Sorry Not Sorry: My Mental Well-Being is a Priority

It has been a rough couple months.  Horribly frigid and snowy weather, as well as a revolving door of various sicknesses in my home, have combined with my mental illness to create a perfect storm.  I endured what felt like a never-ending rotation of maladies, downward spirals and utter numbness. There were many days I felt like I could barely function at all.  I usually love the holidays but this past year, the festivities felt hectic, rushed, hollow and empty.  As much as I beat myself up for not being more present, more in the mood, more cheerful and jovial in general, I just could not snap out of the funk I was in.  And the guilt of it all was eating me alive.

After two and a half months of struggling to get from day to day, unable to even inspire myself to write, I am finally emerging like the groundhog in early February to start anew.

Periodically, this happens to me.  When life gets hard, I pull in on myself, much like an armadillo rolling in on itself for protection or a cell phone going into power saver mode so it doesn’t shut down completely.  This cycle has repeated itself from time to time throughout my life.  Whenever everything would get hard, I would pull inward, isolating and conserving my energy in order to survive.  On the other end of this pattern would always inevitably come unfathomable guilt and pressure to make my recent absence up to everyone.

I have struggled my entire life with depression, always feeling as if I was broken, as if I was always letting everyone down by not always being able to do, to be, everything others needed and expected of me.  I consistently felt like a failure.  Like I didn’t even deserve to be on any list of priorities.  After every struggle I endured, I always felt like I was playing catch up, that I owed it to everyone else to use whatever energy I could muster to make it up to everyone else for letting them down yet again.

Christmastime this past year was especially hard.  I usually do a marathon cookie bake as part of my holiday traditions.  Three days of baking. Fifteen types of cookies, plus candies and fudge. Everyone in the house getting sick delayed the grocery shopping and my baking was put off until the last minute.  What is usually three comfortable yet full days of baking was ultimately crammed into a panicked day and a half.  Pushing myself that hard utterly burnt me out.  I existed in a heavy fog of numbness for the remainder of the year.

Speaking afterwards to my doctor, she inquired, “If you only had half the time, why didn’t you just bake half the cookies?”

I started to explain that people were expecting the cookies.  My kids love all the cookies every year and give away boxes to their friends. My fiance needed cookies to bring into work.  We had friends and family that we gave boxes to every year.

She countered by asking why I exactly felt so obligated.  Was anyone was paying for the cookies in any way or if I was just doing it out of the kindness of my heart?

I began defending myself again, insisting that I didn’t want to let anyone else down.

In a perfect check-mate moment, she asked, “What about letting yourself down? Is doing for others out of the kindness of your own heart really worth burning yourself out and running yourself down?  At what point do you fit into the equation? If you only had half the time, why couldn’t you just bake half the cookies?  You’re still being kind to others that way.  But you’re also being kind to yourself.”

Our conversation bounced around in my head for hours. Days. Weeks.  Again and again, I pondered where I fit into the equation of my life and why I didn’t seem to matter at all in most cases.

I ultimately determined that I needed to restructure my priorities in order to find a place for myself in the equation.  I had to be willing to reserve what little energy I do have during rough periods on what should be most important in my life – my family and myself – without becoming guilt-ridden afterwards.  The addition of “myself” towards the top of my list of priorities is honestly fairly new and admittedly still somewhat uncomfortable.  For much of my life, I was on the bottom of the list, if I appeared at all.

That was a feeling that I desperately needed to address.

Whenever I struggle to apply my own self-love or self-care, I stop to consider what I might tell someone else in my situation.  I would never discourage anyone else from pulling back in order to take care of themselves.  I would never accuse anyone else of being a bad person for wanting to matter, too, or for feeling like they sometimes had to prioritize themselves in order to make it through to tomorrow.

Let’s be honest here.

Wanting to matter, too, is not being self-centered.  Wanting to do self-care when you need it does not mean you don’t care about others, as well.  Nobody is saying you can only choose one or the other, help others or help yourself.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Not writing for a couple months honestly ate at me very badly.  I felt terribly guilty, like I was letting my readers down by not writing more content, not sharing my journey more frequently.  But after that pivotal talk with my doctor, I am no longer guilt-ridden.

The truth is that I had a few months where I was struggling badly.

I had a few months that I desperately needed to devote any energy I could muster into self-care and self-preservation.

That doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t matter, as well.  When I have enough time, enough energy, enough willpower to reach out and advocate for others, I still will.  I cherish every time someone has reached out to me letting me know my words have impacted their life. This journey is too important to give up.

I will still help others whenever I can.

But I must help myself, too.

I cannot carry the world on my shoulders, struggling to keep others afloat if it means I go under and drown.

I will always prioritize my family because they are the cornerstone of my world, but from now on, I will be prioritizing myself, as well.

I cannot help others if I cannot help myself.

I will take care of myself whenever I need, however I need.  If that means I do not write for a period of time, so be it.  If that means I only bake half the amount of cookies because I only have the time and energy to do that much, then that is all I will do.

Over the last decade, I have grown my hair out repeatedly, only to cut and donate it when it gets long enough to do so.  My hair was down to my mid-back, with perhaps nine months to a year to go until my next donation.  However, the meningioma tumors on my brain have been causing pressure migraine headaches in increasing frequency of late.  The added weight of all my hair does not help.  As much as it would be nice to donate yet another ponytail to help others, realistically it would not be fair to myself to endure almost a year more of harsher migraines in order to make another donation.  I can still help others, just not at a detriment to myself.  In an act of self-care, I cut my hair shoulder-length.  The intensity of the majority of my headaches has lessened noticeably since then.

I have entered a new period of my life, one where I learn to value myself as much as I have valued others in the past.  I will learn to set my goals and expectations based on what I feel I can handle instead of what others have decided to expect.

I will set new limitations and boundaries so that assisting others no longer harms me.

I will no longer put myself out there beyond my own capabilities in any way that will ultimately hurt myself in the process.

I will prioritize my mental health guilt-free.

I won’t ever again apologize for having to take care of myself.

Sorry not sorry.

My mental well-being matters.

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Art Therapy For Depression

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I made some paper mache pumpkins today.  It wasn’t that I was feeling particularly cheerful or festive.  It is that creating art helps me cope with my depression.  Art has become one of my favorite and most used self-care techniques in my mental wellness toolbox.

When I am struggling under the weight of my own emotions, I often write about the impact my illness has on my life.  When I am feeling numb, I prefer crafts that are multi-dimensional and messy, so I can feel with my hands even if I cannot feel with my heart.  When my life feels dark and hopeless, I use bright colors.  When I feel lost and alone, I create with warm hues, hoping to dd warmth into my life.  No matter how my depression distorts my perceptions, there is a way to combat it with art.

Some people assume that if I am well enough to create art, I must not be struggling too badly.  Honestly, the opposite is true.  I have found that I create the most, and the projects with the deepest personal meanings, when I am struggling the worst.  I use artistic expression as my lifeline back to reality.  It is the life preserver that keeps me from drowning in even the roughest of storms.

When someone is struggling with depression, the world feels dark and bleak, devoid of any glimmer of light, hope or goodness.  There is no beauty in depression.  So it helps me to create something beautiful out of my despair.  In my artwork, I am reminded that there is more to the world than darkness.

When someone is suffering from depression, the feelings can be overwhelming.  You are often raw and feel everything too deeply.  You feel like you are drowning in pain and anguish.  It helps creating something that will express what I am feeling inside, to release some of the agony that is consuming me.  As a wise Ogre once said, “Better out than in”.

When someone has been diagnosed with depression, it seeps into every corner of their consciousness.  It is exhausting and overwhelming.  It often feels like there is no escape from the prison of your own mind.  It helps to create something that can distract me from everything going on within myself.  When the creative juices are flowing, it is easy to forget for even a little while the weight of this illness on my shoulders.

When someone suffers from depression, they often feel they have no control over anything in their lives anymore.  You often feel like you are on a runaway train, with no way to slow down, stop or get off.  You are held hostage, just along for the ride.  It helps me to create something artistic because it gives me back some control.  My artwork is in my hands.  I choose what to make and which direction to take it.

When someone is struggling with depression, they often feel useless, like an utter waste of space.  Depression distorts reality and destroys self-esteem.  You feel as if you can do nothing right and that everything you touch will become damaged, tainted and tarnished by your very presence.  It helps me to create things because art is about expression, not perfection.  There is no right or wrong so even when I am feeling like a complete failure, I cannot mess up my art.

When someone who has depression feels isolated and misunderstood, it is common to feel all alone in the world.  It can feel like no one is there, nobody cares, no one could possibly understand what you are going through.  It helps me to create things I can show others, share with them, to create something to bring them back into my circle, back into my life.  Art brings people together.  It starts a dialogue where otherwise there would be silence.

There are times when someone who is suffering from depression is at a loss for words to explain how they are feeling.  You might not even be sure what you are depressed about, only that those feelings are there.  It helps to create things not only so that I can work through and understand my own feelings, but so that I can help explain it to others, as well.  Art doesn’t have to be neat and easily explained.  Art can be a messy, jumbled mess and still get its point across.

There are many reasons I create, a multitude of reasons why art comforts my mind and soothes my soul.  Using art to combat depression isn’t about clear and concise thoughts, raw talent or creating masterpieces.  It is about letting emotions out, replacing the darkness with some light and adding your own brand of beauty and creativity into the world.  Art is a wonderful tool for mindfulness because it brings you back into the moment, back to reality to focus on the here and now.

When the world feels broken and hopeless and you feel lost and alone, it might feel impossible to find the motivation to create.  Use your illness as inspiration.  Put into your words or on your canvas how you are feeling inside.  Share everything you wish others knew.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even coherent and understandable to anyone but you.  It can be raw and painful, mirroring how you feel inside.  If you have the urge to express how you are feeling through your artwork, don’t hold yourself back.  Art is about letting your feelings flow.

You don’t have to create based on the negativity of your depression, either, because you are so much more than your depression.  The beauty of art if that you are only restricted by your own imagination.  The world around you is full of inspiration.  Look to the future for upcoming holidays and events.  Look to the past for cherished memories.  Take inspiration from friends and family or beloved pets.  Open a window into the nature outside or look to the heavens above.  Revisit your favorite book, movie or television show.  Pick a color that calls to you or an abstract thought and run with it.  Find your inspiration in something beautiful, something that reminds you of light, happiness and hope.

You don’t need to overthink art.  Don’t question things.  There is no right or wrong.  Just go with the flow.  Focus on the here and now and the creative process.  Put yourself into your art, the person you are at this very moment or the person you wish you could be.  Art is also about possibilities.  You start with a blank canvas or empty page.  As you create, open yourself up not only to everything your art can become but everything you can become, as well.  Remind yourself that you are more than your diagnosis.  You are many things, many pieces that are not as dark, bleak and hopeless as your depression makes you feel.  You are an artist!

I created some paper mache pumpkins today.  Those pumpkins might not seem like much, but they helped me get through another rough day.  Though it by no means cured my depression, it gave me a much-needed reprieve from my struggles and a way to add some beauty to a world that would otherwise feel dark and bleak.  Art might not be a panacea, but it is a useful crutch that can help get you through the hardest of times, making you feel stronger at a time when you otherwise might not be able to stand on your own.

The Spiraling Cycle of Depression & Loneliness

Much like the classic question of whether the chicken or the egg came first, it is equally as hard to determine whether depression or loneliness comes first.

Does depression come first, causing a person to isolate, contributing to their own increased loneliness?

Or was the loneliness there first, causing worsening depression because you feel alone, like you have nobody there who cares, nobody who understands?

Often the two go hand in hand, causing a vicious cycle that spirals down, magnifying the impact of both.

In the beginning of the downward spiral, you don’t want to bother or inconvenience anyone with your problems.  The depression is there, but it feels like more of a trivial nuisance in your life than a bonafide issue.  You minimize your struggles because you don’t want to appear weak or helpless.  Your depression fools you into believing that you’re doing others a favor by not bothering them, that they have other, more important things to worry about than you.  You feel like you should be able to handle everything on your own so you begin to pull away, to isolate, and to justify those actions because you don’t want to trouble anyone else.

You feel disconnected and lonely, like you’re completely on your own.

And, over time, your depression continues to worsen, unchecked.

You close doors, put up walls and stop communicating.  It is not long until you’ve distanced yourself for so long that you feel you’re no longer entitled to reach out to those you have pushed away.  You feel guilty for being a bad friend.  You rationalize that it has been so long since you’ve spoken to everyone that to contact them now, just because you’re struggling more, would be wrong.  Even the thought of reaching out to anyone else feels awkward.  You feel like you’re being unreasonably needy for even wanting or wishing someone was there.

By this point, the depression has bled into every aspect of your life.  Everything feels utterly hopeless.  You feel completely lost, isolated and alone, like no one else could possibly understand.  Your depression convinces you of the fact that you are inherently broken in some strange and unique way that nobody else could ever understand.  You are struggling to function, struggling to even pull yourself out of bed.

You have not only pushed away everyone who was close to you, but you have also started to avoid everyone and everything else, as well.  You have stopped doing many of the things that once brought you joy because you feel you don’t deserve to be happy.  You don’t want anyone else to see the mess you’ve become.  You shut yourself off from the world, telling yourself the world is a better place without you in it, mucking it up.

And you have nobody to turn to, no one to talk with, nobody to lean on or confide in.

You’re completely alone.

The farther into the depths you spiral, the worse the loneliness and the worse the depression.  It isn’t a cycle that just loops endlessly in circles.  Instead it is a downward spiral that feeds off each other, making each worse in turn, dragging you further and further into the darkness.

Ironically, at the bottom of the spiral, you feel betrayed and abandoned.  Despite the fact that you intentionally isolated yourself and pushed everyone else away, your depression lies to you, telling you that if others truly cared, they would have seen all the signs, that they would have been there all along.  Your depression deceives you into believing that they would have fought harder to be there, refused to be pushed away.  It convinces you that nobody truly cares, that you are completely alone now and could not turn to anyone else even if you wanted to do so.  Your depression projects onto them the ability to read minds and to see everything you have hidden from them all along.  In the depth of depression, the irrational seems completely rational.

I have been there myself more than once.

Every time my depression begins to worsen again and spiral downward, I find myself isolating more and more.

I pull away because I don’t want to bother anyone else with my issues.  I always feel like a massive burden to everyone in my life.  My family and friends have seen me struggling for years.  I figure they must be tired of it all, exhausted from it by now.  I tell myself they don’t deserve to be plagued by my problems any more than they already have been.  I tell myself I am sparing them from my drama, saving them from any more heartbreak from seeing my continued struggling.

I feel like a horrible friend, a horrible person for even wanting to have them there during my bad times.  I feel like they deserve better than me.

I tell myself that I am doing them a kindness by keeping them away.

I desperately yearn for someone to talk to, someone to lean on, to have someone who truly understands.

Yet I feel completely alone…

…Because I have chosen to make myself alone.

It isn’t that I’m alone.  I have an amazing fiance who loves me to death and is both caring and compassionate about my mental illness.  I have wonderful children that have grown into incredible adults who want to be there for me.  I have a loyal and understanding circle of friends that have stood by me over the years.  I have a supportive team of doctors and other professionals whose primary goal is to help me.

That is the reality.  I am not alone.

However, the reality is also that I have depression, a mental illness that often convinces me both that I am alone and that I am a nuisance to everyone else in my life.

I don’t want to be alone.

But I don’t want to trouble any of them with my struggles or be a burden, either.

It is a catch-22, spurred on by the lies that my depression tells me.

It takes a continuous, conscious effort to remind myself that I am not a burden to any of them, that they love me, care about me and truly want to be there for me and help me.  I have to remind myself regularly that I am not alone and that others do truly care.  Again and again, I find myself itching to pull away, wanting to distance myself and my problems from everyone else.  It is a constant struggle not to isolate myself for the perceived benefit of others.

I have to remind myself, as well, that I don’t have to carry everything on my shoulders alone.  Often, I have to push myself to reopen those doors, tear down those walls and let others back in.  It is admittedly very hard a lot of the time to lean on others, to bother them with my problems, to even ask for help when I need it.  Instinctively, I always feel like everyone else has enough on their own plates without adding my mess to the mix.  I always feel guilty for needing other people.  Whenever I start feeling that way, I have to remind myself that others are there because they want to be.

Deep down, I know I am not a burden.

I know I am not troubling or bothering anyone with my problems nor am I forcing anyone to be there against their will.

I know I don’t have to face my illness alone.

I know all these negative feelings are lies, though they feel completely legitimate and real to me at the time.

We feel completely and utterly alone because our depression lies to us, convincing us that loneliness is a reality when you have a mental illness.  We don’t have to be alone, though.  Don’t let your depression deceive you.  There are others that care, others that want to be there.

There are people you have pushed away who are yearning to be back in your life, people who truly care about you and your well-being.

There are also others out there who you may not even have met yet who would be willing to be there, who understand what you are going through and don’t want you to have to struggle alone.

There are doctors and therapists, as well, and support groups out there who are willing to help.

I honestly cannot tell you whether the spiral starts with depression or with loneliness, though the two often go hand in hand.  Together they form a symbiotic relationship that feasts on your mental health, starving you of your happiness and well-being.

I do know one thing, though.

You don’t have to be alone…

…So please don’t choose to be.

I Have Depression.. But I am Happy..

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

But I am happy.

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

Yet I have been diagnosed with depression.

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

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

Yet I continue to struggle with my depression diagnosis.

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

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

It is not all in my head.

It is not a state of mind or an emotion.

Depression isn’t about being sad.

The cure for depression is not happiness.

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

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

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

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

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Republished on the Mighty on 4/4/19.

Four Days on Suicide Watch

Everything had been building up for months, years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My chest hurts.

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

My throat hurts.

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

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

I had lost a day and a half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love.. When You Both Have A Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/28/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/28/18.

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Republished on Yahoo News – Canada on 6/28/18.

Republished on Yahoo News – India on 6/28/18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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