Sorry Not Sorry: My Mental Well-Being is a Priority

It has been a rough couple months.  Horribly frigid and snowy weather, as well as a revolving door of various sicknesses in my home, have combined with my mental illness to create a perfect storm.  I endured what felt like a never-ending rotation of maladies, downward spirals and utter numbness. There were many days I felt like I could barely function at all.  I usually love the holidays but this past year, the festivities felt hectic, rushed, hollow and empty.  As much as I beat myself up for not being more present, more in the mood, more cheerful and jovial in general, I just could not snap out of the funk I was in.  And the guilt of it all was eating me alive.

After two and a half months of struggling to get from day to day, unable to even inspire myself to write, I am finally emerging like the groundhog in early February to start anew.

Periodically, this happens to me.  When life gets hard, I pull in on myself, much like an armadillo rolling in on itself for protection or a cell phone going into power saver mode so it doesn’t shut down completely.  This cycle has repeated itself from time to time throughout my life.  Whenever everything would get hard, I would pull inward, isolating and conserving my energy in order to survive.  On the other end of this pattern would always inevitably come unfathomable guilt and pressure to make my recent absence up to everyone.

I have struggled my entire life with depression, always feeling as if I was broken, as if I was always letting everyone down by not always being able to do, to be, everything others needed and expected of me.  I consistently felt like a failure.  Like I didn’t even deserve to be on any list of priorities.  After every struggle I endured, I always felt like I was playing catch up, that I owed it to everyone else to use whatever energy I could muster to make it up to everyone else for letting them down yet again.

Christmastime this past year was especially hard.  I usually do a marathon cookie bake as part of my holiday traditions.  Three days of baking. Fifteen types of cookies, plus candies and fudge. Everyone in the house getting sick delayed the grocery shopping and my baking was put off until the last minute.  What is usually three comfortable yet full days of baking was ultimately crammed into a panicked day and a half.  Pushing myself that hard utterly burnt me out.  I existed in a heavy fog of numbness for the remainder of the year.

Speaking afterwards to my doctor, she inquired, “If you only had half the time, why didn’t you just bake half the cookies?”

I started to explain that people were expecting the cookies.  My kids love all the cookies every year and give away boxes to their friends. My fiance needed cookies to bring into work.  We had friends and family that we gave boxes to every year.

She countered by asking why I exactly felt so obligated.  Was anyone was paying for the cookies in any way or if I was just doing it out of the kindness of my heart?

I began defending myself again, insisting that I didn’t want to let anyone else down.

In a perfect check-mate moment, she asked, “What about letting yourself down? Is doing for others out of the kindness of your own heart really worth burning yourself out and running yourself down?  At what point do you fit into the equation? If you only had half the time, why couldn’t you just bake half the cookies?  You’re still being kind to others that way.  But you’re also being kind to yourself.”

Our conversation bounced around in my head for hours. Days. Weeks.  Again and again, I pondered where I fit into the equation of my life and why I didn’t seem to matter at all in most cases.

I ultimately determined that I needed to restructure my priorities in order to find a place for myself in the equation.  I had to be willing to reserve what little energy I do have during rough periods on what should be most important in my life – my family and myself – without becoming guilt-ridden afterwards.  The addition of “myself” towards the top of my list of priorities is honestly fairly new and admittedly still somewhat uncomfortable.  For much of my life, I was on the bottom of the list, if I appeared at all.

That was a feeling that I desperately needed to address.

Whenever I struggle to apply my own self-love or self-care, I stop to consider what I might tell someone else in my situation.  I would never discourage anyone else from pulling back in order to take care of themselves.  I would never accuse anyone else of being a bad person for wanting to matter, too, or for feeling like they sometimes had to prioritize themselves in order to make it through to tomorrow.

Let’s be honest here.

Wanting to matter, too, is not being self-centered.  Wanting to do self-care when you need it does not mean you don’t care about others, as well.  Nobody is saying you can only choose one or the other, help others or help yourself.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Not writing for a couple months honestly ate at me very badly.  I felt terribly guilty, like I was letting my readers down by not writing more content, not sharing my journey more frequently.  But after that pivotal talk with my doctor, I am no longer guilt-ridden.

The truth is that I had a few months where I was struggling badly.

I had a few months that I desperately needed to devote any energy I could muster into self-care and self-preservation.

That doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t matter, as well.  When I have enough time, enough energy, enough willpower to reach out and advocate for others, I still will.  I cherish every time someone has reached out to me letting me know my words have impacted their life. This journey is too important to give up.

I will still help others whenever I can.

But I must help myself, too.

I cannot carry the world on my shoulders, struggling to keep others afloat if it means I go under and drown.

I will always prioritize my family because they are the cornerstone of my world, but from now on, I will be prioritizing myself, as well.

I cannot help others if I cannot help myself.

I will take care of myself whenever I need, however I need.  If that means I do not write for a period of time, so be it.  If that means I only bake half the amount of cookies because I only have the time and energy to do that much, then that is all I will do.

Over the last decade, I have grown my hair out repeatedly, only to cut and donate it when it gets long enough to do so.  My hair was down to my mid-back, with perhaps nine months to a year to go until my next donation.  However, the meningioma tumors on my brain have been causing pressure migraine headaches in increasing frequency of late.  The added weight of all my hair does not help.  As much as it would be nice to donate yet another ponytail to help others, realistically it would not be fair to myself to endure almost a year more of harsher migraines in order to make another donation.  I can still help others, just not at a detriment to myself.  In an act of self-care, I cut my hair shoulder-length.  The intensity of the majority of my headaches has lessened noticeably since then.

I have entered a new period of my life, one where I learn to value myself as much as I have valued others in the past.  I will learn to set my goals and expectations based on what I feel I can handle instead of what others have decided to expect.

I will set new limitations and boundaries so that assisting others no longer harms me.

I will no longer put myself out there beyond my own capabilities in any way that will ultimately hurt myself in the process.

I will prioritize my mental health guilt-free.

I won’t ever again apologize for having to take care of myself.

Sorry not sorry.

My mental well-being matters.

Advertisements

Art Therapy For Depression

pumpkins

I made some paper mache pumpkins today.  It wasn’t that I was feeling particularly cheerful or festive.  It is that creating art helps me cope with my depression.  Art has become one of my favorite and most used self-care techniques in my mental wellness toolbox.

When I am struggling under the weight of my own emotions, I often write about the impact my illness has on my life.  When I am feeling numb, I prefer crafts that are multi-dimensional and messy, so I can feel with my hands even if I cannot feel with my heart.  When my life feels dark and hopeless, I use bright colors.  When I feel lost and alone, I create with warm hues, hoping to dd warmth into my life.  No matter how my depression distorts my perceptions, there is a way to combat it with art.

Some people assume that if I am well enough to create art, I must not be struggling too badly.  Honestly, the opposite is true.  I have found that I create the most, and the projects with the deepest personal meanings, when I am struggling the worst.  I use artistic expression as my lifeline back to reality.  It is the life preserver that keeps me from drowning in even the roughest of storms.

When someone is struggling with depression, the world feels dark and bleak, devoid of any glimmer of light, hope or goodness.  There is no beauty in depression.  So it helps me to create something beautiful out of my despair.  In my artwork, I am reminded that there is more to the world than darkness.

When someone is suffering from depression, the feelings can be overwhelming.  You are often raw and feel everything too deeply.  You feel like you are drowning in pain and anguish.  It helps creating something that will express what I am feeling inside, to release some of the agony that is consuming me.  As a wise Ogre once said, “Better out than in”.

When someone has been diagnosed with depression, it seeps into every corner of their consciousness.  It is exhausting and overwhelming.  It often feels like there is no escape from the prison of your own mind.  It helps to create something that can distract me from everything going on within myself.  When the creative juices are flowing, it is easy to forget for even a little while the weight of this illness on my shoulders.

When someone suffers from depression, they often feel they have no control over anything in their lives anymore.  You often feel like you are on a runaway train, with no way to slow down, stop or get off.  You are held hostage, just along for the ride.  It helps me to create something artistic because it gives me back some control.  My artwork is in my hands.  I choose what to make and which direction to take it.

When someone is struggling with depression, they often feel useless, like an utter waste of space.  Depression distorts reality and destroys self-esteem.  You feel as if you can do nothing right and that everything you touch will become damaged, tainted and tarnished by your very presence.  It helps me to create things because art is about expression, not perfection.  There is no right or wrong so even when I am feeling like a complete failure, I cannot mess up my art.

When someone who has depression feels isolated and misunderstood, it is common to feel all alone in the world.  It can feel like no one is there, nobody cares, no one could possibly understand what you are going through.  It helps me to create things I can show others, share with them, to create something to bring them back into my circle, back into my life.  Art brings people together.  It starts a dialogue where otherwise there would be silence.

There are times when someone who is suffering from depression is at a loss for words to explain how they are feeling.  You might not even be sure what you are depressed about, only that those feelings are there.  It helps to create things not only so that I can work through and understand my own feelings, but so that I can help explain it to others, as well.  Art doesn’t have to be neat and easily explained.  Art can be a messy, jumbled mess and still get its point across.

There are many reasons I create, a multitude of reasons why art comforts my mind and soothes my soul.  Using art to combat depression isn’t about clear and concise thoughts, raw talent or creating masterpieces.  It is about letting emotions out, replacing the darkness with some light and adding your own brand of beauty and creativity into the world.  Art is a wonderful tool for mindfulness because it brings you back into the moment, back to reality to focus on the here and now.

When the world feels broken and hopeless and you feel lost and alone, it might feel impossible to find the motivation to create.  Use your illness as inspiration.  Put into your words or on your canvas how you are feeling inside.  Share everything you wish others knew.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even coherent and understandable to anyone but you.  It can be raw and painful, mirroring how you feel inside.  If you have the urge to express how you are feeling through your artwork, don’t hold yourself back.  Art is about letting your feelings flow.

You don’t have to create based on the negativity of your depression, either, because you are so much more than your depression.  The beauty of art if that you are only restricted by your own imagination.  The world around you is full of inspiration.  Look to the future for upcoming holidays and events.  Look to the past for cherished memories.  Take inspiration from friends and family or beloved pets.  Open a window into the nature outside or look to the heavens above.  Revisit your favorite book, movie or television show.  Pick a color that calls to you or an abstract thought and run with it.  Find your inspiration in something beautiful, something that reminds you of light, happiness and hope.

You don’t need to overthink art.  Don’t question things.  There is no right or wrong.  Just go with the flow.  Focus on the here and now and the creative process.  Put yourself into your art, the person you are at this very moment or the person you wish you could be.  Art is also about possibilities.  You start with a blank canvas or empty page.  As you create, open yourself up not only to everything your art can become but everything you can become, as well.  Remind yourself that you are more than your diagnosis.  You are many things, many pieces that are not as dark, bleak and hopeless as your depression makes you feel.  You are an artist!

I created some paper mache pumpkins today.  Those pumpkins might not seem like much, but they helped me get through another rough day.  Though it by no means cured my depression, it gave me a much-needed reprieve from my struggles and a way to add some beauty to a world that would otherwise feel dark and bleak.  Art might not be a panacea, but it is a useful crutch that can help get you through the hardest of times, making you feel stronger at a time when you otherwise might not be able to stand on your own.

Why Removing Toxic People From Your Life Is An Act Of Self-Love & Self-Care

Some people preach forgiveness and giving second, third, fourth, even unlimited chances.  They claim forgiving others is more about your own peace of mind than theirs and that the heart should always be open to it.  Some even claim that you should never remove anyone from your life because everyone is there for a reason.  They emphasize blood relationships and length of friendships as the sole reason you should forgive and forget.

I am not one of those people.

I believe that you should surround yourself with people who are good for your heart and soul, not based on dna links or length of familiarity.  I believe we must not only be kind to ourselves but surround ourselves with kindness, as well.  You cannot heal and work towards being healthier again if you continue to reside in the sick ward, continuously being bombarded by things that contributed to your illness in the first place.

Some people hold tightly to friendships or relationships for no other reason than “they’ve known them forever” or “things used to be different, used to be great”.  You can have a drinking glass that has served you well for years and has even played an important part in your life for some time.  But if that glass shatters, it fundamentally changes so drastically that it can never go back to what it once was, you do not keep that glass.  You do not leave those shattered shards on the ground where they fell so that every time you come in close proximity to it, you risk cutting yourself open again, creating new wounds and reopening old.  You accept that it no longer has any place or purpose in your life, you clean up the remnants of the glass and you discard them, protecting yourself from any further harm.  No matter how long you’ve had that glass or how much it previously fit into your life or daily routine, once it has shattered beyond repair, we accept it cannot be fixed and we discard it for our own safety.

If we are willing to do this to protect our body from being hurt, why wouldn’t we do the same for our heart and our mind?  If a relationship has broken down and deteriorated so badly that the only remaining possibility is the infliction of more pain, why would we subject ourselves to that continued hurt?

I also believe there are some people who no longer fit into our life or belong on our path.  It is akin to a recovering alcoholic no longer spending time with his old drinking buddies, people whose only connection to his life was encouraging his continued drinking.  If you are trying to live a healthier, more positive life, you cannot surround yourself with negative people.  If you are working towards trying to love yourself, you cannot surround yourself with people who make you feel worthless and broken.  If you are trying to get treatment and take care of yourself, you cannot surround yourself with people who minimize or trivialize your struggle and your efforts, who tell you to “suck it up”, “just get over it” and treat you  poorly instead of offering encouragement and support.  You cannot change your mindset and your situation if you remain in the same environment that allowed that negativity to flourish in the first place.  The urge to relapse is too strong.  Recovering alcoholics don’t spend every night sitting on their old bar stools, surrounded by everyone who kept pushing for them to have one more drink, sliding shot after shot their way.  They accept that is not healthy for them, that it no longer has a place in their life and they find other, more positive people and places to occupy their time.

Why wouldn’t we do the same thing when it comes to poisonous people in our lives?

Removing toxic people from our lives is not about hating them or punishing them.  It honestly isn’t about them at all.  It is about taking care of ourselves and loving ourselves.  It is about identifying everything that is unhealthy in our lives and removing whatever is detrimental to our health.  Removing someone who is toxic does not mean you don’t love them or that they never meant anything to you.  It means you love yourself more.  A newly diagnosed diabetic might absolutely love cupcakes, but they know that those cupcakes no longer fit in their life.  Having those cupcakes around will only continue to make them sick and slowly kill them.  They might have loved those cupcakes for years, but no cupcake is worth losing your life over.  They will miss those cupcakes for the place they once held in their past but deep down, they know now that they are no longer healthy for them and they need to go.

Why wouldn’t we remove people from our lives, as well, that are no longer healthy for us and are slowly breaking our heart and our spirit, killing a vital part of ourselves?

One of the best things I ever did for myself was to remove toxic people from my life, the ones who treated my mental illness like a joke and responded with judgment instead of compassion.  It is hard enough to battle those voices in my own head telling me I am broken, worthless and unlovable, without those sentiments being echoed by people I had allowed into my life.  It was difficult letting go of some of those relationships, especially when it was all I had known for years, but it was honestly for the best.  In the end, I had to put myself and my health first and remove anything that stood as a roadblock to my wellness.

I also had to accept that some people never had my best interest at heart.  There were some people in my life that found some strange sort of pleasure in my pain, people that raised themselves up higher by systematically knocking down those around them.  There were people that kept others around solely because seeing others struggle made them feel better about their own lives.  People like that were so threatened by the happiness or success of others that they minimized or sabotaged the successes of others so that they could maintain their air of superiority.  I had to accept that some relationships in my life were dysfunctional at their core, that they had never been and never would be healthy for me.

These days, I’ve surrounded myself with people who generally care about my health and well-being, people who cheer on my successes and offer comfort when I am struggling.  I’ve chosen to surround myself with people who celebrate my strengths instead of highlighting my weaknesses, who encourage me to keep fighting and to never give up.  I’ve surrounded myself with people who see my beauty and my strength and who make me feel better about myself even on days I am struggling to see that light shining from within.

I have found that it is easier, as well, to give freely of myself when I feel cherished and appreciated in return.  It is easier to extend myself to those who I know would be there for me if ever I needed.  My own capacity for kindness and compassion has grown exponentially because it is being continuously replenished by others.  There is an old saying that you cannot pour from an empty pot, suggesting that you must take time to care for yourself before you can extend yourself to others.  By surrounding myself with only love and acceptance, kindness and compassion, it is always flowing between us and no pot seems to ever run empty.

Flowers need the warm glow of sunlight, water to quench their thirst and the nutrients in the soil to feed them in order to flourish and grow.  You cannot leave a flower in the darkness, starving them of nourishment and expect them to thrive.  Much like that flower, we need that light and nourishment if we have any hope of blossoming into a healthier version of ourselves.  We need love and acceptance to warm our hearts, kindness and compassion to nourish our souls.  If we allow toxic people to hold us in the darkness, to deny us what we need, our hearts and souls will slowly wither and die.  By removing people who are toxic from our life and replacing them with others who truly care about us and our well-being, we are pulling ourselves out of the darkness and giving ourselves a very real fighting chance to flourish and grow, to truly live.

I believe forgiving others is more about making them feel better than it is about our own well-being.  I think not everyone deserves multiple chances, especially if they have proven time and again that they do not have your best interest at heart.  If I am going to forgive anyone, I am going to forgive myself for letting some people abuse my trust and repeatedly injure my heart.  In the end, it isn’t my job to console those who have repeatedly hurt me, offering them the kindness they have never shown me.  I have a greater obligation to myself and to my own well-being.  If I have to choose someone to show kindness and compassion to, it will be myself and those who have shown me kindness and compassion in return.