Mental Illness is Not Math

One plus one might always equal two, but people and mental health can’t be measured like math, so it frustrates me when people who have absolutely no experience with mental illness act like it can be—like we are all the same or should all be the same.

One of my daughter’s school teachers recently made a bunch of inaccurate assumptions about her and her mental health, then gave his own son as an example of how he is thriving under the same circumstances. I’ve had others who have done the same thing. They expect everyone to be exactly the same—a “1+1=2 for me or this person I know so 1+1=2 for you and this person you know” type of thing. But that simply isn’t the case when it comes to mental health.

Just because medication works great for one person doesn’t mean it will work great for someone else. Just because one person gets a lot out of therapy doesn’t mean this other person will. Just because one person thrives under pressure doesn’t mean everyone will, can or even should be expected to.

The reasons for mental illness are also varied. This same teacher made the assumption that stress from this one extracurricular activity is what is causing my daughter’s mental health struggles right now and that she just shouldn’t do it again next year. In fact, my daughter really enjoys the activity and is having fun doing it right now. Her mental illness is genetic. There is a lot of mental illness on my side and her dad’s side. She has a genetic predisposition towards it. And just because she enjoys this activity doesn’t mean it’s going to cure her. There are other things that do help her, though, so it’s important that she has the ability to do those things.

This is why I keep blogging about mental health and mental illness, why I feel so strongly that I need to keep trying to educate people. Despite how far our understanding and acceptance of mental illness has come in recent years there are still way too many people who have such an archaic belief and understanding of it. Rather than trying to put everyone is a small, tiny, tight, too-cramped box, let’s open our minds and try to be more loving and understanding.

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Anxiety is Exhausting

Something people may not realize is how tiring it can be for those of us with anxiety, who are also introverts, to be around a group of people. It’s not that we don’t want to be around people (though admittedly sometimes we don’t), but it takes a lot out of us.

I thought about this last week when I was at band rehearsal. I recently joined a community band, and I’m loving it! Playing the flute is something that has brought me so much joy through the years. As I’ve gotten better at identifying my own symptoms of anxiety or oncoming panic attacks and have been able to think about what I can do to help I’ve played my flute more. Even if it’s just for five or ten minutes it is something that has helped calm or stop panic attacks or has helped lessen anxiety.

I have wanted to play in a group for so long, but even if the opportunity came up I was never at a place in my life where I would have been able to join. Luckily, I’m at that place now. We have had three rehearsals so far, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. I really do love being with this group, but sometimes it’s hard being around a bunch of people. Last week was particularly hard. Part of it was probably that I’m feeling insecure. Even though I have played my flute through the years, I have mostly played easy, melodic pieces because that’s what I love, that’s what I connect with. I haven’t challenged myself much, and now we are playing pieces that I could have easily gotten in high school, but I’m really struggling with now. Several of the other flute players are much younger, but more recently out of high school and haven’t lost the ability, so I feel rather embarrassed at my skill level right now. Add on top of that other stresses of life, and I was absolutely exhausted after coming home from rehearsal last week. I actually broke down in tears when my husband asked how rehearsal was. I felt kind of stupid because I truly enjoy playing and being in a band again. But just being around so many people spiked my anxiety and took so much out of me.

I guess what I want people to know is that it’s perfectly normal for those of us with anxiety to get exhausted being around other people, even when we’re not expected to talk with them. I also think it goes back to the fact that anxiety can sometimes come off as snobbish or standoffish. But that’s not it. It’s just that it is so hard for us, and it can be extremely tiring and take a lot out of us. So be patient. Realize it’s not you. It’s the horrible anxiety that we have to live with. And we’re trying.

Let’s Be There For Each Other

I’ve been finding myself inspired by quotes lately. It might sound cheesy, but we live in a world where it’s so easy to just post a quote on social media. I have a friend who does nothing but post inspirational quotes on Facebook. Many of them have been what I needed to hear in that moment and some have led me to think and ponder. The quote I’m inspired by today says, “Someone who drowns in seven feet of water is just as dead as someone who drowns in twenty feet of water. Stop comparing traumas, stop belittling you or anyone else’s trauma because it wasn’t ‘as bad’ as someone else’s. This isn’t a competition. We all deserve support and recovery.”

Something I’ve come to learn in life is that no one “has it made”. At least I’ve never met anyone who does. We all have struggles. We all suffer. In this age of social media it’s easy to look at someone else’s life (through the lens of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc.) and think everyone else is having so much fun, doing awesome things and living this great, struggle and trauma-free life. But that just isn’t true.

It can also be easy to think that others must not be struggling as much or that they must be happier because of all the things they have and are doing that we don’t have or don’t get to do. That also isn’t true. The past year-and-a-half I’ve got to travel to San Diego and Hawaii. I even got to go to The Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame (a life-long dream of mine) several months ago. We’re building an addition onto our house that is going to give me and my husband this big dream closet. There are good things happening, but there has also been so much hell that I’ve been through as well. It got so bad at one point last year that I tried to take my own life. From the outside looking in it may appear that I am one of those people who does have it made. But just because I’ve been able to travel some and am getting a big closet doesn’t mean that horrible things haven’t happened. It doesn’t mean trauma hasn’t punched me in the face and beaten me to a pulp. Because it has.

As an advocate for mental health I believe it is so important not to judge and not to compare struggles and trauma. Instead, I believe we should be looking for connection and extending empathy and compassion—even when we can’t see or don’t know what someone else is going through. Some people, like myself, are very open about our struggles and seek to educate others on mental illness issues. Others keep those things to themselves, and that is okay. It took me many years to open up about my depression, anxiety and OCD. And even now, there are things I choose not to share or go into detail about—for various reasons. I respect everyone’s choices about what they do or don’t share with others. Through my own painful experiences I have learned that no one has a perfect life and everyone has trials, struggles and suffers through difficult things in life. This means we all have more in common with each other and aren’t as alone or misunderstood as we might think.

My hope is that we can all be more loving, understanding and compassionate with each other. Just because our trauma is different doesn’t mean one is worse than the other. And one of the best ways to help ourselves is to be there for each other.

In a Funk

The last couple of weeks have been tough. For lack of a better description I guess you could say I’ve been in a funk. I’m not sure if it was a recent event that triggered emotions from past trauma, but my anxiety has been nearly paralyzing and my depression, while not as horrible as at some other times, has been a weight on my shoulders. A weight on my heart. I tried to deal with it, told myself I could do it on my own, but finally decided I needed some help and guidance. I felt too lost to keep attempting to navigate the fog on my own, so I tried to get an appointment with my therapist. I felt stupid, though. The whole point of therapy is to get to a point where you don’t need therapy anymore, right? And I thought I’d about gotten to that point. Things have been really good. I’ve been doing good–until a couple of weeks ago.

Unfortunately, my therapist got sick and ended up in the hospital, so no appointment for weeks. I’m trying to use the tools she gave me to get through this. I keep telling myself I need to stop being so pathetically weak. I need to be strong. Others rely on me to be strong. If I’m not, everyone else suffers. But maybe that’s not strength. Is it really strength to ignore our own needs? To ignore our own suffering? Or is it just the same as hitting your head against a brick wall and pretending the throbbing bruises and blood dripping in your eyes isn’t there as we go about business as usual?

At this point, I don’t have any answers. It’s easy to tell someone else it takes strength to admit you need help or that you shouldn’t ignore your needs; you should take care of yourself, even if that means letting it all out in tears or staying in bed all day or taking a long bath while ignoring all the housework. It’s easy to tell someone else that it’s okay to call your therapist when things crash after being good for so long. It’s harder to tell myself those things, especially when I don’t know how long this anxiety and depression will last.

Sharing Some More Poetry

Sometimes life is hard. In those hard moments writing, especially poetry, helps me. It has always been therapy for me as well as a creative outlet. Words are my soul. Words make up so much of who I am. Even though the things I may have felt in moments, days or weeks of depression, despair, frustration, hopelessness, etc. fade the words still mean something to me. And maybe they will mean something to someone else as well. That is one of the reasons I love poetry so much. It can touch someone through time and distance in so many different ways. Here are a couple of poems that may not be how I feel now, but are how I felt at some point and may be how someone else has felt or is feeling.

Honeysuckle Poison
by Tacy Gibbons

Scent of honeysuckle.
Nostalgia hits.

I can see the fence where its white flowers grew.
Smells of heaven and childhood.
Picking blossoms and sucking the sweet nectar down.

Memories now poisoned with the knowledge of your lies,
the truth of what you really were
polluting the sweetness like poison.

Reaching through time and memories,
choking on the bitter reality,
the past now tainted by your toxicity.

Yet, I rise up through the fallen petals,
let the poison fade.
The wave of nostalgia washes over and retreats.

And I am left only with the sweet scent
of honeysuckle.

A Day In the Life
by Tacy Gibbons

I am the captured tiger,
beaten into submission,
thrown into a cage.
My master holds the only key.

Head hanging, shoulders hunched,
sad eyes look longingly for the dream I used to live.
Master asks me to lift my head,
swish my tail and purr.
He needs life to feel normal again.

I sit in patience, surrounded by bars,
lift my head, swish my tail and purr,
hoping to please, hoping for companionship.
Master walks by, smiles and pats my head . . . 
then wanders off,
leaving me to my cage and defeat.

I am the captured tiger,
beaten into submission,
thrown into a cage.
My master holds the only key.

And I wonder—
if he ever lets me out, will I want to go?
Or will the caged life be all I remember?
All I want to know?

Or maybe—will I run?
Run to freedom and never look back.

When Do We Let Our Truth Shine Through?

Father’s Day was a difficult day for me. I knew it could be, but had hope it might be okay. That hope was crushed after something unexpected happened, so I spent the next two hours of church on the verge of tears, fighting as hard as I could not to let them spill out and trying not to let my true emotions show. I then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to be strong for my family even though I was close to crying pretty much the whole time.

Since then I’ve wondered how often other people are experiencing the same thing. How often have I chatted with someone at church, run into someone at the store or talked with someone on the phone who seemed okay, but inside were actually doing everything they could just to hold it together?

I believe in trying to be optimistic. I believe in doing what we can to help ourselves find and live for the good. A long time ago I worked with a woman who seemed to have a pretty crappy life. Almost every single day when I got to work she would cry to me, tell me how awful her life was and go into detail about the latest tragedy she’d suffered. Almost every single day. For years. I felt for her and did what I could to be there for her, but it was also incredibly draining. As someone who takes on other’s emotions I struggle to be around negative people. I also recently worked with someone who was very controlling and negative and it damaged my mental health so much I had to quit. So I do believe in doing more than just showing or sharing the bad, difficult, negative, hard things in our lives, but when do we show it? When do we allow the truth to shine through? When do we allow vulnerability out? When do we let others see that it’s okay to not always have it together? That it’s okay to have hard days and let others see? When we do, this gives us the opportunity to help, to serve and to be there for each other.

I’m sure I will have plenty more days that I hold it all in, afraid to show what’s really going on, thinking I have to put on a mask and be strong for everyone else. It’s hard to take that mask off in front of people. It’s hard to be vulnerable. It’s hard to let others see the truth when it’s not pretty and wrapped in a nice, neat package with a perfect bow on top. But life isn’t always a perfect, pretty package. And I think sometimes we should let others see. We should let them know and let them in to help us, so we can also help them on their hard, difficult days. Maybe we can all learn together.

No Respecter of Persons

It is five years to the day since Chris Cornell took his own life. It’s always a solemn day for me. A sad day. He was so talented and had such a unique voice. I still mourn his depression and his death. I wrote this post a couple of years ago and wanted to share it again.

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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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.

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!