Let’s Talk

woman-1302674_1280I had another panic attack today. And I almost hurt myself. I wanted to. I wanted to so bad because I thought what I always used to think back when I did cut myself long, long ago—that the physical pain would distract from the emotional and mental pain. It was the worst panic attack I’ve had and worst I’ve felt in a long time. But I have more presence of mind (even feeling that bad) these days to remind myself how it doesn’t really help. I have more strength to keep myself from doing it. Even so, it’s hard to admit. It’s hard to write it on a blog where people will see. Even now, when I tell people I used to hurt myself or I have thoughts of hurting myself, I get that look—that same one I got when I first started admitting to people that the scratches and scars on my arms came from me, from myself. They look at me like I’m crazy, like I’m not normal. They look at me like I have some fatal disease they don’t want to catch and can only think about how fast they can get away from me. But I write it anyway—because I’m not the only one.

Last October at the General Conference my church holds, Sister Reyna I. Aburto spoke about mental illness. My favorite quote from her talk was, “…when we open up about our emotional challenges, admitting we are not perfect, we give others permission to share their struggles. Together we realize there is hope and we do not have to suffer alone.” We need to talk about these things so others can talk about it. So we can give each other hope. So we don’t have to suffer alone.

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Then and Now

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I’ve been thinking about how far we’ve come as a society when it comes to mental illness. We still have a long, long way to go, but I’ve observed how much better youth today seem to have it than when I was a teenager.

Or maybe it was just me. Maybe it was just my circumstance. I’ve just noticed how much more love, acknowledgment and support teens today get than I did when I was that age, twenty years ago.

I feel like there are more people letting teens know it’s okay that they have mental illness—because there are more of us acknowledging that it is real. We offer sympathy because we have experienced the same. We show them how much we care and love them and want to help them. I didn’t have that.

Twenty years ago, when I was first diagnosed with depression and going through absolute hell and darkness, most adults ignored the scars on my arms, the tears in my eyes, my hanging head, my choice to be sad—because that’s what they thought it was. They thought it was my own fault that I was depressed and that I could just choose to be happy if I wanted to. Other adults, like some of my church youth leaders, treated me like crap instead of lifting me up and offering support. The only adult who actually showed that they cared about me and sympathized with what I was going through was my high school band teacher. Years after the fact, my mom told me that my dad cried every day for two weeks after I told them I was depressed and had been cutting myself. Unfortunately, it was years too late. He never cried in front of me, he never told me how sad it made him because of how much he loved me—because you just didn’t do things like that back then. I didn’t have adults who had been through what I had sharing their experiences the way I have shared my experiences with young people now. I just had a few other people my own age, struggling like I was.

Mental illness is a devastating, discouraging illness to live with. In a way, I’m jealous of how much love and support youth these days are getting compared to when I was their age. But more than that, it’s encouraging and hopeful to see how far we have come, to see that we are making strides to improve awareness and resources. That is definitely something to be grateful for.

Depression is Darkness

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I’d like to dedicate some posts talking about the specifics of mental illness. This isn’t about self-pity or pointing fingers. It’s about trying to give those who don’t know mental illness a better understanding of what it really is, and letting those who do suffer from it know they are not alone.

Let’s start with depression. Depression is darkness. That has always been the best way for me to describe it. If you’ve never experienced depression, try spending an entire day living in a completely dark house. Try to do all of your normal daily activities without a shred of light. This is how living with depression feels, only it is an even deeper darkness, one that sinks into your stomach, one that carves a big, hollow pit out inside your chest, your heart. It is hopelessness.

When I first started experiencing depression as a sophomore in high school, I didn’t understand it. I just knew how different I felt, how lonely, how sad. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was so sad, I just was. And it’s not that I didn’t try. I tried so damn hard! So hard to be good, to do what was right, to be what I was expected to be. Yet the walls of happiness and hope turned black and closed in on me. I remember the agony of walking to school each day. I’d leave my house hoping it would be a good day, but with each step I took, the sicker I got. Yes, I would become physically ill to the point I could barely walk, barely talk, I always felt as if I were going to throw up. There was this particularly rough time my junior year of high school where I was so depressed and so sick that I barely ate anything. I lost ten pounds in two weeks. For a tall, thin girl, that was a lot to lose. It took months of regular eating to get it back.

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It’s easy for others to think that you can just get over depression, to think, “Just try harder.” Believe me, we do try. Mental illness warps your sense of reality, though. It makes you do things a healthy person wouldn’t do. Things like contemplating suicide, self-harming, telling yourself over and over again how worthless you are. This behavior is normal for someone with depression. It’s lonely, and it’s exhausting. There have been times I’ve looked at other women who have four, five, six children and wonder how in the world they do it. When my depression was at its worst, I could barely handle my two. I just felt so exhausted all the time. Even when I would get a good night’s sleep, I felt like a zombie all the time during the day. Another good experiment for those who don’t know what depression is like would be to strap heavy weights to your ankles and wrists. Try spending an entire day like this. Go to work, make the bed, do dishes, do laundry, play with your kids, spend time with your spouse all day and night like this. That’s how it feels doing these things with depression—all day, every day for weeks, months, years. But you can’t just unstrap the weights attached to your mind and your emotions. Yes, there are things you can do to help. I talked about it in a previous post. But just like there is no one set cure for cancer, there is no one set cure for depression.

So for those of you living with depression, you are not alone. I know it’s so hard to open up and allow yourselves to be vulnerable, but if you do, you will be surprised at how many others you find that are like you. And for those of you who don’t have depression, but know or live with someone who does, please be compassionate. Be patient and understanding. No, you don’t have to just let a depressed person get away with everything, but be gentle and helpful. If there is a task they need to accomplish, offer to help them with it. I remember one time the kitchen was a huge mess, and I just couldn’t bring myself to clean it. I could tell it would give me a panic attack. So my ex-husband suggested we do it together. He said he would do the dishes if I cleaned off the table. Suddenly that monumental task seemed a bit smaller—small enough that I could do it. Listen to what someone with depression has to say. Don’t assume you know what’s best for them. Let them tell you. And just be there for them. I know it can be hard. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I have lived with mental illness myself, and I have lived with someone who has it. Neither is easy. But if we all had a bit more understanding, compassion and empathy, what a world of difference it could make!

Beginnings are Messy

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John Galsworthy, the English novelist and playwright, said, “Beginnings are always messy.” Well, this is my beginning, and it is a bit messy.

I was never your typical teenage girl in high school. I didn’t care about boys (thought they were dumb), I didn’t care about fashion (I was this crazy neo-hippie-like character who went around in tie-dye and bell bottoms), I didn’t care about makeup (people should like me for what’s on the inside, right?), and I didn’t care about giggling on the phone for hours with my friends (school was about getting good grades so I could get a scholarship to college). I liked reading poetry and going for walks in the rain and being out with nature—one with nature. Though I eventually came to defy social conventions on purpose, at first I didn’t really understand it. I just knew that I was different. And that was hard. Lonely. It was so very, very lonely.

I started spending a lot of time sitting in the dark, listening to music, withdrawing from others. I felt as if there was no one else in the world like me and no one I could talk to about it. Darkness and loneliness ruled my life. I was so depressed, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

One day, when I was fifteen, I was putting away dishes out of the dishwasher. My thoughts were so crowded with how depressed I was and how bad life sucked, I barely paid attention to what I was doing. Then my fingers wrapped around the handle of a knife my dad used to carve up roasts. And suddenly, this idea came to me. I put the knife up to my chest and stuck the tip into my skin. I could plunge it into my heart and end my life. All my problems would be solved.

I stood there for what seemed like several minutes, though it was probably only a few seconds, considering the implications, weighing the pros and cons. Finally, I pulled the knife away and placed it in the drawer, realizing that I didn’t really want to end my life, I just wanted something to help ease the mental anguish I was going through.

Pain. In my chest. I suddenly became aware of a stinging pain where I had been poking the knife into my chest. And somehow, it clicked—this wild idea flying into my thoughts that if I physically hurt myself it would block some of that mental pain.

So I started searching for a weapon. I tried a knife at first and didn’t like the way it felt. Scissors seemed too dull. And then I found a razor blade—the box cutter kind—and I sliced it across my arm. It was sharp, precise, and it hurt. But it also felt good.

At first, I only hurt myself when I’d had a really bad day. I’d tell my parents I was going to bed, but instead, would sit up next to my stereo, headphones in, listening to depressing music, and I would race that blade across my skin—mostly on my upper arms and shoulders. It’s ironic—that I was trying to take pain away by giving myself another kind of pain. It didn’t work, of course. But I kept doing it, anyway. It became a sort of addiction, something I started doing even when I hadn’t had a bad day. It’s just what I did because I liked it, because it felt good.

All of this happened during the winter of my sophomore year in high school. I wore long sleeves, so no one could see the red marks and scars marring my arms and shoulders—except for in gym class. I sweat like a pig—or like a boy—so I still wore t-shirts and shorts in gym. People started asking about my arms, and I didn’t want to lie, so I told them I’d done it to myself. Most people looked at me as if I were crazy—one boy even told me to my face. “You know you’re insane, right?” he condescendingly asked me. And then people began to talk. That’s actually how I met my best friend—because she heard people talking in one of her classes about me and what I had done. Turns out she had been a masochist once, too. After that, I started meeting more people like me. More people who had depression and hurt themselves as a way to deal with it.

After five or six months of hurting myself I told my parents, which was a very tough conversation to have, but they were good at trying to get me the help I needed. For awhile I stopped hurting myself because I knew it was wrong, and it didn’t really help. Then I went back to it, and then I stopped again. But it’s like this addiction that’s always looming at the back of my mind. Even now, so many years later, any time I get really depressed or start to feel darkness closing in on me I think about hurting myself. I still believe it will feel good. I think the older you get the more self control you learn, so it’s easier to push the thought back down, to not give in, but it’s just another one of those hurdles people with mental illness have to try to jump over, dive under or go around.

Sharing this story is hard. It makes me feel so vulnerable, because I don’t know how people will react. Even now when I tell people about it—something I did over fifteen years ago—some of them still see a freak because anyone who purposefully hurts themselves is a freak, right? People look at me differently. But this is the beginning of my battle with depression, and I don’t want to sugar coat anything. That’s one of the reasons I believe mental illness is still so misunderstood—too much sugar has been sprinkled on something that is not sweet in any way. And the good news is that there is hope—always hope. It’s one of my favorite words.