How I Spent My World Mental Health Awareness Day

I woke up early.  Not fifteen or twenty minutes early or even when the rising sun peeked in my window.  I woke up around three in the morning, not because any alarms were set or any loud noises woke me from my slumber.  My sleep is always spotty and restless, frequently dotted with anxiety and depression-laden nightmares.  Most nights, I’m lucky if I get more than five hours of sleep. Last night was no different.

I laid there feeling empty and stressed for hours, my thoughts racing, unable to get back to sleep.  When his alarms began going off three hours later, I resigned myself to the fact that there would be no more sleep for me today.

I helped him get ready for work, timidly smiling as I ushered him out the door. I said nothing about how I was feeling because I did not want to burden him with things he had no control over.  Easier to smile and to pretend, even though I know deep down I’m not kidding anyone.  Not myself. Not him.

After he drove away, I sat on the couch ruminating about everything I have to do today.  I sat there immobile for hours, beating myself up for all those things I should be doing.  I put a movie on, but it turns out it was for background noise more than anything, because I cannot recall anything about it.

I sat, I laid this way and that, I tossed on the couch for hours, not even quite sure why I was in such a funk today.  I felt lost and alone, the world utterly hopeless, which made no sense because things truthfully aren’t going that badly right now.  Yet those feelings were there all the same.  I couldn’t shake them, couldn’t stop them, any more than I could mute all those thoughts racing through my mind.

It was noontime before I managed to pull myself up.  There were days mountain climbing would take less effort.  I had been awake for 9 hours, out of my bed for six.  I was already exhausted and ready to climb back into bed.  Yet I managed to prepare some fresh salsa and straighten up the small mess I made on the counter today, piling those dishes on the side.  The dishes from yesterday still sit in the sink.  I ruminate about whether I’ll be able to wash them today.  I know I should.  But some days I just don’t have the energy.

I spent the majority of the afternoon watching an old series on television.  I know that I’ve seen it all before, which is a good thing because re-watching those episodes today was a blur.  I tried playing a game.  I tried checking my social media.  The truth is that I have no interest in anything today, no ability to focus on anything.

I want to scream and shout.  I want to cry.  I want to laugh at the pure insanity of it all.  I want these feelings to stop, this pain to stop.  I desperately want to be happy, to not have my mental illness always leaving a thick, dark sludge over everything in my life.  It taints everything.  Even the most delicious food tastes bland, the most upbeat music feels melancholy.  I don’t understand why my own mind would do this to me, why it wants me to hate my life, to hate myself.

It’s an hour until he is due back home.  All I have to show for the day so far is a container of salsa.  Strangely, even that feels like a victory.

I tell myself I will get to those dishes right after I finish writing this.  I don’t know if I will but I’m trying to be hopeful and positive.  I’m not sure I really feel it or believe it, though.  People say “fake it until you make it”.  I do it every single day when I try to encourage myself that today will be better, that I will be better today.  It all feels like lies because nothing ever seems to get better.  Yet part of me remains hopeful.

I breathe deeply and try to re-center myself.  I wash the tears from my face.  I mentally prepare myself to paint that smile back on my face, to pretend I am doing better than I truly am.  I know that, as long as I can force a grin and my cheeks are not salty from tears, he will assume today at least wasn’t an absolutely horrible day and not bring it up.  I actually prefer that today because I’m not even truly sure what has me so shaken to the core.  I wouldn’t even know what to say if he asked what was wrong.  I just know those feelings are there.

I do a mental tally of what foods we have that would be quick and easy because I’m not sure I have the energy to make anything more than that.  Truthfully, I don’t think I even have the energy to do that, but I’m terrified of letting him down, of disappointing him, of him thinking for even a moment that I am as worthless as I feel inside.

I catch myself, reminding myself that he would never say that, never think that.  That is my depression talking.  Part of me knows my depression lies, yet those sentiments always feel so real.

I settle on an easy dinner and turn back to do one last proofread.  I tell myself that writing this is a huge accomplishment, that I should be proud of myself for opening up at all.  It doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, though.  It feels like nothing, a waste of time.  I feel like a waste of space.  I question why anyone would even want to read this, to hear anything I have to say.

Again, I catch myself.  Easily, a dozen times a day I realize I am spewing that narrative, buying into depression’s lies.  Part of me wants to scream “shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”.  Unfortunately, though, stigma already has many people assuming that those with a mental illness are crazy.  I can’t feed their ignorance and their fears.  Still, I wish my mind would go silent.

I’ve done very little today beyond battling my own mind.  That, and beating myself up for everything that I haven’t done.  It feels like I’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight champion.  I’m already exhausted and ready for bed.  Ironically, I know when I finally get to go to bed, I won’t even be able to sleep.  I’ll lay there like I do every night because my mind never shuts up.  The words might alternate between despair and emptiness, but the endless chatter always remains.

Today is supposed to be World Mental Health Awareness Day, but in truth it could be any random, generic day to me.  They all bleed together, all feel the same.  The intensity varies day to day but the struggle is always there.  The world only schedules awareness one day a year but it is my reality every day.

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Art Therapy For Depression

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I made some paper mache pumpkins today.  It wasn’t that I was feeling particularly cheerful or festive.  It is that creating art helps me cope with my depression.  Art has become one of my favorite and most used self-care techniques in my mental wellness toolbox.

When I am struggling under the weight of my own emotions, I often write about the impact my illness has on my life.  When I am feeling numb, I prefer crafts that are multi-dimensional and messy, so I can feel with my hands even if I cannot feel with my heart.  When my life feels dark and hopeless, I use bright colors.  When I feel lost and alone, I create with warm hues, hoping to dd warmth into my life.  No matter how my depression distorts my perceptions, there is a way to combat it with art.

Some people assume that if I am well enough to create art, I must not be struggling too badly.  Honestly, the opposite is true.  I have found that I create the most, and the projects with the deepest personal meanings, when I am struggling the worst.  I use artistic expression as my lifeline back to reality.  It is the life preserver that keeps me from drowning in even the roughest of storms.

When someone is struggling with depression, the world feels dark and bleak, devoid of any glimmer of light, hope or goodness.  There is no beauty in depression.  So it helps me to create something beautiful out of my despair.  In my artwork, I am reminded that there is more to the world than darkness.

When someone is suffering from depression, the feelings can be overwhelming.  You are often raw and feel everything too deeply.  You feel like you are drowning in pain and anguish.  It helps creating something that will express what I am feeling inside, to release some of the agony that is consuming me.  As a wise Ogre once said, “Better out than in”.

When someone has been diagnosed with depression, it seeps into every corner of their consciousness.  It is exhausting and overwhelming.  It often feels like there is no escape from the prison of your own mind.  It helps to create something that can distract me from everything going on within myself.  When the creative juices are flowing, it is easy to forget for even a little while the weight of this illness on my shoulders.

When someone suffers from depression, they often feel they have no control over anything in their lives anymore.  You often feel like you are on a runaway train, with no way to slow down, stop or get off.  You are held hostage, just along for the ride.  It helps me to create something artistic because it gives me back some control.  My artwork is in my hands.  I choose what to make and which direction to take it.

When someone is struggling with depression, they often feel useless, like an utter waste of space.  Depression distorts reality and destroys self-esteem.  You feel as if you can do nothing right and that everything you touch will become damaged, tainted and tarnished by your very presence.  It helps me to create things because art is about expression, not perfection.  There is no right or wrong so even when I am feeling like a complete failure, I cannot mess up my art.

When someone who has depression feels isolated and misunderstood, it is common to feel all alone in the world.  It can feel like no one is there, nobody cares, no one could possibly understand what you are going through.  It helps me to create things I can show others, share with them, to create something to bring them back into my circle, back into my life.  Art brings people together.  It starts a dialogue where otherwise there would be silence.

There are times when someone who is suffering from depression is at a loss for words to explain how they are feeling.  You might not even be sure what you are depressed about, only that those feelings are there.  It helps to create things not only so that I can work through and understand my own feelings, but so that I can help explain it to others, as well.  Art doesn’t have to be neat and easily explained.  Art can be a messy, jumbled mess and still get its point across.

There are many reasons I create, a multitude of reasons why art comforts my mind and soothes my soul.  Using art to combat depression isn’t about clear and concise thoughts, raw talent or creating masterpieces.  It is about letting emotions out, replacing the darkness with some light and adding your own brand of beauty and creativity into the world.  Art is a wonderful tool for mindfulness because it brings you back into the moment, back to reality to focus on the here and now.

When the world feels broken and hopeless and you feel lost and alone, it might feel impossible to find the motivation to create.  Use your illness as inspiration.  Put into your words or on your canvas how you are feeling inside.  Share everything you wish others knew.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even coherent and understandable to anyone but you.  It can be raw and painful, mirroring how you feel inside.  If you have the urge to express how you are feeling through your artwork, don’t hold yourself back.  Art is about letting your feelings flow.

You don’t have to create based on the negativity of your depression, either, because you are so much more than your depression.  The beauty of art if that you are only restricted by your own imagination.  The world around you is full of inspiration.  Look to the future for upcoming holidays and events.  Look to the past for cherished memories.  Take inspiration from friends and family or beloved pets.  Open a window into the nature outside or look to the heavens above.  Revisit your favorite book, movie or television show.  Pick a color that calls to you or an abstract thought and run with it.  Find your inspiration in something beautiful, something that reminds you of light, happiness and hope.

You don’t need to overthink art.  Don’t question things.  There is no right or wrong.  Just go with the flow.  Focus on the here and now and the creative process.  Put yourself into your art, the person you are at this very moment or the person you wish you could be.  Art is also about possibilities.  You start with a blank canvas or empty page.  As you create, open yourself up not only to everything your art can become but everything you can become, as well.  Remind yourself that you are more than your diagnosis.  You are many things, many pieces that are not as dark, bleak and hopeless as your depression makes you feel.  You are an artist!

I created some paper mache pumpkins today.  Those pumpkins might not seem like much, but they helped me get through another rough day.  Though it by no means cured my depression, it gave me a much-needed reprieve from my struggles and a way to add some beauty to a world that would otherwise feel dark and bleak.  Art might not be a panacea, but it is a useful crutch that can help get you through the hardest of times, making you feel stronger at a time when you otherwise might not be able to stand on your own.

Having a Family Isn’t Exhausting – My Depression Is

My youngest just started college.  He took a train upstate for a weekend visit after his last class this past Friday.  I spent the two days prior trying to build up my energy preserves before his arrival.  We didn’t have a particularly eventful weekend, yet I was worn out by the time he left.  It isn’t that he is exhausting.  My depression is.

Even when my children were younger, I found myself building up reserves of whatever energy I could muster, saving whatever I could for them.  It seemed like I was eternally exhausted, forever worn out and hanging by a thread, trying to scrounge up whatever motivation I could manage in a feeble attempt to be the mother I felt they deserved.

We took frequent long walks to parks throughout the city, many day trips to area museums and festivals.  Yet I always felt like I fell short, like I never was able to do even a portion of what I wanted to do with them.  More than anything else, we had quiet family movie nights or game nights at home, days spent home playing in the backyard or drawing with chalk on the sidewalk out in front of the house because I was too exhausted to do anything else.

The fact is that my depression is both physically and mentally exhausting.  I am engaged in a never-ending battle with my own brain.  I begin most days already feeling like I am running on empty.  Even my sleep is restless so I never fully recharge.

On the average weekday morning these days, I am up when my fiance’s alarm goes off.  I scurry around for an hour or so, helping him get ready for work.  It gives us a little extra time to spend together on days when he’ll be gone most of the day.  When he leaves, I collapse on the couch, where I spend a good chunk of my day.  It isn’t that helping him get ready is exhausting.  My depression is.

An hour before he is due home, I muster up what little energy I have left to somewhat straighten the house and start dinner.  There’s always easily a dozen things I wish I had done throughout any given day that will get put off to another day.  I truly wish I had the energy to do more.  Most days, I’m amazed I managed to do as much as I have.

The truth is that I spend most of my time alone in a fog of depression.  I often use up what little energy I do have on my family so by the time they leave I am tired, exhausted, worn out.  Some days, I am caught in a funk, immobile and numb.  On other days, I wait until I have the house to myself to break down and cry, sobbing throughout the day.  Either way, I find myself crumbling and falling apart moments after my family is out the door.

Shortly before they’re due home, I dry my eyes and paint on a smile.  I straighten my hair and tidy the house.  I try my best to hold everything together for them even though I usually feel like I am falling apart inside.  By the time they come through the door, I am already wishing I could climb into bed.  It is exhausting.

I often do my best to keep the true extent of my struggles to myself because I don’t want my family to worry about me or to suffer over my pain.  I don’t want them to question whether they are doing enough for me or whether they have been supportive enough.  They know about my struggles with depression yet I still try to shield them to the best of my ability.  My mental illness is not their fault.  I always feel like I must protect them from it, shield them from it, save them from the worst of it.

I conserve my energy for my family in part because I want to be strong for them.  It is bad enough that I feel weak and helpless – I don’t want them to see me that way, as well.  My family brings out the best in me so I want to give them the best of me in return.  A large part of me is also honestly terrified of letting my family down, of being too broken, too much of a mess to be the person they need me to be, the person they deserve to have in their lives.

Please know that they have never said or done anything to make me feel this way.  I know that these feelings, too, are products of my depression.  I prioritize others over myself because my depression makes me devalue myself.  I internalize everything, blaming and beating myself up far worse than anyone else ever could.  My depression makes me feel like a failure, tells me that no matter how much I do, it will never be good enough, never be enough in any way.

Unfortunately, though, recognizing that it is my depression is not enough to stop these feelings or the behaviors that result from them.  Depression is an illness.  Calling a duck a duck will not make it disappear.  A diabetic labeling their illness will not magically balance their sugar levels any more than someone with a mental illness acknowledging their symptoms will instantly change how they feel inside.  It is good to acknowledge the illness so you understand why you feel the way you do, but comprehending an illness will not make it go away.

Perhaps, in time, I will acquire more self-care and coping skills so that I do not always feel like I am running on empty.  Perhaps, as well, I will heal more and become somewhat more functional again.  But in the meantime, I only have just so much energy to give and I choose to give the majority of it to those who reside in my heart.

I do not resent my family for soaking up the majority of my energy each day.  It is my own choice to do this.  I do this not because I feel that I have to but rather because I want to do so.  My family means the world to me.  I would do anything for them – even give them the last little bits of myself that I have left for the day.

Because on a lot of days, that is exactly what it is.  Those little stores of energy I have managed to reserve for them are the only true sparks of myself I am able to muster.  When they are used up, there is nothing left of myself for myself.  All that remains is my depression.

I know many people will say that I must take care of myself as well.  I’ve been reminded often that “you can’t fill from an empty cup”, implying that I cannot truly be there for anyone else until I have tended to myself first.  But, for me, taking care of my family *IS* taking care of myself.  It is an all too common sacrifice for those of us living with depression.  We give the best of ourselves to our children, our partners, our family and friends because in our hearts we believe that they bring out the best in us so they deserve nothing less than our best in return.

Depression is exhausting.  Most days, I have very little of myself to give the world.  I give all I can to my family, even if it leaves little to nothing for myself.  I do this because I am my best self when I am with my family.  I am more myself when I am with them than I ever am when I am alone.  If I only have a little of myself to go around, I want to share it with those who love and accept me, depression and all.

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Republished on The Mighty on 11/2/18.