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Frustration

I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with the way the world celebrates the trivial and glosses over real issues.  From time to time, I’ll share a funny cartoon or video to my timeline on Facebook and receive amused response.  I add a photo of me at the beach and get lots of likes and comments.  But when it comes to a serious issue?  Silence.

I posted the following on World Semicolon Day:

Enjoy the memes, and make a #worldsemicolonday post to share resources and raise awareness if you know (or are) someone with a mental illness. And with 1 in 4 people experiencing mental illness at some point in their lives, chances are that you DO know at least one person.  #endthestigma #mentalhealthawareness #1in4

The post included the list of resources that can be found along the side of my blog as well, and a couple of images that I will include at the end.

Only a few very close friends even reacted to the post.  I saw no one in my entire friend list go on to make a World Semicolon Day post of their own.  And that’s their choice… but at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of these people willing to post over less significant stuff, like “Happy Pancake Day, guess I’ll have to make pancakes lol,” and I just don’t understand why something important and potentially life-saving doesn’t merit a few seconds of attention for a similar post.

The situation reads to me that most people don’t care that people all around them are struggling silently on a daily basis.  And I realize that in general it is ignorance not callousness leading to this carelessness, but it still hurts.  I’d like to challenge people on social media that if they can invest a few seconds in changing the filter on their profile for some disaster or another (a move which has little actual benefit to the people they are supporting) then they ought to be able to invest the same to share resources and encouragement for the many people all around them who are fighting illnesses the world shames and ignores.

Why is it the suffering who are left alone to fight the battle of supporting each other?

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Happy New Beginning Day to Me

Today marks the one year anniversary of my release from the hospital.  I’m incredibly torn.  Part of me feels frustrated and let down that ever since I left the hospital, my family has put in their best effort to pretend none of it ever happened.  They don’t seem to understand how significant the day is for me, or that I might want to be open about how I am feeling in my own home.  Over the year as well, my folks have made hurtful and ignorant generalizations about mental illness not seeming to have gained any understanding from what I’ve been through.

On the other hand, part of me wants to celebrate.  The day I left the hospital marked a brand new beginning where I was much more equipped to tackle life on my terms rather than on my illnesses’ terms.  I went through hell and emerged on the other side victorious.  Why shouldn’t I celebrate that?

I wish I lived in a world where I could celebrate out loud and not be judged or feared, ridiculed or looked down upon, scorned or invalidated.  I want to shout to the cosmos that one year ago today, I got a fresh start on life.  For now, I’ll settle for a few words on the internet on an obscure blog.  Chances are that only those who understand will ever read this, and that’s okay.  I don’t need the world’s permission to be proud of who I am and how far I’ve come.

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Rediscovering Me

One year ago today, I was admitted to inpatient mental health treatment.  My stay led to finding a medication that actually worked for me, giving me my life back and sending me on the path of recovery.

Before all of that, I struggled with undiagnosed mental illness for years.  Looking back, I am fairly certain my chronic depression developed in late elementary or early middle school.  Despite persistent and chronic symptoms, with so little frame of reference I had no idea that my experience strayed from what was usual and healthy.  For a young female with an early puberty, chronic fatigue and oversleeping are attributed to the growth spurt, and moodiness is explained away by PMS.  Only when these issues persisted into adulthood, growing worse instead of better, did I seek out answers on my own and reach out to the health center on campus for medical help.

Consequentially, I’ve lived more than half my life in the shadow of untreated mental illness.  After having my experiences and perception affected for so long, I have spent most of this past year rediscovering who I am.  Some things, the things that carried me through the dark years, have stayed true and steady, but other things that I had forgotten brought me joy have emerged from the shadows.  Some dislikes faded and changed as I redeveloped the energy to invest in life beyond survival, and others proved to be facets of my personality.  It’s interesting and challenging and scary all at once.

Sometimes I feel frustrated that while others spent the decade figuring themselves out, I spent it trying to survive.  But I am trying to focus instead on celebrating my becoming in the now.  I have fought battles few can understand, and by God’s grace I have emerged victorious.  I am triumphant, I am strong, and I am becoming new.

“But now, this is what the Lord says—
    he who created you, Jacob,
    he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.’

‘Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.'”

Isaiah 43:1-2, 18-19

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Anxiety, Worry, & Fear

People often confuse anxiety with worry.  They mistake anxiety for fear.  People say, “Stop worrying so much,” or “Don’t get so worked up over nothing,” like anxiety is a choice, a result of too much brooding on life’s problems, a consequence of being too negative of a person.  In the church, anxiety can be misdiagnosed as a lack of faith.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To battle my way through the worst of my anxiety, I have to be a more positive person than I ever would have had to be without it.  I have to put so much more effort into hoping to keep myself from drowning.  I didn’t choose to have anxiety.  What I did choose was to seek help and treatment because anxiety is an illness, not a character flaw.

My ability to deal with the stressful, the unknown, and the scary has grown and been strengthened by my battles with anxiety.  I learned to survive with feelings that weren’t mine, intense surges of panic seemingly without relatable cause, extreme physical reactions to ordinary things, and intrusive thoughts.  My brain is an encyclopedia of coping techniques gleaned from counseling, reading, conversations with others, and my own experiences.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my anxiety and depression, and how my medication has been managing my symptoms pretty well for about 8 months now.  Despite those positive things, I’ve found myself starting to slip into worry.  It’s a vastly different experience from the anxiety I remember.  What if my depression comes back?  What if my meds stop working?  What if I have to go back to the hospital?  What if I can’t keep up with my work?  What if I just keep cycling through new meds and bouts of mental illness for the rest of my life? 

In times like those, God lays on my heart reminders of how He carried me through the worst of my anxiety and depression in the past to calm my worries and guide my focus back to Him.  If a relapse of mental illness is in my future, God has a plan and can work through it.  And as scary as mental illness can be, I can work to maintain my mental health and do my best to prevent future crises without needing to live in fear of it.  I hit bottom and God provided the help and support I needed via medical treatment and brought me through it.  Was it awful?  Yes.  Do I ardently hope to avoid that pit in the future?  Yes.  But knowing I’ve experienced my own “worst-case scenario” in the past, I can count on God to bring me through whatever the future holds.

“Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me.”

Psalm 23:4

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Thank you, meds!

A list of things that have changed since I got on a medication that was right for me:

  • My sleep schedule is regularized and so much healthier.  I go to bed and wake up almost the same time every day without developing high levels of anxiety at bedtime or being pinned to my bed in the morning by the futile weight of depression.
  • The feeling of anticipation has returned.  Weird as it may seem, anticipation is a big indicator for me of my mental health.  When I’m depressed, everything on my list of events carries a similar bland, uninspiring flavor.  Whether I needed to get to a boring lecture or I had planned on attending a Christmas party, my plans had the same lack of drive.  Now, that sense of looking forward to something brings the impulse of excitement that most people would never expect could disappear.
  • I can drive without having an anxiety attack, which is huge for me considering I had previously never been able to do enough practice driving to get my license.
  • I developed my first celebrity crush–it may seem silly or unrelated, but realizing it hadn’t happened before suddenly showed me how my mind really hasn’t been functioning properly for years.  I had started to believe the fun, fluttery, crush-y feelings of my very early adolescence were imaginary since they had been gone so long.  (Before you ask… Matthew Gray Gubler’s character on Criminal Minds.)
  • I’m not constantly battling intrusive and frightening thoughts, including suicidal ideation.  It should never be normal to be forced to maintain an ongoing battle with your own mind in order to stay afloat and function, but for a while, it was my “normal.”
  • I’ve recognized that some people who were in my life were toxic and emotionally abusive.  Being mentally in a better place showed me that I did not deserve or warrant their treatment, and that it was okay to cut them out of my life.
  • I have the energy and motivation to take other steps for promoting my health.  For example, I’ve started learning martial arts and work out twice a week.  The exercise is helpful for maintaining my health both mentally and physically, but I did not have the stamina or strength to get myself doing anything like that before getting on the right medication.

Because of the stigma against medication for mental illness, I fought against going on meds to help treat my depression for a long time.  Now, however, I recognize and celebrate them for what they really are–an important weapon in the fight against mental illness that, for me, was an essential part of recovery.

“Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.”

Psalm 116:7-9

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Hall of Shame

A collection of stupid quotes by people spreading stigma against people with depression.  Here’s to hoping that by posting these and declaring them to be ridiculous, these phrases lose a little bit of their power.

  1. “Why do you listen to your therapist [about how to treat your depression] more than me?”      ~someone who is no longer my friend (and perhaps never was)
  2. “99% percent of people are taking antidepressants as substance abuse.”       ~some idiot on Quora
  3. “Your problem is you need to stop thinking so negatively!”     ~yet another clueless person of the internet
  4. “Why hasn’t [person with depression] apologized to me personally for being sick?”     ~another person I won’t talk to after her treatment of one of my best friends who had depression
  5. “Depression isn’t real.”    ~a moronic “Big Brother” contestant on Twitter

What things that people have said to you about your mental health would you put in your “Hall of Shame”?

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”  ~Proverbs 26:11

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On-Off-On: Medication, Stigma, and Side Effects

During an ensemble rehearsal in the spring of my junior year, a professor I respected and trusted got off on a tangent about medications in the music world and how ridiculous and overused they were. At the time, I was taking medication for depression.

The time for the next refill came and went, but I never called it in. I was feeling better at that point (you know, because the medication was helping), and ashamed to need medication, so I let them run out. That summer and early fall were mostly okay. The seasonal influence on my depression worked in my favor. After the clock change for Daylight Savings Time that fall, though, things headed back downhill.

I was exhausted all the time. I didn’t enjoy doing anything; in fact, I didn’t feel much of anything aside from exhaustion. Keep in mind I was exercising regularly, eating right, and taking better care of myself than I ever had been prior to a depressive episode before. I really thought I was going to keep myself okay through self care alone. Consequently, it took a while to admit that I needed outside help again.

I finally went to the health center for counseling in January, after a rough Christmas break of hidden panic attacks, secret meltdowns, and suicidal thoughts. After resisting medication for several weeks and continuing to feel worse and worse, I finally caved and was put back on the medication that had helped the year before.

Only this time, it didn’t seem to be helping as much. The nurse practitioner overseeing my meds upped the dosage. As I waited for the increased dosage to help, I started experiencing intense anxiety, disassociation, nausea, and periods where I couldn’t fall asleep, which took away one of my few remaining escapes. When I did fall asleep, I had weird, suicidal dreams that started bleeding over into my waking life.

One Wednesday in April, I reached the breaking point and told the counselor I wanted to die and couldn’t keep myself safe anymore. At that point I hadn’t slept or eaten anything other than Gatorade and crackers in several days, and had visited the health center several times for these symptoms only to be told it was “just stress” and “normal for a senior college student” so I should “try to relax.” Fortunately, the counselor took me seriously and called a hospital, where I was admitted to the psychiatric wing.

There, the psychiatrist switched me to a different medication, nurses monitored my symptoms until the first medication had cleared out of my system, and the social worker coordinated with the health center at the college to develop a plan for if and when I could return to classes.

Turns out that sometimes when people stop a medication cold turkey, the medication has the potential to cause severe side effects when they try to take it again. Not every time, and not enough that people are usually aware of it, but it happened to me. All of which could have been avoided if I hadn’t been ashamed of the medication that I needed, if the authority figures in my life promoted a positive, supportive outlook on mental health.

With a lot of support from family and my true friends (the ones who stuck by me), I did return to college that spring, I finished my work, and I graduated with honors despite believing my life was over a month before. Life has been good since then. I have a job in my field, I love my work, and I am taking medication regularly. I’m not ashamed of it—getting the right medication can be life-saving. Because shame and stigma impacted me so greatly in college, I’ve been sharing my story in hopes of raising awareness and encouraging others.

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A Time to Mend

One of my first diagnoses was Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Naturally, while preparing for the time change from Daylight Savings, I am worried that the severe depression that has been haunting me the past winters will return with a vengeance from the change in light.

This year was different than the others in some important ways.  My depression hit new lows and I was hospitalized for the first time, but I’m also now on a medication that seems to be working better than anything I had tried in the past.  Until I’ve made it through this winter, though, I can’t fully trust that my medication is really truly working.  Because I didn’t get relief from depression until mid-April, I can’t be sure that the improvement in my symptoms was not merely seasonally linked.  I want to think the doctors found something that worked, not that I just managed to pull through another winter, but I’m scared of believing it too soon and being let down.

This time change in particular is an important test, because I remember last year around this time was when I really started to fall apart again.  This year, I’m beginning a second job in addition to my first, in places I really like and want to do well, and I don’t want depression to catch me off guard and ruin that for me.  As I move forward, I’m praying that after many years of a time to tear down, this will be a time to mend.

“There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

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Six Months Later

“I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.”

Psalm 116:1-9 (NIV)

Six months ago, I got out of the hospital after my first (and hopefully only) hospitalization because of mental illness.  This marks six months I can hold on to, no matter what, that show me the hope of what recovery looks like.  In some ways, looking back, the whole experience and the weeks surrounding it seem surreal.  Yet, in many ways, that period forms an inextricable part of who I am now.

In both positive and negative ways, the experience of hospitalization lingers with me. Visiting a geriatric rehab center and waiting for the receptionist to press a button to allow me out through the secured doors leaves me vaguely anxious, wondering illogically for a split second whether or not I am still confined to the psychiatric wing.  Pens hold a special significance now, since they were banned from the wing.  I don’t like pencils as much as I once did.  I take a unique delight in wearing drawstrings.  Puzzles soothe my mind.  I like being able to shut people out, not having to respond to knocks on the shower door or a flashlight shown in my face every half hour at night.  On the other hand, I’m so much healthier now, with a medication that works and which isn’t causing adverse reactions, and dismissal from counseling.  I learned who my true friends were, and experienced unconditional love and support.  Without that week, it would have taken much longer to stabilize me and find the solutions I needed, if I even made it that long.

Sometimes I find the phrase, “When I was in the hospital…” springing to my mind and being halted by my lips, unsure where or how to go from there.  How much of my story, the parts that shaped me and defined me and kept me alive, can I allow to flow freely?  So much of it seems dammed up by the people around me, their expectations, and their unspoken rules for me in the weeks and months following my hospitalization.  No one needs to say it directly for me to hear as long as you pretend this never happened, we can all continue as normal. I don’t think the people around me recognize how formative this experience has been, that it is part of who I am now.

So I am celebrating here.  For me, this six month anniversary feels like a victory. Even if I have done nothing else commemorative and no one else knows, I know that this date has significance for me.