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.

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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I Have Depression.. But I am Happy..

I have struggled with depression my entire life, in part due to a genetic mutation passed down to me from my parents that affects the way my body metabolizes specific chemicals my brain needs to moderate my moods.  I regularly go through horrendous downward spirals where I feel completely broken and worthless, where life feels utterly hopeless.  I struggle with long periods of numbness where I have difficulty functioning or even finding the motivation to get out of bed.  On bad days, I will cry until my face is sore and my voice is hoarse, and it is unlikely I will be able to accomplish much more than basic self-care.  I am battling an illness that warps my very perceptions of life and continuously exhausts and pains me both physically and mentally.

But I am happy.

I have an amazing fiance who is very supportive of me and my diagnosis.  I have healthy, kind, smart and all-around wonderful children who have grown into incredible adults.  My fiance’s children are both amazing, as well. Together we have all formed a beautiful, blended family that I love with all my heart and am proud to call my own.  I have a team of doctors who actually listen to me and a treatment plan that is slowly but surely helping improve my quality of life.  And I have a blossoming writing career that has given me a true sense of purpose and an ability to help others in need.  I have many wonderful blessings in my life to be grateful for, many reasons to be happy.

Yet I have been diagnosed with depression.

That is because a mental illness like depression has nothing to do with happiness.  Depression is not caused by being in the wrong frame of mind or just not trying hard enough to be happy.  Having a depression diagnosis has nothing to do with feeling sad, a little blue or under the weather.  People with depression aren’t being Negative Nancys or Debbie Downers who just need to learn to lighten up and look on the bright side.  My diagnosis wouldn’t just disappear if I just tried to smile a little harder or maintained a more positive outlook on life.  My depression has nothing to do with whether or not I am happy.

I have trained myself to find reasons to smile everyday.  I am usually the first to look for something positive in even the roughest of situations.  No matter how hard my own day might feel, I always try to show compassion and kindness to others.  If nothing else, I am grateful each day I wake up and thankful of all the loving and supportive people in my life and share that sentiment regularly.  I am hopeful for the possibilities the future may have in store for me, as well.  Some of my friends lovingly joke that I am the happiest, most positive little depressed person they know.

Yet I continue to struggle with my depression diagnosis.

My brain does not care whether or not I am happy or grateful, whether I am hopeful, compassionate or kind.  My mental illness is caused by my brain not working properly, much like a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning causes their condition.  I have no more control over having a mental illness than someone else having diabetes, heart disease or another medical condition they may have been passed genetically.  Yes, events in my life may have further exasperated my mental illness, much like having excessive sugar might worsen a person’s diabetes or having foods high in cholesterol might affect the severity of heart disease, but my condition preceded any of the traumas and abuses I have endured over the years.  I have even sought treatment to help resolve those issues to the best of my ability, yet my depression has remained.

Because depression is an illness, a medical diagnosis with both mental and physical causations.

It is not all in my head.

It is not a state of mind or an emotion.

Depression isn’t about being sad.

The cure for depression is not happiness.

Like any other illness, depression needs ongoing medical treatment.  Doctors need to not only diagnose the condition, but also to isolate and treat both the mental and physical reasons for the illness, as well. Though doctors often utilize psychological treatments like therapy, meditation and mindfulness, they usually also include psychiatric methods and medications to help treat the physical causation.  That is because doctors recognize mental illnesses such as depression as a verifiable disability that deserves a comprehensive, multi-pronged treatment.

In cases like mine where my depression has a genetic causation, my diagnosis is permanent.  I was born with it much like some children are born diabetic.  You would not blame a child for being born with a pancreas that was incapable of functioning properly so please don’t blame me for the fact that I was born with organs that malfunctioned, as well.  The only difference in my case are the organs affected.  No matter how happy I am or how positive my outlook is on life, my liver will never be able to metabolize the substances my brain needs in order to function properly.  I will have this medical diagnosis and need ongoing treatment until the day I die.

If I confide in you that I am struggling with depression, please don’t try to encourage me to try to be happier and more positive, or point out all the blessings I have in my life.  I am happy and grateful already.  You do not need to remind me to be hopeful for the future because I already am.  Please don’t blame me for my diagnosis either, insinuating that I wouldn’t be ill if I just tried a little harder.  I did not ask for this diagnosis, nor did I cause it.  What I need from you is the same compassion, understanding and support you would give anyone else with any other medical diagnosis.

Because, though I am already happy, knowing you were doing your best to be supportive and treat me with the same respect you would someone struggling with other illnesses would make me even happier.

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Republished on the Mighty on 4/4/19.

Love.. When You Both Have A Mental Illness

Everywhere you look nowadays, you see stories about Ariana Grande’s whirlwind romance with Pete Davidson.  And almost everyone seems to want to put in their two cents on the matter, claiming everything from the fact that they’re too young to they’re moving too fast.  So many opinions abound.

More than anything, though, I keep seeing people chiming in about the fact that they both have mental illnesses that they have spoken publicly about, as if their illnesses play a large part in their relationship in some negative way.  Ariana Grande has spoken out about her struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Pete Davidson has shared his experiences with borderline personality disorder.  Yes, they both have mental illnesses but they also have found love.  And two people loving each other is not a bad thing.

There are many people that buy into the stigma surrounding mental illness, assuming that everyone struggling with one is crazy, unbalanced or even dangerous.  Some assume that nobody can have a healthy relationship while they have an unhealthy mind and that two mentally ill people coming together is a recipe for disaster.

I once even had a friend tell me specifically that “two unhealthy people cannot have a healthy relationship”.  Based on their premise, because I have a lifelong mental illness diagnosis that has its roots in my genetics, I have no hope of having a healthy relationship, especially if I fall in love with someone else who is struggling with an illness, as well.  If he were to be believed, I was destined to be alone.

As someone who struggles with mental illness who is in a relationship with someone else who is mentally ill, as well, I can tell you from my own personal experience that is not the case.

I have depression, anxiety and PTSD.  He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD.  We have both struggled with our illnesses for years, even being hospitalized for breakdowns at different points in our lives.  Yet, in each other we have found a love unlike anything either of us had ever experienced before.

We knew each other years ago as children.  He was my older brother’s best friend for a time and my first crush.  In our teens, life sent us in different directions and we lost touch for many years.  We found each other again a year and a half ago, after twenty five years apart, and sparks flew.

Like Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, we’ve had people look at our relationship with judgment because we moved so fast.  He found me online again, listed as a friend of a friend he might know and we reconnected.  For two days, we talked non-stop whenever we had a moment to spare.  On the third day, we arranged to get together in person.  We’ve been together ever since.  As they often say “the rest is history”.

A month and a half later, we found ourselves living together.  We hadn’t planned it that way honestly.  His father had inoperable end-stage cancer and was placed in hospice.  There was no way I was going to leave his side for even a moment and make him endure that alone.  I had lost my own father to cancer a few years earlier, following his own brief stay in hospice.  Going through that together brought us even closer.

All the people from the outside looking in saw were two people who jumped ridiculously fast into a relationship.  They don’t realize that we knew each other as children and had a pre-existing familiarity and closeness that was brought back to the surface again.  The don’t accept that facing hardships together as we had done brings people closer.  They don’t consider that we have physically spent more time together in the last year and a half together than some couples have after dating for years.  They don’t see how we are with each other behind closed doors and how close we’ve continued to grow with each passing day.  Some people come directly from a place of judgment and automatically think it’s irrational to be so serious after such a short time.  Or worse, they label our choices as “crazy”, as if our love was just another way our mental illnesses have presented themselves.

Because of our mental illnesses, we’ve both always felt different, broken, damaged.  We both never felt we quite fit in or that anyone else could truly understand what we’re going through.  We’ve both felt so lost and that life should not be this hard.  We both have struggled for years to stay positive when it felt like our world was spiraling down into a dark abyss.  We both had numerous people in our lives who just couldn’t understand, who told us it was all in our heads, that we just needed to get over it and suck it up.

The difference now is that we both have someone we can talk to about everything we’ve been through.  Someone who truly gets it because they have been there themselves.  Someone who listens without judgment because they understand all too well how much that judgment hurts.  Someone who sees us not as damaged and broken, but for the big hearts and beautiful souls we have inside.

With that level of love and acceptance comes an incredibly strong bond.

We’re able to open up to one another and talk on a level that we never had before, to share experiences and traumas we’ve kept to ourselves for years.  In each other, we’ve found the one person we can completely be ourselves with, say anything to, without fear of rejection.

We both have a portion of our mental illness that is unique to us.  I have a generalized anxiety disorder and he has bipolar disorder.  Though I have not struggled with his disorder myself, my mother had bipolar disorder so I had some experience with his illness, at least from the outside looking in.  We have patiently explained to one another everything the other didn’t understand and offered tips to one another for how to support us when we are struggling.  We listen intently to each other and are supportive to each other because we both know very well how it feels to have nobody there who understands.

The depression side of his disorder I understand all too well.  The manic side not so much, though I had learned early on in life to spot the shifts in my mother because she shared his diagnosis.  When he has a manic episode, I am always there to offer support and encouragement.  He often becomes hyper-focused on one task or another and I intervene to make sure he does not lose himself, putting off self-care and disregarding his basic needs like eating.  On the rare occasion that his mania presents itself as rage, I do my best to deescalate the situation in a non-confrontational way.  No matter how his mania presents itself, I offer a calming presence to soothe him and bring him back down again, often rubbing his back, head and shoulders to help him relax.

When my anxiety makes me think irrationally, he is there to talk me down, to help me see reason.  Following anxiety attacks, when I desperately just need the quiet presence of someone else, he holds me closely without judgment and reassures me everything is okay.

Depression hits us both pretty hard.  In the past, we’ve both dealt with people who never understood and who insisted it was all in our heads.  But we both know the signs.  We can see in each other when our depression is raging strong.  And we are both there for each other how we always wished someone would have been there for us for all those years.  We are gentle, kind and compassionate with each other because we’ve been there ourselves and we understand how hard it can be.

We both are plagued by PTSD, as well.  Nightmares of past trauma are especially hard for us both.  When either of us is battling the demons of our past, the other can see the signs, intervene and offer comfort and support.  When our pasts are haunting us, we can talk openly about it on a level that we never were able to with anyone else.

On days either or both of us are struggling particularly hard, we have learned to lean on each other without judgment.  We each pick up where the other leaves off.  We have developed an ever-shifting balance in our relationship.  On days we both are struggling, we curl up together and lean on each other for comfort.

We cheer each other on for our successes and support each other in our struggles.  We encourage each other to stay strong, to keep fighting and to get the treatment we each need.  Neither one of us judges the other for the ways our illnesses present themselves because we understand all too well and empathize with each other on every level.  We not only offer each other support but we’ve become proactive in each other’s treatment, as well.  We’ve attended doctors appointments with each other and helped bring up concerns the other may not have noticed or may have been too uncomfortable to discuss.  We love and support each other in every way.

Yes, we jumped into a relationship that became serious relatively quickly.  But it was not because our mental illnesses had us thinking irrationally.  In each other, we saw someone who finally understood everything we had been battling our entire lives.  In each other, we found that one person who could accept us completely for who we were, loving us not despite our mental illnesses but because of every single thing, mental illnesses included, that made us who we were.  In each other, we discovered what we had been needing, what we had been missing, our entire lives.  Pure unconditional love.

When you find something like that you don’t question it.  You don’t hold back, think on it or weigh options.  You thank the heavens for placing someone in your life and in your path that makes you finally feel not just that it’s okay to be you but that there’s not a single other person in this world you’d rather be.  You run with it and you love them back completely because life is short.  We have to make the most of it.  And a love like this is too good to pass up.

Yes, we may lean on each other more than others do because of our conditions, but that doesn’t make our relationship unhealthy.  We give each other exactly what we each need.  We might both have mental illnesses, but we both are so much more than our diagnosis.  And now we are both blessed to have found someone who can truly see that.

After all, mental illness is just another medical diagnosis and one that is largely treatable.  The only thing that makes mental illness different from other illnesses is that it presents itself in the brain instead of the body so it’s not as easily visible.  People with different medical conditions live their lives and find love every single day.  Those with a mental illness are no different.  People who have a mental illness are just as worthy and deserving of love as anyone else.

So please don’t judge others, or their relationships, based on the fact that one or both of them have a mental illness.  Don’t let the overwhelming stigma surrounding mental illness turn you into a naysayer that pronounces doom and gloom on two people in love just because they both happen to share a similar medical condition.  Instead, celebrate that, despite the fact that there are millions of people walking this earth, they were able to find that one person who loves them completely for who they are.

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When You’re Struggling With Mental Illness, A Good Therapist Can Make All The Difference

For years, I struggled with my mental health treatment.  Not only was I considered “treatment resistant” because no medication my doctors prescribed seemed to even touch my illness, but I had become increasingly disillusioned with the therapy aspect, as well.

In theory, I have always believed therapy was a good thing.  Better out than in, as Shrek says.  I believed that people need to be able to talk about the issues in their life so that they did not build up, escalate and cause further issues down the line.

However, my personal experiences with therapy and counseling were disheartening to say the least.

When I was a child, my mother briefly took our family for therapy together.  On the very first appointment, when my brother and I both attempted to speak up and share our perspectives on the situation, we were cut off.  Our “family therapist” informed us that they were the parents, we were the children, that whatever they said goes and that our opinions on the matter were irrelevant.  From that point on in his sessions, I didn’t even bother participating because he made me feel irrelevant, as well.  The whole experience left a horrible taste in my mouth and made it harder for me to trust or open up to therapists from that point on.

As a teenager after my mother shot my father, I was briefly placed in counseling again.  The therapist that time did not seem interested in who I was or how I was feeling.  They simply wanted to know whether I had any plans to try and harm myself or anyone else.  Once they felt reassured that I was not a danger to myself or others, they saw no reason to see me any further.  Again, I was left feeling like I did not matter.

In my twenties, I had my first serious breakdown and my first true glimpse into the mental healthcare system.  I now not only was assigned a therapist but a meds doctor, as well.  I also had doctors that I saw for group therapy sessions.  I had a bonafide mental health team.

My therapist was always watching the clock and would interrupt me each session when we had ten minutes left, telling me to “wrap it up” because our session was almost over.  She chose the direction of our sessions, insisting we always talk about current issues because she didn’t believe I was ready to talk about my past.  I had no control over my own therapy.  I felt irrelevant to the whole process, like I was just going through the motions of getting help and she was only listening because she was being paid to do so.  If I ever needed to contact her in between sessions, I was directed to leave a voice mail, though her mailbox was often too full to leave one.

My meds doctor was equally as bad at listening.  He would prescribe me whatever the current flavor of the month antidepressant might be.  When I would explain that it was not even touching my symptoms, he would continuously up the dosages or add other prescriptions into the mix until the side effects became unbearable and I felt like a walking zombie.  Every time I spoke up explaining that nothing was helping and that I felt worse than before I began taking anything, I was disregarded and told that I had to give the medications time to work.

My “therapy groups” were laughable at best.  Everyone in the groups were told that we were not allowed to talk about anything too personal, nor were we allowed to discuss any topic that might be triggering to anyone else.  What we were left with was a room full of people sitting there uncomfortably, some wanting to cry, others wanting to rage, as we all muttered through gritted teeth that we were fine because none of us felt we were allowed to say anything more.

The mental health clinic I attended also had an impatient wing at an area hospital.  I was admitted there a handful of times over the years.  As bad as their other services were, those stints on the mental health floor of the hospital were the worst.  It always took over a day to get my medications approved so I felt even more unbalanced from the start.  On an average three to seven day stay, I only saw a doctor for ten to fifteen minutes on the day I was admitted and again on the day I was released.  In between, the only option for any sort of therapy were groups.  I was assigned groups with the same rules as my outpatient groups so nothing was ever talked about or resolved.  No one was allowed in their rooms during the day so you had hallways full of clinically depressed people walking endless laps around a secured wing, biding their time until their next mandatory group or meal.  Patients openly sobbed or sat around with numb expressions as if life itself no longer made sense.  Nurses sat in a large locked cubicle in the center of the wing, laughing and talking among themselves and largely disregarding the patients unless they had to intervene with a “behavioral issue” or direct someone somewhere.  There was no real treatment.  It was a corral to hold the mentally ill until the staff could pass them off to be someone else’s problem.

More than once, I stopped going to my treatment over the years.  I felt irrelevant, unheard, unhelped.  It all felt like a complete waste of time.  However, with or without treatment, my mental illness raged on and periodically I found myself having another breakdown and needing treatment again. Unfortunately, there was not a large selection of mental health clinics in the county where I lived, and the others all had long waiting lists, so whenever I needed mental health treatment I was sent back to the same clinic that had already previously let me down.  Over time, I became so disenchanted with the mental healthcare system that I just couldn’t see the point anymore.  I may have had a bonafide mental health treatment team but I walked away without any real treatment for my illness.

A couple years ago, I had yet another severe breakdown, this time thankfully in another county.  With the help of a coordinated care provider, I was able to get an appointment at a clinic that normally had a long waiting list and was not currently taking new patients.  Again, I would be assigned a mental health team.  I wasn’t going to hold my breath, though.  I had been through this process many times before.  My expectations were low.

I have never before been so pleasantly surprised or so grateful to be proven wrong.  The difference was like night and day.

My meds doctor actually listened to my previous experience with different prescriptions and did not try to push a large pile of pills on me.  Instead, he had me take a genetic test to determine what medications would work best for me based on my genetic make up.  Lo and behold, based on the results of this test, over half of the medications previous doctors had placed me on were listed as causing moderate to significant interactions for me.  The genetic test also revealed a genetic mutation I had that greatly contributed to my treatment resistance.  We worked together to create a treatment plan that actually suited me.

All my groups encouraged open dialogue, even if the topic was grief or pain.  My groups laughed together and cried together.  We fought our battles side by side and all felt heard.  This clinic offered a wide variety of groups beyond traditional therapy groups, as well, such as transforming anxiety through art, meditation, tai chi and yoga.  I found myself signing up for every group I could fit into my schedule.  Not only were they treating my mental illness, they were contributing to my mental wellness, as well.

My biggest blessing and godsend at this new clinic was my therapist. She lets me control the flow of our appointments and choose what I feel I need to address each week, never prodding or rejecting the topics I select.  She made allowances with her scheduling so that if we ever went over the session time, she never had to cut me off or make another patient wait.  She understood my struggles with verbalizing sometimes in between appointments and readily agreed to communicate via email or texts because that was what worked best with me.  Whenever I have emailed or texted her, she has responded back in under a day.  Most importantly, she truly listened and cared.

When I was struggling to find housing, she brought in resources and connected me to organizations that might be able to assist me.  She helped me navigate through registering my sugar gliders as emotional support animals.  She took the time to introduce me to others I would be attending groups with so I did not feel so awkward about not knowing anyone there.  When I was on bedrest following surgery, she did sessions over the phone so that I did not have a lapse in treatment.  She has helped and intervened with more than one personal crisis time and again. She regularly went above and beyond in every way imaginable.

Perhaps the grandest gesture she had done was only a couple months into our visits.  My mother had passed away on Thanksgiving day 2010.  In one of our early sessions, I had expressed to her how hard this day still was for me years later.  On Thanksgiving, she took time out of her day and her own family celebrations not once but twice to reach out and call to make sure I was okay.

Again and again, she has shown me that I wasn’t just a patient that mattered during those 50 minutes penciled in on her schedule.  She helped me to feel like I mattered even when I had trouble mattering to myself.  She always made me feel like my mental health was a priority, that I was a priority.  I have never felt more heard.

I honestly feel like I won the therapist lottery.  In under two years time, I have gone from hating therapy and thinking it is a joke to believing it can truly make a difference in someone’s life.  My life.  Everyone’s life.  Whenever I hear anyone talk about needing a therapist, I refer them to my clinic, insisting that even if there is not an opening right away, they are worth the wait.  I often share stories about my experiences with my therapist that end in “what therapist does that?!”.  The only difference is that now my stories come from a place of gratitude instead of disbelief and disgust.

There are wonderful therapists out there.  There are clinics that genuinely want to help their patients heal, who see them as people that are suffering instead of a steady flow of dollar signs in and out the door.  I understand how easy it is to become disillusioned with the mental healthcare system when it feels like you are unheard and irrelevant to your own treatment.  I’ve been there.  I went through a revolving door of sub par and inadequate treatment for years.  But please know that not all clinics and not all doctors are like that.  Some genuinely care about their patients and their well-being.

If you are feeling unheard or untreated, please don’t give up hope.  Don’t stop your treatment because your doctor is not hearing you or is not working in your best interest.  Keep looking.  Find a new doctor.  Your mental health matters.  Don’t settle for clinics that make you feel irrelevant.  Find a place where you feel heard, where you feel like you truly matter.  Find a place that makes you look forward to getting the treatment you need.  Trust me – It can make a world of a difference in your life.

I want to end this piece by taking a moment and thank Mary B. and everyone else at my mental health clinic for making such a dramatic impact on my life.  You are all truly a blessing not only to me but to all those whose lives you have touched.  Thank you sincerely.

Changing My Perspective On My Mental Illness Saved My Life

I have struggled my entire life with mental illness.  Unlike some people whose mental illness has an origin that can be pinpointed to a specific life event, mine is caused in part by a genetic mutation.  It has always been there to varying degrees.  I have always struggled.

Thanks to that same genetic mutation, I have always been considered treatment-resistant, as well.  No medication I ever took seemed to even touch the darkness I carried inside me.  This mutation affected the way the neurotransmitters in my brain worked so I never received the chemicals that I desperately needed, whether made naturally or prescribed,  in any useful amount.

For over forty years of my life, I struggled to function while feeling inherently broken and flawed without ever understanding why.  Discovering the existence of my genetic mutation helped me see my mental illness in a new light and put me on a new path of self-love and acceptance.  There were ways to treat my mutation.  I no longer had to be classified as “treatment resistant” and pushed aside as a hopeless case.  I no longer had to stagnate through life, a broken shell going through the motions while barely existing.

Please know that I am not touting any magical cure for mental illness.  I am also not trying to push that stigma-fueled misconception that if you just try harder, you can somehow vanquish your mental illness by force of will alone.  My mental illness is still very much present and ongoing treatment is still needed.  But the way I have come to view my mental illness has drastically changed and, in many ways, it has been both a world-changer and life-saver for me.

I no longer blame myself for my mental illness.  I used to believe I was damaged and broken, that I was crazy on some core level, unbalanced and just not right in the head.  I had downed gallons of that stigma kool-aid, poisoning myself with the idea that I must just not be trying hard enough, that I was somehow doing this to myself.

I now accept that it is a verifiable illness and one that is largely treatable.  I have accepted that I am no more responsible for my illness than a cancer patient would be for their condition.  It is a medical diagnosis that affects people of all walks of life regardless of their race, religion, gender identity, age or socio-economic status.  I did not ask for my illness nor was it thrust upon me as some punishment or retribution.  People just sometimes get sick and when they do, they need treatment.

For years, I was suicidal on and off.  Because none of my treatment ever seemed to work, my world felt hopeless.  Because I felt damaged and useless, I surrounded myself with people who treated me like I was as worthless as I felt.  Even on my best days, I was only a few steps away from giving up.

Being able to finally accept that I was not responsible for my illness removed all the blame from the equation.  Since I was no longer to blame, I could stop hating myself, stop punishing myself for being so broken.  If it was a medical condition, it was treatable.  And if it was treatable, there was hope.

Hope was a new concept for me.

I was not used to the idea of looking forward to the future.  Previously, I went through the motions of merely existing day by day.  I did not look forward to what tomorrow might bring because it had always brought the same despair as told held and all the days before.  Nothing had ever changed.  But now, there was finally a very real possibility for change.  For the first time, I found myself looking forward to the future.

I also received some semblance of control over my own life.  For years, it felt like my world had been spinning out of control and I had no say in the matter, that I was just along for the ride.  But if there is treatment available that can work, that means I have control over my life again.  Though it might take time to find a balance that works for me, my life and my health are in my hands.  The only way my life will never get better is if I choose to not get treatment.

Regaining control over my own life in turn made me more proactive about my treatment.  I was willing to try anything that might help.  Meditation. Yoga. Tai Chi. Writing.  Art.  Anything that might make a difference and give me a better fighting chance.  It all added new tools to my mental wellness toolbox and made me stronger.

It also made me more open to letting others back into my life.  For years I had isolated myself from many people, believing they were better off without me.  I worried that somehow the mess in my head might spill over into their lives and firmly believed that nobody deserved that.  Being able to see my mental illness as a treatable condition allowed me to take those walls down and let people back in.  I wasn’t dangerous, unbalanced or crazy.  Nobody needed to be protected or shielded from me.  I had a fairly common condition that was treatable.

My new strength also helped me to see that everything my mental illness had been telling me all along was a lie.  I was not weak.  I was not broken beyond repair.  I was not useless, unlovable, unwanted, unworthy.  I was strong.  I was fierce.  I was brave.  I was a fighter, a survivor, a force to be reckoned with.  My future was in my hands.

My new fighting spirit gave birth to an inner advocate that I never knew was within me.  Not only was I fighting for my own mental health, but I began writing advocating for others, as well.  And the more I talked about my own mental illness, the more I let others know they were not alone and encouraged them to never give up, the stronger I got.  Within my illness, I found a purpose, a reason to keep going and to fight that was much larger than my own survival.  The same illness that for years had me pinned on death’s door had breathed new life into me and given me a true calling.

That does not mean that my mental illness is gone.  It is still there raging strong.  The only difference is that now when that inner dialogue begins, I can fight back.  I can call it out for the liar it is.  I can use the tools I have acquired in my mental wellness toolbox and stave off the worst of it.  Instead of succumbing to its cruelty like a lamb being led to slaughter, I now have the will to fight back, to call it out and to refuse to let it beat me.

And I have hope.

I want to get treatment.  Because I have a sincere hope that one day things could be better, that one day my mental illness will not have such a death grip on me.

Having hope has made all the difference.

If you are struggling right now with mental illness, please take my words to heart.  You are not to blame.  You have done nothing wrong.  You are not broken, flawed, or damaged beyond repair. You are not useless, unwanted, unloved, unworthy.  You have a medical condition that could happen to anybody.  There is treatment available.  Things can get better.

And there is hope.

You just have to open yourself up to that possibility.

Trust me.  It will change your world and might just save your life.

You’re stronger than you realize.  You’d have to be strong to fight the monsters you’ve been fighting all along.

You’ve got this.

I have hope for you.  Now all you need is hope for yourself.

Why Removing Toxic People From Your Life Is An Act Of Self-Love & Self-Care

Some people preach forgiveness and giving second, third, fourth, even unlimited chances.  They claim forgiving others is more about your own peace of mind than theirs and that the heart should always be open to it.  Some even claim that you should never remove anyone from your life because everyone is there for a reason.  They emphasize blood relationships and length of friendships as the sole reason you should forgive and forget.

I am not one of those people.

I believe that you should surround yourself with people who are good for your heart and soul, not based on dna links or length of familiarity.  I believe we must not only be kind to ourselves but surround ourselves with kindness, as well.  You cannot heal and work towards being healthier again if you continue to reside in the sick ward, continuously being bombarded by things that contributed to your illness in the first place.

Some people hold tightly to friendships or relationships for no other reason than “they’ve known them forever” or “things used to be different, used to be great”.  You can have a drinking glass that has served you well for years and has even played an important part in your life for some time.  But if that glass shatters, it fundamentally changes so drastically that it can never go back to what it once was, you do not keep that glass.  You do not leave those shattered shards on the ground where they fell so that every time you come in close proximity to it, you risk cutting yourself open again, creating new wounds and reopening old.  You accept that it no longer has any place or purpose in your life, you clean up the remnants of the glass and you discard them, protecting yourself from any further harm.  No matter how long you’ve had that glass or how much it previously fit into your life or daily routine, once it has shattered beyond repair, we accept it cannot be fixed and we discard it for our own safety.

If we are willing to do this to protect our body from being hurt, why wouldn’t we do the same for our heart and our mind?  If a relationship has broken down and deteriorated so badly that the only remaining possibility is the infliction of more pain, why would we subject ourselves to that continued hurt?

I also believe there are some people who no longer fit into our life or belong on our path.  It is akin to a recovering alcoholic no longer spending time with his old drinking buddies, people whose only connection to his life was encouraging his continued drinking.  If you are trying to live a healthier, more positive life, you cannot surround yourself with negative people.  If you are working towards trying to love yourself, you cannot surround yourself with people who make you feel worthless and broken.  If you are trying to get treatment and take care of yourself, you cannot surround yourself with people who minimize or trivialize your struggle and your efforts, who tell you to “suck it up”, “just get over it” and treat you  poorly instead of offering encouragement and support.  You cannot change your mindset and your situation if you remain in the same environment that allowed that negativity to flourish in the first place.  The urge to relapse is too strong.  Recovering alcoholics don’t spend every night sitting on their old bar stools, surrounded by everyone who kept pushing for them to have one more drink, sliding shot after shot their way.  They accept that is not healthy for them, that it no longer has a place in their life and they find other, more positive people and places to occupy their time.

Why wouldn’t we do the same thing when it comes to poisonous people in our lives?

Removing toxic people from our lives is not about hating them or punishing them.  It honestly isn’t about them at all.  It is about taking care of ourselves and loving ourselves.  It is about identifying everything that is unhealthy in our lives and removing whatever is detrimental to our health.  Removing someone who is toxic does not mean you don’t love them or that they never meant anything to you.  It means you love yourself more.  A newly diagnosed diabetic might absolutely love cupcakes, but they know that those cupcakes no longer fit in their life.  Having those cupcakes around will only continue to make them sick and slowly kill them.  They might have loved those cupcakes for years, but no cupcake is worth losing your life over.  They will miss those cupcakes for the place they once held in their past but deep down, they know now that they are no longer healthy for them and they need to go.

Why wouldn’t we remove people from our lives, as well, that are no longer healthy for us and are slowly breaking our heart and our spirit, killing a vital part of ourselves?

One of the best things I ever did for myself was to remove toxic people from my life, the ones who treated my mental illness like a joke and responded with judgment instead of compassion.  It is hard enough to battle those voices in my own head telling me I am broken, worthless and unlovable, without those sentiments being echoed by people I had allowed into my life.  It was difficult letting go of some of those relationships, especially when it was all I had known for years, but it was honestly for the best.  In the end, I had to put myself and my health first and remove anything that stood as a roadblock to my wellness.

I also had to accept that some people never had my best interest at heart.  There were some people in my life that found some strange sort of pleasure in my pain, people that raised themselves up higher by systematically knocking down those around them.  There were people that kept others around solely because seeing others struggle made them feel better about their own lives.  People like that were so threatened by the happiness or success of others that they minimized or sabotaged the successes of others so that they could maintain their air of superiority.  I had to accept that some relationships in my life were dysfunctional at their core, that they had never been and never would be healthy for me.

These days, I’ve surrounded myself with people who generally care about my health and well-being, people who cheer on my successes and offer comfort when I am struggling.  I’ve chosen to surround myself with people who celebrate my strengths instead of highlighting my weaknesses, who encourage me to keep fighting and to never give up.  I’ve surrounded myself with people who see my beauty and my strength and who make me feel better about myself even on days I am struggling to see that light shining from within.

I have found that it is easier, as well, to give freely of myself when I feel cherished and appreciated in return.  It is easier to extend myself to those who I know would be there for me if ever I needed.  My own capacity for kindness and compassion has grown exponentially because it is being continuously replenished by others.  There is an old saying that you cannot pour from an empty pot, suggesting that you must take time to care for yourself before you can extend yourself to others.  By surrounding myself with only love and acceptance, kindness and compassion, it is always flowing between us and no pot seems to ever run empty.

Flowers need the warm glow of sunlight, water to quench their thirst and the nutrients in the soil to feed them in order to flourish and grow.  You cannot leave a flower in the darkness, starving them of nourishment and expect them to thrive.  Much like that flower, we need that light and nourishment if we have any hope of blossoming into a healthier version of ourselves.  We need love and acceptance to warm our hearts, kindness and compassion to nourish our souls.  If we allow toxic people to hold us in the darkness, to deny us what we need, our hearts and souls will slowly wither and die.  By removing people who are toxic from our life and replacing them with others who truly care about us and our well-being, we are pulling ourselves out of the darkness and giving ourselves a very real fighting chance to flourish and grow, to truly live.

I believe forgiving others is more about making them feel better than it is about our own well-being.  I think not everyone deserves multiple chances, especially if they have proven time and again that they do not have your best interest at heart.  If I am going to forgive anyone, I am going to forgive myself for letting some people abuse my trust and repeatedly injure my heart.  In the end, it isn’t my job to console those who have repeatedly hurt me, offering them the kindness they have never shown me.  I have a greater obligation to myself and to my own well-being.  If I have to choose someone to show kindness and compassion to, it will be myself and those who have shown me kindness and compassion in return.