When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

Life doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes bad things happen even when you’re doing the right things. A perfect example happened a couple of days ago. I was on my way to Southern Utah for a few days. My kids are with their dad for Spring break this week, so I was going to spend some time birding and just relaxing by myself in warm, beautiful red-rock country. A few hours into my trip and three-fourths of the way there my car broke down. The engine seized up and wouldn’t start. Now my car is sitting at a dealership where it will take around 2 months just to find out if the cost to repair or replace the engine is covered by the warranty. What happened isn’t because I didn’t take care of the car. I had it serviced when it needed to be. I always kept up on oil changes. I did everything right, and yet . . . the car broke down and now we’re down to just one vehicle. And I didn’t get to take my solo vacation.

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned, and sometimes bad things happen even when you’re doing things right. That’s just life. There are two important things I learned from this experience, though. One, even when things are bad and sucky and deviating far from what you wanted or had planned, there is still good, and there are still things to be grateful for. Shortly after pulling my car off the side of the freeway and turning my hazard lights on a tow truck pulled off. The driver got out and asked if I needed help. He said a local who knows him called him up and told him he had passed a car off the side of the freeway with hazards on. I’m grateful for the person who called the tow truck driver and grateful for the tow truck driver himself. He’s the one who towed me to the dealership, quite a ways away. And he was so nice! I was worried about my anxiety kicking in, not knowing how to talk to this stranger, but we talked easily and had a great conversation the whole time. Even in the midst of adversity and total crap happening there is still light and goodness.

The other thing I learned is how important it is to have the right people in your life. To have the right support team. It can be hard to have any sort of relationship with someone who has mental illness, but my husband has been absolutely amazing in his relationship with me. I don’t deal well with stress, but I have found that I deal with it better since my husband came into my life. Five or ten years ago I would have been an absolute basket case in this same situation. I wouldn’t have known what to do, I would have been terrified, I would have been extremely angry that things didn’t go as planned and that I didn’t get to go on my vacation and probably would have thought the world was ending just because my car broke down. Seriously. But I stayed a lot calmer than that. After I pulled off of the freeway I called my husband. I was a little frantic, but not basket-case, I’m-freaking-out-and-can’t-stop-crying frantic. Knowing he was going to try to get ahold of the insurance company and that he’d pick me up from the dealership helped keep me calm. I did get a bit emotional thinking about the possibility of having to buy a new car when I feel we can’t afford it right now, but he stayed calm and reassured me it would be okay. Having someone who can support you in the right way during those difficult times is so important. And I’m so grateful I have my husband for that. He truly has helped me grow, and that is so helpful and so wonderful.

So when life doesn’t go as planned and crap just happens, remember to look for the light. It’s there. And finding a good support person or team will also do wonders!

Perpetual Growth

I don’t believe in excuses. Instead, I believe in growth. There will never come a day when I will look in the mirror and say, “Way to go! You’ve grown as much as you can. There’s nothing more to do or to learn. Great job!” No matter how much we learn and grow there’s always more. And I, personally, don’t believe we can grow or reach our full potential when we mire ourselves in excuses.

There may be limitations that make it more difficult. For example, my sensory-seeking autistic son has a hard time keeping his hands to himself. He experiences the world through touch. His instinct is to touch whoever is close to him, whether he knows them or not, whether he’s gotten their approval or not. His form of autism also makes it difficult to understand social ques or situations like people having a “bubble” of personal space around them. However, I have not let him use this as an excuse. His teachers and I have been working very hard to help him understand that it’s not appropriate to touch people at school or when he’s in line at an amusement park or in the store, etc. It has been a huge challenge because of his autism, yet he’s getting better at it. He’s learning. He’s growing. Just like we all can.

Some people use mental illness as an excuse. I think there are certain behaviors or feelings that can be explained about mental illness, but there’s a difference between an explanation and an excuse, especially if that excuse hurts others. By not allowing myself excuses I have given myself room to grow. That doesn’t mean I grow every day or do better every single day, but I am trying, and I believe it has made a huge difference in how I approach each day and what I’m able to accomplish. Cutting excuses is the beginning of perpetual growth. It may be more difficult with mental illness or other “limitations” we have, but we can do it. I know we can.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD? According to the Mayo Clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651) SAD “is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons . . .” It generally starts and ends at the same times every year and, more often than not, is during winter months. However, it is more than just not liking winter.

A few weeks ago my daughter told me she had been feeling depressed lately. Thanks to medication and an awesome therapist her depression went away and her anxiety has been more manageable lately. However, I had also noticed that her depression seemed to be back, perhaps not as bad as before, but she definitely seemed more down than usual. I told her she probably had Seasonal Affective Disorder just like I do. “But I don’t dislike winter,” she said. “I actually like the snow, and the cold isn’t that bad.” I explained to her that SAD doesn’t mean you don’t like the snow or cold. It is much more than that. It is an actual disorder. The Mayo Clinic lists possible causes as:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

You may not be affected by the cold. You may love watching the snow, playing in it, going skiing, etc. That doesn’t change the lack of sunlight or other risk factors for getting SAD.

The Mayo Clinic states, “Don’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the ‘winter blues’ or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own.” SAD causes depression and has other symptoms, such as low energy, sleeping too much or having difficulty sleeping at all, feeling tired all the time, losing interest in things, appetite changes, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and thoughts of suicide. For me, it is when all my demons come back. I can be totally fine, feeling great, managing my anxiety and the general challenges of life, and as soon as my SAD kicks in (usually around the end of November/beginning of December) the depression hits. I have many of those symptoms I just listed, and I start feeling horrible about myself. I start doubting all the good and believing in the false.

SAD is real and not something that should be brushed away or ignored. Luckily, there are things that can help. Light therapy is a great way to help counter the effects of SAD. I go to a spa that has red light beds and lamps. You can also buy them to have in your own home. Taking extra Vitamin D can also be helpful. Therapy and medication are also always things to consider.

I wanted to write this so people know SAD is more than not liking winter. It is a serious disorder that can be incredibly challenging to live with. But like any disorder or form of mental illness there are always things that can help and give hope.

Peace on the Horizon

My wonderful, amazing husband shared this with me not too long ago and I told him I would love to be able to share it on my blog, so he wrote it up. I hope you all find it as thought-provoking and inspiring as I did.

It’s interesting how images and photographs can sometimes convey so much more than is apparent at first glance.  I have a series of three photographs hanging in my office.  They were taken by a very talented friend of mine, Alli McPhail (@alli_eliz on Instagram), and are of Lake Michigan, a place with significant meaning to me.  The photographs are stunning!  The angle of shot, the moments captured, the framing and color; it all comes together so beautifully.  Although I appreciate the quality of those photographs, it is the symbolism of their contents that immediately grasped my attention and drove my desire to display them.

All three photographs are of the water.  Yep, just water.

The first image shows the gentle ebb and flow found on the surface of the water.  Gradual lulls and slow drops with subtle ripples fill the frame.  To me, this symbolizes day-to-day life with its slight ups and downs that gently rock and sway.  The high moments offer a broader glimpse of the good in life, while the lows bring things closer and into focus.  It is in these moments we live most of our lives.  Not the super highs and triumphant joys we can (and hopefully) experience, nor the very difficult struggles we go through.  Just the normalcy of an overall peaceful and content existence.  We aren’t knocked around, there’s no fear or danger, just a movement in which we find peace and happiness in sync with the waves.  In these times, it is easier to go about our lives.  It is easier to appreciate the joys we have.  It is easier to work through difficult emotions, slight conflicts, and disappointments.  It is easier to be strong for others.  In these moments, we feel at peace and recognize our worth.

The second image shows a different moment in the water.  The gentle ebb and flow of a wave is being displaced by a crashing, tumultuous one that will completely rock the surface of the water.  The two are at odds, pitted against each other in a beautifully captured moment.  The peace of the gentle wave can still be seen, but the viewer knows it is fleeting and will soon be destroyed by the overwhelming crash of the raging one.  To me, this is an image I know all too well.  In me lives this moment far too often.  Two sides of me fight over unbearable conflicts and disparaging situations.  My gentle days are often disrupted in this brutal manner by situations and circumstances in my life which are both in and out of my control.  I find myself at war; logic versus emotion, the past versus the present, desires versus needs, perception versus reality.  This photo displays the warring parts of me in breathtaking beauty.  In these times, it is much more difficult to see beyond the wave crashing upon us.  It is much more difficult to focus on joy, on peace, on value and worth.  Big crashing moments overtake us, causing fear, causing intensity, causing worry and doubt as they become all we feel and see.  In these moments, I struggle to get through them, desperately seeking the gentle waves while finding it difficult to believe I deserve the peace it would bring.  More often than not, my only course of action is to try and hold on, let it crash upon me, and wait it out while hoping it doesn’t leave irreparable wreckage behind.  I find myself struggling to keep my emotions in check, struggle to see beyond the immediate heartache and difficulty, and struggle to even do the things which can bring me peace once again.

I will admit there have been times where I barely, barely held on.  Where waiting it out seemed an impossible task.  Where the crashing, tumultuous wave seemed too great to ever find peace in its wake.  But it does pass.  Even writing that seems difficult to believe, but I know it to be true.  When nothing is causing water to have waves, the water will settle and be completely at peace.  I believe our lives are meant to be at peace.  I believe our default setting is to be at peace.  Fighting through those dark moments and holding on to a broader perspective can help us see past the moments which thrash us about.  Holding on, even to a rocking boat, can help us get through it.

This brings me to the third photograph.  A photo of water stretching out before me and going much further than I am able to see.  In the foreground of this photo are those gentle waves, but some of the highs are higher than others and some of the lows lower than hoped for.  In the foreground, one can see clearly the broken surface of the water with its many ripples, shaping moments and variety.  Moving our eyes up towards the horizon, however, the water appears to gradually smooth out until it becomes a flat, straight line separating water and sky.  From this distance, we cannot see the ebb and flow, the highs and lows, the crashing waves and tumultuous moments.  From this distance, the water appears to be completely at peace.  The further the distance, the more peaceful the water appears.

To me, this image is all about perspective.  When difficult things are fresh and up close to me, the waves seem greater than those in which I’m able to distance myself.  When I have time to ponder, to heal, or to work things out, the difficult times are pushed away and become smooth.  This may be done through physically distancing myself from the situation at times, or by allowing time and realistic thinking to smooth out my reactions.  Over distance and time, moments of difficulty in life can be displaced by the broader perspective of peace which overlays our lives.  Negative self-talk dissipates, worst-case scenario thinking dissolves, and the warring sides within me come to peace.  When I’m able to broaden my perspective, I’m able to find peace.

Some may live in one photo more than the other ones.  Many are blessed to live in the first image most of their lives, while others find themselves tossed about in the second photo for much of theirs.  Every experience, much like every wave, can be different and beautiful and scary and peaceful and heartbreaking and joyous.  But, especially if we buoy each other, the size or intensity of the waves won’t crush us.  We can all find peace on the horizon.

Doing Better

It has been awhile since I posted. I’ve been doing pretty well. I truly think going to a therapist has helped so much. I usually only go every other week now, but having a person I can talk to, who can help me work things out, who is very solution oriented has given me the tools I need to heal, cope and live has made such a difference.

There have been some really difficult things going on, though, as well. It seems like almost every time I go to my therapist I tell her, “Well, the drama of my life continues.” I definitely hope that the day comes that I don’t need to see a therapist anymore, but while the difficulty and trauma continues I will keep going to see her, even if I feel that I’m doing better now.

One of the worst things we can do when we have mental illness is say, “I’m all better. I don’t need to keep going to a therapist,” or, “I’m all better, I don’t need to keep taking my medication,” or, “There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s everyone else!” Sometimes, we do get well enough to stop going to a therapist or stop taking medication, but it isn’t something that should be done without serious thought and consulting a therapist or a doctor.

My daughter was on anti-depressants and was going to a therapist for her depression and anxiety. Luckily, she was able to stop both. She still has some anxiety, but she is able to work through it thanks to the tools her therapist gave her.

Unfortunately, too many times I have seen people who quit doing the things that were helping only to crash and go right back to where they were before they got the help. And the vicious cycle repeats.

Some of us may need to be on medication for our mental illness our whole lives. That’s okay. Some of us may need to see a therapist our whole lives. That’s okay. Some of us may need to exercise, do yoga, use treatments like EMDR or ART our whole lives. That’s okay. If I had a broken bone that just wouldn’t heal, I wouldn’t stop wearing a cast or wrap or sling or whatever was helping it. It may not be fun to have to wear one forever, but if it helped me live a better life, if it helped me accomplish what I needed to in life, I would wear it forever.

I’m doing a lot better. But I know I still need help with the difficult things going on right now and with past trauma that I haven’t completely worked through yet. Until then, and even after if I need to, I’m going to continue going to therapy. I’m going to continue to recognize and acknowledge that I need help. That’s okay too.

ART

I’m trying yet another kind of therapy to help with trauma from the past that is still affecting my present, in the form of anxiety. It’s called ART, or Accelerated Resolution Therapy. It is similar to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) in that it uses eye movement and visualization, but the results are much quicker.

I liked it because, while my therapist guided me, I was really the one in control. I didn’t even have to tell her anything I was seeing or feeling unless I wanted to. And yet, the session continued. I was pretty drained and very tired, after, but I also felt lighter, like this weight of burden had been lifted off of me.

There is this tiny of seed of doubt at whether one session could really have worked, but I also have faith because I’ve experienced the true effect of EMDR. My ART session focused on something that doesn’t necessarily affect my everyday life, but rather certain circumstances that sometimes arise, so I can’t say for sure, yet, how much it helped, but I have noticed that when I think of those memories associated with the trauma I no longer feel any sort of anger, frustration, fear, sadness, depression, etc. That, also, is incredibly freeing! And it adds to my faith that ART really does work.

I truly am amazed at how far we’ve come in regards to help for mental illness. When I was first diagnosed with depression as a teenager, over twenty years ago, it seemed like the only thing you could do was take medication or use talk-therapy. Both of those things can work, but there are so many more options now, as well, which makes me incredibly grateful. As always, it’s about remembering that what works for me may not work for you. It’s about finding what does work for you and sticking with it. We deserve help. We deserve healthier lives. Because we are all worth it!

Reboot, Recharge

Sometimes in life we need a reboot, something to recharge us and get us going again. I had one of those recently. My husband and I went to Hawaii for our one-year anniversary, and it was amazing! It truly was as beautiful and amazing a place as everyone says. Spending time in nature and having fun with my husband was something I desperately needed.

Getting back to the normal grind of life after we got back home was difficult. Suddenly all the stresses we had left behind in Hawaii charged back with a fury, and at times I’ve felt like I’m drowning. Part of it is that I felt like I’d been losing myself again. I hadn’t been taking care of myself like I should. I hadn’t been doing the things that make me happy, that make me who I am. I rarely went for hikes or went out in the nature all summer and fall, I hadn’t been birding since spring, I stopped rocking out to music when I was in the car and hadn’t played my flute in a long time, either. While in Hawaii, I took tons of pictures of birds I’d never seen. It helped remind how much I love birding and taking pictures, even if I’m not great at it. The other day I forced myself to play my flute, and it felt so liberating! I even got it out and played again, just for a few minutes, the next day. I felt like myself again. I felt happy, even in the midst of stress, noise and difficulties.

So why did I stop doing the things that made me happy? There are various reasons, but one is that I lost motivation. That is one of the worst things about mental illness. It steals all your motivation. Even though I know birding or playing my flute makes me happy, if it takes all the energy I have just to survive each day then I have none left for anything else.

That’s why the recharge was so helpful. A trip as big as going to Hawaii isn’t always possible, but finding something—whether it’s a long hike, a hot bath, a massage, a weekend getaway, going to a concert, etc.—is so important. Finding the motivation can be hard, but if we do it makes it easier to motivate ourselves with the little things that bring happiness and keep us going. Those little—or big—things that make us who we are, that lift us up, lighten our load, bring joy even for a small moment are absolutely necessary. They are needful for those of us with mental illness and even those without.

So do something for yourself today. And if you need something bigger, if you need that reboot or recharge, find a way to make it happen, then cling onto the results and continue forward from there. We’ve got this.

What I Wish I’d Said

Today’s post comes from a guest writer. I instantly connected with the writing as soon as I read it and knew I wanted others to read it. I hope it is as insightful, meaningful and full of hope to you as it is to me.

“Isn’t that selfish?” A discussion among friends had somehow turned to the topic of suicide, and this was a rhetorical question from one. It was the type of comment that carried with it a sting only partially ameliorated by the knowledge that suicidal ideation and mental illness are things that simply cannot be truly understood by those without experience. The taboo nature of mental illness tends to keep its victims hiding in the shadows. Fortunately, this was one of the few times I felt brave enough to speak up. At my prodding, he explained his opinion that ending your life ended your own suffering only to cause it in many others.

What I told him was how, in those early days of my undiagnosed illness, I had a figurative scale. On one side, it weighed the burden I was to others. On the other side, it weighed the burden and the sorrow it would bring to others if I died. I told him that as my illness progressed, I perceived myself as being more and more of a burden to those around me, to the point that it seemed my death would be less distressing for my loved ones in the long run. But there were many things I didn’t say and wish I had.

What I wish I’d said was that there is a difference between wishing you were dead and thinking about killing yourself. For me, the pain was so strong and so relentless for so long that death, had it come, would have been welcomed.

What I wish I’d said is that sometimes those of us with mental illness get so used to not seeing the light that it’s painful to continue looking for it. But hope is key. When I had hope, it kept me from reaching the point of true suicidal ideation. Hope is such an integral part of motivation that the lack of it has the power to override the strongest, most basic human drives.

What I wish I’d said is that, for me, it was the hope engendered by my connection to my God that gave me the strength to hold on past all the misperceptions that weighed in on my figurative scale.

What I wish I’d said was that through every prayer that came out in anger and every prayer where my internal chaos was so strong that the only words I could muster were “Please help me,” my God was there, He heard me, and He had a plan for me if I just kept hanging on to the glimmers of light and hope.

Sometimes the strength He gave was from the experience of the almost completely consuming anxiety subsiding after just a few hours, as opposed to days or weeks. Sometimes it was finding the will to get out of bed however briefly. Sometimes it was the temporary yet significant relief from a friend or family member, or from being able to get a few hours of sleep. Sometimes it was the moments that made me think I wasn’t a complete failure for all the fights I caused with each family member. Sometimes it was the feeling of being seen or understood.

What I wish I’d said was that most of the time, these were fleeting and not anywhere close to the degree of help that I was seeking. But they were things that, slowly, minutely, yet still surely, provided what I needed to make it through one more day, one more sleepless night, one more episode.

What I wish I’d said is that the darkness still comes, but I can now see incredible beauty that is imperceptible to anyone who has not experienced a similar brand of darkness.

But what I most wish I’d said was that, for those consumed by the darkness of mental illness, there is help and hope to anyone who seeks it.

For those of you blessed to be without the burden of mental illness, I hope you can join the fight to destigmatize suicidal ideation, and that you can have the courage to be the light for those consumed by the darkness. Perhaps destigmatizing suicidal ideation will lead to more people having the courage to reach out for help when they suffer from it.

By J. Whicker

The Next Step

I just finished reading Rhythm of War, the fourth book in the Stormlight Archives, by Brandon Sanderson. Yes, I know I’m a bit behind, but life has been crazy the past year like life often is. It got me thinking about some of my favorite quotes and lessons I’ve learned from reading these books. There were so many good ones in the third book, Oathbringer. And yes, I’m going to share some more quotes.

“The ancient code of the Knights Radiant says ‘journey before destination.’ Some may call it a simple platitude, but it is far more. A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us.

“But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.”

I’ve always loved these words, but they especially mean a lot to me right now. I was on a good path. I was in the best place I had been in a very long time. And then everything crashed, and I found myself at rock bottom again, cut, bruised, bleeding in the bottom of a deep, dark hole, wishing I could erase the past, not knowing how to move forward.

But I can’t erase the past, and I have to move forward. In a twisted way, it seems easier to accept stopping, to accept the person I was when I fell, to tell myself I am horrible and awful and undeserving. But my journey isn’t over. I have to accept the mistakes, the stumbles and trials, knowing that I had failed and will probably fail again in the future. I have to accept that I’ve hurt others. That is part of the journey. Another part of the journey is accepting that we can do better, be better and move on. We can take the next step. Because that next step is the most important one. It may a shaky step, unsteady, awkward even. But we can take it. We are more than negative things we tell ourselves. We are the positive too. I have to believe in myself. You should believe in yourself too. Take the next step and keep moving forward. The journey means so much more when we look at all the beautiful and positive things that have happened as well.

Do Better

I recently saw this quote by Maya Angelou. “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It resonated with me because I’ve made some mistakes recently. Really big, really bad mistakes. Most of the time my initial reaction to realizing I’ve screwed up is to completely and utterly berate myself. I tell myself how horrible I am, how undeserving I am, how worthless I am because all I ever do is screw up. Sometimes I tell myself I should just up and leave because everyone would be better off without me. But time usually gives me perspective where eventually I see that those things aren’t true. I see that beating myself up, hating myself, trying to punish myself, aren’t helpful solutions.

We’re all human. We all make mistakes. I think one of the greatest qualities a person can have is the ability to see their mistakes and admit their wrongdoings. That doesn’t mean eternally beating ourselves up over it. I think it means recognizing that we’re not perfect, feeling necessary guilt for a time and saying sorry when needed. Then we learn, grow and try to do better.

I am not a quitter, and all those initial negative thoughts are what someone who gives up thinks and does. But I don’t believe in giving up. I believe in getting back up when I’ve fallen and trying again. Because I’m human and imperfect I know I’ll fall again. I know I’ll make mistakes and maybe other people will hold it against me forever, but I can’t. I won’t. I wouldn’t want others to do that. I would want others to pick themselves up and try again. That’s what I have to do. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I think we all should do. It’s not easy, and it may feel like we’re crawling along a rough, dirty path to get where we want to be, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to give ourselves credit, to be positive and allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes, grow and do better.