I’m Not Dead! and Other Small Victories in Managing Mental Illness

here comes the sun

Hey, guys and dolls. I’ve been gone a while. I’m sorry. It’s been rough in patches, but I’m ready to talk about it. I think it’ll help me to do so, and maybe it’ll help somebody else.

Many of you know that writing regular blogs is not my strong suit. I cringe every time my news feed refreshes and I see that people with far busier schedules and far more demanding routines than mine are cultivating a thriving blog and stirring the social media pot with a deft hand. @#$%, I think. I can’t even remember to eat lunch every day.

Don’t worry, I’m not anti-lunch. It’s just part of how my depression and anxiety manifest themselves. Other parts of it include exhaustion or being quick to fatigue, sleeplessness, hypersensitivity and propensity to sadness, fear, or dread, and over-personalizing/taking on responsibility for problems that are beyond my reach and control. Because the depression and anxiety are clinical, it is an ongoing physical and emotional reality. But it ebbs and flows, and in an environment where anyone would be anxious, afraid or depressed, it gets turned up to eleven.

The long and short of it is that I don’t blog when I’m in a depressive low, or when I have been having a lot of panic attacks, and both of those things have been happening on what feels like a continuous loop for the past several months. Here’s part of the reason why.

When the hours at my previous  job started to decline near the beginning of this year, I began searching for something else. But being faced with  ongoing rejection and uncertainty, coupled with the stubborn reality that the hours I did have were not enough to fulfill or sustain me, the job-hunting-while-working was really taking a toll on my physical and mental well-being.

For reasons that are unclear to me, my mental health issues manifest themselves strongest after dark. So, night after night I would feel like the walls were closing in on me. I would get short of breath. I would be nauseated and curl up into the fetal position, weeping and hyperventilating and asking the Virgin Mary to comfort me. I would rage at myself, filled with hateful thoughts about how weak I was, how I was a fraud: I was not the strong, confident, happy self-advocate that so many of my friends and family were proud of. Everything seemed impossible as I lay there in the dark. I would think of job descriptions my friends and coworkers sent me, and I would feel my stomach drop and then say to myself, “I can’t do that job. I’ve forgotten what I’ve learned. The stress would be too much,” and on and on.

So, when I was finally offered something new, at a time when we were really struggling financially- I accepted, thinking I could adapt and thrive in the new environment. What I got instead was a constant spike in anxiety and panic attacks that was so debilitating I couldn’t eat or sleep, and would have to take frequent breaks from my work to avoid coming apart emotionally. So I had gone from having a job, to being under-employed, to resigning to accept a job, to quitting a job, in a relatively short time. Ever since then, it has been a constant- and I do mean constant- battle to remind myself that there is something better out there. I have been rebuilding my confidence, and taking care to measure progress in whatever metric I can.

You’re probably wondering when I’m gonna get to the progress part, because, let’s face it, I am kind of bumming you out and stuff. Don’t worry. Here it comes.

If you have never done so, please read Hyperbole and a Half (at hyperboleandahalf.com). Always hilarious, she does an amazing series of webcomics on what her depression is like and how she copes with it.

First, I had to take responsibility for where I was and who I was. I had to acknowledge that- while I can’t cure my mental illness, and while not every negative thing in the universe is my doing or my responsibility, there are things about my life that I can change, and things about my mental illness that I exacerbate when I don’t take action. There are things that I do and say- and that I neglect to do and say- when I am wallowing in my depression and anxiety, that I can easily change by acknowledging that these out of control emotions aren’t who I am, and that they don’t define me. Yes, they help explain things about me. No, they are not the sum total of all things about me.

Another major step in the right direction was the decision to go back to counseling. I have always been a big believer in getting help when you need it. I just seem to forget I need it every now and then. I was doing “okay” for quite a while there. But when it got to the point where my life was being halted and my relationships affected, I had to do something. I am still early on in my relationship with this therapist, but she has an expectation of change and growth, so I am holding myself to that standard, and have been thankful for the results so far.

I had to get spiritual direction. Therapy is great. But when religion, faith and spirituality are a part of your worldview, a qualified spiritual guide such as a priest, rabbi, etc. can give teachings and coping strategies that can bring a whole new level of peace and clarity, and my conversation with my priest was no exception.

He helped me to understand that  I had to make priorities and set boundaries regarding what I exposed myself to mentally/emotionally, and what parts of my thoughts and emotions I exposed. This meant stepping back when I really wanted to bare all on an issue or event on this site or via social media. I plan to go into greater detail on this in a future post, but the crux was that the things we feel strongly about are often things that make us feel vulnerable to share, and doing so on a public forum rarely if ever guarantees a kind response.

So all that work means I’ve been away for a while. And the fact that the work is constant, and the foe unpredictable,  means I have no idea how things will be a month or two or three or six from now, but I’m still here. And so are you. You’re worth fighting for, and I’m in your corner.

Til next time. Which will hopefully be soon.

Edit: The steps discussed are intended to provide ideas and strategies only. They are not meant to replace or usurp any treatment that has been recommended by your doctor, psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. Please keep all helping professionals in the loop of any changes to your routine.

Also, it is possible that they may be helpful guidelines for people who are experiencing short-term sadness, stress or melancholy, and I hope that’s true. Sharing my experiences is not meant to serve as any kind of diagnosis or comprehensive list of symptoms. Mental illness, stress, depression and anxiety are different for everyone, though there is some common ground. If your systems or struggles are consistent, chronic, and long term [beyond a difficult or stressful circumstance], please seek the opinion of a qualified professional to figure out what’s best for you.

**

P.S. For those reading this post who face mental illness, I encourage you to read/bookmark a Self-Care Checklist such as the one linked here [if you want a more language-neutral one, there are plenty out there, but this one is simple and straightforward]. It might also help to show it to a friend who can hold you accountable and make sure you’re okay.

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open for renovations

Sometimes, you change your life. Sometimes it changes you. And right now, I am somewhere in between. I am holding on tight, white-knuckled, waiting for the pendulum to stop, waiting for the dust to settle. I am going to be cryptic on purpose, but trust me when I say this is an interesting time for me. To put it simply, circumstances have shifted: a little here and there. I am missing the structure of my school days: missing a time of knowing where to go and when.

And those are just the changes you can see.

While trying to process how the last few weeks, days, and hours have felt, I stumbled across a passage by C.S. Lewis. [Okay. Maybe I went looking for it to assuage some of my jitters. Either way, it works.]

In Mere Christianity, he writes:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” 

Although a cursory reading of this can be quite unsettling, it comforts me now more than ever. Because I know what’s going on. I am not just hurting for no reason. The troubles are not coming from nowhere. It is not senseless chaos. I am being rebuilt, from the inside. By someone with perfect standards. And-unlike me-He doesn’t leave his projects unfinished.

The tough part is this: any other thing that’s being rebuilt is closed. The doors are locked. It’s not safe to be anywhere near it. In our case, however, we must stay open. We are required to continue letting others in. We may be the recipient of constant improvements, but we are also obligated to stay open to serve our purposes.

Come on in, if you want. I’m happy to make you a cup of tea. It is always so good to see you. Just pardon the mess, excuse the noise, tread lightly. Know you are always welcome. Here’s hoping that He, along with all of you, make yourselves at home.

perfect tin

Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things are overwhelming. Sometimes you are feeling a hundred million ways at once. Sometimes people you care about are struggling through something difficult, and there’s no way you can really fix it. [And sometimes, if you remove the word “sometimes” from the beginning of my Astute General Observations, you realize they apply wholly and completely to my circumstances.]

When things get crazy, I become a bit of a different animal. No longer my normal, keenly aware, over-emotive self, I unplug. I numb out. It’s like I give my sensibilities a giant shot of Novocain.

I don’t like this feeling. And I don’t feel like myself when this happens. But I think it comes from the innate desire humanoids have-in the face of difficulty-to want to stop; to want to stop hurtling through space and time at light speed. to want to find the off-switch: for our happenings, our hearts, what have you.

So, it’s a Catch-22: it sometimes is possible to “turn off” feelings, to unplug, or maybe even to suddenly change circumstances.  But then-here’s the kicker- you don’t feel any of it.

So, this past week or two, I may have been able to remove myself from some of the sad, some of the frustrating, some of the irritating. But that also means I have missed out on a lot of the happy. In honor of the Avett Brothers, and how attuned they are to human beings, I hereby dub this phenomenon the Tin Man Syndrome.

Of course, just because I know I’ve unplugged doesn’t mean I’ve got the rest of it figured out. But at least I can recognize that I do it. And I can let you guys know. Consider this time in my life a bit of a short circuit.

I love you all for your patience. I’ll be back online eventually. In the meantime. . . anyone have an oil can?

teach your children well

My priest told me recently, “Try to look at each person as your teacher. Figure out what it is you can learn from them.” Boy-oh-boy, between Experience and Other People, there sure are a lot of opportunities for me to learn lately. Of course, that is not all bad [and it’s really ‘not any bad’], since the onslaught of lessons-to-be-learned ensures that I remain a child before G*d.

But the truth is, the climate of my life right now remains a bit difficult for me to accept. There are times, with my perspective, that it seems to look like this:

well, dang

Of course, I have a lot to be thankful for. . . my friends, the love of my family, a thriving city to live in and explore. . . all these things and more are reminders that I haven’t been abandoned. But I still feel unrest.

This morning, my mom and I were talking about a job interview I had this past week, “You’ll get it, if it’s God’s will,” she said. To which I responded, “It would be nice if that would be God’s will, for once.”

My response to my mom’s attempt to help me process a difficult circumstance reminds me of something Flannery O’ Connor once said, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it. [In that sentiment-and in a few other ways- she and I seem well-matched. ]

I’m not bitter, I promise. It’s just that, as a person used to situations where working hard enough will get you what you’re aiming for, I feel confused having to wait. Of course, the longer you have to wait, the more likely your grapes are to sour. But, unless you wait long enough, you’ll never be able to enjoy their wine.

So, I suppose that-as with anything else-appearing to have scores to learn from Life and its Lessons is what you make it. Or, to follow one cliche with another, it’s all in how you look at it.

So, at the end of the day, I may seem stubborn. I may cry and whine and complain. I may have to sit in the corner for a while. But I am still a Beloved Child, and can at least rest in Grace.

the best policy

When I am confused, I think about rockin’ people, and how I might best follow their example and rock the world around me to the appropriate degree required by a given situation. I am at a confusing and somewhat troubling stage in life right now. Luckily, there is always someone who rocks considerably that I can look to for inspiration and guidance.

Honesty RocksRegardless of where your political loyalties may have found themselves in the mid-to-late 19th century, everyone can agree that Abraham Lincoln was known for being honest. He was unafraid to call it like it was, lay his cards on the table, even though it ended up costing him his life: his honesty is his legacy.

While with a friend tonight, I confided that “I am often afraid to tell people about things that are going on with me, because I don’t want them to feel compelled to be sorry for me”. That is a loaded statement. But what I realized is that the majority of the people reading this are my friends and my family, and I owe it to you to be honest, to level about where my life is to this point.

For those of you who sincerely would like to know how I’m doing, or how ______ makes me feel, I offer you a candid explanation:

  • I am still unemployed. I have been working with a job placement program, and I have a couple of faint prospects. I have been advised to wait on them while we keep our eyes open for new things. I am wondering if the new things we find will be good things- and I am wondering how long I will have to wait.
  • I am not going back to school. My attempt to retake the GRE resulted in disappointing scores. I am writing in the morning to request that my application be removed from consideration for admission [I was told the score requirement was a necessary one to be considered].
  • I have not adequately pursued getting my writing published. This is part due to my forgetfulness, and part due to renewed focus and emphasis on searching for jobs. I really wish I could be a writer. I do not want to give up my philanthropic hopes, either. But writing is something else that makes me feel alive. I have some contacts in publishing. I really want to get those efforts back in gear.
  • I have also [unintentionally, of course] neglected other efforts, like independent grant writing.] The grant-writing was something I agreed to do for a member of my family. Preliminary searching has proved it will be an immense challenge. Not to mention my own failings, the rapid passage of time, and my other pursuits such as job hunting and managing my emotional well being, are proving more demanding of my time than I originally anticipated. It is very important for me to come through on this and to hold up my end of the bargain.
  • I am constantly wrestling with contentment about being single. Not unlike Jacob’s epic battle with the Lord, it is a seeming never-ending struggle for me to reconcile the realities of my solitude with the gratitude for what I have in my life that makes it what it is. I am nowhere near a point of arrival on this, but I am working hard to learn what life has been trying to teach me about this area over the years. Unfortunately, I am not quite objective enough to tell you how well I’m doing.
  • I have realized [the hard way] the importance of addressing my emotional health. I have chemical and emotional imbalance. Just like any physical illness, psychological challenges can be draining and can affect other areas of your life adversely, if they are not controlled. Until recently, I have not taken care of myself in this area the way I should. Luckily, my family, friends, and the professionals guiding me through things, are tireless in their efforts for me to see my bull-headedness. I am on the way to more clarity in this area, and hoping that will help with the rest.

As of a couple of days ago, barring some temporary and volunteer work, I have been unemployed for 2 full years now. I must confess, for a person whose entire life prior to that point was marked by a series of well-planned personal, intellectual achievements, this can be devastating. I feel afraid that I have lost something along the way; something vital, some spark, some bit of knowledge, that had made me the successful person I once was.

I do not know what the future will bring, and honestly I can be more frightened than hopeful at times. What I do know is this: I am deeply humbled, and nothing short of desperate for more of God’s unfailing grace and mercy with each passing day.

And one more thing. I am I am very thankful- so thankful- for the many supportive, loving, and gracious souls in my life. I know that you all are not afraid to stand next to me, even while night falls. And that means we’ll be together when the sun comes out.

Whenever that may be. . .

1000 things

I’d like to introduce you all to my guest blogger.

I have probably listened to this song almost 20 times in the past day or two. Why? Am I in love? Blissfully happy? Completely attuned to and aware of the blessings that inundate me?

Not really.

Jason shows up here tonight because- just now, in throes of late-night mopery- I found something hidden in this song. Little does he know that, buried deep within his lullaby, there is a tiny, glittering, cocoa-filled Easter Egg of Truthiness.

SPOILER ALERT.

This song isn’t really about a pretty girl, or a kiss, or even about a perfect situation. This song is about a turning point.

“I’ve seen a thousand things, all in one place

But I stopped my counting when I saw your face.”

In this very challenging November, I cannot tell you how many times I have vented to friends, sobbed in front of relatives, and wrote angsty blog entries to try to find a little hope. And it wasn’t until tonight- in the stillness, with no one to talk to, that I was able to find it. How can one feel so much Love in a song by a stranger, in a serenade for someone else?

Although I can’t be certain why He times things this way, I am fairly sure it is a lot easier for me to listen to the consolations of G*d when I am being a bit quieter.

Things may not be better yet, but they will be.

My circumstances may be the same today as yesterday, but they will change.

This message was not delivered to me by a pixie peering through my bedroom window. I was not talking to my mom, or on the phone with a friend. There was no cosmic beam of light that appeared to dissipate my problems once I had this realization.

Divine Mercy and a single song have helped me to remember something very simple, and very important.

Fall is a time for turning.