When the Holidays Are Marred by Loss and Complex Grief

Written For The Mighty on 11/19/2020.

Holidays are usually seen as a happy time, when friends and family get together to celebrate. They are a time filled with the warm glow of decorations, delicious foods to fill our stomachs and wonderful memories in the making with the people we love. 

But sometimes everything is not that simple. When you lose someone you hold dear during the holidays, it creates a dark cloud that looms over the entire celebration, making it harder to enjoy it as you otherwise would.

Loss is hard any time of the year. But a loss during the holidays can be especially painful because everyone else expects you to be happy during the holidays. It is hard to celebrate anything when you don’t feel festive inside. It can feel near-impossible to smile when all you want to do is cry. It is hard to be around others who are happy and festive when you feel anything but, leaving you to wonder if it is just better to stay home and not ruin anyone else’s time.

Holidays are often rooted in nostalgia. Current celebrations bring back memories of other times, better times, when your loved ones were still there to celebrate with you. The sights, sounds, tastes and scents alone can make their absence even more glaring and jarring. What once were joyful recollections you shared together of other years become gut punches that leave you fighting back tears.

It can be doubly hard when you carry conflicting feelings about the person you lost. People often say that you should never speak ill of the dead, disregarding the fact that rarely in life is anything solely black or white, good or bad. The vast majority of relationships in our life exist somewhere within the realm of grays, where they are not one or the other but rather a complex combination of both. When your grief is complex, it makes mourning that much more difficult. 

My mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving day. 

All my childhood holiday memories revolve primarily around my mother. She was the cook, the baker, the decorator, the present-wrapper. The holidays were largely constructed and orchestrated by her two hands. Almost every holiday tradition I’ve carried with me throughout my life originates with her. There is not a single major holiday I celebrate that does not have her fingerprints all over it.

She was my mother. She taught me to cook and bake, to sew, knit, embroider, darn and craft. She implanted in me my stubborn will to keep fighting and my love for the holidays as a whole. She is a big part of the person I am today.

She was also one of my primary abusers throughout my childhood, physically, verbally and mentally. She is one of the reasons I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. She is proof that very few things exist simply as black or white. 

She is my mother. I love her as every little girl loves her mother. And at the same time I hate her. I love her for all that she has taught and given me, and I hate her for all that she’s put me through. I miss her with every fiber of my being and at the same time I could never forgive her for the darkness she put over the holidays for me. 

To better help you understand our relationship, I feel it is important to divulge a little background. Growing up, my mother was very abusive. She was struggling with often untreated, always undertreated bipolar disorder with frequent bouts of rage and I was her primary target. Our entire house was a war zone where the only way to be heard was to yell louder than the next person, and the only way to shut someone up was to lash out with the meanest, cruelest thing you could think of. After over 20 years of combat, my father walked out on our family shortly before I turned 16. My mother retaliated by driving to his work and shooting him twice. She spent the next few years bouncing between jail and mental institutions until it was ultimately pleaded out. But the damage had already been done and my life had been changed forever.

Her actions that day made it very clear to me exactly what she was capable of doing during her bouts of rage. Yet she still refused to seek help, frequently breaking down into tears or exploding with anger with no prior warning at the drop of a dime. For years, I watched in fear for my own life and the lives of my children until I finally admitted to myself that I did not feel safe. My mother and I had been estranged for a couple years when she passed away.

My mother’s death was officially listed as an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. My mother suffered from a lot of maladies and had medicine for all of them. She took dozens of different medications over the course of the day. Presumably, she had taken her medication for the day, forgotten, taken them again, forgotten and repeated this pattern multiple times before succumbing to an overdose.

I do not believe it was an accident. My mother had always been meticulous with her medication, separating it into containers designating not only days of the week, but times of the day, as well, so that she never missed a dose. 

I believe she killed herself that Thanksgiving morning 10 years ago and that, in the process, she robbed my holidays from me. 

Every year now when the holidays roll around, I struggle to enjoy them. My entire holiday season is marred by her loss.

I love her. Everything I do during the holidays comes directly from her. Yet she also hurt me worse than any other person ever has and made me feel largely unsafe in this world. She wasn’t all bad. I miss her. I feel guilty for not being there when she died. There’s an emptiness in my heart that nothing seems to fill, yet I also carry so much anger towards her. From Thanksgiving through New Years, my emotions are continuously all over the place, repeatedly being pulled one way then the other. I want to be happy, be festive, to enjoy the holidays with my family, but it’s a constant struggle.

It’s become a matter of taking everything one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. Allowing myself to feel everything that I am feeling because all my feelings are valid. And accepting that sometimes I’m just not in the right mindset and I need to pull back, regroup and recharge. I have learned to be gentle with myself. I do what I can when I can, and forgive myself for the things I am just not able to do during the holidays. I do my best to live in the moment and embrace the joy, but I don’t pretend that the darkness isn’t still lurking in the shadows, as well. It isn’t easy, but it is better to acknowledge and face all of my feelings, good and bad, than to shove them down deep inside and pretend they aren’t there. I celebrate when I can and step away when I cannot.

After all, none of us has to be festive all of the time — especially when we are not feeling it.

Republished on MSN on 11/20/2020.

Republished on Zenith News on 11/19/2020.

Republished on The Mental Guide on 11/2020.

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.

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.

Art Therapy For Depression

pumpkins

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.

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.

Changing My Perspective On My Mental Illness Saved My Life

I have struggled my entire life with mental illness.  Unlike some people whose mental illness has an origin that can be pinpointed to a specific life event, mine is caused in part by a genetic mutation.  It has always been there to varying degrees.  I have always struggled.

Thanks to that same genetic mutation, I have always been considered treatment-resistant, as well.  No medication I ever took seemed to even touch the darkness I carried inside me.  This mutation affected the way the neurotransmitters in my brain worked so I never received the chemicals that I desperately needed, whether made naturally or prescribed,  in any useful amount.

For over forty years of my life, I struggled to function while feeling inherently broken and flawed without ever understanding why.  Discovering the existence of my genetic mutation helped me see my mental illness in a new light and put me on a new path of self-love and acceptance.  There were ways to treat my mutation.  I no longer had to be classified as “treatment resistant” and pushed aside as a hopeless case.  I no longer had to stagnate through life, a broken shell going through the motions while barely existing.

Please know that I am not touting any magical cure for mental illness.  I am also not trying to push that stigma-fueled misconception that if you just try harder, you can somehow vanquish your mental illness by force of will alone.  My mental illness is still very much present and ongoing treatment is still needed.  But the way I have come to view my mental illness has drastically changed and, in many ways, it has been both a world-changer and life-saver for me.

I no longer blame myself for my mental illness.  I used to believe I was damaged and broken, that I was crazy on some core level, unbalanced and just not right in the head.  I had downed gallons of that stigma kool-aid, poisoning myself with the idea that I must just not be trying hard enough, that I was somehow doing this to myself.

I now accept that it is a verifiable illness and one that is largely treatable.  I have accepted that I am no more responsible for my illness than a cancer patient would be for their condition.  It is a medical diagnosis that affects people of all walks of life regardless of their race, religion, gender identity, age or socio-economic status.  I did not ask for my illness nor was it thrust upon me as some punishment or retribution.  People just sometimes get sick and when they do, they need treatment.

For years, I was suicidal on and off.  Because none of my treatment ever seemed to work, my world felt hopeless.  Because I felt damaged and useless, I surrounded myself with people who treated me like I was as worthless as I felt.  Even on my best days, I was only a few steps away from giving up.

Being able to finally accept that I was not responsible for my illness removed all the blame from the equation.  Since I was no longer to blame, I could stop hating myself, stop punishing myself for being so broken.  If it was a medical condition, it was treatable.  And if it was treatable, there was hope.

Hope was a new concept for me.

I was not used to the idea of looking forward to the future.  Previously, I went through the motions of merely existing day by day.  I did not look forward to what tomorrow might bring because it had always brought the same despair as told held and all the days before.  Nothing had ever changed.  But now, there was finally a very real possibility for change.  For the first time, I found myself looking forward to the future.

I also received some semblance of control over my own life.  For years, it felt like my world had been spinning out of control and I had no say in the matter, that I was just along for the ride.  But if there is treatment available that can work, that means I have control over my life again.  Though it might take time to find a balance that works for me, my life and my health are in my hands.  The only way my life will never get better is if I choose to not get treatment.

Regaining control over my own life in turn made me more proactive about my treatment.  I was willing to try anything that might help.  Meditation. Yoga. Tai Chi. Writing.  Art.  Anything that might make a difference and give me a better fighting chance.  It all added new tools to my mental wellness toolbox and made me stronger.

It also made me more open to letting others back into my life.  For years I had isolated myself from many people, believing they were better off without me.  I worried that somehow the mess in my head might spill over into their lives and firmly believed that nobody deserved that.  Being able to see my mental illness as a treatable condition allowed me to take those walls down and let people back in.  I wasn’t dangerous, unbalanced or crazy.  Nobody needed to be protected or shielded from me.  I had a fairly common condition that was treatable.

My new strength also helped me to see that everything my mental illness had been telling me all along was a lie.  I was not weak.  I was not broken beyond repair.  I was not useless, unlovable, unwanted, unworthy.  I was strong.  I was fierce.  I was brave.  I was a fighter, a survivor, a force to be reckoned with.  My future was in my hands.

My new fighting spirit gave birth to an inner advocate that I never knew was within me.  Not only was I fighting for my own mental health, but I began writing advocating for others, as well.  And the more I talked about my own mental illness, the more I let others know they were not alone and encouraged them to never give up, the stronger I got.  Within my illness, I found a purpose, a reason to keep going and to fight that was much larger than my own survival.  The same illness that for years had me pinned on death’s door had breathed new life into me and given me a true calling.

That does not mean that my mental illness is gone.  It is still there raging strong.  The only difference is that now when that inner dialogue begins, I can fight back.  I can call it out for the liar it is.  I can use the tools I have acquired in my mental wellness toolbox and stave off the worst of it.  Instead of succumbing to its cruelty like a lamb being led to slaughter, I now have the will to fight back, to call it out and to refuse to let it beat me.

And I have hope.

I want to get treatment.  Because I have a sincere hope that one day things could be better, that one day my mental illness will not have such a death grip on me.

Having hope has made all the difference.

If you are struggling right now with mental illness, please take my words to heart.  You are not to blame.  You have done nothing wrong.  You are not broken, flawed, or damaged beyond repair. You are not useless, unwanted, unloved, unworthy.  You have a medical condition that could happen to anybody.  There is treatment available.  Things can get better.

And there is hope.

You just have to open yourself up to that possibility.

Trust me.  It will change your world and might just save your life.

You’re stronger than you realize.  You’d have to be strong to fight the monsters you’ve been fighting all along.

You’ve got this.

I have hope for you.  Now all you need is hope for yourself.

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.