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.

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The Depression Chart – Helping Others Understand Depression

*Ever since I created my Anxiety Chart, I have been asked by readers to create a similar chart for depression.  After much thought and consideration, this is the chart and accompanying graph that I designed.

Many people do not understand depression, assuming it is just random bouts of sadness and crying.  Unless someone has suffered through their own struggle with depression, it is near-impossible for them to truly understand how debilitating it can be to live with that diagnosis.

One of the hardest parts of explaining depression is that it is neither rational nor is it predictable.  It is hard to provide relatable examples because the feelings connected with depression would feel wildly irrational to anyone not experiencing them at that moment.  It is also impossible to predict or predetermine depression because it often comes unexpectedly in waves.

Therefore, instead of providing a chart with relatable examples, the chart I devised shows the increasing intensity of this mental illness.  My hope is that the statements provided at each level, combined with the descriptions included, will help those who have never struggled with depression understand how our frame of mind is magnified as our condition worsens.

It is also important to note that depression is not all sadness and hopelessness.  Instead of providing a chart listing levels 1-9, I have split this chart in half.  There is a 1-4N to designate worsening stages of numbness and a 1-4D to describe stages of downward spiral.  This chart is extremely simplified, yet illustrates how, as depression worsens, the intensity of the condition increases.  However, unlike conditions like anxiety that worsen in one direction, depression can and does frequently occur in both the realms of numbness and hopelessness to varying extents.

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It is also important to note that depression is not linear.  It comes in waves and spikes.  It is not uncommon to struggle with days of increasing numbness, only to wake up the following day in the midst of a downward spiral.  Depression randomly alternates between the two, with no rhyme or reason to the length or intensity on any given day.  Some days you feel nothing at all, other days you feel everything too strongly.  There’s no way to predict when you will be pulled in either direction or how long either will last.

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There will be days when someone might even feel fine, or even just more functional.  On other days, you might be unable to pull yourself out of bed or might seem to cry over everything.  There are days that feel like a struggle and others that feel completely impossible, days where you find yourself crying a little bit more and days you just want to give up.

When describing increased emotional pain, the best example I can think of is to compare it to the pain of loss.  Milder stages of depression might be akin to losing something that matters to you, perhaps something of sentimental value.  As depression increases, imagine the pain of losing a beloved pet, your parents, your spouse or your child.  Imagine the ache and the pain, the feeling in that moment of things never being okay again, of wanting to give up, to crumble under the weight of that pain.

Except the person you are mourning is yourself.  Your happiness and who you used to be.  And the loss comes again and again in waves, sometimes mild, other times so severe that the tears and the pain feel like they will never stop.

At the same time, you loathe and disgust yourself.  You feel worthless, a waste of space.  Your own mind lies to you, convincing you that the world would be better off without you in it.  That is where rationality parts ways.  Everyone can understand loss, pain and grieving.  But it is hard to wrap your head around losing yourself, let alone hating yourself, unless you have spiraled down to those depths yourself.

Yet those feelings are there, along with a tremendous amount of guilt.  You feel guilty that you are such a mess.  You feel guilty for subjecting everyone else to your mess, as well.  Often, you are also ashamed of your illness because you feel you should be stronger, more capable, better than you are.  That shame often leads you to lie or minimize the intensity of your suffering for fear of being judged.  Depression makes you feel like a failure just for being sick.

When someone is struggling with depression, their very perceptions become distorted.  It is common for everything to feel much worse than it actually is.  Think back to when you were a little child.  Things on the counter felt up way too high, the door knob out of reach.  Even simple things like tying your shoes were a struggle and felt like a monumental task that took maximum effort and concentration.  That is how everyday tasks feel when you have depression.  Everything feels harder.  Every problem feels bigger.  You feel small and helpless.

Think back, too, to when you were a young child and were upset with your parents, when you felt completely misunderstood and all alone in the world.  Think back on the time when your four or five year old self was convinced you should run away, that nobody would care if you were gone. Think back to any other point in your life, as well, when you felt completely alone, when you had no help, nobody there.  With depression, those feelings are ever-present.  Your mind tells you that nobody understands, that you are alone in the world.  Depression isolates you by telling lies that you do not matter.

Think back to the last time you were sick, laid up in bed with a bad flu or stomach bug.  Remember how physically and mentally exhausting it felt to even move or pull yourself out of bed?  How easily you found yourself worn out, just wanting to lay back down and sleep?  How you put off going to the bathroom for hours because you didn’t even want to move?  How you ate frozen waffles or canned soup for three days because you just did not have the energy or the desire to cook a real meal?  That is what depression is like, too.

The numbness, however, is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it firsthand.  If you’ve ever had someone or something upset you so much that you no longer cared, magnify that lack of concern tenfold.  It is similar to that catatonic shock following an accident or trauma.  You feel nothing, lost, blank, numb.  Eventually, you mentally shut down.  You are immobile, held hostage, trapped in your own mind.  You have no interest or motivation to do anything.  You see no point in even trying.

I wish there were more relatable examples I could give but it is impossible to rationalize the irrational.  There are some examples that are somewhat similar in one way or another, but even those don’t quite equate.  The best I can do is to illustrate the directions depression can go and to quantify how bad it can get.

When trying to explain depression, the best someone who is struggling can do is to explain how close we are at the given moment to either shutting down or wanting to give up.  The worst part is that the status can change in a moment’s notice on any given day.  There is no way to predict when it will veer off in either direction, let alone the severity of the bout.  You cannot even predict what will cause your condition to worsen, or whether it will even be something large or small.  Something as tragic as a great loss is just as likely to cause a period of numbness as a simple broken plate is to cause a severe downward spiral.  There are times we are honestly not even sure why we are feeling the way we do, only that the depression is there.  There is no rhyme, reason or rationality to any of it.

It is not something that a person can control in any way, either, let alone simply snap out of on their own accord.  Depression is a mental illness.  It is a medically-diagnosed condition that severely affects the ability to cope with life, negatively impacting and impairing both thoughts and behaviors.  Having a mental illness is no different than having any other type of illness.  Much like a diabetic has a pancreas that is malfunctioning, when a person has a mental illness, their brain is not working correctly.  The only difference is the organ affected.  Both conditions need medical treatment.

I understand how difficult it must be for someone who has never suffered from depression themselves to understand. Depression seems irrational because it is.  It doesn’t make sense, even to those of us struggling with it every day.  We find ourselves on a roller coaster ride that is speeding out of control, flying up and down every which way, with no way to stop or slow down.  Nobody asks for a mental illness.  Depression is not something anyone has done to themselves or is causing because they are not trying hard enough.  We don’t understand how we even ended up on this ride, let alone how to get off.  How can we adequately explain something we don’t even understand ourselves?

The confusion surrounding depression is also in part due to the stigma attached to mental illness in general.  For years, anyone with a mental illness was labeled as lazy, crazy, dangerous or a joke.  Either way, they were not taken seriously.  Mental illness was a dirty word that wasn’t discussed openly.  People fear or mock what they don’t understand.  The lack of education about medical conditions like depression led to wide-spread ignorance and misinformation.  Unfortunately, once that cat is out of the bag, the damage is done and it will take much longer to properly educate people about mental illness than it took to originally spread the falsehoods and misconceptions.

I understand fully that depression makes no sense to someone who has never experienced it themselves.  It honestly makes no sense to us, either.  But please know that depression is much more than just merely feeling sad from time to time.  With depression, you sometimes feel everything so strongly that it is completely overwhelming, the emotions feel agonizingly painful and never-ending, and the world feels utterly hopeless.  Other times, someone with depression is completely numb, feeling absolutely nothing at all.  Either way, everything feels much harder, more intense.  Depression is exhausting, both physically and mentally.  Perhaps worst of all, you feel helpless to do anything, like you have no control over your own mind.  And depression is not linear.  It goes up and down, every which way, changing direction and intensity on the drop of a dime.

I wish I could provide a chart that was more relatable for those who have never experienced depression, but, as I have stated before, there really is no way to rationalize the irrational.  The best I can do is to lay out what depression is like in a very simplified form and hope for your empathy, compassion, understanding and patience.

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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.

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.

yahoonews

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

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

When People Talk About Celebrity Suicides..

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they always begin with comments about a light snuffed out before its time, a star that blinked out of the sky too soon.  Again and again, their final act is highlighted, the fact that they could have kept going but chose to give up.  People comment on what a truly great loss it is.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they share all the ways that celebrity impacted their life.  Whether movies, music, sports or the fashion industry, people the world over share all the ways their life was forever touched by these larger than life strangers they only saw in the spotlight but never truly knew.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they declare that it never should have happened, that better mental health care needs to be in place.  They converse about private struggles and the overwhelming fear they must have faced of coming out about the true depth of their illness.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, they talk about how brave that soul was for fighting such horrible demons for so many years.  They are praised for being such brave souls for fighting as long as they did.  Celebrities are seen as tragic victims who eventually succumbed to a horrible unseen monster.

When people talk about celebrity suicides, there’s a tremendous outpouring of love and  a universal demand for change.  Suicide is in everyone’s mind and on everyone’s lips.

Then, quick as it began, the sentiment fades.  Other news stories start trending.  Those losses are widely forgotten until highlighted again by an anniversary of their death or when a memory is randomly stirred by happenstance like an old movie or song playing in the background.

It has become second nature to acknowledge and mourn those who are larger than life who tragically take their own lives.  Timelines are filled with posts and tweets echoing wishes that souls can finally be at peace.  It has become second nature to highlight all the problems with the mental health system and the stigma attached to the illness itself.  But it always seems to be a passing fad, lost from people’s minds as soon as the words leave their lips.

But what of the average, run of the mill person who commits suicide?

When an average person commits suicide, people talk of selfishness and weakness.  There is an overwhelming sentiment that they should have fought harder, tried harder, said something, not given up.  The average person who commits suicide is seen not as a victim but as an offender, making a horrible choice that will drastically and tragically impact the lives of everyone left in their wake.

When an average person commits suicide, people are afraid to even acknowledge their life.  It is as if their final tragic choice erased their entire existence, making it too painful, too shameful, to talk about. We cannot talk about them.  Their names are whispered in corners.  Have you heard about..?  Their entire life becomes summarized by their final act.

When an average person commits suicide, we don’t talk about mental health or the need for change.  The fact is that we don’t talk at all.  Those closest to the loss mourn tearfully in silence, lighting candles and quietly asking why.  The rest of the world continues on as if they never existed.

What if I told you that the celebrities who committed suicide were just average people, too?  What if I told you that, despite their status and their wealth, they had the same thoughts, hopes and fears as average people and struggled with the very same mental illness.  Would you mourn the average person’s loss as greatly or as deeply?  Would the average person then be remembered as much for their lives as their death?  Would change and better mental health treatment be demanded for the average person as it is with the elite?

We need to stop going through the motions of mourning celebrities and forgetting everyone else that we lose to suicide.  They are both equally tragic and both deserve so much more.  Celebrity suicides deserve to be remembered beyond when they’re trending.  Average people who commit suicide need to be remembered period.  And above everything else, change is desperately needed.

Mental illness is not a dirty word, a secret we can only talk about in hushed tones in secluded corners.  We need to stop letting stigma dictate our actions and inaction.  When one in five people struggles with mental illness and suicide is one of the biggest killers in multiple age groups across the board, it is no longer a problem we can ignore.

No one deserves to be shamed for their mental health or vilified posthumously because they lost their battle with their mental illness.  It is a very real condition and one that deserves treatment, for both those who are famous and those who are not.  It is an illness that has turned fatal for far too many people, not because their bodies ceased to work but rather because their minds lost the will to live.

Better access to mental health treatment is desperately needed.  We have to remove the stigma so those struggling, whether they are famous or not, are able to come forward when they are suffering, without fear that it will ruin their career or paint them as someone who is broken, crazy and just not trying hard enough.  We need to exercise compassion and encourage communication so that everyone who is struggling is able to receive treatment without fear.

We also need to do better when it comes to acknowledging suicide victims’ lives, not just if they’re famous and not only again on anniversaries of the tragedy.  We need to openly talk about their lives and their struggles, acknowledge the gorilla in the room and pull that monster out of the shadows into the light.  We need to make conversations about mental illness as commonplace as mental illness itself.  We need to face stigma head on and erase it.

We should not only be talking about suicide when a celebrity takes their own life.  We should be talking every time someone dies, demanding change.  We should not just go through the motions of caring about mental health when it is trendy but truly care about it year round.  The truth is that, on average, someone dies from suicide every 16.2 minutes.  If we vowed to talk about suicide for just 20 minutes every time someone died, it would never leave our minds or our lips.

Suicide is always tragic, whether the victim was famous or not.  Suicide is also always a needless, senseless death, one that could be prevented if there was better access to mental health treatment and less stigma dictating the choices and actions of everyone.

When a celebrity commits suicide, the topic is on the minds and lips of everyone.  It is the perfect time to start a dialogue, to begin fighting for change, to check in with those you know are struggling and see whether they’re okay.  It is the perfect time to reach out to those you know who have lost someone to suicide and share fond memories you’ve long ago locked away, to breathe new life into their memory.

We can do better.  We must do better.  Because people are dying.  Not just our celebrities but so many average people, too.  Our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children, friends, co-workers, neighbors.  It is an epidemic and one that is largely preventable.

If we, as a society, are willing to do better.

We must do better.

Otherwise, people are going to keep dying.

And suicide will periodically keep trending.

..Because people only want to talk about suicide when a celebrity dies.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/8/18.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/8/18.

yahoonews

Republished on Yahoo News – UK on 6/8/18.

If Only They Understood…

I recently touched base with someone from my distant past. To say it did not go well would be a colossal understatement. While I will not go into specifics about the conversation as a whole, one comment they made has been eating at me. So much so that I found myself at a loss for how to respond.

They told me they had been made aware of my writing but had not read it because they don’t believe in finger pointing.

When I began writing, it was for survival. I had so much baggage I carried with me that it was eating me alive. I was haunted by my past and desperately needed to talk about it before it killed me.

It had nothing to do with pointing fingers or hoping anyone received their comeuppance. The past was the past and nothing I could say or do would ever change it. But I could no longer pretend it didn’t happen, either. I needed to stop running and face my demons.

Even after I shared all I had been through, I continued to write. My second book was entirely about examining my perceptions of people and events, to reevaluate them not through the eyes of an injured child but rather as a rational adult. Again, it had nothing to do with finger pointing. I needed to reevaluate unhealthy and dysfunctional thought processes and patterns in my life if I was to ever have any hope of change.

I can understand their wariness. They knew my mother and witnessed her persecution complex firsthand. My mother, while suffering from often untreated, always undertreated, mental illness, often displayed what those close to her frequently referred to as the “Poor Patty” complex, believing the world was against her.

But I am not my mother.

I am not looking for anyone’s pity. I often tell people not to feel sorry for me. Feel bad for those people who lost their battles. I’m still here. Don’t pity me. Cheer me on. I’m a survivor.

I’m a realist in many ways. I’m not going to minimize what living with mental illness is like, especially not for the comfort of others. It is not pretty by any means. It is dark, ugly, disturbing and scary. Pretending it is less than it is only perpetuates the stigma and reinforces the belief that it should not be taken seriously. The only way we can ever hope to get others to truly understand how debilitating mental illness can be is by talking openly, honestly and frequently about it with no filter, no holds barred.

Part of being a realist, too, is accepting my diagnosis. A large part of my condition is caused by a genetic mutation. I was born with it. I can no more wish away my mental illness than a diabetic could wish away their illness. There are medications I will have to rely on for the rest of my life. I am also fully aware of my limitations currently. Whether those limitations might change in the future with treatment is yet to be seen but lying about or exaggerating my capabilities is only detrimental to myself and my well-being. I will not do it anymore.

That being said, I am also an optimist. I refuse to believe there is no hope. I refuse to accept the stigma surrounding mental illness. While I accept my diagnosis, I refuse to let it define me. I am constantly looking for new tools for my wellness toolbox and am devoted to deciphering and changing dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors. I may have a mental illness but I still strive to be the healthiest that I can be.

I consider my writing to be both truthful about mental illness yet still uplifting and motivational. I encourage others to not give up, to stay strong and to fight for change. I want others suffering to know that they are not alone and that there is hope. After all, they are survivors, too. They are stronger than they realize. They don’t need pity, either. They need empathy and compassion.

I wish this person could see how wrong they are about my writing and my motivations. I wish they would take the time to read through my work and see that it was never about finger pointing. It was about healing, survival and personal growth, transitioning into advocating for others to stay positive and keep fighting, as well.

But unfortunately though you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make them read.

I hope in time we can talk more and move beyond their misconceptions of my writing and the intentions behind my words. I hate the distance I have allowed to grow between us and hope, in time, things may change. I hope, as well, that they will eventually come to see my writing not as something negative but rather as a sign of strength and a tool for survival.

Because as much as I truly miss having them in my life, I remain thoroughly unapologetic about my writing. Finding my voice has saved my life in more ways than one. Helping others has given me a purpose greater than I ever imagined for myself. Whether they can see it or not, my writing is one of the best things to happen in my life.

A Trip to the E.R.: Physical Vs. Mental Ailments

This last week has been yet another stark reminder of how differently people view and react to mental illnesses versus physical ones, especially in medical settings like the emergency room.

Please bear in mind that I am by no means a frequent flyer in the emergency room. The last time I was in the E.R. was about two years ago when I had a large cyst and tissue growth on my left ovary that had twisted and contorted it, causing severe pain. I was in no way crying wolf or looking for attention. My E.R. visit resulted in a surgical referral and the removal of that ovary.

My mother was a hypochondriac. She had doctors for everything and scheduled appointments with specialists on the drop of a dime. Somewhere along the way in my journey to not become her, I became the polar opposite in that aspect. I avoided doctors and only sought medical treatment as a last resort. I once tried to walk off appendicitis for a few hours as bad stomach cramps. On some level, I know it is irrational and that I need to make my health a bigger priority, but I still struggle to go to the doctor unless it is absolutely necessary.

Last week, I had a bit of a scare. I had gotten upset after a spat with my partner and had gone for a walk to calm down and clear my head. Somewhere along the way, though, my head began to hurt and spin. I knew I was upset but the details felt distant and fuzzy, as if the facts were lost in my head somewhere yet I was unable to access them. The harder I tried to root out facts, the more my head spun and the more confused I felt.

While I do struggle often with losing numbers, words or specific facts as a result of my mental illness and have also had memory issues following anxiety attacks and PTSD flashbacks as well, I have never experienced anything like this before. When I realized I could not even recall my own name, it sent me into a panic. I knew something was seriously wrong so went into the first business I saw and asked the clerk to call 911 for help.

An ambulance arrived to take me to the hospital. Their initial fear was a stroke. They started running multiple tests and sent me for a CT scan. As tests began to come back ruling out the prognosis of a stroke, the demeanor of the staff treating me began to change drastically.

Their next possible prognosis was that it was purely a mental issue or that I was lying about the severity of my condition, putting on some sort of act for attention. Despite the fact that I was visibly agitated and distressed at being unable to recall even basic facts, their demeanor changed. All of a sudden, they became outright accusatory and began to question whether I was telling the truth. One nurse went so far as to tell me point blank that they would have to start doing uncomfortable and painful tests, including taking my temperature rectally, putting in a catheter for a clean urine sample (though I had given them one in a cup not twenty minutes prior) or even putting a needle in my back to withdraw fluids for tests “unless I had something I wanted to confess”.

As I laid there in a state of panic not because of the possible upcoming uncomfortable tests but rather because my brain just was not working like it should, I could hear that nurse at the desk nearby laughing with her coworkers about how she was “going to get a rectal thermometer and make me talk”, the results of my CT scan came back.

It turns out that I have two meningioma on my brain, tumors between the surface of my brain and the inside of my skull. The larger of the two is in the falx region, in the front of my head, which deals with memory. The smaller of the two is in the middle, presiding predominantly over balance.

Neither was particularly large thankfully, but when housed in the small space between my brain and skull, even smaller tumors could cause issues. Apparently in my already agitated state following the spat with my partner earlier, there must have been just enough pressure put on the memory portion of my brain to cause a temporary memory loss.

The whole demeanor of the staff treating me shifted once again, becoming very serious and somber. They gave me some sedatives and anti-anxiety medication to calm me and slowly the fog began to clear. They began bringing in paperwork and test results for me to bring to my primary doctor to get a referral for a neurologist, stressing the urgency of the situation. Though they informed me that something like eighty percent of meningiomas are benign, even benign tumors continue to grow and could cause temporary or even lasting damage to my brain if left untreated. Ultimately, I’ll need surgery regardless of whether biopsy results conclude the tumors are benign or malignant.

The whole situation made me nauseous, even beyond the fact that I have tumors on my brain. Just the fact that I was only taken seriously when they feared for a physical condition like a stroke or when the tumors were found on my brain was appalling. As I had mentioned earlier, I have had memory issues related to my mental illness in the past, though thankfully never quite to this extent before. However, following PTSD flashbacks or severe anxiety attacks, my brain is always fuzzy and muddled, as well, and I often have periods of impaired memory afterwards. The fact that professionally trained medical staff at an emergency room would treat any condition they believed had a mental origin less seriously, let alone as a joke, is beyond disgusting to me.

I did not make a scene or call them out on their obviously shifting behavior, in part because the very idea that I had tumors growing on my brain left me in a state of shock. Even more so, like many others struggling with mental illness, I have sadly become accustomed to my mental health not being taken seriously. However, it is deeply disconcerting to me that emergency personnel at a hospital would be so openly cavalier about anyone’s mental health, treating their patients as a joke.

I walked away from this situation with a few distinct feelings and thoughts in my head. First and foremost, I have a newfound anxiety and wariness about going anywhere alone until this is resolved, particularly when upset. I was lucky that I was in an area with easy access to other people and was blessed to have maintained enough reason to know to ask for help. But I carry with me now an ever-present fear that next time I might not be as lucky, especially considering that I regularly operate under conditions of extreme anxiety and depression due to my mental illness.

I also am distinctly aware of all the unknowns in my foreseeable future. I am not sure exactly where I go from here. I understand the basics. Get a neurology referral, get an MRI, get a  biopsy, have surgery, possibly radiation if needed. But I have no idea of the time frames of anything just yet and probably won’t until tests and biopsies start coming back. I don’t deal well with the unknown. Not being able to plan to any degree heightens my anxiety to dangerous levels.

There is a strange sense of underlying optimism, as well. Somehow I know I will get through this, that I’m a tough cookie. I come from strong stock. Both my parents survived multiple types of cancer and other ailments before they passed. My time is not up yet. I have too much left to do. I have a lot of fight left in me.

However, I am very aware of the fear growing inside me, too. Cancer scares me to the core. I remember going to the hospital day after day when my mother had part of her lung removed due to lung cancer, watching her fade in and out in the CCU, not sure whether she would make it or not. I remember reconnecting with my father just in time to watch cancer wreak havoc on his body, going through repeated cycles of surgeries and chemotherapy. His cancer always seemed to be one step ahead, reappearing again and again in different areas until it eventually killed him. I’ve seen cancer eat away at and kill multiple friends over the years, as well. Cancer is, by far, my biggest fear and it is now on my doorstep.

More than anything, though, I came away from this with a harsh reminder of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, even in medical facilities. When they believed my issue was a mental one, I was a joke they saw fit to threaten with unneeded, uncomfortable and painful tests as a way to get me to “come around”, expecting my condition to magically cure itself and disappear under threats of unpleasantness. It took finding tumors on my brain, something they could physically see, for my condition to finally be taken seriously.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 6/17/18.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 6/17/18.

yahoofinance

Republished on Yahoo Finance on 6/17/18.

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Republished on Yahoo Sports on 6/17/18.

Why I Write Part II: Looking Back Over Two Years of Mental Health Writing & Advocacy

A couple years ago, right around my birthday, I began to write.  My life had begun unraveling yet again and I clung to my words as someone drowning might cling to debris floating downstream, hoping something, anything, might keep me afloat and stop me from going under.

It began with a book about my own experiences.  Sink or swim, live or die, I didn’t want the truth of my story going down with me.  But a miraculous thing happened as I threw my words out into the wind – I was finally heard.  For the first time in my life, I was heard.  Even more miraculously, words floated back to me, telling me that others understood, others had been there, that I was not alone.

And it saved my life.

Knowing that I wasn’t broken, wasn’t crazy, wasn’t alone in all the world gave me renewed strength to fight, to keep going, to not give up.  In that moment I was forever changed.

I suppose some could have dusted themselves off, walked away, and continued on with their lives, grateful for another chance at life.  But I couldn’t.  I had a lifetime of silence to make amends for, over forty years of pain to release.  Once I got to the shore, I added my voice to the collective.

For years, I had drifted along seemingly alone, being pulled under, almost drowning, again and again.  Those voices that reached out to me from the shore, other survivors who encouraged me to just keep swimming, showed me I was never as alone as I had believed.  If there were others on the shore, there had to be others in the water, as well.  Others who needed to know they were not alone, either.  Others who needed encouragement and empathy to keep fighting and not give up.

I had this overwhelming urgency to pay it forward.

I began writing more often, sharing the gritty truth of what it was like to live with mental illness.  I also began speaking out more and more about fighting stigma and discrimination.  I was like Ebenezer Scrooge, awoken on Christmas morning to see the world in a whole new light.  It was not too late for me.  My story wasn’t over.  I could still make a difference in the world.

How have I endured in regards to my newfound passion?

Though personally, I’d consider my venture into writing over the past two years a huge success, I know many would consider it middling at best.  I have a handful of books about mental illness and mental health published and others in the works.  I have an active blog, averaging 2-4 new pieces a month.  Many of my blogs have been republished elsewhere, most notably The Mighty who has republished well over 35 to date with others sitting in a queue, earmarked and waiting to go live.  I have been on my local NBC news station for an interview about my book.  My pieces have been discussed by television and radio stations as far away as Australia and have been shared by advocacy groups, private practices, schools and government agencies in one hundred different countries around the world – that I know of, at least, according to the stats page on my personal blog.  I have a milestones page filled with events in my short writing career I would have never dreamed possible a few years ago.

The majority of the people who have read my writing have read blogs that have been published and republished for free.  I do sell a book or two here and there, as well as an occasional anxiety chart poster, but it is nowhere near enough to make a living from or to pay any of my bills.  As much as I would love to make a living at this, doing what I have come to love, I am not sure whether it will ever be in the cards for me.  Why, then, do I keep writing?

I write to make a difference.  My voice might not travel far – mental illness is a very niche topic that is unlikely to ever truly go viral – but I have seen firsthand that my writing is reaching others.  I see it in the messages sent to my inbox, thanking me for putting their own struggles into words.  I see it whenever someone else tags someone they know on one of my pieces, trying to help them better understand.  I see it every time any group, organization or agency who works with the mentally ill shares my writing.

Admittedly, even two years later, it all still feels surreal and makes my eyes water.  I still feel honored and humbled every time anyone reads my words and relates, reads my words and shares them with others.  I truly feel blessed.  It has in many ways become my calling.

But still, in a day and age ruled by the almighty dollar, why continue devoting so much time and energy to something that can’t even pay the bills?

The answer is simple – I write because I know I can make a difference.

I don’t ever imagine I will be world famous and renowned.  I am honestly beyond amazed that my writing has reached as many people as it has. I know I won’t be able to save everyone, to make a difference in everyone’s life, but I am making a difference in some people’s and that is enough for me.

I am reminded of a bittersweet story about a young child walking along the ocean shore after a big storm.  It comes from a book called The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley.  This young child walked along the beach, one by one throwing starfish that had washed ashore back into the ocean.  After some time, an old man approached the young girl, asking her why she was wasting her time, telling her there was no way she could ever save all the starfish that had been washed ashore.  At first, the young girl was discouraged but that feeling only lasted a moment.  Then she picked up another starfish at her feet, returned it to the ocean and proudly proclaimed that at least she made a difference to that one.

I relate so very strongly to that little girl.  I cannot save everyone.  I know that.  But I am determined to keep writing, keep making a difference, continue to help others as much as I can.  Even if my words only touch one life here or there, I have made a difference in the world.  I have left an impact and made the world a better place than it was before.  And that is enough for me.

The Double Standard of Mental Health Support

Ever since Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson spoke up about his own struggles with depression, the story has been everywhere, appearing again and again on all my social media feeds.  Everyone loves The Rock.  It’s a great story.  It’s all everyone wants to talk about.  And beneath his story, you see the same sentiments being shared again and again.

“The poor guy having to suffer through that..”

“Good for him to speak out..”

“How brave..”

It’s a story that we’ve seen dozens of times before.   Celebrities speaking out about mental illness is quickly becoming a huge movement as more and more share their story.

We applauded and cheered when Kristen Bell talked about her battle with depression and anxiety because it made her so much more real. She wasn’t that perfect, ever-smiling, ever-happy Hollywood darling with no problems.  She was one of us!

When Demi Lovato spoke out about her own struggles with depression, bipolar disorder and drug addiction, her fanbase surged.  People admired her for being brave enough to speak up about such difficult topics.

Since he spoke up about his depression and thoughts of suicide, Jared Padelecki is continuously swarmed at cons by fans who love him even more for his brutal honesty and his “Always Keep Fighting” campaign.  The whole Supernatural cast has begun speaking out about mental health and have never been more beloved.

We admire and idolize Carrie Fisher for speaking so frankly about bipolar disorder and called her a national treasure.

When Patton Oswalt talked about the depression he went through after losing his wife, our hearts all went out to him.  We grieved with him and felt his pain.  We all wanted to hug him and to find the right words to say to lessen his pain.

J. K. Rowling.  Lady Gaga.  Selena Gomez.  The list goes on and on.  Speaking out about their struggles with mental illness makes them more relatable, less larger-than-life.  Our hearts all go out immediately to them when they share their stories and confide with us about their pain.  We sympathize, we empathize, we want to reach out to tell them that we’re here to listen even though they don’t even know us.

Whenever we see an actor, musician or a professional athlete taking time off from making movies, touring or playing a game to seek treatment for mental illness, we all say to ourselves, “Good for them, getting the help they need.  It’s such a difficult thing to admit or to face.  I hope they get the help they need.”

Robin Williams.  Chris Cornell.  Chester Bennington.  Whenever we lose an iconic celebrity to suicide, the whole world mourns for months.  The mourning is renewed each year on the anniversary of their death, as well.  Crowds weep together and share stories about how their lives were impacted by their presence and how greatly their loss will be felt.  Newsfeeds are filled with scores of pictures sharing quotes and sweet sentiments along with prayers that their souls are finally at peace.

If you only looked at how society treated mental illness by how we respond to our celebrities, you’d assume we are the most compassionate, enlightened society to ever walk the earth.  It’s truly laughable.

Please know I am not minimizing or trivializing any of their battles with mental illness nor am I diminishing the tremendous losses the world has endured from celebrity suicides in recent years.  It is incredibly brave to fight for your mental health, perhaps even more so in the public eye.

I personally admire them all for taking a stand to fight against the stigma of mental illness.  Like many others, I’ve cried when I read their stories and so many others like them because I could relate.  I’ve mourned those needless deaths because I have walked that edge myself on more than one occasion so I understand all too well how it feels to be suicidal.

I say it is laughable not because I take mental illness lightly or because I am mocking their pain but because the way mental illness is regarded with celebrities is so far removed from the responses the rest of the world gets.  It truly sickens me that the overwhelming support they receive rarely extends to normal, average, everyday people with the exact same diagnosis.

When the average person opens up about their struggles with mental illness, we’re rarely met with any support and encouragement.  More often than not, we’re hit with judgment and persecution.  We’re treated as if we’re exaggerating or making something out of nothing.

“What do you even have to be depressed about?”

“Have you even tried to just be happy?  It’s not that hard.  You just have to be more positive.”

“You’re still not over that yet?  You need to just learn to let go of things that get to you.”

“Everybody has problems.  Stop being such a drama queen and learn to deal with them like everyone else does.”

We mention going to our doctor and getting on medication and are confronted with comments and memes about how we don’t need pills, we need things like sneakers and fresh air.

We talk about seeing a therapist and are told we shouldn’t be putting our private life out there to strangers who are only listening because they are paid to do so.

We’re told it’s all in our heads and that we should be grateful we don’t have “real problems”.

We’re told we’re just not trying hard enough, not doing enough.  Told we just need to try harder, do more, and we’ll get out of that funk.

Everyone has an answer for how to “get rid of our illness” but none of them have anything to do with the actual medical treatment needed for a medical diagnosis.  Be on your phone and computer less.  Go outside more.  Join more activities.  Start more hobbies.  Get a dog.  Get a girlfriend or boyfriend.  Make more friends.  Watch happier movies.  Read more positive books.  Listen to more upbeat music.  None of this would cure any other illness but that doesn’t matter.  Since others cannot see our illness, it must not be worthy of any real treatment.

We see those with mental illness painted as monsters or mocked as jokes.  We’re told that only the weak-minded can’t deal with their feelings.  We’re portrayed as unhinged, broken, unbalanced and unsafe, someone to avoid at all costs so that our crazy doesn’t rub off or spill out onto others as if we’re contagious.

We’re expected to suck it up, hold it in, don’t talk about anything that might make anyone else uncomfortable.  We’re supposed to pretend everything is okay, pretend we don’t feel anything at all even though we feel like we’re slowly dying inside.

When we reach out for help, we’re more often than not denied because it is an invisible illness that they cannot see.  We’re forced to fight, to prove there’s anything wrong and that it’s bad enough to justify getting help.

And Heaven forbid someone loses someone they love to mental illness.  They can’t even mourn without others commenting about how selfish suicide is, as if no longer being able to live in constant torment somehow makes them a bad person that deserves to be forgotten.  If an average person kills themselves, you’re not even supposed to acknowledge their life or their death because it might make others uncomfortable.

For the average person, mental illness is a bad word.  It’s that gorilla in the room that everyone knows is there but nobody is willing to talk about.  It’s that monster on our backs and in our souls that is eating us alive that we’re supposed to pretend isn’t there.

Mental illness doesn’t just happen to celebrities.  It does not discriminate.  It affects everyone around the world regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, race, occupation, political party, or socio-economic status.

Mental illness isn’t some rare fabled unicorn that only lives in legends and fairy tales, some mysterious creature whose very existence is highly doubtful.  It is all around us.  Millions suffer from mental illness every year.  An average of one in five people struggle with it.  It is an epidemic of global proportions.  It is a very common health problem.  And average, everyday people deserve the same compassion, admiration and support as celebrities do for fighting the exact same battles.

I am an average person with an average illness that affects one in five people in this world.  I am fighting the same battle as millions of others fight to varying degrees every single day.  I’m tired of being treated like I am invisible just because my illness is.  Whenever a celebrity speaks out about their own battles with mental illness it reminds us that they are just ordinary people, too, with the same problems we all face.  If we support some “ordinary people” in their battles with mental illness, shouldn’t we support all?

 

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.

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