The Truth About Depression and Suicide

Suicide has quickly become one of the top killers across all age groups, races, sexes and socio-economic classes. You cannot go a week these days without seeing multiple stories in the news about suicide. Celebrities. Children. Veterans. And those are just the stories the press finds newsworthy enough to report on. Across the country and all around the world, people are dying by their own hands every single day at alarming numbers. And yet it is a topic nobody wants to talk about until it hits close to home. Even then, most people would rather talk about it in hushed whispers, a shameful secret they wish would just fade away, than to openly talk about it.

I have struggled with major depression my entire life. I have been suicidal more than once. I am honestly not sure how I am even still alive today because with each of my attempts, I told no one, I secluded myself, I gave no forewarning or signs that things had gotten so bad that I wanted to give up. Though people knew I was struggling, nobody really knew how badly. I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to stop me. More than once, whether by the grace of God or some strange twist of fate, someone came through a doorway to find my unconscious body barely clinging to life. More than once, I woke up in the hospital not sure how I even got there.

I have also been on the other side of that fence, losing people I cared about to suicide. I have been blindsided by their death, torturing myself for feeling like I didn’t see the signs, not realizing how bad things were, not being there to help when they desperately needed someone. I have spent endless hours thinking back over missed opportunities that I might have been able to intervene and make a difference. I have been haunted by words I did not say and calls I did not make that might have made the difference between life and death.

Part of me, though, knows better than to torture myself with hindsight. I have been on both sides of that fence. I know all too well that unless you actually know what to look for, the signs are usually not even visible until someone is looking in the rear-view mirror. But by then it is too late. The crash has already happened. And you can’t turn back time. The best anyone can honestly do is to be proactive, to talk openly, honestly and regularly about their own mental health and that of those they care about. We need to make everyone’s mental health as much of a priory as our physical health.  As hard a topic as suicide may be, it’s harder still to bury someone you love. I believe this difficult conversation is long past due.

Please know that most people don’t normally wake up one day out of the blue and decide to kill themselves. Barring some drastic, life altering circumstance or great loss that seemingly destroys someone’s entire life in a heartbeat making them lose all hope in an instant, suicidal feelings usually develop over an extended period of anguish. The weight of the world is piled on again and again, making everything feel increasingly hopeless.  Eventually, you reach the point when you cannot take anymore. You’ve found the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and you collapse under the weight of it all.

You don’t go directly from life being fine to choosing to die like a car going from zero to sixty in a few seconds flat. It is a slow build. It begins with feeling overwhelmed with life itself. Everything feels increasingly too hard, too overwhelming. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, like you can never fully catch your breath. It feels like no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change, that you’ve been dealt a losing hand and there’s no way to exchange your cards. The deck is rigged and you’ve lost big time.  Everything in life begins to feel like a struggle, an uphill battle, a fight you cannot win. You feel like you no longer have any control of your own fate.  You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, not sure how much more you can keep going, how much strength you have left.

The first suicidal thoughts that creep in are abstract. You’re not making specific plans to kill yourself. You look outside during a snowstorm and ponder how long you would have to be exposed to the elements before everything just faded to black. You look at the currents of the river coursing by and ponder what it would be like to just be pulled under, swept away. When you pass a set of train tracks, you wonder where along the tracks it might be dark enough that they wouldn’t see you until it was too late. The thought of death is more of a fade to black. A sweet escape. Death itself becomes a daydream. Those abstract thoughts are commonly referred to as suicidal ideation.

With suicidal ideation, it isn’t so much about dying as it is about wanting to be freed from a life you feel is too painful to continue. The thought of death almost feels like a peaceful, sweet release. You become increasingly consumed by the thought of ending your suffering, of fading away, of just disappearing from the story, not having to fight or cry anymore, of just being free.

Most people who are suicidal honestly don’t want to die. For days, weeks, months, they’ve been soul-searching and agonizing, looking for any reason to keep going and not give up. It isn’t a decision made lightly or spur of the moment. They’ve been secretly fighting to hold on, to live, to find any reason to cling to so they don’t give up.  They have just reached the point where they feel they cannot take anymore, cannot hurt anymore, cannot go one more day living in their own personal hell.

Neither suicidal ideation or suicide itself are a plea for attention. It honestly is not about anyone else at all. Nobody who tries to kill themselves is thinking “I’ll show them!” or “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” like a kindergartner contemplating running away from home. By the time someone has made that ultimate choice to give up, they aren’t even thinking of anyone else beyond being convinced that others would be better off without them. They feel completely isolated and alone, in agonizing pain that they can no longer take. They are convinced their life is out of their hands and there is no way to fix anything in their life. Death is the only exit they can see in the darkness.

People often describe a loss by suicide as “unexpected” and “out of the blue”. Those who have lost someone to suicide often feel lost and confused, bewildered about how anyone could give up on life when they “had so much to live for”. The problem is that by the time someone is at that point of giving up, they have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they can no longer see any of the light. All they can feel is hopelessness and despair. And they feel utterly alone.

It’s nearly impossible for those who have not been there themselves to understand how anything could possibly get that bad, how anything could feel so hopeless, how anyone could feel so alone. I have frequently seen suicide aptly described as a bi-product of depression, heard others refer to suicide as a death caused by a person’s mental illness. Truer words have never been spoken.

Depression is a nefarious and deadly disease. It eats at your mental and emotional well-being just as surely as cancerous tumors eat away at a person’s body. And just like cancer weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight it off, depression feeds off your ability to distinguish reality and see anything but the darkness and despair that the illness wants you to see.  It systematically breaks and devours you until there is no will left to fight anymore.

Depression is not an illness you can easily disregard. You cannot just “suck it up”. It will not go away because you spew out some tired cliches about life or insist someone just try a little harder to be happy. Depression cannot be cured by taking a walk, going for a run or getting yourself a dog. It is not mind over matter or learning to toughen up. It is a serious medical condition and one that can have deadly consequences if left untreated.

People talk about being dumbfounded by someone’s suicide, of not seeing it coming. But honestly, there are plenty of signs there if someone takes the time to actually look and listen.

Has the person withdrawn themselves from family and friends, frequently making excuses about being too busy, swamped with life or feeling under the weather?

Have they stopped doing things they enjoy? Quit groups or teams? Given up hobbies they once loved? Are they spending a good portion of their time alone seemingly doing nothing?

Have their sleep patterns changed drastically? Are they laying down and sleeping more or are they up more with insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to sleep?

Has their appearance changed drastically? Losing or gaining weight? Not showering as much or wearing dirty clothes? Keeping their hair pulled back so they never have to tend to it or not shaving for long periods of time that is inconsistent with how they used to present themselves?

Is their room or house even more of a mess than usual or are they frequently wearing stained clothes like they just don’t care anymore? Do they always seem to be asking you to “excuse the mess”?

Are they frequently talking abut being exhausted, overly tired or fed up? Do they make comments about being tired of fighting or regularly insist life shouldn’t be this hard?

Are they frequently edgy, snippy and short with everyone as if they’re trying to push everyone away? Does everything seem to annoy them?

Are they frequently uncharacteristically silent as if they’re lost in their own world? Do they seem more scatterbrained than usual, life their mind is always off somewhere else?

Are they frequently sad, overly emotional or teary?

Do their emotional responses in general seem more raw, exaggerated and over-the-top as if they are feeling everything much stronger than usual?

Are they smiling and laughing less or are they pursing their lips together when they smile as if it was forced? Does their laughter seem less frequent and insincere, as if they’re trying to give you the reaction they believe you want even though their heart is not really in it?

Do they often blame puffy eyes or stuffy noses on allergies even when it’s not allergy season or they have not ventured outsides to be exposed to seasonal allergens?

Do they often insist they’re “fine” with no elaboration and claim they don’t want to talk about it when pressed, using dismissive phrases like “it is what it is” as if they have no control over their own life?

These are just some of the common signs of depression. Though they do not necessarily mean a person is currently considering suicide, it is likely they are struggling along that path. If you see drastic changes in mood and appearance, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask whether they’re okay. If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, there is usually a reason why. Don’t be afraid to call attention to drastic changes that concern you.

And please know it should never be a “one and done”. Even if you inquired once and they insisted they were fine, you can’t shrug and walk off, telling yourself that “hey I tried”. If someone’s depression has gotten bad enough that you can see multiple signs, it did not happen overnight and it is not going to be resolved overnight either. It might take multiple times of checking in and reaching out before someone is finally able to open up.

That is because depression isolates us. It gets into our head and convinces us that nobody cares, that we are all alone in the world. It is easier for us to believe that someone is asking how we are just to be nice or to make polite small talk than to believe they’re genuinely invested in our well-being.
People struggling with depression also have a lot of trust issues. Most likely, we have tried talking to others in the past and have been shot down or had our feelings minimized. Or we have heard you or others talk dismissively about their struggles so we’re unsure how supportive you’ll be for us. We’re afraid of being seen as weak or broken or crazy. We’re afraid to let anyone in only to get hurt again. Everything has felt like a fight for so long that we’re weary about letting anyone else in, too. And we don’t want to be a burden or to let anyone down by admitted we aren’t “strong enough”.

You cannot let yourself be discouraged, though. Continue to reach out every few days, even if just to check in about how they are doing. If someone seems to be cancelling plans a lot to go out, offer to come over and visit. If they make excuses about a mess, offer to help them clean it. If they claim they feel under the weather, offer to bring soup. Whatever you do, don’t let them continue to isolate. Let them know you miss them and just want to see them. Reinforce that they matter.

Coordinate with others in their life. Take turns checking in and offering reassurances. Make it clear that multiple people care and that they are not alone. Create a united front where everyone can face the depression together.
Most importantly, make it clear that it is okay to talk about whatever they are feeling and to get help. Don’t further stigmatize doctors or medication.  Don’t suggest it’s all in their head or tell them to suck it up and get over it. Don’t treat them like they’e crazy or broken. Remember that they are sick and need help. Be supportive. Be part of the solution not part of the problem.

If you are seeing yourself in these words, if you are exhausted and struggling to keep going, tired of fighting, tired of hurting, wanting to give up, please realize that those feelings are not reality. Your depression is lying to you, making all the bad in your life feel exaggerated and overwhelming and is snuffing out the light. Please know that you are not alone and there are others out there who understand completely what you are going through. You’ve got to fight this. Don’t give up. Reach out. Talk to friends, family, a therapist, a pastor. Someone. Anyone. Just don’t give up. Don’t shut everyone out. I know all too well that siren’s call that death will bring peace but it really won’t. Not for you and not for everyone in your life that you’ll be leaving behind. You can get past this.

Looking back, I am grateful I never succeeded. I feel blessed to still be here. Because now I have the ability to reach out and help others, to be the voice that shines like a beacon to light up the darkness. I am in a unique position where I understand not only the great loss that comes with losing someone to suicide but also the steep descent into the hopelessness of depression myself. Suffering in silence for years almost killed me multiple times. I can only hope that by finally speaking up, speaking out, I can help save others from succumbing to that darkness themselves.

Depression and suicide have robbed the world of so many beautiful souls. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends. They have stolen so many lives from us far too soon. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich then claim later that we didn’t see the signs, didn’t know things were that bad. We are one society, one world. We have to start acting like it. We must start looking out for one another, be there for each other, truly listen and hear. The signs are there. We just have to take off our blinders and see them. We cannot pretend everything is fine because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation. Inaction kills. We need to be proactive, not only with our own mental health but towards those we care about, as well. We all have the power to save lives if we are willing to actually reach out and try.

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Talking About Mental Illness Is Not A Plea For Attention

After struggling with mental illness my entire life, a couple years ago a miraculous thing happened.  I found my voice and finally began opening up about my mental health struggles.  Talking about living with such a debilitating illness has altered my life in so many positive ways, as well as changing my outlook on life itself for the better.  For the most part, I have been met with wonderful support, not only from others who are struggling as well but also by those who, though they have never experienced mental illness firsthand, yearn to understand and empathize with the plight of others in their lives.

And then there are the trolls.

Those lovely people who relish commenting on other people’s lives for no other reason than to accuse and attack.

They inform me that my mental illness “is all in my head”.

They tell me that “everyone has problems”, say I “should stop having a pity party” and “just get over it”.

And they suggest that I’m just looking for attention and wanting others to feel sorry for me.

Though I always try to remind myself “water off a duck’s back”, those comments honestly eat at me because I have never seen myself as seeking attention or wanting anyone to feel bad for me.

As a matter of fact, for most of my life, I kept my struggles largely to myself.  I did not want to burden anyone else with my problems, especially problems they neither caused or would be able to solve.  Many of my friends were genuinely surprised when they finally heard about what I’ve been through because I kept so much to myself.  I’ve been described as one of the happiest, sweetest depressed people that most will ever meet because I refuse to let my illness defeat or define me.

I also personally have never wanted anyone to pity me.  Yes, I have been through a lot of trauma in my life.  And yes, I am struggling with a life-long debilitating mental illness as well as multiple meningioma tumors on my brain.  But you know what?  I’m still here.  Still fighting.  Every single day.  I fight to stay healthy and to stay positive, despite my own brain constantly trying to convince me otherwise.

Yet I am quick to tell others not to feel sorry for me for the simple fact that I am still here.  I am a survivor.  If you must feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for all those who have lost their battle with mental illness.  Feel sorry for all those who suffered in silence and died never finding their voice.

The question remains:

If I am not looking for attention or for pity, why am I writing?

I write so others can better understand an illness that affects millions of people every year yet is still widely misunderstood and stigmatized.

I write because I know there are others out there who are struggling but don’t have the words to fully articulate the battles they are fighting every single day.

I write because I should not be ashamed of my illness or forced into silence due to other people’s ignorance, misinformation, lack of compassion or any other stigma they carry regarding my condition.

I don’t write for a pat on the back from anyone either.  I don’t need a “good job”, a certificate of merit or a gold star.  I need others to know they’re not alone.  I need them to be okay, to keep fighting, to not give up.  If my words can help even one person or five or ten, then I have made a positive difference in this world and that is enough for me.

Imagine silently struggling for years with an illness that nobody else can see.  The entire time, friends and family are repeatedly asking what is wrong with you, why you seem so different, so distant, why you’re not able to do everything you used to be able to do.  Imagine spending your life being expected to apologize just for being ill.

If your best friend invites you along for a 5k run and you decline, explaining that the chemotherapy your doctors gave you to fight your cancer has you too worn out and  drained to go along, your friend will most likely show compassion, support and understanding.  They will accept that you are struggling with an illness you neither asked for nor have any control over and that you are trying your best to heal and get healthy again.

Your family would not question if you spent whole days in bed while struggling to beat cancer either.  They just want you to do whatever you need to do to get better.   Nobody would accuse you of looking for attention simply for describing what you are going through and explaining that you currently don’t feel capable of joining in.

Replace cancer with many other debilitating illnesses and conditions and the story remains unchanged.

Can’t go running because you have a heart condition and you physically cannot handle it in your current state? Not a problem.

Spent the day in bed because your diabetes has flared up and struggling to balance your sugar again has you exhausted? Asthma acting up and you’re struggling to even breathe so you need to rest? Rheumatoid arthritis flare up and you can barely stand let alone run? Get some rest and feel better.  It’s okay.  Everyone understands.  Take care of yourself.

However, if you are struggling with a mental illness, compassion often goes right out the window.

You’re told to “suck it up”.

To “stop feeling sorry for yourself”.

To stop making excuses, get off your butt and get over it”.

“Stop being a baby”.  “Stop looking for attention”.  “Just stop altogether”.

The truth is – we shouldn’t have to stop acknowledging our existence or our reality.

Our medical condition is just as valid as any other one.  It, too, was diagnosed by a doctor.  It, too, needs medical treatment.  And it, too, deserves to be acknowledged.  We deserve the same compassion and empathy that you’d show to anyone else who is sick with any other debilitating illness.

I spent forty years apologizing.  “I’m sorry I can’t do more”.  “I’m sorry I’m such a mess”.  “I’m sorry I’m so broken”.  “I’m sorry I’m having such an off day”.  “I’m sorry I let everyone down”.  “I’m sorry for existing”.  “I’m sorry for being sick”.

But you know what?

I shouldn’t have apologized all those times.  I had done nothing wrong.  I was, and still am, struggling with a valid and verifiable medical condition.  I did not ask to be sick nor did I do anything to cause this illness.  I was born with it hard-wired into my genetics.

And these days I am completely unapologetic for my condition.

Am I looking for attention?

No.

All I want, and feel I rightfully deserve, is the same acknowledgement, compassion and understanding as people would show anyone else with any other serious medical condition.

Do I want anyone to feel sorry for me?

Absolutely not.

I don’t wallow in my condition but I don’t minimize it or sugar coat it either.  I am unapologetically and blatantly honest about what it is like living with mental illness because the only way to fight misconceptions and stigma is with the truth.

I’m a fighter.  I am so much more than my illness and I refuse to let it define me or beat me.  Don’t pity me.  Cheer me on for the fact that I am still going.  Be proud of the fact that I am taking the lemons life has given me and transforming them into something positive to help others.

I talk about my struggles with mental illness because I refuse to stay silent any longer.  I refuse to pretend I am fine when I am not or to apologize when I have done nothing wrong.  Most importantly, I write about what it is like because there are too many others out there struggling who need to know they are not alone.

Trolls are going to troll.  They attack what they don’t care to understand.  It is easier for them to pass judgment than to show compassion or try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

But I don’t write for trolls.

I write for that teenager sitting alone in a dark room feeling all alone, convinced nobody else could possibly understand.  I write for that widow, sitting in an empty house, struggling to find a reason to pull themselves out of bed.  I write for that person who keeps eyeing that bridge on their drive home each night or who sits at their table, gun in hand, weighing whether or not to eat a bullet and put an end to their misery.  I write to add my voice and my story to the collective of everyone struggling with mental illness.

I write to let them all know they are not alone and that others understand. I write so that they know they, too, are more than their diagnosis and they don’t have to let it define them.  I write to remind them that they, too, are fighters and survivors and to help them find the courage and the words to tell their own stories.  I write to encourage them to get the help they desperately need.

I also write for that parent who desperately wants to understand why their teenager has begun isolating themselves and never smiles anymore.  I write for that husband who needs to understand why his wife just hasn’t been the same since she had the baby.  I write for everyone who has lost someone to suicide or has sat there dumbfounded after a loved one’s failed attempt, unsure of what to say so that their world would make sense again.  I write for everyone who desperately wants to understand this illness though they have never experienced it themselves.

I don’t write to appease trolls because I have no place in my life anymore for those who spend their lives spreading negativity, judgment and hatred.  They are not my target audience.  Not my circus.  Not my monkeys.  Not my problem.  I will spend just as much time caring about their opinions as they have spent empathizing with my condition.

For those that I am hoping to reach – please don’t give up.  Don’t lose hope. You are so much more than your illness.  You, too, are a fighter.  A survivor.  You, too, can get through this.  Know that you are not alone.  Don’t be afraid to reach out, to speak up.  There is no shame in asking for help, for needing to see a doctor for your medical condition.  Stay strong.  You’ve got this.

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Sorry Not Sorry: My Mental Well-Being is a Priority

It has been a rough couple months.  Horribly frigid and snowy weather, as well as a revolving door of various sicknesses in my home, have combined with my mental illness to create a perfect storm.  I endured what felt like a never-ending rotation of maladies, downward spirals and utter numbness. There were many days I felt like I could barely function at all.  I usually love the holidays but this past year, the festivities felt hectic, rushed, hollow and empty.  As much as I beat myself up for not being more present, more in the mood, more cheerful and jovial in general, I just could not snap out of the funk I was in.  And the guilt of it all was eating me alive.

After two and a half months of struggling to get from day to day, unable to even inspire myself to write, I am finally emerging like the groundhog in early February to start anew.

Periodically, this happens to me.  When life gets hard, I pull in on myself, much like an armadillo rolling in on itself for protection or a cell phone going into power saver mode so it doesn’t shut down completely.  This cycle has repeated itself from time to time throughout my life.  Whenever everything would get hard, I would pull inward, isolating and conserving my energy in order to survive.  On the other end of this pattern would always inevitably come unfathomable guilt and pressure to make my recent absence up to everyone.

I have struggled my entire life with depression, always feeling as if I was broken, as if I was always letting everyone down by not always being able to do, to be, everything others needed and expected of me.  I consistently felt like a failure.  Like I didn’t even deserve to be on any list of priorities.  After every struggle I endured, I always felt like I was playing catch up, that I owed it to everyone else to use whatever energy I could muster to make it up to everyone else for letting them down yet again.

Christmastime this past year was especially hard.  I usually do a marathon cookie bake as part of my holiday traditions.  Three days of baking. Fifteen types of cookies, plus candies and fudge. Everyone in the house getting sick delayed the grocery shopping and my baking was put off until the last minute.  What is usually three comfortable yet full days of baking was ultimately crammed into a panicked day and a half.  Pushing myself that hard utterly burnt me out.  I existed in a heavy fog of numbness for the remainder of the year.

Speaking afterwards to my doctor, she inquired, “If you only had half the time, why didn’t you just bake half the cookies?”

I started to explain that people were expecting the cookies.  My kids love all the cookies every year and give away boxes to their friends. My fiance needed cookies to bring into work.  We had friends and family that we gave boxes to every year.

She countered by asking why I exactly felt so obligated.  Was anyone was paying for the cookies in any way or if I was just doing it out of the kindness of my heart?

I began defending myself again, insisting that I didn’t want to let anyone else down.

In a perfect check-mate moment, she asked, “What about letting yourself down? Is doing for others out of the kindness of your own heart really worth burning yourself out and running yourself down?  At what point do you fit into the equation? If you only had half the time, why couldn’t you just bake half the cookies?  You’re still being kind to others that way.  But you’re also being kind to yourself.”

Our conversation bounced around in my head for hours. Days. Weeks.  Again and again, I pondered where I fit into the equation of my life and why I didn’t seem to matter at all in most cases.

I ultimately determined that I needed to restructure my priorities in order to find a place for myself in the equation.  I had to be willing to reserve what little energy I do have during rough periods on what should be most important in my life – my family and myself – without becoming guilt-ridden afterwards.  The addition of “myself” towards the top of my list of priorities is honestly fairly new and admittedly still somewhat uncomfortable.  For much of my life, I was on the bottom of the list, if I appeared at all.

That was a feeling that I desperately needed to address.

Whenever I struggle to apply my own self-love or self-care, I stop to consider what I might tell someone else in my situation.  I would never discourage anyone else from pulling back in order to take care of themselves.  I would never accuse anyone else of being a bad person for wanting to matter, too, or for feeling like they sometimes had to prioritize themselves in order to make it through to tomorrow.

Let’s be honest here.

Wanting to matter, too, is not being self-centered.  Wanting to do self-care when you need it does not mean you don’t care about others, as well.  Nobody is saying you can only choose one or the other, help others or help yourself.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Not writing for a couple months honestly ate at me very badly.  I felt terribly guilty, like I was letting my readers down by not writing more content, not sharing my journey more frequently.  But after that pivotal talk with my doctor, I am no longer guilt-ridden.

The truth is that I had a few months where I was struggling badly.

I had a few months that I desperately needed to devote any energy I could muster into self-care and self-preservation.

That doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t matter, as well.  When I have enough time, enough energy, enough willpower to reach out and advocate for others, I still will.  I cherish every time someone has reached out to me letting me know my words have impacted their life. This journey is too important to give up.

I will still help others whenever I can.

But I must help myself, too.

I cannot carry the world on my shoulders, struggling to keep others afloat if it means I go under and drown.

I will always prioritize my family because they are the cornerstone of my world, but from now on, I will be prioritizing myself, as well.

I cannot help others if I cannot help myself.

I will take care of myself whenever I need, however I need.  If that means I do not write for a period of time, so be it.  If that means I only bake half the amount of cookies because I only have the time and energy to do that much, then that is all I will do.

Over the last decade, I have grown my hair out repeatedly, only to cut and donate it when it gets long enough to do so.  My hair was down to my mid-back, with perhaps nine months to a year to go until my next donation.  However, the meningioma tumors on my brain have been causing pressure migraine headaches in increasing frequency of late.  The added weight of all my hair does not help.  As much as it would be nice to donate yet another ponytail to help others, realistically it would not be fair to myself to endure almost a year more of harsher migraines in order to make another donation.  I can still help others, just not at a detriment to myself.  In an act of self-care, I cut my hair shoulder-length.  The intensity of the majority of my headaches has lessened noticeably since then.

I have entered a new period of my life, one where I learn to value myself as much as I have valued others in the past.  I will learn to set my goals and expectations based on what I feel I can handle instead of what others have decided to expect.

I will set new limitations and boundaries so that assisting others no longer harms me.

I will no longer put myself out there beyond my own capabilities in any way that will ultimately hurt myself in the process.

I will prioritize my mental health guilt-free.

I won’t ever again apologize for having to take care of myself.

Sorry not sorry.

My mental well-being matters.

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.

Art Therapy For Depression

pumpkins

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.

Riding Out the Storm

Today is not going to be a good day.

It’s not even nine o’clock in the morning yet, but I already know this for a fact.

There are some people that will insist it is too soon to know anything for sure, that I should pick myself up, brush myself off and face the day with a positive attitude and a brave face.  There are others who will insist it is all in my head, telling me that I will be fine once I get up, get out there and start moving.

There are some who will insist I am being melodramatic, making mountains out of mole hills.  If you have never experienced these storms firsthand, never fought to survive them, you have no idea how bad they can get.

But I know these days all too well.

I’ve struggled with depression my entire life.

I’ve wrestled with this beast many times over, fought this monster again and again.

And I know today will be yet another epic battle.

Today, I will be lucky if I can even pull myself out of bed.  The world feels completely overwhelming, my life utterly overbearing.  Everything seems hopeless and futile.  I feel like I am suffocating under the weight of all the problems and issues I have been attempting to juggle and resolve.  I am mentally and emotionally exhausted beyond words.  The lies depression tells have already begun gusting and blowing around me, their sheer force threatening to knock me down.

I am wrapped in a blanket.  I will be lucky if I can pull myself up at all today.

I am caught in a rising tide of emotions, being pulled back and forth between feeling way too much and being completely numb to it all.  The tears come in waves, the struggles crashing into me, threatening to knock me overboard.

As each wave recedes, I sit here catatonic, drenched in my own tears, unable to even fully process everything I am feeling anymore.

The pain and the numbness each wash over me in turns.  Every time I think I could not possibly feel anything more, I am flooded with more anguish and strife.  Each time I think the agony will never end, I find myself trapped in that moment of stillness again, that nothingness, staring into that void, feeling empty and numb.

I rock back and forth, thrown around in that sea of depression, each crashing wave threatening to pull me down into its depths.

I am trapped in that storm front, between the hot and the cold, feeling too much and feeling nothing at all.

You cannot stop those storms when they hit, but you can feel them in the air when they’re about to arrive.  You know they are coming so the best you can do is prepare.

I cancelled my afternoon appointment.  Otherwise, I know I would spend the morning fighting with myself to get up, get moving, and ultimately tearing myself apart for being unable to do so.  When I dragged myself to the bathroom, I brought back granola bars and my water bottle on the way back through.  I grabbed an extra blanket, extra tissues and the television remote.  There is little time to prepare but I do my best.

I have curled up on the couch, wrapped up tightly, nourishment on hand, ready to ride out this storm.

There’s an old saying that “into every life a little rain must fall” but this isn’t just a little rain.  It is a hurricane.  A tsunami.  A nor’easter.

I would evacuate if I could but there is really nowhere to go.  Like Eeyore, these storm clouds follow me everywhere.  The storm will come.

There will be flooding.

But I won’t let myself drown.

I’ve learned long ago not to push myself during these storms, not to foolishly attempt to wander out when they get bad.  I don’t beat myself up for what I cannot do or where I am incapable of going.  I cannot control the storms raging inside me any more than I can mother nature outside.  They come from time to time because they are part of my depression.

It is always harder to go out in the storm so I try to avoid it whenever I can.

I have learned to batten down the hatches, board up the windows and take care of myself the best that I can.  I have learned to take care of myself to the best of my ability, making sure I have what I need on hand.  I have learned, as well, to not beat myself up for not feeling capable of navigating through these storms.  It is better that I stay home, stay safe and warm, then to attempt to venture out and drown in the sea of my own depression.  Especially when the skies appear clear to everyone else so nobody else even realizes I’m drowning.

No storm lasts forever.

I will ride this one out and I will be okay.

Because I am a survivor.

I have survived other storms and I will survive this one, as well.

I refuse to drown in my own depression.  I will do whatever I must to stay afloat.

The Depression Chart – Helping Others Understand Depression

*Ever since I created my Anxiety Chart, I have been asked by readers to create a similar chart for depression.  After much thought and consideration, this is the chart and accompanying graph that I designed.

Many people do not understand depression, assuming it is just random bouts of sadness and crying.  Unless someone has suffered through their own struggle with depression, it is near-impossible for them to truly understand how debilitating it can be to live with that diagnosis.

One of the hardest parts of explaining depression is that it is neither rational nor is it predictable.  It is hard to provide relatable examples because the feelings connected with depression would feel wildly irrational to anyone not experiencing them at that moment.  It is also impossible to predict or predetermine depression because it often comes unexpectedly in waves.

Therefore, instead of providing a chart with relatable examples, the chart I devised shows the increasing intensity of this mental illness.  My hope is that the statements provided at each level, combined with the descriptions included, will help those who have never struggled with depression understand how our frame of mind is magnified as our condition worsens.

It is also important to note that depression is not all sadness and hopelessness.  Instead of providing a chart listing levels 1-9, I have split this chart in half.  There is a 1-4N to designate worsening stages of numbness and a 1-4D to describe stages of downward spiral.  This chart is extremely simplified, yet illustrates how, as depression worsens, the intensity of the condition increases.  However, unlike conditions like anxiety that worsen in one direction, depression can and does frequently occur in both the realms of numbness and hopelessness to varying extents.

depressionchart

It is also important to note that depression is not linear.  It comes in waves and spikes.  It is not uncommon to struggle with days of increasing numbness, only to wake up the following day in the midst of a downward spiral.  Depression randomly alternates between the two, with no rhyme or reason to the length or intensity on any given day.  Some days you feel nothing at all, other days you feel everything too strongly.  There’s no way to predict when you will be pulled in either direction or how long either will last.

depressiongraph

There will be days when someone might even feel fine, or even just more functional.  On other days, you might be unable to pull yourself out of bed or might seem to cry over everything.  There are days that feel like a struggle and others that feel completely impossible, days where you find yourself crying a little bit more and days you just want to give up.

When describing increased emotional pain, the best example I can think of is to compare it to the pain of loss.  Milder stages of depression might be akin to losing something that matters to you, perhaps something of sentimental value.  As depression increases, imagine the pain of losing a beloved pet, your parents, your spouse or your child.  Imagine the ache and the pain, the feeling in that moment of things never being okay again, of wanting to give up, to crumble under the weight of that pain.

Except the person you are mourning is yourself.  Your happiness and who you used to be.  And the loss comes again and again in waves, sometimes mild, other times so severe that the tears and the pain feel like they will never stop.

At the same time, you loathe and disgust yourself.  You feel worthless, a waste of space.  Your own mind lies to you, convincing you that the world would be better off without you in it.  That is where rationality parts ways.  Everyone can understand loss, pain and grieving.  But it is hard to wrap your head around losing yourself, let alone hating yourself, unless you have spiraled down to those depths yourself.

Yet those feelings are there, along with a tremendous amount of guilt.  You feel guilty that you are such a mess.  You feel guilty for subjecting everyone else to your mess, as well.  Often, you are also ashamed of your illness because you feel you should be stronger, more capable, better than you are.  That shame often leads you to lie or minimize the intensity of your suffering for fear of being judged.  Depression makes you feel like a failure just for being sick.

When someone is struggling with depression, their very perceptions become distorted.  It is common for everything to feel much worse than it actually is.  Think back to when you were a little child.  Things on the counter felt up way too high, the door knob out of reach.  Even simple things like tying your shoes were a struggle and felt like a monumental task that took maximum effort and concentration.  That is how everyday tasks feel when you have depression.  Everything feels harder.  Every problem feels bigger.  You feel small and helpless.

Think back, too, to when you were a young child and were upset with your parents, when you felt completely misunderstood and all alone in the world.  Think back on the time when your four or five year old self was convinced you should run away, that nobody would care if you were gone. Think back to any other point in your life, as well, when you felt completely alone, when you had no help, nobody there.  With depression, those feelings are ever-present.  Your mind tells you that nobody understands, that you are alone in the world.  Depression isolates you by telling lies that you do not matter.

Think back to the last time you were sick, laid up in bed with a bad flu or stomach bug.  Remember how physically and mentally exhausting it felt to even move or pull yourself out of bed?  How easily you found yourself worn out, just wanting to lay back down and sleep?  How you put off going to the bathroom for hours because you didn’t even want to move?  How you ate frozen waffles or canned soup for three days because you just did not have the energy or the desire to cook a real meal?  That is what depression is like, too.

The numbness, however, is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it firsthand.  If you’ve ever had someone or something upset you so much that you no longer cared, magnify that lack of concern tenfold.  It is similar to that catatonic shock following an accident or trauma.  You feel nothing, lost, blank, numb.  Eventually, you mentally shut down.  You are immobile, held hostage, trapped in your own mind.  You have no interest or motivation to do anything.  You see no point in even trying.

I wish there were more relatable examples I could give but it is impossible to rationalize the irrational.  There are some examples that are somewhat similar in one way or another, but even those don’t quite equate.  The best I can do is to illustrate the directions depression can go and to quantify how bad it can get.

When trying to explain depression, the best someone who is struggling can do is to explain how close we are at the given moment to either shutting down or wanting to give up.  The worst part is that the status can change in a moment’s notice on any given day.  There is no way to predict when it will veer off in either direction, let alone the severity of the bout.  You cannot even predict what will cause your condition to worsen, or whether it will even be something large or small.  Something as tragic as a great loss is just as likely to cause a period of numbness as a simple broken plate is to cause a severe downward spiral.  There are times we are honestly not even sure why we are feeling the way we do, only that the depression is there.  There is no rhyme, reason or rationality to any of it.

It is not something that a person can control in any way, either, let alone simply snap out of on their own accord.  Depression is a mental illness.  It is a medically-diagnosed condition that severely affects the ability to cope with life, negatively impacting and impairing both thoughts and behaviors.  Having a mental illness is no different than having any other type of illness.  Much like a diabetic has a pancreas that is malfunctioning, when a person has a mental illness, their brain is not working correctly.  The only difference is the organ affected.  Both conditions need medical treatment.

I understand how difficult it must be for someone who has never suffered from depression themselves to understand. Depression seems irrational because it is.  It doesn’t make sense, even to those of us struggling with it every day.  We find ourselves on a roller coaster ride that is speeding out of control, flying up and down every which way, with no way to stop or slow down.  Nobody asks for a mental illness.  Depression is not something anyone has done to themselves or is causing because they are not trying hard enough.  We don’t understand how we even ended up on this ride, let alone how to get off.  How can we adequately explain something we don’t even understand ourselves?

The confusion surrounding depression is also in part due to the stigma attached to mental illness in general.  For years, anyone with a mental illness was labeled as lazy, crazy, dangerous or a joke.  Either way, they were not taken seriously.  Mental illness was a dirty word that wasn’t discussed openly.  People fear or mock what they don’t understand.  The lack of education about medical conditions like depression led to wide-spread ignorance and misinformation.  Unfortunately, once that cat is out of the bag, the damage is done and it will take much longer to properly educate people about mental illness than it took to originally spread the falsehoods and misconceptions.

I understand fully that depression makes no sense to someone who has never experienced it themselves.  It honestly makes no sense to us, either.  But please know that depression is much more than just merely feeling sad from time to time.  With depression, you sometimes feel everything so strongly that it is completely overwhelming, the emotions feel agonizingly painful and never-ending, and the world feels utterly hopeless.  Other times, someone with depression is completely numb, feeling absolutely nothing at all.  Either way, everything feels much harder, more intense.  Depression is exhausting, both physically and mentally.  Perhaps worst of all, you feel helpless to do anything, like you have no control over your own mind.  And depression is not linear.  It goes up and down, every which way, changing direction and intensity on the drop of a dime.

I wish I could provide a chart that was more relatable for those who have never experienced depression, but, as I have stated before, there really is no way to rationalize the irrational.  The best I can do is to lay out what depression is like in a very simplified form and hope for your empathy, compassion, understanding and patience.

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Republished on The Mighty on 2/18/19.

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Republished on Yahoo: Lifestyle on 2/18/19.

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words When Words are All You’ve Got – Living with Aphantasia

I have a condition called Aphantasia.  Simply put, I cannot visualize.  Where other people can close their eyes and conjure up images within their minds, all I see when I close my eyes is blackness.

It might not sound like a big deal because in many ways it is not.  My Aphantasia did not prevent me from doing well in school or participating in activities and sports as a child.  I enjoy writing and art, I can cook and bake, and go through a thousand different menial tasks that are unimpeded by my condition.  My life in many ways is normal and unhindered.

That is not to say that my Aphantasia does not impact my life in many random ways that others take for granted.

For example, I am horrible with people’s names.  I can meet someone a dozen times and still have no clue what their name is when I meet them again.  There will be a familiar itch that scratches at my memory but until something rings a bell and a connection is made, I am at a loss.  Most people can simply close their eyes, conjure up a picture of someone and attach a name to that image.  My mind contains no images, only words.  My memory is full of descriptors.  For instance, I might remember someone by an event we attended together or a pet they own and until that descriptor is revealed once again, I will often draw a blank.

This extends from people to items, as well.  Even if someone catches me as I am headed to the store and asks me to pick up something for them, unless I am familiar with the specific item or write it down, chances are I might get it wrong.  Though I try to retain as much information as I can on the fly, I am easily thrown off and confused when faced with similar-looking items.  I cannot recall images, so I will question everything from size to brand to scent or flavor.  My mind will usually hone in on a color or a shape, leaving me to stand there, holding two similar items, trying to decipher which might be the right one.  Most people will simply take a mental snapshot to help them remember which item to get.  Instead of one picture that retains all the important information, I would have to store away the brand, size, color, flavor, scent, logos and a multitude of other descriptive words.

I am severely directionally challenged.  I could pass through somewhere multiple times and still find myself lost when I go there again.  I get turned around easily, as well.  Most people can close their eyes and recreate images of places they have been before.  However, unless something very specific has happened in that location that I will distinctly remember with words, the image of most places remain in my head only as long as they are within my sight.  Because I cannot close my eyes and instantly picture a walk I have done many times before, there is a distinct chance I could get lost headed there again.  I might remember that there is a library on a specific street somewhere downtown but if the many random houses and buildings along the way mean nothing to me, nothing will feel familiar until the library comes into sight.  If I turn onto the street a couple blocks too far, I might wander the wrong way for a period of time before the neighborhood changes enough for me to realize I have gone the wrong way.

I am also horrible with directions.  Many people can close their eyes and retrace their steps.  They can easily give detailed directions based on visuals they can recall, counting in their head, telling people to go down this street 8 blocks, take a right, go down 6 blocks more and take a left.  Even if I have been somewhere before, I have trouble giving precise directions like that.  Because I cannot visualize, short of memorizing every street and cross street in every town I have been in precisely in order, my brain has to come up with easier markers to remember, things that will stand out to me.  My directions might include a house that still has their Christmas lights up in July or a tree with a huge knot on it that looks like a face.  Simple things like a change in decor or a chopped down tree, however, will hurl me into a state of confusion that leaves me instantly lost again.

Though I enjoy being artistic and have been told I have both talent and a good eye, I have trouble creating physical representations of things without having pictures readily available.  I love to sketch and paint, but cannot conjure up images in my mind so I need to reference actual pictures before I can get spacial differences and angles just right.  Because I have to rely on pictures, my artwork often lacks originality.  At best, it might contain inspiration from multiple sources, yet it still always feels vastly unoriginal to me.  My writing, on the other hand, has greatly benefited from my lack of visualization.  I tend to be superfluous with my words, always trying to verbally paint images others can understand even if, like me, they cannot see it in their head.

I am overly sentimental and cling to mementos and photographs because they give me a physical reminder that I can see and hold, something that is more than just words.  No matter how many times I have seen someone’s face, the moment they leave my sight, I can no longer picture them.  In my mind, I will cling to the detail of edges and curves of faces and bodies, freckles and dimples, wrinkles and scars, to find descriptors that set them apart.  I have traced the angles of my fiance’s face a thousand times so I know the shape and feel of his face better than I know my own, because when I close my eyes, no matter how hard I try, I cannot see him.  Both my parents have passed away.  I don’t have any pictures of them so their faces are lost to me forever.  While watching a movie or show, I might see an actor and think “my father had a jaw like that” or “my mother stood like that when she was upset” but those are only small segments, similarities I recognize, random sparks and connections.  But the whole of their faces are gone.

Though I take classes in both tai chi and yoga, I always feel an entire segment of my classes are wasted on me.  Whenever the instructors begin an exercise in meditation and visualization, it is completely lost on me.  They will suggest everyone closing our eyes and imagining warm lights emanating from our cores or roots taking form and helping to ground us to the earth.  When I close my eyes, however, all I can ever see is blackness.  I spend that time, instead, concentrating on the feel of my breath entering and leaving my body, the feel of the air on my skin.  I turn my entire focus inward to the here and now, trying to release the jumble of words ever-floating throughout my head.  It is not meditation as others might do it but it is the best I can do.

I can go on and on with all the ways, big and small, that Aphantasia impacts my life.  Think of all the mental pictures most people store away in their minds.  Mental pictures for all the people, places and things they encounter every day of their lives.  Not being able to create mental images might seem like a very trivial thing – until you take the time to try and describe all those pictures using just words.

Aphantasia can be exhausting.  Most people store a multitude of images in their minds because it is faster, easier and more efficient.  Imagine if you had to describe every one of those images using words to someone who had never seen what you were describing.  You had no way to show them a picture, no way to help them understand other than describing everything. Imagine if you had to rely solely on your words.  Imagine how time consuming it would be to collect a variety of descriptors for every item instead of being able to share one simple image.  Now imagine that being your every minute, every day.  Imagine only being able to pull up words for everything instead of images.  How many words would you need?

In high school, my algebra teacher gave the class an assignment to write a paper, step by step, on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  The purpose was to teach the importance of showing all the work and not leaving out any steps.  However, I think this technique would work wonders for raising awareness for Aphantasia.  It would be a good exercise to have someone have to describe things in their lives, from the most important to the everyday trivial, to a sketch artist using only words.  Much like nobody in my algebra class could successfully make a peanut butter sandwich by writing out the detailed steps one by one, I imagine most people would struggle equally as hard to find all the words to accurately describe a snapshot of their life.

People often assume I am forgetful or absent-minded, easily confused and lost in my own mind.  The truth is, I often have to work at least two or three times as hard to recall anything because I cannot take the shortcut of storing pictures instead of words in my memory.  People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Take a moment and think of a vacation picture or an old family photo that means a lot to you.  Think of the different shades in that sunset along the coastline on your honeymoon or the creases in your deceased grandparents’ faces when they smiled, that small scratch on the rear side just above the bumper on your first car or the way your prom date looked standing next to it.  Imagine trying to recreate those whole scenes again, by memory, piece by piece, using only words.  Would a thousand words be enough?  Welcome to my world.

The Spiraling Cycle of Depression & Loneliness

Much like the classic question of whether the chicken or the egg came first, it is equally as hard to determine whether depression or loneliness comes first.

Does depression come first, causing a person to isolate, contributing to their own increased loneliness?

Or was the loneliness there first, causing worsening depression because you feel alone, like you have nobody there who cares, nobody who understands?

Often the two go hand in hand, causing a vicious cycle that spirals down, magnifying the impact of both.

In the beginning of the downward spiral, you don’t want to bother or inconvenience anyone with your problems.  The depression is there, but it feels like more of a trivial nuisance in your life than a bonafide issue.  You minimize your struggles because you don’t want to appear weak or helpless.  Your depression fools you into believing that you’re doing others a favor by not bothering them, that they have other, more important things to worry about than you.  You feel like you should be able to handle everything on your own so you begin to pull away, to isolate, and to justify those actions because you don’t want to trouble anyone else.

You feel disconnected and lonely, like you’re completely on your own.

And, over time, your depression continues to worsen, unchecked.

You close doors, put up walls and stop communicating.  It is not long until you’ve distanced yourself for so long that you feel you’re no longer entitled to reach out to those you have pushed away.  You feel guilty for being a bad friend.  You rationalize that it has been so long since you’ve spoken to everyone that to contact them now, just because you’re struggling more, would be wrong.  Even the thought of reaching out to anyone else feels awkward.  You feel like you’re being unreasonably needy for even wanting or wishing someone was there.

By this point, the depression has bled into every aspect of your life.  Everything feels utterly hopeless.  You feel completely lost, isolated and alone, like no one else could possibly understand.  Your depression convinces you of the fact that you are inherently broken in some strange and unique way that nobody else could ever understand.  You are struggling to function, struggling to even pull yourself out of bed.

You have not only pushed away everyone who was close to you, but you have also started to avoid everyone and everything else, as well.  You have stopped doing many of the things that once brought you joy because you feel you don’t deserve to be happy.  You don’t want anyone else to see the mess you’ve become.  You shut yourself off from the world, telling yourself the world is a better place without you in it, mucking it up.

And you have nobody to turn to, no one to talk with, nobody to lean on or confide in.

You’re completely alone.

The farther into the depths you spiral, the worse the loneliness and the worse the depression.  It isn’t a cycle that just loops endlessly in circles.  Instead it is a downward spiral that feeds off each other, making each worse in turn, dragging you further and further into the darkness.

Ironically, at the bottom of the spiral, you feel betrayed and abandoned.  Despite the fact that you intentionally isolated yourself and pushed everyone else away, your depression lies to you, telling you that if others truly cared, they would have seen all the signs, that they would have been there all along.  Your depression deceives you into believing that they would have fought harder to be there, refused to be pushed away.  It convinces you that nobody truly cares, that you are completely alone now and could not turn to anyone else even if you wanted to do so.  Your depression projects onto them the ability to read minds and to see everything you have hidden from them all along.  In the depth of depression, the irrational seems completely rational.

I have been there myself more than once.

Every time my depression begins to worsen again and spiral downward, I find myself isolating more and more.

I pull away because I don’t want to bother anyone else with my issues.  I always feel like a massive burden to everyone in my life.  My family and friends have seen me struggling for years.  I figure they must be tired of it all, exhausted from it by now.  I tell myself they don’t deserve to be plagued by my problems any more than they already have been.  I tell myself I am sparing them from my drama, saving them from any more heartbreak from seeing my continued struggling.

I feel like a horrible friend, a horrible person for even wanting to have them there during my bad times.  I feel like they deserve better than me.

I tell myself that I am doing them a kindness by keeping them away.

I desperately yearn for someone to talk to, someone to lean on, to have someone who truly understands.

Yet I feel completely alone…

…Because I have chosen to make myself alone.

It isn’t that I’m alone.  I have an amazing fiance who loves me to death and is both caring and compassionate about my mental illness.  I have wonderful children that have grown into incredible adults who want to be there for me.  I have a loyal and understanding circle of friends that have stood by me over the years.  I have a supportive team of doctors and other professionals whose primary goal is to help me.

That is the reality.  I am not alone.

However, the reality is also that I have depression, a mental illness that often convinces me both that I am alone and that I am a nuisance to everyone else in my life.

I don’t want to be alone.

But I don’t want to trouble any of them with my struggles or be a burden, either.

It is a catch-22, spurred on by the lies that my depression tells me.

It takes a continuous, conscious effort to remind myself that I am not a burden to any of them, that they love me, care about me and truly want to be there for me and help me.  I have to remind myself regularly that I am not alone and that others do truly care.  Again and again, I find myself itching to pull away, wanting to distance myself and my problems from everyone else.  It is a constant struggle not to isolate myself for the perceived benefit of others.

I have to remind myself, as well, that I don’t have to carry everything on my shoulders alone.  Often, I have to push myself to reopen those doors, tear down those walls and let others back in.  It is admittedly very hard a lot of the time to lean on others, to bother them with my problems, to even ask for help when I need it.  Instinctively, I always feel like everyone else has enough on their own plates without adding my mess to the mix.  I always feel guilty for needing other people.  Whenever I start feeling that way, I have to remind myself that others are there because they want to be.

Deep down, I know I am not a burden.

I know I am not troubling or bothering anyone with my problems nor am I forcing anyone to be there against their will.

I know I don’t have to face my illness alone.

I know all these negative feelings are lies, though they feel completely legitimate and real to me at the time.

We feel completely and utterly alone because our depression lies to us, convincing us that loneliness is a reality when you have a mental illness.  We don’t have to be alone, though.  Don’t let your depression deceive you.  There are others that care, others that want to be there.

There are people you have pushed away who are yearning to be back in your life, people who truly care about you and your well-being.

There are also others out there who you may not even have met yet who would be willing to be there, who understand what you are going through and don’t want you to have to struggle alone.

There are doctors and therapists, as well, and support groups out there who are willing to help.

I honestly cannot tell you whether the spiral starts with depression or with loneliness, though the two often go hand in hand.  Together they form a symbiotic relationship that feasts on your mental health, starving you of your happiness and well-being.

I do know one thing, though.

You don’t have to be alone…

…So please don’t choose to be.