The Toughest One Yet

This will be my most vulnerable post yet, one I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. And now, I think, the time is right. But first, I want to say that mental illness is very personal. My hope is that in time more and more people will open up about it. The more we talk it about the more we learn and the more all those false stigmas will, hopefully, die. But it can be incredibly difficult to talk about. Stigmas are still there and people can judge. It took me years before I felt comfortable sharing my experiences. And it has taken me months to feel comfortable sharing this new one. But I truly hope it is enlightening, educational and gives hope to others.

One night back in March I made a half-attempt at my life. I say half-attempt because I took some pills—enough that I knew it would probably hurt me, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t enough to actually kill me. I felt worthless and like the world and everyone in it would be better off without me. I wanted to die, but didn’t completely have the courage, if that’s the right word, to make sure I’d taken enough pills to end my life.

My husband wasn’t home and couldn’t get home until the next morning, but being worried about me he let some trusted people know. Those trusted people called the police, who showed up at my door around midnight. I had to go out and talk to them, tell them what I’d done, what pills I’d taken, why I had taken them. Standing out there in the cold, being told I had to go to the hospital, was one of the worst days of my life. My daughters were in bed, unaware of anything going on. I worried about them waking up in the morning for school with no parent home. I felt worthless, utterly incompetent, stupid, ashamed, horrible and like I was a bad, bad person.

I was taken in the back of a police car to a local hospital where I don’t feel I got the help I really needed. Everyone there acted like I was inconveniencing them. Once they were sure the pills I had taken weren’t actually going to kill me they basically pressured me into leaving. They told me I had to find someone who could come pick me up and take me home. I was embarrassed, very, very drowsy from the pills I had taken and was in one of the darkest places I’d ever been—I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. I tried telling them that if I could just wait until morning my husband could probably pick me up, but they wouldn’t let me wait. I called some people, but it was the middle of the night. No one answered. I told the people at the hospital this. “You mentioned something about an ex-husband,” one of them said. “Can you call him?” Sure, my ex and I may have a mostly amicable relationship, but I did not want to call him. However, they continued pressuring me, so I called and miracle of all miracles he actually answered and said he could come pick me up. It was sort of like adding insult to injury. It was absolutely humiliating that I had to be picked up from the hospital and taken home by my ex-husband. I again felt embarrassed, stupid, incompetent and horrible.

The trauma of that night and the things that led me to do what I did stuck with me. It gave me PTSD which manifested through seeing police cars and police officers. The police officers that night were actually really wonderful. They treated me with respect and actually seemed to care about what happened to me. But for whatever reason seeing police cars and police officers is what triggered my PTSD. Living with PTSD was absolutely horrible—one of the most horrible things I’ve ever gone through. Luckily, EMDR helped heal me. I no longer have panic attacks or even get nervous when seeing them. But there has been a lot more to work through. Having an amazing therapist has truly been life-changing. I know I wouldn’t have recovered or progressed the way I have without her.

One reason why I want to share this story is so people understand that suicide ideation, attempted suicide and actual suicide is not some far-off thing that only happens to other people. Being aware of this and educated in it can only help.

 I also want people to understand that suicide doesn’t mean a person is crazy or even unstable. I had to take a few days off work because the pills I took did some horrible things to my stomach, but the next week I was back at work. I continued my duties as a mom, a wife, a neighbor and a member of my church congregation. It was hard, but I did it because that is my life. And I haven’t attempted or even thought about suicide since then. There can be moments of severe depression that leads someone to suicide or attempted suicide. It doesn’t mean they are selfish or horrible or incompetent or unstable. It may just mean they are dealing with the horrors of life. It may mean they need help. It may mean they need a little extra love and understanding.

Even as I write this I debate with myself about whether to share it or not. Are people going to look at me differently? Are they going to treat me differently? Am I going to be someone who is whispered about and shunned? If so, I still want to share. I dream of creating a safe place for others to share their struggles too. Because we all struggle. We are not alone in our struggles—even those who hurt so badly we want to end our lives. I dream of a world where we can all talk openly about tough subjects like mental illness and suicide. If anyone wants to talk about it, I’ll talk about it. If anyone needs a listening ear, I’ll be the listening ear. If I can make even one small crack in the armor of stigmas and stereotypes and the consensus that we shouldn’t talk about these things I know my vulnerability is worth it.

Crisis Response Plan

I started going to therapy again. It has been many years since I’ve gone, but I really like my therapist and think she’ll be able to help me. It feels wonderful having this kind of hope again!

One of the first things she had me do was make a “Crisis Response Plan” card. It’s for times when things get really bad, when I might want to hurt myself or think of taking my own life. It has been awhile since I have thought of that, but I think it’s a good idea to have this just in case.

The purpose of the card is to help me identify warning signs that I’m getting to that bad, low place, what I can do to help myself out of it, who I can go to (who I really, deeply trust) if I need external help and professional help (hospitals, crisis lines and apps, etc.) if it comes to that point.

One reason why I love this idea and am grateful my therapist had me do it is because it’s hard to always remember those things in times of crisis. There are people who have told me I could reach out to them if I get to that point, but when I’m at that point I can barely, if at all, think straight. Remembering this one simple thing–go grab your card–is easier. I also told my husband about it so that if he sees those warning signs he can ask me if I’ve looked at my card.

Another reason I like the card and the idea is because some of the things I can do for myself in a time of crisis are the same as helping me out of a panic attack. I had one at work recently when my PTSD was triggered. Just sitting at my desk, telling myself to power through it wasn’t working. I thought of my card and something on it that I could do even here at work. I went into the bathroom, sat on the floor and played a game on my phone for awhile. Did that fix the trauma or PTSD I have as a result of it? No. That will take more time. But it did help me focus, which got my breathing under control and my heart-rate down enough that I could go back to my desk and keep working.

For anyone who may be at risk for a crisis or who just needs a reminder of warning signs and things they can do to help, I highly recommend having a Crisis Response Plan. It is helpful and hopeful.

SAD Again

Winter is in full swing and so is my seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The cold, cloudy, dark days and nights have really gotten to me. Other stress is also weighing me down. I’ve been trying my hardest to stay out of the clutches of depression, but winter is an especially hard time for me. One thing that helps are the birds.

I live close to a Waterfowl Management Area, home to more than just waterfowl. It is a stop for migratory birds, and winter and spring is filled with them. I love going out there to watch them and take pictures of them. It doesn’t cure my SAD, but it at least gives me a little bit of joy in an otherwise bleak and dreary time.

What hobbies or things do you do to help yourself with your mental illness? I believe we all have something we can use or lean on to at least help a little.

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How Gratitude Helps

Last week I reached a level of depression I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. I had wanted to focus on gratitude, but it was hard. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful. I thought of many, many things I had to be grateful for, I just couldn’t feel it in the depth of my depression. However, I still wanted to try.

I thought of this quote by Tim Keller a coworker shared in a meeting the week before. “It’s one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do.” I decided to do more than just think of what I was grateful for. I wanted to do something and see if it helped.

Even though I wasn’t feeling much of anything, other than despair and defeat, I wrote a bunch of little notes stating what I was grateful for about my husband, then placed them all over the house for him to find. It felt good. Seeing how much he appreciated finding them felt good. It didn’t completely take away the darkness and depression, but it did help to lift me from it. And it inspired me to do more.

Normally, I’m the type of person who keeps my head down and tries to avoid conversation with others when I’m at a store or in line to pay for my groceries. I worry having to make eye contact and talk to someone will trigger my anxiety. But I decided to step outside my comfort zone. I took my girls shopping for clothes the day before Thanksgiving. The person helping me asked if I had any plans for Thanksgiving. I answered her, then asked her if she had any plans. She smiled and replied, then we continued to have a wonderful conversation. She seemed really happy—maybe even grateful—when I told her I hoped she had a great Thanksgiving just before I took my bag of clothes and left. I had a similar conversation with a checker at the grocery store after Thanksgiving as I asked her how her Thanksgiving had been. We both smiled and she seemed genuinely happy that I had asked her questions and engaged her in a real conversation. I was happy, too!

Focusing on gratitude and then stepping outside my comfort zone and doing, rather than just thinking or feeling, really did make such a difference. I know it can be hard, but I encourage others to give it a try, too, and see what a difference it makes!

Support Animals

Emotional support animals. Some people make jokes about them. There are memes about them. But I really do believe animals can make a difference. I have seen the difference my daughter’s cat, at her dad’s house, has made. She’s told me about times her anxiety was getting bad, so she’d hold or pet her cat, and how much it helped. No, she doesn’t take him to school or the grocery store with her, but having him has made a difference in her life and for her anxiety.

A couple of months ago we got a puppy. Pepper. A miniature schnauzer. We all love her! My daughter has wanted one forever, but the timing was always off. Things finally came together, and we got our puppy. She has had the same effect as the cat on my daughter, but she has also helped me.

I’ve always struggled to be alone on the weekends my kids are with their dad. My anxiety and depression have always kicked in when I’m alone all weekend. But having Pepper has definitely helped. I don’t feel as lonely and isolated which helps my anxiety and depression. She also helps motivate me. I took her on a 4.6 mile hike over the weekend that I don’t think I would have been motivated to do without her. She LOVES being outside and going for walks and hikes.

So while someone having an emotional support Llama may seem like a bit of a stretch, I can attest to the power of animals and how they can help with mental illness.

What Is a Panic Attack?

What is a panic attack? The Mayo Clinic says, “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” It also states, “Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.” I can attest to the fact that panic attacks are incredibly frightening and crippling. It’s more than just a “sense” of panic or nervousness. It’s completely disabling and can cause side effects such as:

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment
  • Sense of impending doom or danger

As you can see, there are actual physical side effects that can come with a panic attack—things that are completely out of your control.

So what does a panic attack look like? That’s sort of a trick question because a panic attack isn’t always something that can be seen. Panic attacks are different for everyone. I have even experienced them differently. My anxiety really started getting bad after my first baby was born. I remember having several panic attacks when she was a toddler. There were times we were sitting on the couch, watching TV together, when my stomach would start cramping and my mind would start reeling, thinking about things that increased my anxiety, and I’d have a panic attack. I was conscious, but everything around me seemed to fade out and I became completely unaware of my surroundings. At least a couple of times I came out of it from my daughter saying “Mommy, Mommy” over and over again in front of my face. I’d snap out of it with no idea how long I’d been like that or how long she had been saying my name. The most frightening thing about it was knowing that she could have walked out the door and down the street, and I would have had no idea. To anyone looking on, it would have looked like I was just sitting there, watching TV, when really I was feeling incredible physical and emotional pain.

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Panic attacks, for me, have now become more physical. I generally get stomach pain, like horrible cramps that often go into my back, neck, shoulders, and I hyperventilate, sometimes to the point of barely being able to breathe and nearly blacking out/passing out. It is horrible. It is scary. It is absolute darkness and complete loneliness. You do, sometimes, feel like you’re going to die. Either that, or you’re hoping you do it’s so bad.

Sometimes I have smaller panic attacks that I’m able to get control of before they get that bad. I’ve had them at work, and no one has noticed. I even had one over the weekend. Some coworkers and I went on a little retreat/workshop together. We stopped at a grocery store to get a few things. Some of them waited in the car, but I needed to use the restroom so I went in with a couple of them. This grocery store requires masks, so I put mine on until I got to the restroom where I pulled it down. I put it up going back into the store as I walked around with the other two women. However, my stomach started hurting and it became very difficult to breathe. I kept telling myself I had to get out of there or I was going to die, but I didn’t want to be rude so I kept walking around the store with them, having a panic attack they were completely unaware of. I finally did excuse myself when they were going to buy the food we’d picked out because I knew before long I’d be on the floor, crying and completely hyperventilating.

I haven’t yet had a noticeable panic attack in public—at least as far as I know, but I fear it happening, especially when school/my job starts back up, and I’m supposed to wear a mask all day. Just thinking about having a panic attack in front of my coworkers or complete strangers is almost enough to make me have one. How would they react? What would people think and say? This is the kind of debilitating fear we live with. And right now, as people who don’t fit the mold or fit inside that perfect, tidy little box we’re expected to comply to, it is even worse. But it’s helpful to remember that there are things that can help. Breathing is huge. It’s hard to remember or do when you are having a panic attack, but if you can get even, steady, deep breaths, it can help the panic attack subside. My fiance has been so good at helping me with this. I have had at least one panic attack in his presence and at least one or two when on the phone with him, and the best thing he has done is started breathing deeply for me to hear. Each time I was able to match my breathing with his and eventually came out of the panic attack. If you see someone having a panic attack this is a good way to help. Don’t tell them to breathe, just start breathing for them to hear. Focusing on something, like an image or object, can also help.

Like always, I urge kindness and understanding. The last few years it seemed we had made progress when it comes to mental illness. The last few months, however, feels like we have gone backwards and all progress has been lost. It’s hard not to feel forgotten and uncared about when people constantly question you and things like your faith or obedience or caring about others. Mental illness, anxiety and panic attacks are real and have nothing to do with faith, obedience and it certainly does not mean you are selfish and don’t care about other people. So let’s work together to make the world aware. Let’s work together to show kindness and understanding.

Sometimes It Just Takes Time

I’ve learned several things during this quarantine period. I’m sure we all have! One thing I’ve learned is that you can have social anxiety, but still need to be around people. That’s how my daughter’s therapist put it. He said it was something new he had learned from my daughter. My daughter and I both have social anxiety—we struggle to be in large groups of people, to be outgoing, to talk to others, but we also get anxiety being alone or being isolated. Even though I loved the extra time at home with my kids, I also greatly missed adult interaction with my coworkers. I struggled a lot at first not being around other adults or even just being able to see other people.

Another thing I learned is that I can adapt. Eventually I got used to being at home with just my kids. I often said how I missed other people, other adults, talking face to face with coworkers. But once I had to go back to work, after two months at home, I found my anxiety was really bad. I work at an amazing place, and I love the people I work with so much, but I had gotten so used to the way things became that I was having a hard time coping with the change. Yet another change. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so anxious thinking about going into work and being around other people. I was nauseous and sick to my stomach a lot. But after less than two weeks, I got used to being back at work and was even enjoying it again—just in time for summer break and being off again! Oh the irony.

The thing I learned from all of this is that sometimes it just takes time. Rarely is there some automatic cure-all for anxiety or depression or any kind of mental illness. I do believe there are a lot of things that can help, but sometimes it’s merely about taking time to let things settle. Sometimes it’s about understanding rather than fixing. Sometimes, oftentimes, understanding is what helps. So if you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental illness, especially during this unusual time so full of so many constant changes, don’t think all is lost. Don’t necessarily think you need to rush to change something right away. Give yourself time to understand what’s happening. Maybe you’ll discover that you do need to change something. Maybe it’s time to change the dose of your medication. Maybe it’s time to go back to a therapist. Maybe it’s time to start eating healthier. And maybe you just need time to understand and let things settle into a new normal—or back into an old one. It’s okay to allow yourself or your loved one that time.

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Resources for Suicide

I’ve heard people say that suicide is selfish. I, myself, thought the same thing when I was younger. Then I, myself, almost took my own life twice in high school. I also have thought about taking my own life several times since then. Maybe suicide is selfish, but I also have compassion for those who have suicidal thoughts and those who do take their own lives because I know what it’s like to be in such a dark, depressing place that you feel as if you have no other option.

Suicide is another one of those taboo subjects that I do think is finally coming out of darkness more, which is a good thing. It is something that should be able to be talked about without judgement or condemnation. The more we talk about it the more likely it is that people who are considering suicide can get help. I was so happy and impressed to learn about the effort my state is making from this news article. I’m also very happy about this new website, Live On, that provides resources for education, for helping others and support for those considering suicide. Please check it out, and let’s all work together for better suicide prevention. Because there is always hope for something better. There is always the possibility for light in the darkness.

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No Respecter of Persons

Today I write in honor of Chris Cornell—three years to the day after his suicide.

I first heard Soundgarden, Cornell’s band, when I was in high school. Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. Instantly I loved them. And then a couple of years after high school I heard Show Me How to Live and I Am the Highway on the radio. The two singles from the first album of Cornell’s new band, Audioslave. I was hooked! The fact that they could write something as powerful and rockin’ as Show Me How to Live and as powerful, yet soft and beautiful as I Am the Highway was amazing to me. I went out and bought the album on CD as soon as it came out. I listened to it over and over and over again.

Many years later, after Audioslave had disbanded, I heard rumors that they were going to get back together to go on tour. I was so psyched! And then, I’ll never forget the day I heard the news that Chris Cornell was gone. It was early in the morning, I was in the car, pulling up to the gym. The DJ on the radio announced that Chris Cornell had hung himself. I was devastated. My heart ached that such a talented person had been in such a dark place that he had felt the only option was to take his own life. And I finally, really came to understand why people made such a big deal about celebrity suicides—because it shows that mental illness is no respecter of persons. So often, we think people have it made—celebrities, CEO’s, the wealthy, even our neighbors, family or friends. It’s easy to think we know what’s going on by seeing the outside, when really, on the inside, that person is struggling, suffering, dying.

Too often, I think the signs of depression get ignored. Too often, I think depression is minimized because it’s easier that way. It’s easier to ignore or give simple answers. Sometimes it’s because of the stigma still attached to depression. Sometimes it’s because of lack of education. And sometimes it’s because, simply put, depression is hard. It can be hard to understand or to know what to do, as is the case with any mental illness. And it can be hard because it’s different for everyone. And that is totally normal.

But when it comes to helping others, what’s right may be more important than what’s easy. The Mayo clinic has an amazing page about how you can recognize depression in others and ways you can help and encourage them. I can testify that even a simple smile can make a difference. I still remember a couple of girls I went to high school with who made a difference in my life. One of them always said hi to me, always gave me a smile. Another one brought me flowers because she had noticed I was sad the day before. I have a friend who easily could have given up on me because, as I stated, depression is hard. But she didn’t. Even when it scared her, she kept being my friend, and that made a huge difference. My boyfriend is a good example, too. Little things like asking questions and trying to understand what I’m going through helps so much. These things truly do matter.

Chris Cornell made a difference to me. There were so many times I was off at college that I would take off for a long drive in my car when I was feeling sad or frustrated about something, and I would crank that Audioslave CD! It always managed to either help release my frustration or remind me that I wasn’t alone. It still saddens me that I’ll never get to see him in concert. It saddens me that such a talented person struggled for so long with depression—until he couldn’t struggle anymore. But I believe we can do something about the alarming number of people who take their own lives. It starts at an individual level. Learn to know the signs of depression and learn what you may be able to do to help. And remember, a simple “hi” or a smile may be just the thing someone needs.

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Mostly Doing Well

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I had a panic attack today. First one I’ve had in a long, long time. I’ve been doing really well. I’ve barely been affected by SAD this winter. It has been amazing! But I had surgery a week ago. My boyfriend has been here, taking care of me. He goes home tomorrow, and I was feeling so overwhelmed with all the things I need to do and wondering how I was going to do them without his help, as I continue to recover. (He lives over 1600 miles away.) At first I was just crying, but then it turned into a full-fledged panic attack where I was hyperventilating and getting light-headed. My boyfriend heard and came rushing in. He pulled me into him and held me, then started breathing deeply, for me to hear. I tried to match my breathing with his, and eventually calmed down.

Living or being in a relationship with someone who has mental illness can be hard. I know it hasn’t always been easy for my boyfriend, but I’m so grateful to have someone who has let—and even encouraged—me to be open about it. I’m grateful for someone who has been willing to be patient and learn and help. I don’t believe mental illness should be used as an excuse. It can make certain things much harder to do, but I never think it should be used as an excuse, and no one should be expected to allow themselves to be abused or remain in a toxic relationship with someone who has mental illness who isn’t willing to do anything about it. But I do wish, still, that there was more discussion on it, more openness and more willingness to be patient, to learn and to help—on all sides. I still continue to be hopeful that one day there will be.