Reaching the Light

Note from Laura: This post was not written by me. It was written by a very close friend of mine, who is going through a hard time. In the interest of supporting her and supporting lessening the stigma surrounding talking about mental health, I’m sharing it here, with her permission, and actually at her request. She is a fellow writer and understands the power you feel in getting things like this off your chest and out into the world, whether spoken or written or drawn or whatever. I absolutely hate what she’s gone through, but I also completely get it. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating. But you don’t have to go through it alone. My friend’s hope – and mine – in sharing this with you is that if you feel this way, you are not alone. You are not broken. You are not beyond repair. You can come out the other side stronger and you have many who are willing to help you do so, usually many, many more than you know. Here’s my friend’s story.

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There’s a quote that I’ve always gravitated toward, attributed to the ancient philosopher Plato – “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This summer, this quote has been circling around in my head, and I think about it often as I interact with people daily. Because this summer, I have been living this quote.

Three months ago, I experienced a trauma that rocked me to my core and has left me scrambling to pick up the pieces ever since. There were a few minor events in the months leading up to the big one, like small tremors before the big earthquake, that weakened my body’s defenses and made me more susceptible to a chemical depressive episode, and when the big event happened, it was too much for me to handle alone. For the past three months, I have been treated for depression, anxiety, and acute stress as a result of this trauma.

Because of the nature of what happened, I was only able to share what happened with only my immediate family, a few close friends, and my work family. Most people in my daily life had no idea that I was struggling to function at the most basic level. I was fighting a hard battle that they knew nothing about. It’s estimated that one in four Americans will experience some sort of mental illness at some point in their life. Indeed, they fight a hard battle that we often know nothing about.

Depression takes many forms – sometimes contradicting forms – in different people. For me, it slowed my thinking and physical actions, making the most basic chores, like going to the grocery, clearing the dishes, or making a to-do list, overwhelming, frustrating, and exhausting. I lost a lot of weight. Sometimes people – who didn’t know about the battle I was fighting – would comment on my weight loss, making me angry and more frustrated. Although I didn’t really sleep for almost two months, it took everything I had just to get out of bed in the morning. And oftentimes when I did, I would shower and be so overwhelmed that I would just get right back in bed. I would wake up in the middle of the night with this feeling of dread that something horrible was going to happen and be unable to recover from it enough to fall back asleep. The smallest thing during my daily life might trigger a paralyzing flashback.

I found it difficult to be around people who didn’t know what had happened. I think this was because I was worried about seeming distant or quiet around them without them knowing why I was that way. I missed my college roommate’s son’s first birthday party. I didn’t feel up to attending my cousin’s wedding shower. Many times, I had to cancel plans with friends at the last minute because I was having a bad day and couldn’t get off the couch. On my birthday weekend my parents came in town to visit me, but I couldn’t even go to visit with them because I literally couldn’t pull myself off the floor.

I described my depression as feeling like I was in a black hole. It was pitch black, scary, and full of despair. I could see a light far in the distance, but it felt like that light was too far away for me to ever reach. At my absolute lowest, which thankfully only lasted a few days, I felt like I didn’t want to exist anymore. The pain was too great. I went to bed hoping that I wouldn’t wake up. I would never do anything that would put myself in harm’s way, but a part of me hoped that something happened to me that was beyond my control. I had all these people around me to lift me up and support me, but I felt completely alone.

For a long time, I thought that I must have done something to deserve what happened to me. It isn’t that I thought that I was immune to experiencing pain in my life. I volunteer with refugees, and I am reminded often that bad things happen to good people. I spend time with a family from the Congo who spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania and a Syrian family whose patriarch was blinded in an explosion in Aleppo. I look to these families as inspiration of the resilience of which the human spirit is capable.

I was lucky. I work in healthcare, so I have an above-average understanding of mental health issues. I was able to quickly connect to the resources that I needed to ensure my most speedy recovery. I have an amazing therapist who I see from time to time when I need help effectively dealing with stress in my personal and professional life, and I worked with her and my primary care physician to start an antidepressant that has helped boost my recovery and speed up the process. Weekly, I attend talk therapy sessions, and I always leave them feeling better and more empowered than when I walk in.

I also made sure that the people closest to me knew what I was going through so that they could help me in the ways that I needed, as stubborn and fiercely independent as I am. Relying on others in a time of need is a sign of strength, not weakness. It is easier to withdraw, shut people out, and hide behind depression. It’s easier to try to get better on your own and not be vulnerable. It takes you out of your comfort zone to let people in, to ask for help where you need some. But it speeds up the process tremendously and makes you stronger. I don’t remember a lot from the first month or so. Friends and family would show up with food, giving me one less thing to stress about. Friends were OK with me showing up randomly at their doorsteps crying. They would take me in, give me my favorite snacks, and hold me as I sobbed so hard that I couldn’t speak. My work family helped me lead my meetings and encouraged me to take time off as needed. I owe all of them more than I could ever repay. These few sentences don’t begin to comprehensively list the ways that my loved ones were there for me.

Again, I’m lucky. I knew exactly what I needed to do – and who I needed to turn to – when I needed help. Most people with depression don’t seek help for years, either because of the stigma attached to mental health issues or because of a lack of knowledge about how to get started. That’s why I am sharing my story, to hopefully create purpose for my pain. If someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, or stress, there is no reason to treat it any differently than if it was kidney infection, a broken arm, or diabetes. Mental health is physical health, and it is time we start treating it as such. By not sharing some of my health issues, I only contribute to that stigma.

I wish I could write this solely in the past tense. I wish that I could say that I am past the depression and everything is perfect now. I’m past the worst of it, and things continue to get better. But it’s not a linear process. Which is particularly frustrating to someone as goal-oriented as I am. It’s frustrating to feel like I’ve reached a milestone, only to slip backwards a moment later. Some days I take a step forward. Some days I take two steps back. Still others I leap 10 steps forward. Ultimately, it takes time, diligence, and trust in the process.

I still struggle to trust happiness. I now realize how quickly it can be taken away, without warning. There are moments when I’m unguardedly happy, and then I realize that I’m happy and instinctively pull back, so that I’m never again blindsided when it is taken away. And then I have to force myself to let myself experience the happiness. But I will get there. I am resilient. This battle will be won.

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Like riding a bike

David Sedaris has this great story about getting a Fitbit and basically how his OCD is mainly what keeps pushing him to not only hit his step goal but blow it out of the water completely. Give it a read after you’re done with this.

I got a Fitbit last Christmas. I’d been having trouble with my motivation since getting back to the world of the employed and needed something to keep me accountable when it came to working out – in the summer I’d been fine because, well, summer, and I think knowing I could go any time of day I wanted made it easier. I fit everything else in around the gym, rather than the gym in around everything else.

I wore it a lot, at first. And then quickly realized how sedentary my life was.

And then we went to Denver and walked literally everywhere. Like, such as, up a mountain. And down and back up Red Rocks Amphitheater. NBD.

That was the first time I hit the recommended step goal for the day. 10,000. Hit it every day we were there. And felt super healthy.

And then I came home, took it off for a shower one day and promptly forgot about it for a few months.

WHOOPS.

I mentioned in one of my recent posts that the past several months have been weird because I’ve kinda plateaued on my depression and anxiety meds. The dosage I had been on for years was no longer cutting it, so we were movin’ on up – in addition to doing some other testing to make sure that all it was was those unbalanced brain chemicals and nothing else.

So. Update.

I had some blood tests, they all came back normal. I’m scheduled for a sleep study – because my sleeping has been all fucked up – sometime in December, I think.

I started my new medicine dosage about 3 weeks ago, and… you guys.

I put my Fitbit back on.. so there’s that.

And then I started, for the 1931049th time, Couch to 5K/attempting running three times a week. Because I actually want to. I want to go to the gym. I want to go take a walk instead of immediately crawl into bed after work. I want to go to the Walking Bridge during lunchtime…

Note about the title of this post – riding a bike after you haven’t in a while is not that easy. Ashley and I did it in London after many years of non-biking and we almost fell at least 5 times each. And accidentally trespassed at least 3 because we couldn’t get control of the things. So yeah, that’s what running/medicating feels like for me. You get back to it and it’s weird at first – you get some good stories out of it – and then it becomes alright again.

Running’s still hard AF for me, don’t get me wrong. Because boobs and breathing, basically. But I’m keeping at it. And signing up for a 5K ASAP – looking at one Thanksgiving Day morning, in fact. I’m looking at getting some new shoes because my current ones are old and my achilles hurts after wearing them a while on my runs.

Aside – that may not be from the shoe, it may be from a fall I had on Oaks Night because I was drunk in a maxi dress. But to be fair, I look hot in that maxi dress and have also tripped in it a number of times sober. I was on crutches and in a knee brace for a couple weeks after, and I think that may have a little to do with the pain too.

I’m about to hit 10,000 steps in a day for the first time since that Denver trip – and upping the medicine dosage – and while I won’t be necessarily going to the extremes Sedaris did, it and the running/gym visits have become slightly addicting so I think I’ll keep it up.

Wherein I was an angry elf for a lil bit

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There are a LOT of fun side effects to having anxiety and depression simultaneously.
1. That thing where your legs almost never stop moving when you’re sitting still – If this helped my running at all, I’d be at a marathon level right now instead of 5K.
2. All of the thoughts all of the time. They really ramp up right about midnight.
3. Feeling like you just want to sleep, but also feeling guilty about doing that because you could/should be doing something productive. And then worrying that you would be judged for just wanting to sleep and not get anything done.
4. Random, unexplainable agitation and ANGER.

The anger, man. My God. That came out of fucking nowhere. It’s a recent development, by the way, so that’s fun.

I guess it was about a month ago that it started? Literally no idea what set me off. But all of the sudden, I was mad. I was grumpy. All. The. Time.

And, let’s be honest, my face can’t really hide any emotion. So here I was, annoyed at just about everything everyone was saying or doing and completely unable to hide it. Also, completely unable to explain why I was getting so annoyed. So that’s fun.

Aside: Despite the fact that I have a serious life-long case of Resting Bitch Face, I am really not mad that often. Especially now that I don’t work in the newspaper business/for the devil incarnate anymore.

Thank God for regularly scheduled maintenance with the therapist that came up at just the right time. Sometimes I really understand Bill Murray in “What About Bob?” because I feel like if she was just on call constantly for me to run things by, I’d be so much better off.

And that, my friends, is why I am in therapy. Ha.

But for real – my appointment couldn’t have been timed better. I was damn near breaking point (though what that would have looked like, I honestly don’t know) when I went to see her.

Luckily, she understood what I was talking about (because duh, she always does) and assured me that I wasn’t going crazy(er). She said that sometimes this happens with this illness, because it’s fun and unpredictable like that. And also, since I’ve been on the medicine at the same dosage for about 6 or 7 years now, I’ve probably built up a tolerance, and it’s no longer working the way it should.

FUN!

She also asked some questions about if some certain things bothered me she knew were going on in my life and wouldn’t ya know it, they were! I hadn’t told anyone I was feeling that way about those situations (purposefully keeping it vague here to not hurt feelings) yet she read my damn mind and figured me out. That’s why I pay her the big bucks.

Anyway. The end result of that therapy session was the (probably due to placebo effect) feeling that I was already doing better. I wasn’t getting more crazy, I just needed the chemicals adjusted again. She made me promise to talk to my doctor about upping my dosage and we’d see where we were when I saw her next.

Not long after the appointment with her, I made one with my GP, who, as it turns out, is on double the amount of Prozac I am, so she totally got it. And she was worried about me.

When you go to your physician’s office requesting anti-depressant related things, they give you a mental health checklist of sorts.

It says things like:
“I have no interest in things that used to interest me.”
“I am tired a lot of the time.”
“I have trouble sleeping.”
“I can’t concentrate.”
“I feel angry/agitated/overwhelmed a lot of the time.”
And so on and so on.

You rank it 0 to 3 with 0 being “Not a problem” and 3 being “LITERALLY ALWAYS.” They aren’t really concerned if you stay at 9 or below. I got a 16.

So. Here’s where we are. I’ve been bumped up to a higher dosage of Prozac for a couple months. I’ve got labs scheduled to look at my blood and my chemicals and make sure depression is the only thing effing me up. I have a sleep study coming at some point in the near future and a plan to check back in with all my doctors after a little bit.

I do feel better having a plan, and I’ll let you know how it all works out.

And I already feel a lot less angry. I guess I just had to tell someone I was pissed. Who knew.

If only depression was that easy.

Lies my brain has told me

Disclaimer.

This is not a happy post. Or a funny one. If you’re looking for either one of those, I recommend that time I posted a bunch of awesome fireworks pictures or when my cousins and sisters and I watched Magic Mike.

I wrote this a couple weeks ago, actually, and debated on when to post it. But with Robin Williams’ passing today, and the suspected reasons behind it, I feel like some more attention will be brought to mental illness and depression than has been in a long time. And that’s as good a reason as any to hit publish.

This post is also not meant to bring anyone down or make anyone sad. It is not meant to make anyone worry about me, or pay attention to me, or feel bad for me.
This is my personal experience(s) with depression and medication and nobody else’s. It helps me to write. It helps me to get everything out where I can see it. When I do that it makes it real, but it also makes me really examine how I’m feeling and realize that it’s often not the best use of my time to be feeling that way.

I’m not apologizing for feeling this way, nor do I plan to. I learned long ago that I could not help who I was or how I was, I could only hope to control it. (That last part, I learned more recently…as I’ve said before, starting therapy will forever be the best thing I’ve ever done for myself). I write this, like I said, for me, but also, maybe, in the hopes that it will help somebody else who deals with this damn disease, because that’s what depression is, a disease. It’s managed with medicine and treatments and won’t ever go away completely, and I’ve accepted that. But it doesn’t mean I have to let it win.

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For the past few months I have not been in the best place. Mentally/emotionally. Physically, I have been in my new condo, which IS the best place. But my mind’s not been as cooperative.

Remember how the doctor and my therapist thought I was doing so well we ought to try lowering my medication dosage? This is the medication that is responsible for keeping everything firing like it should be and keeping me from curling up under the covers and shutting out the world (actually, here’s some levity, when I just tried typing “shutting” I first typed “shitting” by accident).

Lowering it, turns out, was a bad idea. Maybe the worst idea.

I don’t remember when things started getting bad. An approximate day or week or anything.. for a while it was fine. There were some really bad, hard things that happened in March. And then there were a couple of situational things that piled on to that. And then the old stuff, the sad stuff, started creeping back in, slowly, like waves on a beach. That, I could handle.

So, I guess it was a little over a month or so ago that that changed. It got worse.

When you have depression, it’s a constant fight with yourself. There’s the part of you that knows better, and then there’s that dark part that wants you to fail, wants you to be miserable. And it starts to become easier to give in than to fight.

Here are some things that my brain has told me recently:
– You suck.
– It’s not gonna change. It’s NEVER going to change.
– Good try, but did you seriously think you could keep it up? (This one was about running when it got hard and then I got busy and then I abandoned it altogether) 
– Won’t happen for you, so quit thinking it will.
– There’s nothing you can do to fix this, any of this.
– You shouldn’t have quit running. That was stupid.
– Don’t bother other people with your drama. 
– Stay home.
– Stay in bed.
– Who cares?
– It’ll never get better. Any of it.
– Did I mention that you suck?

And then more of the old stuff came back. I wasn’t eating. Or I was eating too much. 

I stood in a place that I really should have been so incredibly happy to be in, surrounded by other people and their happiness and selfishly thought about just leaving, walking out the door, disappearing. Because what would it matter. And that approximately 30 seconds of selfishness I forced out of my head almost as quick as it came. Because I knew it was complete bullshit. And yet, it popped into my head anyway.

(Sidenote. I have never, ever wanted to harm myself in any way. But the feeling of wanting to run away, disappear, scared me and I never want to feel that way again, or anywhere close to it)

See, it’s that kind of stuff that’s a constant with this depression thing. And truthfully, when the medicine was stronger, I was stronger. I could handle it better. I could swat it away and call it what it is – RIDICULOUS. 

That list up there is all ridiculous. Now. When I was feeling it? Not so much. I cancelled plans (which was stupid and unnecessary and unfair to do to other people), I slept and then I didn’t sleep. I was letting it win.

This is the part where I get lucky though. (Not in that way, pervs.)

People saw that I was letting it win. People who love me and care about me and were going to help me fight it until I could do it on my own again. I made an emergency-ish appointment with my therapist who I might name a child after, I love her so much, and she made me feel less psycho by saying “Yeah, I see that there’s been a few situations that have made it worse, but I really think it started and is mainly because we tried to get you off the meds. I think a big part of it is chemical.”

I called my mom, I texted my sisters and my best friend. They reinforced the opposite of what I listed up there. I don’t suck. I can fix this. Other people will listen to my drama because it’s my feelings, and you should never feel bad for having feelings or expressing them. The people who love you will listen. And they will help. They reminded me about the good things… and there’s so many good things, you guys. 

You know what blocks you from seeing the good things? The fog of the depression. Those commercials are no joke. It really is like a black cloud. Only it doesn’t have eyes ’cause that’s just too much. And creepy.

Things will get better. But I’m largely responsible for that – making that happen. The medicine won’t do all the work on its own.

And I’m working on it. I’m always going to have this, so I’m always going to be a work in progress..I think I’ve said that before, but it’s true.

I’m very lucky I – and others in my life – caught it before I got lost in that deep, dark hole. I’m blessed that I have people that care about me like they do and resources that I need to get better. Not everyone has that…not everyone thinks they have that, anyway. But they should.

Depression should never win. I can, and will, be stronger than that dark cloud in my head telling me I’m worthless. 

Because it’s a liar. 

And an asshole, really… 

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We need to talk about mental health. And mental illness. And all those brain and chemical and situational and emotional and whatever things that people have going on…

I wrote this because I want to talk about it. I want the people that have told me they feel better or not alone when they see me or someone talk about it remember that they they aren’t alone. I want to keep reminding MYSELF of that. I want anyone and everyone who is hurting to get better, and I really think that can happen. It has to. We can’t keep letting the disease win.