Christmas – Not Always the Most Wonderful Time of the Year When You Suffer from Depression

Most people assume that the holiday season is the happiest time of the year for me.  My tree is always up and my house decorated by the day after Thanksgiving, sometimes even a week or two before.  From Thanksgiving straight through to New Year’s Day, there’s often Christmas carols or movies playing in the background in my home.  Every year, I can be found building snowmen and making snow angels out in the cold.  I’m quick to point out all the holiday displays we pass and to like all the festive pictures friends post and share online.  I always try to put a lot of thought into meaningful gifts for loved ones and dedicate half a week every year into making scores of cookies, fudge, caramels and popcorn balls to share with family and friends.

I would be lying, though, if I said I was happiest during the holidays.  Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not secretly a Grinch or Scrooge in disguise who hates the whole Christmas season.  I don’t go around Bah Humbugging the festive cheer of others.  In truth, it is the favorite part of my year.  This season is just also very hard for me.

I struggle with depression.  It is not that I’m being an eternal Debbie Downer, trying to ruin everyone’s holiday and rain on their parade.  It’s not that I’m just not trying hard enough to be positive or look on the bright side of things.  It is a medical diagnosis.  I often have no control over my moods.  Despite whatever wonderful things might be happening around me, my mind often betrays me, pulling me down into that dark abyss of hopelessness and despair.

There is a lot of pressure for everyone to always be happy around Christmas.  Most people seem to expect others to be jolly throughout the holidays and to take part in all the seasonal fun.  My depression often gets in the way of that.  Many days, it is a constant struggle to not break down and cry or go in the other room, crawl back into bed and isolate.  Even on regular days, I carry within myself that ever-present fear that my diagnosis will ruin other people’s days.  That fear is doubled, if not tripled, around the holidays.  The last thing I ever want to do is ruin anyone else’s Christmas with my depression.

So I decorate early to prepare myself for the upcoming festivities and to try to get myself into a Christmassy mood.  I fill the air with the sounds of carols and the scents of the season.  I watch hours of Christmas movies while sitting under the glow of lights on the tree.  I try to continuously remind myself of all the reasons to be joyful during the holiday season and to refill my cup of Christmas cheer to overflowing.  I do my best to distract myself as much as humanly possible from the depression dragging me down inside.  I want everyone around me to continue enjoying the overabundance of festivity, even if I am unable to feel the warmth of Christmas spirit at the current moment.

Over the years, some people have teased me that I do far too much and try way too hard,  that everything I do around Christmas is excessive and over the top.  That is in many ways the truth but it is also how I manage to survive through to the New Year.  I am extra festive because that is how I cope with the holidays.  I surround myself with as much happiness and festivity as I can, hoping some of it might sink into my subconscious and that it might ward off my depression just a little bit more.  My depression constantly surrounds me with so much negativity that I need holiday joyfulness in droves just to balance it out and feel remotely cheerful throughout the season.

But that festive happiness is not always possible.  When my depression rears its ugly head, as hard as I might try to power through, painting on that smiling mask for the benefit of others, there are times it will crack under pressure.  As much as I hate disappointing family and friends, there will be days I just cannot bring myself to feel jolly no matter how hard I try.  There will be moments when tears well up in my eyes and I need to sneak away for a little while to let it all out and recompose myself.  More likely than not, it isn’t that anyone has done anything wrong to upset me.  I’ve done nothing wrong either.  My depression has a tight grip on me that even the happiest of holidays cannot break.

It honestly isn’t even that my depression is terribly worse during the holidays.  Yes, things like the loss of both my parents weighs on me around Christmas, but I feel those pangs of grief throughout the entire year, not just at Christmastime.  It’s that it is the season of togetherness, where family and friends want to get together to celebrate.  It’s the season of holiday shopping and running into each other at crowded stores and malls, chatting and catching up.  It’s the season where there’s so much going on that it is hard to participate in it all without my depression seeping in.  It isn’t that my depression is worse during the holidays as much as others expect me to be more present and involved, more jolly and festive.  My depression is always with me throughout the year, however I usually have more down time to cope privately the other eleven months of the year that aren’t as chock full of festivities.  The more holiday events that are going on, the more likely my depression is going to come along for the ride, whether I want it to or not.

I do enjoy the holidays as much as I can, as much as my depression allows me to enjoy them.  I do love the carols and movies, the soft glow of lights on the tree, fresh baked Christmas cookies and fresh fallen snow.  I just also have depression, which sometimes does not allow me to enjoy the holidays as much as I’d like.  I’m not being a Grinch or a Scrooge if I momentarily lose my Christmas spirit and need to step away.  I am managing my mental illness the best that I can and trying my hardest not to let my depression ruin anyone else’s holiday or my own.

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Some People Just Don’t Get It..

For almost a decade, I had someone in my life I considered my best friend.  We had bonded over similar experiences and shared pain.  I thought they understood me better than anyone else ever had.  Then, right when I needed them most, they disappeared from my life.

I did what I do best.  I continued on and I survived.  Miraculously, this time I even managed to go above and beyond that.  I rose above it all.  I began to grow and flourish.  And in the midst of all the rubble of my life, I found love.

The love I found was a thing of fairy tales.  A flame from childhood rekindled and a bond beyond anything I ever imagined possible.  We connect on every level and communicate with an openness and honesty I’ve always dreamed about but had always believed was beyond my grasp.  It took me completely by surprise because, though I am a hopeless romantic at heart, I had begun questioning whether a love like this even existed outside of storybooks.

After almost a year of ghosting, that supposed best friend decided recently to touch base, attempting to talk as if no time had passed and all was still well between us.  Though still hurt by their abandonment, for the sake of a decade-long friendship, I tried to have a civil conversation, catching them up on all that has happened and filling them in on how I had been.  After all, I was proud of myself pulling myself back up, holding myself together despite facing so many difficulties alone.  I was proud for all I had accomplished in such a short time and amazed at the love I had managed to find for myself.

To my astonishment, instead of being thrilled for me, he declared that I had “won”.  Apparently, I had, in his eyes, done better in life in some way than he had done.  Even more apparent, he resented it.  He made numerous passive-aggressively snide comments and even attempted to guilt-trip me over my newfound love because he and his partner, though together longer than I had been with mine, were not at all in love.  It saddened me to hear him describe his relationship as an arrangement and a convenience, devoid of emotion altogether.  The more he talked, the more it felt like he was probing, searching for a kernel of misery within my relationship, hoping to reconnect and bond again over a shared unhappiness.

In that moment, it was as if a switch had been flipped.  A light came on and I saw things so much clearer.  He and I had “bonded” for years because we were both residing in a shared misery.  It was not some magical connection.  We did not even have a friendship.  We had a codependency that revolved around leaning on someone else who understood our pain.  He had no problem discarding me when his situation began to improve because he fully expected me to still be there, brooding in the darkness alone, waiting for him to eventually need me again.  My love and happiness was an inconvenience that did not fit into his life so it was met with hostility.

He just doesn’t get it.  That is not friendship.  Friends don’t disappear or abandon each other when times get tough.  Friends also don’t resent each other’s accomplishments or happiness.  They give a shoulder to cry on when times get rough and celebrate each other’s successes as if they were their own.  Though what we had may have been friendship at one time, it had since warped into something unrecognizably negative and self-serving for him.  It had been a long time not only since he had treated me as a friend but also since he had considered my feelings, my well-being or my happiness at all.  Everything was completely on his terms and always all about him.  That is not friendship.

He really does not get it.  There was no reason to attempt guilt-tripping me because I had found happiness.  It isn’t that I somehow magically “won” anything because I’m currently in a better place than he is at the moment.  It isn’t a competition with him.  It never has been.  The only person I am ever competing with is myself, hoping to improve my life whenever I can.  I was not living my life trying to “one up” anyone else, least of all him.  I was living my life just like everyone else, trying to find my own happiness and purpose.  I wasn’t striving to “beat” him.  I had always hoped for his happiness and well-being, as well as my own.

He just didn’t get it.  Finding a genuine love was a very big deal for me.  I’ve spent the majority of my life believing I was inherently unlovable, wandering in and out of abusive and dysfunctional relationships. Again and again, I allowed others to treat me poorly because I believed I didn’t deserve any better.  Having someone finally treat me with love, admiration and respect was an enormous thing for me.  I had always been made to feel like I was either not good enough, never measuring up, or as too much, too needy, too clingy, too much to handle.  This was the first time in my life anyone had made me feel not only like I was enough, but that I was perfect just the way I was.

I finally get it.  I am unapologetic in my happiness.  Though it saddens me that his life has not been turning out as well as he had hoped since we parted ways, I owe him no apologies because I have done nothing wrong.  I was not the one who walked away from our “friendship” or discarded him.  I deserve happiness in my life.  I am not going to downplay the good in my life or reject it altogether, either, just to wallow in misery with him so he has someone else to bond with in shared negativity.

I finally got it.  I had to walk away from the conversation and block him.  It had not been a true friendship.  I haven’t been able to count on him to be there.  He was there only when it was convenient to his life and when he needed someone as equally low as he was feeling to help lift himself back up.  My newfound happiness was met with pettiness, anger and spite by him because I was no longer capable of being what he needed me to be.  My happiness was not allowed in his life.  It did not fit.  He made me feel like I had to choose between having him in my life or having happiness and love.  It was an easy choice.

I am okay with it.  I don’t need any more dysfunctional relationships in my life.  I need to surround myself with people who not only offer support when I’m struggling but who also cheer me on when I succeed.  I need people I can trust to be there consistently instead of discarding and abandoning me periodically on a whim.  I need more love and happiness in my life and less negativity.  After far too many years, I finally get it now.

Allowing Love and Happiness Into My Life

Recently, in one of the online support groups I am in, I stumbled onto someone who was experiencing something very similar to some of the struggles I have gone through.  As we began to talk in earnest about our lives, it felt more and more like I was speaking with my former self, the person I was not so long ago before I began my journey for mental wellness.

They talked about being unlovable.  Not FEELING unlovable. BEING unlovable.  It resonated with me because I have spent the majority of my life feeling the exact same way.  As I began responding to her, I found myself writing to my former self, as well, and to everyone else struggling with those feelings of worthlessness associated with mental illness.  I said:

… Please don’t believe even for one moment that you are unlovable.. trust me, I have been there.. lived with that feeling for years. Growing up, my mother (who suffered from often untreated, always undertreated mental illness herself and had a lot of abuse in her own life she never fully processed or healed from) was extremely abusive, particularly toward me..

The first time I remember her telling me she hated me and wished I was never born I was eight.. She used to tell me often that I was “inherently unlovable”.. that there were some people that, through no fault of their own, just did not possess anything truly good or lovable within them.. She used to tell me to never let anyone see or know the real me or they would see the truth of it themselves and leave.. I grew up thoroughly convinced I was broken, faulty, completely unlovable on a genetic level..

When you feel that way inside, when you convince yourself that it is an undeniable truth about yourself, you put up walls that prevent anyone else from ever being able to get in and love you..

I was the queen of walls.. I shut everyone out.. Even people who believed they were close to me barely even made it into the courtyard outside.. I was always there for others because I’ve never wanted anyone else to experience even a small portion of the pain I had been through in my own life.. but deep inside, I felt unlovable.. I felt unworthy of love.. so I never allowed myself to experience it..

It took far too many years for me to come to terms with my childhood and the abuse I endured.. far too many years for me to be able to even say I liked anything about myself let alone even consider the possibility of loving anything about myself or to accept that I needed to treat myself with the same kindness and compassion that I gave others..

Please know this though: You are NOT broken. You ARE worthy of love. And you MUST open yourself up to the possibility of accepting and loving yourself first and foremost because as long as you treat yourself as unlovable, you will never allow anyone else to fully love you, either.

I know the concept of loving yourself sounds improbable.. impossible.. baby steps.. Learn to acknowledge that there are things about yourself that you don’t hate.. things about yourself that aren’t all that bad.. Whenever you find yourself beating yourself up or being extremely harsh with yourself, stop and question whether you would ever say those words to anyone else.. Would you ever treat anyone else that way? if you wouldn’t be that hard and unforgiving to someone else, don’t do it to yourself.

Allow the possibility of happiness into your life. We are struggling with mental illness – a physical and mental disability that revolves around our brains not working properly – THAT DOES NOT DEFINE US. IT IS JUST OUR DIAGNOSIS. Having depression and anxiety does not mean we are forbidden from being happy.

We are going to have those blah days where we feel numb and struggle to do anything at all. We’re going to have those devastatingly negative days where our world spirals downward out of control and we feel the world will never be right again – they are all symptoms of our illness. But they are not reality.

We need to train ourselves to look for positives every single day, seek them out, embrace them. They don’t have to be big positives. Just little things to make us smile and remind us the world isn’t a hopeless, terrible, soul-sucking place where nothing good exists.. the feel of a snowflake melting on your nose.. cute fluffy little kittens.. the smell of freshly baked cookies.. We need to allow ourselves to smile.. allow ourselves to enjoy the little things in life.. the happy things..

Because that is a part of loving ourselves.. it makes it easier to consider allowing ourselves to have bigger things, better things.. to allow happiness and love into our lives.. We need to change our mindset.. refuse to let our illness dictate our lives.. I’m determined to be the happiest person with depression anyone ever meets because I refuse to let it control and dictate my life any longer.. It is an illness. It is not me. It is not you, either.

Reading over all I had written, I realized just how far I have come.  It wasn’t very long ago that I was in her shoes,  convinced that I was completely and inherently unlovable and broken beyond repair.  It wasn’t all that long ago that I was held hostage by my mental illness, convinced that my life was hopeless, unable to see any identity for myself beyond my illness.

I know now that life doesn’t have to be that way.  I cannot change my diagnosis or the symptoms that present themselves.  But I can refuse to let it control me or steal away any more of my life.  I AM going to struggle but I am also going to fight it every step of the way.  I not only deserve love and happiness in my life but I truly want it, as well.  I have taken one of the biggest steps towards truly loving myself: Giving myself permission to be happy.

Depression is NOT Caused by Circumstances or Lack of Effort.

Time and again, I have seen people who did not understand mental illness or who have based their opinions on stigma, accuse others of causing their own mental illnesses.  They assume that depression is simply someone being sad for having a bad day or that if they just tried a little harder, worked a little harder, to improve their lives, their mental illness would simply fade away.

Depression is a mental illness.  It is not someone just being too negative, refusing to look on the bright side of life.  It is not someone being lazy, not trying hard enough to improve their circumstances.  The onset of depression might be triggered for some by a traumatic event but the condition itself is a physical imbalance in the brain.  Correcting the situation will not instantly cease the symptoms of depression.  Depression is a medical condition that needs professional treatment.

Depression is also more than just simple sadness.  There are periods of numbness, where it feels almost impossible to function.  There are also periods of extreme negativity and self-loathing, when everything feels hopeless and you feel alone in all the world, you believe deservedly so.  Depression can be increased by difficulties in life but they are a catalyst, not the causation.  Removing those difficulties might help improve the situation but it is not a panacea.  The depression will not just go away on it’s own.  Again, it is a medical condition that needs professional treatment.

I have struggled my entire life with mental illness.  Yes, it has been drastically worse during the lower parts of my life, but even the better times were tainted by depression.  Regardless of whether my life had collapsed or things were finally coming together, the depression was still there.  Regardless of how hard I’ve tried to work on myself and improve my situation, my depression was still there.  Because depression is a medical condition that needs professional treatment.

I have begun taking steps to improve my mental health.  I have taken yoga, tai chi and meditation classes to help find an inner peace and calmness.  I have taken other more specialized classes that focus on mental wellness, like transforming anxiety through art.  Though each has given me new tools for my coping toolbox, none of it is a cure-all.  Working harder on my mental wellness will not make my symptoms disappear because depression is a medical condition that needs professional treatment.

My personal life has greatly improved, as well.  I am no longer in a dysfunctional, abusive relationship.  I am finally with someone who loves, appreciates and accepts me for who I am.  I have managed to rebuild friendships with old friends I had drifted apart from over the years.  I have wonderful children I love dearly and am very proud of who they have become.  I have a budding writing career and a new calling that gives me a purpose I had previously lacked.  I have so many blessings in my life, so many things that make me smile and feel true happiness.  Yet my depression still rages on.

I am in treatment.  I see a therapist regularly and take medication.   I did not ask to be mentally ill nor am I sitting back complacently, refusing to do anything to improve my life or my circumstances.  I am actively fighting to be as healthy as I can be.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I have an illness that affects the way my brain processes my emotions.  Though the rougher times in my life have contributed to the severity of my illness, my depression was never caused by any situation or lack of effort on my part.  I am not to blame for my mental illness.  Despite what stigma and ignorance might lead some to believe, depression is a medical condition.  Medical conditions do not improve by changing situations or with sheer force of will alone.  Treatment is needed.

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Republished on The Mighty on 11/9/17.

#WhyIWrite

Admittedly, I’m not the most up-to-date person when it comes to my Twitter account.  I don’t usually follow all the trending hashtags.  Some days, I barely log in.  Today, however, one hashtag caught my eye. #WhyIWrite.

Without much thought, I began pumping out responses, one right after another.

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It was such an easy, simple statement, yet I found myself with so much to say.  For someone who had gone so long without a voice, I think I had taken for granted how vocal I had become.

When I began writing, I was suicidal.  My life had fallen apart yet again and I was honestly on the verge of giving up.  In order to keep going, things HAD to change.  I had suffered in silence for far too long.  I knew the only way I could move forward, the only way I was going to survive, is if I began to talk.

The floodgates opened.  I spoke out about my past.  Abuse.  Assault.  Rape.  Mental Illness.  Infidelity.  Suicide.  All those topics you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation because it might make others uncomfortable.  All those topics that were so ingrained and interwoven into my life that I held inside for far too long.  All those topics that were systematically killing me.

A miraculous thing happened.  I began to heal, to work through trauma that had been plaguing me my entire life.  Even more amazingly, my focus began to shift.  Suddenly, surviving was no longer enough.  I wanted to live, to grow, to change and to flourish.

People began reaching out about my writing.  Thanking me for putting into words how they were thinking and feeling, for letting them know they were not alone.  Just as suddenly, my focus shifted again.  I realized my voice was a gift.  There were so many people in this world, struggling like I had been, without a voice.  I had before me the opportunity to make a difference, to speak out about mental illness, to be a voice for change.

#WhyIWrite seemed like such an easy premise, with multiple answers that flowed from me seamlessly.  I could go on for days with tweet after tweet about all the reasons I write.  All those answers can be summed up into one, though:

I write because writing saved my life and I hope to pay it forward, writing to save other lives, as well.

My voice may be starting out small, but my heart is big and my intentions heartfelt.  I believe that, by speaking out openly and honestly about mental illness, we can add to the collective and together be the voice of change.

 

Are We To Blame For Our Depression?

Someone in a group I belong to recently posed the question “Is it my fault I’m depressed?”.

People immediately began chiming in on both sides of the fence, with the overwhelming majority stating a firm and clear “absolutely not”.  I hesitated to answer because I don’t think there is such a clear cut yes or no answer.  Life is rarely simply black and white.  There are many shades of gray.

I spent many years struggling with my own mental illness.  I saw many doctors, took a multitude of medications in all different dosages and combinations.  I tried changing my diet, exercising more, busying myself with arts and crafts, talking long nature-filled walks, everything anyone had suggested might work.  In my case, nothing helped.

Last year, my newest doctor sent me for a genetic test and we discovered that I had a genetic mutation that prevented my body from breaking down a specific vitamin my brain needed to function properly.  That broken-down vitamin is used by the brain to transport the chemicals, whether made naturally or in the form of antidepressants, where they are needed. Because my brain never received that substance, nothing my body made, no pill I took, even had a chance to work.

There is a pill version of that broken-down vitamin on the market.  My doctor prescribed it.  It took almost a year of fighting my insurance company to get it covered.  Now that I have it, there is a noticeable difference.  It is not a panacea, my depression is still here, but it is a start.  I have a long road ahead of me but at least I am finally on the right track.

It brings to mind a quote from Maya Angelou:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

For years, I tried again and again to get help even though nothing worked.  I cannot blame myself for not knowing that, on a genetic level, my body was incapable of making what it needed in order for any treatment to work.  But now that I know better, I am doing better.

I do not believe we can blame ourselves when our bodies malfunction.  When someone is diabetic, their pancreas is not making the proper amounts of insulin and glucose.  People go to a doctor and get treatment so they can live a healthier life.  They are not to blame for their organ ceasing to work.  With mental illness, the only difference is the organ involved.  No one has any control over their brain not working properly.

But everyone does have control over whether or not they get the treatment they need.

I know some people will play devil’s advocate and say a diabetic wouldn’t have gotten diabetes if they hadn’t eaten so much sugar and likewise, someone who is mentally ill may have made poor life choices that put them in their predicament, as well.  However, that is not how it works.  Millions of people drink soda and other sugary drinks every day, yet not all of them have become diabetics.  Likewise, many people struggle with everything from drinking, drugs, bad relationships and dead-end jobs without experiencing depression.

There are many known hereditary and biological causes for mental illness.  Many people are predisposed to depression, having been passed through their family line.  For others, it can be caused on a genetic level from mutations.  In some cases, the onset is caused by an unforeseen tragedy or event that shakes a person to the core.  With me, it is a combination of them all.

Living a rough life does not guarantee depression any more than drinking a soda guarantees diabetes.  On the contrary, people from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds, different races, religions, sexual orientations, upbringings all struggle with their mental health.  A hard life might contribute to a person’s mental illness but it does not cause it, much like drinking sugary drinks are a contributing factor to diabetes.  There is a big difference between causation, though, and a contributing factor.

Though we have no control over whether any of our organs are working properly, I believe there is a clear line here where we need to accept personal responsibility.  As Maya Angelou said “..when you know better, do better”.  Once we realize something is not working correctly in our bodies, it is our responsibility to take steps to fix the problem.  We need to do what we can to be healthier, live healthier.

Once a person has realized they are struggling with a mental illness, they need to at least attempt to get help.  I understand the frustration all too well when nothing seems to work, but we need to at least try.  Again, to quote Maya, “Do the best you can until you know better”.  Try therapy, meditation, medication, homeopathic remedies.  Something.  Anything.  Embrace whatever works for you.  But at least DO something.  Don’t suffer needlessly.  Take care of yourself the best you can. Then “..when you know better, do better”.

Nobody asks to be depressed.  No one has any control over whether or not they are diagnosed with a mental illness.  But you do have control over whether or not you treat your illness and you ARE to blame if you knowingly neglect yourself and your well-being.

Please take care of yourself the best that you can.  Get help when you need it.  Don’t let the judgment or stigma from anyone else prevent you from taking care of your mental health.  It is okay to need help, especially when your body is not working like it should be.  There is no shame in having a mental illness.  The only shame is in not getting the treatment you need.

Anxiety and Insecurity Go Hand in Hand

A couple days ago, the man I’m with came home angry and upset.  His truck wasn’t running right and different things during his work day didn’t go particularly well.

His feelings were completely understandable considering the day he had.  None of his frustration was taken out on me.  He would never do such a thing.  I knew none of it was about me and that I had done nothing wrong.  Yet, as the night progressed and he processed his horrible day, venting his feelings and trying to distract himself to take his mind off it all, my anxiety began running rampant.  Though the logical side of me knew none of it had anything to do with me, my mind began racing, panicking, searching for signs and making connections that weren’t really there.

I began thinking and overthinking.  My anxiety skyrocketed and I started to worry.  Was he upset with me, too?  Had I done something to upset him without realizing it?  Was there something I should have done but didn’t do that has made matters worse?  Was he even happy being with me?  By the time we went to bed, I was fighting off tears, afraid that our relationship was doomed and everything was falling apart.

That is how anxiety works.  It takes the worst case scenario and shoves it downhill like a snowball in a snowstorm.  It takes no time at all for it to amass into a giant boulder that thunders and booms as it smashes into the unsuspecting below.  It builds and picks up momentum as it goes, crashing with such force that you find yourself out of breath, shell-shocked, hurt and bewildered by how you did not see it coming.  And the worst part is that whole boulder is usually a mirage. It is your mind playing tricks on you.  Yet, before you can even get back on your feet, another snowball begins to roll and the process begins all over again.

When we are struggling with anxiety disorders, we do it in every aspect of our lives.  We overthink and over-analyze everything.  We create scenarios in our head and play over every possible devastating end.  Over time, they begin to feel more and more plausible until they become a truth to us.

We take our failures personally.  Over time, we begin to feel like we can do nothing right, that everything we touch turns to crap.  We find ourselves worried that we’re somehow cursed and cannot blame anyone that wants to jump ship and distance themselves from our mess.

We sabotage friendships and relationships without meaning to do so.  We question whether we’re talking too much or being too affectionate, convinced we’re being annoying or clingy.  We wonder about the sincerity of feelings and interest from others because we couldn’t imagine anyone tolerating us for long.  We always feel like we’re being judged.  We’re afraid to let people in too close, convinced if they knew the real us, they’d leave.  If we don’t hear from someone for a while or if they don’t respond when we reach out, we convince ourselves that we just don’t matter.  If we cancel plans, we have trouble contacting to reschedule because we feel we’ve let others down and figure they wouldn’t want to talk to us anyway.  We’re horrible at maintaining regular contact because we always worry that we’re bothering everyone or interrupting something more important.

We internalize everything.  We try to look for reasons we’re at fault even if we have done nothing wrong.  Our anxiety has been telling us that we’re broken, we’re a mistake, we’re a hindrance for so long that we always assume somehow we’re to blame.  We then isolate ourselves because we feel we mess up everything we touch.  We’ve convinced ourselves it’s better to stay away.

We are so busy trying to prepare ourselves for every possible bad outcome that we have trouble seeing the good.  We worry all the time.  It isn’t that we’re not trying to be happy, positive or upbeat.  We have no control over it.  Our mind starts running and we can barely keep up.

On his way home from work the next day, I sent him a long, rambling message, spewing out all my feelings, all my fears from the night before that had been festering all night well into the following day.  I threw out there all the things that had me worried.  I told him I knew I had done nothing wrong and appreciated that he never takes any of his frustration out on me, but that I really just needed reassurance from him that we were okay.

I was panicked as I hit send, sure that my neediness, my clinginess, my need for validation would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I worried I was pushing him away.

The first thing he did when he came through the door was wrap his arms around me and hold me tightly, reassuring me that he loves me and promising me that we are fine.  There were little kernels in my head, though, that kept bouncing around, worrying.

Throughout the night, he continued, periodically reminding me that he loves me and I have nothing to worry about, that he loves me and our relationship.  Each time, each reminder, felt like him catching a kernel mid-flight until he eventually set my mind at ease.

He understands my struggles with anxiety because we have talked about them in length.  I still find myself feeling like a handful, a burden, more of a problem than anyone deserves.  Whenever my mind starts travelling down that path, though, and I start feeling insecure, I try to remind myself that it is not reality.  It is my anxiety talking.

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Republished on The Mighty on 11/2/17.

 

Why, As Someone Who Speaks Out About Mental Illness, Donald Trump Scares Me

These are scary times we live in.

We are literally waking up every single day not sure if we will find ourselves in the midst of a nuclear war, a race war, or one of many other possible tragedies caused by the hasty words, actions and decisions of our nation’s “leader”.  Beyond all of that, as if that is not enough on its own, I have numerous mental health-related reasons why Donald Trump scares me.

Mental illness has become an epidemic of global proportions.  According to recent statistics released by NAMI, an estimated one in five people in this country, over 43 million people, struggle with it every single year.  Currently, only 41% of people struggling with mental illness are receiving mental health services.  Watching Trump whittle away at health coverage means that even less people will be able to afford to get the mental health treatment they need.

My fears regarding Trump extend far beyond the medical coverage he is systematically and vengefully stripping away from our citizens that need it most.  There are many other reasons I am sincerely afraid of our current president.

The fact that he openly mocked a disabled reporter for his condition in front of the press corp is mortifying.  Looking through his list of tweets provided by The New York Times, he has repeatedly taken jabs at his opponents and adversaries, hurling insults commonly used to mock the mentally ill like “crazy”, “wacko”, and “a real nut job”, acting as if mental  illness is a joke.  Mental illness is a bonafide disability that has been battling stigma and fighting to be taken seriously for far too long.  Trump has made it clear that he has no respect for those with disabilities.  We do not need nor deserve to become another one of his punchlines.

I have personal experience with narcissists in my past and have spent a great deal of time reading about and researching narcissistic personality disorder.  Many of the actions and behaviors he exhibits are commonly known and widely accepted markers for this mental disorder.

In one breath, Trump proudly declares that it is perfectly fine to grab a woman inappropriately and that he has done so in the past, suggesting that, as a man of power, he can get away with it.  He admitted to it in his own words in an interview with Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush:

“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

To forcefully touch a woman without her consent is sexual assault.

The next moment, he is touting that any accusations of sexual assault made against him are complete lies and fabrications, claiming the allegations are “totally phoney”“100% made up”“already proven false”, and “made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED”.  That is classic gaslighting.  When someone is gaslighting, they repeatedly insist past events never happened or minimize their actions, trying to make the victims appear crazy even when clear evidence exists to the contrary.

His narcissistic entitlement goes beyond women.  During his campaign trail, he happily declared that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Ave. and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”  Though Trump paid $25 million dollars to settle the case out of court, he continued to dispute allegations made against Trump University and did so “without an acknowledgment of fault or liability.”  People with narcissistic personality disorder believe themselves to be above other people, sometimes even above the law.

The narcissistic personality traits do not end there.  He actively “love bombs” those who support him, only to discard them and replace them with a new supply when they are of no further use.  He has repeatedly used triangulation to play opposing sides against each other, a common narcissistic tool.  He appears incapable of accepting any responsibility for his own actions or words.  He is overly arrogant and self-inflated, has an inherent need for approval and a lack of empathy for anyone else.

Perhaps the biggest thing that scares me about Trump, though, is that there is no question in my mind that he himself needs serious mental health treatment yet is highly unlikely to seek it out.  Narcissists are incapable of accepting that there is anything wrong with them.  The problem always lies with everyone else.  Yet, everyone who has dealt with someone with an untreated or undertreated mental illness can spot the signs.  I know I can.

I grew up with a mother who struggled with often untreated, always undertreated bipolar disorder.  I lived through the ups, the downs, the irrational, delusional behaviors and potentially dangerous choices with no consideration for their consequences.  I suffered through the relentless lashing out and honing in on one specific target until the horse was beaten well past death.

I see so many of those behaviors mirrored in Trump and it terrifies me.  Whether he is going after Hillary Clinton, the NFL, the media, Obamacare, or Kim Jong Un, once he sets his sights on a target, he is incapable of stopping himself.  He keeps going back with an unfettered and illogical, unwarranted rage, intent on obliterating his target by any and all means necessary.

I’ve seen that rage before.  I grew up with that rage.  I grew up watching untreated mental illness that is fueled by that rage.  I know how it ends and it is not pretty.

With my mother, it ended with her showing up at my father’s work and shooting him twice in the head.

It isn’t a pistol, however, that Donald Trump is armed with.  As our president, he has the ability to deal damage and wreak havoc on not only a national but a global scale.  Among other things, he has the ability to both take affordable health care away from millions of people struggling with mental illness and the ability to start World War III.  His potential devastation is only limited by whatever his mind has honed in on at that particular moment as a target worthy of annihilation.

Nobody realized how dangerous my mother was until she had her pistol in hand.

I know the signs.  I’ve already lived through this story once on a smaller scale.

I don’t need a bomb to drop to accept how badly all of this could end if he is left unchecked and untreated.

It is a terrifying world out there.

And I am justifiably scared.

 

Is There Such a Thing as a Healthy Relationship when You’re Mentally Ill?

Someone who was once a friend used to tell me that two unhealthy people could not have a healthy relationship.  That honestly ate at me because my mental illness is based, to a large degree, on a genetic mutation.  I was born with it.  I’ll always have it.  It is a part of who I am.  Did that mean I would never be able to have a healthy relationship?

From my earliest memories, I’ve always been surrounded by examples of dysfunctional relationships.  I’ve had many unhealthy and abusive relationships in the past as well.  Until recently, I wasn’t exactly sure even what a healthy relationship even was, let alone even believed I might experience one myself.  When my last relationship crashed and burned after eleven painful years together, I honestly thought that I was done in the relationship department.

That is, until the fateful day that I received the unlikeliest message from one of my older brother’s childhood best friends.  He had been my first crush ever.  He was the sweetest, kindest, albeit a bit nerdy, boy I had ever met.  He was always so nice to me, the bratty kid sister of his best friend, and had always made me feel like it was okay to be myself – something I’ve rarely experienced both back then and all the years since.  We were too young to really have a “thing” back then, though admittedly I did once playfully tie him to the headboard of my bed, declaring that since I caught him, he was now mine.  I was nine or ten, he was a few years older.  It had been a brief moment in time, a pleasant faded memory amidst my rocky childhood.

He found me again, over twenty five years since I had left behind my childhood and the town we had grown up in, on Facebook of all places, listed as a friend of a friend he might know.  My last name had changed, a remnant of a failed marriage, but my face apparently still held enough of the little girl he remembered.  It was honestly the first time I was ever grateful that my chipmunk cheeks had never faded away.

He reached out with a short message, not sure I would even remember him.  My heart skipped a beat when his message appeared.  How could he ever assume I would have possibly forgotten him?  He had been my first crush and had inadvertently influenced my taste in men my entire life.  I was forever a sucker for the sweet, boy next door, nerdy type because of him.

We friended each other and began talking nonstop.  I admittedly went full force Facebook stalkerish, scouring through his pictures and posts, wanting a better feel of who he had become over the years.  His sweet smile and warm eyes that had captured my heart all those years ago were still the same, as was his love for Transformers and rc cars.  He was still very much himself in so many ways, but all grown up.

We made plans to meet up, to sit, talk and catch up more.  I don’t ever remember being so nervous meeting anyone.  When he picked me up at the train station, my heart was pounding so loudly I was sure everyone around us could hear it.  My first thought was that his pictures did not do him justice.  Our hug hello left my stomach all a flutter.

We sat down by the river in the town we had grown up in, talking while we watched the sun set over the water.  It was a city I had avoided for decades for the most part, a place plagued with bad memories of a traumatic childhood.  It was a place he had left behind, as well.  It was where we had once known each other all those years ago and the familiarity brought us back.  I usually dreaded being anywhere that had ties to my past.  Yet for the first time, I felt at peace being back home.  Being there with him gave me a comfort I had never known.

We talked for hours and bonded.  We had both unknowingly walked very similar paths, were both working through very similar issues.  We had both struggled with abuse, mental illness and failed relationships.  He understood me in a way no one else ever had and there was no judgment in his eyes or his words.  As he shared much of what he had been through over the years, I found myself reaching out to take his hand to comfort him and let him know I was there, that I understood.  As we began to kiss, he pulled back and asked “Are we really doing this?”  It was honestly the sweetest thing I had ever heard.

For a couple months, we seemed inseparable, spending every minute we could together, talking and texting in between.  On days he traveled and worked out of town, he’d often rush over when he returned to the area later that night, even if it was just to spend an hour or two walking through the park together, hand in hand, talking.  It didn’t take long for us to begin sharing our feelings.  We were both hesitant at first, afraid the other one would think we were nuts for feeling so much so soon.  But we were both right there, on the same page, just as we were with everything else.  We began to see the possibility of a future together and slowly started easing our children into it all, hoping they could see even a portion of what we saw in each other and how happy we both were.  Everything was coming together beautifully.

We began looking for a place together because living almost an hour apart felt too far.  While filling out an application with a rental agent, she asked him about our relationship status.  Without a second thought, he smiled at me, squeezed my hand and responded “Fiance”.  I did not question it.  Everything felt so perfect when we were together.  As crazy as it sounded, I already could not imagine my life without him at my side.  To know he felt the same way was heavenly.

As is often the case when things seem to be going too perfectly, tragedy hit.  His father had a bad fall.  In a matter of days, he went from bed rest to ICU to hospice.  I watched the man I had fallen in love with crumble into despair.  The loss of his father only a few short years after losing his mother was too much to bear.  The world felt too overwhelming to face.  He had a breakdown and needed to take some time off from work to recover.

From the time his father went into hospice, we had been inseparable.  I understood all too well what he was going through because my father had gone into hospice and passed away less than a decade prior.  Though every moment in the hospital with him was a painful reminder of losing my own father, I could not leave his side.  In the midst of this tragedy, we transitioned into living together because we could not stand to be apart.  I had never felt closer to anyone.  We not only wanted to be with each other, but seemed to need each other, as well.

He was home on a temporary disability for almost four months.  In that time, we honestly did not spend more than a few hours apart at a clip.  You’d assume being constantly together would wear on us after some time, but we seemed to soak it all in, craving all the time together we could get.  There was a peace, a solace, we found in each other’s presence unlike anything either of us had ever felt before.  For the first time ever, we both felt like we could completely be ourselves with someone else and that, no matter what we were feeling, it was okay.

It is a relationship unlike anything I have ever experienced.  We have moved very fast but it all feels very natural.  I never have felt so comfortable or so sure of anything else in my life.  We have been through some very rough times together and it has only brought us closer.  It feels like we have been together forever, like we had been meant for each other all along.  I often find myself looking at him, amazed that this is my life.  As much as I have so many other struggles to face, he has become my safe place, my happy spot, my calm in the storm.

We have yet to have a single fight.  It is not that either of us is being disregarded or is swallowing any slight, or that that we are passive-aggressively lashing out at each other instead of addressing problems.  We are not avoiding issues or pretending our relationship is okay when it’s not.  Our relationship is one of the few truly wonderful things we both have in our life.  We see eye to eye on almost everything and we talk.  We talk a lot.  Neither one of us has a stomach for yelling, screaming or lashing out.  If something is on our mind or bothering us, we bring it up.  We say how we feel calmly without anger or personal attacks.  Whenever we’ve had a misunderstanding or hurt feelings, which has happened very rarely, we have talked it out and have spent more time apologizing to one another for not realizing it was an issue or for hurting each other’s feelings than we have discussing the topic on hand.  We’ve both been hurt so much in the past that the last thing either one of us ever wants to do is hurt each other any more.

I have heard many people say every couple fights.  The internet is full of articles about how healthy and normal it is to argue.  I’ve found myself wondering more than once if what we have is normal or healthy, as well.  Neither of us is holding back feelings or being disregarded or feels unheard.  We have both had our fill of arguments in our pasts where the goal seemed to be trying to lash out and hurt each other instead of resolving issues.  We simply decided we were not going to live like that any longer.  We both prefer to talk.

I have also heard many people say that time apart is healthy.  He’s back to work now so we are no longer together 24/7 like we had been in the beginning of our relationship, but we still very much enjoy our time together.  We are both homebodies.  We both enjoy spending time with our kids and curling up watching movies together.  When we do go out and do things, we enjoy doing them together.  We never feel crowded by each other and enjoy having each other tag along even when out with friends.  We can deal with time apart but honestly enjoy being together more.  Neither of us have that nagging feeling that we just need time away from one another.  We genuinely miss each other when we are apart.

We are very openly affectionate all the time.  If we are feeling love, we say it.  More importantly, we show it.  If one of us is sore, the other is massaging the aches away.  We are forever fetching things and doing things for one another to make each other’s lives easier or to make each other feel cherished and loved.  We are always considerate, always sharing, always mindful of each other.  We are both very touchy feely and revel in the closeness we both have been lacking for far too long.  He makes me feel beautiful and I am always telling him how adorable I find him.  But our love for each other is more than skin deep.  We seem to be forever talking about all we love in each other and how lucky we are to have found one another again.  Perhaps most importantly, we are both very appreciative of everything we both do.  We acknowledge and thank each other for all we do because we both understand that none of it is a requirement or a job but rather is done out of love.

Is all the time we spend together and the fact that we never fight healthy?  Honestly I don’t know.  What I do know, however, is that this is the healthiest and happiest relationship I have ever been in.  For the first time, I feel completely accepted for who I am, loved and cherished for all my quirks.  For the first time, I don’t feel like I’m walking on eggshells, afraid of a blow up if I say or do the wrong thing.  For the first time, I can be as lovey or snuggly as I want without being accused of being clingy or needy.  I can be me.  He feels the same way.  Like everything else, we are on the same page.

I am not sure whether our relationship would be considered healthy or normal by anyone else’s standards.  I just know that I’ve never been happier, never felt more loved, cherished or appreciated.  I have stopped dwelling on what my once friend said about unhealthy people not being able to have a healthy relationship.  I no longer wonder whether love is possible when struggling with a mental illness.  The truth is that, healthy or not by anyone else’s definition, he is exactly what I want and need in my life.

To the Last Person Who Abused Me..

I have suffered many types of abuse at the hands of many people in my lifetime.  I have been raped, beaten, mentally and emotionally battered.  I have been lied to, cheated on, had my heart torn in two.

There is no doubt in my mind that the abuse I have endured has a direct correlation to my struggles with mental illness.  Over the years, my depression has convinced me that I was worthless and broken, that nobody will ever truly love me, that I will never be good enough.  When someone walks through life weighed down by so much negativity, any attention, any affection, feels like a miracle.  I found myself settling for less than I deserved just to have someone there.

When I was a child, I suffered through abuse because I was too little, too afraid, felt too weak to do anything or change anything.  As an adult, I’ve accepted so much abuse at the hands of people who swore they loved me, minimalizing it with such ridiculous justifications as “it isn’t that bad – it could be worse”, “it’s not like he hit me – I would never put up with that!” or “he didn’t really mean it – he’s just upset or having a bad day”.

The fact is, abuse is abuse.  And all abuse is wrong.  It doesn’t matter if they have laid their hands on me yet or not.  And abuse tends to escalate.  It starts out small.  The more someone forgives, the more they are condoning.  If an abuser believes they can hurt someone without consequence, they will not stop.  I can tell you from experience that, over time, it only gets worse.

You said to me “I hate that you make me hurt you”.  You pulled me in repeatedly, swearing you loved me and wanted to be with me, only to hurt me, shove me away and discard me again and again.  You accused me of pushing you into hurting me by loving you back, by being confused by your actions, by not understanding what was going on whenever you threw me away.

Since you walked out of my life, I’ve seen this one saying appear again and again:

“Normal people don’t go around trying to destroy other people.”

There is so much truth in that statement.  Normal people don’t.  When someone intentionally tries to hurt someone else for no other reason than that they can, they are being abusive, whether or not they lay their hands on anyone else.  Lashing out and trying to destroy a person, whether mentally, emotionally or physically, is abuse.

It is also abusive to blame the victim for the damage you inflict.  Nobody asks to be hurt or have their heart broken.  Nobody asks to be manipulated or mistreated.  When you abuse someone else, you and you alone are to blame for your actions.

I write to the “last” person to abuse me because I have drawn my line in the sand. No more.  No more abuse, no more lies, no more pain.

For years, I tolerated abuse because I didn’t believe I deserved any better.  I accepted abuse because I thought any love, even a warped and unhealthy love, was better than nothing at all.

Things have changed. I have changed.  I know now that my depression has been lying to me all these years.  I have always believed that nobody deserves to be abused but somehow never added myself to the collective.  I have since learned that I have just as much right to be treated well as everyone else.

I will no longer let anyone talk down to me or demean me.  I will never again tolerate someone lying to me or cheating on me.  I will no longer let anyone manipulate me with threats to withhold their affection if I do not comply with their demands.  Most importantly, I will not take the blame for anyone else’s cruelty nor will I apologize ever again when I have done nothing wrong.

I have finally found someone who treats me well.  He doesn’t mistreat or manipulate me.  He is considerate with my feelings and gentle with my heart.  Now that I have experienced what it is like to be loved and accepted unconditionally, to be treated with kindness and respect, I will never again settle for anything less.

I may struggle with my self-worth from time to time because of my depression.  However, I will never again mistake attention for affection or accept abuse in lieu of love.