Why Tess Holliday Was Right About Abusive Relationships and Responsibility

*** This Piece Was Originally Written For The Mighty on 8/7/20 ***

I’m admittedly a hopeless romantic at heart with a strong Florence Nightingale effect. I’ve always been drawn to the misunderstood, wounded soul with the tragic backstory, ultimately wanting to help save them from both their hard lives and themselves. I stayed in a dysfunctional relationship for 11 years, tolerating both repeated abuse and infidelity, because I firmly yet mistakenly believed it was my responsibility to stay the course and make things work. I desperately wanted to help him heal from the hardships of his past. I believed if I just loved him enough and was supportive enough, somehow we could make it work.

I spent years giving of myself and chipping away at my own self-worth until I completely lost myself in the process. In the end, no matter how much love or support I gave, no matter how many times I forgave his transgressions, the relationship ultimately failed. And even though it was his cheating and his abuse that destroyed everything, I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I had somehow failed, that if I had tried harder or loved more, maybe things would have changed; maybe he would have changed.

It took extensive therapy to accept that I was not at fault. In my desire to save everyone else, I had forgotten to bother trying to save myself. In wanting to help fix him, I had broken myself almost to a point beyond repair. In loving him despite all the abuse, I had stopped loving myself.

That’s why I know model Tess Holliday was completely spot-on when she recently said, “women shouldn’t be responsible for rehabilitating men,” and that, “women often get blamed for not doing ‘enough’ to ‘save’ their relationships. Guess what? We don’t have to carry that. We are only responsible for ourselves and our actions.”

And that goes for all people, not just women toward men.

We can love someone to the moon and back but it doesn’t change the fact that abuse is present. Abuse is never acceptable, nor is it a fee anyone has to endure and pay in order to eventually be worthy of love. It is not anyone else’s responsibility to love someone else enough that they eventually decide to change for the better. Nobody deserves to be abused and nobody has the right to subject anyone else to abuse.

Change has to come from within and the person doing the changing is solely responsible for both their actions and their choice to change. Nobody is required to endure abuse in order to be loved or save anyone else from themselves. The only person each of us is responsible for, the only person each of us has an obligation to save, is ourselves.

These days, I have found myself with another tortured soul who has had a relatively hard life. There are quite a few distinct differences, however, between my last relationship and this one. For starters, I will no longer tolerate anyone being abusive or otherwise treating me poorly because I understand now that abuse is not love. Secondly, I am no longer trying to save him, nor am I asking him to save me, but rather we are loving and standing by each other as we both attempt to save ourselves. Last, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned both to accept responsibility for my own actions and to refuse ownership of his or anyone else’s. I also know now that it is not solely my responsibility, nor his, to make this relationship work. Make it or break it, we both must be all-in and committed. Relationships are a partnership, not a rehab.

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Originally Published on The Mighty on 8/7/20.

My Grief and Loss Is Intertwined With My Mentally Illness

I admittedly don’t know what loss and grief are like for most people. I have been battling my mental illnesses my entire life, so I don’t know what it is like to exist without them. Whenever I hear people offering their condolences and reassuring others that it gets easier over time, I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually the truth for some people because I know it is not a universal truth. Things most assuredly don’t ever feel like they get any better for me.

I have struggled with many types of loss throughout my life. Loss of innocence stolen too soon. Loss of safety and security. Loss of home, relationships, friends. Loss of babies who grew inside me but never got to take a first breath. Loss of both my parents a decade ago. And most recently, the loss of both of my emotional support animals. To say I am intimately familiar with the feelings of loss and grief is an understatement.

My depression often leaves me teetering between periods when I am raw and over-emotional, feeling everything too strongly, and periods where I shut down and am numb to the world, unable to process any emotion at all. Because of this, my grief often comes in waves. When there’s a lull in the storm of emotions, I often assume my heart has begun to mend, only to have it tear wide open again as another wave hits. My numbness deceives me into believing the worst is over for days at a time, only to awaken one day feeling raw and overwhelmed once again. And as is often the case with rough seas during a storm, multiple waves often crash seemingly at once, as older pain rides in on the heels of new.

My anxiety makes me question every loss I have experienced and meter out assumed personal accountability for ever heartache I have ever experienced. I over-analyze and criticize myself for things I have convinced myself after the fact that I could have, should have done differently. I find myself worried again and again that my actions or inaction will repeat the patterns of old losses and create new ones. Yet, instead of those fears promoting change, they often spark my fight or flight response, causing me to flee. Or worse yet, I become like a deer frozen in the headlights, terrified that any choice I make, to stay or to go, to act or not act, will ultimately be wrong.

My PTSD has caused me to relive some of the more traumatic losses of my life multiple times over the years. When those moments are triggered again in my memory, it is as if I am reliving those experiences again in real time. Having a flashback of old losses renews and resets the whole trauma for me.

It is not that I am dwelling on the pain and losses of my life. I try to focus on positivity as often as possible. I have a mental wellness toolbox full of techniques and exercises intended to help keep me grounded and centered. I spend time with family and friends, partake in hobbies and activities, and otherwise attempt to distract my mind from the pain I often feel. I thoroughly embrace and practice the art of self-care. I never sit home intentionally focused on those feelings of loss and grief. Yet somehow, those emotions seem to know about every crack in my armor, seem to always find a way back in.

I am not intentionally avoiding facing my grief and loss, either. I have spent many hours over the years talking about my feelings in therapy. I have further processed my emotions many times over by writing about them and the impact they have had on my life. I am not walling myself up, building an unfeeling facade that cracks under the pressure of pain. I have attempted numerous times to process my emotions, to rationalize with myself and heal. But the healing never comes.

I have allowed myself to feel both sorrow and rage. I have forgiven myself and others. I have accepted that I cannot change the past. I have done every single cliched suggestion thrown out there about moving on and letting go.

I want to heal. I don’t want to keep hurting over so much in life. But I honestly don’t know how to shut any of it off. Every time I think it is over, another wave hits or a different wave. It could be a few hours, a few days, sometimes as long as a week. But those waves of grief and loss always manage to find me, old waves and new, compounding on each other and seemingly ever-increasing as my heart develops new cracks.

And the moments are so seemingly random and sporadic that there’s no way to brace for them or adequately prepare.

My fiance and I were binge-watching old seasons of Hell’s Kitchen and came upon an episode where the contestants were preparing a dinner service for a young lady’s sweet sixteen. As quick and as simply as flipping a switch, my entire mood and demeanor shifted. One moment, we were laughing and joking, engrossed in the show. The next, my eyes were welling up with tears. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I never got my sweet sixteen, the sweet sixteen my mother had promised me for years. Three months before my sixteenth birthday, my father walked out on our family and cut all ties. I tried numerous times between that February and my birthday in April to get in touch with him but he always dodged my calls. I called up his work on the day of my birthday, sure that he wouldn’t deny me on that day, only to hear him in the background tell his co-worker “tell her I’m not here”. My sixteenth birthday was the first time I tried to kill myself.

Just like that, every emotion, every feeling of heartbreak and loss came rushing back.

My fiance lost his father to cancer shortly after we got together. The cancer, the hospice, everything triggered the loss of my father again and again. He’s still grieving the loss of both his parents and every time I attempt to comfort him and ease his pain, my own grief for the loss of my own parents renews.

For the last decade, I had two sugar gliders registered through my doctors as emotional support animals. I could take them everywhere with me, which helped immensely with both my depression and anxiety. One passed away roughly three months ago, the other last week. Losing them was like losing part of my heart. I cried inconsolably and went numb in waves, sobbing until my eyes ran dry and my voice went hoarse more than once. I watched the clock with pained precision, unsure what to do with myself each day when feeding time rolled around. I beat myself up horrendously for the fact that they passed at all, as if I could have spared them old age and death by sheer willpower alone. The truth is that they hadn’t been sick at all. They were just old and the time runs out for all of us eventually. Yet I still felt to blame for them not living longer, not living forever. I found myself taking in two sugar glider rescues last night, not because I was over the loss of my Lilo and Stitch or because I assumed they would fill the hole that loss left in my heart, but simply because I desperately needed that distraction. I needed new babies to keep me busy, new babies to love and to care for, a new purpose to keep going. Their adoption was bittersweet, though, because I am still raw from losing my other babies. But at least when feeding time rolls around again, I have something to focus on other than my grief.

An old friend from high school killed himself. The last time I spoke to him was less than a week before he died. Whenever I think of him, I wonder whether he would still be here today if I had said anything differently or called to check on him again. It doesn’t matter that we had grown somewhat apart over the years, living separate lives, and barely talked anymore. We used to be close so I feel responsible because I didn’t maintain that friendship better, didn’t reach out more, didn’t try harder. The rational part of my brain knows that line of thinking is irrational, but a larger part of my brain and my heart just won’t let go of those thoughts.

So many things can set off waves of grief, some large and obvious, others seemingly small and trivial. I’ve found myself sobbing uncontrollably over Hallmark commercials or sights and sounds, songs or movies that reignite memories. Empathizing with the pain of others reignites my own. As simple as that, in a flash, those feelings refresh and the grief is renewed. I can be fine one moment, laughing and joking, and be biting the inside of my cheeks the next in a futile effort to fight back tears.

I know mental illness is a liar and a master manipulator, capable of twisting truths and spinning lies. I know deep down that I am not responsible, directly or indirectly, for many of the losses in my life and that hindsight is 20/20. But my rational side knowing these things does not stop these emotions from flowing or my grief from being felt. And therein lies the problem. I can rationalize all I want but I cannot shut these feelings off.

Perhaps I’m just wired differently. Perhaps I’ve been broken too many times, been cracked to the core so often that I am incapable of fully healing. Perhaps some wounds just never heal. I honestly don’t know. I just feel like I’m in perpetual mourning, eternally haunted by every loss I’ve experienced in my life, whether one at a time or intertwined and flowing as one.

I honestly don’t know if those promises that things will get better is an old wives tale, something people just say when the silence becomes too heavy and they need some words, any words, to cut the tension and the pain in the room. I don’t know if for some people it does actually get better over time. I just know that for me, as someone struggling with mental illness, grief and loss never seem to fully go away.

Stop Blaming Mental Illness For The Abhorrent Behavior Of Anti-Maskers

Whenever anyone behaves poorly or against the grain of what is considered socially acceptable, many people automatically attribute it to that person being crazy, off their rocker, completely unhinged, mentally ill. There is so much stigma surrounding mental illness that many assume that any unreasonable action or poor behavior must be synonymous with mental illness, because why else would someone behave so badly unless they were crazy and mentally ill.

Our country is currently in the midst of a viral pandemic, seemingly split down the middle. On one side, we have those who fundamentally believe in science, medicine and fact and are willing to take precautions for the safety of all. And on the other, we have those who are trying to politicize the virus, with many touting that the virus itself is a hoax, or no worse than the flu, or simply declaring it not their problem because nobody they know has been affected by it yet. These pandemic deniers, minimizers and anti-maskers have become increasingly fond of video recording themselves as they supposedly “stand up for their rights”, planning strikes against businesses attempting to abide by restrictions put in place for the safety of all. They storm into stores, refusing to wear masks, recording both themselves and the reactions of others, hoping to earn their 5 minutes of fame. They go in with the sole intention of showing their defiance, causing turmoil to businesses, workers and customers alike, and creating a scene worthy of becoming a viral trend.

As we have seen time and again during this pandemic, this type of egregious showboating often backfires, with those who are thumbing their nose at health restrictions ultimately being thrown out of stores and banned, being widely and publicly shamed for their apathy, and in some cases even being fired from their jobs as a result of their very public displays. Yet these bizarre occurrences continue in America, partly because these individuals want to make it fundamentally clear that they believe their personal right to not wear a mask is more important than everyone else’s right to not get sick or die, and partly because they ultimately hope to go viral for their bad behavior, to become infamous on the internet.

Yet whenever someone is called out for their horrid behavior, many people immediately blame mental illness. People assume that in order for someone to do something as foolish as to outright deny a viral pandemic that has infected over 18.5 million people worldwide and killed over 700k in less than a year, let alone to make such a spectacle of themselves by outright refusing to care about others, they must be “crazy” and “unbalanced”, that they surely must be mentally ill.

Often people in this country automatically associates horrible behavior such as this with mental illness, pointing fingers and claiming those involved “obviously need mental help” because their utter disregard for everyone else is unfathomable. Other times, the perpetrators themselves attempt to blame their own horrendous actions on mental illness whenever they are confronted. They cavalierly issue a non-apology, using mental illness as their scapegoat instead of taking any amount of personal responsibility for their own ridiculously irresponsible, ignorant actions. It’s as if they are smirking, shrugging and dismissively claiming they should not be held accountable because they are, after all, “crazy”.

Sadly, much of this comes from the stigma attached to mental illness. It is much easier for many people to assume that anytime anyone behaves despicably, they must be “crazy” and “mentally ill” than to consider that those individuals might just be inconsiderate, attention-seeking people who do not care about anyone but themselves. It is much easier to designate mental illness as the catch all scapegoat for all the wrongs in society than to consider that these people are behaving poorly simply because a portion of our society glorifies their bad behavior.

As someone who struggles with mental illness myself and who actively advocates for the mental health community, I would like to make it very clear that there is an enormous difference between the actions of these people and the mental illness community as a whole. While it is possible that someone who displays this type of abhorrent behavior might also be struggling with a mental illness, mental illness itself is not immediately to blame whenever anyone behaves inappropriately or with malicious intent. People who have mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, ptsd, and bipolar disorder deal predominantly with issues such as self-worth, motivation to accomplish daily tasks, and battling the demons in their own heads and the trauma of their past. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, could not have put it more perfectly when addressing the myth that being mentally ill automatically means you are “crazy”:

It’s plain and simple, having a mental illness does not mean you are “crazy.” It means you are vulnerable. It means you have an illness with challenging symptoms — the same as someone with an illness like diabetes. While mental illness might alter your thinking, destabilize your moods or skew your perception of reality, that doesn’t mean you are “crazy.” It means you are human and are susceptible to sickness and illness, the same as any other person. (1)

When attempting to attribute mental illness directly to poor behavior, let’s consider the penal system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are currently approximately 2.3 million Americans incarcerated. (2) Yet, according to statistics by NAMI, “Only 5% of violent crimes in the U.S. are committed by people with serious mental illness. The unfortunate truth is that individuals with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”(1) Furthermore, “Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have ‘a recent history’ of a mental health condition.” (3) Though there are always exceptions, the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not the least bit violent or otherwise confrontational, they are not by and large out committing crimes. With only one in five people who are incarcerated having any type of recent mental illness diagnosis,and only 5% of those with a mental illness being convicted of a violent crime, being mentally ill is clearly not the predominant driving force behind bad behavior.

Even if someone who is mentally ill were to momentarily lose control and behave poorly and irrationally, they are extremely unlikely to go on grandiose, premeditated video recorded rampages with the intention to upload the fallout later to the internet, screaming about their supposed rights to do whatever they please even if it means harming or killing others in the process. People who are mentally ill don’t normally plan out and intentionally video record their outbursts from start to finish in order to garner internet attention but rather any adverse reactions they may have are typically an unscripted, unplanned, unrecorded, spontaneous result of someone who is struggling to cope with life in the moment.

People who are struggling with mental illness often isolate and shut down. We struggle every single day to concentrate and focus on simple things, to function and accomplish daily tasks. Nearly one in five people, an estimated 46.6 million adults in the United States today, is currently struggling with a mental health diagnosis. Again, according to NAMI, severe mental illness is defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” (4) In other words, even the most severe mental illnesses are defined specifically by the impairment and limitations they place on the lives of those who struggle with them. Being mentally ill does not typically send people out on premeditated, politically-fueled tirades and crusades to callously violate the health and safety of others for personal validation or internet infamy. If these types of self-recorded outings and outbursts were commonly indicative of mental illness, with over 450 million people suffering from mental illness worldwide according to the World Health Organization (5), there would be drastically more people causing scenes like this all over the globe.

When taking into account that there are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated and only roughly twenty percent of those have any type of mental illness diagnosis, we are looking at roughly 460,000 inmates who are mentally ill. When you further consider that there are roughly 46.6 million people in the United States currently struggling with mental illness, those who are incarcerated and also have a mental illness diagnosis account for less than one percent of the over all mentally ill population. Again, the proof is in the pudding. Over 99% of the mentally ill community are going through the motions of living their everyday lives, struggling with their diagnosis, not out committing crimes or thumbing our noses at laws or restrictions put in place for the safety of all.

We are not gathering en masse or heading out in droves, intent on recording ourselves causing a scene in the desperate hope it may make us internet famous. Many of us struggle to even function at all, let alone make plans even remotely close to this extent. Rather, these are the calculated actions of self-centered, egotistical people who are showing complete disregard and apathy for everyone else, people who place more value in their own temporary fame than in the health of their families, friends, co-workers and neighbors. These are attention-seeking individuals throwing temper tantrums, so hungry for their five minutes of infamy that they are willing to put other people’s lives at legitimate risk just to have their name trending on the internet.

Though you may see the occasional anti-mask sentiment in other countries, no other country has the widespread, reoccurring, largely combative and often explosive or violent issues that the United States has with people being unwilling to tolerate minor temporary inconveniences for the safety of all during a global pandemic. While there are some people in other countries who may disagree with wearing a mask, you don’t hear frequent stories about their citizens recording themselves causing combative scenes like you do in the United States. To date, I have personally only seen one news story out of the UK about protesters recording themselves storming a store and making a scene. The vast majority of those who disagree with wearing a mask in other countries simply organize peaceful protests or hand out informational material explaining their beliefs on the matter. For instance, in late July there was a peaceful anti-mask protest in London attended by hundreds of protesters. More importantly, those who disagree with wearing masks in many other countries appear to be a small minority. The vast majority of people in many other countries have taken a united stance, observed health precautions with little to no issue and have, in the majority of countries, seen cases declining by the day as a result.

You simply do not see the largely hostile and combative anti-mask sentiment to the scale and degree elsewhere that you see in the United States. Only in the United States are we seeing such a ridiculous and reoccurring blowback against common sense during a viral pandemic that has frequently escalated to rage-fueled outbursts and outright violence, with people even being physically assaulted simply for asking others to comply with restrictions and regulations. Only in the United States are we seeing the virus being widely politicized, regularly used and abused to garner people’s five minutes of internet fame at the detriment to other people’s lives. And only in the United States is a bonafide medical condition being used as a catch all scapegoat to garner all the blame for the bad behavior of these self-centered individuals. With mental illness being a worldwide problem, if this abhorrent behavior was truly a direct result of mental illness, these outbursts would surely be widespread worldwide, as well. But this type of disturbing behavior is predominantly an American thing, driven not by mental illness but rather the largely American desire to become famous or infamous by any means necessary, even if it means putting other people at risk.

Whenever a woman shoves her cart through a grocery store while defiantly refusing to wear a mask, recording herself screaming about her rights to do as she pleases other people be damned, or whenever a man records himself causing a scene by screaming that he is under attack in a store because he was asked to either mask up or leave, or whenever a woman video records herself violently attacking a display of masks while proclaiming she has had enough with the pandemic and being told what to do, it goes viral because people cannot fathom others behaving so ridiculously, screaming like petulant toddlers throwing a temper tantrum because they were asked to be considerate of the health and safety of others. As long as these people continue to trend as train wrecks that other people laugh at for their sheer absurdity and willful ignorance, there will continue to be people out there acting out just for the attention that going viral brings. While we cannot stop those people from behaving badly, nor can we stop others from watching their ridiculous outbursts with abject horror, we must stop assuming their behavior is automatically caused by mental illness instead of simply being the result of attention-seeking, arrogant, apathetic human beings desperately chasing their 5 minutes in the spotlight. Often, bad behavior directly correlates to inconsiderate people who care only about themselves, not to mentally ill people. We don’t deserve to be scapegoats for their poor behavior.

1. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2019/Six-Myths-and-Facts-about-Mental-Illness

2. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/pie2020.html

3. https://namibuckspa.org/education/about-mental-illness/facts-figures/

4. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

5. https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/

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

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

I am not one of those people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When People Talk About Celebrity Suicides..

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they always begin with comments about a light snuffed out before its time, a star that blinked out of the sky too soon.  Again and again, their final act is highlighted, the fact that they could have kept going but chose to give up.  People comment on what a truly great loss it is.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they share all the ways that celebrity impacted their life.  Whether movies, music, sports or the fashion industry, people the world over share all the ways their life was forever touched by these larger than life strangers they only saw in the spotlight but never truly knew.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they declare that it never should have happened, that better mental health care needs to be in place.  They converse about private struggles and the overwhelming fear they must have faced of coming out about the true depth of their illness.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they talk about how brave that soul was for fighting such horrible demons for so many years.  They are praised for being such brave souls for fighting as long as they did.  Celebrities are seen as tragic victims who eventually succumbed to a horrible unseen monster.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, there’s a tremendous outpouring of love and  a universal demand for change.  Suicide is in everyone’s mind and on everyone’s lips.

Then, quick as it began, the sentiment fades.  Other news stories start trending.  Those losses are widely forgotten until highlighted again by an anniversary of their death or when a memory is randomly stirred by happenstance like an old movie or song playing in the background.

It has become second nature to acknowledge and mourn those who are larger than life who tragically take their own lives.  Timelines are filled with posts and tweets echoing wishes that souls can finally be at peace.  It has become second nature to highlight all the problems with the mental health system and the stigma attached to the illness itself.  But it always seems to be a passing fad, lost from people’s minds as soon as the words leave their lips.

But what of the average, run of the mill person who commits suicide?

When an average person commits suicide, people talk of selfishness and weakness.  There is an overwhelming sentiment that they should have fought harder, tried harder, said something, not given up.  The average person who commits suicide is seen not as a victim but as an offender, making a horrible choice that will drastically and tragically impact the lives of everyone left in their wake.

When an average person commits suicide, people are afraid to even acknowledge their life.  It is as if their final tragic choice erased their entire existence, making it too painful, too shameful, to talk about. We cannot talk about them.  Their names are whispered in corners.  Have you heard about..?  Their entire life becomes summarized by their final act.

When an average person commits suicide, we don’t talk about mental health or the need for change.  The fact is that we don’t talk at all.  Those closest to the loss mourn tearfully in silence, lighting candles and quietly asking why.  The rest of the world continues on as if they never existed.

What if I told you that the celebrities who committed suicide were just average people, too?  What if I told you that, despite their status and their wealth, they had the same thoughts, hopes and fears as average people and struggled with the very same mental illness.  Would you mourn the average person’s loss as greatly or as deeply?  Would the average person then be remembered as much for their lives as their death?  Would change and better mental health treatment be demanded for the average person as it is with the elite?

We need to stop going through the motions of mourning celebrities and forgetting everyone else that we lose to suicide.  They are both equally tragic and both deserve so much more.  Celebrity suicides deserve to be remembered beyond when they’re trending.  Average people who commit suicide need to be remembered period.  And above everything else, change is desperately needed.

Mental illness is not a dirty word, a secret we can only talk about in hushed tones in secluded corners.  We need to stop letting stigma dictate our actions and inaction.  When one in five people struggles with mental illness and suicide is one of the biggest killers in multiple age groups across the board, it is no longer a problem we can ignore.

No one deserves to be shamed for their mental health or vilified posthumously because they lost their battle with their mental illness.  It is a very real condition and one that deserves treatment, for both those who are famous and those who are not.  It is an illness that has turned fatal for far too many people, not because their bodies ceased to work but rather because their minds lost the will to live.

Better access to mental health treatment is desperately needed.  We have to remove the stigma so those struggling, whether they are famous or not, are able to come forward when they are suffering, without fear that it will ruin their career or paint them as someone who is broken, crazy and just not trying hard enough.  We need to exercise compassion and encourage communication so that everyone who is struggling is able to receive treatment without fear.

We also need to do better when it comes to acknowledging suicide victims’ lives, not just if they’re famous and not only again on anniversaries of the tragedy.  We need to openly talk about their lives and their struggles, acknowledge the gorilla in the room and pull that monster out of the shadows into the light.  We need to make conversations about mental illness as commonplace as mental illness itself.  We need to face stigma head on and erase it.

We should not only be talking about suicide when a celebrity takes their own life.  We should be talking every time someone dies, demanding change.  We should not just go through the motions of caring about mental health when it is trendy but truly care about it year round.  The truth is that, on average, someone dies from suicide every 16.2 minutes.  If we vowed to talk about suicide for just 20 minutes every time someone died, it would never leave our minds or our lips.

Suicide is always tragic, whether the victim was famous or not.  Suicide is also always a needless, senseless death, one that could be prevented if there was better access to mental health treatment and less stigma dictating the choices and actions of everyone.

When a celebrity commits suicide, the topic is on the minds and lips of everyone.  It is the perfect time to start a dialogue, to begin fighting for change, to check in with those you know are struggling and see whether they’re okay.  It is the perfect time to reach out to those you know who have lost someone to suicide and share fond memories you’ve long ago locked away, to breathe new life into their memory.

We can do better.  We must do better.  Because people are dying.  Not just our celebrities but so many average people, too.  Our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children, friends, co-workers, neighbors.  It is an epidemic and one that is largely preventable.

If we, as a society, are willing to do better.

We must do better.

Otherwise, people are going to keep dying.

And suicide will periodically keep trending.

..Because people only want to talk about suicide when a celebrity dies.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/8/18.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/8/18.

yahoonews

Republished on Yahoo News – UK on 6/8/18.

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.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/25/18.

Why I Write Part II: Looking Back Over Two Years of Mental Health Writing & Advocacy

A couple years ago, right around my birthday, I began to write.  My life had begun unraveling yet again and I clung to my words as someone drowning might cling to debris floating downstream, hoping something, anything, might keep me afloat and stop me from going under.

It began with a book about my own experiences.  Sink or swim, live or die, I didn’t want the truth of my story going down with me.  But a miraculous thing happened as I threw my words out into the wind – I was finally heard.  For the first time in my life, I was heard.  Even more miraculously, words floated back to me, telling me that others understood, others had been there, that I was not alone.

And it saved my life.

Knowing that I wasn’t broken, wasn’t crazy, wasn’t alone in all the world gave me renewed strength to fight, to keep going, to not give up.  In that moment I was forever changed.

I suppose some could have dusted themselves off, walked away, and continued on with their lives, grateful for another chance at life.  But I couldn’t.  I had a lifetime of silence to make amends for, over forty years of pain to release.  Once I got to the shore, I added my voice to the collective.

For years, I had drifted along seemingly alone, being pulled under, almost drowning, again and again.  Those voices that reached out to me from the shore, other survivors who encouraged me to just keep swimming, showed me I was never as alone as I had believed.  If there were others on the shore, there had to be others in the water, as well.  Others who needed to know they were not alone, either.  Others who needed encouragement and empathy to keep fighting and not give up.

I had this overwhelming urgency to pay it forward.

I began writing more often, sharing the gritty truth of what it was like to live with mental illness.  I also began speaking out more and more about fighting stigma and discrimination.  I was like Ebenezer Scrooge, awoken on Christmas morning to see the world in a whole new light.  It was not too late for me.  My story wasn’t over.  I could still make a difference in the world.

How have I endured in regards to my newfound passion?

Though personally, I’d consider my venture into writing over the past two years a huge success, I know many would consider it middling at best.  I have a handful of books about mental illness and mental health published and others in the works.  I have an active blog, averaging 2-4 new pieces a month.  Many of my blogs have been republished elsewhere, most notably The Mighty who has republished well over 35 to date with others sitting in a queue, earmarked and waiting to go live.  I have been on my local NBC news station for an interview about my book.  My pieces have been discussed by television and radio stations as far away as Australia and have been shared by advocacy groups, private practices, schools and government agencies in one hundred different countries around the world – that I know of, at least, according to the stats page on my personal blog.  I have a milestones page filled with events in my short writing career I would have never dreamed possible a few years ago.

The majority of the people who have read my writing have read blogs that have been published and republished for free.  I do sell a book or two here and there, as well as an occasional anxiety chart poster, but it is nowhere near enough to make a living from or to pay any of my bills.  As much as I would love to make a living at this, doing what I have come to love, I am not sure whether it will ever be in the cards for me.  Why, then, do I keep writing?

I write to make a difference.  My voice might not travel far – mental illness is a very niche topic that is unlikely to ever truly go viral – but I have seen firsthand that my writing is reaching others.  I see it in the messages sent to my inbox, thanking me for putting their own struggles into words.  I see it whenever someone else tags someone they know on one of my pieces, trying to help them better understand.  I see it every time any group, organization or agency who works with the mentally ill shares my writing.

Admittedly, even two years later, it all still feels surreal and makes my eyes water.  I still feel honored and humbled every time anyone reads my words and relates, reads my words and shares them with others.  I truly feel blessed.  It has in many ways become my calling.

But still, in a day and age ruled by the almighty dollar, why continue devoting so much time and energy to something that can’t even pay the bills?

The answer is simple – I write because I know I can make a difference.

I don’t ever imagine I will be world famous and renowned.  I am honestly beyond amazed that my writing has reached as many people as it has. I know I won’t be able to save everyone, to make a difference in everyone’s life, but I am making a difference in some people’s and that is enough for me.

I am reminded of a bittersweet story about a young child walking along the ocean shore after a big storm.  It comes from a book called The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley.  This young child walked along the beach, one by one throwing starfish that had washed ashore back into the ocean.  After some time, an old man approached the young girl, asking her why she was wasting her time, telling her there was no way she could ever save all the starfish that had been washed ashore.  At first, the young girl was discouraged but that feeling only lasted a moment.  Then she picked up another starfish at her feet, returned it to the ocean and proudly proclaimed that at least she made a difference to that one.

I relate so very strongly to that little girl.  I cannot save everyone.  I know that.  But I am determined to keep writing, keep making a difference, continue to help others as much as I can.  Even if my words only touch one life here or there, I have made a difference in the world.  I have left an impact and made the world a better place than it was before.  And that is enough for me.

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.

Resolving Trauma Doesn’t Cure Mental Illness

When I explain that I am struggling with mental illness, I am often faced with people questioning why.  I usually start off with a fairly terse and technical response about it being a combination of genetics and life experiences but that answer rarely seems to appease anyone.  Though I am not quite sure why so many people feel I owe them an explanation about my medical condition, more often than not, people continue probing, wanting to know what could have possibly happened in my life that could cause a lifelong mental illness.

It is at this point that I usually explain that I grew up in a dysfunctional, often abusive, household.  I have endured physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse multiple times each over the years.  I have been knocked down, stepped on, crushed to the core and had my very soul completely obliterated so many times I have lost count.

In response, I usually get the inevitable lecture about not holding onto the past, learning how to forgive, let go and move on.  Sometimes, they even throw in an additional reminder that I shouldn’t allow myself to be a victim for the rest of my life.

What I cannot seem to get through to anyone, though, is that my life experiences are only one small part of a bigger picture.  The traumas in my life did not cause my mental illness but rather they exacerbated it.  They also contributed unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviors and thought patterns.  Though they made a very difficult  situation much worse, resolving the traumas I have endured would not magically make my mental illness disappear.

The truth is that I have come a very long way to resolving and coming to terms with many of the traumas of my past.  I have gone through a lot of therapy over the years and have come to terms with many hard truths.  For instance, I have accepted that my mother shooting my father was in great part due to her often untreated, always undertreated mental illness.  I have accepted that one of the main reasons I had tolerated  repeated infidelity from my romantic partners in the past was due to the fact that I never was able to hold my own father accountable for his transgressions against my mother.  I have accepted that everything in life is not clear cut black or white, good or bad, and have done my best to put myself in the shoes of others and accept the past as something that cannot be changed, letting go of the torment within myself and even forgiving in some instances.

I have even taken things a step further, systematically pulling apart many of my thought processes trying to rout out any dysfunctional or unhealthy behaviors and patterns.  I have put myself under the self-awareness microscope again and again, examining why I react like I do and making a conscious effort to change anything that I believed to be self-destructive or unhealthy.

Most importantly, I have learned to forgive myself and to accept myself for who I am.  I have accepted that I had done nothing wrong to deserve any of the abuse that I was subjected to over the years.  I have even learned to like myself as a person and to identify different traits I possess as being assets.

I don’t consider myself a victim.  I consider myself a survivor.  Though the traumas I have been through have greatly contributed to the person I am and they deserve acknowledgement for that fact, I refuse to let them control my life or dictate the person I am going to be.  I am not looking for pity.  I just want acceptance and understanding.

Though I have fought extremely hard to work through many of the traumas I have endured in my life and consider myself very self-aware, I still struggle with mental illness every single day.  Why?  Because it is a medical condition.  Much like a person’s diabetes may be made worse by a large intake of sugary foods, removing those foods will not magically make their diabetes disappear any more than working through my traumas will make my mental illness disappear.

Part of my diagnosis is a genetic mutation.  This mutation greatly hinders my body’s ability to make a substance my brain needs to moderate my moods.  In essence, my brain has been starving for what it needs my entire life, getting at best 20% of a specific chemical it needs.  Though the traumas I have experienced contributed greatly to the severity of my condition and have negatively impacted my life, my mental illness would have existed even if none of them ever occurred.

Another portion of my mental illness is genetic in general.  Both my parents struggled with various mental illnesses over the years.  My mother suffered from bipolar disorder and my father struggled with depression throughout his life.  Though a parent having a mental illness does not guarantee the diagnosis in their children, studies have shown that the five major mental illnesses can be traced the the same inherited genetic variations.  So much like parents can pass along their eye or hair color, they can also pass along the predisposition for mental illness.

I struggle every single day with my mental illness.  Regardless of whether the rational part of my brain tells me that today should be a good day, another large part of my brain is constantly sending out negative emotions and responses, which in turn sometimes presents itself in physical ways.  I am in a constant battle with my own brain and body.  Though difficult times might contribute to the severity of my downward spiral on a given day, the absence of bad days does not negate my mental illness.  It is always there.

Yet that technical explanation is rarely enough to placate anyone looking for answers.  Many people seem to believe that mental illnesses like depression occur when something bad happens and can be just as easily solved by resolving the underlying issue.  They look for key life events to target, assuming the person struggling will magically be cured if they can just get past that traumatic event.

I can tell you that it rarely is that easy.  Yes, there are some cases of mental illness that are predominately situation-based where the person’s mental health greatly improves when the trauma is resolved, like increased depression caused by bullying, for example.  Likewise, there are milder cases of diabetes where the person’s sugar levels can be moderated predominately by life changes such as diet and exercise alone.  But that does not make that person any less of a diabetic.  For the majority of diabetics, though, addressing their lifestyle is not enough.  They need ongoing treatment and monitoring in order to stay healthy because their illness causes one of the organs in their body to not work properly.  The same can be said for mental illness.  The only difference is that it is our brain that is malfunctioning.

Providing a detailed list of our traumas does not give a run down of how to magically cure our mental illnesses.  Time and again, we throw out our trauma lists out of frustration because some people cannot seem to wrap their head around the fact that we have a medical condition that affects the way our brains work.  It is approached as “mind over matter”, that if we just try hard enough to work through things and learn to let go, we’ll be happy again.  Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

There is no shame in having a mental illness.  It is a medical condition that statistics show now affects one in five people in the world to varying degrees.  We need to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness and stop judging everyone who is struggling to live with one.  Nobody would ask a diabetic why they had their condition because it is accepted that sometimes bodies don’t work as they should and people have to seek medical treatment in order to live a healthier life.  People accept that giving up candy bars or soda won’t magically cure a diabetic.  Likewise, working through the traumas in my past will not magically make my mental illness disappear.  No one should have to justify why they have a mental illness nor should they be met with accusations that they are just not trying hard enough to get past their medical condition.  We don’t owe anyone an explanation nor do we deserve being blamed for our illness.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 5/3/18.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 5/3/18.

yahoonews

Republished on Yahoo News – India on 5/3/18.

Republished on Yahoo News – Singapore on 5/3/18.

Stop Blaming the Entire Mental Health Community Whenever a Senseless Tragedy Happens

Mass shootings are commonplace in the United States these days.  One community has barely had a chance to mourn and bury their dead before another incident appears somewhere else on the map.  After the school shooting yesterday, a jaw-dropping statistic began to appear across the internet: In the U.S., there has been a gun incident at a school every 60 hours so far in 2018.  That is one every two and a half days.

Everyone is so quick to point fingers and lay blame.  One of the biggest scapegoats is the mentally ill.  Mental illness has become a dirty word.

When someone does something senseless and tragic, one of the first things you hear is that it wouldn’t have happened if not for better mental health treatment.  When there is a shooting, people question how someone who was mentally ill had access to guns.  When someone drives a vehicle into a crowded area or a parent kills their children, people question why someone who was that mentally ill was even allowed out on the street.  People clamor for more laws restricting the rights of the mentally ill for the protection of communities at large.  Politicians respond by shouting promises that there will be change in lieu of this mental health epidemic.

As someone who has struggled with mental illness my entire life, what I see are torches and pitchforks, what I am hearing is one step away from “lock all the crazies up for the safety of everyone else!”  It is a slippery slope.

Please know that I am in no way disputing that those people who commit senseless atrocities like mass shootings have severe mental issues and are desperately in need of help.  What I am saying is that mental illness exists on a broad spectrum.  Mental illness is  term to describe a wide variety of conditions that originate in the brain.  The scope of mental illness extends from diseases of the brain to diseases of the mind. Also, please know that there is a distinct difference between the majority of mental illnesses and the behavior disorders that sociopaths and psychopaths fall into.

Everyone suffering from a mental illness is not the same.  The Diagnostic and Statistical manual, or DSM, is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used to diagnose mental illnesses.  The current APA list has around 400 different diagnosis, covering a wide range of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.*

Yes, there are people that are mentally ill that are violent and commit unspeakable acts.  It might even be fair to say that someone has to have something wrong in their head to even be able to carry out anything as heinous as a mass shooting.  But the majority of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are non-violent.

According to recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI**, 18.5% of adults in the United States, over 43 million people, experience mental illness every year.  If a mental illness diagnosis alone was enough to determine a person was dangerous and likely to commit violent acts, with 43 million people suffering from mental illness every year, the numbers of violent crimes would be astronomical.

With millions of people in prisons across the United States and over a million more being sentenced each year to incarceration***, you would assume that prisons would be a hotbed of mental illness.  However, again according to NAMI statistics**, only 24%, not even one quarter of inmates, have had any recent mental health diagnosis.

The fact is that a recent study published in the American Journal of  Public Health shows that a person with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator****.  Based on this study’s statistics, almost one-third of adults who have been diagnosed with mental illness had been victimized in some way during the previous 6 month period, with over 40% being victimized multiple times.  Of the 23% of mentally ill persons in the study who had committed any sort of violent act in the previous 6 months, roughly 2/3 of the violence had occurred in a home or other residential setting.  A meager 2.6% of violence occurred outside the home in a school or workplace environment.  The most startling fact to come to light in this study, however, is that the victims of violence were 11 times more likely to commit violent acts themselves afterwards.

Yes, something has to be done in regards to mental health treatment in the United States.  But it is NOT because the mentally ill population is inherently violent and unsafe to wander the streets unrestricted and unregulated.  Mental illness and the way it is regarded in this country is a societal epidemic.  Those who have been diagnosed with mental illness must deal with constant stigma.  We are ostracized as being crazy and unbalanced, simultaneously a joke to be mocked and a dangerous monster who needs to be locked up for their own safety and the safety of others.  We often hide our diagnosis for fear of judgment or minimize our struggles to reassure others they have nothing to fear or worry about.

The way a mentally ill diagnosis is handled in this country has to change.  We need to be able to speak up, speak out and receive the treatment we need.  Though NAMI statistics show over 43 million people struggle with mental illness each year, only 41% have received treatment for their condition**.  Roughly one-fourth of the disability applications for Social Security list mental illness as their primary impairment.  Though NAMI statistics** show that 9.8 million people annually experience a severe mental illness that drastically impairs their ability to function, statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that only roughly 2.7 million people are deemed eligible for SSI or SSDI*****.  As I can attest, anyone who is applying for disability due to mental illness is advised to get a lawyer and to expect to be denied at least once, if not multiple times, regardless of how much documentation you have for your diagnosis.  Though my mental illness is due in large part to a verifiable genetic mutation I was born with, combined with well-documented trauma, I, myself, have been denied multiple times and still am deemed ineligible by government standards.  For years, I have struggled with red tape, jumping through hoop after hoop, hoping to get the help I need, only to hit brick wall after brick wall, having to begin the process all over again.

The lack of adequate treatment for mental illness in this country has grown rampant.  Suicide is currently the 10th highest cause of death in this country, 3rd highest among 10-14 year olds and 2nd highest for 15-24 year olds, according to NAMI statistics**.  Recently, a video of a disoriented mentally ill woman being cast out on the street by a hospital staff has gone viral.  According to the National Coalition for Homelessness, between 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from “a severe form of mental illness”********.  Mental illness is listed as the 3rd highest cause of homelessness.  People are falling through the cracks, wandering the streets untreated, people are dying, our children are dying, and yet nothing is being done.  The lives of the mentally ill are one by one becoming nothing more than statistics.

It should not be so hard to get help in this country.

There are others who are afraid to reach out for help due to government restrictions on the mentally ill.  There is an epidemic of mental illness and substance abuse among our military.  According to the APA, almost one-fourth of our soldiers, up to 24.4%, are struggling with mental illnesses such as PTSD******.  A recent study published in Science Daily from The University at Buffalo observing the mental and physical effects of law enforcement determined that not only was PTSD and depression a substantial issue, but nearly one quarter of police officers admitted to suicidal thoughts, much higher than the 13.5% of the general population*******.  And these are only the statistics of those who have willingly come forward seeking treatment.  Due to the push for politicians to pass laws regulating gun ownership, a mental illness diagnosis could result in losing the right to even own a gun.  How do we encourage our soldiers and police officers to get the help they need when it could mean giving up their livelihood in the process?

I personally know many people who are afraid to have a record on file about their struggles with mental illness.  They are people who hunt for recreation and are legitimately afraid that a diagnosis would take away their 2nd amendment rights and their ability to feed their families.  They are people who fear a diagnosis would negatively impact their career or their ability to advance due to the stigma attached.  They are people who have seen firsthand how poorly the mentally ill are treated in this country and do not want to be labeled as crazy and unbalanced, as well.  So instead, they suffer in silence, without treatment, until something cracks and breaks.

Yes, there is a mental illness epidemic in this country that is leading to horrifically tragic events.  But it is NOT due to people with mental illness having access to guns nor is it due to mentally ill people wandering around free and unfettered.  It is a direct result of society’s treatment, and lack of treatment thereof, of the mentally ill population.  Please take a second again and consider the facts.

Fact: Over 43 million people every single year struggle with mental illness**.

Fact: Only 41% of those with a mental health condition have received medical help for their condition in the last year **.

Fact: One third of people with a mental illness are victimized and abused every six months and those who are victims of abuse are eleven times more likely to commit a violent act themselves****.

We desperately need to change how mental illness is viewed and treated in this country.  The mentally ill population does not need more restrictions and regulations.  We need more access to health care, better support and protections.  We need assurances that it is okay to seek help and guarantees that the millions of us with a mental illness diagnosis will not all become vilified due to the actions of a minute few.

We need the stigma and persecution to end and the help and healing to begin.

That is the only way that things can change.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 2/20/18.

* AMA literature with the DSM codes for the broad spectrum of mental illnesses can be found at:  https://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/doi/book/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

** NAMI’s Mental Health by the Numbers statistics can be found at:  https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers

*** Bureau of Justice Statistics page that provides incarceration numbers can be found at:  https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=11

**** Study entitled “Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With Mental Illnesses” can be found at:  http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301680

***** Statistics from National Institute of Mental Health can be found at:  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2015/mental-health-awareness-month-by-the-numbers.shtml

****** APA Statistics on Veterans can be found at:  http://www.apa.org/advocacy/military-veterans/mental-health-needs.pdf

*******Study on Law Enforcement done by the University of Buffalo, published by Science Daily can be found at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080926105029.htm

******** The National Coalition for Homelessness report on Homelessness and Mental Illness can be found at:  http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf