How I Spent My World Mental Health Awareness Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republished on The Mighty on 2/18/19.

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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.

Four Days on Suicide Watch

Everything had been building up for months, years.

It was not that I didn’t have wonderful things in my life to be grateful for. I had healthy, compassionate, intelligent children that were growing into incredible adults before my eyes; I had reconnected with my first crush ever who has turned out to be the love of my life and we have a wedding to plan; I had finally found my calling as a mental health advocate and had the start of a promising writing career; I finally understood my struggles with my mental illness, having found a clinic that not only helped me to find the answers I needed, but also actually gave me hope for the future. In so many ways, my life was finally looking up.

However, it was overshadowed by a lifetime of struggling. I had been battling my own brain my entire life. And in recent years, the government and my insurance company, as well. It felt like all I ever did anymore was fight everyone, again and again. It seemed never-ending. I was so exhausted from fighting all the time, never getting to catch my breath, never getting a break.

Add to that discovering not one but two meningioma tumors on my brain. I had survived years of abuses that left deep scars that would never fully heal. My fiance and I were facing a possible pending eviction caused directly by the government’s prolonged inaction in my case and direct refusal to comply with a judge’s previous fair hearing decision in my favor.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the fairly consistent presence of someone toxic in my fiance and my lives under the guise of one of his  childhood friends who was hell-bent on causing problems in our relationship, repeatedly trying to split us up.

To give a little background on the situation, she had known him since she was thirteen and had a crush on him for close to thirty years, bordering on stalkerish. When he was staying with his parents following the end of his marriage, she would intentionally show up hours before he was due home from work and say she would wait in his bedroom for him as an excuse to sleep in his bed. Though they never had any type of a relationship because he never saw her THAT way, for years, she regularly borrowed hats and shirts from him and kept them, much like a girlfriend would normally do. Despite having a crumbling relationship at home she should have been devoting her attention to, she tried repeatedly over the years to supplant herself into my fiance and his family’s lives in any way she could whenever she could, often causing drama in the process.  Though he later forgave her to an extent, she even played a crucial part in the break up of his first marriage.

From the time we got together, she had been trying to cause problems between us and split us up. The first time I met her was a month into our relationship, shortly after his father went into hospice. She pulled me aside and tried to convince me that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into or the mess he was going to be so I should just walk away before I got in over my head. She told me he was mentally unstable, that she knew him well enough to know I could not handle what was in store. She seemed thrown aback when I told her I had known him longer than her and I was in it for the long haul.

When she could see I was not going anywhere, she switched tactics. Over the course of the next year, every single time she came over she would make negative comments about me and my mental illness, lecturing me that I needed to stop being lazy and do something with myself and my life. Whenever my fiance and I would both jump in to defend me and attempt to explain the disability diagnosis my doctors had given me, she would interject that she worked in mental health, too, and she “knew what she was talking about”. She worked in a mental health care adjacent position, as a glorified overnight babysitter at a facility that housed mentally or physically disabled adults, a job you didn’t even need a high school diploma or any certification to get, yet she swore repeatedly that she knew better than all my doctors over the years. She frequently trivialized my mental health writing as a waste of time and criticized everything from the cleanliness of my apartment to my cooking, as if nothing I did even remotely met her standards.

As if the constant attacks were not enough, she also was constantly attempting, albeit admittedly very poorly, to  blatantly flirt with my fiance in front of me. She would try to run her fingers through his hair and insist he let her cut it, to which he would pull away and say I will cut his hair when he needs it done. When he stopped shaving for no shave November and the couple months afterwards, she commented repeatedly that he should shave because he looks so much better clean shaven, that she prefers him that way, even offering to do that for him, as well. She was forever reaching out to touch him, swat at him or rub him with her hand while she talked, trying to take sips out of his drinks like a girlfriend might do and regularly found excuses to lift her shirt or drop her pants in front of him under the pretense of showing off numerous bug bites and bruises. She would often announce wildly inappropriate things that people wouldn’t normally discuss with friends, like she had just shaved her nether regions or talk about having sex, watching porn or masturbation when she came over.

We tolerated much more than we should have because honestly we felt sorry for her. She was always desperate for attention and, according to her, her problems were always ten times worse than everyone else’s.  For example, when we attempted to explain about my doctors finding my brain tumors, she cut us off by saying, “That’s nothing! Did I tell you I had to bring my car back to the shop again?!” as if car problems were somehow worse than brain tumors. She was loud, obnoxious, crass and crude with no concept of respect or boundaries, always saying or doing whatever she could think of to get all eyes on her. She was always talking badly about someone when she came over, usually my fiance’s ex-wife, even though she was supposedly still good friends with her, to the point where we began watching everything we said around her to avoid becoming part of her gossip. She also had severe substance abuse issues. In a year and a half of seeing her once to twice a week on average, I never once saw her even remotely sober regardless of the time of day – she was always drunk, high or both. We knew from everything she had talked about that things were bad for her at home, that her relationship was in shambles.  A lot of people had written her off already over the years for her behavior but we understood that she had a lot of issues so we tried to cut her some extra slack.

I had tried my best to be kind to her. On more than one occasion, I took the time to show her sons my sugar gliders and explain more about them. I even watched her youngest once for over an hour while she ran an errand. If we had leftovers when she stopped by on her way to work, I would send her with a plate or bowl. She would regularly fill her purse from treats I had put out in snack bowls. I baked her family Christmas cookies and sent her with extra for both home and work. I once even lent her an old pair of pants that were too big on me so she had something clean for work when she stained her own. I listened sympathetically when she complained of relationship issues, health problems or other stresses, trying to extend an olive branch of friendship. I even did my best to overlook her steady barrage of flirtation with my fiance because I realized it must have been hard to see someone you crushed on for decades happily with someone else.

But despite all my attempts at kindness, both her attacks on me and her inappropriate flirtation with my fiance not only continued but steadily increased. What originally may have been one off-handed comment about her believing my disability was nonsense became full-fledged rants. She began making snippy and snide remarks and telling us to stop whenever my fiance and I were affectionate to each other as if she resented anyone else showing him attention or love.  Over time, it had all became too much to bear. When my fiance and I began contemplating marriage, she declared we were not ALLOWED to both get married a second time because she had never even been married a first. When we officially announced our engagement, she responded by referring to me as (please excuse my language) his “fuck buddy”, saying outright that the only thing I did for him was give him my “roast beef curtains” and insist that he deserves better than me. That was the last straw and we agreed she was no longer welcome in our house or our lives.

For two weeks afterwards, she did not come around. Then late one night, well after one in the morning when we were already in bed, we heard a drunken knock at our kitchen window. We both knew exactly who it was because she was the only one we knew with the audacity to think that would be acceptable. I was livid and wanted him to tell her to leave immediately. He wanted to quietly let her in to avoid her making a drunken scene in our apartment building, to wait to tell her she was no longer welcome here another time, during more reasonable hours when she might be somewhat more sober and perhaps slightly more reasonable. Everything quickly escalated.

We were both beyond stressed at the time, not at all with each other but rather with life circumstances in general, topped off by our unwelcome, uninvited guest. Beyond all my own issues, he had been struggling terribly, as well. He had a lifelong battle with his own mental illness. In the last year, he had lost first his father then his job. The family dog that had been his parents’ for well over a decade had to be put down and he was struggling to keep his truck, one of his last physical connections to his deceased parents, on the road and in working order. We were both well beyond our breaking points on many fronts and the culmination of everything with her pushed us right over the edge. We fought terribly, something we don’t often do even in a mild sense.  It may have been the worst fight of our entire relationship. Afterwards, I retreated to the bedroom to cry, locking the door so I could be alone.

I did not have any plans to commit suicide. The thought honestly had not even crossed my mind.  I was not trying to hurt myself in any way. I loved my fiance and my children more than I could ever put into words and would never have wanted to hurt them in any way, either. I was hurt, angry and distraught over our fight, disgusted that we had tolerated someone so blatantly toxic for so long, and I was exhausted and overwhelmed with life in general.  I just wanted to be alone, wanted to try to calm down, to catch my breath, to stop feeling like I was free-falling through a world where I was never allowed to just be happy, never allowed to just rest and be at peace.

I dumped the basket of pills out on the bed and fished out various bottles of my take-as-needed anti-anxiety medications. In between sobs, I took a few. Then I vomited.

Seeing the pills floating there on top, I took a few more to replace the ones I had lost. I continued to sob and to vomit. To vomit and to take more pills to replace the others.

At this point, I was no longer thinking clearly, caught in a nightmarish loop, wanting desperately just to calm down, to stop feeling like this, and to get some much needed rest.

Eventually, sleep came. I started to feel dizzy and thought to myself, “..finally.. they are starting to kick in..”  It is the last thing I remember for almost two days.

I woke up a day and a half later in the hospital. He was seated at my bedside, looking ragged, like he hadn’t slept in days.

Baby! You’re awake! Oh my god I love you. I am so sorry about everything. How are you feeling? What do you remember?

I was confused and disoriented. On oxygen. Had a bunch of tubes and wires all over my body.  It took me a few minutes to realize where I was and what was going on. I could not remember anything since taking the pills, crying and throwing up repeatedly. I was not even sure what day it was.

I can’t believe you don’t remember any of it. I had to kick down the door, to call the police.

My chest hurts.

I can only imagine. One of the cops did a sternum check, pushing really hard on your chest, hoping for a reaction to the pain. You were completely unresponsive.

My throat hurts.

You had tubes down your throat. They had to restrain you for a bit because you started to flail and grab at the tubes. You have no idea how much you scared me baby. What you looked like, laying there hooked up to all those machines, all those wires and tubes. I thought I was going to lose you. Please don’t ever scare me like that ever again.

I wanted to talk about it all, to explain, but my voice was raspy, my throat raw. It hurt to talk. I couldn’t stop coughing. I wanted to insist I hadn’t meant for any of this to happen, to swear I wasn’t suicidal like I had been all those years ago before we were even together. I wanted to apologize for scaring him, for fighting over stupid things like people who were inconsequential and irrelevant. All I could do though was cry as he held me close, my tears flowing freely with his.

I had lost a day and a half.

But more importantly, I tarnished our relationship in a way I can never take back. The sight of me laying there unresponsive, of being carted out on a stretcher, of my laying there as the doctors frantically worked to revive me, will forever haunt his nightmares.

I spent the next day in intensive care as they closely monitored my heart, followed by three days on a secure floor on suicide watch. Again and again, I tried to explain it all to whoever would listen, to insist I was not suicidal.  However, protocol required a few days of observation no matter what was said.

My heart was constantly monitored, my vitals taken every few hours. My IV was moved numerous times as my veins collapsed and fresh bruises appeared up and down my arms. I was stuck in bed for the first couple days upstairs while I waited for nurses to find me clothes other than hospital gowns. The clothes I had arrived in had been cut off me in the emergency room when I arrived. I could not wear other clothes from home until after I was cleared for discharge.

I was not allowed many other items often taken for granted such as a phone charger or silverware. Well-intentioned staff reached out repeatedly to try to convince me life was worth living. Meanwhile, they rushed to confiscate any cans or other sharp items from meal trays and to take endless notes on everything I said and did to assist with my psychological evaluation. I had a constant companion, a nurse or aide to sit with me at all times to prevent me from possibly further harming myself. Though I was never by myself during those four days, I had a lot of time to lay in bed alone and think.

I was not suicidal but I have been in the past. I did not intent to harm myself, but I had in the past. Intentional this time or not, I found myself in the same place and, like my previous attempts in the past, it had not solved anything. On the contrary, it made everything much worse. It hurt the people I love, scared my fiance and my children to death.

I didn’t get any time to calm down, didn’t get that moment of peace I had desired so badly. The majority of the problems had not gone anywhere. I lost a day and a half, woke up in pain and discomfort only to face new problems created by my own actions.

I was extremely lucky just for the fact that I am still here to tell my story. I could have just as easily become a statistic that day. My story could have just as easily ended with my obituary, the words and questions of others left unanswered, adrift in the wind.

I cannot apologize enough for what I put everyone through. I feel stupid, ashamed, that I should have known better. There are no words that could adequately express my remorse. I would do anything to take back that night but there is nothing I could ever say or do that would erase the past.

I would love to say there is no excuse for my actions but when my depression and anxiety reach certain levels, I no longer always think clearly. I become increasingly overwhelmed, the world feels largely hopeless and I am no longer able to cope. Even when I am not actively suicidal, which I have not been for years now, I struggle regularly with suicidal ideation, not exactly wanting to die but no longer wanting to continue living my life the way it is, either. Though I never meant to fall apart like I had that day, unfortunately once I reach a certain point, I react before rationalizing the repercussions of my actions.

I would love to say there is an easy solution to this, that I could take a magic pill or think some happy thoughts and my mental illness would just fade away and disappear. I wish I could say it was a temporary phase even that I would eventually get over. My mental illness is caused in part by a genetic mutation. I was born with it and I will have it until the day I die. There is no cure for me. It is permanently hardwired into my genetics. I can receive therapy for past traumas and current issues, I can take medication to provide my brain with the chemicals my body cannot make itself, I can fill my coping toolbox with techniques and strategies for dealing with harder days and attend things like tai chi and yoga classes until the day I die. Yet I will always have a mental illness. It is a lifelong, permanent diagnosis for me.

Mental illness is my cross to bear. Though I truly appreciate that my loved ones are willing to stand by me and support me through my struggles with my mental health, it is not fair or right for them to suffer like they have for my diagnosis. Although I never intended to do so, I severely hurt everyone that matters to me. They all have tried to be compassionate and understanding, to forgive me for an illness that often wreaks havoc in my life, for a condition frequently beyond my control.

However, I am not sure I will ever be able to forgive myself.

Since getting out of the hospital, my fiance and I have not talked much about the incident beyond him being thankful that I am okay and asking me to please never scare him like that again. I have reassured my children that I am okay, as well, trying to minimalize the severity of it all to lessen their fears. Again, I wish there were some magic words I could say to take away the pain and panic in their eyes. I fear no apology will ever be enough.

It took almost a week before we could even sleep in our bedroom again. While I was in the hospital, he slept on the couch when he could sleep at all, the spilled pill bottles, vomit and towels still sitting where they were when the ambulance carted me away. I insisted on cleaning it up myself when I came home, my mess, my problem, but going into that room felt like crossing into an alternate nightmare dimension. Nevertheless, I fought my way through a bevy of anxiety attacks and breakdowns to clean it all up. Even after everything was cleared away, no trace remaining, we opted to sleep in the living room for the next week on our air mattress. We knew what had happened in there, we had lived through it, yet we were still not quite ready to fully face it.

The first couple nights that we returned to the bedroom, I couldn’t sleep at all. He continued to cling tightly to me all night while he slept, as he had done every single night since we returned home from the hospital, as if he was terrified that I would disappear forever if he let go for even a moment. I laid awake both nights, silently crying for the pain and fear I had placed in his heart. A month later, my anxiety still rises whenever I enter that room, my sleep restless and plagued by nightmares old and new.

I know I need to change many things, to put safeguards in place to prevent something like this from ever happening again. I cannot change the fact that I have a mental illness, but there are other things I can address, precautions I can take. I never want to hurt my loved ones like that ever again. For instance, no more locking myself away when I am upset. No more taking extra dosages of medication early, even if I have thrown up the dose I just took. No more tempting fate when I might be too emotionally irrational to think clearly.

I have a constant pressing need now to reassure him that I am okay, that he doesn’t have to worry. I catch him looking at me, watching me, more frequently now, and checking in on how I am feeling. We are trying to heal from this, to move forward, though I’m not sure we can ever completely move past it. He almost lost me that day. He is always going to worry just a little bit more now.

We have also agreed to remove certain toxic people completely from our lives, those who prefer to add drama and conflict rather than happiness and support. We learned the hard way that some people will take advantage of our kindness and tolerance, repaying us tenfold with cruelty and drama. The nail in the coffin of that childhood friendship was hearing from mutual friends that she had been going around laughing and bragging about “putting me in the hospital”, proud of the part she played in my breakdown. We will never again allow anyone like that into our lives. Whatever it takes to never find ourselves in that situation again.

Some people say that suicide is selfish because all it does is pass the pain onto others. Other people attempt to explain that those who make attempts just don’t want to hurt anymore themselves. Many nowadays recognize that suicide is often a tragic byproduct of mental illness. I have been suicidal. I have been in those moments of desperately wanting the pain to stop. I have had suicidal attempts in my past and now an unintentional attempt because I was upset, irrational and not thinking clearly. I have lost loved ones to suicide, and known others who have lost people they loved deeply, as well, so I understand all too well how devastating it can be from the outside looking in. Regardless of where you fit in the equation, suicide is always heart-wrenching and tragic.

One thing I can tell you, whether you are suicidal or not, whether your attempt is intentional or not, the result is always the same. Pain. Pain for everyone you love, everyone who loves you. Pain for yourself should you survive. And not just physical pain from tubes and tests and IVs. Emotional pain as you see that haunted look in their eyes, that kernel of doubt that appears every time afterwards that you insist you’re okay. Pain that will continue for years, that will likely never go away, whether you’re around to see it or not.

Pain and overwhelming loss for everyone who has ever cared for you. They will never be the same. You might carry physical scars from your attempt, but theirs will run much deeper and never fully heal. Those close to you will retrace all your interactions, looking for signs, real or imaginary, to explain what happened. They will question whether they should have said this or should not have said that. People who you have not seen in ages will question if they should have reached out, as if they could have magically known things were bad and somehow made a difference. They will all blame themselves for your actions and choices. Whether you die or not, they will be forever haunted by that one choice you made, something completely beyond their control. Yet, in their pain, they will embrace that blame, caught in a cycle of imagining every scenario that could have prevented it.

To those contemplating suicide or just on that edge of not being able to cope with life anymore, please know that I understand completely how hard it can feel, especially when you’re struggling with mental illness. You are not alone. But I wouldn’t wish the kind of pain I caused on anyone, not my worst enemy, not my loved ones or yours. Once it has happened, though, you cannot ever take it back. Even if they don’t lose you, your relationships will never be the same. I cannot change the pain I’ve caused, but perhaps, by sharing my story, you can spare your loved ones from the same fate.

Please be careful. Be careful with yourself and be careful with your loved ones. Life is a fragile thing, a light that can be snuffed out in a moment.  It may be hard sometimes, downright unfair. But life is also precious. As is love. Don’t take either for granted.

I know all too well that mental illnesses are rarely rational. When we are upset, we often react based on pure emotion. So take precautions now, during the calm before the next storm. Do not leave ways to harm yourself readily accessible when you might find yourself too emotional to think rationally. Don’t set yourself up to fail or to hurt yourself or those you love.

I thankfully am very lucky to still be sitting here, able to share my story. Many others have tragically lost their battles with mental illness without ever having a chance to tell their tale. Their stories are told in yearly mental health statistics and on memorial pages created by those they left behind.  We’re all in this boat together and we only have two choices. We can either become a statistic or we can keep going, keep fighting, and find some way to make a difference in this world, even if only to show others that it is possible to survive our diagnosis. There are too many mental health statistics and enough pain already in this world. If we have to choose anything, let’s choose life and love.

Much love, compassion, hope and faith that even if this does not find you well, it finds you strong enough to keep living. ❤

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.

To the Mother I Never Knew..

As Mother’s Day came and went this past year, I once again found myself with conflicting feelings.  Part of me wanted desperately to join in with friends who were fondly honoring their moms or mourning the mothers they had lost over the years.  Another part of me, however, felt numb and empty, because I never had that type of cherished bond with my mother.  I honestly never knew her.

No, my mother didn’t die when I was born.  She passed away 8 years ago this Thanksgiving Day.  No, she didn’t give me up for adoption nor did she abandon me.  The truth is that my mother was there throughout the majority of my childhood and sporadically at best throughout my adult years.  I just never really knew her because the woman she truly was was buried deep beneath often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness.

Growing up, my mother was one of my biggest abusers, both mentally and physically.  She was prone to severe mood swings that would shift into bouts of rage at the drop of a dime.  She had bipolar disorder.

We were estranged for the last few years of her life.  I could no longer handle the abuse nor did I want my children subjected to it.  It seemed that her medication was never quite balanced nor were her moods.  It always felt like what little treatment she did receive was not helping, was not working, and she was doing very little to proactively work towards correcting anything.  She felt to me like a ticking time bomb, one I was afraid would go off at any moment and I did not want my children caught in the crossfire.

Over the years as I have struggled with my own mental illnesses, I have come to deeply regret those feelings.  I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD, labelled treatment resistant for years.  No medication ever seemed to work.  It wasn’t until the last year or two that I discovered via genetic testing that my resistance was caused in great part to a genetic mutation.  I’ve often wondered since then if my mother suffered from the same mutation.

The truth is that mental illness changes a person, or perhaps more appropriately it snuffs that person out, dimming their light and dulling their soul.  The person that you are is trapped underneath, desperately needing to come out, wanting to shine.  But there is this dark hopelessness that oozes over everything, making it impossible to fully be the person you truly are.

I think about my own children and how my diagnosis has affected them.  They have only seen glimpses of the real me over the years.  The creative me who would spend half the day drawing huge murals with sidewalk chalk on the tennis courts at the park with them on summer days.  The silly me who would make paper pirate hats and eye patches, transforming our dining room chairs into a pirate ship to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with them.  The nurturing and educational me who would catch tadpoles in buckets with them to show them how they turned into frogs.

More than anything, though, they saw my mental illness.  They saw the mom who was too exhausted just from going through the daily motions of life to do anything fun.  They saw the mom who opted for quiet family days indoors watching movies or playing board games because I was physically and mentally unable to do anything more.  They saw the mom who often emerged from the bathroom drying my eyes as I attempted to hide the tears I could never seem to stop from flowing.

They were vaguely aware of the person I truly was but they knew my mental illness well.

I remember when I first started taking the medication I needed for my genetic mutation and I had my first truly happy moment.  It was the first time in my life I ever felt that sludge of mental illness be lifted off of me, albeit for a short period of time.  The medication is not a panacea.  It in no way cures or stops my mental illness.  However, it does give my mind the ability to fight back in a way that it never could before.

That moment of happiness was beyond blissful.  I laughed, cried and hugged my boys, asking them again and again if that was truly what happiness felt like.  I had never experienced anything else like it.  That sludge continues to lift here and there sporadically and I have a genuine hope for the future now, that there might be a day when there’s more periods of happiness than illness.  But for now, more days than not, I still struggle.

I have heard from people that knew my mother at the end of her life, in those last couple years, that she had finally gotten the treatment she needed.  Her medication was finally balanced.  She was happy and more herself than she had ever been before.  She was doing crafts with the neighborhood children and even developed a fondness for Harry Potter.

Part of me envies them because I never knew that woman.  I never had the pleasure of meeting her.  All I ever knew was the sludge and taint of her illness.  On Mother’s Day, I mourned the ghost of a woman I never even met, a woman I would have loved more than anything to know.

Please keep in mind that when you’re dealing with people who are struggling with mental illness that they are not completely themselves.  The person they truly are is in there somewhere, beneath their diagnosis, fighting to get out.  Please don’t ever assume that we’re just not trying hard enough, that we’ve already given up or that we’ve lost who we are along the way.  It is a daily battle, a constant fight, against your own mind.  It is a never-ending struggle to push your way through a thick layer of darkness just to come up for air.

Looking back, I truly regret becoming estranged with my mother.  I had done what I thought was best at the time, trying to shield my children and myself from an illness that was not her fault.  She had no more control over her bipolar disorder than I do over my own mental illness.  I am sure she was trying harder, fighting more, than I ever realized.

To the mother I never knew – I’m sorry I was not there when you needed me.  I’m sorry that I allowed my fear to dictate my actions and choices and that I abandoned you when you needed me most.  I’m sorry I was not more compassionate and understanding of all that you were going through.  Most importantly, I am sorry I never had the pleasure to truly meet you.  Happy belated Mother’s Day.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 9/14/18.

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Republished on MSN on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 9/14/18.

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.

If Only They Understood…

I recently touched base with someone from my distant past. To say it did not go well would be a colossal understatement. While I will not go into specifics about the conversation as a whole, one comment they made has been eating at me. So much so that I found myself at a loss for how to respond.

They told me they had been made aware of my writing but had not read it because they don’t believe in finger pointing.

When I began writing, it was for survival. I had so much baggage I carried with me that it was eating me alive. I was haunted by my past and desperately needed to talk about it before it killed me.

It had nothing to do with pointing fingers or hoping anyone received their comeuppance. The past was the past and nothing I could say or do would ever change it. But I could no longer pretend it didn’t happen, either. I needed to stop running and face my demons.

Even after I shared all I had been through, I continued to write. My second book was entirely about examining my perceptions of people and events, to reevaluate them not through the eyes of an injured child but rather as a rational adult. Again, it had nothing to do with finger pointing. I needed to reevaluate unhealthy and dysfunctional thought processes and patterns in my life if I was to ever have any hope of change.

I can understand their wariness. They knew my mother and witnessed her persecution complex firsthand. My mother, while suffering from often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness, often displayed what those close to her frequently referred to as the “Poor Patty” complex, believing the world was against her.

But I am not my mother.

I am not looking for anyone’s pity. I often tell people not to feel sorry for me. Feel bad for those people who lost their battles. I’m still here. Don’t pity me. Cheer me on. I’m a survivor.

I’m a realist in many ways. I’m not going to minimize what living with mental illness is like, especially not for the comfort of others. It is not pretty by any means. It is dark, ugly, disturbing and scary. Pretending it is less than it is only perpetuates the stigma and reinforces the belief that it should not be taken seriously. The only way we can ever hope to get others to truly understand how debilitating mental illness can be is by talking openly, honestly and frequently about it with no filter, no holds barred.

Part of being a realist, too, is accepting my diagnosis. A large part of my condition is caused by a genetic mutation. I was born with it. I can no more wish away my mental illness than a diabetic could wish away their illness. There are medications I will have to rely on for the rest of my life. I am also fully aware of my limitations currently. Whether those limitations might change in the future with treatment is yet to be seen but lying about or exaggerating my capabilities is only detrimental to myself and my well-being. I will not do it anymore.

That being said, I am also an optimist. I refuse to believe there is no hope. I refuse to accept the stigma surrounding mental illness. While I accept my diagnosis, I refuse to let it define me. I am constantly looking for new tools for my wellness toolbox and am devoted to deciphering and changing dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors. I may have a mental illness but I still strive to be the healthiest that I can be.

I consider my writing to be both truthful about mental illness yet still uplifting and motivational. I encourage others to not give up, to stay strong and to fight for change. I want others suffering to know that they are not alone and that there is hope. After all, they are survivors, too. They are stronger than they realize. They don’t need pity, either. They need empathy and compassion.

I wish this person could see how wrong they are about my writing and my motivations. I wish they would take the time to read through my work and see that it was never about finger pointing. It was about healing, survival and personal growth, transitioning into advocating for others to stay positive and keep fighting, as well.

But unfortunately though you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make them read.

I hope in time we can talk more and move beyond their misconceptions of my writing and the intentions behind my words. I hate the distance I have allowed to grow between us and hope, in time, things may change. I hope, as well, that they will eventually come to see my writing not as something negative but rather as a sign of strength and a tool for survival.

Because as much as I truly miss having them in my life, I remain thoroughly unapologetic about my writing. Finding my voice has saved my life in more ways than one. Helping others has given me a purpose greater than I ever imagined for myself. Whether they can see it or not, my writing is one of the best things to happen in my life.

Anxiety & Jumping to Conclusions

When someone suffers from an anxiety disorder, our minds are always in overdrive, racing at top speeds trying to figure everything out. For each and every problem that presents itself, our brains reason out hundreds of possible reasons why, usually settling on the worst possible scenario or the one that bears the most personal responsibility. We see ourselves as broken and flawed so we naturally assume the fault ultimately must always rest with us.
When a friend does not acknowledge our messages or respond back right away, our mind races to decipher what we must have done to upset them without realizing it. We ponder whether we’ve been such awful friends, caught up within our own misery and personal problems, that we must have devalued their friendship, damaging it irreparably, causing them to give up on us and walk away. Somehow, the worst possible probability always seems more likely to us than the sheer possibility that they might just be busy, distracted by their own lives at the moment.
When our boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives do not respond to us with absolute elation or passion, we start to wonder whether they are falling out of love with us. We dwell over how much of a handful we have always been in the relationship, whether real or imaginary. We wonder whether they’ve stumbled onto someone else they mesh with better and we honestly could not blame them if it were to happen because we know how horrible we can be. No matter how much or how often they tell us they love us and they cannot imagine their lives without us, our anxiety leaves us with an overwhelming sense of insecurity that convinces us that anyone else in the world would be a better choice than we are for them.
If something goes wrong at school or at work, we automatically assume we must be to blame and seek out how we must be ultimately responsible. Even if we know for a fact we had nothing to do with a situation happening, we look for areas where our intervention may have prevented the mishap and blame ourselves for our inaction. We feel as if we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but either way, we’re still to blame.
If something breaks or stops working, we trace back to our last time using it, considering every irresponsible action we have done that may have contributed to its demise. Somewhere in our heads, we rationalize that forgetting to shut off a machine when we were done using it once 6 months ago must have ultimately caused a chain reaction that led to its deterioration and destruction. It doesn’t matter if a dozen other people have each done a dozen different things since then to contribute to the situation at hand. In our minds, our mistakes are so glaringly horrendous that we cannot fathom any other explanation being more likely. It doesn’t matter if an item was past its prime or threadbare and past due to be replaced. Our anxiety tells us it would still be usable if not for us.
We internalize everything. We assume that the chaos within ourselves is constantly leaking out into the world around us, seeping into everything we come in contact with, making everything ultimately worse. Our minds race straight for the absolute worst possible scenario, making a pit stop at every other negative possibility along the way. Our anxiety tends to blind us to the positive possibilities or even to the simple likelihood of coincidences or happenstance. It discards any randomness, always looking for a definitive answer and cause. There must ALWAYS be a reason why, must ALWAYS be someone to blame, and our minds have designated us to be the sacrificial lamb.
We do not do this intentionally. It isn’t that we’re just being a Negative Nancy, refusing to listen to reason or see the positive side of things. When we blame ourselves, we are not having a pity party, expecting others to feel bad for us, too.  We genuinely feel responsible whenever anything goes wrong.  Part of having an anxiety disorder is having a brain that is constantly, consistently, working in overdrive, looking to connect and explain everything around us, whether those connections are real or imaginary. Even if those links seem ludicrous to others looking in, when our minds make those connections, they feel genuine to us. Our brains are often on autopilot, with us just along for the ride. Whenever the rational side of our mind tries to speak up, speak out, to even suggest we might be overreacting or making something out of nothing, that voice is drowned out by a hundred other voices, a thousand other possibilities, of ways and reasons that we might be, must be, wrong.
If we have ever had a friend in the past who have distanced themselves because they felt we were too much of a handful, part of us assume other friends will follow suit and discard us, as well. If we’ve ever had a partner fall out of love with us or cheat with someone else, part of us braces ourselves for the next time it will happen, leaving us abandoned and alone. Because of this, we have trouble letting people in, trouble trusting others and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.  We are terrified of being hurt, of putting ourselves in that position again.  As much as part of us knows that our current friends and partners are not those people who hurt us in our past, our brains keep pushing to link everything together, to make connections even where none truly exist. Even worse, when we are faced with pain or abandonment from others, we still question ourselves, looking to take personal responsibility for the choices and actions of everyone else.
Perhaps even worse than the initial blame game we play with ourselves is the way our minds will keep building and compounding our theories upon themselves, escalating them to unfathomable proportions. We build these fragile houses of cards in our minds, adding new card after card until we’ve created a precarious tower of self-loathing and blame. We tear into ourselves with a never-ending monologue that continuously harps that if we had just tried harder, just been better, not been so broken, been more responsible, none of would have happened. Our minds taunt us, telling us we should have known better than to even try, reminding us that everything we do, everything else we try, will fail, too, in time. We tell ourselves the lie that we are destined to be alone, that sooner or later everyone always leaves, then push everyone away, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We allow our anxiety to convince us that failure and loneliness is an inevitable part of our lives and that we don’t deserve any better. We sincerely believe that it’s just what we do, just how our lives go, that you cannot fight the inevitable.
Even if it eventually comes to light that we were not to blame, even if the situation had a simple explanation that has nothing to do with us, it does not quell our anxiety. Instead, we tell ourselves, “it might not have been us THIS TIME..” as we begin to mentally brace ourselves for the next time we actually will be at fault. We chalk it up to sheer luck and we don’t see ourselves as ever truly lucky so we consider it a rare free pass, unlikely to ever happen again.
I often catch myself travelling down that anxiety-ridden path, needlessly panicking before I even know all the facts. I find myself looking to rest all the blame on myself even before I fully understand the situation or its underlying cause. I often find myself taking any distance from family and friends personally, without considering that their lives are busy, too and that life happens to us all.  I feel like I have to be ever-vigilant, ever self-aware, so I have even the slightest chance to rationalize with myself before the inevitable self-blame-game begins. Even then, it is a struggle within myself because my body automatically reacts to the anxiety festering in my mind. Even if the logical part of my brain is able to determine I am not at fault, there’s always that kernel of doubt bouncing around in my head, asking “..but how do you know for sure?”
Years ago, I had a friend that used to jokingly tell me, “Beth.. get off the cross. We need the wood”. It’s a sentiment I’ve come to relate heavily to my own anxiety. After all, I have been needlessly carrying the burden, real or imaginary, of everything going on around me for my entire life. I am slowly learning to differentiate between the rational and irrational, taking ownership of my own actions and decisions without carrying the weight of the rest of the world on my shoulders. While I cannot will away my anxiety disorder with mind over matter, being able to catch myself and separate what is probable from what is unlikely is a good start.  I may have to live with this anxiety monster on my back, but I don’t need to keep feeding it.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/22/18.