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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‘Tis the season of wildlife depression: drive at your own risk

It started like any other Monday morning.

I was just driving to work on Interstate 71, travelling at about 75 mph. I was on the phone with my mom, talking about plans for the weekend when it happened. From my right, what looked like a small football that was thrown from the side of the road hit the hood of my car with a loud thump.

It scared me – and then I saw the feathers, stuck in my windshield wipers. I told my mom I thought I’d hit a bird. I’ve never hit an animal before, and it caught me really off guard. What was a bird doing that low to the ground on the interstate? It came out of nowhere, and I didn’t even have time to react. So what did I do? Kept driving. I wasn’t about to stop on the side of the road and check it out, what if there were more feathers and stuff…

So I got to work, and thought I’d take a peek to see if there was any damage. I barely looked over the hood and saw a wing. Gag.  The friggin’ bird was lodged in the hood of my car. Seriously. I walked around the other side of the car so I didn’t have to see it and went to my manager’s office to see if he could remove it.

“Kevin,” I said, “do you have an aversion to birds, particularly dead ones?”

Luckily he didn’t, and he went and threw the bird in the dumpster, after he told me it was a bird that mated for life so it’s mate was probably out there somewhere. I told him with my luck, that bird would dive-bomb my car on the way home.

It traumatized me a little bit and I almost threw up, not gonna lie. But it’s not my fault the bird got hit. In my defense, birds don’t fly that low on the interstate, he must have had a death wish. And, I was going 75 mph, I couldn’t have avoided it. Now, though, I’m a member of the club – the club of people who have run over or hit an animal. I learned this after I posted my traumatic story on my facebook status for my friends to see. What followed was  some sort of support group kind of thing almost, people were sharing their own stories of witnessing animal suicides. My friend Lindsey has hit an owl. Patrick hit a squirrel, Nikki’s husband hit a goose, and perhaps in the saddest story of them all, my sister Rachel made eye contact with a bunny seconds before she accidentally ran it over with her car.

I got this message from Daniel on the subject, that made me laugh out loud:

Um HELLO Maam I am contacting you on behalf of the National Sanctuary of Wildlife Birds. You MURDERED our rarest of birds and we need to speak with you as soon as possible. Please contact our organization as soon as you can.
LoL I have to say all I did was LAUGH as I read your status because I could just see and hear what was going on in your car at this time.

I guess I am a bird murderer (birderer? stupid joke, I know..), accidentally. It was possibly the grossest thing I have ever witnessed, and I can’t imagine what happens when people hit deer. Ew. Just almost threw up in my mouth a little thinking about that one. Sick.

So, the bird is in a better place now, because he apparently was too sad to stay here. Birds gross me out – Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is so creepy, and I’m really just not a fan anyway. I don’t like when they perch outside the window and make noise when you’re trying to sleep, I don’t like when they’re all just sitting on the phone lines, like, hundreds of them at once…ew.

I’m hoping my week gets better, that can’t be a good sign when your week starts out with a woodland creature’s suicide. After a $7 car wash, the evidence of the tragedy is gone and I kept my eyes peeled the whole drive home just in case some of the bird’s friends had heard what happened.

And I am also amazed at how dumb birds are. That bird really couldn’t see my car? I guess I believe it. When I worked at Hallmark in high school we had a bird get inside the store. It proceeded to fly all over the store, trying – unsuccessfully – to find it’s way out. It went from window to window, throwing itself up against the glass because it thought that’s how it could get out. When I called my boss (this weird old lady) she had no idea what to tell me. So her husband got on the phone and told me to turn the lights off and open the door. The bird should see the light and find it’s way out.

Yeah right. So an hour later, while I’m crouched on the floor behind the register (so as to avoid a head injury from a stupid bird) listening to a panicked bird knock itself senseless on our windows, I decided on plan b. I went next door to the Kroger and asked if one of the bag boys could come over and get the bird out. Apparently they didn’t tell the guy they volunteered what he was doing because as he stood in Hallmark’s doorway with a broom and I told him what I needed him to do, he said – I kid you not – “I’m afraid of birds.”

I don’t know how they eventually got it out of the store, but I had hoped that would be my last close encounter with a flying creature. Little did I know, years later…

So what have we learned?

Be careful on the roads, kids. It’s dangerous out there.