Coronavirus Has Become The Great Equalizer For The Mentally Ill

For years now, I have attempted to combat the stigma associated with mental illness.  Again and again, I have given real world examples, approached the subject from differing angles, even used charts and graphs, hoping to help those who have never experienced it themselves better understand.  Yet, sadly I still often feel like I fall short.  While those who are living with mental illness have contacted me numerous times to thank me for putting their experiences into words, there are still those who could not wrap their minds around what it was like to live with our diagnosis.

That is, they couldn’t fully understand until this pandemic hit.

Day after day, for months now, I continue to see postings, comments and tweets that could have been written by any one of the millions of people who struggle every day with various mental illnesses.

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People talk about being worried all the time, sometimes not even knowing what it is that they are worried about, only that the ever-present feeling of dread is looming there, hanging over them.

People talk about being afraid of their world falling apart, the economy crumbling, their job not being there after all of this is over.  They worry about not being smart enough to home school their kids, and of the dangers of sending them back to school in the height of the pandemic. They worry about the house not being clean enough if they have to do a video conference with their co-workers or whether they are even capable to adequately work from home for any length of time. They worry about bills accumulating faster than money comes in and the continuous threat of losing their homes due to evictions and foreclosures.

Even seemingly little things like running to the store for food or toilet paper feel huge.  The world outside doesn’t feel safe.  What if the store is out of whatever we need when they get there?  What if they bump into someone sick? What if they bring the virus home?  The sound of someone nearby coughing makes them jump and want to run back home to safety.  Many even put off going out for days until they absolutely have to, the dreaded eventual trip weighing on them.

People talk about being worried incessantly and excessively about their loved ones and friends, of imagining worst case scenarios of their illnesses and deaths, even though they know they are currently safe and healthy.

Though the common sense part of their brain keeps firing off, trying to remind them that everything is currently okay, and that things will likely eventually be okay again, they cannot help but feel like everything they are worried about is not only possible but probable.  Everything seems to be hanging heavily and even little things feel too big to handle some days.

They feel restless. Their mind runs nonstop.  Even reading the news feels overwhelming, yet they struggle to look away because they feel an urgency to stay informed.  They feel like they have no control over their lives, as if everything is spiraling down into chaos, getting crazier by the day, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop it.

They talk about the confusion of differing information out there, of never knowing what to believe, who to trust, and being fearful of choosing incorrectly and it leading to disaster.

People talk about being continuously exhausted as the pandemic drags on and on, about wishing things would just be over but fearing there is no end in sight. They’re tired of thinking about the coronavirus, tired of worrying about it, want it to just go away. Yet it continues to loom, to linger, to threaten their peace of mind and their very sanity.

All of that is anxiety.

THAT is what people who live with an anxiety disorder go through every single day over a multitude of things in our lives.

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People talk about that feeling of hopelessness.

They feel trapped at home without any real purpose. They are constantly dragging throughout the day.  They can’t stay focused. They are eating and sleeping all the time or not at all.  Some complain about not even enjoying their favorite foods anymore or their favorite shows no longer bringing them any joy.

Some feel all alone.  Many of those feel isolated even with others around, afraid to talk about what they are feeling and going through because they don’t want to seem crazy.  They pull inwards, trying to cope and to put on a brave face, even though they feel like they are falling to pieces inside.

Homeschooling has become overwhelming – they don’t remember school being that hard and feel inadequate because they are struggling to help their kids with basic subjects.  They feel they are letting everyone down by not being enough. Yet the thought of sending kids back to school feels equally as disastrous. It is as if no matter what choice they make, it’ll be wrong, that every option is equally bad and hopeless.

Life itself feels exhausting to them.  There’s times they just feel numb to it all.  Other times, they just want to cry.  Often, they just resort to sleeping, or mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching random shows, though they can barely recall afterwards what it was that they saw.  They feel they are just going through the motions and desperately wish life would just get back to normal – though they know there is nothing they could do to change anything.

Some people are attempting to regain control of their lives, to go out and do something, anything, to reclaim the life they once knew. Yet, while out and about, they are distracted by all that could go wrong, by wanting to return to the safety of their homes. Though part of them desperately wants to enjoy their time out, their thoughts and feelings hang heavy on them, throwing a dark cloud over it all. They feel guilty for everything – for even trying to go out, for trying to have fun, for being too lax or not taking enough precautions. They apologize to others for sucking all the fun out of what could have potentially been a nice day, feeling they somehow seem to be ruining everything they touch.

They see other people being productive, using their downtime wisely to accomplish so many things. They wish they could get things done, as well, but seem to have no desire, no drive to do anything. They find themselves procrastinating and then beating themselves up for their inactivity, which in turn makes themselves procrastinate more, caught in an endless loop where nothing gets done and then they beat themselves up for that lack of productivity.

All of that is depression.

That is what people struggling with a depression diagnosis go through on a regular basis.

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I have seen people talk about wanting to be productive during this downtime, taking on a multitude of projects, more than any one person could legitimately handle, convinced they have the time and energy to do it all, only to crash into an overwhelmed, discouraged heap days later with everything half completed.  They go through cycles of manic, larger than life aspirations and heavy, depressing reality.

People talk about feeling irrationally angry, of feeling fed up about everything and nothing in particular at the same time. They find themselves continuously annoyed with everyone in their life and even the pandemic as a whole.

They describe many of the feelings common with depression, but with an entirely different mess added to the mix. They talk about having feelings that boomerang and yo-yo from one end to another, or sometimes both extremes at once. They talk about feeling so much, in so many directions, that they cannot even put it all into words.

Those highs, lows and extremes are all aspects of bipolar disorder.

People struggling with bipolar disorder often find themselves experiencing a wide variety of emotions and extremes with no rhyme, reason, pattern or predictable duration.

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The list goes on and on of ways this pandemic has helped mirror mental illness in the everyday lives of people who have never experienced it before and struggled to understand it. In the last few months, I have seen these sentiments appear and reappear throughout the country as pockets of positive cases sprung up and the epicenters continued to shift. No matter where the worst of the pandemic currently resides in the country, though, the narrative has remained largely the same.

Whenever I see people talking about their struggles during this pandemic, I want to call out “YES! Yes to this tenfold! That is exactly what it is like!” in hopes of turning it into a teachable moment.

At the same time, I find myself saddened, because I wouldn’t wish any of these experiences on anyone else, even if they are temporary and likely to end when this crisis is over.  I know what it is like to live with anxiety and depression every single day for years on end. I grew up seeing my mother struggle with bipolar disorder and now watch my fiance battle it on a daily basis. I am intimately familiar with many of the struggles of living with a mental illness. It breaks my heart to see so many others going through these struggles because I know firsthand how hard it can be.

As strange as it sounds, though, beneath it all, this pandemic has given me a strange sense of unnerving calm. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel entirely odd, different, unbalanced or crazy.  For the first time, I don’t feel singled out, the odd woman out in a world where everyone else seems to be breezing through life, coping much better than I could ever dream. For the first time, everyone else can finally understand all the feelings I go through every single day.  At least in that one aspect, the pandemic has become the great equalizer for those of us with mental illness.

I can only hope that their memories do not fade, though, once all of this is over.  Perhaps now that more people understand and have experienced many of the feelings commonly associated with mental illness even on a temporary basis, they will be more empathetic to the struggles many of us face every single day. Though even if those memories do eventually fade away, I hope everyone currently struggling to cope with the weight of the pandemic knows, as those of us in the mental health community often reassure each other, that none of you are alone. Though there are no easy answers or solutions to much of what you are feeling, we understand and we are all here, even if physically apart, to offer our support. Please never be afraid to seek help if you find you cannot cope on your own. Stay strong.

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.

Please Give Mental Illness The Same Respect You Would Give Other Illnesses

Not everyone understands what it is like living with a mental illness. I get that. Most people, at their core, mean well and are trying to help in one way or another.  Whether they are attempting to be supportive or trying to snap someone back into their perceived “reality”, they just don’t know what to say.  I understand that completely, too. But using tired old cliches about life that don’t apply to living with a serious illness does not help at all.  Nor does it help to offer outdated advice that has been proven to be both ignorant and ineffective.  They do much more harm than good. It not only minimizes our condition and our struggles, but it also tells us that you neither understand what we are going through nor do you take our illness, or us, seriously.

Please do not tell us that “everyone has problems sometimes“, “into everyone’s life a little rain must fall“, or that “nobody said life was fair“.  Likewise, please don’t tell us “it is what it is” or “everyone gets depressed sometimes“, as if our diagnosis is an everyday, trivial, meaningless bit of happenstance that is unimportant and should be paid no mind.  A mental illness is not an average, run of the mill problem, a typical bump in the road of life that everyone faces at some point and is easily cast aside or overcome. It is a medical diagnosis, a medical condition that drastically affects every aspect of our lives.  You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that everyone has problems sometimes, laughing it off like it was nothing. You would show an appropriate level of concern over their health and well-being. You would encourage them to see a doctor and take care of themselves. You would be supportive. You wouldn’t dream of minimizing their condition because, left untreated, it could have deadly consequences. So could my mental illness and it deserves to be treated in the same regard.

Asking us if we’ve “just tried being happy“, telling us we “need to just learn to focus on the positives” or otherwise suggesting we’re not trying hard enough misplaces the blame on us for our diagnosis. The patient is never to blame when their body goes haywire and runs amuck. We understand that sometimes our bodies malfunction, become unbalanced, and horrible things like tumors occur.  You can’t will away cancer with a positive outlook and trying harder won’t make tumors disappear. The same goes for mental illnesses.  We don’t tell someone with cancer that it is “all in their head“, “mind over matter“, and expect them to become healthy again by sheer willpower alone. We encourage them to see a doctor immediately, get everything taken care of and treated so their body can work properly and be healthy again. Untreated cancer can eat a person alive from the inside out, deteriorating their health and destroying the quality of their life in every way. So can mental illness. The only difference is cancer mainly attacks and destroys the physical body while mental illnesses primarily attack the mind.

Please don’t judge us on our appearance, telling us that we “don’t look sick” or that we “just need to smile more” as if our diagnosis is even remotely dependent on our outward appearance.  Also, please don’t tell us that we “don’t look all that sad to you” or that we “looked just fine the other day” because we have briefly managed to put on a brave face or wear a mask to hide our pain.  Having a good day here and there does not negate all the bad ones.  Invisible illnesses are still illnesses.  Like many other serious health conditions inside the body, you cannot often or easily see mental illness with the naked eye.  Not seeing a tumor growing inside someone does not make it any less real or dangerous.  Not seeing a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning does not mean it is not happening or that they do not need treatment.  Someone with cancer or another serious medical condition occasionally smiling, laughing or briefly enjoying life does not mean that they are instantly cured and tumor-free.  Just because you cannot see our mental illness does not mean we are not suffering.

Asking us “why can’t you just be normal?” or suggesting that we “need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves” not only blames us for our diagnosis but treats us as if we’re somehow broken or flawed and it is all in our head.  Nobody asks to have a mental illness nor does anyone want to be sick.  We are not doing this to ourselves.  We are not having pity parties. Please don’t suggest we’re just looking for attention or tell us that “the only one we’re hurting is ourselves” either, as if we’re intentionally sabotaging our own happiness by entertaining the absurd idea of some make-believe malady.  Mental illness is a very real medical diagnosis, one that is often completely beyond our control.  Our behavior did not cause it any more than a person’s attitude or imagination can cause tumors.

Please do not suggest we should just “snap out of it and get over things already“, either.  A person cannot snap out of a mental illness diagnosis any more than they can snap out of diabetes.  There is no set time frame that someone should be better, or even show marked improvement.  Like diabetes, a mental health diagnosis often lasts a lifetime.  And the healing process with most illnesses is not linear.  A diabetic can alternate between periods of stability, and episodes of sugar spikes and crashes, dangerous highs and lows that drastically and dangerously impact their health.  Similarly, even when in ongoing mental health treatment, a series of good days can be interrupted by periods of downward spiraling or numbness, and worsening symptoms as we attempt to balance medications and work through both past and new traumas.  Along the same lines as the fact that we refuse to take the blame for our illness, we are also under no obligation to heal on anyone else’s schedule or whim.  It is our illness, our treatment, and we will take as long as we need to take to heal fully and properly, even if it takes a lifetime.

Do not remind us that “every cloud has a silver lining” or tell us to “look on the bright side“, suggesting that we need to look for something positive at the core of our struggle.  Likewise, please never tell us that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or tell us that “it is God’s will“, as if our suffering was some divine gift or that it will be worth it in the long run.  Again, it is an illness, a medical diagnosis.  You would not confront a diabetic who must have their feet amputated due to their condition and suggest that they would somehow come out stronger for their loss.  You would not imply to a patient who cannot keep down any food because they are undergoing chemotherapy that the silver lining is that they always did want to lose a few pounds.  You would not tell anyone that their illness was a blessing in disguise, that they should be grateful for their suffering and pain.  Comments like those would be not only wildly inappropriate but also extremely insensitive, as well.  You would offer the person suffering your compassion, sympathy and support.  People with mental illnesses deserve the same.  There is nothing positive about our diagnosis or our struggle so please don’t insist we look for a silver lining or a bright side that is not there.

Please don’t tell us that “other people have it worse“, as if our struggle is insignificant because someone else has struggled more.  Don’t ask us “what do you even have to be depressed about?“, expecting us to justify our diagnosis or quantify our suffering so you can determine its validity.  A mental illness is a bonafide medical diagnosis that deserves acknowledgement and actual medical treatment regardless of its severity in comparison to someone else’s.  It is always a serious health condition that can continue to worsen if left untreated.  You wouldn’t shrug off anyone’s cancer diagnosis as trivial or be so unsympathetic as to suggest their tumors were insignificant because someone else had larger ones.  Cancer is always taken seriously.  Mental illness should be, as well.

If we trust you enough to open up about our diagnosis, please don’t shut us down by telling us “there are just some things you just shouldn’t talk about” or reminding us that “some things should be kept private“.  That is ignorance and stigma talking.  Yes, we understand that mental illness is uncomfortable to discuss.  So is any other serious medical diagnosis.  The difference is that families and friends will discuss other illnesses and the impact they will have on everyone’s lives.  We sincerely apologize for any discomfort our diagnosis might give you, but please know that we are not confiding in you hoping you can solve it or make anything better.  We are sharing our diagnosis because we consider you an integral part of our lives and we want you to be aware of everything that is going on.  Don’t tell us that we shouldn’t talk about mental illness as if it is something we should be ashamed of having.  The biggest reason this diagnosis has become so rampant in society today is because no one talked about it for far too long.  No one talked and nobody sought treatment.  But silence won’t make the problem go away.  Health issues don’t vanish because you refuse to acknowledge them.  It will only make it worse.

Please stop shaming us for our diagnosis altogether or our efforts to seek treatment.  Don’t tell us that “all we really need is some fresh air and some running shoes” in order to feel better.  Don’t tell us that “only weak people rely on medication” or suggest we try vitamin regimens, scented oils or other homeopathic remedies instead of what we have been prescribed.  We have seen actual doctors.  Medical professionals have given us a verifiable medical diagnosis and prescribed us the appropriate medications to treat that diagnosis.  You wouldn’t shame a diabetic for using insulin to balance their body so please stop shaming us for taking our prescriptions to balance our minds.  You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they didn’t need chemo, to just go for a brisk run or take a nice, long bath instead.  That is because it is widely accepted that chemotherapy is used to treat cancer and insulin to treat diabetes.  If you are willing to accept other medical diagnoses and treatments as valid, please accept ours, as well.

Please don’t attack us, demanding to know “what have you even done with yourself lately?” or otherwise question why we are not able to function as well as a healthy person.  Don’t interrogate us about what we have and have not accomplished recently, either, as if our level of productivity must meet your standards or our activity must be on par with yours.  Having a mental illness takes a lot out of a person, both mentally and physically.  It is perfectly acceptable for someone who has just undergone chemotherapy to spend a day in bed if they so need it.  If a diabetic has a sugar crash and feels under the weather, others will suggest they go lay down and feel better.  Healing and recovery time is acceptable for all other illnesses.  It should be for mental illnesses, too.

For so many years, mental illness was treated as something shameful, something you just didn’t discuss, something whispered about in dark corners.  With the continuing rise of suicides, addictions and other mental health crisis in our society, mental illness is being spoken about today on a scale previously unimaginable.  I understand that it might take some time for everyone to fully understand how to openly discuss our diagnosis with both compassion and respect after being shrouded in secrecy and stigma for so long.  When unsure how to proceed, many people turn to old cliches and outdated advice that they believe have stood the test of time.  However, many of those statements and sayings are not at all appropriate or applicable to mental illnesses.  If you are unsure what to say to someone with a mental illness, a good place to start would be to ask yourself if you would say those words to someone else with any other serious illness.  If you cannot imagine saying it to someone with cancer or diabetes, for example, it’s a good bet that it is not an appropriate response to our diagnosis, either.

After all, people with mental illnesses are not asking for special treatment.  We are just asking to be treated with the same courtesy you would treat anyone else who is ill.

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.

An Average Day Living with Depression and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimizing Our Illness Only Hurts Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What good does lying or minimizing our struggles really do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/25/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/25/18.

Trying to Help Others Understand Anxiety

Whenever I start to explain that part of my mental illness diagnosis includes severe anxiety, I always receive confused looks.  They are usually followed by judgmental comments about how “everyone has problems and stress in their lives”, telling me that I need to “learn to cope and work through it all”.  I get told that I “shouldn’t let every little thing get to me” and that I’d be so much happier if I “stopped stressing over everything and just mellowed out”.

I have others that have gone so far as to make accusations about whether my anxiety is even real or just in my head.  They’ll question how I could claim I’m “too anxious” to go somewhere to fill out paperwork yet am “perfectly comfortable attending things like farmer’s markets or street fairs”.  I’ve tried to explain that it isn’t the same thing.  I don’t have social anxiety.  People and crowds are not my issue.  My anxiety is situational and builds upon itself, making it harder to function in some situations than others.

I’ve tried to explain my anxiety again and again until I was blue in the face, yet I’ve been met with blank stares or judgments more often than not.  I finally sat down and made an overly simplified chart, similar to the pain level chart used in doctor’s offices,  in hope that it might be more  relatable and help others understand.

anxietychart

The average happy and well-balanced person starts an average day with 0 anxiety.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, their rent and car payments have been paid, their family is healthy and happy.  Life is good.

Little daily stresses might raise things to a 1 or a 2, but it’s nothing they can’t handle.  Every now and then, there’s a 3, 4 or 5.  Life happens.  It isn’t always easy but it’s nothing that can’t be smoothed out and they know it won’t be long until they’re back down to a 1 or two again, or even enjoying one of those blessed days with 0 anxiety.

People struggling with an anxiety diagnosis never see a 1 or a 2, let alone a day with 0 anxiety.  Their good days start around a 3, their average days around a 4 or 5.  It isn’t even that any major crisis may be going on in their lives causing their heightened anxiety.  It is that their body and their mind are reacting and responding as if it was.  And, being already frazzled, every little added thing that goes wrong just adds to their anxiety until inside their heads they are in a complete panic, running around with arms flailing, screaming that the sky is falling, Chicken Little-style.  Or even worse, they just wrap themselves in a blanket and shut down completely.

Now to get back to explaining the situational anxiety I mentioned earlier.  High stress situations already start off at a higher anxiety level than normal for us because our minds are already considering every single thing that could go wrong.  Every time there is a bump in the road and things don’t work out like they should, it adds more anxiety to the pile for next time.  All it takes is a couple times where things go wrong before our bodies and minds start to panic when it comes to anything associated with that person, place or thing.

Managing our anxiety is not as simple as taking a deep breath, learning to think positive or not sweating the small stuff.  We are not intentionally causing our anxiety.  Our anxiety fires off somewhere in our subconscious.  We have no control over it.  Our mind starts sending out warnings and our body responds.  We find ourselves on edge, our chests tightened, our thoughts muddled, our mouths dry, our palms sweaty.  There are times we’re not even sure what we are anxious about, only that the anxiety is there.

Once our anxiety has reached a certain level, we begin to have anxiety attacks.  Our body goes into auto-pilot in a full blown panic.  Anxiety attacks present themselves differently for different people, but in every case it is our body’s way of saying that it cannot take any more.  Beyond the anxiety attack is the shut down, that numbness where you’re mentally, emotionally and physically too exhausted to think or function.  I have not included a level 10 anxiety level because, though I have experienced many anxiety attacks and shut downs, I have never personally experienced anything beyond that.  I do imagine there is something worse, though I am not sure what could possibly be worse than everything I have already been enduring.

That is not to say that conscious breathing exercises, meditation or other such exercises do not help.  They can help pull us back into a state of self-awareness that can stave off a full blown anxiety attack.  But they are not a panacea.  They will not magically cure an anxiety disorder, just facilitate in pulling some people some times back into the here and now.

That is because an anxiety disorder is a mental illness.  It is not something we are doing to ourselves because we are easily panicked or excitable.  It is not something we’ve made up in our heads.  Much like a diabetic can help regulate their highs and lows by eating at regular times and monitoring their sugar intake, someone with an anxiety disorder can use tools such as conscious breathing to help moderate their anxiety.  But getting exercise or not eating that candy bar won’t cure diabetes any more than meditation will cure anxiety.  It is our medical diagnosis.

I know the chart I made is extremely simplified – anyone suffering with anxiety can testify that it is so much worse, but I wanted to give examples that the average person could relate to, as well as providing a build up they might be able to imagine in their own lives.

I know that it can be hard for those who have never experienced a mental illness such as anxiety to truly understand what we are going through.  Please try to keep in mind, though, that it is not something we are intentionally doing to make our lives, or yours, harder.  Our brains are always reacting and responding to the world around us at a heightened state.  We have no control over it and are trying our best to manage our anxiety to the best of our ability.  But it is a medical diagnosis that needs treatment.  It is not something we can magically cure on our own.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 3/27/18.

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Republished on MamaMia on 4/7/18.

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The Frustration of Explaining Mental Illness to Those Who Have Never Experienced it Themselves

I would not wish mental illness on anyone else.  Having a mental illness is like waging a continuous war within yourself where half the time you are not even sure what is being fought over, only that the battle rages on.  There is never a true moment of peace.  You may have good days, yes, but even on those blessed days there is never peace because you can feel its presence, always looming, weighing down on your soul, preparing to strike again.  There might be small periods of respite here and there, the calm before the storm, but anyone fighting their own battle with mental illness knows it is only a matter of time before another downward spiral or another period of numbness, appears.  One of the worst things about having a mental illness is that we don’t even fully understand what is going on within our own minds and bodies, let alone have the words to adequately explain it to others.  Even more frustrating is when someone else puts us on the defensive because they do not fully understand what we are going through but assume they do because they have been exposed to it from a sideline view.

Someone who has never been in a car crash cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has been in one” or “because I’ve taken care of someone who has had one”.

Someone who has never had cancer cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has had cancer” or “because I’ve helped to take care of people who have had cancer”.

Likewise, someone who has never had a mental illness cannot truly understand what it is like to live with one, regardless of whether they worked with people who had one or had a family member diagnosed with one.

You can sympathize with someone else who is struggling but you cannot truly understand what it is like to live with mental illness merely by being exposed to it second-hand in others.  Witnessing others being traumatized is not the same as experiencing the trauma yourself.  It is not something you can experience vicariously and fully understand the suffering.  As much as we might try to explain what it is like in order to help others somewhat understand, there are no words we possess that would adequately explain all that we are going through.  And anything we say is usually just the tip of the iceberg, minimized for the benefit of others because we don’t want to overwhelm or scare anyone else with the horrors of our reality.   Mental illness is something that you truly have to experience firsthand to fully understand.

Nothing is more frustrating than having someone verbally attack the core of our illness as “making no sense”, expecting us to fully explain something that we ourselves have trouble understanding.  Or to be called out, as if we are somehow inherently wrong for even being mentally ill at all.

I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression and P.T.S.D.

Due to severe anxiety attacks during periods of high stress, one of the agencies I work with recently arranged a home visit as an alternative to my having an office visit.  I had someone interject that their mother is bipolar and has done the same thing, claiming that it is ridiculous that her mother can attend highly populated events such as street fairs but cannot go to a downtown office to complete some paperwork.  She then demanded to know whether I was equally unreasonable, attending random public events while claiming I was incapable of going out to an appointment.

I tried to explain that it isn’t how generalized anxiety works.  I am not anxious being around people.  I do not have social anxiety.  With generalized anxiety, I live in a constant state of heightened anxiety that is worsened by stressful situations.  On a scale of 1-10, most people start off an average day around a one or a two.  If there is nothing to worry about, there’s no reason for an average person to be anxious.  If someone’s rent is coming due and money is tight, their anxiety level might be raised to a two or three.  If, on top of that, they’re worried about being laid off, their anxiety might be raised to a three or four.  Not getting enough time with your kids, needing unplanned repairs on a home or vehicle that you cannot afford, unexpected illnesses and deaths all increase anxiety.  With each newly added stress, anxiety continues to compound and raise.

Now imagine starting every day at a 4 or a 5.  Even worse, most of the time you’re not even sure why exactly you’re anxious.  You just know that feeling is there.  You’re notably on edge, you’re distracted, you’re hyper-vigilant.  Your body is physically reacting to the stress.  You are visibly flustered, your chest is tightened, you find yourself shaking or bouncing your limbs or no reason, you have trouble focusing your thoughts and forming coherent words.  Each new added stress only raises everything higher.  It doesn’t take much until you find yourself at a 7 or 8, in a full blown anxiety attack.

Consider going to an office to do paperwork, starting at the 4 or 5 those with anxiety might begin each day with.  If a previous visit there did not go well, your mind relates the two and it adheres the past to the present situation.  If there were subsequent visits that did not go well, each of them is an added stress, as well.  Your mind is hyper-vigilant, constantly reviewing situations and drawing connections, trying to protect you from duplicating a previous bad experience.  After a few bad experiences somewhere or with someone, that compounded anxiety becomes too much to bear.   Your mind begins firing off danger warnings and your body reacts accordingly.  Your fight or flight response kicks in.  You want to run away, to scream, to avoid it at all costs.  You freeze like a deer caught in the headlights or you become agitated and aggressive because you feel an overwhelming need to protect and defend yourself.  It all occurs subconsciously in the brain.  Your anxiety rises on its own without any conscious decision on your part.  You are not intentionally overreacting or being melodramatic.  Your mind and body are just reacting to the situation at hand based on the data it has compiled.  It is the truth of living with anxiety.

Attending a populated event is another situation entirely.  In all honesty, each situation is different depending on our previous experiences with the location, the people involved and many other contributing factors.  We cannot even reasonably predict ahead of time whether a situation will feel safe or not because literally anything could trigger a raise in anxiety.  It never takes long before that heightened anxiety reaches dangerous levels and an anxiety attack ensues.  We have very limited control over situations.  Our mind and body are steering the car and we are just along for the ride.

My explanation fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps even worse than trying to help others understand anxiety is trying to explain depression.  Too many people who have either never experienced depression or who have only experienced a temporary or situational, mild bout, have a habit of aggressively attacking those suffering from more severe, debilitating depression for not being able to “bounce back” quickly enough to meet their standards.

We are accused of being lazy and having pity parties.  We are told that they “know what it’s like but..” you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself, you have to be more positive and at least try, you have to pull your shit together and do what has to be done.  We are accused of not trying hard enough, of not even trying at all.  We are asked why we are not even working part time and told of a myriad of other people who were able to magically pull themselves together, shamed into feeling like we are horrible people for being unable to function as well as they or someone else they know did.

I have tried explaining the realities of severe depression, only to have it fall on deaf ears, as well.

Those of us suffering from depression are not having pity parties.  Depression is far more than just being sad or feeling negative about our circumstances in life.  There are days when the world feels bleak and hopeless, where you are convinced you are completely alone and become trapped in an empty numbness that renders you virtually immobile.  It isn’t that you are not aware of everything that needs to be done or that you don’t want to do it – you are trapped within yourself, unable to pull yourself up to do even the simplest of tasks.  You might lay there for hours, beating yourself up as your inner dialogue drums into your consciousness everything you could be doing, should be doing, and how broken, worthless and useless you are for being incapable of doing anything at all.  There are days you spiral down into negativity, tearing yourself apart viciously for being garbage because some part of your brain believes that is what you deserve.  You tear yourself apart for being broken, damaged, and flawed worse than anyone else could ever do.  There are days when the tears keep flowing even though you cannot pinpoint exactly why, beyond “life itself” and days you’ll sit in a fog, doing nothing or randomly puttering, losing hours at a time.

Whether we’re trapped in numbness or spiraling down, our minds are constantly whirling, reminding us of all we should be doing and how much of a failure we are for not accomplishing everything we believe we should.  We desperately want to do more, to do better, to do anything at all.  We hate ourselves for not being able to do everything we believe we should be able to do.  We feel like a failure that has let everyone down.  But our minds have betrayed us.  We are in a constant battle within our own heads.  We have so many emotions, so much hurt, pain, anger, self-loathing, sadness and confusion swirling within our heads that it is hard to sort it all out and think straight.  Though we can pinpoint the cause of some of it, the majority is so broad and vague that we don’t even understand where it is coming from let alone know how to begin explaining or addressing it all.

Any job, even part-time, is difficult when we cannot plan from one hour to the next, let alone one day to the next, whether we will be spiraling down into that abyss or frozen in numbness.  Yes, e may have good, functional days, but they do not appear on any set schedule.  We have no idea how or when our depression will strike next or how long it will last. We are not being lazy or just not trying hard enough.  We just cannot reasonably commit ourselves to a schedule when we don’t know how well we’ll be able to function an hour from now, let alone a week from Tuesday from 8am to 4pm.

Perhaps the most asinine assertion I have ever heard from people who did not understand and had never experienced what I was struggling with was the claim I hve heard numerous times that “only soldiers suffer from P.T.S.D.”, as if I was somehow disparaging the armed forces with my diagnosis.  Post traumatic stress disorder is more broad-reaching than the military.  It is fairly common with those who have suffered from years of abuse, especially during their childhood as I have, or have experienced traumatic or violent events in their lives such as rape, as I have.  Flashbacks, nightmares and night terrors are not exclusive to those in a uniform.  Do not minimize my trauma because I fought a different kind of war on a different type of battlefield.

I truly appreciate when people acknowledge my diagnosis and attempt to empathize with all that I am struggling with because it really is a daily battle.  It is heart-wrenching and honestly makes me want to cry whenever someone has been through something so similar that they can truly relate to what I am going through because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.  My heart goes out to everyone fighting a battle within themselves that they cannot seem to fully explain and constantly feel judged for having because I have been there and understand how exhausting it is to have to defend yourself for your diagnosis.  But please don’t ever use the second-hand experiences you’ve witnessed others having to minimize what I am going through.  Knowing someone who has mental illness or even working around people that have been diagnosed with a mental illness is not the same thing as living with one yourself.  Even individual diagnosis can differ greatly, as well, so you cannot measure two personal experiences by the same bar.  You cannot truly understand what a person is going through before walking a mile in their shoes so please stop judging me for my diagnosis when you have no idea of the battles I am fighting inside.  I truly appreciate compassion and empathy but please leave your judgment at the door.

Suicide Without Dying

Suicide without dying.  It happens more often than you might think when someone is suffering from depression.

I have suffered from depression my entire life.  I was born with it.  Due to a genetic mutation, my liver was never able to metabolize a usable amount of a simple substance my brain needed to function properly.  The chemical my body could not metabolize is needed for the manufacture and transportation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Because my body could not make the substance my brain needed, my own body struggled to make the neurotransmitters it required and the paltry amount my body was able to make had no way to get where they were needed.  Even antidepressants did not work because my brain lacked the substance required to transport them where they were needed.

The discovery of my genetic mutation is fairly recent.  For most of my life, I struggled with a depression that appeared untreatable without ever knowing why.  Over the years, I have seen multiple doctors for the treatment of my depression.  I have rotated through a myriad of combinations and dosages of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.  Nothing worked.  I was labelled treatment resistant.

I have never experienced a single day without depression looming over me.

Nothing any of my doctors did seemed to help.  They would increase dosages until the side effects were unbearable or until I was a nonfunctional zombie.  Then the process would begin anew with different doctors, different medications, different combinations, different dosages.  It was a living nightmare.

No one around me understood.  They were all confused by the fact that I had been in treatment for years and had taken all types of medications without any results.  Their questions were hounding and relentless.  How was I not better yet?  Was I even trying to get better?  Was it really THAT bad that I was struggling to function and needed help?  Was I even being honest about how I felt or was I exaggerating or faking it?  What did I even have to be depressed about anyway?  So many people in my life who I tried to turn to for assistance were unsupportive and quickly became tired of dealing with my depression.  The nightmare just kept going and going.

Life felt unbearable.  Nothing my doctors did helped.  I had very little support system or assistance.  Every single day, it felt like I was not only fighting against myself and my own brain, but the rest of the world as well.

I couldn’t keep living like I was.

So I gave up.

I didn’t kill myself.  Instead of ending my life, I just stopped living it.

I stopped going to see doctors because nothing they did helped anyway.  I stopped turning in or following up on paperwork for assistance for my depression because it all felt futile.

I was too tired to fight anymore so I just gave up.  I began shutting down and isolating myself.  I put off responding whenever anyone reached out, tossing out apologies for not seeing their messages sooner and making endless excuses to friends about being busy or being sick.  I kept everyone away so they could not see how bad things had become.  Avoidance was easier than explanations.

I stopped talking about how I was doing and feeling because there was nothing anyone could do to change things anyway.  I’d mutter something about being fine then clam back up or changed the subject.  In truth, I was the farthest from fine a person could get.  I had given up.  I didn’t have the energy to explain how I felt or to defend myself from their judgments.  I didn’t want to burden anyone.  I didn’t think anyone would want to be there anyway if they knew how much of a mess I had become.

As I spiraled farther down into the dark abyss of depression, I began avoiding things that used to spark even the slightest happiness.  Why bother partaking in anything that used to give me joy when my numbness would only serve as a painful reminder of how bad things have become?  I cleaned up less often around the house, hiding dirty dishes, clothes and clutter if anyone was coming by.  I put off even basic self-care, showering once or twice a week instead of daily and keeping my hair pulled back so I wouldn’t have to tend to it.  I’d stay in pajamas for days because it wasn’t like I had anywhere to go, anything to do or anyone to see.  After all, my friends all thought I was sick or busy and going to my doctors was a waste of time.

I spent whole days laying in bed crying.  Even more days, I sat or laid around feeling completely numb, bingewatching shows I barely paid attention to or remember, puttering around the house doing nothing in particular and just napping on and off, letting the days pass me by.  I often didn’t bother eating because it felt like too much effort to even move.  I would ignore the growls of my stomach for hours much like the cramps in my bladder until the pain became too much to bear.  What I did eat was usually chosen for ease and convenience not desire.

Days and weeks blended together in nothingness.

I tried to put on a brave face, a smiling face for my children on the portion of the week they were with me, but it was just going through the motions.  Instead of fun outings, we had more and more family movie nights at home.  Instead of the bigger meals I used to make, I would throw together quick and easy cheater meals.  I made endless excuses to them for the funk I was in.  I was tired.  I just wasn’t feeling well.  But I was fine.  But I wasn’t fine.  I had given up.  As much as I tried to shield them from it, looking back, I have no doubt that on some level they knew.  That my depression had such an impact on their childhood will always be one of my biggest regrets.

I have gone through this cycle where I have pulled away from everyone, isolated myself and stopped living numerous times over the years.  It always seemed to happen the same way.  Treatment wasn’t working, getting assistance began feeling impossible, nothing felt like it was ever going to get better and no one else seemed to understand or truly care.  I felt completely broken and all alone in the world.  It was not a world I wanted to live in so I just gave up and stopped living altogether.

Finding out about my genetic mutation and its role in my depression has changed my perspective on many things and has sparked a new journey in self-reflection and self-improvement.  It has also forced me to accept many hard truths.  Perhaps one of the biggest is the fact that every time I gave up, every time I pulled away and isolated myself, every time I stopped living my life, I was committing suicide without dying.

Yes, I was still technically alive but I was barely doing anything more than existing, going through the bare minimum of motions to get from one day to the next.  I had stopped living my life, stopped finding reasons to enjoy life, stopped taking care of myself and shut myself off from the rest of the world.  I may have been breathing and had a pulse, but I was not living.  I had given up just as surely as if I had taken my own life.

I was also putting those I cared about in the position of having to mourn me again and again, to deal with the loss of who I used to be and the bonds we used to have.  I was removing myself from their lives, forcing them to face that loss again and again.  Every time I would resurface and reenter their lives, I considered it a victory that I had climbed back out of that hole, never stopping to consider how much they must have struggled to reconcile with the endless roller coaster I had put them on, being slingshot repeatedly between mourning my loss and having me back to varying degrees.

I know there are some who will question my comparison of severe depression to suicide without dying.  There will be others who will angrily declare they are nothing at all alike, swearing that they know because they have lost loved ones to suicide and I am still here, still breathing, that it is not at all the same.  Please know that I am in no way diminishing the tremendous loss that comes with suicide.  I have been on both sides of that fence, having been both suicidal myself and having lost people I loved to suicide so I would never trivialize it in any way.

People ask so many questions after someone commits suicide.  Why would they do this?  How did this even happen?  How did their life get so bad that they felt giving up was the only option?

As someone who has struggled with suicide myself, I can tell you – it all starts with giving up.  It starts with that feeling that you just can’t go on anymore like you are, that everything is hopeless and that nothing is ever going to change.  It starts with that feeling that you just don’t want to live anymore so you don’t.  You pull away from everyone, you stop taking care of yourself or seeking out help or treatment, you turn your back on anything that used to bring you joy.  You sink so deeply into depression that you just don’t see the point of doing anything anymore.  From that low point, it isn’t a far leap to physically ending your life because you have already stopped living it anyway.  After you’ve already mentally and emotionally committed suicide, you can rationalize physically letting go, as well, because you believe you have nothing left to live for.

I can also tell you that it is a slippery slope.  At first, it’s easy to consider withdrawing and isolation as a kindness to others because you’re still around in some way.  But isolation often leads to thoughts of others being better off if you were completely gone, if perhaps you never existed at all.  While not everyone who pulls away due to depression is actively planning to physically kill themselves, that isolation makes it easier to rationalize taking that final step.  When someone has reached the point of wanting to give up and stop living, it’s not a far stretch to decide to stop breathing, too.

What starts as feelings of hopelessness and despair transitions easily into suicidal ideation, where you don’t want to die but you don’t want to keep living like this anymore either.  Many people suffering from depression experience suicidal ideation from time to time, sometimes frequently.  When thoughts of suicidal ideation turn to action or inaction, and someone stops living altogether, it is not a hard transition from not going through the motions of living anymore to deciding to stop living anymore altogether.

Even consciously knowing and acknowledging the cycle, I still find myself pulled down towards it again whenever my depression gets bad.  When things in my life aren’t going as planned or they begin to fall apart, everything starts to feel hopeless again and I struggle to pull myself up, keep myself going, to not give up.  It is a dangerous edge to walk on and one I fight daily to distance myself from.  I fight a constant battle to stay vigilant and self-aware, to catch myself whenever I start to spiral down and begin to withdraw from life.  Whenever someone is struggling with depression, it’s important to watch for those markers of isolation and giving up because once someone has decided life is no longer worth living, it becomes so much harder to justify continuing to live it at all.

If you see someone in your life start to withdraw, talk to them.  If you notice they are lessening their self-care or beginning to cut everything they enjoy out of their lives, talk to them.  Don’t buy into their excuses and allow them to isolate and pull away.  Be there.  Be persistent.  Listen even if you don’t have any resolutions to offer.  Listen just so they’re heard.  Chances are their feelings might feel uncomfortable or overwhelming to you at first, but know that they need to get them out.  Better out than in.  Encourage them to get help and stay positive but don’t judge them for their struggles to do so.  They need support and encouragement not judgment.  Be a consistent presence in their lives, a counter to the negativity trying to pull them down.  Just be there because them being alone and isolating themselves is the worst place they can be.

If you’re struggling to find reasons to keep going yourself, let those feelings out.  Don’t hold them in.  Talk about them even if they don’t make sense to you just to get them out.  Talk to someone whether it’s a friend, a doctor, a clergyman – anyone.  Just don’t sit home alone in the dark and let those feelings fester because they will only continue to grow and get worse over time if you never let them out.  Don’t push away people that care enough to ask whether you’re okay or lie to them that you’re fine if you’re not.  Don’t worry about scaring them with everything you are going through – if they truly care about you, they would rather deal with some discomfort and worry now than to lose you entirely down the line.  Don’t give up things that make you happy.  If anything, keep seeking out other things to make you smile, even if you have to force yourself to multiple times a day.  Surround yourself with positive things, good things, things that remind you that the world is not completely dark, ugly and hopeless.  Take care of yourself the best that you can.  Eat.  Go to the bathroom.  Shower.  Even if the only thing you manage to do today is take care of yourself, that is enough.

When someone commits suicide, it is permanent.  There is no bringing them back, no changing anything.  It is final.  When someone takes those first steps and decides to stop living, it is often a precursor to suicide.  We need to be more vigilant, with ourselves and with others, when we see those signs of withdrawal and isolation, when we see ourselves or someone else starting to give up and stop living their lives.  We still have the power to change things before they reach that point of no return, before that loss becomes permanent.  I have stopped living a few times before and am still alive to tell the tale.  It is possible to die inside, to give up on life, while still breathing.  It is also possible to come back and live again even after you’ve mentally and emotionally given up.  It is not an easy task but it can be done.

Please know that I understand how hard, lonely and hopeless life can feel.  I know how low depression can pull you.  I know all too well that feeling of not being able to take anything anymore, of just wanting all the pain, all the stress, all the struggling to stop.  I know how unbearable it can all feel.  I understand how someone can reach a point where giving up feels like the best option, the only option.

But it doesn’t have to be.  Please stay strong.  Choose to live.  Choose to keep going.  Even if you can’t do as much as you’d like or as much as you feel you should be able to do, do whatever you can do.  Just don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Don’t stop living.  Don’t allow any part of yourself to die.