Please Give Mental Illness The Same Respect You Would Give Other Illnesses

Not everyone understands what it is like living with a mental illness. I get that. Most people, at their core, mean well and are trying to help in one way or another.  Whether they are attempting to be supportive or trying to snap someone back into their perceived “reality”, they just don’t know what to say.  I understand that completely, too. But using tired old cliches about life that don’t apply to living with a serious illness does not help at all.  Nor does it help to offer outdated advice that has been proven to be both ignorant and ineffective.  They do much more harm than good. It not only minimizes our condition and our struggles, but it also tells us that you neither understand what we are going through nor do you take our illness, or us, seriously.

Please do not tell us that “everyone has problems sometimes“, “into everyone’s life a little rain must fall“, or that “nobody said life was fair“.  Likewise, please don’t tell us “it is what it is” or “everyone gets depressed sometimes“, as if our diagnosis is an everyday, trivial, meaningless bit of happenstance that is unimportant and should be paid no mind.  A mental illness is not an average, run of the mill problem, a typical bump in the road of life that everyone faces at some point and is easily cast aside or overcome. It is a medical diagnosis, a medical condition that drastically affects every aspect of our lives.  You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that everyone has problems sometimes, laughing it off like it was nothing. You would show an appropriate level of concern over their health and well-being. You would encourage them to see a doctor and take care of themselves. You would be supportive. You wouldn’t dream of minimizing their condition because, left untreated, it could have deadly consequences. So could my mental illness and it deserves to be treated in the same regard.

Asking us if we’ve “just tried being happy“, telling us we “need to just learn to focus on the positives” or otherwise suggesting we’re not trying hard enough misplaces the blame on us for our diagnosis. The patient is never to blame when their body goes haywire and runs amuck. We understand that sometimes our bodies malfunction, become unbalanced, and horrible things like tumors occur.  You can’t will away cancer with a positive outlook and trying harder won’t make tumors disappear. The same goes for mental illnesses.  We don’t tell someone with cancer that it is “all in their head“, “mind over matter“, and expect them to become healthy again by sheer willpower alone. We encourage them to see a doctor immediately, get everything taken care of and treated so their body can work properly and be healthy again. Untreated cancer can eat a person alive from the inside out, deteriorating their health and destroying the quality of their life in every way. So can mental illness. The only difference is cancer mainly attacks and destroys the physical body while mental illnesses primarily attack the mind.

Please don’t judge us on our appearance, telling us that we “don’t look sick” or that we “just need to smile more” as if our diagnosis is even remotely dependent on our outward appearance.  Also, please don’t tell us that we “don’t look all that sad to you” or that we “looked just fine the other day” because we have briefly managed to put on a brave face or wear a mask to hide our pain.  Having a good day here and there does not negate all the bad ones.  Invisible illnesses are still illnesses.  Like many other serious health conditions inside the body, you cannot often or easily see mental illness with the naked eye.  Not seeing a tumor growing inside someone does not make it any less real or dangerous.  Not seeing a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning does not mean it is not happening or that they do not need treatment.  Someone with cancer or another serious medical condition occasionally smiling, laughing or briefly enjoying life does not mean that they are instantly cured and tumor-free.  Just because you cannot see our mental illness does not mean we are not suffering.

Asking us “why can’t you just be normal?” or suggesting that we “need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves” not only blames us for our diagnosis but treats us as if we’re somehow broken or flawed and it is all in our head.  Nobody asks to have a mental illness nor does anyone want to be sick.  We are not doing this to ourselves.  We are not having pity parties. Please don’t suggest we’re just looking for attention or tell us that “the only one we’re hurting is ourselves” either, as if we’re intentionally sabotaging our own happiness by entertaining the absurd idea of some make-believe malady.  Mental illness is a very real medical diagnosis, one that is often completely beyond our control.  Our behavior did not cause it any more than a person’s attitude or imagination can cause tumors.

Please do not suggest we should just “snap out of it and get over things already“, either.  A person cannot snap out of a mental illness diagnosis any more than they can snap out of diabetes.  There is no set time frame that someone should be better, or even show marked improvement.  Like diabetes, a mental health diagnosis often lasts a lifetime.  And the healing process with most illnesses is not linear.  A diabetic can alternate between periods of stability, and episodes of sugar spikes and crashes, dangerous highs and lows that drastically and dangerously impact their health.  Similarly, even when in ongoing mental health treatment, a series of good days can be interrupted by periods of downward spiraling or numbness, and worsening symptoms as we attempt to balance medications and work through both past and new traumas.  Along the same lines as the fact that we refuse to take the blame for our illness, we are also under no obligation to heal on anyone else’s schedule or whim.  It is our illness, our treatment, and we will take as long as we need to take to heal fully and properly, even if it takes a lifetime.

Do not remind us that “every cloud has a silver lining” or tell us to “look on the bright side“, suggesting that we need to look for something positive at the core of our struggle.  Likewise, please never tell us that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or tell us that “it is God’s will“, as if our suffering was some divine gift or that it will be worth it in the long run.  Again, it is an illness, a medical diagnosis.  You would not confront a diabetic who must have their feet amputated due to their condition and suggest that they would somehow come out stronger for their loss.  You would not imply to a patient who cannot keep down any food because they are undergoing chemotherapy that the silver lining is that they always did want to lose a few pounds.  You would not tell anyone that their illness was a blessing in disguise, that they should be grateful for their suffering and pain.  Comments like those would be not only wildly inappropriate but also extremely insensitive, as well.  You would offer the person suffering your compassion, sympathy and support.  People with mental illnesses deserve the same.  There is nothing positive about our diagnosis or our struggle so please don’t insist we look for a silver lining or a bright side that is not there.

Please don’t tell us that “other people have it worse“, as if our struggle is insignificant because someone else has struggled more.  Don’t ask us “what do you even have to be depressed about?“, expecting us to justify our diagnosis or quantify our suffering so you can determine its validity.  A mental illness is a bonafide medical diagnosis that deserves acknowledgement and actual medical treatment regardless of its severity in comparison to someone else’s.  It is always a serious health condition that can continue to worsen if left untreated.  You wouldn’t shrug off anyone’s cancer diagnosis as trivial or be so unsympathetic as to suggest their tumors were insignificant because someone else had larger ones.  Cancer is always taken seriously.  Mental illness should be, as well.

If we trust you enough to open up about our diagnosis, please don’t shut us down by telling us “there are just some things you just shouldn’t talk about” or reminding us that “some things should be kept private“.  That is ignorance and stigma talking.  Yes, we understand that mental illness is uncomfortable to discuss.  So is any other serious medical diagnosis.  The difference is that families and friends will discuss other illnesses and the impact they will have on everyone’s lives.  We sincerely apologize for any discomfort our diagnosis might give you, but please know that we are not confiding in you hoping you can solve it or make anything better.  We are sharing our diagnosis because we consider you an integral part of our lives and we want you to be aware of everything that is going on.  Don’t tell us that we shouldn’t talk about mental illness as if it is something we should be ashamed of having.  The biggest reason this diagnosis has become so rampant in society today is because no one talked about it for far too long.  No one talked and nobody sought treatment.  But silence won’t make the problem go away.  Health issues don’t vanish because you refuse to acknowledge them.  It will only make it worse.

Please stop shaming us for our diagnosis altogether or our efforts to seek treatment.  Don’t tell us that “all we really need is some fresh air and some running shoes” in order to feel better.  Don’t tell us that “only weak people rely on medication” or suggest we try vitamin regimens, scented oils or other homeopathic remedies instead of what we have been prescribed.  We have seen actual doctors.  Medical professionals have given us a verifiable medical diagnosis and prescribed us the appropriate medications to treat that diagnosis.  You wouldn’t shame a diabetic for using insulin to balance their body so please stop shaming us for taking our prescriptions to balance our minds.  You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they didn’t need chemo, to just go for a brisk run or take a nice, long bath instead.  That is because it is widely accepted that chemotherapy is used to treat cancer and insulin to treat diabetes.  If you are willing to accept other medical diagnoses and treatments as valid, please accept ours, as well.

Please don’t attack us, demanding to know “what have you even done with yourself lately?” or otherwise question why we are not able to function as well as a healthy person.  Don’t interrogate us about what we have and have not accomplished recently, either, as if our level of productivity must meet your standards or our activity must be on par with yours.  Having a mental illness takes a lot out of a person, both mentally and physically.  It is perfectly acceptable for someone who has just undergone chemotherapy to spend a day in bed if they so need it.  If a diabetic has a sugar crash and feels under the weather, others will suggest they go lay down and feel better.  Healing and recovery time is acceptable for all other illnesses.  It should be for mental illnesses, too.

For so many years, mental illness was treated as something shameful, something you just didn’t discuss, something whispered about in dark corners.  With the continuing rise of suicides, addictions and other mental health crisis in our society, mental illness is being spoken about today on a scale previously unimaginable.  I understand that it might take some time for everyone to fully understand how to openly discuss our diagnosis with both compassion and respect after being shrouded in secrecy and stigma for so long.  When unsure how to proceed, many people turn to old cliches and outdated advice that they believe have stood the test of time.  However, many of those statements and sayings are not at all appropriate or applicable to mental illnesses.  If you are unsure what to say to someone with a mental illness, a good place to start would be to ask yourself if you would say those words to someone else with any other serious illness.  If you cannot imagine saying it to someone with cancer or diabetes, for example, it’s a good bet that it is not an appropriate response to our diagnosis, either.

After all, people with mental illnesses are not asking for special treatment.  We are just asking to be treated with the same courtesy you would treat anyone else who is ill.

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I Have Depression.. But I am Happy..

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

But I am happy.

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

Yet I have been diagnosed with depression.

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

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

Yet I continue to struggle with my depression diagnosis.

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

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

It is not all in my head.

It is not a state of mind or an emotion.

Depression isn’t about being sad.

The cure for depression is not happiness.

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

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

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

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

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Republished on the Mighty on 4/4/19.

Love.. When You Both Have A Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/28/18.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/28/18.

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

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

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.

 

To the Mother I Never Knew..

As Mother’s Day came and went this past year, I once again found myself with conflicting feelings.  Part of me wanted desperately to join in with friends who were fondly honoring their moms or mourning the mothers they had lost over the years.  Another part of me, however, felt numb and empty, because I never had that type of cherished bond with my mother.  I honestly never knew her.

No, my mother didn’t die when I was born.  She passed away 8 years ago this Thanksgiving Day.  No, she didn’t give me up for adoption nor did she abandon me.  The truth is that my mother was there throughout the majority of my childhood and sporadically at best throughout my adult years.  I just never really knew her because the woman she truly was was buried deep beneath often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness.

Growing up, my mother was one of my biggest abusers, both mentally and physically.  She was prone to severe mood swings that would shift into bouts of rage at the drop of a dime.  She had bipolar disorder.

We were estranged for the last few years of her life.  I could no longer handle the abuse nor did I want my children subjected to it.  It seemed that her medication was never quite balanced nor were her moods.  It always felt like what little treatment she did receive was not helping, was not working, and she was doing very little to proactively work towards correcting anything.  She felt to me like a ticking time bomb, one I was afraid would go off at any moment and I did not want my children caught in the crossfire.

Over the years as I have struggled with my own mental illnesses, I have come to deeply regret those feelings.  I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD, labelled treatment resistant for years.  No medication ever seemed to work.  It wasn’t until the last year or two that I discovered via genetic testing that my resistance was caused in great part to a genetic mutation.  I’ve often wondered since then if my mother suffered from the same mutation.

The truth is that mental illness changes a person, or perhaps more appropriately it snuffs that person out, dimming their light and dulling their soul.  The person that you are is trapped underneath, desperately needing to come out, wanting to shine.  But there is this dark hopelessness that oozes over everything, making it impossible to fully be the person you truly are.

I think about my own children and how my diagnosis has affected them.  They have only seen glimpses of the real me over the years.  The creative me who would spend half the day drawing huge murals with sidewalk chalk on the tennis courts at the park with them on summer days.  The silly me who would make paper pirate hats and eye patches, transforming our dining room chairs into a pirate ship to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with them.  The nurturing and educational me who would catch tadpoles in buckets with them to show them how they turned into frogs.

More than anything, though, they saw my mental illness.  They saw the mom who was too exhausted just from going through the daily motions of life to do anything fun.  They saw the mom who opted for quiet family days indoors watching movies or playing board games because I was physically and mentally unable to do anything more.  They saw the mom who often emerged from the bathroom drying my eyes as I attempted to hide the tears I could never seem to stop from flowing.

They were vaguely aware of the person I truly was but they knew my mental illness well.

I remember when I first started taking the medication I needed for my genetic mutation and I had my first truly happy moment.  It was the first time in my life I ever felt that sludge of mental illness be lifted off of me, albeit for a short period of time.  The medication is not a panacea.  It in no way cures or stops my mental illness.  However, it does give my mind the ability to fight back in a way that it never could before.

That moment of happiness was beyond blissful.  I laughed, cried and hugged my boys, asking them again and again if that was truly what happiness felt like.  I had never experienced anything else like it.  That sludge continues to lift here and there sporadically and I have a genuine hope for the future now, that there might be a day when there’s more periods of happiness than illness.  But for now, more days than not, I still struggle.

I have heard from people that knew my mother at the end of her life, in those last couple years, that she had finally gotten the treatment she needed.  Her medication was finally balanced.  She was happy and more herself than she had ever been before.  She was doing crafts with the neighborhood children and even developed a fondness for Harry Potter.

Part of me envies them because I never knew that woman.  I never had the pleasure of meeting her.  All I ever knew was the sludge and taint of her illness.  On Mother’s Day, I mourned the ghost of a woman I never even met, a woman I would have loved more than anything to know.

Please keep in mind that when you’re dealing with people who are struggling with mental illness that they are not completely themselves.  The person they truly are is in there somewhere, beneath their diagnosis, fighting to get out.  Please don’t ever assume that we’re just not trying hard enough, that we’ve already given up or that we’ve lost who we are along the way.  It is a daily battle, a constant fight, against your own mind.  It is a never-ending struggle to push your way through a thick layer of darkness just to come up for air.

Looking back, I truly regret becoming estranged with my mother.  I had done what I thought was best at the time, trying to shield my children and myself from an illness that was not her fault.  She had no more control over her bipolar disorder than I do over my own mental illness.  I am sure she was trying harder, fighting more, than I ever realized.

To the mother I never knew – I’m sorry I was not there when you needed me.  I’m sorry that I allowed my fear to dictate my actions and choices and that I abandoned you when you needed me most.  I’m sorry I was not more compassionate and understanding of all that you were going through.  Most importantly, I am sorry I never had the pleasure to truly meet you.  Happy belated Mother’s Day.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 9/14/18.

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Republished on MSN on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo on 9/14/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 9/14/18.

Something To Think About Before You Consider Killing Yourself..

There are many quotes that resonate strongly with me on a very personal level.  One of my favorites is by William Goldman:

“Life isn’t fair.  It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

What makes life more fair?  I believe it is the fact that you still have possibilities and options.  No matter how bleak and hopeless today might feel, there’s no way to know what tomorrow or next week, next month, next year might bring.  Life is fairer than death because death takes away all your options, all your possibilities.

I won’t ever throw out empty promises that tomorrow will be better if you just hang in there because none of us knows exactly what tomorrow may bring and whether it will be good or bad.  But one thing I can guarantee you is that it will bring possibilities.  The possibility of action and of change.  The possibility of a future beyond today.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been there myself, if I hadn’t tried myself in the past.  I understand how it feels to feel lost and all alone in the world, to believe that you have no more options.  I know exactly how scary it is up on that ledge.  I know all too well that siren’s call, promising an end to the pain if you just give up, just give in.

Unfortunately, that’s all suicide gives you.  An end.  It doesn’t remove any of the problems that existed.  It just robs you of the ability to do anything to fix them.  And it’s final.  There are no do overs, no second chances, no tomorrows.  It is emptiness.  Nothingness.

Yes there would be no more sadness, heartache or pain.  But there’s no more happiness, either.  You’re robbing yourself of the chance to heal, to overcome, to see better days again.  You’re allowing the worst days in your life to steal the possibility of all future happiness from you.  You’re depriving yourself of a future that is completely within your power to transform into anything you wish.

Giving up means giving up your future and giving up the chance to make your life better.  It is final.  When you give up, there are no more possibilities.

There are also no more hugs.  No more drippy ice cream cones or licks from cute, fuzzy puppies.  No more bad puns that make you chuckle and no more all you can eat taco bars.  No more sunny days or breezes blowing through your hair.  No more singing songs loudly and off key and no more cups of cocoa with too many marshmallows.  There are no more bonfires or camping trips.  No more joyrides with friends or late night pizza runs.  There’s no more movie marathons or teaching your children to ride a bike.

There’s no second chances to fix things and no way to say you’re sorry or make amends.  There’s no new friends or new jobs.  No new children or new pets.  There’s no new hope and no second wind.

There’s nothing.

I could go on and on, listing all the things you could be giving up, but the possibilities are endless.  By choosing to live, you have millions of doors available to open, millions of lives you could live.

There’s only one thing you get from suicide.  Nothing.

I won’t guilt you by saying you should keep living so you don’t hurt others because I believe you should be living for yourself, not someone else.  Don’t get me wrong – it would devastate everyone in your life and change who they are forever but it isn’t fair to ask you to live your life for someone else.  You ultimately need to choose to live for yourself.

But please know that I have been right where you are now.  I was sixteen the first time I tried to kill myself.  I can tell you without a doubt that I am grateful I did not succeed.  I won’t lie to you and tell you that my life has been a bowl of cherries since then, but I still have been blessed beyond anything I ever imagined for myself.

I have wonderful children I would not trade for the world.  I have reconnected with my first childhood crush and found a lasting love.  I am a published author of a handful of books and with blogs that have been republished and shared world-wide.  My life has not been perfect by any means, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative which is nothing.

I know others who have survived suicide attempts, as well.  Years later, we’ve talked about all that has happened since their attempts.  Children.  Marriages.  Careers.  Vacations.  Celebrations.  Memories.  Life.

I have never heard a single one of them say they wish they had been successful.  No matter how many highs and lows they have gone through since then, every single one has been glad they are still here.  I’ve heard stories on television, as well, from people who have survived suicide attempts like jumping off bridges.  They all share the same narrative about regretting that one moment of weakness and being grateful that they did not succeed.

Because you know what they would have had if they had been successful?

Nothing.

“Life isn’t fair.  It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

Life is fairer than death because life is full of possibilities.  Death takes every last possibility away.

Don’t keep living for anyone else.  Choose to live for yourself because living means that you still have a chance to be happy, a chance to make amends, a chance to find love, a chance to be a parent or to pursue your dream job.  Keep living because by living, you still have a chance.  With death, you have nothing.

We Should Not Be Afraid To Embrace Our Happiness

I have been struggling a lot this past year, mostly fighting bureaucracy and red tape.  Unfortunately, the more heavily the battle weighs down on me, the more it bleeds into and invades every aspect of my life, particularly my writing.  The more anxious I feel about the possibility of losing my battle, the more I find myself writing about how harshly anxiety affects my life. The more depressed I feel about the struggles I am having getting my disability case fixed and open, the more I write about the negative impact of depression.  That is because I write what I feel and unfortunately, when someone has struggled with mental illness their entire life as I have, my words often emulate the negativity and hopelessness felt inside.

But please know that DOES NOT mean I never experience any happiness or that I am not allowed to be happy because I have a mental illness.  Having depression doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from ever experiencing happiness.  Finding a reason to smile or to laugh when you can DOES NOT take away or in any way minimize your struggles or your diagnosis.

I honestly don’t know why so many people expect mental illness to be an absolute, all or nothing diagnosis.

Someone can have arthritis so horrible that they often stay home because it hurts too badly to move, yet still have days between flare ups where they might go for a walk around the block in the sunshine or plant a few flowers in their garden.  People applaud them for their strength for being able to still do things that they enjoy.

Someone can be fighting cancer and lie in bed for weeks, too exhausted to do anything in between their chemo treatments.  When they manage to pull themselves up to sit, talk and laugh with a friend while catching up over a cup of coffee, people cheer them on.  People applaud them for being able to set aside their pain and their struggles for even a few moments to enjoy the world again.

For any other visibly debilitating illness or health struggle, people receive overwhelming support and accolades for managing to embrace even a momentary slice of happiness in the midst of their battle.  They’re commended for their great strength just for still being able to smile.

Yet, for anyone struggling with mental illness, anything even remotely resembling even momentary happiness is met with accusations.  If someone smiles, laughs or talks about having a pleasant time or a good day, people swarm in to attack, assuming we must have been exaggerating or outright faking our illness because in that specific moment we “look just fine”.

They post rude comments on pictures we share where we’re smiling that we “don’t look very depressed to them”.  When we talk about enjoying a few hours out with family or friends, they throw out snide remarks about how they thought we “had too much anxiety to do anything” or that our “depression made it too hard to function” yet they saw us out and about, having fun.

Their barrage of comments often makes us feel even more trapped and isolated by our illness.  We are left feeling like we have to hide or make excuses for even momentary happiness, as if it is a forbidden luxury not extended to the mentally ill.  We worry about even having a more functional than normal day, too, because others assume if we can manage something one day, we can do it every day.  We debate with ourselves whether to even mention those sweet few happy moments to family and friends because we want to avoid those “I thought you were past that whole depression thing” conversations that inevitably emerge later on when we mention our illness has flared up again.

We’re supposed to “get help” and “get better”, to “get over everything” and “just be normal again”, but we’re not allowed to experience anything in between that horrible low and that “back to normal” state we’re pushed toward and expected to achieve.  It is even worse if it is a long-term or life-long struggle.  Many of those on the outside looking in can’t understand the ups and downs, highs and lows, the forward progress and backslides we go through, assuming we should be on a straight track from sick back to healthy again.  They claim we seemed “just fine, even smiling” when they bumped into us at the grocery store last month so they figured we were “over that whole depression thing” as if it is some fad we were doing for fun, something they believed we would be over by now.

People can be in physical pain or be struggling with health conditions that make it harder to function and it’s okay.  Even not being able to work is considered acceptable because others can see the pain.  Those momentary bits of happiness are seen as a wonderful treasure for someone who needs and deserves it after the battle they’ve been fighting.

Just because you can’t see my mental illness does not mean I am not struggling with it.  It does not mean that I am not fighting just as hard to function and to be as healthy as possible just like others with illnesses you can see.  And I refuse to relinquish the little pieces of happiness that I experience just because others assume that, in order for my depression to be genuine, I must be miserable and suffering every hour of every day without break or end.

The truth is that, no matter how bad I am struggling on any given day, no matter how hopeless my world feels, I try to seek out at least one reason to smile every day.  I have been told that I am the sweetest, most upbeat depressed person many people have ever met because I fight very hard to be optimistic and not give up hope.  I refuse to drown in my mental illness.  I have waged war on it and every single day I strike, reminding myself that there is still good in the world, beauty all around me, that there are still reasons to wake up in the morning and things to be grateful for in my life.

I strive to create good moments and memories whenever I can, to find reasons smile and laugh.  We have family movie and game nights.  I snuggle up with my partner and  watch movies together or laugh at silly animal videos online.  Though I struggle most days to socialize outside my house because my mental illness causes me to naturally isolate myself, I manage to joke here and there with friends online and share funny stories and memes.  I even occasionally go out, whether to enjoy some time out while the weather is nice or to spend a little time with family and friends.

None of that negates my diagnosis.  None of that minimizes my struggles.

It is no different than what someone with one of hundreds of different visible illness does to try and bring some joy into their lives to distract themselves from the pain.

It does not change the fact that the majority of the time I struggle to even pull myself out of bed or to eat.  It doesn’t change the fact that I spend most of my life struggling to even function, overwhelmed and crying.  It doesn’t change the fact that my illness is still always there, right under the surface, beneath that smile, silently eating away at me, trying to drag me back down.

I won’t apologize for my little bits of happiness and I won’t stop seeking them out.  I need them for morale and for my own self-care and sanity.  I need to seek out happiness in this world wherever I can find it so I have a reason to keep going and not give up even when my mental illness makes the world feels hopeless.

Being able to sometimes smile and laugh or enjoy part of your day when you’re struggling with mental illness shouldn’t be treated as a cardinal sin.  It should be applauded as a sign of strength and self-care.  Having a mental illness should not mean that you are never allowed to be happy again.  It is not an absolute, all or nothing, you either have depression or happiness, choice.

If we manage to find a reason to smile or laugh for even a brief period in our day, please cheer us on for our ability to do so.  Don’t rain on our parade just because you cannot see our pain or understand our illness.  Any smile, any momentary happiness is a victory against an illness that is intent on dragging us downward into misery and despair.  Don’t try to take that victory away from us.

To those who managed to smile or laugh today, good for you!  Keep fighting the good fight and don’t ever let anyone else make you feel like you’ve done anything wrong by being happy because you haven’t.  Embrace your happiness.  Cherish it.  You deserve it!