggle to fight the urge to scour every inch of my skin again and again looking for other ticks.

I know it is irrational.  I know my anxiety in this situation makes no sense.  I know that, logically, I am highly unlikely to find another tick even upon a thorough inspection.  I know it was an isolated incident.  But logic plays no part in how my mind and my body begin to react in these situations.

I don’t even know if my anxiety in this particular situation will fade somewhat over time or if it will continue to grow.  Sometimes my situational anxiety will dull somewhat over the course of time.  Other times, however, it remains consistent or even grows and expands upon itself, merging with other anxieties over time.  Again, I have never been able to find any rhyme, reason or pattern to how my anxiety presents itself.  There’s no way to predict what lies ahead.

All I know is that, thanks to one random, errant tick, I have become increasingly apprehensive about taking my showers over the last couple weeks.  And I know that as much as I try to be rational and reason with myself, I cannot rationalize with my anxiety.  It comes and goes as it pleases, always leaving a mess in its wake.

That has always been one of my biggest issues with explaining my anxiety to other people.  Everyone always attempts to apply logic to the situation to “help me see how ridiculous my anxiety is”.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.

Though sometimes portions of my anxiety will eventually fade over time, I have carried others with me for decades.  A good portion of my anxiety revolves around never truly feeling safe.  In this aspect, it has merged with my PTSD because in my head security equates to safety.  Due in a large part to the abuses of my past, I have noticed that I subconsciously react to my anxiety over not feeling safe in many ways. For example, I always leave my shower curtain somewhat ajar so I can see the pathway directly to the door.  I often find myself jumpy and apprehensive when seated with my back to doorways because I carry within myself an ever-present fear of someone approaching me unaware.  I check locks repeatedly, especially before going to bed, because I cannot  relax, get comfortable or fall asleep if I am even the slightest bit anxious about my safety.

I have not experienced anything in the scope of sexual abuse or physical abuse since I was a child that would warrant such anxiety.  There is no rational explanation for why I need to have a clear view of the door from my shower or why I must watch the pathways to my location like a hawk.  It has been decades since I have had anything happen and I am no longer that little child who cannot fend for herself.  But my body and mind will not accept that reality as fact.  To this day, whenever I am presented with certain situations, my anxiety is automatically heightened.  It doesn’t matter that it is irrational.  It doesn’t matter that I can even clearly see that the situation is irrational and call myself on it.  My mind and body still react as if there is something to fear.

I understand that others mean well when they try to reassure me that there really is nothing to worry about or make comments about my overreacting.  I’m aware of that fact myself.  But they might as well be telling me the sky is blue because I can see that, as well, yet I have as little control over that as I do over my anxiety.  There is nothing anyone else could say to me that I have not said to myself a hundred times over.  I know somewhere within myself that it is irrational.  But that does not stop my mind and my body from reacting as if it was the most rational thing in the world.

I don’t need anyone else to tell me that my anxiety is often irrational.  Trust me, I have those bases well covered.  What I need more than anything is compassion and understanding, along with acknowledgement that I am doing my best to use everything I possess in my mental wellness toolbox to soothe myself and bring myself back down out of a panic.  I know my anxiety is often irrational.  Please believe my when I say I am not doing it intentionally to make my own life or anyone else’s harder.  It is a mental illness.  I have virtually no control over how my mind and body react in certain situations.  The last thing I need is judgment or lectures about how I just need to be more rational and calm down.  Because let’s face it – You cannot reason with something that is unreasonable.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.  All the common sense in the world will not negate anxiety.  It is a medical condition.

Minimizing Our Illness Only Hurts Ourselves

We have all been there. We are having a rough day, feeling under the weather. Our mental illness is wreaking havoc, making it difficult to even function. Yet when someone asks if we’re okay, we force ourselves to smile and reassure them that we’re fine.

Our eyes are puffy from crying and our world feels like it is collapsing beneath our feet. Yet, instead of being honest about how we are feeling, we force ourselves to smile and we make a half-hearted joke about allergies and it being that time of year.

We laid in bed for hours the night before, unable to sleep because our anxiety had our mind racing for over half the night. When we finally managed to pass out from exhaustion, our sleep was spotty, restless and riddled with anxiety-laden nightmares. Yet when someone points out we look tired, we force ourselves to smile and remark about how there’s never enough hours in the day to sleep as much as we would like.

Our stomach rumbles reflexively because we haven’t eaten in a day and a half because we have no appetite or desire to eat. When someone notices the sound, we force ourselves to smile and make an offhanded comment about it being a busy day, too busy to find time to eat yet. We reassure them we’ll eat plenty to make up for it later, even if we have no intention of following through.

We spend three days mostly curled up in bed, barely able to function. When someone checks in to see whether we’re okay, we run our fingers through our disheveled hair, force a smile and mutter something about just getting over a cold or the flu because somewhere in our mind we rationalize that a fake physical ailment sounds more believable and justifiable than a real mental one.

Someone remarks on the fact that we were wearing the same outfit when they saw us last a few days ago. We force a smile and reply that it’s our favorite or most comfortable one and joke about it being laundry day.

We force smiles and ask people who stop by for a visit to please excuse the clutter and the mess as if we have just been too busy to clean instead of being honest that we just haven’t had the physical or mental energy to do much of anything around the house in days.

We know when things are bad. We can see when our functionality begins to slip. Yet, instead of being honest with those around us, more often than not we minimize our struggles or even outright lie about their existence.

We isolate and make excuses about being busy with life. We avoid friends and family so they don’t see how bad things truly are. Again and again, we make excuses and downplay the severity of our condition as if we’re doing other people, or ourselves, an enormous favor by shielding them from the truth.

Many times every day, in virtually every interaction we have with others, we minimize our illness and the effect it has on our life supposedly for the comfort of others. We have so many excuses for doing this. We don’t want to put our drama on anyone else. We don’t want others to worry. We don’t want to be a burden. We don’t want to be accused of being an attention-seeker or throwing a pity party. We don’t have the words to adequately explain what is going on inside us or just plain don’t want to talk about it. We’re embarrassed of our diagnosis and don’t want to be judged or treated like a joke. Whatever our reasoning, we press our lips into a pained smile, pretending things aren’t all that bad and we lie.

We press our lips together in fake, forced smiles. We say we’re okay even when we know without a doubt that we’re not. We claim that we’re hanging in there, doing our best to stay positive and keep going, acting as if there’s nothing to worry about even as our world feels like it is crumbling around us.

What good does lying or minimizing our struggles really do?

Time and again, we wish others understood exactly what we are going through. In rare moments of unfettered honesty, we tell others they could not possibly understand how bad it is unless they experienced it for themselves.

But how is anyone supposed to ever understand or empathize if we keep hiding the harsh reality of the situation from them? We cannot simultaneously spare them the agony of the truth and accuse them of just not understanding how bad things really are. If we want others to understand how bad things truly are, we have to be completely  honest about it. Not partial truths, not sugary sweet versions of the truth but the whole unadulterated, ugly truth.

Because in reality, their comfort is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is our own well-being. We are doing ourselves no favors by hiding how we are doing from those who care about us. Likewise, we are doing them an injustice by hiding the truth from them. If someone is checking in about our well-being, they obviously care. If they care and are trying to be there, they deserve the truth. Not some watered down version of it but the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Will our honesty make others uncomfortable? Most likely. But let’s be honest here. Mental illness is not pretty. It is dark and scary. It torments us to our very soul. Being honest about the effects of our diagnosis is not going to be pretty. But it is real. And reality can sometimes be very disconcerting. It can be a hard pill to swallow. But the truth is the truth and, as the saying goes, the truth can set you free.

Time and again, we complain about the stigma surrounding mental illness and how so many people do not take our diagnosis seriously. Perhaps we hold part of the blame ourselves. If we want others to truly understand what it is like living with mental illness, we need to start being completely honest about it.

I know it can be scary putting everything out there. There’s a great deal of vulnerability in sharing the whole, unfettered truth of the situation with others. But unless you’re completely honest about how you truly are, you cannot ever expect anyone else to understand exactly what you are going through.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/25/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/25/18.

If Only They Understood…

I recently touched base with someone from my distant past. To say it did not go well would be a colossal understatement. While I will not go into specifics about the conversation as a whole, one comment they made has been eating at me. So much so that I found myself at a loss for how to respond.

They told me they had been made aware of my writing but had not read it because they don’t believe in finger pointing.

When I began writing, it was for survival. I had so much baggage I carried with me that it was eating me alive. I was haunted by my past and desperately needed to talk about it before it killed me.

It had nothing to do with pointing fingers or hoping anyone received their comeuppance. The past was the past and nothing I could say or do would ever change it. But I could no longer pretend it didn’t happen, either. I needed to stop running and face my demons.

Even after I shared all I had been through, I continued to write. My second book was entirely about examining my perceptions of people and events, to reevaluate them not through the eyes of an injured child but rather as a rational adult. Again, it had nothing to do with finger pointing. I needed to reevaluate unhealthy and dysfunctional thought processes and patterns in my life if I was to ever have any hope of change.

I can understand their wariness. They knew my mother and witnessed her persecution complex firsthand. My mother, while suffering from often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness, often displayed what those close to her frequently referred to as the “Poor Patty” complex, believing the world was against her.

But I am not my mother.

I am not looking for anyone’s pity. I often tell people not to feel sorry for me. Feel bad for those people who lost their battles. I’m still here. Don’t pity me. Cheer me on. I’m a survivor.

I’m a realist in many ways. I’m not going to minimize what living with mental illness is like, especially not for the comfort of others. It is not pretty by any means. It is dark, ugly, disturbing and scary. Pretending it is less than it is only perpetuates the stigma and reinforces the belief that it should not be taken seriously. The only way we can ever hope to get others to truly understand how debilitating mental illness can be is by talking openly, honestly and frequently about it with no filter, no holds barred.

Part of being a realist, too, is accepting my diagnosis. A large part of my condition is caused by a genetic mutation. I was born with it. I can no more wish away my mental illness than a diabetic could wish away their illness. There are medications I will have to rely on for the rest of my life. I am also fully aware of my limitations currently. Whether those limitations might change in the future with treatment is yet to be seen but lying about or exaggerating my capabilities is only detrimental to myself and my well-being. I will not do it anymore.

That being said, I am also an optimist. I refuse to believe there is no hope. I refuse to accept the stigma surrounding mental illness. While I accept my diagnosis, I refuse to let it define me. I am constantly looking for new tools for my wellness toolbox and am devoted to deciphering and changing dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors. I may have a mental illness but I still strive to be the healthiest that I can be.

I consider my writing to be both truthful about mental illness yet still uplifting and motivational. I encourage others to not give up, to stay strong and to fight for change. I want others suffering to know that they are not alone and that there is hope. After all, they are survivors, too. They are stronger than they realize. They don’t need pity, either. They need empathy and compassion.

I wish this person could see how wrong they are about my writing and my motivations. I wish they would take the time to read through my work and see that it was never about finger pointing. It was about healing, survival and personal growth, transitioning into advocating for others to stay positive and keep fighting, as well.

But unfortunately though you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make them read.

I hope in time we can talk more and move beyond their misconceptions of my writing and the intentions behind my words. I hate the distance I have allowed to grow between us and hope, in time, things may change. I hope, as well, that they will eventually come to see my writing not as something negative but rather as a sign of strength and a tool for survival.

Because as much as I truly miss having them in my life, I remain thoroughly unapologetic about my writing. Finding my voice has saved my life in more ways than one. Helping others has given me a purpose greater than I ever imagined for myself. Whether they can see it or not, my writing is one of the best things to happen in my life.

A Trip to the E.R.: Physical Vs. Mental Ailments

This last week has been yet another stark reminder of how differently people view and react to mental illnesses versus physical ones, especially in medical settings like the emergency room.

Please bear in mind that I am by no means a frequent flyer in the emergency room. The last time I was in the E.R. was about two years ago when I had a large cyst and tissue growth on my left ovary that had twisted and contorted it, causing severe pain. I was in no way crying wolf or looking for attention. My E.R. visit resulted in a surgical referral and the removal of that ovary.

My mother was a hypochondriac. She had doctors for everything and scheduled appointments with specialists on the drop of a dime. Somewhere along the way in my journey to not become her, I became the polar opposite in that aspect. I avoided doctors and only sought medical treatment as a last resort. I once tried to walk off appendicitis for a few hours as bad stomach cramps. On some level, I know it is irrational and that I need to make my health a bigger priority, but I still struggle to go to the doctor unless it is absolutely necessary.

Last week, I had a bit of a scare. I had gotten upset after a spat with my partner and had gone for a walk to calm down and clear my head. Somewhere along the way, though, my head began to hurt and spin. I knew I was upset but the details felt distant and fuzzy, as if the facts were lost in my head somewhere yet I was unable to access them. The harder I tried to root out facts, the more my head spun and the more confused I felt.

While I do struggle often with losing numbers, words or specific facts as a result of my mental illness and have also had memory issues following anxiety attacks and PTSD flashbacks as well, I have never experienced anything like this before. When I realized I could not even recall my own name, it sent me into a panic. I knew something was seriously wrong so went into the first business I saw and asked the clerk to call 911 for help.

An ambulance arrived to take me to the hospital. Their initial fear was a stroke. They started running multiple tests and sent me for a CT scan. As tests began to come back ruling out the prognosis of a stroke, the demeanor of the staff treating me began to change drastically.

Their next possible prognosis was that it was purely a mental issue or that I was lying about the severity of my condition, putting on some sort of act for attention. Despite the fact that I was visibly agitated and distressed at being unable to recall even basic facts, their demeanor changed. All of a sudden, they became outright accusatory and began to question whether I was telling the truth. One nurse went so far as to tell me point blank that they would have to start doing uncomfortable and painful tests, including taking my temperature rectally, putting in a catheter for a clean urine sample (though I had given them one in a cup not twenty minutes prior) or even putting a needle in my back to withdraw fluids for tests “unless I had something I wanted to confess”.

As I laid there in a state of panic not because of the possible upcoming uncomfortable tests but rather because my brain just was not working like it should, I could hear that nurse at the desk nearby laughing with her coworkers about how she was “going to get a rectal thermometer and make me talk”, the results of my CT scan came back.

It turns out that I have two meningioma on my brain, tumors between the surface of my brain and the inside of my skull. The larger of the two is in the falx region, in the front of my head, which deals with memory. The smaller of the two is in the middle, presiding predominantly over balance.

Neither was particularly large thankfully, but when housed in the small space between my brain and skull, even smaller tumors could cause issues. Apparently in my already agitated state following the spat with my partner earlier, there must have been just enough pressure put on the memory portion of my brain to cause a temporary memory loss.

The whole demeanor of the staff treating me shifted once again, becoming very serious and somber. They gave me some sedatives and anti-anxiety medication to calm me and slowly the fog began to clear. They began bringing in paperwork and test results for me to bring to my primary doctor to get a referral for a neurologist, stressing the urgency of the situation. Though they informed me that something like eighty percent of meningiomas are benign, even benign tumors continue to grow and could cause temporary or even lasting damage to my brain if left untreated. Ultimately, I’ll need surgery regardless of whether biopsy results conclude the tumors are benign or malignant.

The whole situation made me nauseous, even beyond the fact that I have tumors on my brain. Just the fact that I was only taken seriously when they feared for a physical condition like a stroke or when the tumors were found on my brain was appalling. As I had mentioned earlier, I have had memory issues related to my mental illness in the past, though thankfully never quite to this extent before. However, following PTSD flashbacks or severe anxiety attacks, my brain is always fuzzy and muddled, as well, and I often have periods of impaired memory afterwards. The fact that professionally trained medical staff at an emergency room would treat any condition they believed had a mental origin less seriously, let alone as a joke, is beyond disgusting to me.

I did not make a scene or call them out on their obviously shifting behavior, in part because the very idea that I had tumors growing on my brain left me in a state of shock. Even more so, like many others struggling with mental illness, I have sadly become accustomed to my mental health not being taken seriously. However, it is deeply disconcerting to me that emergency personnel at a hospital would be so openly cavalier about anyone’s mental health, treating their patients as a joke.

I walked away from this situation with a few distinct feelings and thoughts in my head. First and foremost, I have a newfound anxiety and wariness about going anywhere alone until this is resolved, particularly when upset. I was lucky that I was in an area with easy access to other people and was blessed to have maintained enough reason to know to ask for help. But I carry with me now an ever-present fear that next time I might not be as lucky, especially considering that I regularly operate under conditions of extreme anxiety and depression due to my mental illness.

I also am distinctly aware of all the unknowns in my foreseeable future. I am not sure exactly where I go from here. I understand the basics. Get a neurology referral, get an MRI, get a  biopsy, have surgery, possibly radiation if needed. But I have no idea of the time frames of anything just yet and probably won’t until tests and biopsies start coming back. I don’t deal well with the unknown. Not being able to plan to any degree heightens my anxiety to dangerous levels.

There is a strange sense of underlying optimism, as well. Somehow I know I will get through this, that I’m a tough cookie. I come from strong stock. Both my parents survived multiple types of cancer and other ailments before they passed. My time is not up yet. I have too much left to do. I have a lot of fight left in me.

However, I am very aware of the fear growing inside me, too. Cancer scares me to the core. I remember going to the hospital day after day when my mother had part of her lung removed due to lung cancer, watching her fade in and out in the CCU, not sure whether she would make it or not. I remember reconnecting with my father just in time to watch cancer wreak havoc on his body, going through repeated cycles of surgeries and chemotherapy. His cancer always seemed to be one step ahead, reappearing again and again in different areas until it eventually killed him. I’ve seen cancer eat away at and kill multiple friends over the years, as well. Cancer is, by far, my biggest fear and it is now on my doorstep.

More than anything, though, I came away from this with a harsh reminder of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, even in medical facilities. When they believed my issue was a mental one, I was a joke they saw fit to threaten with unneeded, uncomfortable and painful tests as a way to get me to “come around”, expecting my condition to magically cure itself and disappear under threats of unpleasantness. It took finding tumors on my brain, something they could physically see, for my condition to finally be taken seriously.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/17/18.

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