Rough times with mental illness aren’t ever desirable, to state the obvious.
Less obvious (maybe): consider those times when you can’t afford to go down that familiar, shitty road. Those times where it’s hard to get things done without the additional shit to sort through. Those times that tend to bring out stress: stress that leads to an increase in symptoms, disguising themselves as coping mechanisms.
I’m a senior physics student, trying to write my undergraduate thesis. I’m writing about the physics behind hybrid MR/PET imaging, and how the physical properties of the imaging modalities make it so promising as a diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s disease. A topic I’m passionate about, interested in, and that I enjoy learning about.
So why is this paper bringing about my first major depressive episode in years?
I don’t have the answer to this, to be honest. I know that the more I struggle with putting words to paper, each week I don’t have much of anything to bring to my advisor, with each additional document I create to have a fresh start to look at while trying to write a different section, I feel more and more inadequate. More like a fraud: someone who will never complete a bachelor’s degree. I see my fellow seniors stressing over their theses, and writing. Sometimes hating every moment of work spent on that paper, and still writing it. I know that others are struggling with this fear of not completing, or not passing this major hurdle to graduation, but in my mind I’m still lesser to them.
And the more these feelings take over, the worse my sensory problems get. I haven’t discussed them much here, as my diagnosis of ASD with significant sensory processing problems is fairly recent, but essentially I (or my brain at least) feel assaulted by the world around me constantly. Daily I cope, with help from my psychiatric service dog. But as I drown in my thoughts, and retreat inside my mind, the sensory assault is more prominent and my coping skills less effective. As this happens, I dissociate more (therefore) panic (leading to) a higher risk of my shitty coping skills, like avoidance, too much food, too little food, and more. And so the cycle returns back to a failure to do the shit that I have to do: in my case today (tonight), write part of this thesis.
All this is to say that I’m able to recognize now that it isn’t a coincidence that when I’m least able to afford going down the rabbit hole of my mind, it becomes much more difficult to avoid doing so. And much more important to conscientiously set myself up for a better chance of success.
How? Not sure. That’s part 2, stay tuned.
Thanks for reading, and as always I’m here if you need me.
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.
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.
I’ve had this song stuck in my head recently, a song by Kimya Dawson, “Will you be me.”
I’m really not trying to be a downer with these last few posts, I know that they’ve worried some people. But the thing is, this isn’t anything compared to how bad I’ve been in the past, and the fact that I’ve now chosen to share my experiences is beside that point. It would be going on anyway, but this outlet makes my thoughts clearer and hopefully gives some people more understanding?
But back to Kimya.
“Will you be me, will you be me, wear my clothes and drink my coffee, write my mommy, do my homework, feed my babies, fight my crazies.”
Its definitely a plea for help, and one that I honestly find myself feeling sometimes recently, when things get overwhelming. Living with mental illness, it honestly feels sometimes like I’ve drawn the short straw. Sometimes its awfully tempting to just give up and throw it in. I feel like Atlas sometimes, and I’m trying not to be dramatic, but if I could shove the weight of my own world off onto someone else’s shoulders I think I would.
When I was in the midst of my exercise addiction I used to pride myself on living a life that I didn’t think anyone else could handle. I would be running on the treadmill in the basement at midnight, about to get off, study, then run some more, and think to myself smugly, “If those people [I still don’t know who I was thinking of] tried for one minute to do what I can do, and what I do, do, they’d run screaming.” And with the exception of those who were suffering, and who are suffering from similar problems, I was probably right.
But there was nothing there to be proud of–seriously, I see the other side so much more clearly now, and who would envy suffering more than the average person?
But there’s that feeling of extremity, and power that comes from doing what others choose not to do. The pride of taking the hard road, and that’s what’s so addictive about mental illness. It becomes the one thing that separates you from the rest of the crowd as it takes you over.
But what you don’t consider as much is that you’re already unique–you come that way. Mental illness just turns you into a depressed, anxious drone.
Now, if I could shove the weight of my world onto someone else I think I would take it back almost immediately. Not because I’m a slight masochist, but because living this struggle is making me stronger in ways that I didn’t even know I was weak. It’s giving me a sense that I can do things that seem impossible, and no matter how much I cry and break down along the way, this is my journey. And I’ve got to live it, or something.
That’s right those of you who’re familiar with DBT–I went there.
The get-out-of-jail free card of a goal from Four Winds, and what people dread being asked to do.
I suppose there’s a possibility that I might need to work on radically accepting a few things. That my parents (or anyone without an eating disorder) will never understand what I’m going through or know intuitively how to help right, that the friends I talked to in high school I might never talk to again, that my view of myself is likely more than a little skewed…these are all candidates.
More pressing though is that if I want the life I imagine for myself one day, I can’t be a person-with-an-eating-disorder. I can be a person-who-had-an-eating-disorder if I choose to continue on in the eating disorder world on the other side of things (researcher or therapist) but I can’t maintain my eating disorder and be the kick-ass version of myself that I want to be.
A way I’ve put it in the past is that it’s impossible to simultaneously be the real person you imagine yourself being one day, and the patient that you imagine being one day. And one of these options costs, and costs big.
Right now it actually feels like both cost big.
So I suppose it might be time to radically accept the need for radical acceptance…
So as you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post, I haven’t been doing the best lately.
Instead of disappearing from the world, like last time I fell down a bit, I thought I’d share a bit about what’s been happening, and hopefully help some of you understand what its like in the mind/life of someone with an eating disorder, and depression. My goal with this blog is still to (someday) reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, and I feel like being open is a good first step. If you’re suffering, this may be triggering as it deals directly with my thoughts.
Today I felt like I was floating. People imagine, or I imagine that they imagine, that when you suffer from depression you sit around listening to sad music, and sigh a lot, and seek revenge on your dead father’s murderer of a brother. Oh wait, that’s Hamlet.
Quick rant: I actually had this conversation with my Shakespeare professor last term, as he looked at Hamlet, who I personally think is one of the first famous characters shown to be depressive or manic depressive, and said to the class, “And there’s Hamlet crying again, such an emo.” This reduction of someone to “emo” bothers the hell out of me. To look at someone and call them emo involves so much assumption, and judgement, the end result of which is a fairly derogatory term for a mentally ill person. It’s one of those terms that people don’t think about a lot, but that contributes a hell of a lot to the stigma around mental illness. End rant.
But back to the floating. That’s often what depression looks like for me. Clinically, its called “depersonalization” which always seems to fit for me as it sounds like it means becoming less of a person. It really means a sort of loss of identity, or a state where it seems like your body isn’t your body and your thoughts aren’t your own but rather you are separated from body and world and all that they imply. What it looks like to the outside world must be a bit bizarre. I imagine I stare into space a lot, as people tell me that I look like I’m zoning out a lot. I’m often quieter, but once I start talking I ramble and can’t stop. I forget that I’m hot, or cold, and I often forget about what it requires to be human: must get up, must eat, must brush teeth, must shower. I actually write all of these things down in the to do section of my planner in order to not forget.
All this depersonalization, and dissociation (which for me relates closely to the depersonalization though its different) basically make it seem like my mind is in a world of its own. The odd part is that when I’m depressed, I often go into my eating disorder which has become so much about my body.
One of the problems for me with eating disorder recovery is that it greatly involves being present, and mindful and in your body. Frankly, I hate my body. I hate it with a passion actually. So when I’m in this dissociated state, it’s a welcome break from the feeling of entrapment in a place that I hate. What I need to learn to do is tolerate being in my body, even when I hate it, but that’s another blog post entirely.
How the dissociation affects my eating is another story entirely. It’s hard to explain because as much as I feel separate from my body, I also feel tethered to it in a way. Often when I’m dissociated I completely forget to eat–that it’s something that I have to do as a living creature, but then when I get hungry the eating disorder takes over. When you feel like you’re a mind trapped within a body that’s not your own it becomes incredibly hard to remember that thoughts aren’t orders, and that they aren’t permanent, and that you can argue with them, and change them and flip them entirely. So here’s how it often goes: 1) Sit down or lay down or stand or be 2) Thoughts occur 3) Thoughts consume 4) Forget importance of things like hygiene, school, and food. 5) Get hungry. 6) New thoughts consume–thoughts of greed, and disdain, and food and fat.
What happens next varies. Lately, I’ve been choosing the not so very good options of refusing to eat, throwing out what food I can and feeding more food to the dogs so that I won’t give in, or eating everything. Often these two options rotate, one after the other in a cycle of self-hatred that feeds itself until I intervene with a meal plan meal.
I’ve been asking myself recently, a lot, why I don’t just give up on recovery, and stop eating, and stop going to therapy. I could do it, though not for long. You see, they’ve got my number now. I’ve outed myself in too many ways (including this blog) and people who care about me would know immediately what was happening. Then the following things occur, in a ritualistic stripping away of the things that make me less of a patient:
1) They would make me step back up in treatment, cutting down on work hours.
2) I would have to quit my job, or go on leave.
3) I would have to cut down on classes.
4) I would have to stop going to classes completely.
5) I would be admitted to a higher level of care.
I’m writing that down primarily for selfish reasons, to remind myself that if I go back to being a patient, I lose more than weight–I lose everything. Everything that makes me, me–at least for a little while.
So it would work for a little while, but not long enough to allow me to lose enough weight, if I’m being honest. Too many people care about me more than I do (goddamn it) to let me spiral too much. This makes me both incredibly grateful, and incredibly sad.
So what’s the other option–figuring this shit out. That’s the option I’m trying my hardest to move towards, and I’ll detail that more later, as right now I have to do it and that means doing my homework as opposed to writing what I would like to write. It means taking steps towards studentdancerbaristaquilterratloverwriter Kerry instead of patient Kerry and it means trying to do instead of just trying to be.
As always, I love you all and I’m always here if you’re struggling or just need to talk.
Recently I’ve become aware of how many people suffer from mental illness–part of it is because as I write this blog more people choose to come to me for help (which I love!) and partly because everyone suffers to a degree. I truly believe this. Mental health is a spectrum to me, and what I’ve seen from people since I’ve come public about my own mental illness has only supported that.
With that said: I need to point this out to people who are suffering, and please, please, please don’t hate me: YOU ARE NOT A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE BECAUSE OF YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS.
This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, more something I’ve noticed over the past year of treatment, something that I’ve experienced myself, and something that it hurts me deeply to see others suffering from. One of the ways that people are controlled by their mental illness is because it makes them feel special–like they’re the odd one out and like for some reason, they are broken in a way that no one has been before them, and so they’re separate from other people and unable to relate to them, or be comforted by them.
I’ll be listening to someone I care about speak about their thoughts, and in that I sometimes hear my own thoughts reflected. But when you let them know, “Oh yeah, I totally get where you’re coming from.” All too often the reply is something along the lines of, “Well, yeah you get it, but here’s why I’m worse…here’s why I’m different from everyone else…here’s why I’ll never get better…here’s why you can’t possibly understand.”
And I get it–when you’re suffering from mental illness, and that hell inside your head, it’s impossible to believe that others have gone through the same thing and lived to tell about it. And yes, everyone has different experiences and no one’s experienced the exact same things, but those thoughts that you think, that you think are unique because they’re so sad, or so fucked up, or so utterly awful–they’ve passed through the heads of countless people before you: I guarantee it.
I have realized through hearing countless other people talk about how their disease makes them think and feel, that nothing I’ve felt–no matter how dark, or tragic, or hopeless, is unique.
At first, this made me mad. Like some of you probably will be at me for posting this.
But your sadness does not make you special. It only makes you sad, and holds you back in life.
Your eating disorder does not give you control–it either kills you, or puts you in a situation where you are stripped of all control.
Your mental illness is not unique, it is not what makes you, you.
You are the person who kicks ass at that sport, or who can’t stop talking even when you have been all night, or who is loved by everyone around you, or who’s smile makes everyone else smile, or who drunk texts everyone “I love you”‘s. You are made up of endless quirks, and fascinations, and loveliness, and so many things and guess what? None of those things are your mental illness.
We are, all of us, living our own private lives within our minds. But let’s all stop pretending that those lives are so different from one another’s. Do you know how much I would give to tell someone that I relate to what they’re saying without hearing back,
“Well, yeah you can do that, but I can’t.”
When you tell someone something like this, at least in my experience, you give the monsters inside your head that much more power. You’re not only missing out on a chance to bond with someone over the shit you’ve both experienced (because something positive should come out of it somehow) but you’re also invalidating the other person’s experiences, and basically making them feel like a piece of shit.
And if you’re reading this, and think that I’ve talking about you, know that: A) Everyone’s friends occasionally make them feel like shit and yet they still love each other. and B) I’m not talking about you so sh–don’t worry.
And I might get shit for this, but I want to challenge the notion that everyone’s thoughts are unique because they fucking aren’t. Out of all of the people who have ever lived, and likely out of all of the people who are alive at this very moment, someone out there has thought the same things as you. And one of the only positive things about diagnoses (other than insurance–yay!) are that they make it easier to find people who understand, and who have thought those same fucked up things that you have.
So next time you rant to, or talk to someone about something that’s going on inside your head and they say, “Dude, I’ve been there, I’m sorry, I get it.” Try believing them.
Because we all think these things, we all suffer, we all get sad or lonely, some of us want to or have wanted to die, some of us can’t talk to people without freaking out, a lot of us think that we’ll never be able to actually be happy, and it’s about time we start believing each other, and let this stuff bind us together instead of isolating us inside a little bubble.
As always, I’m always here to listen, though be warned I’ll be honest.
I love you all–keep on keeping on, and thanks for reading.
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.
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.
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 🙂
After lurking, stalking, admiring, and envying all the bloggers out there, I’ve decided to join the club.
So first: introductions. I’m Kerry, a twenty year old full time college student, and a part time barista at Starbucks.
I’m also in the process of recovering from an eating disorder, social anxiety, and severe chronic depression that left me in places that I did not like. There are a lot of changes happening in my life: changes that I want to be able to acknowledge, and remember. Trust me: once you’ve been in the grips of something that’s seized your mind, and taken your life away from you, making decisions for yourself again is both scary and a process that you’ll never take for granted again.
I don’t know what I want the focus of this blog to be, but I want a few things to come out of it: increased awareness and acceptance of mental illness is the biggie, I want to help people who have loved ones who are suffering from depression, or an eating disorder, or any sort of mental illness to understand a little more, and be better able to help. I want to share my obsession with planners and how planning my life has helped me improve it (my Filofax is one of the loves of my life: don’t judge), and I want to show off my crafts (knitting, crocheting, sewing, quilting, etc.) and have a base for my Etsy shop so that people can get to know the person behind the shop a little better. Overall, I want to be able to look back when I’m fully recovered and see my progress, my fallbacks, and how I got there, so I can remember the process, and help others who are struggling.
So if you’re interested, curious, or want to know more, feel free to follow along!
I’d appreciate support along my journey as I come public about my struggles with mental illness for the first time, but I also want to support you. If you know me in real life feel free to message me on Facebook anytime, or anyone can message me here if you want to talk, or need help, or just want to chat.
I want to help change the face of mental illness: it can happen to anyone, and it isn’t something that need be taboo, or that anyone should need to hide. We’re all human, we all struggle, and we all have the ability to emphasize with and support each other. And I think that its when all people begin to use that ability, that changes will really start to happen.