How I Spent My World Mental Health Awareness Day

I woke up early.  Not fifteen or twenty minutes early or even when the rising sun peeked in my window.  I woke up around three in the morning, not because any alarms were set or any loud noises woke me from my slumber.  My sleep is always spotty and restless, frequently dotted with anxiety and depression-laden nightmares.  Most nights, I’m lucky if I get more than five hours of sleep. Last night was no different.

I laid there feeling empty and stressed for hours, my thoughts racing, unable to get back to sleep.  When his alarms began going off three hours later, I resigned myself to the fact that there would be no more sleep for me today.

I helped him get ready for work, timidly smiling as I ushered him out the door. I said nothing about how I was feeling because I did not want to burden him with things he had no control over.  Easier to smile and to pretend, even though I know deep down I’m not kidding anyone.  Not myself. Not him.

After he drove away, I sat on the couch ruminating about everything I have to do today.  I sat there immobile for hours, beating myself up for all those things I should be doing.  I put a movie on, but it turns out it was for background noise more than anything, because I cannot recall anything about it.

I sat, I laid this way and that, I tossed on the couch for hours, not even quite sure why I was in such a funk today.  I felt lost and alone, the world utterly hopeless, which made no sense because things truthfully aren’t going that badly right now.  Yet those feelings were there all the same.  I couldn’t shake them, couldn’t stop them, any more than I could mute all those thoughts racing through my mind.

It was noontime before I managed to pull myself up.  There were days mountain climbing would take less effort.  I had been awake for 9 hours, out of my bed for six.  I was already exhausted and ready to climb back into bed.  Yet I managed to prepare some fresh salsa and straighten up the small mess I made on the counter today, piling those dishes on the side.  The dishes from yesterday still sit in the sink.  I ruminate about whether I’ll be able to wash them today.  I know I should.  But some days I just don’t have the energy.

I spent the majority of the afternoon watching an old series on television.  I know that I’ve seen it all before, which is a good thing because re-watching those episodes today was a blur.  I tried playing a game.  I tried checking my social media.  The truth is that I have no interest in anything today, no ability to focus on anything.

I want to scream and shout.  I want to cry.  I want to laugh at the pure insanity of it all.  I want these feelings to stop, this pain to stop.  I desperately want to be happy, to not have my mental illness always leaving a thick, dark sludge over everything in my life.  It taints everything.  Even the most delicious food tastes bland, the most upbeat music feels melancholy.  I don’t understand why my own mind would do this to me, why it wants me to hate my life, to hate myself.

It’s an hour until he is due back home.  All I have to show for the day so far is a container of salsa.  Strangely, even that feels like a victory.

I tell myself I will get to those dishes right after I finish writing this.  I don’t know if I will but I’m trying to be hopeful and positive.  I’m not sure I really feel it or believe it, though.  People say “fake it until you make it”.  I do it every single day when I try to encourage myself that today will be better, that I will be better today.  It all feels like lies because nothing ever seems to get better.  Yet part of me remains hopeful.

I breathe deeply and try to re-center myself.  I wash the tears from my face.  I mentally prepare myself to paint that smile back on my face, to pretend I am doing better than I truly am.  I know that, as long as I can force a grin and my cheeks are not salty from tears, he will assume today at least wasn’t an absolutely horrible day and not bring it up.  I actually prefer that today because I’m not even truly sure what has me so shaken to the core.  I wouldn’t even know what to say if he asked what was wrong.  I just know those feelings are there.

I do a mental tally of what foods we have that would be quick and easy because I’m not sure I have the energy to make anything more than that.  Truthfully, I don’t think I even have the energy to do that, but I’m terrified of letting him down, of disappointing him, of him thinking for even a moment that I am as worthless as I feel inside.

I catch myself, reminding myself that he would never say that, never think that.  That is my depression talking.  Part of me knows my depression lies, yet those sentiments always feel so real.

I settle on an easy dinner and turn back to do one last proofread.  I tell myself that writing this is a huge accomplishment, that I should be proud of myself for opening up at all.  It doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, though.  It feels like nothing, a waste of time.  I feel like a waste of space.  I question why anyone would even want to read this, to hear anything I have to say.

Again, I catch myself.  Easily, a dozen times a day I realize I am spewing that narrative, buying into depression’s lies.  Part of me wants to scream “shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”.  Unfortunately, though, stigma already has many people assuming that those with a mental illness are crazy.  I can’t feed their ignorance and their fears.  Still, I wish my mind would go silent.

I’ve done very little today beyond battling my own mind.  That, and beating myself up for everything that I haven’t done.  It feels like I’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight champion.  I’m already exhausted and ready for bed.  Ironically, I know when I finally get to go to bed, I won’t even be able to sleep.  I’ll lay there like I do every night because my mind never shuts up.  The words might alternate between despair and emptiness, but the endless chatter always remains.

Today is supposed to be World Mental Health Awareness Day, but in truth it could be any random, generic day to me.  They all bleed together, all feel the same.  The intensity varies day to day but the struggle is always there.  The world only schedules awareness one day a year but it is my reality every day.

Advertisements

Riding Out the Storm

Today is not going to be a good day.

It’s not even nine o’clock in the morning yet, but I already know this for a fact.

There are some people that will insist it is too soon to know anything for sure, that I should pick myself up, brush myself off and face the day with a positive attitude and a brave face.  There are others who will insist it is all in my head, telling me that I will be fine once I get up, get out there and start moving.

There are some who will insist I am being melodramatic, making mountains out of mole hills.  If you have never experienced these storms firsthand, never fought to survive them, you have no idea how bad they can get.

But I know these days all too well.

I’ve struggled with depression my entire life.

I’ve wrestled with this beast many times over, fought this monster again and again.

And I know today will be yet another epic battle.

Today, I will be lucky if I can even pull myself out of bed.  The world feels completely overwhelming, my life utterly overbearing.  Everything seems hopeless and futile.  I feel like I am suffocating under the weight of all the problems and issues I have been attempting to juggle and resolve.  I am mentally and emotionally exhausted beyond words.  The lies depression tells have already begun gusting and blowing around me, their sheer force threatening to knock me down.

I am wrapped in a blanket.  I will be lucky if I can pull myself up at all today.

I am caught in a rising tide of emotions, being pulled back and forth between feeling way too much and being completely numb to it all.  The tears come in waves, the struggles crashing into me, threatening to knock me overboard.

As each wave recedes, I sit here catatonic, drenched in my own tears, unable to even fully process everything I am feeling anymore.

The pain and the numbness each wash over me in turns.  Every time I think I could not possibly feel anything more, I am flooded with more anguish and strife.  Each time I think the agony will never end, I find myself trapped in that moment of stillness again, that nothingness, staring into that void, feeling empty and numb.

I rock back and forth, thrown around in that sea of depression, each crashing wave threatening to pull me down into its depths.

I am trapped in that storm front, between the hot and the cold, feeling too much and feeling nothing at all.

You cannot stop those storms when they hit, but you can feel them in the air when they’re about to arrive.  You know they are coming so the best you can do is prepare.

I cancelled my afternoon appointment.  Otherwise, I know I would spend the morning fighting with myself to get up, get moving, and ultimately tearing myself apart for being unable to do so.  When I dragged myself to the bathroom, I brought back granola bars and my water bottle on the way back through.  I grabbed an extra blanket, extra tissues and the television remote.  There is little time to prepare but I do my best.

I have curled up on the couch, wrapped up tightly, nourishment on hand, ready to ride out this storm.

There’s an old saying that “into every life a little rain must fall” but this isn’t just a little rain.  It is a hurricane.  A tsunami.  A nor’easter.

I would evacuate if I could but there is really nowhere to go.  Like Eeyore, these storm clouds follow me everywhere.  The storm will come.

There will be flooding.

But I won’t let myself drown.

I’ve learned long ago not to push myself during these storms, not to foolishly attempt to wander out when they get bad.  I don’t beat myself up for what I cannot do or where I am incapable of going.  I cannot control the storms raging inside me any more than I can mother nature outside.  They come from time to time because they are part of my depression.

It is always harder to go out in the storm so I try to avoid it whenever I can.

I have learned to batten down the hatches, board up the windows and take care of myself the best that I can.  I have learned to take care of myself to the best of my ability, making sure I have what I need on hand.  I have learned, as well, to not beat myself up for not feeling capable of navigating through these storms.  It is better that I stay home, stay safe and warm, then to attempt to venture out and drown in the sea of my own depression.  Especially when the skies appear clear to everyone else so nobody else even realizes I’m drowning.

No storm lasts forever.

I will ride this one out and I will be okay.

Because I am a survivor.

I have survived other storms and I will survive this one, as well.

I refuse to drown in my own depression.  I will do whatever I must to stay afloat.

I Have Depression.. But I am Happy..

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

But I am happy.

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

Yet I have been diagnosed with depression.

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

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

Yet I continue to struggle with my depression diagnosis.

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

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

It is not all in my head.

It is not a state of mind or an emotion.

Depression isn’t about being sad.

The cure for depression is not happiness.

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

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

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

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

mightylogo

Republished on the Mighty on 4/4/19.

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.

Having A Positive Mindset Will Not Cure Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mindset is not an issue.

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

Again, my mindset is not the issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mindset is not the issue.

My mental illness is.

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

 

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

 

An Average Day Living with Depression and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in the Life with Depression

It is 10am. I woke up an hour ago. An ache in my bladder woke me up yet I lay here immobile.

It is 11:30am.  I am still in bed.  My stomach has begun to growl and grumble yet I’m honestly not feeling hungry.  The cramps have increased as my stomach and bladder vie for attention.  Yet I am still laying in bed.

I know that I have to get up, that I should give up, but there’s a booming voice in my head asking “Why bother?”, reminding me nothing is going to get better, there’s nothing I can do to change anything, that I might as well just stay in bed.  I cannot disagree.  I’m too mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted to argue.  So I just lay here.

It is 1pm.  I have been laying in bed for 4 hours now, tormenting myself over my inaction.  I have drifted back to sleep here and there for a few minutes but it was a fitful, restless sleep.  I cannot remember the last time I slept well.  If I stay awake long enough, I might pass out from exhaustion for a few hours but otherwise my sleep come in random spurts.  My mind never stops racing, never stops running, reminding me of all I should be doing, all I haven’t done, the person I believe I should be and the reality of how broken I feel.

I manage to pull myself out of bed to pee.  My stomach is still growling and grumbling.  I know I have to eat but I have no desire.  Nothing sounds good.  I curl up on the couch with my legs tucked beneath me, wrapped in a blanket.  At least I’m out of bed.

I mindlessly snack on some stale chips or cookies left out nearby or I pop open a can of soup.  I don’t bother heating it up or even putting it in a bowl because I don’t honestly want it anyway.  I rationalize that I’m dirtying less dishes this way and figure at least I’m eating something.  It’s about all I can do for self-care today.

I hate my life.  I hate myself.  I hate that I cannot function.

I feel like I’ve let everyone in my life down, that I’ve let myself down.  I don’t understand what is wrong with me.  I pull my blanket more tightly around myself and just cry.

I wish I knew what to do.  I wish I knew how to fix things.  I wish I could stop feeling like this.  I wish I could just be happy.  I wish a thousand things that I know will never come to pass because this is just what my life is.

As hard as I try to cling to something positive, any glimmer of hope, my world feels hopeless.  I desperately want to be happy.  I just want to be okay.  I just don’t know how.

It’s 5pm.  I’m still sitting on the couch in the same pajamas I have been wearing for three days now.  I know I should shower but I haven’t really done anything to get myself dirty so I figure it can be put off another day.   At least I got out of bed today and I ate something.

I’ve wasted the last few hours halfheartedly browsing the web, looking at reminders of all my friends and family happily going on with their lives without me.  I’d reach out and touch base but why bring them down?  I wish I could have things together, too, something, anything.  I wish I wasn’t such a mess.  I miss them but at the same time I can’t help but believe they’re better off when I keep my distance.  Nobody needs my mess in their life.  Maybe I’ll reach out next week or next month or whenever I finally find a way to pull myself together.  But not today.

It’s 9pm.  I’ve spent the last few hours attempting to watch something on television or Netflix or to read a book.  I can’t really tell you what any of it was about, though, because I kept zoning out.  I must have watched the same scenes or read the same pages three or four times before giving up.  I tell myself that it doesn’t really matter anyway.  I was just trying to pass the time.

I wander into the bathroom to pee, hoping to empty my bladder so it doesn’t wake me up tomorrow.  My stomach has started growling again but I don’t feel like eating so I make excuses about it being too late anyway and that I don’t want to add any more dishes to those I should have washed yesterday.  I figure I’ll just eat when I wake up tomorrow.

I crawl back in bed.  I know that it’ll be hours before I fall asleep but it really doesn’t matter.  I just want to lay down.  Even though I haven’t done anything today, I feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.

I’m not being lazy.

I’m not having a pity party.

I am suffering from depression.

This has been me on so many days.  These days are so alike they’re interchangeable and bleed together into one another.  It is just a small glimpse of what one random day with depression looks like behind closed doors.

 

Trying to Help Others Understand Anxiety

Whenever I start to explain that part of my mental illness diagnosis includes severe anxiety, I always receive confused looks.  They are usually followed by judgmental comments about how “everyone has problems and stress in their lives”, telling me that I need to “learn to cope and work through it all”.  I get told that I “shouldn’t let every little thing get to me” and that I’d be so much happier if I “stopped stressing over everything and just mellowed out”.

I have others that have gone so far as to make accusations about whether my anxiety is even real or just in my head.  They’ll question how I could claim I’m “too anxious” to go somewhere to fill out paperwork yet am “perfectly comfortable attending things like farmer’s markets or street fairs”.  I’ve tried to explain that it isn’t the same thing.  I don’t have social anxiety.  People and crowds are not my issue.  My anxiety is situational and builds upon itself, making it harder to function in some situations than others.

I’ve tried to explain my anxiety again and again until I was blue in the face, yet I’ve been met with blank stares or judgments more often than not.  I finally sat down and made an overly simplified chart, similar to the pain level chart used in doctor’s offices,  in hope that it might be more  relatable and help others understand.

anxietychart

The average happy and well-balanced person starts an average day with 0 anxiety.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, their rent and car payments have been paid, their family is healthy and happy.  Life is good.

Little daily stresses might raise things to a 1 or a 2, but it’s nothing they can’t handle.  Every now and then, there’s a 3, 4 or 5.  Life happens.  It isn’t always easy but it’s nothing that can’t be smoothed out and they know it won’t be long until they’re back down to a 1 or two again, or even enjoying one of those blessed days with 0 anxiety.

People struggling with an anxiety diagnosis never see a 1 or a 2, let alone a day with 0 anxiety.  Their good days start around a 3, their average days around a 4 or 5.  It isn’t even that any major crisis may be going on in their lives causing their heightened anxiety.  It is that their body and their mind are reacting and responding as if it was.  And, being already frazzled, every little added thing that goes wrong just adds to their anxiety until inside their heads they are in a complete panic, running around with arms flailing, screaming that the sky is falling, Chicken Little-style.  Or even worse, they just wrap themselves in a blanket and shut down completely.

Now to get back to explaining the situational anxiety I mentioned earlier.  High stress situations already start off at a higher anxiety level than normal for us because our minds are already considering every single thing that could go wrong.  Every time there is a bump in the road and things don’t work out like they should, it adds more anxiety to the pile for next time.  All it takes is a couple times where things go wrong before our bodies and minds start to panic when it comes to anything associated with that person, place or thing.

Managing our anxiety is not as simple as taking a deep breath, learning to think positive or not sweating the small stuff.  We are not intentionally causing our anxiety.  Our anxiety fires off somewhere in our subconscious.  We have no control over it.  Our mind starts sending out warnings and our body responds.  We find ourselves on edge, our chests tightened, our thoughts muddled, our mouths dry, our palms sweaty.  There are times we’re not even sure what we are anxious about, only that the anxiety is there.

Once our anxiety has reached a certain level, we begin to have anxiety attacks.  Our body goes into auto-pilot in a full blown panic.  Anxiety attacks present themselves differently for different people, but in every case it is our body’s way of saying that it cannot take any more.  Beyond the anxiety attack is the shut down, that numbness where you’re mentally, emotionally and physically too exhausted to think or function.  I have not included a level 10 anxiety level because, though I have experienced many anxiety attacks and shut downs, I have never personally experienced anything beyond that.  I do imagine there is something worse, though I am not sure what could possibly be worse than everything I have already been enduring.

That is not to say that conscious breathing exercises, meditation or other such exercises do not help.  They can help pull us back into a state of self-awareness that can stave off a full blown anxiety attack.  But they are not a panacea.  They will not magically cure an anxiety disorder, just facilitate in pulling some people some times back into the here and now.

That is because an anxiety disorder is a mental illness.  It is not something we are doing to ourselves because we are easily panicked or excitable.  It is not something we’ve made up in our heads.  Much like a diabetic can help regulate their highs and lows by eating at regular times and monitoring their sugar intake, someone with an anxiety disorder can use tools such as conscious breathing to help moderate their anxiety.  But getting exercise or not eating that candy bar won’t cure diabetes any more than meditation will cure anxiety.  It is our medical diagnosis.

I know the chart I made is extremely simplified – anyone suffering with anxiety can testify that it is so much worse, but I wanted to give examples that the average person could relate to, as well as providing a build up they might be able to imagine in their own lives.

I know that it can be hard for those who have never experienced a mental illness such as anxiety to truly understand what we are going through.  Please try to keep in mind, though, that it is not something we are intentionally doing to make our lives, or yours, harder.  Our brains are always reacting and responding to the world around us at a heightened state.  We have no control over it and are trying our best to manage our anxiety to the best of our ability.  But it is a medical diagnosis that needs treatment.  It is not something we can magically cure on our own.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 3/27/18.

mamamia

Republished on MamaMia on 4/7/18.

hit

Republished via MamaMia on Hit.com on 4/6/18.

w3live

Republished via Hit.com on W3 Live News on 4/7/18.

msn-logo-simple-png

Republished via MamaMia on MSN on 4/7/18.

turningpoint.png

Republished on TurningPointCT.org on 3/28/18.

tvn

Republished on TrueViralNews.com on 3/28/18.

instantnews.png

Republished on Instant News on 3/28/18.

truthinsideofyou-logo-white

Republished on The Truth Inside of You on 4/4/18.

myanmar

Republished on For Her Myanmar on 5/7/18.

logo@2x

Republished on Open Talk.

donelium

Republished on Don Elium Psychotherapy.

anxietymini

Official Anxiety Charts Available for Sale at RedBubble.com.

The Frustration of Explaining Mental Illness to Those Who Have Never Experienced it Themselves

I would not wish mental illness on anyone else.  Having a mental illness is like waging a continuous war within yourself where half the time you are not even sure what is being fought over, only that the battle rages on.  There is never a true moment of peace.  You may have good days, yes, but even on those blessed days there is never peace because you can feel its presence, always looming, weighing down on your soul, preparing to strike again.  There might be small periods of respite here and there, the calm before the storm, but anyone fighting their own battle with mental illness knows it is only a matter of time before another downward spiral or another period of numbness, appears.  One of the worst things about having a mental illness is that we don’t even fully understand what is going on within our own minds and bodies, let alone have the words to adequately explain it to others.  Even more frustrating is when someone else puts us on the defensive because they do not fully understand what we are going through but assume they do because they have been exposed to it from a sideline view.

Someone who has never been in a car crash cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has been in one” or “because I’ve taken care of someone who has had one”.

Someone who has never had cancer cannot reasonably say “I know what it is like because one of my family members has had cancer” or “because I’ve helped to take care of people who have had cancer”.

Likewise, someone who has never had a mental illness cannot truly understand what it is like to live with one, regardless of whether they worked with people who had one or had a family member diagnosed with one.

You can sympathize with someone else who is struggling but you cannot truly understand what it is like to live with mental illness merely by being exposed to it second-hand in others.  Witnessing others being traumatized is not the same as experiencing the trauma yourself.  It is not something you can experience vicariously and fully understand the suffering.  As much as we might try to explain what it is like in order to help others somewhat understand, there are no words we possess that would adequately explain all that we are going through.  And anything we say is usually just the tip of the iceberg, minimized for the benefit of others because we don’t want to overwhelm or scare anyone else with the horrors of our reality.   Mental illness is something that you truly have to experience firsthand to fully understand.

Nothing is more frustrating than having someone verbally attack the core of our illness as “making no sense”, expecting us to fully explain something that we ourselves have trouble understanding.  Or to be called out, as if we are somehow inherently wrong for even being mentally ill at all.

I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression and P.T.S.D.

Due to severe anxiety attacks during periods of high stress, one of the agencies I work with recently arranged a home visit as an alternative to my having an office visit.  I had someone interject that their mother is bipolar and has done the same thing, claiming that it is ridiculous that her mother can attend highly populated events such as street fairs but cannot go to a downtown office to complete some paperwork.  She then demanded to know whether I was equally unreasonable, attending random public events while claiming I was incapable of going out to an appointment.

I tried to explain that it isn’t how generalized anxiety works.  I am not anxious being around people.  I do not have social anxiety.  With generalized anxiety, I live in a constant state of heightened anxiety that is worsened by stressful situations.  On a scale of 1-10, most people start off an average day around a one or a two.  If there is nothing to worry about, there’s no reason for an average person to be anxious.  If someone’s rent is coming due and money is tight, their anxiety level might be raised to a two or three.  If, on top of that, they’re worried about being laid off, their anxiety might be raised to a three or four.  Not getting enough time with your kids, needing unplanned repairs on a home or vehicle that you cannot afford, unexpected illnesses and deaths all increase anxiety.  With each newly added stress, anxiety continues to compound and raise.

Now imagine starting every day at a 4 or a 5.  Even worse, most of the time you’re not even sure why exactly you’re anxious.  You just know that feeling is there.  You’re notably on edge, you’re distracted, you’re hyper-vigilant.  Your body is physically reacting to the stress.  You are visibly flustered, your chest is tightened, you find yourself shaking or bouncing your limbs or no reason, you have trouble focusing your thoughts and forming coherent words.  Each new added stress only raises everything higher.  It doesn’t take much until you find yourself at a 7 or 8, in a full blown anxiety attack.

Consider going to an office to do paperwork, starting at the 4 or 5 those with anxiety might begin each day with.  If a previous visit there did not go well, your mind relates the two and it adheres the past to the present situation.  If there were subsequent visits that did not go well, each of them is an added stress, as well.  Your mind is hyper-vigilant, constantly reviewing situations and drawing connections, trying to protect you from duplicating a previous bad experience.  After a few bad experiences somewhere or with someone, that compounded anxiety becomes too much to bear.   Your mind begins firing off danger warnings and your body reacts accordingly.  Your fight or flight response kicks in.  You want to run away, to scream, to avoid it at all costs.  You freeze like a deer caught in the headlights or you become agitated and aggressive because you feel an overwhelming need to protect and defend yourself.  It all occurs subconsciously in the brain.  Your anxiety rises on its own without any conscious decision on your part.  You are not intentionally overreacting or being melodramatic.  Your mind and body are just reacting to the situation at hand based on the data it has compiled.  It is the truth of living with anxiety.

Attending a populated event is another situation entirely.  In all honesty, each situation is different depending on our previous experiences with the location, the people involved and many other contributing factors.  We cannot even reasonably predict ahead of time whether a situation will feel safe or not because literally anything could trigger a raise in anxiety.  It never takes long before that heightened anxiety reaches dangerous levels and an anxiety attack ensues.  We have very limited control over situations.  Our mind and body are steering the car and we are just along for the ride.

My explanation fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps even worse than trying to help others understand anxiety is trying to explain depression.  Too many people who have either never experienced depression or who have only experienced a temporary or situational, mild bout, have a habit of aggressively attacking those suffering from more severe, debilitating depression for not being able to “bounce back” quickly enough to meet their standards.

We are accused of being lazy and having pity parties.  We are told that they “know what it’s like but..” you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself, you have to be more positive and at least try, you have to pull your shit together and do what has to be done.  We are accused of not trying hard enough, of not even trying at all.  We are asked why we are not even working part time and told of a myriad of other people who were able to magically pull themselves together, shamed into feeling like we are horrible people for being unable to function as well as they or someone else they know did.

I have tried explaining the realities of severe depression, only to have it fall on deaf ears, as well.

Those of us suffering from depression are not having pity parties.  Depression is far more than just being sad or feeling negative about our circumstances in life.  There are days when the world feels bleak and hopeless, where you are convinced you are completely alone and become trapped in an empty numbness that renders you virtually immobile.  It isn’t that you are not aware of everything that needs to be done or that you don’t want to do it – you are trapped within yourself, unable to pull yourself up to do even the simplest of tasks.  You might lay there for hours, beating yourself up as your inner dialogue drums into your consciousness everything you could be doing, should be doing, and how broken, worthless and useless you are for being incapable of doing anything at all.  There are days you spiral down into negativity, tearing yourself apart viciously for being garbage because some part of your brain believes that is what you deserve.  You tear yourself apart for being broken, damaged, and flawed worse than anyone else could ever do.  There are days when the tears keep flowing even though you cannot pinpoint exactly why, beyond “life itself” and days you’ll sit in a fog, doing nothing or randomly puttering, losing hours at a time.

Whether we’re trapped in numbness or spiraling down, our minds are constantly whirling, reminding us of all we should be doing and how much of a failure we are for not accomplishing everything we believe we should.  We desperately want to do more, to do better, to do anything at all.  We hate ourselves for not being able to do everything we believe we should be able to do.  We feel like a failure that has let everyone down.  But our minds have betrayed us.  We are in a constant battle within our own heads.  We have so many emotions, so much hurt, pain, anger, self-loathing, sadness and confusion swirling within our heads that it is hard to sort it all out and think straight.  Though we can pinpoint the cause of some of it, the majority is so broad and vague that we don’t even understand where it is coming from let alone know how to begin explaining or addressing it all.

Any job, even part-time, is difficult when we cannot plan from one hour to the next, let alone one day to the next, whether we will be spiraling down into that abyss or frozen in numbness.  Yes, e may have good, functional days, but they do not appear on any set schedule.  We have no idea how or when our depression will strike next or how long it will last. We are not being lazy or just not trying hard enough.  We just cannot reasonably commit ourselves to a schedule when we don’t know how well we’ll be able to function an hour from now, let alone a week from Tuesday from 8am to 4pm.

Perhaps the most asinine assertion I have ever heard from people who did not understand and had never experienced what I was struggling with was the claim I hve heard numerous times that “only soldiers suffer from P.T.S.D.”, as if I was somehow disparaging the armed forces with my diagnosis.  Post traumatic stress disorder is more broad-reaching than the military.  It is fairly common with those who have suffered from years of abuse, especially during their childhood as I have, or have experienced traumatic or violent events in their lives such as rape, as I have.  Flashbacks, nightmares and night terrors are not exclusive to those in a uniform.  Do not minimize my trauma because I fought a different kind of war on a different type of battlefield.

I truly appreciate when people acknowledge my diagnosis and attempt to empathize with all that I am struggling with because it really is a daily battle.  It is heart-wrenching and honestly makes me want to cry whenever someone has been through something so similar that they can truly relate to what I am going through because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.  My heart goes out to everyone fighting a battle within themselves that they cannot seem to fully explain and constantly feel judged for having because I have been there and understand how exhausting it is to have to defend yourself for your diagnosis.  But please don’t ever use the second-hand experiences you’ve witnessed others having to minimize what I am going through.  Knowing someone who has mental illness or even working around people that have been diagnosed with a mental illness is not the same thing as living with one yourself.  Even individual diagnosis can differ greatly, as well, so you cannot measure two personal experiences by the same bar.  You cannot truly understand what a person is going through before walking a mile in their shoes so please stop judging me for my diagnosis when you have no idea of the battles I am fighting inside.  I truly appreciate compassion and empathy but please leave your judgment at the door.

Suicide Without Dying

Suicide without dying.  It happens more often than you might think when someone is suffering from depression.

I have suffered from depression my entire life.  I was born with it.  Due to a genetic mutation, my liver was never able to metabolize a usable amount of a simple substance my brain needed to function properly.  The chemical my body could not metabolize is needed for the manufacture and transportation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Because my body could not make the substance my brain needed, my own body struggled to make the neurotransmitters it required and the paltry amount my body was able to make had no way to get where they were needed.  Even antidepressants did not work because my brain lacked the substance required to transport them where they were needed.

The discovery of my genetic mutation is fairly recent.  For most of my life, I struggled with a depression that appeared untreatable without ever knowing why.  Over the years, I have seen multiple doctors for the treatment of my depression.  I have rotated through a myriad of combinations and dosages of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.  Nothing worked.  I was labelled treatment resistant.

I have never experienced a single day without depression looming over me.

Nothing any of my doctors did seemed to help.  They would increase dosages until the side effects were unbearable or until I was a nonfunctional zombie.  Then the process would begin anew with different doctors, different medications, different combinations, different dosages.  It was a living nightmare.

No one around me understood.  They were all confused by the fact that I had been in treatment for years and had taken all types of medications without any results.  Their questions were hounding and relentless.  How was I not better yet?  Was I even trying to get better?  Was it really THAT bad that I was struggling to function and needed help?  Was I even being honest about how I felt or was I exaggerating or faking it?  What did I even have to be depressed about anyway?  So many people in my life who I tried to turn to for assistance were unsupportive and quickly became tired of dealing with my depression.  The nightmare just kept going and going.

Life felt unbearable.  Nothing my doctors did helped.  I had very little support system or assistance.  Every single day, it felt like I was not only fighting against myself and my own brain, but the rest of the world as well.

I couldn’t keep living like I was.

So I gave up.

I didn’t kill myself.  Instead of ending my life, I just stopped living it.

I stopped going to see doctors because nothing they did helped anyway.  I stopped turning in or following up on paperwork for assistance for my depression because it all felt futile.

I was too tired to fight anymore so I just gave up.  I began shutting down and isolating myself.  I put off responding whenever anyone reached out, tossing out apologies for not seeing their messages sooner and making endless excuses to friends about being busy or being sick.  I kept everyone away so they could not see how bad things had become.  Avoidance was easier than explanations.

I stopped talking about how I was doing and feeling because there was nothing anyone could do to change things anyway.  I’d mutter something about being fine then clam back up or changed the subject.  In truth, I was the farthest from fine a person could get.  I had given up.  I didn’t have the energy to explain how I felt or to defend myself from their judgments.  I didn’t want to burden anyone.  I didn’t think anyone would want to be there anyway if they knew how much of a mess I had become.

As I spiraled farther down into the dark abyss of depression, I began avoiding things that used to spark even the slightest happiness.  Why bother partaking in anything that used to give me joy when my numbness would only serve as a painful reminder of how bad things have become?  I cleaned up less often around the house, hiding dirty dishes, clothes and clutter if anyone was coming by.  I put off even basic self-care, showering once or twice a week instead of daily and keeping my hair pulled back so I wouldn’t have to tend to it.  I’d stay in pajamas for days because it wasn’t like I had anywhere to go, anything to do or anyone to see.  After all, my friends all thought I was sick or busy and going to my doctors was a waste of time.

I spent whole days laying in bed crying.  Even more days, I sat or laid around feeling completely numb, bingewatching shows I barely paid attention to or remember, puttering around the house doing nothing in particular and just napping on and off, letting the days pass me by.  I often didn’t bother eating because it felt like too much effort to even move.  I would ignore the growls of my stomach for hours much like the cramps in my bladder until the pain became too much to bear.  What I did eat was usually chosen for ease and convenience not desire.

Days and weeks blended together in nothingness.

I tried to put on a brave face, a smiling face for my children on the portion of the week they were with me, but it was just going through the motions.  Instead of fun outings, we had more and more family movie nights at home.  Instead of the bigger meals I used to make, I would throw together quick and easy cheater meals.  I made endless excuses to them for the funk I was in.  I was tired.  I just wasn’t feeling well.  But I was fine.  But I wasn’t fine.  I had given up.  As much as I tried to shield them from it, looking back, I have no doubt that on some level they knew.  That my depression had such an impact on their childhood will always be one of my biggest regrets.

I have gone through this cycle where I have pulled away from everyone, isolated myself and stopped living numerous times over the years.  It always seemed to happen the same way.  Treatment wasn’t working, getting assistance began feeling impossible, nothing felt like it was ever going to get better and no one else seemed to understand or truly care.  I felt completely broken and all alone in the world.  It was not a world I wanted to live in so I just gave up and stopped living altogether.

Finding out about my genetic mutation and its role in my depression has changed my perspective on many things and has sparked a new journey in self-reflection and self-improvement.  It has also forced me to accept many hard truths.  Perhaps one of the biggest is the fact that every time I gave up, every time I pulled away and isolated myself, every time I stopped living my life, I was committing suicide without dying.

Yes, I was still technically alive but I was barely doing anything more than existing, going through the bare minimum of motions to get from one day to the next.  I had stopped living my life, stopped finding reasons to enjoy life, stopped taking care of myself and shut myself off from the rest of the world.  I may have been breathing and had a pulse, but I was not living.  I had given up just as surely as if I had taken my own life.

I was also putting those I cared about in the position of having to mourn me again and again, to deal with the loss of who I used to be and the bonds we used to have.  I was removing myself from their lives, forcing them to face that loss again and again.  Every time I would resurface and reenter their lives, I considered it a victory that I had climbed back out of that hole, never stopping to consider how much they must have struggled to reconcile with the endless roller coaster I had put them on, being slingshot repeatedly between mourning my loss and having me back to varying degrees.

I know there are some who will question my comparison of severe depression to suicide without dying.  There will be others who will angrily declare they are nothing at all alike, swearing that they know because they have lost loved ones to suicide and I am still here, still breathing, that it is not at all the same.  Please know that I am in no way diminishing the tremendous loss that comes with suicide.  I have been on both sides of that fence, having been both suicidal myself and having lost people I loved to suicide so I would never trivialize it in any way.

People ask so many questions after someone commits suicide.  Why would they do this?  How did this even happen?  How did their life get so bad that they felt giving up was the only option?

As someone who has struggled with suicide myself, I can tell you – it all starts with giving up.  It starts with that feeling that you just can’t go on anymore like you are, that everything is hopeless and that nothing is ever going to change.  It starts with that feeling that you just don’t want to live anymore so you don’t.  You pull away from everyone, you stop taking care of yourself or seeking out help or treatment, you turn your back on anything that used to bring you joy.  You sink so deeply into depression that you just don’t see the point of doing anything anymore.  From that low point, it isn’t a far leap to physically ending your life because you have already stopped living it anyway.  After you’ve already mentally and emotionally committed suicide, you can rationalize physically letting go, as well, because you believe you have nothing left to live for.

I can also tell you that it is a slippery slope.  At first, it’s easy to consider withdrawing and isolation as a kindness to others because you’re still around in some way.  But isolation often leads to thoughts of others being better off if you were completely gone, if perhaps you never existed at all.  While not everyone who pulls away due to depression is actively planning to physically kill themselves, that isolation makes it easier to rationalize taking that final step.  When someone has reached the point of wanting to give up and stop living, it’s not a far stretch to decide to stop breathing, too.

What starts as feelings of hopelessness and despair transitions easily into suicidal ideation, where you don’t want to die but you don’t want to keep living like this anymore either.  Many people suffering from depression experience suicidal ideation from time to time, sometimes frequently.  When thoughts of suicidal ideation turn to action or inaction, and someone stops living altogether, it is not a hard transition from not going through the motions of living anymore to deciding to stop living anymore altogether.

Even consciously knowing and acknowledging the cycle, I still find myself pulled down towards it again whenever my depression gets bad.  When things in my life aren’t going as planned or they begin to fall apart, everything starts to feel hopeless again and I struggle to pull myself up, keep myself going, to not give up.  It is a dangerous edge to walk on and one I fight daily to distance myself from.  I fight a constant battle to stay vigilant and self-aware, to catch myself whenever I start to spiral down and begin to withdraw from life.  Whenever someone is struggling with depression, it’s important to watch for those markers of isolation and giving up because once someone has decided life is no longer worth living, it becomes so much harder to justify continuing to live it at all.

If you see someone in your life start to withdraw, talk to them.  If you notice they are lessening their self-care or beginning to cut everything they enjoy out of their lives, talk to them.  Don’t buy into their excuses and allow them to isolate and pull away.  Be there.  Be persistent.  Listen even if you don’t have any resolutions to offer.  Listen just so they’re heard.  Chances are their feelings might feel uncomfortable or overwhelming to you at first, but know that they need to get them out.  Better out than in.  Encourage them to get help and stay positive but don’t judge them for their struggles to do so.  They need support and encouragement not judgment.  Be a consistent presence in their lives, a counter to the negativity trying to pull them down.  Just be there because them being alone and isolating themselves is the worst place they can be.

If you’re struggling to find reasons to keep going yourself, let those feelings out.  Don’t hold them in.  Talk about them even if they don’t make sense to you just to get them out.  Talk to someone whether it’s a friend, a doctor, a clergyman – anyone.  Just don’t sit home alone in the dark and let those feelings fester because they will only continue to grow and get worse over time if you never let them out.  Don’t push away people that care enough to ask whether you’re okay or lie to them that you’re fine if you’re not.  Don’t worry about scaring them with everything you are going through – if they truly care about you, they would rather deal with some discomfort and worry now than to lose you entirely down the line.  Don’t give up things that make you happy.  If anything, keep seeking out other things to make you smile, even if you have to force yourself to multiple times a day.  Surround yourself with positive things, good things, things that remind you that the world is not completely dark, ugly and hopeless.  Take care of yourself the best that you can.  Eat.  Go to the bathroom.  Shower.  Even if the only thing you manage to do today is take care of yourself, that is enough.

When someone commits suicide, it is permanent.  There is no bringing them back, no changing anything.  It is final.  When someone takes those first steps and decides to stop living, it is often a precursor to suicide.  We need to be more vigilant, with ourselves and with others, when we see those signs of withdrawal and isolation, when we see ourselves or someone else starting to give up and stop living their lives.  We still have the power to change things before they reach that point of no return, before that loss becomes permanent.  I have stopped living a few times before and am still alive to tell the tale.  It is possible to die inside, to give up on life, while still breathing.  It is also possible to come back and live again even after you’ve mentally and emotionally given up.  It is not an easy task but it can be done.

Please know that I understand how hard, lonely and hopeless life can feel.  I know how low depression can pull you.  I know all too well that feeling of not being able to take anything anymore, of just wanting all the pain, all the stress, all the struggling to stop.  I know how unbearable it can all feel.  I understand how someone can reach a point where giving up feels like the best option, the only option.

But it doesn’t have to be.  Please stay strong.  Choose to live.  Choose to keep going.  Even if you can’t do as much as you’d like or as much as you feel you should be able to do, do whatever you can do.  Just don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Don’t stop living.  Don’t allow any part of yourself to die.