On Mental Health Awareness Month

One thing I always wonder about is what people think of me once they friend me on Facebook. I meet them in person, and we get along well enough to at least want to stalk each other on the internet, and then they come on Facebook and there I am–not hiding my struggles in the slightest.

That’s another reason I haven’t been posting as much–I’ve been meeting people, and for a time I was worried about how they would react. But it’s almost the end of Mental Health Awareness month, and I haven’t done a goddamn thing, and that’s not okay with me.

You see it all the time–those posts that say “The brain is an organ, and gets sick just like every other organ!” And this is true. The false part is though, that its not just an organ–it’s ourselves, in a squishy mass of gray matter. And this makes it more personal.

I saw a statistic today that I disagree with in a big way–“1 in 4 people are affected by mental illness.”

Everyone is affected by mental illness. Maybe not to the same extent as others, or for the same duration of time, but everyone is affected.

You’re affected when you hear about suicide rates, and wonder how anyone “could be so selfish.” You’re affected when you judge people as selfish, or not, for their actions. You’re affected by mental illness because you’re in contact with other people, and have a brain. You’re affected by mental illness more than other illnesses because of its nature–because it’s not just a gene mutation, or a virus (though they may certainly play a role in risk and cause). Mental illness is a fleeting thought turned pervasive and detrimental. It’s good intentions turned bad, and the belief in falsities.

Mental illness exists because people exist, its potential exists in all of us because we all have thoughts, and we all have beliefs and we all try to do what we think will get us where we want to go. We are all at risk for mental illness, and this terrifies people.

But instead of being terrified of the mentally ill, and trying to distance yourself from the notion of being so, do your best to be aware, and supportive. Don’t judge, but recognize that someone who can’t get out of bed truly feels certain that they can’t get out of bed in the same way that you feel certain that you can’t climb Mount Everest: it may be possible, but it isn’t happening anytime soon. Use the commonalities between people as a source of understanding, rather than a source of fear of comparison.

The thing about Mental Health Awareness is that it (like all the other months of awareness) needs to be more than a month of good intentions. It needs to be an accepted practice.

And to all you who may read this who didn’t know about my mental illness before this, I’ll say this again: while I hope your opinion of me isn’t affected by my openness, or by my mental illness, and my past, if it is remember that before you read about it explicitly I was in your mind no different from you–no less normal.

Mental illness affects us all, and is all around us, and it’s time for the stigma surrounding it to drop.

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On life, and my return to it.

So, its been a while.

Its a good thing–kind of–I promise.

The kind of is because after my last post I ended up back in the hospital for a couple of weeks.

The good part is that I am doing fucking amazing.

It’s really weird to say that, honestly. I didn’t think I would be able to–ever.

I don’t think I’m going to go into too much detail about exactly what brought me to the hospital, or exactly what went on there, but I’ll summarize it for you, and perhaps elaborate one day: I learned to take care of myself, and I figured out that I can actually do shit.

I met some amazing people, and faced a lot of my bullshit, and realized something: there is no way to get past mental illness other than going straight through it (yay, I’m full of clichés!). At some point, it really comes down to looking at your life and then asking yourself two questions: what changes you want to see, and are you willing to make those changes? If you aren’t, then at least you know where you stand, and don’t have to waste your time on something that won’t happen–you can move on. If you are, then what the fuck are you doing not doing those things?

I had a lot of things to say about why I wasn’t doing what I had to do:

“It’s hard–you can’t imagine how hard it is, it’s impossible.”

“No one understands but me, I can’t do it.”

“I’m too weak. Other people are stronger, so they don’t get it.”

But here’s the thing: you are literally the only person (I hope) who decides what you physically do. No matter how hard it is to do something, unless it’s physically impossible you are the one who does or does not, who makes that choice.

So I made a different choice.

Not eating? Not an option.

Cutting? Burning? Killing self? Nope. Not anymore.

I’m a pretty stubborn person–and as much as the therapists, and people who essentially have kept me from destroying my life are skeptical, I’m feeling pretty finite about those self imposed limits.

So I’ve been actually doing life for my months of absence, which has resulted in less of a focus on keeping you all informed. And life is pretty great it turns out, even when it fucking sucks.

I’ve been working, and going to school, and going out with friends, and my boyfriend, and when shit comes up I think about my options: I could relapse, and lose everything again, or I could take what I can do and do it, despite how much it sucks.

I’m not doing perfectly–I’ll be the first to tell you that. But I ate part of a fucking calzone, I haven’t self harmed in months, and I want to stay alive. My slip ups aren’t a divine signal that I’m not worthy of life anymore–they’re a sign that I need to try something new.

People are still skeptical–and I don’t blame them. But I’m earning back the right to be trusted with myself, and while a difficult process, I can tell from what I’ve gained that it’s fucking worth it.

And I’m not going to lose everything, again, for a life of misery and self-hate.

When Nothing Goes Right

I’m a big fan of planning, as anyone who knows me, or anyone who’s been reading this blog will probably already know.

But what about when it doesn’t work? When you try to put barriers in your own way, but you just crash through them?

Then life gets interesting. To put this in context, I did the whole setting yourself up thing pretty damn well yesterday: I had a lot of back work to get through, and simply brought it to work (this part might only work if you work in a coffee shop…) and decided not to let myself leave until my work was done. My work wasn’t completely done when I left, but it was pretty close and they were closing. So that it would be harder to back out I told my coworkers about it and then only whined a little when I was working. Also, discounted food and drink while you work–can’t beat it!

The part that wasn’t done was watching a movie: The Fifth Element, for my Physical Theater course and writing an essay on it. Also, I had one more chapter of notes to do for my sophomore research seminar. I let myself go to bed last night pretty early, figuring that I could wake up and finish the notes, and then finish Physical Theater that night since it wasn’t due until Tuesday.

Today though, was a snow day. I wasn’t plowed out for my first course and then the rest were cancelled, along with work because thankfully, no one decided to brave the storm to go shopping (restoring my faith in humanity a bit).

To summarize, I woke up, ate, and watched Grey’s Anatomy. And didn’t stop doing those things except to sleep for a little bit. And there were a lot of things that I could have been doing today. I really want to give myself the free pass of, “It was a snow day!! Everyone would’ve done nothing!! It’s fine!!” but I really don’t think I can as what I didn’t do were some things that, to put it simply, everyone else does. I don’t want to really get into specifics here but basically there were things that should’ve been done and that weren’t done that I’m expected to do.

Get all that?

One of my first memories at the program I go to was going into a rant about everything I had to do, and everything I wasn’t doing (essentially the same list) and the woman who heads the program telling me, “You need a win.” It’s something I’ve since heard many times, as my friends and I at that program tend to be the people to get down on ourselves until we can’t really do anything we’re supposed to do (or until we feel like we can’t do anything.) Its also very true and a simple phrase that hasn’t left my mind today.

Lately, nothing really seems to be going right. I haven’t been getting my homework in on time (a first for me), I haven’t been eating enough, with a couple instances of eating too much thrown in there, I’ve been skipping appointments with excuses because I start shaking and crying and get too anxious to go,  I’ve been unable to cope well with the simple matter of living in my own skin, and I had to drop my fourth course because it was too much for me to handle alongside work and school, neither of which I’m prepared to give up.

To sum it up, I need a win pretty badly if I want to turn this around, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to make myself turn this around.

It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have crippling anxiety or depression what its like, but it could also be pretty easy. For anxiety, imagine waking up, and you’re thousands of feet in the air, and being handed a parachute and told to jump out, “Trust me, it’ll go off, people do this all the time!” And you’ve never skydived or seen these people before ever and you now have what it feels like for me trying to go to an appointment right now.

For depression, imagine lead weights attached to all of your limbs while a reel of things you’ve done wrong, or could do wrong plays in front of you, while a voiceover tells you that its obvious you’re going to fuck everything up because, “Look! It’s all you’ve ever done, and so obviously it’s all you’ll ever do.” And yet you’re being told that you have to go about your day.

Alternatively, remember that feeling before the SAT’s (if you took or cared about the SAT’s) or the feeling after the death of a pet or person you really cared about. Bottle it up and then imagine feeling that, magnified, about everyday activities.

So for me, a win might look little but feel impossible. I also recognize that it looks little, which makes me feel shittier because why can’t I just do what I have to do what the fuck.

But even a small win would be good–because the power of any sort of win is that it makes you feel accomplished and makes you see that regardless of the shit your mind spews out “Look! You can do all the things, because you did a thing!”

So I guess the question that I’m asking myself, and that everyone who cares about me wants to know the answer to is can I make myself make the effort again, for something that I’m not sure is worth it? Can I make myself put in all the effort to do the things that feel impossible even though it feels like I’m not worth it?

I’ll get back to you on that, but for now I need a win, and for tonight that’s going to be treating myself nicely. That means a bath and some dinner, and the movie that I need to watch anyway. I can’t promise that long term I can do all of the things, but I can do these little things, right now, and for now that’s going to have to be enough.

Peaks and Valleys and Imperfect Recovery

So I go to a school that runs on trimesters–this essentially means a semester of school packed into ten weeks instead of the 15 that I believe a regular school runs on. One thing this changes is that we take only three classes typically. So what did I decide to do as I work a part time job and spend hours in groups every week? Add a class of course!

I’m still trying to figure out if this was a mistake, but I’m really enjoying it so far. For the first time in a year my worries are “normal!” That’s to say that they’re about school, and getting my assignments done, and getting to work on time, instead of stuff like whether or not to go to the hospital.

What I’m finding though (and what other’s I found out last night in group are finding as well) is that when you’re distracted from the bad stuff, and not concentrating on it as much, its much easier for it to creep back in on you until suddenly, “What the fuck, I haven’t thought about this in months!”

Example A: I’ve been doing pretty well with the whole not bingeing thing. The other day though, I was passing my student center before a class and I suddenly thought, “Wow, I have money on my card. I could go and buy a shit ton of candy and eat it all instead of going to class and no one would have to know.” Know what I did? I went the fucking long way around, where there was no chance of both making my class and going to the student center, and ended up making my class and not getting those bags of candy. But you know what else? I bought two candy bars that night and ate them in my car.

And you know what? That’s a fucking success story, because things don’t have to end up perfectly in order to be successes. I delayed my binge for about twelve hours. And that’s eleven and a half hours longer than I could have two months ago.

And also, that’s recovery right there. Getting the thought, recognizing it as just a thought and fighting it, and maybe losing the fight, but most of the time winning. And I’m finally at the point where I’m comfortable enough to say that I’m in recovery without wanting to figuratively throw myself back under the bus, so you bet I’m going to scream it. I’m recovering, and I’m basicallyalmostalways okay with that, and not only that but proud of it too.

This turned into a sort of rant, but I’m okay with that. Because I think too often we think that we’re the exceptions that are going to “do recovery perfectly” (I certainly did) and we forget that its the upwards trend that’s important, not the minute peaks and valleys of the graph. I’m constantly reminding myself of this and I hope you are too.

Breaking Radio Silence and on Medication and Setbacks

Hello all, remember me?

If you’re new, welcome. If you’ve read before, welcome back!

I’ve befriended a few people on Facebook who may be reading for the first time, and learning a lot about me that they didn’t know, and so for their benefit I’ll do a quick recap. I’m Kerry, as you hopefully know, and I’m a lot of things including a sophomore in college, a barista at Starbucks, and an owner of many cute animals (including pet rats). I’m also in recovery from an eating disorder, and pretty severe depression. I hope this doesn’t change your view of me too much, as I’m obviously still the same person, but I’ve accepted that it might. I’m writing this blog to hopefully increase awareness of mental illness, and acceptance of mental illness, and I want that to start, or continue with me.

So anyway…

As Amy Poehler puts in her book that I got for Christmas, Yes, Please!, “There’s a lot of, ‘I dressed for writing and went to my writing spot,’ and it’s like ‘What the fuck are you talking about? This is a nightmare!’ Writing is a nightmare.”

Writing about your innermost fee-fees (feelings) is easier said than done. Especially when you’re being open with all the internet. This became obvious in the last month, when instead of writing about when I fell off the ‘recovery wagon’ I kept my mouth shut and tried not to feel like a hypocrite for all the advice I’ve been giving people.

But enough with me whining about how hard it is to write (something I truly love to do) and lets get on with it: yes, I fell off the recovery wagon.

You see, a very important part of the recovery process (for me, not everyone) has been finding the right medications. I’m including the name of my medication here, so that people who are taking it or considering taking it have a view of what it might be like to go off of it. That medication for me is Effexor XR, used alongside Abilify and Trazodone with the occasional Ativan.

Sounds like a mouthful right? (ha, ha–get it?) But seriously, if you’re on medication let me give you a small piece of advice:

Do NOT go off of them without your doctors help.

Yes, this sounds self-explanatory and you’re probably thinking, “Why Kerry, why ever would I do such a thing?” But if you are taking the right medications, you end up feeling better. For me, this automatically translated to ‘I don’t need these anymore, and they’re awkward to take in front of people, and so I’ll just stop.’

Of course, skipping them once led to skipping again and by the time I noticed that I was regularly skipping my medication it had been five days and nights. Luckily, I was in group when this happened and was able to tell my therapist, “Hey A, I think I know why I’m feeling so dizzy, nauseous, lightheaded, depressed, sleeping a lot and crying a lot.” Because that’s what was happening. By the time I got home I withdrawal had really kicked in, and I couldn’t watch a small section of a military-based TV show without becoming overwhelmed, anxious and bursting into tears.

You see a lot about withdrawal in the world: when people stop smoking, or drinking caffeine, or when people who use drugs try to stop. What its impossible to convey though, is how much it sucks when its actually happening to you. I’m just going to whine for a little bit here, because the people in my life got tired of hearing about how much it sucked pretty quickly–way before I was done complaining about it.

Effexor withdrawal is the most awful thing I’ve experienced (and I’ve gone through gallstone pancreatitis–more on that later). Not only do you feel the feelings that the drug has been keeping away, getting sadder, more tired, and yes–suicidal, but you also get the physical symptoms of your body adjusting to being without this drug (and so not performing the chemical reactions that it has been helping with the same way). These physical symptoms include: brain shocks (which essentially feel like a small current of electricity is going through your brain, or like its being shaken), nausea, migraines, lack of the ability to regulate your emotions, and more. Fun stuff!

Personally, I (as a neuroscience major) was morbidly fascinated, as what was happening chemically in my brain was pretty interesting. Effexor is (I’m pretty sure) an SNRI, which means selective serotonin-neuroepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. Basically, it causes the neurons (brain cells) to take back in less of the chemicals that they use to communicate (serotonin and neuroepinephrine in this case) than they normally do. This means more happy chemicals (they actually affect mood and energy levels generally speaking, respectively) swimming around in your brain. This means that your brain gets used to these new levels.

Now imagine taking that extra juice away.

So logically, I knew it was no wonder that I felt like shit.

After a couple weeks, including a really hard weekend that I may go into detail on later, and a lot of lectures from many medical professionals on stopping your medication without assistance (again, the upshot is: don’t do it) I was mostly back mentally, and physically. So why didn’t I post then?

This experience scared the hell out of me.

One week, I was doing well, visiting my friend in NYC, eating as I was supposed to, and the next I was contemplating putting myself back into the hospital. Thankfully, a lot of good things that I had set up in my life kept me from doing that.

First, there was work. I love being a barista, and the people I work with, and though I have no problem with them knowing that I’m in recovery (as a few people do know) I didn’t want this setback to affect my ability to do my job, or people’s confidence in me. I’m proud of having a job, and I love Starbucks as a partner and as a customer. Going inpatient would have meant taking a lot of time off of work, and it also would have meant the possibility of reduced hours (with increased care) for a while after I got out of the hospital. I didn’t want to go backwards.

Second, there was my team. If you’re going through any sort of anxiety, depression, eating disorder, or any other sort of mental illness, I hope you have a good treatment team–and I’ve got to say, mine’s fucking awesome. They made sure that: A) I was safe and B) I didn’t forget that this was temporary, and that I had shit to do other than being a patient.

I truly am thankful for their helping me stay out of the hospital, because although the hospital is “great” when you absolutely need it, its obviously something to be avoided if you can. You know that you have a good treatment team when they do what they have to do to keep you safe and on a good path, regardless of how you feel about the matter initially.

Thirdly, there was my family. Although my parents didn’t do the ideal thing, what the treatment team advised, they helped me to figure out a solution that worked for everyone at the time. If you’re going through a tough time, it pays to have family on your side, because you’re pretty much stuck with them loving you no matter what you do. My extended family ended up chipping in and helping me out where I needed it, and it was the perfect distraction.

And lastly, as cheesy as it sounds, there was me. You can set up the environment all you want when you’re feeling crappy, and try to prepare for everything your sad self might throw at you, but in the end there’s you and your thoughts. One of the main things that stood in my way from doing something stupid that really hard weekend was the memory of how exquisitely good life can be when you’re really in it, and trying.

So now I’m back. In school for the Winter term, with a full course load, stepping down on treatment and stepping up with that whole life thing (more on that later).

Let me know if you want to hear more about anything I mentioned here, or if you have any questions you want me to answer. I’m happy to help with pretty much anything and everything, and I don’t care if we’ve never talked, or if you used to hate me, or if you think I’m weird, or think that I think that you’re weird, or any of that. If you need to talk, message me–period.

This has been a rambling message, with a lot of odd details and I hope you’re still with me. My new goal, to hopefully not fall off of the radar, will be to post something daily, likely when I’m procrastinating (like now). So expect to hear from me tomorrow.

Love you lovelies, thanks for reading!

What it means to cope.

I had an odd conversation with my therapist the other day.

I’m definitely on an upward swing treatment wise. I’m stepping down in treatment, and stepping up in life. But what a lot of people don’t tell you is that even when you’re ready to not be in treatment for twelve hours a week, you’re still not always sure that you’re ready or able to recover. I was describing a slightly scary incident that I had the other day, and how a lot of the urges to act in “bad” ways had come back for the first time in a little while, and my therapist asked me, “So what did you do?”

I was a little shocked at the simple question, mostly because I was so caught up in how I had been feeling, and describing to her exactly how bad the situation seemed, and how it obviously meant that I was going back down my old road again. So when I answered it felt really, really anticlimactic.

“Well, I drew up a pattern, cried a little, watched some TV, finished my work, ate a snack, and went to bed.”

That’s it. That was the conclusion to my big night of emotional turmoil. Productivity, a few tears, and some much needed sleep. And she informed me that what I did was cope with it.

Now: I did not know until a few weeks ago that I had this ability. It still feels a little bit like a super power or something else miraculous. I mean, something horrible happening doesn’t mean that horrible things need to continue happening?! It may seem obvious, but when the pattern is to drag out the unpleasant and dismiss all good things, to start to reverse that feels like some bizarre opposite day.

So what is coping anyway? Its a word you hear a lot once you start treatment in any form– “Did you use any of your coping skills when that happened?” is a question that will forever be burned into my brain, and I’m not sure that its in an entirely helpful way. It brings to mind stress balls, CBT worksheets, and lots of suppressed feelings. It seems that if someone has to cope with the situation, they have to let it “win,” and just deal with the outcome, or at least that’s how I always interpreted it.

In reality though, I’m finding that coping with a situation is just the opposite of that. Its not that you’re giving up to the situation, its that you’re letting go of the pointless struggle. When you can’t change a situation, does fighting it do anything other than show that you’re fighting it?

For a long time, I thought that if I actually coped with a situation it would mean that I wasn’t feeling the actual emotion behind it. Because if you feel that strong an emotion, and that strong an urge, is there anything left to do but act on it? As it turns out the answer is yes.

But what coping is not is: artificial, forcing yourself into something, unpleasant, or suppression. An actual coping skill that you use can’t be something that you don’t want to do, or it loses its purpose as you’ll never do it.

Also: this whole coping thing? Not just for people with mental illness! Thaaat’s right, everyone can do it! (Cue cheering I know!) In fact, I learned how to really cope by watching people who weren’t depressed, and who (as far as I know of course) had never “officially” learned coping skills in therapy.

So how to do it? How to cope with a situation in a healthy way instead of overexercising, cutting, bingeing, purging, or beating yourself up in any way? I came up with a system that works for me, and I figured I’d break it down and share it with you all.

First, accept that the unpleasant thing happened. That’s right, let it into your mind: let it become a past event just like all the other things you’ve ever done, and don’t give it any more significance than that. Its something that happened, that’s now over, and that you cannot prevent or do anything about, other than move forward.

Next, look at your options. Usually, when something bad happens, you have options. If you don’t have any options, move onto the next step. I recommend at this point, until you’re used to doing things the healthy way, making a list of your options. I have a huge list from past events in my planner. And really consider what you can do, including things that you might initially discount. I’ll share my list from the example I was giving: binge, binge and purged, overexercise, restrict food for the next day, cut (and yes, it may be the unhealthy things that come to mind first: don’t worry about it), continue doing my homework, eat a reasonable snack. After thinking a little more, I added to this list: put on my favorite movie, let myself cry, practice banjo, play ukelele, plan out the next week, watch How I Met Your Mother, sleep, play with the rats, wake up my parents to talk, pet my dogs, feed the fish, go for a walk, plan out my meals for the next day, call my therapist, start a book for NaNoWriMo, make something for my Etsy shop. Get creative with this list: the only restrictions are that it has to be things that you actually like to do, and things that you could get up and do that second, without making excuses to prevent yourself from doing it. But you want a really good list, and you want to include literally everything you could do

Choose the ideal option. This isn’t always easy, because what you want to do is almost always what you should do. So take a look at that list, and pick out what it would be ideal for you to do–even if you don’t want to do it in that moment. So for me, I would circle “Continue homework.”

Identify what options would move you backwards. That is any action that won’t bring you towards where you eventually want to be. And not just short term. For me, although in the short term, when I’m in a bad place, I might want to just be a patient forever. It helps here to look at the long term, where I want to be a respected neuropsychologist, with research going, and patients that I see, happily married, with kids that I homeschool. So I would take my list and  (because I love colorful pens) underline in red anything that doesn’t bring me closer to where I actually want to be.

Then, decide what you feel like you can do, that isn’t underlined in red.  This doesn’t have to be the ideal option: we’re getting there! This is just what you feel emotionally prepared to do, in that moment, right away. For me, it was to watch TV. I felt a little guilty about not doing my homework, but it was what I could do, and even if it wasn’t moving me forward, it wasn’t going backwards either.

Repeat previous step as needed. As you do each thing, you’re distracting yourself, and proving to yourself that you don’t need to do the things marked in red. I ended up combining to things on my list: I made a pattern for something I’m going to put up on my Etsy shop! Make your way through your list, doing everything you can. What will usually happen is that you’ll either calm down, or run out of time and have something come up that you need to do.

Now, notice that the unhealthy things aren’t crossed off, just marked as backwards-moving. This is because if you go through everything, and you can’t calm yourself down, and you’re in a really bad place, I won’t pretend that they aren’t an option.  And its possible that you’ll make it all the way through, and have nothing left to do but something that will move you backwards. But if it gets to this point (which shouldn’t happen often) keep in mind how long you’ve made it without resorting to unhealthy behaviors. Try repeating some things on the list. Or seeing if you can add to it.  Just know that you don’t have to do those things: recognize them as a choice, not a compulsion. You’re free to make that choice, but you should do so recognizing that it’ll only move you backwards, and hurt you in the long run.

Anyway, hopefully you’re still on the happy things on your list, and you’re now calm enough to…

Do what you need to do to move forward in your situation. For me, as my crisis was school related, what I had to do was to do the homework that I could do. But because I didn’t just jump into trying to do this, I was able to get it done quicker, without getting frustrated with myself. Sure I could have gotten it done sooner without doing all the other stuff, but by pausing for a moment and doing something that made me happy, I reminded myself that there are things in life beyond the stressful situation at hand. There are things that you enjoy, and that bring you joy. Life is bigger than what makes you miserable.

Congratulations, you just coped with an upset in your life!

Yay, congratulate yourself!

If you actually try this out, and keep doing it, you won’t always have to make physical lists. You don’t even have to at first if you don’t want to–I’m just making suggestions, do what works for you. I like lists because I’m paper-obsessed, and like to write things, and see them all in front of me. Also, making lists makes me happy for whatever weird reason, so its another one of what my therapist would call my, “delaying tactics” (what I refer to as your options).

If you have a slightly backwards mind like me, it might be scary to successfully cope with a situation, without using your unhealthy coping mechanisms. To this, I say: f*** your mind, because it obviously doesn’t know what’s best for you. You made decisions specifically based on what will bring you to where you want to be, and if something in your mind doesn’t want that, then its only trying to hold you back.

Know this. Own this. And keep kicking butt.

Also, I have a ton of things I’d like to write about, but consider taking this poll to show me what you’d like to hear about. If no one answers, I’ll do whatever I want 🙂

Until next time, lots of love from me to you.