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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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.

A lot of my favorite things

OK, sometimes I only give you a few links to things I’m loving lately. But I’m feeling generous this time. So feel free to waste time on every single one of these for the next, oh, three days. There’s a lot to go through.

Here are some of my favorite things these days:

This is pure joy, right here.

I love Mateo.

OK, good to know, now how do I become a judge? Because I would pick the cutest ones. Sorry not sorry.

Things like this are part of the million reasons I love photography.

One of the best shows ever. And one of the hottest leading men ever. Timothy Olyphant? YUM.

Kind of want to do this. Especially now that I see Dooce is one of the curators.

Bravo, Newton, for encouraging change.

“So what can we do, we can’t stop the grief, we can’t stop talking. What we can do is spend the time and energy identifying vulnerable kids.”

THIS.

Also, THIS.

Speaking of puppies

Oh man, I miss Breaking Bad

I want to get all of these in prints and wallpaper a room with them. Amazing.

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image courtesy posterology.tumblr.com

One of my favorite cities, even before it got to keep my sister and brother-in-law for a couple years.

Life lessons.

Click on this if you want your heart (and, if you’re female, your ovaries) to explode:

Fucking genius.

Never heard of either of the Kentucky ones.. http://mentalfloss.com/article/27987/15-places-strange-names-and-how-they-got-them

Speaking of Kentucky, this would be a good birthday present for a certain Kentucky girl about to turn 30 in a couple weeks…
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image courtesy kentuckyforkentucky.com

Presidential food, because why not?

A startling look at mental health and what college campuses are and are NOT doing about it..

A popular phrase the roommates and I have used lately.

Saved the best for last – I’m gonna miss havin’ Russdiculous on our team, but can’t wait to see what he can do in the NBA!

(P.s. Can someone make me a shirt that says “In Russ We Trust”?)

A little less medicated

Once upon a time I thought I was crazy. Then (like 5 years ago) I saw a therapist and realized that my boss at the time was the crazy one and if I WASN’T letting that little devil (seriously, she is really short and is the devil incarnate) bother me then yes, I had some problems. Oh, and I’d had an underlying chemical imbalance for pretty much my entire life that made things that much harder.

Good news: I was still crazy, but not because of what I thought or as bad as I thought.

Let me say here that everyone is a little crazy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Because there are people that love you for and in spite of it and if you haven’t found them you’re doing it wrong.

Anyways, so I found out my chemicals were off. And after a few months of excessive amounts of talking to a professional in these sorts of things, we came up with a plan. I’d continue to see her to talk about how to cope with the feelings I’d get about how everything sucked and I wasn’t good enough and other peoples’ bad moods were because of me, but also we’d try a little bit of medication, just to see.

And it worked alright at first, and then it didn’t. There were still days I didn’t want to get out of bed (too many of them, in fact) and though I had every reason in the world to be happy, I was nowhere close.

What they sometimes don’t mention – at least I didn’t know about it – about depression is that it can get worse before it gets better. And it did. Both. It got worse, and we upped the meds and then it got better.

Part of that I credit to the medication. It balanced me out, knocked me upright again, pretty much got rid of any and all depression I was having (even though it still lurks there from time to time, its much quieter and doesn’t visit nearly as often anymore) and moved me right on into anxiety.

Ohhhhh, anxiety. That nasty bitch. It’s been harder to shake than the depression was, but we’re working on it. And by we, I don’t mean me and the other personalities or voices in my head (I said crazy, but not like, real crazy, y’all). I mean me and my therapist, a new one I’ve had for a couple years now. She’s amazing and wonderful and done so much for me and I found her through the Internet and I highly recommend she be everyone’s therapist. That’s how much I love her. And with her help and all I’ve learned from my time with her, I felt good enough to make a decision about the future of my mental health.

I’m working my way off the meds.

I saw my physician last month, and decided to cut the dosage of the antidepressant I take in half, slowly, hopefully, weaning myself off of it completely before the end of this year.

It wasn’t a quick decision, or one I came to lightly. In fact, I was anxious. Anxious about giving up the medicine that helps you deal with anxiety. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

But I’m in an entirely different place than I was back then – when I started to get help for these feelings I’d had forever. Then I didn’t know that it was OK to be sad and anxious and it may not be my fault at all. I might just be wired that way.

I don’t credit medication for getting me here – it just made the trip a little easier.

But these days I am happier, more relaxed, less worrisome about trivial things that would have knocked me on my ass five years ago. And I’m more confident in myself and my ability to handle things that I thought this plan – this slowly working my way off of chemical help – was worth a shot.

Funny enough, the last day of my former dosage? Was the day I made an offer on a condo, that I then didn’t end up getting. Yeah it sucked, but I’m surprisingly fine. And I’ll be fine. And soon, hopefully, medication free.

Saying something

I have debated, on and off, since Friday, if I should write something about what happened. I have turned my thoughts over and over in my head and I kept coming back to the same thing – I wanted to get them out. I wanted to write them down, so-to-speak. No matter how jumbled, no matter how all over the place, I wanted to see them in front of me. Because like much of what goes on with me, I deal with it better when I can write about it.

You all know what it is I’m speaking of – the tragic shooting at an elementary school Friday morning that left 20 six- and seven-year-olds dead and six of their teachers/administrators, who died trying to protect those children and others.

On Friday when I heard the news, my heart immediately leapt into my throat. Another shooting at a school? At an elementary school? Why?

My thoughts turned to my dad, an elementary school principal. To several of my closest friends, who are teachers. To the elementary-school-aged children in my life. I thanked God it wasn’t them while at the same time wondering how this could happen, why this could happen. Again.

I was in high school when Columbine happened. Just out of college when Virginia Tech did. I saw Dark Knight Rises a few weeks after the shootings in Colorado. Any one of those events could have happened where I live.

I watched and read the news all day Friday. But I didn’t let myself really feel it until Sunday morning. Sunday morning we sat in church, with 26 candles on the altar, representing the victims. Our pastor brought up the questions we all had: “Why? Where is God? How could he let this happen?” And he couldn’t answer them. No one can.

Saturday night, I babysat two of my favorite kids, both around the ages of those killed in Connecticut. I hugged ’em a little tighter while we sat on the couch together. I made the effort to play more, to do more fun things with them, while underneath it all, my heart was breaking for the parents who wouldn’t get to do the same. For them and for the babysitters, aunts, uncles, teachers, family friends, who loved those kids like they were their own, whose levels of grief I can’t even fathom.

People want to talk a lot about guns right now. That’s not my plan. There’s a bigger issue, a more important issue, one that people don’t talk about, at least not until it’s too late. That issue is mental health.

I’m writing this fresh off a visit with my therapist. I see her about once a month – sometimes the stretches are longer, but lately it’s been about four weeks apart. Today, one of the things we talked about was my medication. I am medicated. For depression and anxiety. Because sometimes life sucks. And sometimes it’s stressful. And sometimes, for some people, chemicals in their brain don’t fire the same way as others. The medicine fixes that.

A few years ago, I was afraid to go to a therapist. Afraid it meant something was wrong with me. Luckily, I had a friend who convinced me otherwise. Who told of all the good it had done for her. And if it weren’t for her, and the situation that ultimately got me to go, well, I don’t know. I’d be where I was then. Unhappy. Constantly stressed. Crying for no reason every other day. Dragging myself out of bed because I had to, not because I wanted to.

My personal experiences with mental health are tiny compared to what’s out there. But the stigma’s the same. To many, therapy means admitting a problem. It means something’s “wrong with them.” It means they’re “giving up.” When they hear the words mental health they picture asylums, padded walls, straightjackets.

People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t want to admit they need help. But no one can do it on their own. As human beings, with souls and hearts and emotions and minds, we need connections to others. And not just for the good stuff. We need someone we can call and say “Help” or “This is hard” or “I can’t do it.” Does it mean something’s wrong with you? NO. It means you’re a HUMAN.

Every one of these shootings has come back to mental health. The shooter was unstable. And it wasn’t just that one time. People remembered previous instances when they were worried, when they were unsettled, when they wondered just what was going on inside that person’s head. But nothing was done, until it was too late.

People with a mental illness cry for help. They do it in different ways, but it’s there. Does that mean everyone should be institutionalized, should be watched like a hawk and sent somewhere the first time they make a comment that doesn’t seem right to you? No. I don’t think there’s a perfect answer for how to deal with someone with mental illness, because they’re all so different.

But I do know that there are signs. I do know that people in a bad place don’t just get there overnight. And I know that they can’t get out of it alone.

Those children should not have lost their lives Friday. Neither should the people in that Colorado movie theater. Or at Virginia Tech, or the mall in Oregon.

We need to have these conversations about mental health. We need to get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness. Not everyone who has a problem will do something of this nature. And the more we talk, the more people are willing to seek help, to not be afraid to ask if they need it, the less likely we are to have something like this happen again.

We owe it to the memory of those 26, and all those before them, to make a change.

I came, I saw, I winked. And then I moved on.

One month. That’s how long it took me to decide.

It was a month when my insomnia came back full-force, when my anxiety moved from threat level yellow (where it stays most of the time) to red-orange or orange-red or whatever that crayon color is.

It was a month when I had paid $35 and all I was getting for my money was added stress. And that’s something I definitely don’t need.

Also, do you know how many drinks you can buy at the bar for that much? Like 6, if you tip a buck or so on each one. More if you’re buying beer.

So yeah, so I quit Match.

When my month I paid for runs out at the end of this week, I’m dunzo.

I cancelled my subscription last night and afterwards? Got the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a month.

It’s not for money reasons. It’s not because I got too impatient trying to find the “love of my life.” It’s because I didn’t like how it made me feel.

Now. I’m not knocking the process. I think there are some people that do well with that option when it comes to dating. And obviously, it works for them, because I know people that have met good people and have great relationships that started with an online dating site. But it’s just not for me.

In this past month, I have cared more about what strangers think of me than I have in a long, long, long, long time. And I let it determine how I felt about myself.

When I was in high school, and silly about relationships as high schoolers can sometimes be, I cared so much about what other people thought. My mood was often determined by one specific boy’s feelings – or lack thereof – about me. I worried about everything I said or did when it came to him because one wrong word, one wrong action would mean the end. It would mean something was wrong with me, never him. (When in reality, looking back, it was SO him. Always. Weirdo.)

That’s when I was 17. And here we are, 11 years later, and I’m back in that mindset. I was letting what was happening – or not happening, actually – on that site determine how I felt about myself.

“Oh, I sent him a message and he hit the ‘no thanks’ button. Something must be seriously wrong with me. Bet he thinks my picture is bad and I’m not pretty.”

I’m not proud of these thoughts, people, but they’re there. They’d been down to a very dull roar for such a long time, but within the last few weeks, there they were, clear as day.

And I debated all day about writing those thoughts above. Because I’m not looking for reassurance or to be built back up. I know the good things about myself. I know the bad things about myself. I know that I more than likely think there are many, many more bad things than others do. But this online dating thing brought all of these feelings back up.

It’s a different world on there. The regular way of meeting people, if there is one – through a friend, through a group you’re in, through work, at a bar – is taken away. This method is strictly based on looks and how well you sell yourself in a profile with limited words and pre-determined questions.

By looking at my profile, guys aren’t going to get that I’m funny. That I am a great friend, that I take care of those I love, that I have pretty eyes when you get up close and what I’m like in a relationship.

Instead they’ll get a few pictures of me I think actually turned out well and answers to questions like “Do you smoke? How often do you drink? What sports do you enjoy? Which of these five animals do you like?”

And then they determine if they want to email me more or cut me off completely? And I’m paying people to help me with this?

No thanks.

My shrink said if I decided to quit Match I should write about being an Online Dating Survivor. And I guess that’s what I’m doing right now.

Because I survived the experience. I got out before the anxiety and frustration and depression it brought on swallowed me whole.

Thank God.