First Step…

They say the first step to solving a problem is admitting that it exists. Well, I’ve long admitted that I have issues; with anxiety, stress, social anxiety, trust, insecurity, abandonment, need for control, need to fix everything, take care of everyone, etc. Ok in all fairness most of the issues stem from anxiety/social anxiety. I’ve known that ALL people could benefit from therapy while actively avoiding going to therapy. I did try it once, but it was the wrong fit and quite disastrous. Also, being (mostly) self aware I knew a lot of the things I need to change/work on/address so… How would discussing it with a stranger help me, really?

shutterstock_139247051.jpgStill… As the anxiety/stress was leaving my shoulders and stomach in knots, as I was reeling from the emotional fallout of some big decisions, and knowing that I deserve better in life I finally sucked it up and sought out therapy. Again.  I called my insurance stuffs, found a recommendation, and made an appointment. Even making an appointment led to my active mind kicking into overdrive. My therapist treats people in his office or at his home. His home was closer and also better parking options not to mention the day that worked best for me happened to be a day he was working out of his home. Enter active mind: I’m meeting a man I do not know, in his home, and I’ll be alone. Is that really safe?  Is that wise? What if he is creepy? What if he is some weirdo? What if, what if, what if? The two biggest words that roll around in my brain. Ok. STOP. BREATHE. 1. If your health insurance/employment is recommending this person he probably checks out. 2. If he is some psychotic, monster he probably wouldn’t have passed whatever screening was necessary to be recommended by reputable companies. 3. Just hush noisy brain. Hush.

For anyone who has never gone to therapy, the first session mainly revolves around paperwork, dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, establishing what is bringing you in, in a nutshell. The first appointment we didn’t discuss anything huge. Right away I felt at ease with him. He reminds me of my uncle John that passed away. He has a plant growing in his living room, the same kind of plant that my sisters and I gave to our relatives for Christmas one year as kids. I felt comfortable.  I also realized pretty quickly that he was perceptive and picked up on the things I wasn’t saying. While we didn’t cover anything deep or significant, I felt lighter. He gave me some ideas to consider, a few challenges in how I think about things.

At this point I’m about 5 or 6 sessions in. I can definitely see it helping me. I was right, I know a lot of the things I need to work on but it does help having someone neutral to discuss things with. I’m finding that I am getting better at stopping my mind from spiraling out. My aunt says I am calmer, less nervous. The thing I’m finding, I didn’t fully realize how neurotic I was until I started making positive changes. I was explaining one of those realizations lately to my best friend and told her, “I was so crazy before, the thought process that would have been going through my head over something so insignificant, but now, I am ok with making this inconsequential decision and not analyzing it to death or assuming what the other person could be thinking.” She was very  gracious and told me I wasn’t crazy before but that my brain was definitely very busy and that it must have been exhausting. True dat. 

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The Tragedy of Mental Health

Robin Williams. Robin fucking Williams. One of the funniest people on the planet. Gone. He is gone because of a disease that turns the mind against itself. I was shocked and terribly saddened when I learned of his passing. It felt like a punch to the gut.

A friend had posted something on Facebook which sent me on a rabid search of the web. At that moment there were two results to my search; one gossip site proclaiming his death and one rather sketchy looking site proclaiming it was a hoax. I clung to the hope  it was a hoax. We couldn’t lose Robin Williams.

In the back of my mind I recalled he did suffer from depression and had substance abuse issues in his past. The site that was announcing his passing said it was suicide brought on by a severe bout of depression. I know that what I am writing so far is nothing new, nor am I an authority of any sort. I have no degree whatsoever, just my own battles with mental illness and bearing witness to the battles my loved ones have endured, and one that lost her battle.

In the days following Robin’s death there has been a great deal of dialogue. Questions like, “How could he? He was so rich and successful. He was so funny,” etc. What people don’t get is that mental illness doesn’t discriminate and that it is an illness. I skimmed over a few insensitive comments on Facebook. I even fell victim to one mistaken thought myself. For one, very brief moment, I thought it was dreadfully sad he chose to take his life while people like my uncle, who was killed by cancer, wanted nothing more than to live. How selfish. How very selfish.

At that moment, luckily, I got angry. Not at Robin, not at anyone who has ever committed suicide, but at myself. As someone who battles anxiety and mild depression, I, of all people should know better. I do know better. In my sadness though, I forgot, for just a moment.

Mental illness is coming into the open bit by bit but not fast enough. It is not given the same respect or understanding as diseases like cancer or diabetes or anything quantifiable. With mental illness people usually look ok. The same way that sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia look ok. There isn’t a blood test or an ultrasound or an MRI to detect it. Mental illness is a disease of symptoms and feelings and thoughts. So for many, it isn’t real.

Well-meaning people give ineffectual advice like, think yourself out of it, or focus on the happy thoughts, or just breathe. One cannot think themselves out of diabetes, or emphysema. In fact, if someone told a diabetic, “Just don’t think about it and you’ll be fine,” they would be looked at as if they were crazy. Yet, for people suffering from mental illness it is common practice to tell them to think their way out of their disease. It doesn’t work like that…

I have general anxiety disorder and mild depression. There are days that I’m scared to death, panicked, over nothing. I may wake up that way or it may hit me out of nowhere, in the middle of my day. Imagine waking up from an intensely scary dream, your heart pounding,being totally overwhelmed with fear. Now imagine feeling that way for no apparent reason. That is what a panic attack is like.

I cannot even count the number of times I have argued with myself, trying desperately to tell myself there is no reason to feel this way. Nothing is wrong. Calm down, breathe. Focus. I’m fine. But I am not fine, not in those moments. In those moments, I’m terrified, or feel like I am dying, or want to cry because internally I am out of fucking control. I’m shook up, on the inside.

I went years feeling detached from the world around me, feeling numb. I was sad and angry. I was filled with rage. I couldn’t explain it, couldn’t tell a single person why. I have a good life. I have two loving parents who are still together. I grew up in a stable home environment. I have been surrounded by a loving, extended family. I have never been raped or molested or kidnapped or beaten. By all accounts and measures, I have a good life. No trauma to “explain,” why I have these issues.

Yet, I have a mental illness. It turns out, it runs in my family. While I do, in some ways, count it as a blessing- it gives me an empathy and understanding that no outsider can truly feel- it is also a curse. Freaking out over nothing? Sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room and suddenly feeling like I can’t breathe, that I am dying? It’s awful. Experiencing tension throughout my body  that is so painful and an ever churning mind that I cannot shut off? Torture. Having my stomach in knots, heart pounding, and feeling split in two? Certainly not fun.  

When my anxiety is running high I am like two people in the same body. There is the version of me that others see, the version that is trying desperately to act normal and carry on like everything is ok. Then there is the other side, the darker side, the one that is struggling terribly, trying desperately to coach myself through the situation.

Try having a conversation with a total stranger, staying focused and coherent, while inside your heart is pounding, breathing is difficult, you feel tingly, you want to run away, you want to scream, you want to cry, you think you’re going to be sick, maybe your face feels numb, or you have odd pains, you wonder if you’re having a heart attack or stroking out… So many feelings, all of the feelings, wrapped in panic and fear and worry, happening inside of you all at once. Welcome to my life. Welcome to the life of someone with a mental illness. Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it? To top it off you feel dumb because you know its totally illogical, there is no threat, no danger. The panic is useless but it’s still there, unrelenting.

Sometimes I wish for education sake, people could be forced into a panic attack, just once, so they would get it. So they would see how thoroughly futile it is to “think your way out of it” I wouldn’t wish an anxiety disorder on anyone but if everyone could feel it just one time…

Depression is even scarier. I have mild bouts of depression from time to time. I have never been suicidal. Suicide was an intrusive thought, a tempting release from the pain I was in. It was dark and beautiful and poetic. It would mean having some semblance of control when everything else felt hopeless. Or it would be a way to punish those that hurt me. However, I am lucky, for me it was just a pretty idea to write about in morbid poetry. That was enough of a release for me. I’ve also never been a cutter, and while I have occasionally had too much to drink, I don’t use alcohol to self-medicate or treat my anxiety and depression.

I am lucky while others are not as lucky. There are people that I love that are Bi-Polar II. It painful to watch them spiral out of control as they enter their lows. To know they are engulfed in despair. To know I’ve been there but never as dark or as deep as them. I know what it’s like to sleep away life, I’ve done it. I know what it is like to feel… Nothing. To simply exist and go through the motions day after day. I know what it is like to hate yourself completely. To not find a single redeeming quality about yourself. I’ve been there. Still, as dark as I got, wrapped up in my own misery, I have always seen light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe faint at time. Sometimes things felt completely pointless but there was always a shred of hope. Not everyone is as fortunate.

One of my friends committed suicide a year ago. She had fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, she lived with her abusive mother, she was in her thirties but couldn’t hold down a job due to her health issues. Some days were good, some were awful. There were days she couldn’t get out of bed because the pain was so bad. She was hospitalized many times for her Crohns disease. She had such dreams, such beauty inside of her, compassion for others. Yet, the suffering, her diseases were too much. She couldn’t make it through. I was heartbroken when I learned of her suicide. I was angry. I questioned myself if I could have saved her. I was sad because she was gone from this earth. I was sad for the hand she was dealt. In the end though, no matter what I felt, no matter what I said, no matter what I did or could do… I was not her. I didn’t know the extent of her demons, the depths of her despair, or the hopelessness that swallowed her up.

I do not condone suicide but I do ‘get it,’  I can understand being at war within yourself, feeling hopeless and beaten. Knowing that so many people suspect you’re lazy or faking it, or that life just isn’t that bad. As someone that suffers from mental illness I know the dialogue society still has about it. “Everyone has stress, you need to learn to deal with it.” There is still a stigma, plenty of judgement, and a gross lack of understanding. I hope one day, that won’t be true. People with mental illness are so busy fighting within ourselves we don’t need to defend ourselves against the world too.

*** To be clear, I am currently in a good place, my anxiety seems to be under control again and I’m not “down,” or otherwise affected by depression. However, they are a part of me, so this topic really hits home and I felt the need to voice what it is like to suffer.

Emerging From The Darkness

I am emerging from the darkness. I am once again feeling stronger. After a few weeks of being down, dancing between two emotions; numb or melancholy, the fog is lifting.

Every so often I slip into a low. As my mother puts it, it is like a blanket that covers me and keeps me from being myself. I agree with her, partially. It is like a blanket, or a fog, or a haze that descends upon me. The usual happy go lucky demeanor takes a back seat. I get introspective, contemplative, quiet, and yes- moody.

However, I am still me, this is a part of me. Is it mild depression? Is it just part of my personality? The need to pull back now and then and take stock of my life? I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me, not too much at least. It doesn’t bother me because it doesn’t last. The only time it ever lasted I was on the wrong meds/too strong of a dose. Then I withdrew pretty much all together and spent any time not at work lounging or sleeping in my bed. That is not where I am now. That is not where I have been for a long time. 

To me, there is a certain beauty to darkness. I think embracing it now and then is important. Is it painful? Yes, but it also leads to growth, to joy, to a stronger version of me. Embracing it, as long as it is not stopping me from fulfilling my responsibilities (much), or totally cutting everyone out of my life, or having suicidal thoughts (which I don’t), then I say, embrace away. 

Still, there must be a balance. The dark cannot overtake the light. I mustn’t dwell for too long. Life is too precious, too fragile, too beautiful to focus on the misery and the sadness for an extended period of time. 

I was sort of due for this little segue into the land of sorrow. Uncle John’s birthday was just a week ago. There are other changes going on in my life that I was not thrilled to hear about. I have not been focusing on maintaining a positive attitude. There are a few stressors that had been weighing me down as well. Mix that all together and it’s a perfect recipe to backslide a touch. 

Besides, if I get too comfortable in life, if things are going too smoothly, it makes me a tad uncomfortable. I spent so many years overwhelmed and miserable due to my undiagnosed anxiety disorder that peacefulness can actually be unnerving at times. Realistically I suffered from my anxiety issues for years (at least seven years totally undiagnosed, three of those years experiencing panic attacks that scared the bejesus out of me). Just as I began to learn about my anxiety disorder and seek treatment the health of several relatives went into decline, one right after the other. 

In some ways, I’ve had a rough go of it since I was 17 years old.To be clear, not as rough as many in this life but this is my life, my journey, and my issues to deal with. Sure there were pockets of calm in between but also a lot of chaos, a lot of stress, a lot of… well… a lot. Not to mention the amount of growth a person does in those years regardless of other factors. 

So here I am, learning to adjust to a new normal. One I never imagined but one that I am content with. A normal that sadly doesn’t include people that I assumed would be around a lot longer than they were. A normal that still battles anxiety and depression. A normal with more amazing friends than I dared to believe possible when I was younger. A normal that includes healthy relationships with my family. A normal that is all mine. Yes, I am emerging from the darkness once again.