When Tragedy Hits the Slippery Slope: Mental Health & Gun Control

With the hysteria following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on everyone’s minds and in their hearts, two topics seem to be on everyone’s tongues: gun control and mental health.  Whenever there is such a senseless tragedy, our knee jerk reaction is to stomp out whatever we believe the problem to be so that nothing like this ever happens again.  But it is a slippery slope.

So many people are shouting for firmer gun control, stating that if the shooter hadn’t had so many guns, there wouldn’t be so many dead.  However, it is important to recognize that gun legislation would only affect law abiding citizens purchasing guns for hunting, recreation and protection.  Gun regulation would not affect people who commit mass shootings because they do not go through legal channels to build their arsenal.  Doing so would set off red flags and thwart their plans.

Likewise, anyone looking to commit mass homicide would not be stopped by taking away their legal access to guns.  A person looking to commit a crime rarely goes through legal channels because they are hoping to remain undetected and anonymous.  Furthermore, guns being removed completely from the equation would not prevent homicides.  Periodically in the news there are stories about mentally unbalanced individuals attacking people with knives or driving their vehicles into crowds or planting bombs or adding poison to food or water supplies.  Taking away access to guns will not stop someone intent on harming others.  Restricting access to guns only affects the ability of law abiding citizens to own guns.

Whenever that argument is presented, someone always inevitably counters with the fact that a person would not feel that way if they had ever been a victim of, or been close to anyone who has been a victim of, gun violence.

As a person whose life has been completely devastated by gun violence, I can tell you firsthand that is not the case.  When I was sixteen, my mother went to SUNY Albany where my father worked and shot him twice.  I sat in my high school on lock down for hours because the authorities did not know where she went after the shooting or whether she would be coming for me, as well.  I know all too well what it is like to sit in the ICU watching a loved one fighting to live, seen the damage a bullet has caused by ripping through their flesh.  I know all too well the widespread panic that follows a shooting, not knowing if anywhere is safe or what might happen next until the shooter is apprehended.  I know all too well the life-changing impact guns can have on a person’s life.

But I also know that responsibility for that shooting does not rest with that gun my mother used.  Nor does it rest with the guns used by the shooter in Las Vegas.  They are inanimate objects used by someone who was not mentally stable to commit a horrific crime.  You can not even blame shop owners or the ease in obtaining guns because large arsenals like what was used in Las Vegas are usually acquired illegally as not to arouse suspicion.

Unfortunately, untreated and undertreated mental illness play a large part in situations like this because quite frankly nobody who is mentally stable and well would consider committing such an act.  Mental illness makes the perfect scapegoat because there is so much stigma already attached.  Mental illness cannot be seen by the naked eye.  Mental illness is widely misunderstood.  People suffering from mental illness are seen simultaneously both as dangerous monsters likely to snap at any given moment or slightest provocation or as jokes and punchlines, easy to ridicule and mock.  When someone who is mentally unstable commits such a horrific act, it is an easy leap for people to declare that something needs to be done with the mentally ill to stop the violence before it gets out of hand.  As scary as it may sound, you can almost imagine throngs of villagers, armed with pitchforks and torches, rounding up all the “crazies” for their own safety and the safety of others.  Yet there are people actively questioning why someone who was mentally ill was even out on the streets, as if someone needs to lock them all up before a tragedy like this happens again.

Again, the argument about not fully understanding the situation unless you have been in it comes into play.  There are people who will say someone cannot fully understand the impact of mental illness on a person’s life unless they have been there themselves.

Once again, I can say without a doubt that I understand all too well.  Not only did my mother suffer from untreated and undertreated bipolar disorder for years leading up to the shooting, but I have struggled my entire life with mental illness, as well.  I have been diagnosed with major depression, anxiety disorder and ptsd.  I know all too well the stigma attached to mental illness and have dealt personally with people assuming my mental illness meant I was either unbalanced, unhinged and crazy or treated my illness like a joke.  I’ve listened as others, not realizing I suffered from mental illness myself, declare that the world would be safer if they just put all the “crazies” back in mental institutions like they used to do.  I understand all too well juggling the fear of judgment with the need to receive help for my condition.

But I can also tell you firsthand that I have never even remotely considered doing anything like the shooter in Las Vegas has done.  I’ve met many, many people over the years struggling with mental illness, as well, and could not fathom any of them doing such a thing, either.  In the mad flurry to lay blame somewhere, few people stop to consider that statistics show that the mentally ill are many times more likely to be victims of a crime than perpetrators.  Millions of people struggle with mental illness every single day without ever harming others or going on a homicidal rampage.  People such as the shooter in Las Vegas are an extreme rarity in the very large pool of mentally ill people.  Locking up all the mentally ill for the safety of others or their own personal safety would be punishing millions of people for the actions of a small handful.

What is a person to do if removing legal access to guns or locking up the mentally ill are both out of the question?  Everyone wants to find a solution because we never want a tragedy like this to happen again.  We can all agree that something has to be done.

As far as gun control, it isn’t legal gun ownership that needs to be targeted.  Gun manufacturers should be held accountable when they cut corners that allow their weapons to be easily modified by purchasing kits online.  There also needs to be more programs for getting illegal guns off the streets.  Perhaps even institute programs where people caught with illegal firearms must attend a certain number of funerals of gun victims and grief counselling groups to see the impact their actions may have caused.

There are also laws on the books regarding guns and mental illness that need to be revisited and reconstructed.  Currently in my state, for example, there are laws stating that if a person has been treated for mental health issues, the government can seize their guns at any time.  While on its face, that law might appear to be in the interest of the safety of all, what it has resulted in is many people struggling with mental illness who avoid getting the treatment they need because they fear having their rights stripped away.  This extends beyond people who own guns for hunting and protection.  Members of law enforcement and the military who are struggling with job-related mental illness have a legitimate fear that disclosing their mental health will result in the loss of their livelihood.  Laws like this need to be reconsidered and restructured so that no one has to choose between their mental health and their right to bear arms.  It is better to have a gun owner receiving ongoing treatment for their mental illness than to have their condition exist unchecked because they do not want their rights stripped away.

When it comes to mental illness, there needs to be more access to mental health treatment and better screening.  Usually when tragedies occur involving someone who is mentally ill, there is a mention in the news story about “a history of mental illness”.  Each time such a history is mentioned, I must question how that person fell through the cracks.  If a person is openly struggling with mental illness and is under treatment, that treatment should be ongoing for as long as it is needed and should not lapse.  People suffering the symptoms of mental illness should be able to reach out for treatment, as well, without fear of the shame or ridicule of the stigma attached.  Whenever a celebrity commits suicide, everyone clamors that this is the perfect time to open up a dialogue about mental health.  Tragedies like this work equally as well.  Too many people are struggling in silence or aren’t receiving the treatment they need.  Mental illness has become a global epidemic.  Enough people have died, both at their own hands and the hands of others.  The silence has to end so that the treatment can begin.

We must be careful in our response to tragedies like the shooting in Las Vegas.  Our first knee jerk reaction is to lay blame and eradicate the cause to prevent it ever being repeated.  We must be careful, though, when we start talking about stripping away rights, whether it be the right to bear arms or the rights of the mentally ill because it is a slippery slope.  When you start taking away rights, it isn’t long until you find yourself with no rights at all.  We need to take a deep breath and look not at what rights we can take away to possibly make everyone safer but what we can implement in the future to prevent others from falling through the cracks and creating another senseless tragedy.

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Victory is Mine! Fighting for & Winning Coverage is Possible!

I was recently contacted by someone from My Patient Rights. They are a nonprofit helping patients learn their rights, navigate their health plan and ultimately how to become their own advocate.  They had read my story about fighting for coverage when it had been republished on The Mighty and contacted me, interested in hearing how my battle was going.  When I informed them that I had won my fight against the insurance for coverage, they asked me to write a piece, sharing my story.  The following piece was written exclusively for My Patient Rights in hope that sharing my story might give others the courage and strength to fight for the coverage they need, as well.

I’ve spent my entire life struggling with severe depression.  I felt broken.  Others treated me like I was unbalanced, unhinged and crazy.  No treatment or medication I had tried worked.  While the majority of people suffering from depression could pinpoint the event or period in their lives that was the catalyst for their illness, mine had always been there and nothing seemed to help.

Everything changed for me when my doctor discovered that I was born with a genetic mutation.  This mutation renders my liver incapable of breaking down folic acid to any usable degree.  Though this genetic mutation exists in varying degrees, mine is an extreme case, where my liver is working at approximately 20% of its potential.  Broken down folic acid is what the brain uses to help transport the chemicals needed for functions such as balancing moods.  Without it, no amount of chemicals, whether naturally made or taken in the form of an antidepressant, could get where they were needed.  At best, my brain was receiving 20% of what it required.  My lifelong depression was a result of my brain being literally starved of the nutrients it needed.

This changed everything for me.  I wasn’t crazy after all.  My mental illness had a definitive biological cause.  Even more importantly, there was a treatment available, capsules of broken down folic acid, called l-methylfolate.  There was a company that manufactured capsules of already broken down folic acid under the name Deplin.  For the first time in my life, there was actual hope.  With this medication, my brain could finally get what it has been missing.  While the medication I needed wasn’t extremely expensive, it was beyond my financial means.  It was a medication I would need for the rest of my life and it would cost thousands of dollars every year.  The only way I would be able to afford the continued medication I needed would be for my health insurance to cover the majority of the cost.

My doctor started me on some samples of Deplin while we waited to hear back from the insurance company that my medication would be covered.  While it was not a panacea, I could feel a distinct difference inside almost immediately.  While my condition would not be cured by taking this prescription, it would be greatly improved and would open the door for other treatments to be used successfully for the first time ever.  With Deplin, my depression was feeling more manageable, my moods higher and more stable than they had ever been.

It seemed like a simple fix, cut and dry.  The brain needs broken down folic acid in order to balance moods and combat depression.  My body, on a genetic level, was incapable of breaking down folic acid in any usable amount.  A pharmaceutical company made a capsule of broken down folic acid that would provide my brain with what my body could not make on its own.  You can imagine my surprise when the insurance company denied my coverage.  Positive that it was an error, my doctor and I resubmitted my claim.  Again, it was denied.

The reasons for the denials were ludicrous.  The first denial stated there was a “less expensive, alternative treatment”.  More specifically, folic acid tablets.  The folic acid tablets that my body was incapable of metabolizing due to my genetic mutation.  The second denial was even more ridiculous.  CDPHP denied coverage of the medication deemed necessary by my genetic test because they questioned the validity of the test itself.  The insurance company had covered the genetic testing because they believed it to be necessary to my treatment, yet refused to acknowledge the results of the test or the treatment deemed necessary based on the test results.

My first appeal was rather informal.  Speaking on the phone to an in-house doctor, explaining why I felt they had made an error.  During the conversation, the doctor I was speaking to seemed both sympathetic and understanding.  They understood why the folic acid tablets suggested would not be a viable option.  Once again, I thought it was cut and dry, easily resolved.  After all, the doctor seemed to not only understand, but to agree with all I was saying, as well.  When the second denial came back questioning the validity of my genetic testing itself, I knew I had to step up my game.

I contacted the lab that did the genetic testing and spoke directly to technicians, gathering information about the testing itself.  They provided me with case studies showing the benefits of their testing in mental health treatment, as well.  I also contacted the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the broken down folic acid tablets.  With their help, I gathered multiple articles discussing not only my specific diagnosis but the use of their product in treating it, as well.  Altogether, I submitted over one hundred pages of research to CDPHP for my second appeal.  It took less than three hours from the point that the last paper was faxed to their office for me to get the phone call from CDPHP.  Denied again.

I was beside myself.  There was no way that anyone at CDPHP could have reviewed even a portion of the material I had faxed in before issuing their denial.  There was no alternative treatment available.  My depression would not go away on its own.  No antidepressant could work because, without the broken down folic acid, there was no way it could get where it was needed.  Meanwhile, my doctor’s supply of samples was quickly running out.

I was in an absolute panic.  My last ditch effort was a final appeal with the state.  Turns out, health insurance companies are monitored by the government.  A final no by the insurance company is NOT the final no.  You can go above the heads of the insurance company and have your state review their decision.  And that is precisely what I did.

Once again, I faxed out all the research I had compiled, both on my own and with the assistance of both the lab and pharmaceutical companies involved with my case, over one hundred pages.  In addition, my doctor found medical journals that addressed my specific condition and treatment in detail to submit on my behalf.  I was cautiously optimistic.  After all, I had submitted the majority of this before, believing it was all cut and dry,  only to have it denied.

It took weeks to hear the result because it was not considered a life or death situation so the appeal could not be expedited.  My supply of samples had run out.  I could feel my depression spiraling back down into the darkness that had succumbed me for years.  This final appeal was my last and only hope.

After what felt like an eternity, I received a huge packet in the mail from New York State Department of Financial Services, the government agency that oversees external appeals.  My appeal had been sent out to Maryland for review.  An independent doctor, with a long list of credentials and no affiliation with either my insurance company or my state, had deemed inequitably that my prescription for Deplin was not only medically necessary but the only treatment currently available for my condition.  CDPHP’s denial was overruled.  They would have to cover my medication.

It felt like a miracle.  All in all, it took approximately one year’s time from the discovery of my genetic mutation to the results of my final appeal arrived in my mailbox.  It took almost three months longer before CDPHP began finally actually paying for my medication.  In the grand scheme of things, my entire fight took a little under a year and a half.  In reality, it should never have happened.  It should have been a cut and dry case of my receiving the only treatment available on the market for my condition.  It is devastating to think that our insurance coverage often comes down to keeping their costs down and not what is best for our health.  But if I have learned one thing from this experience, it is that we do still have power.  The story does not end when our insurance company tells us no, that they will not provide necessary treatments.  Insurance companies have to answer to outside government agencies with more power and the authority to overrule their decisions.

We can fight.  And we can win.

Don’t lose hope.  Don’t take no for an answer.  If you need treatment and your insurance company refuses to cover it, that is not the end.

Fight for your health.  Fight for your right to have the treatments you need covered.

It may just be the most important fight of your life.

mypatientrights

Written Exclusively for My Patient Rights on 11/3/17.

Previous pieces written about my fight for coverage include: Fighting for My Mental HealthThe Meds Crash.. and The New York State Appeals Process: Apparently Not Everyone Who The State Certifies To Prescribe Medication Is Considered ‘Educated Enough’ To Defend Their Patients’ Prescriptions During An Appeal.

The Purrfect Medicine: Separating The Myths From The Truth About Having An Emotional Support Animal

I have a pair of sugar gliders.  They’ve been with me for over six years, since they were eight weeks out of pouch.  For those who do not know what sugar gliders are – they are small marsupials that can live twelve to fifteen years and bond closely with their owners.  I have brought them many places in their bonding pouch, from stores to museums to farmers markets and parks.  They have helped me through many mental and emotional hurdles over the years.  Having them with me gives me a sense of peace of mind and security, helps lower my stress levels when my anxiety rises and makes it easier to recenter myself when my depression begins to spiral down out of control.  Having my furbabies with me makes my mental illness more manageable.

When my life fell apart and I had to move last year, I had a very genuine fear that whatever place I found might reject my sugar gliders because they did not know what they were or did not allow animals.  I had heard that having your animals registered as emotional support animals would help protect against that, so I began researching what I needed to do.  What I discovered along the way is that there is a ton of misinformation out there.

Myth: For a nominal fee, anyone in the United States can go to one of a handful of sites and pay to have their pet legally registered as an emotional support animal, even receiving a specially printed certificate.

Emotional support animal registration sites are a scam!  The certificates are literally not worth the paper they are printed on.  Registering an animal as an emotional support animal does not cost anything.  The only way in which you legally register your animal is by having your primary care physician, psychologist or psychiatrist write a letter deeming that your animal is needed for your emotional and mental well-being.  They do not even have to include your specific diagnosis – just that you are under their care and they believe having the pet is beneficial to your health and losing the animal would be detrimental to your health.  It is THAT simple.

A sample letter for your doctor to write, registering your emotional support animal, can be found HERE.

Myth: Only certain animals can be emotional support animals and they must be specially trained in some way.

Unlike service animals which have rigid guidelines as to what animals can be considered one, virtually any pet can be an emotional support animal.  They do not need any type of training because they are there as companions to help with your emotional and mental state.  Once again, the ONLY thing you need for your pet to become an emotional support animal is a letter from your doctor deeming they are necessary for your well-being.  It does not matter if they are a cat, a snake, a hedgehog, a lizard or a horse.

Myth: Emotional support animals can legally go anywhere that other service animals can go.

Laws regarding emotional support animals vary by state.  Some states, such as New York where I live, don’t even recognize them in state laws and refer to federal guidelines with regard to housing.  Emotional support animals are NOT the same thing as a service animal such as a seeing eye dog that has been specially trained to perform specific tasks for their owner.  As such, they are not always awarded the same rights as service animals.  Don’t assume you can bring them out everywhere with you because your doctor has deemed them necessary for your mental and emotional well-being.  Do your research to find out what your state allows.

For example, New York guidelines on emotional support animals can be found HERE.  As stated in the brochure, New York differentiates between service animals and emotional support animals, deferring to federal fair housing guidelines in regards to emotional support animals.

Myth: A landlord has the right to deny me if they do not allow pets in their buildings or if my emotional support animal has not received any formal training classes.

Federal HUD guidelines include emotional support animals with service animals with regard to housing and state that a landlord cannot deny housing for an emotional support animal.  It further states that an emotional support animal is NOT considered a pet and does not require any training.  Furthermore, breed and size limitations do not apply to emotional support animals.  The landlord can request to see documentation from your doctor specifying your animal is an emotional support animal but is not entitled to access to your medical records or specific diagnosis.  Regardless of whatever your individual state laws might be on emotional support animals, federal law surpasses state laws on the matter, meaning that because housing cannot be denied due to the presence of emotional support animals on a federal level, no state can override that right.

Further information on the federal HUD statute regarding emotional support animals can be found HERE.

There are only two situations where a landlord can legally deny your emotional support animal. They are:

  • If the landlord lives in the unit, and they or a member of their immediate family have an allergy to the animal.
  • If the animal has aggressively threatened someone. (This must be the specific animal in question, and not based on beliefs about their breed or weight.)

The resources that explain these exceptions and your rights if you believe your landlord has discriminated against you based on your need for an emotional support animal can be found  HERE on the tenant resources page.

Myth: Once an animal is considered an emotional support animal, that trumps all other laws.  I can live anywhere I want with them and nothing can be said or done to stop it.

Common sense applies here.  If horses are not allowed within city limits, you cannot get yourself a horse and bring it into your city flat, stating it is an emotional support animal so you are entitled to keep it there.  If your state deems the pet you own is illegal to own in your state or requires a special permit to own, you must abide by those laws just like everyone else.  For instance, there are a handful of states in which sugar gliders are illegal to own.  Regardless of their status as emotional support animals, I cannot move to one of those states and expect to reside there with them.  Please keep in mind that there are also a handful of places you may not be able to reside with your emotional support animal, such as a hotel or motel because they are not considered traditional places of residence.  However, according to federal HUD guidelines, you cannot be denied housing with your emotional support animal in “public housing agencies and some places of public accommodation, such as rental offices, shelters, residential homes, some types of multifamily housing, assisted living facilities, and housing at places of education”.  Please keep in mind, though, that you must take proper care of your animal and clean up after them just like you would any other animal.

Myth: My landlord says that in order to have my emotional support animal on the premises, I must pay a pet deposit or pay a little extra each month and must prove that my animal has been properly trained.

The federal HUD guidelines prohibit landlords from charging a pet fee for any service animal or emotional support animal.  Nor can a landlord demand any sort of training certificate or place restrictions on the type of animal owned as long as the animal is considered legal in your municipality.  The situation is addressed specifically on HUD’s Q&A page on the matter, labelled situation one, which can be found HERE.

Truth: An emotional support animal can be a very helpful tool in treating many mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

I can state this, without a doubt, based on my own personal experiences and the experiences of others I have known who have turned to animals as a coping mechanism for their mental illness.  The benefits of having a furry, feathered or scaly companion are numerous.  Having an emotional support animal if your doctor deems it necessary for your emotional and mental well-being is your legal right in this country.  Registering your animal as an emotional support animal in the United States is not hard or time-consuming and does not cost a thing.  However, both having your animal there with you and having the peace of mind knowing that no one can deny you housing for owning your emotional support animal is priceless.

selfgrowth

Republished on SelfGrowth.com on 10/17/17.

 

Logged In: Video Games & Mental Illness

Video games have become a large part of society today. While once considered a past-time for nerds, in recent years they have become mainstream, incorporating popular culture, movies, tv shows and sports in a way that appeals to the masses. From computers to consoles to games and apps on phones and tablets, video games are now seen as a widely accepted way for people to relax, unwind and pass the time.

Many people who struggle with mental illness have come to fully embrace the world of video games.  Though gaming is seen as an acceptable past-time for others, unfortunately the stigma surrounding mental illness makes people assume that anyone struggling with a diagnosis such as depression is just being lazy when they play video games.  The fact that someone is able to play, or even excel, at a game is seen as some sort of undeniable proof that a person is just “faking” or “exaggerating” their illness and that they would be fully capable of working and functioning to their full potential if they just “applied themselves”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Playing video games as a tool for coping does not make a person lazy.  Excelling at a game does not automatically mean a person would be able to excel at all other aspects of their lives equally.  Playing a game does not negate or minimize a diagnosis.  Gaming, however, can make some of the symptoms of mental illness more bearable and can be a healthy addition to our lives.

Video games can be very beneficial to someone struggling with mental illness.  The focus needed to complete tasks in games can provide a much-needed distraction from aggressively looping negative thoughts.  The repetition of many games can be soothing, helping to lower and lessen anxiety.  When the world feels completely overwhelming and unbearable, video games can give a temporary escape so that someone on the verge of a meltdown or anxiety attack can catch their breath.

Though many are quick to counter with the fact that both meditation and exercise can do the same thing, they often don’t understand how the mentally ill mind works.  I personally have taken classes for meditation, yoga and tai chi.  While they are beneficial in their own way during times when I am already relatively calm, none have managed to silence the inner turmoil when my brain is already caught in the throes of an anxiety attack. While focused breathing might calm me long enough to stave off the panic attack for the moment, I often need to find some seemingly mindless task to distract my mind until the dust fully settles.  When my mind is in an over-active loop, I usually need some type of busy work to pull my attention away before I can even begin to consider calming techniques.  Video games provide those menial tasks to help distract my brain long enough to re-center myself.

Though exercise might be seen as a healthier alternative, as well, most do not consider the fact that, for many struggling with mental illness, it is hard some days to even pull ourselves out of bed.  There are days we lay there for hours having to pee, not out of laziness but because, mentally and emotionally, the world feels so overwhelming, so unbearable, that we cannot bring ourselves to face it.  Though simple exercises like going for a walk might seem like an ideal low-impact workout to others, when we are struggling with our illness, we tend to isolate, terrified of others seeing how much of a mess we truly are.  It is not that we don’t want to get out there, exercise and be healthier.  Some days, it takes everything we have to just go through the basic motions of life.  Video games give us a way to virtually “get out there” on our terms and at our own pace even when we do not feel capable of physically facing the world.

Video games also give us a temporary escape from a world in which we feel broken.  Instead of being that “crazy, unbalanced person” who “is lazy” and “can’t seem to pull their life together”, we can for a few moments in time be something more: a brave knight, a fierce jedi, a wise wizard, a pro athlete or an ingenious arch-villain.  We can solve puzzles, reach goals, and build things, all on our terms at our own pace.  We can achieve a sense of accomplishment at something, which is greatly needed at times when we feel we mess up everything we touch.

Many people struggling with mental illness feel like outcasts.  Much like any other social platform, multiplayer games also give those who feel isolated and alone a way to socialize with other people with similar interests without the stress and anxiety of face-to-face interactions.  Over the years and a variety of video games, I have chatted with many wonderful people and forged numerous lasting friendships.  One thing I have discovered over many late night discussions with others is that there are many other people struggling with mental illness who are using gaming, as well, as a coping mechanism.  None of us are alone when we log in.  More people understand our struggles than many realize.  We are a growing group within the gaming community.

There are people who ask why we can’t apply the same effort and energy to other aspects of our lives as we do to gaming.  The answer is absurdly simple. Gaming does not run on a set schedule.  Mental illness makes it difficult to function on a schedule because we are at the mercy of the chemicals in our brain.  We do not know if from one day to the next, one hour to the next, we will crash, spiraling down uncontrollably.  There is no way to predict our highs and lows.  Most people cannot set their own work or school schedule, calling in to say “today’s looking like a good day – I’m going to work for ten hours straight” one day and then call in unable to function at all for the next three days.  Most jobs expect a consistent level of productivity and won’t accept a person showing up, chatting and puttering around for a few hours because they don’t want to be alone.  Most people cannot pop into work for a couple hours on a random Thursday night at 2 am because their anxiety won’t allow them to sleep or they keep having nightmares and need a distraction.  Video games give us a virtual universe of vastly different worlds we can visit any hour of the day or night as needed without expectations beyond those we set for ourselves.

Video games have become a safe haven for those struggling with mental illness.  Gaming is an outlet we can embrace any time, day or night.  When our minds are caught in a negative loop or our anxiety is through the roof, we can distract ourselves from the safety of our own home.  We can be anyone we want to be and achieve some sense of accomplishment, even when we feel otherwise broken.  We can socialize and surround ourselves with others so we do not feel completely isolated and alone in the world, but on our own terms.  We can build friendships and be a part of a community without the pressures of face-to-face interactions during times we do not feel capable of facing the world in person.  Perhaps most importantly, we can log in and out at our own discretion.  If we begin to feel overwhelmed at any time, we can leave the game or play something else.  In a world that often feels like it is spinning wildly out of control, it gives us a sense of control.

I personally have used gaming for years as a coping mechanism and an outlet to work through overwhelming feelings such as depression, anxiety and anger.  While video games have many benefits for those struggling with mental illness, they should never be used as a constant and continual escape.  There needs to be balance and we must stay grounded in reality.  We should never become so caught up in our gaming worlds that our actual lives suffer.  Like any other illness, we need treatment to manage our symptoms and help us function to the best of our ability.  We can, however, embrace video games as another tool in our arsenal to help us get through those overwhelming rough patches and to further enrich our lives.  It’s a brave new world out there where we can log in and be whoever we want to be.  Gaming has become a socially acceptable past-time these days and we have just as much right to enjoy and embrace it as everyone else. Many of us are already logged in and playing.

selfgrowth

Republished on SelfGrowth.com on 10/17/17.

Life Happens..

They say life happens, whether it happens while we’re making other plans or it happens so we must deal with it or one of many other overused cliches meant to help usher us into reality.  I’m not quite sure who “they” are but they definitely hit the nail on the head with this one.  Life happens without a doubt.

My writing has been put on a back burner for a couple months now.  Both my ongoing blogs and the books I have in the works have been delayed.  It is not that I have lost interest or my passion or that I have run out of topics to write about.  Far from it. My mental health and my journey towards mental wellness are still very much a priority and are nothing I would ever give up.  Life just happened.

On a high note – after almost a year battling my insurance company over covering my Deplin, I finally won my last external appeal.  CDPHP has yet to start paying for it, but it has been deemed medically necessary by outside sources with the ability to overrule their decision.  It is a huge victory and more than worthy of a large celebratory post, but again, life happened.

On a very low and tragic note, I have hit some painfully rough waters with the man I love.  There is no need for anyone to prepare themselves for the drama or heartache of a love grown sour for we are still very much together.  Our relationship is truly one of the best things in my life right now.  It was a different sort of heartache.

His father had been ill.  Terminally ill.  We understood he did not have much more time with us, but we had expected much more than what we had been given.  It went so quickly from an untimely fall to a trip to the emergency room to the intensive care unit to hospice.  No one was ready.  I know that no one is ever truly ready for such a loss but it all happened so quickly.  Too quickly.

I’ve spent the last year deconstructing and reconstructing myself piece by piece.  I’m by no means back together quite yet.  I am a work in progress in every way.  But everything going on with myself was cast aside on the back burner so that I could be there for the man I love.  There wasn’t even a question in my mind.  I had to be there.

The man I love is a good man.  Beyond good, in my opinion, but I’m far from impartial. He has been through a lot in his life – we are kindred spirits in that sense.  He has such a warm, loving and compassionate heart.  And life had torn it clear in two.  Nothing, not my writing nor even my own well-being, was as important to me as being there however I could for him.

This was his Dad.  He had already lost his mother a few years ago and was still recovering from that.  Losing both parents leaves a hole, an emptiness that nothing else can ever truly fill.  Life had rendered him an orphan.  I knew that feeling all too well and I could not leave him to face it alone.

Hospice itself was beyond agonizing.  Nothing in life can prepare you for watching someone who was once larger than life slowly fade away.  I’ve been there myself, as well. Hospice is where my father spent his final days as his cancer ate him alive.  Though every moment of the days in hospice with his father held me in a death grip, threatening to pull me back into the past with my father, there was nowhere else I could be but at his side while he spent his final days with his own.

Next came going through the motions of the final preparations and the flurry of condolences that come with a great loss.  Though the words are heartfelt and well-meaning, they cannot even begin to penetrate the numbness that comes with the realization that someone who has always been there is truly gone.  I understood completely how he felt and where he was mentally and emotionally because I have been there myself.  It is a feeling you never forget.

As they often say – “When it rains, it pours”.  Life was not satisfied with dealing that one large heart-wrenching blow.  The last couple months provided a steady barrage of ill-timed hardships to rival even the most depressing country or blues song.  His truck – the last vehicle his mother had driven – needed work to pass inspection and stay on the road. His boat – left to him by his father as a reminder of better days and a multitude of fishing trips together – wouldn’t start and needed repairs.  His cat – given to him by his parents to help him through rough times in his past – was injured and needed to go to the vet.  It was as if every aspect of his life that was tied to his parents was collapsing and crumbling under the weight of the tragedy of his father.

Add to the mix us scrambling to find a place together.  Neither of us could continue to stay where we have each been nor did we honestly want to live separately any longer. One of the only truths we have embraced during these very uncertain times is that we not only wanted but that we NEEDED to be together.  In the short time we’ve been a couple, we’ve become a rock for each other, that light we each cling to when trying to find our way out of the darkness. We understand each other in ways no one else ever has and find a comfort in one another that has been lacking from our lives.  We belong together.

We eventually found a place in his old stomping ground out in the country, literally next door to where he had lived a few years prior.  It is a small place and I’m honestly not sure how we will fit everything into it, but we will manage.  It is familiar territory for him and we are together.  It is home.

Since moving in, we honestly have not been as productive as we probably should have striven to be, but we both needed some downtime to catch our breath, recuperate and heal.  Life has been overwhelming and we both honestly needed a break.  Some avenues of our life have suffered a bit but we have been doing our best to keep going, take care of ourselves and each other.

Life happens.  I’m numb to it at this point.  I’m honestly not sure how I have managed to not crumble into a million tiny pieces by now but somehow I’m still going.  I have to keep going because he needs me there.  Like me, he is an orphan now.  I have to keep going because I need to take care of myself, as well.  We will be okay, though.  We HAVE to be okay because in each other we have finally found what we’ve both been missing in our lives.  We are both seriously overdue for our happily ever after.

We are going to get through this, get past it.  We are going to find some way to heal and to keep going.  We are going to be okay.  We will survive and we will be okay.

They say to fake it until you make it, to keep telling yourself things until you believe it and it becomes truth.  Again, I don’t know who “they” are, but they’ve been right about everything else so I’m hoping this pans out as well.  I shall embrace my hopes for future wellness as my mantra, repeating them in the hope that in time they become reality. Because life has definitely happened and we need more than anything to be okay again.

Finding Love Within My Mentally Ill Heart

I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life. Though I hoped to one day find love and happiness, I always believed I was broken and damaged beyond repair and questioned who could possibly want or love what I have to offer. A friend once told me that two mentally unhealthy people could not have a healthy relationship. I took that to heart, believing love might indeed be beyond my reach. That is, until a twist of fate brought someone from my childhood back into my life.

My childhood was a jumbled mess of abuse, trauma, dysfunction and mental illness. Even as a child, I had struggled and learned early on to wear a smiling mask, reassuring everyone around me that I had everything together and was okay. I went through the motions, striving to be the person everyone else expected me to be. The real me beneath it all felt unseen and unheard, irrelevant and invisible.

Growing up, he was one of my older brother’s friends, a few years older than me. Though that fact rendered us off limits to each other, he was still always very kind, friendly, gentle and sweet to me. Where everyone else only saw the mask I wore, that bubbly, smiling cheerleader with straight As and not a care in the world, he always talked to me and treated me as if I was more than that. He saw the real me even when I felt invisible.

I was thoroughly smitten by him all those years ago. In my head, he became the embodiment of all that I adored. He was sweet, smart and funny with just the perfect amount of cheese. He had this off the beaten path nerdy side and was never afraid to walk to the beat of his own drum. He was the epitome of the boy next door archetype and would influence every other man I would ever find myself drawn to or interested in. Whether or not he realized it, I saw him, too, and he quickly became my first puppy love crush.

As often is the case, life happens. My world collapsed beneath me, spiraled out of control and I found myself living another life, a world away from the world I grew up in and everyone attached to it. My childhood was firmly behind me. I spent many years running from that time, hoping to put as much distance as possible between myself and the demons of my past.

I learned the hard way that you cannot outrun your past. It is attached to your heels like your shadow, always connected, always behind you hanging on. Mental illness and trauma compounded over time. It became harder and harder to function. That beautiful, smiling mask I had worn for years started to crack. I began to fall apart piece by piece.
In an effort to pull myself back together and bring myself to a healthier place, I started to talk and write about all I had been through, hoping to heal and move beyond it. Reopening old wounds also reopened old doors. I found myself back in contact with people from my childhood that I hadn’t spoken to in over twenty five years.

He arrived within the tidal wave of my past that washed over me, knocking me off my feet. The remnants of old, long dormant feelings flowed in, as well. It was not the strong, passionate flood of a love fully formed but rather that innocent, sugary sweet trickle from a young heart that still believed in fairy tales and happily ever afters. I had been caught for so long in a fierce storm of very deep, very serious, adult issues and problems. Though I was thoroughly unprepared for his re-entrance into my life, it was oddly refreshing.

We arranged to meet, to just sit down and catch up. Sparks flew immediately. For hours, we talked and talked. There was this incredible comfort I was unaccustomed to feeling and an instant trust that threw me off-guard. Though we had lived our lives seemingly a world apart, we had been unknowingly been walking down the same path. Our journeys had left us both riddled with scars and pain. Yet somehow, we had both found ourselves at the same destination, wanting to live a healthier, happier, more positive life above and beyond the damage caused by our past.

As we talked, it became increasingly clear how well he understood everything I was saying. Topics that I normally hesitated to discuss or that I often minimized for the comfort of others, flowed freely without restraint. All the scars I normally hid for fear of making others uncomfortable or scaring them came into full view. I had no fear or shame of sharing myself with him because he always truly understood where I was coming from. He could see beneath my scars to the person I was beneath. Once again, he truly saw me.

And once again, I saw him. Life had given him some deep scars as well. Like me, he was still raw and hurting in some ways. But like me, he had this incredible drive and desire to no longer let his past define or control him. Beneath all the scars, though, he was still very much the boy I remembered from years ago. He still had that same sweet, warm heart, that same adorably cheesy sense of humor, that same lovable nerdy side. He was still very much himself.

Everything has steamrolled from there. It seems impossible that a relationship could have grown and blossomed so quickly until you stop to consider that we have spent many whole days, whole nights, whole weekends together. Not a day has passed since we reconnected that we have not talked throughout the day from good mornings to good nights. Even on the busiest days, we find time for each other. We have not wasted a single moment making up for lost time. And no matter how much time we spend, we still hate to part ways and miss each other minutes after we’ve parted.

That is not to say that our relationship is perfect. We have had a few misunderstandings along the way as our old baggage crept in. Even those moments feel drastically different from anything I have ever experienced before. We know the pain we’ve each been through and don’t want to inflict anymore on each other so we are both conscious and cautious of our words. We take the time to talk things out instead of letting our insecurities, fears or frustrations control our emotions. I’ve never before experienced such peaceful or rational resolutions, never had anyone so fully consider my feelings even during moments of conflict. We’ve both lived through emotional war zones and refuse to allow our relationship to become another casualty.

For the first time in my life, I have someone there who truly saw me, who fully understood me, who accepted me wholly without judgment. For the first time, I could fully be myself, not hide my scars or minimize my pain for the comfort of anyone else. I could openly discuss my insecurities. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel I had to be ashamed of the person I truly was underneath.

We spend a lot of time talking and are brutally honest with each other not only about our feelings in the moment but also the baggage that our feelings stem from. We have quickly become a safe place for each other, where we can share all our thoughts and emotions, the good, the bad and the ugly. We understand each other because we have both been there. There is no discomfort, no shame, no second-guessing whether we can speak our mind, no walking on eggshells wondering how our words will be taken. We can both finally just be ourselves.

I find myself thinking back to the friend that told me that two mentally unhealthy people could not have a healthy relationship. I am beginning to think that perhaps the only way I could have a healthy relationship is to be with someone who has been down the same unhealthy path I have traveled. I needed someone who could truly understand my pain and who could empathize without judgment. Only someone who understood what it is like to be riddled with scars themselves would be able to see past my scars to the person I truly am inside.

I have honestly never felt more accepted, more heard, more adored for the person that I am. I feel safe. He feels like the home I always wanted for myself, the sanctuary I always hoped to find. Like me, he is a survivor. Like me, he wants more from his life. He refuses to let his past or his scars define him. We are two peas in a pod, two puzzle pieces that fit together, two souls that just work and make sense.

I love how he makes me feel. I love him. We know it may seem irrationally fast, bordering on insane to anyone outside looking in but it’s the first thing in a long time that makes sense to either of us. We’re already looking toward the future and making plans. Neither one of us was looking for or expecting this but we’re not going to question it, either. We are what has been missing from each other’s lives for all these years – someone who truly sees us, accepts us without judgment for who we are and loves us completely, scars, baggage and all.

Love and acceptance are much needed in life. You can’t let go of that hope for love and happiness. It is out there. It can happen. Sometimes it appears in the most unlikely of places but it does exist. You just have to keep your heart open to the possibility. No one is beyond hope, no one is too broken to find or deserve love. Sometimes it takes two people who have each been thoroughly broken before in order to create and build something beautiful and whole.

The Harsh Reality of Mental Illness: The Darkness that Exists in the Light

In the past year, I have gone from the darkest depths of despair to some of the highest points of my life. My life had collapsed entirely but I miraculously was able to rise from the ashes and have a second chance at life. I have found my true calling in advocacy and have found my voice to speak out about all I have been through. I have written a couple books and have an ongoing blog that has proved to be very cathartic for me. I finally found a group of doctors and a treatment plan that works for me and has given me genuine hope for the future. After forty years of running, I have finally begun to make peace with my past, rebuilding bridges believed long ago abandoned and demolished and have healed my heart enough to once again reopen it to the possibility of love.

With so many high points, you’d think I’d be on cloud nine without a care in the world. In a lot of ways, I am honestly happier than I ever remember being before. I have a renewed sense of purpose. Goals that once would have felt impossible now feel obtainable. For the first time in my life, I have a sincere faith that I will be okay and I am hopeful for my future. All things considered, I am in a much better place in my life than I have ever been before.

However, despite all the wonderful milestones of this past year, I am still treading water when it comes to my mental illness. By all expectations, I know I should be beyond happy. Ecstatic even. And truthfully, I am smiling more and have even experienced moments of genuine happiness. But my depression still reigns supreme. My anxiety still has me on constant edge. My PTSD still leaves me feeling irrationally unsafe and in fear.

From the outside looking in, others may only see the blue sky above, feel the gentle warm breezes in the air and the coolness of the water that surrounds me, but the story does not end with what others can see. Because others can only see the above the surface, they cannot fully fathom the whole picture. My depression is like heavy weights strapped to my ankles as I tread water, constantly threatening to pull me under. That heaviness is a constant pull, a terminal threat and reminder to be vigilant. I cannot stop treading water, stop fighting for even a moment or I will sink and drown. As exhausting as it is, I can never stop, never catch my breath.

My anxiety and PTSD are like creatures lurking below the water. I don’t always know what they are or how much threat they pose, but I can feel their constant presence, brushing against me, bumping into me, biting into me here and there. There is no way to ignore or avoid them, no way to scare them away. They are often distorted shadows beneath the ripples of the surface, not quite fully visible, so that I never feel safe. Periodically, they reopen old scars and cause phantom pains that remind me of the traumas of my past, making them feel real again, catching me in the moment.

Every single day, despite how beautiful the day might seem, that lingering voice revisits me, trying to talk me into giving up, giving in, and let the waves carry me away. I’m not suicidal. I don’t want to die. I am just utterly exhausted from treading these waves for years. I am weary straight down to the bone and just want to rest. I want the pain, the struggling and the constant fear to end. That lingering voice knows all my insecurities and plays upon every one. It whispers into the wind that I’m not strong enough, that it’s only a matter of time until either I go under and drown or the monsters below consume me. It tells me I’ll never reach the shore, never be able to rest or catch my breath, that my only choices are to either give up and go under or to spend my entire life struggling and fighting.

I am in treatment. I see both a therapist and a meds doctor regularly. Every week, I attend multiple groups and classes to help acquire new tools for coping, including tai chi, yoga, meditation and art. I am focused on healing my mind, body and spirit so that I can be in a better place in every way. All my efforts little by little are bringing me closer to that beach I long to stretch out upon, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful day. I can see that far off shore but right now it is still beyond my reach.

It is not a matter of just not trying hard enough to be happy or holding too tightly to the negative. I have so much that I am both happy and grateful for in my life. I know I have been blessed in so many ways. I would love to relish in everything and just be okay. After all, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the breezes are soft and warm. On the surface, my days would be perfect. Yet I am forever one moment away from going under, drowning and becoming a statistic.

I have been told that I am the sweetest and happiest depressed person that some people have ever met. Despite all I have been through, I am the eternal optimist, always looking for something positive in even the worst situations. I have a true joie de vivre and appreciation for the simple things in life. I want to be happy and healthy. I want to be functional and okay. Yet I’m deadlocked in a constant battle, constant struggle just to keep going and survive.

Mental illness isn’t about being weak or lazy. It is a medical condition that leaves me with little control over my own mind and emotions. No matter how hard I try to be happy and healthy, it has a tight grasp on my mind, body an soul. Just because others cannot see everything beneath the surface does not mean it is not there or that I am not in constant torment from the monsters that lurk in the darkness.

As much as I know I should be over the moon ecstatic over so many of the blessings I’ve had over the last year, I keep finding myself yanked downward against my will. I still have many days I lay in bed, in the darkness, unable to pull myself up or function for hours on end. I still have many days that I roll into a ball and cry because I’ve spiraled down and that irrational despair is so great that the world feels hopeless to me. I still have many nights where I lay in bed for hours restlessly as my mind races and my fears fester or where I bolt awake because the nightmares of my past have materialized in my present. I know I should be happy, life should feel perfect. Yet my mind refuses to listen. My mental illness is steering the car. I’m just along for the ride.

I want to get better, to be healthy and happy. If curing my depression was as simple as just trying harder to be happy, this past year would have cured me without a doubt. But mental illness is not so easily beaten or controlled. You cannot let even the most beautiful, serene days deceive you because beneath the surface, in the darkness of the depths, my monsters still loom, continuously threatening to drag me under and devour me alive.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 7/31/17.

Love Come Full Circle

I have struggled for years with love on many levels.

At my core, I have always been torn between contradictory beliefs.  I am forever the hopeless romantic that wants desperately to believe in happily ever afters, yet I am also very much the realist that weighs the odds and finds it highly improbable that two like souls could not only find each other but also somehow defy the odds and make it work.

Looking back at my life only added to the improbability that I would never have a chance when it came to matters of the heart.  I grew up in a dysfunctional battlefield, never really understanding what love even was let alone where to find it or how to tend to it and make it grow.

My parents were of no assistance.  Their marriage was in many ways a manual of what not to do.  My own relationships in the past were not much better, though I am proud to say that none of my exes have bullet wounds by my hand – a boast my mother could not make.

(Please note that I joke not because I find any of it even mildly hysterical but rather because I’ve learned over the years that it is often easier to laugh than to cry and that, when discussing deeper traumas, a joke helps lift that uncomfortable weight of the situation.)

To complicate matters more, I struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD.  Making a relationship work is hard enough when both people are fully functional.  When you factor in mental illness that pulls me in many directions against my will, it creates a volatile concoction that is almost guaranteed to implode upon itself given enough time.

Again and again, I found myself heartbroken and alone, searching for answers of where everything went wrong.  I believed in love on a fundamental level.  Yet as the failed relationships continued to pile up, I found myself questioning whether love was even attainable for me or if it truly only existed in fairy tales.

Along my journey, I began to see the red flags of repeated dysfunction.  I spent an inordinate amount of time examining and reexamining situations from my past, trying to determine where everything had gone wrong.  I also began to reconsider my own personal views of myself.  After all, how could anyone ever truly love or accept me until I learned to love and accept myself?

I found myself at an impasse.  It wasn’t that I had given up entirely on love but rather I needed to focus on myself before I would ever be ready to let anyone else into my life again.  I had chains to break and long-standing belief systems to shatter and rebuild.  I still very much wanted my happily ever after but finally understood I would never be able to build anything lasting until I was able to fix many of the cracks in the foundation that my life was built upon.  I needed to put my love life on hold and work on myself.

A funny thing happened during my hiatus to rebuild – I not only discovered myself again but I also found my first crush again, or shall I say he found me.

He had remained with me as a fond memory of my childhood, one of the brighter spots during a time when the darkness had begun to creep in.  He was a few years older than me and a friend of my brother’s so the cards had been stacked against us from the start, yet we still managed to create a few sweetly innocent memories together before we eventually faded out of each other’s lives.

Fast-forward twenty five years.  My life had collapsed yet again but I was in the process of rebuilding.  Though my struggles are far from over, I am in a healthier place now than I have ever been before.  I have begun talking and writing about all I have been through.  More importantly, though, I’ve been healing.  I am no longer running from my past and I am beginning to slowly reopen doors that had been long-closed for no other reason than they existed in close proximity to the worst experiences of my life.

One of these doors happened to be my first crush.  He reentered my life through a simple friend request, not even sure if I would remember him.  I was dumbfounded by that assumption because he had been that sweet boy next door who had ushered me into puppy-love and had been the standard by which all other boys had been measured for years.

As we began talking, it became clear that, though we had been worlds apart for many years, we had been walking along the same path in so many ways.  Without going into details because his story is his alone to share, he understood me completely on so many levels that no one else ever has.  From that first moment we reconnected, we have been drawn together in this whirlwind beyond our control.

There is a safety and serenity with him on so many levels.  My history did not scare him because he understood my childhood, if not the full extent of it all.  My diagnosis and struggles do not intimidate him, either, because he understands better than most what it has been like for me over the years.

We’ve found ourselves connecting to one another in this free fall, accelerating as we go while the rest of the world passes by in a blur.  I imagine us caught within the eye of the storm, in that peaceful quiet stillness that is unaffected by the chaos that whirls around us.  From the outside, I imagine it seems insanely chaotic and nonsensical but from in here, it is the first thing in a long time in my life that makes sense.

In each other, we have found the compassion, understanding and solace we had been searching for elsewhere in vain.  We have rekindled old sparks that had begun in innocence and fanned them into a genuine passion for each other.  For the first time, I am able to fully embrace and express all that I am without fear of judgment or ridicule because I am still very much that silly, adorkable girl he knew me as all those years ago.  Likewise, he knows he can put all of himself out there without fear because he is still very much himself.

We are not blind to each other’s scars.  We are respectfully cautious of each scar because neither of us wishes to reopen old battle wounds and we understand that they are a part of who we have become over the years. But we are also able to see one another for who we are underneath and cherish that innocence beneath it all because we had been there before those wounds were made.

I used to wonder whether love and happily ever afters existed only in fairy tales.  As much as the hopeless romantic in me wanted to believe anything was possible, the realist in me always pondered whether some people were just beyond hope when it came to love.  Over the years, my journey has taken me through a lifetime of heartache and heartbreak.  I have come through the other end, though, a stronger and healthier person.  I have also come around full circle as the first person to ever capture my heart has once again won it.

A Realistic Way To Look At Mental Illness

Mental illness carries a lot of stigma.  People often hide their diagnosis or minimize their symptoms because they are afraid of the judgment that will follow.  It seems easier for many to suffer in silence than to have everyone else look at them as broken or crazy, as something to be feared or pitied.  Many people would rather struggle every day to function than to become a pariah or a joke.

Realistically, there is no shame in having a mental illness.  A mental illness is, in the simplest terms, an illness of the brain.  Our brain is just one of many organs in our body.  When another organ isn’t working properly, we see a doctor and get treatment.  No one is shamed for it because we understand that the body is a machine and that all machines have issues now and then.  The more pieces to a machine and the more functions it performs, the more likely that the machine might have an issue or break down from time to time.

Take the pancreas for example.  It is the organ that maintains the glucose levels in the body.  When the pancreas isn’t working properly, a person can become hypoglycemic, hypoglycemic, or diabetic.  All those conditions can be treated.  Nobody is shamed for having these conditions because we understand that sometimes organs do not work properly.  People go to a doctor and are given medications and treatments that will help improve their quality of life.

Take the heart. There are many conditions that affect the heart.  Heart disease is an umbrella term that includes all the disorders of the heart much like mental illness describes all the illnesses that affect the brain.  Yet there is no shame in talking about heart disease.  Food packaging proudly advertises that food is “heart healthy” and people are reminded regularly to take care of their heart so they can live a longer, healthier life.

The approximate overall cost of heart disease in the United States is 207 billion dollars every year.  That total includes the direct cost of treatment & medications, as well as the indirect cost of lost productivity.

(Based on: https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm )

In comparison, the combined direct and indirect cost of only SERIOUS mental illness every year is over 300 billion. That total does not even take into account moderate or mild mental illness, JUST the serious cases.

(Based on: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/cost/index.shtml )

Yet when it comes to mental illness, the room becomes so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.  You don’t see cereal boxes displaying that they contain nutrients for a healthy brain though so many of them do.  You don’t see advertisements recommending meditation to strengthen your brain like you do ones recommending walking and jogging to strengthen your heart.  The fact is – WE SHOULD.  The only advertisements we see regarding mental illness are the occasional commercial for a prescription illustrating that if a person feels broken, their medication might fix them.

The brain is just another organ in our body.  Like the heart, it is needed to survive.  The brain is the most complex organ in our body.  It controls so many things, from basic tasks to thoughts and emotions.  As the most complex organ in the body, it also has the highest chance to develop an issue.  According to the latest statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Health, “1 in 5 adults in the U.S. —43.8 million, or 18.5%— experiences mental illness in a given year”.  Those numbers are staggering.  When you consider how many others are suffering in silence and haven’t spoken out or received treatment, you can only imagine how much higher those numbers might go.

(You can find NAMI’s mental health statistics at: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers )

With that many people affected, and so much money being spent on mental health treatment, it is clear that mental illness has become a crisis of epic proportions.  When the number of people affected by heart disease skyrocketed, it became clear that something had to be said and done.  Change was needed.  It is no different with mental illness.

Mental illness is the umbrella term to describe conditions that occur in the brain.  No more, no less.  There should be no shame when someone has a mental illness because it is no different than if they had diabetes or heart disease – only the organ affected is different.  No more, no less.

Mental illness needs to stop being that dirty little secret we are afraid to talk about.  The stigma needs to end.  We need to rally behind those with mental illness like we do other health conditions, encouraging them to speak up, speak out and receive help.  We need to stop letting stigma label those who are suffering.  We need to educate and to encourage wellness.

Like many other conditions that affect a person’s body and organs, mental illness can be treated.  It is ridiculous that so many people are untreated or undertreated because stigma has turned mental illness into a dirty word.

selfgrowth

Republished on SelfGrowth.com on 10/17/17.

Fighting Suicide From A New Perspective

I’m not going to lie.  I’ve been suicidal a handful of times in my past and have had a couple serious attempts.  I also struggle with suicidal ideation – those abstract thoughts not about wanting to die as much as just being so exhausted from struggling to live.  There have been so many times I have laid in bed sobbing, convinced I could not make it one more day.

These days, though I am still struggling with my mental health, I try to keep both active suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation at bay.  Someone very dear to me almost lost one of their parents to suicide when they were a teenager.  They were the one who found them, who had to try to revive them and call 911.  Over a decade later, though their parent survived, they are still dealing with the aftermath.  Whenever thoughts of suicide or suicidal ideation creep into my mind, I think of all that they went through and tell myself that I could never do that to my own children, that I could not break their hearts like that.

For a while now, whenever someone has asked what keeps me going or why I haven’t given up, that has been my answer.  My children.  I love them more than I could even put into words and I would never want to hurt them like that.  There have been many times that my life has felt so hopeless, so horrible, that they were my only reason to keep going, my only reason to hold on.  I loved them too much to hurt them by giving up.

However, I saw something recently that threw everything on its side and turned my world upside down.  It was one of hundreds of little images that scroll along my social media feeds everyday.  Normally, while sitting online chatting with friends, I scroll by dozens of images like it, half-reading them as my attention strays elsewhere.  This one, however, not only grabbed my attention but shook me to the core. It said:

Suicidal people deserve better than to be told the main reason they shouldn’t kill themselves is because of how it might affect others. Suicidal people deserve love and help, not guilt trips.  Suicidal people deserve to feel like their life is worth living, for their own sake..  for their own happiness, their own experiences, their own possibilities, their own future.

I’ve been chalking my own battles with suicide as a victory merely because I have managed to push them aside and keep them at bay because I don’t want to hurt my own children.  Somehow that no longer feels like enough.  What if, heaven forbid, something ever happened to my children and I didn’t have them anymore as my reason to keep going?  Was I just going to throw in the towel, give up, lay down and die?  As much as I love my children, they cannot be my only reason to keep living, to keep fighting, to keep going on.  I deserve better than that.  They deserve better than that, too.

Right now, I am struggling in many aspects of my life.  I am dealing with a lot of personal issues above and beyond the ongoing battle of living with mental illness.  There are many days that I feel like I’m hanging on by a thread as my world continues to crumble at my feet.  I’m not going to lie and say that everything is peachy in my life because nothing could be farther from the truth.  I’ve spent too many years lying and convincing everyone that everything was okay as I was falling apart inside.  I cannot live like that anymore.  My life is a mess right now, but I own it.  It is MY mess.

But within the jumbled mess I call my life, I must find my own reasons to hold on, my own reasons to keep living, my own reasons to keep fighting, keep going and not give up.  I must learn to love myself enough that I do not want to hurt MYSELF the way that I’ve kept saying I don’t want to hurt my children.  I must learn to appreciate myself and all I have to offer.  I must plan for a future that I’ll be proud to live and aim for goals that will give me a sense of fulfillment for my own sake.  I need to get to a place where I am living for MYSELF and not because I don’t want to hurt someone else.

That is easier said than done.  It is easier for me to keep living for my children than to keep living for myself because in all honesty I love them more than I ever loved myself.  I have a long way to go.  I am just learning to like myself.  But it is a journey I must take and a goal I must meet.  One day, when I talk about all those times when life felt so horrible that I wanted to give up and someone asks me what kept me going, I want to be able to say “I kept going because I loved myself too much to hurt myself like that” and truly mean it with all my heart.

Until then, I’ll hold on however I have to and keep going, keep fighting because I can’t give up.

But one day, I WILL get there.

Because I owe it to myself to live for myself.