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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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.

Having A Positive Mindset Will Not Cure Depression

Many people assume that those who are suffering from depression are just caught in the wrong mindset, that we’re being Debbie Downers and Negative Nancys, wandering through life with a Trelawney*-sized penchant for doom and gloom.  They assume a great deal, if not all, of our mental illness could be solved simply by trying a little harder and adopting a more positive mindset.  I can tell you firsthand that is not the case.

I have been told by multiple people over the years that I am the most positive, cheerful, upbeat little depressed person that they have ever met.  I refuse to be a victim.  I am a fighter.  A Survivor.  Even in the roughest of circumstances, I still search for something positive to cling to like a life preserver in rough waters after being thrown overboard during a raging storm.  I am a firm believer that there is always something positive to be found if you look hard enough.  Even on the worst days, I am that one person you can count on to offer an encouraging smile and to point out something good to be grateful for in life.

I do not intentionally surround myself with negativity.  Over the years, I have systematically removed many so-called friends and family from my life who found more pleasure in knocking others down rather than helping each other up.  I’ve chosen instead to surround myself with people who believe in kindness and compassion, those who prefer to cheer openly for the success of others rather than privately snickering over their defeat.

I don’t carry within myself an undue amount of anger, hurt or resentment.  If someone has grievously injured me, I have learned to just remove them from my life as a doctor might amputate a gangrenous limb.  I do not allow their cruelty to continue to fester and grow but rather I accept that they do not deserve a place in my life and I continue onward without them.  I have accepted that not everyone belongs in my life and that some people were merely meant to play the passing role of a teacher of harsh realities.  I refuse to waste undue amounts of energy dwelling on the cruelty of anyone who would not give me a second thought.  I choose to focus the majority of my energy on improving myself and my future rather than dwelling on other people or a past I cannot change.

I have trained myself to consciously focus on happiness and positivity every single day.  Every day I strive to accomplish three goals.

  1. Every day, no matter how rough the day might feel, I look for at least one reason to smile, one thing to be grateful for in my life.
  2. Every day, I try to reach out and do something kind for someone else without expecting anything in return.  This could be as simple as holding open a door or reaching out to someone else to see how they are doing.
  3. Every day, I make sure to tell at least one person in my life that I love and appreciate them.

At my core, I have a very positive mindset.  I have a fundamental belief in the strength and resilience of the human spirit, that we as a species are stronger than we realize and are survivors at heart.  I carry within myself a genuine hope that one day things will get better and I am proactive in working towards that goal.  I encourage not only myself to power through and not give up on a daily basis, but I reach out to others, as well, through my writing.

I also have friends and family that I have opened up to about my illness.  I do my best to be honest with where I am at mentally and emotionally at all times.  I have constructed a support network of people I can reach out to if I need help so I am not facing everything alone.

I have not given up on myself.  I not only see my doctors regularly, but I push myself as much as possible to attend wellness activities such as yoga, tai chi, meditation and art classes.  I take my treatment seriously.  My wellness and emotional toolbox is chock full of useful techniques to use when I am struggling.

I make sure to eat regularly even if I am not feeling particularly hungry so that my body receives the nutrients it needs.  I do not smoke or use drugs and very, very rarely do I drink any alcohol, let alone have more than one drink.  I practice self-care and engage in hobbies such as writing, sketching and painting so I have positive outlets to focus my attention upon so I do not lose myself along the way.  Over the years, I have learned to love myself and to treat myself gently, with the same kindness and compassion I would show others.

I have not surrendered to my mental illness or turned a blind eye to it, pretending it is not there.  I read up on the latest studies on a regular basis.  I belong to multiple online support groups that share not only encouragement but share information, as well.  I want to remain knowledgeable about my illness so I can make educated decisions about my ongoing and future treatment.

My mindset is not an issue.

I am fighting every single day.  I am like the cancer patient who pushes herself to eat even though her chemotherapy has left her feeling nauseous because she knows it is what her body needs or to go for a short jog because she is determined to not let her illness defeat her.  I am like the woman with rheumatoid arthritis so bad that every step wracks her body with pain who still goes out to work in her garden because she doesn’t want to lose herself to her illness.  I am no different than many other people with hundreds of different debilitating diseases, illnesses and ailments who are fighting the good fight every single day not only to survive but to find some way to truly live despite their diagnosis.

Again, my mindset is not the issue.

All the positivity in the world will not negate my illness.  A wellness toolbox full of handy tricks will not fix it.  It is a medical condition that needs medical treatment.  As good as things like having a support system, a positive attitude, eating well, exercise and engaging in healthy hobbies might be for someone’s emotional well-being, they will not cure mental illness any more than they would cure cancer or arthritis.  I have learned to cope with my illness to the best of my ability but I still need ongoing treatment.

The main difference between other more widely accepted ailments and mental illness is that my condition stems not in my body but in my brain. That, and the stigma attached to mental illness that prevents others from viewing it as a legitimate, treatment-worthy condition.  Because it cannot readily be seen by the naked eye, it is often doubted, minimized and trivialized, treated largely as a joke.  Though it may be considered an invisible illness, I am fighting it every single day.

From the time I wake up every day, I am fighting my own mind.  As much as I struggle to stay positive and focused, a very real part of me is trying to convince me that the world is hopeless.  Whenever I attempt to reach out to friends and loved ones, it tells me that I am a burden to them, that I shouldn’t bother, that I should leave them in peace.  It pushes for me to isolate, to hide my pain, to succumb and surrender to it.

There are days I am overwhelmed with emotions.  I feel everything so deeply and there appears to be no way to turn it off.  I have this intense need to cry, to weep not only for myself but for everyone else struggling, for everyone who’s lives have been made harder by my illness and for everyone else who has lost their battles along the way.  On those days, my world is overflowing with so much pain that it is overwhelming.

On other days, I feel nothing at all.  I find myself trapped in a dark void where nothing feels like it matters, least of all me.  There is no joy in that darkness, no light, no hope.  I struggle to even move because I feel swallowed up within its depths.  Everything on those days feels like an insurmountable obstacle.  Even simple tasks like eating make no sense because everything tastes bland, like nothingness.  That voice within my head echos through the darkness, asking what’s the point.

No mater how much the sun is shining, my world always feels dark, cold, hopeless and full of despair.  No matter how many times I tell myself that it isn’t truly the case, it still feels that way.  It is like my mind has constructed its own alternate reality and has taken me hostage within its walls.  I feel helpless like I have no control over my own life, let alone my body or my mind.

Every single day, I have to fight myself to even get out of bed.  It isn’t a case of laziness or just not wanting to get up.  The weight of everything I want to do and need to do rests so heavily on my shoulders that I often find myself immobile, incapable of action.  Every single day I am beating myself up for everything I know I should be doing but cannot manage to bring myself to do.  I desperately want to get up, do things and be productive, but the weight of my illness pins me down.  It then uses my inability to function against me as evidence that I am worthless and a waste of space.

Every single day, my mental illness presents itself in very real and physical ways as well.  My body is always as exhausted as my mind.  I ache all over.  My anxiety frequently has my head spinning and my heart pounding.  When confronted with stress, my chest tightens and my thoughts race.  My stomach is always in knots.  I regularly experience nausea and vomiting and have a recurring bleeding ulcer.  I have absolutely no desire to eat most days or to even do anything at all for that matter.  Every night, I struggle to get to sleep and to stay asleep.  I am plagued by horrible nightmares on a regular basis.  No matter how much rest I might get, I always feel sluggish, like I am running on empty.  It is like my own body has betrayed me.

My world feels hopeless.  I feel helpless.  I feel lost and alone.  I feel broken beyond repair.  There is not a single day that I do not have to remind myself multiple times that this is not reality.  This is my mental illness.  There is not a single day that I am not fighting with myself, pushing myself to do something, anything, even if it is just to pull myself out of bed and eat something.

I am not consumed by negativity, nor am I lazy or weak.  I have not given up on myself or the world.  I have hope for my future and a strong will to fight.  I am doing my best.  I refuse to let my mental illness beat me.

My mindset is not the issue.

My mental illness is.

I struggle every single day not because I am not trying hard enough to have a positive mindset but because I am ill.

 

*For those unacquainted with Sybill Trelawney, she is one of many wondrous creations from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, the Divination professor who at one time or another had foreseen the death of every student at Hogwart’s.  Whenever I imagine anyone embracing hopelessness and envisioning a world full of nothing but doom and gloom, I think of Trelawney.

 

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.

An Average Day Living with Depression and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety is Often Completely Irrational

Anxiety is often irrational but the fact that it does not always readily make sense does not stop it from rearing its ugly head.

Sometimes all it takes is something going badly once.  Every single time I’m in a similar situation afterwards, my anxiety is heightened and part of me fears that something bad will inevitably occur again.  Other times, I can have something bad occur repeatedly and nothing is ever triggered.  Each new time something bad happens again, I find myself honestly surprised at the outcome.

There’s no rhyme or reason to which will occur.  It is not based on the severity of the bad result.  It is not based on how pivotal the event was to my life.  Though I have struggled for years to understand my anxiety and pinpoint what causes it, I have not been able to discern any common factors to make it easier to predict my anxiety in the future.

A recent example of how my anxiety presents itself occurred a couple weeks ago. While preparing to shave my legs in the shower, I found a tick on my leg just below my kneecap.  Thankfully, he didn’t appear to have been there for long. I was able to get him out fairly quickly and easily.  There have been no rashes or bullseye rings around the site since then to warn of conditions such as Lyme disease.  All in all, I was pretty lucky. The whole situation was resolved quickly and without further or lasting complications.

This was my first experience finding a tick on myself in my lifetime.  It obviously was an isolated occurrence, unlikely to be repeated again any time soon.  I don’t spend a lot of time in wooded areas or anything where I’d be likely to pick up another tick.  Yet every time I have stepped in the shower since then, my anxiety easily goes up two points.

Whenever I step into the shower now my heart starts to race.  Though I begin an inner monologue telling myself that I am just being silly and paranoid, I can feel my chest start to tighten.  I stand under the stream of water, close my eyes and practice my conscious breathing techniques trying to calm myself back down.  I struggle to fight the urge to scour every inch of my skin again and again looking for other ticks.

I know it is irrational.  I know my anxiety in this situation makes no sense.  I know that, logically, I am highly unlikely to find another tick even upon a thorough inspection.  I know it was an isolated incident.  But logic plays no part in how my mind and my body begin to react in these situations.

I don’t even know if my anxiety in this particular situation will fade somewhat over time or if it will continue to grow.  Sometimes my situational anxiety will dull somewhat over the course of time.  Other times, however, it remains consistent or even grows and expands upon itself, merging with other anxieties over time.  Again, I have never been able to find any rhyme, reason or pattern to how my anxiety presents itself.  There’s no way to predict what lies ahead.

All I know is that, thanks to one random, errant tick, I have become increasingly apprehensive about taking my showers over the last couple weeks.  And I know that as much as I try to be rational and reason with myself, I cannot rationalize with my anxiety.  It comes and goes as it pleases, always leaving a mess in its wake.

That has always been one of my biggest issues with explaining my anxiety to other people.  Everyone always attempts to apply logic to the situation to “help me see how ridiculous my anxiety is”.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.

Though sometimes portions of my anxiety will eventually fade over time, I have carried others with me for decades.  A good portion of my anxiety revolves around never truly feeling safe.  In this aspect, it has merged with my PTSD because in my head security equates to safety.  Due in a large part to the abuses of my past, I have noticed that I subconsciously react to my anxiety over not feeling safe in many ways. For example, I always leave my shower curtain somewhat ajar so I can see the pathway directly to the door.  I often find myself jumpy and apprehensive when seated with my back to doorways because I carry within myself an ever-present fear of someone approaching me unaware.  I check locks repeatedly, especially before going to bed, because I cannot  relax, get comfortable or fall asleep if I am even the slightest bit anxious about my safety.

I have not experienced anything in the scope of sexual abuse or physical abuse since I was a child that would warrant such anxiety.  There is no rational explanation for why I need to have a clear view of the door from my shower or why I must watch the pathways to my location like a hawk.  It has been decades since I have had anything happen and I am no longer that little child who cannot fend for herself.  But my body and mind will not accept that reality as fact.  To this day, whenever I am presented with certain situations, my anxiety is automatically heightened.  It doesn’t matter that it is irrational.  It doesn’t matter that I can even clearly see that the situation is irrational and call myself on it.  My mind and body still react as if there is something to fear.

I understand that others mean well when they try to reassure me that there really is nothing to worry about or make comments about my overreacting.  I’m aware of that fact myself.  But they might as well be telling me the sky is blue because I can see that, as well, yet I have as little control over that as I do over my anxiety.  There is nothing anyone else could say to me that I have not said to myself a hundred times over.  I know somewhere within myself that it is irrational.  But that does not stop my mind and my body from reacting as if it was the most rational thing in the world.

I don’t need anyone else to tell me that my anxiety is often irrational.  Trust me, I have those bases well covered.  What I need more than anything is compassion and understanding, along with acknowledgement that I am doing my best to use everything I possess in my mental wellness toolbox to soothe myself and bring myself back down out of a panic.  I know my anxiety is often irrational.  Please believe my when I say I am not doing it intentionally to make my own life or anyone else’s harder.  It is a mental illness.  I have virtually no control over how my mind and body react in certain situations.  The last thing I need is judgment or lectures about how I just need to be more rational and calm down.  Because let’s face it – You cannot reason with something that is unreasonable.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.  All the common sense in the world will not negate anxiety.  It is a medical condition.

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.

An Honest Dialogue About the Realities of Mental Illness

I woke up this morning to a message in my inbox on my Twitter author account.  Admittedly, I rarely open up messages on that site these days because the majority of them are either bots or phishing scams.  But, even by the small preview pane, I could see this one was different.  They began by explaining they had been reading through some of my writing.  I immediately opened it up to read through it and respond.

I won’t divulge any of what they wrote about because it is not my place to share their story, but as I read over my responses, I couldn’t help but believe that I needed to share my own words further.  To them, I wrote:

…Good morning. No need to apologize at all. I’ve written so very much that unless you’ve stumbled onto certain pieces, it’s unlikely a specific question would be answered. Honestly, it took me hitting a horrible low before I could find my voice. I had to reach a point where something desperately had to change or I knew I was not going to survive..

…As for overcoming my depression, I honestly don’t think there is such a thing, at least in my case.. It was more a matter of accepting my diagnosis for what it was and recognizing my limitations instead of letting the stigma surrounding mental illness control my perception of myself. I still very much have good days and bad days, but at the same time, I’ve gotten better at identifying when it is my depression versus when it is reality.. I’ve also filled my coping toolbox with so many different things so that I have different tools to help me cope with bouts of depression and anxiety.. I’ve learned to look at my mental illness much like diabetes – it’s an illness that causes one of the organs in my body to not function properly – there is currently no cure and it needs regular monitoring and care – but it is possible to exist and live with mental illness just like it is possible with diabetes.. I find myself still struggling, as well, to find a combination of medication that works right for me but I have sincere high hopes that in the future, when that combination is discovered, things will be much better and it will become easier for me to function..

…I apologize if you were hoping for some sort of secret cure all, or some way to make it go away on it’s own.. I don’t think something like that exists at this point, at least in cases such as mine.. I think, for me, it was a matter of changing how I viewed my illness and changing how I viewed myself.. Accepting that I am not broken or crazy but that I have an illness that affects my brain and that I deserve not only treatment but compassion and understanding, as well. I speak out and write a lot about what it is like living with mental illness because I want others to know, as well, that they’re not alone.. that others are struggling to fight similar battles and that we cannot buy into the stigma surrounding our illness, that we are not to blame for our illness, that our illness does not define us and that there is no shame in being mentally ill.

…I apologize for all the typos.. I was typing in the dark on my laptop.. I wanted to answer your questions right away and found my fingers struggling to keep up with my mind as I threw my answer out there.. I hope some or all of that helped.. I thank you for taking the time to read so much of my story and I sincerely wish you the best.. Please stay strong and don’t lose hope.. A mental illness diagnosis does not define you and it doesn’t have to be the end of anything. I truly love that the mental health community has embraced the semicolon ( ; ) as a symbol because it is used when a sentence could have ended but the author chose, instead to keep going. None of our stories are over either. We just have to keep fighting. If you are able, have a wonderful day. If that isn’t possible, please at least have a day. Keep going, keep powering through. And know that you’re not alone.

…Reading over all of this, part of me honestly feels horrible if anything I had written gave the impression that I had in any way found a path beyond my illness. As you can tell by much of my writing, I still struggle with horrible lows and have days where I consider getting out of bed, eating and doing my dishes as a victory. I’ve learned to differentiate between my illness and reality but that in itself does not change the physical things going on within my mind and body. My mind and body still go haywire regularly – I am working with my doctors to find a way to get them under control much like a diabetic manages their illness with insulin and glucose.. I know talking about looking at my illness differently doesn’t sound like much but it has been a huge stepping stone for me because it has allowed me to stop beating myself up for being ill, to stop hating myself and treating myself as if I am broken or crazy. By recognizing it as an illness and not something messed up inside myself, I was able to take back some control and begin working towards getting my illness under control. Things may be rough right now but this illness can be treated.. It just takes time. I’m not sure there ever will be a point where I’ll be fully functional, but I’d happily settle for being more functional than I currently am.

I honestly felt I needed to put this out there, to make sure everyone reading my writing understood that I am in no way touting any magical cure all for mental illness, nor am I implying in any way that mental illness is anything that a person can overcome by sheer willpower alone.  Mental illness is just that – an illness – and it needs treatment.  It won’t go away on its own.

I do believe, however, that we can destigmatize our illness and take back control over our lives.  We cannot will away how our symptoms present themselves but we can change how we view them and how we treat ourselves.

Please know that I’m a realist.  I’m not going to throw out those tired cliches about trying harder to be happy or how life will somehow magically be better if you let go of your past because I’ve been there myself and I know how infuriatingly useless they are.  I’ve worked through issues from my past and my mental illness still remained – because it is an illness that needs treatment.  I know firsthand how rough this illness can be and I won’t sugarcoat it because it does none of us any good to minimize our symptoms for the comfort of others.  I speak openly and honestly about what it is like to live with mental illness because I know holding it in and pretending things are okay doesn’t work.  Those of us suffering can barely wrap our own heads around our illness – how can we expect those who have never experienced it themselves to understand unless we throw it all out there and tell them?

I apologize if anyone who has been following my journey feels misled, hoping for some panacea, some advice or trick that will help their mental illness magically go away.  As far as I know, no such thing exists.

I may be a realist, but I’m also an optimist.  Since I have changed how I view my own illness, I have newfound hope for the future.  I have seen marked changes and improvements in the last couple years alone.  Though my fight is far from over, I truly believe that further advancements are possible and that things can and will continue to improve over time with continued treatment.

I write about mental illness not because I have all the answers but because I know it is a problem we cannot solve by pretending it isn’t there.  We need to talk about mental illness.  We need to fight the stigma.  We need to share our journey with others who are struggling so that they know they are not alone.  We need to stop blaming ourselves, stop hating ourselves, and accept our condition for what it is – an illness that needs medical treatment.

For everyone else out there fighting their own battles with mental illness, please stay strong, keep fighting, don’t give up hope.  See a doctor.  Talk about everything you’re going through without minimizing or sugar coating it.  Stop blaming yourself and hating yourself for your condition.  Please know that you’re not alone.  And most importantly, even if you cannot have a good day, at least still have a day.  None of our stories are over and we can get through this together.