Happy Birthday, Dad

In November 2017, I was at my friend’s wedding. She looked beautiful, and happy, and when the music slowed and she took the floor with her father for their dance, I turned away and burst into tears.

“My father will never dance with me at my wedding.”

The words flew into my mind unbidden, but it wasn’t the first time they’d come. I tried to calm myself as I had in the past; of course he would be there to dance with me. Of course he would make it. He wasn’t that old after all. I could call him right now and hear his voice and he’d make me laugh and I could stop worrying.

But I couldn’t calm down. As one of my best friends danced with her dad, I stayed firmly facing the wall, shaking with the effort of keeping silent and trying to pull it together at least enough that I could sneak out to the bathroom and wait until the anxiety, and the horrible certainty faded. Eventually, the song ended, I leaned into my boyfriend for support, and chalked it all up to a bad mental health day.

I had less than three months left.

The day my dad died was the strangest day of my life. I was at a wedding with my boyfriend in New Hampshire and suddenly my mom was there and time became very, very still.

Over the past month, I have mourned my father more deeply than I can ever explain, even if I wished to. This will continue. Some days it will consume me and leave me shrieking into my mattress, or gasping silently in the bathroom at work. Some days it will be so bad that I don’t know how I’m supposed to keep breathing, much less be happy again.

And some days, like today, I will laugh and smile and cry and feel peace.

Joseph O’Dell Barney was the brightest person I’ve ever known. He sang loudly and often, and he played the guitar every day.

I can describe him, how he had crystal clear blue-green eyes, preferred his hair short, and had a perpetual moustache, usually with a beard (except for those times he tried to trim it and accidentally shaved his entire face).

I can explain how much he loved sweets, and Cosmos, and cigars, and annoying my mother, and really all manner of things that were bad for him.

I can try to convey just how much people liked him. Whenever we’d walk the dog throughout the years there was inevitably someone to say hello to, or talk with. When he married my mom so many people crashed their reception that the owner eventually had to shut it down for putting the entire building over capacity. There were over 600 people at his wake, most of whom waited outside in below-freezing temperatures for over an hour.

I can tell you how awesome he helped make my childhood, how he’d dance with me around the living room and swing me over his shoulder when I was too tired (or lazy) to walk upstairs to bed. We’d go on walks in the woods, and snug watching movies, we’d go sledding and swimming in the ocean, and in the summer, we would lay out in the driveway and look at the stars.

I can explain how much he loved being a Pepe. I remember how excited he was when my sister told us she was pregnant with her first baby. He loved taking the girls out for McDonalds, and picking them up from school. He went to Disney World, and soccer games, and dance recitals and everything in between.

I can talk about how much he loved his family, how often we visited my Meme and Pepe, how he worked three or more jobs to be able to raise my sister and brother, how many times I came home to one of his sisters or brothers with him on the couch.

I can tell stories, like the time when I was a little kid and we pranked my mom by having me run out yelling as she walked through the door so my dad could run out in his Superman costume and swoop me to safety. Or how he kept asking my mom to marry him for years before he finally did.

I could talk for hours, days, weeks, months, years about my dad and I still couldn’t capture what it was like to know him. And if you knew him, you know that too.

I had the best dad in the world. Hell, I still have the best dad in the world. I always will.

Love you, Daddy. Happy Birthday.

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Whole and Healthy

Before I get started I want to make a quick comment: I wrote this post a few days after I got out of the hospital. Since then, it’s been nearly two months. I found myself wanting to edit this when reading through it again, but I think in this case, leaving it as is (save for minor spelling/grammar errors) might be the way to go. Content warnings for depression, self-harm, and suicidality.

Most of the time when I write on here, it’s because I have something to say that I want other people to hear.

This post is a little bit different, because, frankly, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll ever post it. I want to get my thoughts down and reflect on a little bit of what I’ve been dealing with, so here I am.

This past week, I had a short stay in a psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital.

It was my first (and with all reasonable expectation, last) stay in such an environment. I had been dealing with some heavy lows. Not being able to get out of bed in the morning, staring at the television for hours to make being unable to move, concentrate, or speak feel more normal. Things recently have reached a pitch where I have to fight to convince myself that they could ever be better.

This Monday, I told my therapist about what had been going on, and how I had reached a point where I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I’ll call it “suicidal ideation” because that’s what everyone around me has been calling it, but I think exhaustion is more accurate.

I’ve been working so hard to get better for such a long time, with so few lasting results that being alive just feels exhausting some days.

But, perhaps wisely, most people hear “I don’t want to be alive” as “I want to die.”

This week wasn’t the first time I had considered inpatient psychiatric care. I’ve been told by people who I love that I’m unable of taking care of myself on my own, that I need to do more, that I need to consider having someone else take care of me. Someone else to make sure I stay alive.

Up until now, I’ve always been able to convince myself that this isn’t what I need. It turns out that I was right about that, but when you’re unfathomably low to the point where you’re willing to try anything to make yourself better and your therapist suggests the possibility of inpatient care, it can sound like a promising idea.

In some cases, I think mental hospitals and psychiatric wings can be enormously beneficial. They provide a physically safe space where you have access to therapy, medication, doctors, rest, and reflection.

For me, the most beneficial part of being in the hospital was realizing that I did not need to be there, I did not want to be taken care of in this way, and I need to be able to care for myself in my own way, on my own time.

I realized that I would do anything, anything, to keep myself from being put in a hospital again. And more importantly, to get myself to a place where no one would consider it necessary to suggest hospitalization again.

I have plans moving forward for therapy, medication, lifestyle shifts, figuring out how to change my mode of thinking, but that’s all information for another day.

This post, and this blog overall are an attempt to explain my experience and thought processes regarding my mental health in a way that anyone, even neurotypical people who have never had to deal with mental illness, can understand and empathize with.

It can be difficult trying to explain these things in person, especially when there are people who will dismiss your views as “the disease talking” or walk on eggshells around you, terrified of how fragile they believe you to be.

I have anxiety. I have panic attacks, I deal with depression, and PTSD tends to mess with me. But these characteristics aren’t who I am. They’re part of me, they affect the way I live and think, how I empathize with others, and how I process experiences. They are something I work on daily and something people will always try to cure. But they aren’t me.

I’m not a disease.

I’m not a suicide risk.

I’m not someone to be coddled or kept from living through reality.

I’m just a person. Whole and healthy and flawed and dealing with the world the best I can.

Do I need more support than some people? Sure. Are there times where my behavior gets a bit out of whack and I need some time, or a wake up call? Absolutely.

I don’t intend for this post to be an all encompassing exploration of mental hospitals or how to treat people with mental illness. Like with any disease, mental illnesses can be treated in a variety of ways, and what’s best for one person might not help another, in fact, it might even make things worse.

I want to give myself a voice.

I want to keep my agency, and I want to help people understand where I’m coming from as I live my life for myself and build myself into a stronger person every day.

There will always be people who don’t understand what’s going on with me, who treat me differently because of my mental and emotional state. And that’s okay. Things can be confusing at the best of times and frankly, I’m just thankful that people care enough about me to worry.

As always, the biggest thing I’m advocating for here is to listen to the people you care about. Don’t invalidate their experiences, and listen so that they can find the best care suited for them.

Try to remember that people aren’t their diseases. I promise, it can do a world of difference.

Next to Normal

If you’ve being reading for a while, you’ll know that I’m into theater, particularly musical theater.

I love singing, try my best to dance, and overall love the atmosphere of performing in musicals.

I also adore listening to soundtracks of different shows. On repeat. For weeks at a time.

Next to Normal is one of my favourite shows. The music is haunting, powerful, and absolutely beautiful. The characters are raw, flawed, real, and live close to my heart. The story hurts and heals in equal measure.

It’s beautiful and important, and deeply, deeply problematic.

Musical theater deals with stories of love, heartbreak, race, poverty, religion – pretty much anything you could imagine, controversial or trite as you may think.

In my experience, Next to Normal lies in a category of its own.

In case you aren’t familiar with the show, Next to Normal focuses on the Goodman family. The mother, Diana, suffers from delusions, depression, and bipolar disorder exacerbated by a personal tragedy, which I won’t spoil but which drives a lot of motion in the show even though it happened years before the show’s timeline. She and her family try to live their lives dealing with her illness and their own issues independent and in relation to it.

Next to Normal succeeds in a lot of ways. Dan is unable to deal with his wife’s illness, constantly expecting quick fixes and insisting in spite of everything that “it’s gonna be good” even as his manic optimism becomes increasingly unrealistic and detrimental.

Natalie is angry at her mother for the way she has treated her throughout her childhood and grapples with her own mental health issues and fears of becoming her mother and hurting her loved ones in the same ways.

Henry tries his best to love Natalie in relation to her complicated familial situation and doesn’t know how to deal with her mental issues – but makes his best effort to learn and support her anyway.

Diana – well Diana deals with losing control, losing her agency, and losing herself, along with all the terror and anger that her experiences entail.

The characters in Next to Normal are well written and heart-breakingly real, particularly in relation to their flaws and problems.

My main problem with Next to Normal is its portrayal of medication for the treatment of mental illness. In the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” Diana goes through a flurry of different medications that each have their own benefits and side effects until the song’s final lines:

“I don’t feel like myself. I- I don’t feel anything.”

“Patient stable.”

For a long time, I fought against using medication to treat my anxiety and depression. I thought it was for other people, people who were in much worse places than me. It was a cop out and if I just tried harder I wouldn’t need medication. And as much as I hate to admit it, that song was one of the big reasons I fought against medication for so long.

Frankly, I was terrified of what medication would do to me. I was so scared of becoming numb and emotionless that I was willing to put up with the panic attacks and the increasingly severe anxiety until I could barely function. I wasn’t willing to give it a try until I had thoroughly given up on ever getting better, and even then I hated myself for being “weak”.

When I think back on this, I’m more than a little grossed out by myself. The thing is, I would never have said any of this to anyone I knew who took medication for depression or anxiety. I would have been horrified to hear anyone say needing medication made you weak. It was just so easy to say so to myself.

Medication is not a magic fix for mental illness. Nothing is. It’s tough to fight and a number of strategies need to be used tailored to each individual and even then you can’t always win.

For me, a mix of talk therapy, yoga, and medication is the current plan. So far, it’s been going well for me. It took a bit to get here and I’m proud of where I am, and looking forward to – well – moving forward.

I think that Next to Normal is an incredibly important musical. It faces mental illness head on in a way that most people aren’t used to and can give some insight into dealing with mental illness in a society where the general practice is to look away.

But the people in Next to Normal are one (fictionalized) example of how mental illness can affect individuals and their families. Their stories don’t apply to everyone.

As a disclaimer, I do not claim to be any kind of authority on musical theater any more than I’m one on mental illness. I’m only familiar with a fraction of shows and can’t comment on the structural quality of any musical.

That said, musicals have always been important to me. Next to Normal was one of the first shows that I really loved, and for a long time, it was the thing that resonated most deeply with my perception of mental health.

While it’s a beautiful, important musical that makes mental illness more accessible, it also has its problems, and like any beautiful important thing, those problems shouldn’t be ignored.

Astonishment and Thanks

First of all —

Um. Hi there.

I was planning on putting up my post-hospital blog this week but it felt weird posting again without acknowledging how utterly dumbstruck and appreciative of the response to my previous post I am.

Before last week my most popular post had received around a hundred views. Sitting on Windows more than tripled that number and a week later, I’m getting new views every day.

My main response to this has been ???????????????????????????

I have received dozens of comments, likes, and messages on Facebook supporting me and a little more surprisingly, supporting How to Cry in Public.

I started this blog primarily to try and organize my brain and calm my emotions down enough to make them a little more understandable. Then it became a way to force myself not only to address what was going on in my head, but to make it accessible to my friends and family.

Since last week I’ve received messages from close friends, people I’ve never met, people I haven’t talked to in years with support for me, thanks for writing the post, and appreciation of how I talk about mental health.

Apparently, my thoughts on myself, anxiety, depression, and suicidality are more accessible than I ever thought possible.

With last week’s response, my feelings on this blog have changed a bit.

I’m not going to change how I write or what I write about: this is still primarily a place for me to document, heal, and share myself. But I want to do more.

And so, I am going to make a valiant attempt to post once a week!

I figure I’ll stick with Wednesdays in honor of this being the first time I’ve posted two consecutive weeks in a row.

Additionally…I want to start taking questions, if there are any questions to be had. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on mental health. I just know my own story. But with that said, I’ve been getting so many comments and questions this past week that I feel like there might be more things that people are wondering about that I could possibly answer.

Maybe there’s something I’ve mentioned that you would like explained more thoroughly. Maybe there’s something I haven’t touched on at all that you would like me to. Maybe you just want to share a little bit of your own story. Whichever way, I want to hear.

So! If you feel so moved, contact me in any way you feel comfortable! If we don’t know one another in real life, feel free to comment! I have to approve all comments before they’re posted, so if it’s something you don’t want made public, just say so and I will be the only one who sees it.

And with that, I will see y’all next week!

Sitting on windowsills without wanting to jump

Hey there! Guess who isn’t suicidal anymore!

No?

Too glib? 

Yikes. Sorry about that. 

This is like the time I let some of my friends know I was in the emergency room by sending them snapchat selfies of myself in a hospital gown.

For some reason people get mad when you don’t seem like you’re taking your health seriously.

Go figure.

In my defense it is hard to talk to people about being suicidal. I mean, if people are uncomfortable talking about mental health to begin with, they are terrified about hearing about suicidal ideation. 

Hell they may not even know the phrase suicidal ideation exists.

My parents and close friends have been aces these past couple (years) months. They’ve dealt with my worsening depression, anxiety, and panic attacks far better than I could ever have hoped and I am constantly, continually grateful. And what’s more, they’ve found ways to understand that through it all I’m still me. 

Under all the crying and screaming and bruising and weight loss, I was still me.

Admittedly a broken down version of me who needed a lot of help to get back to normal, but the point still stands.

A lot of people have a hard time seeing that. A lot of the time people you care about, people you don’t, well meaning friends and family, and people who couldn’t give less of a fuck only see you as your mental health status. 

And sometimes they think you can’t even tell.

Well trust me. I can tell.

I was genuinely scared to write this post because I don’t know how it will affect how people see me. As amazing as it might seem, there are still some people out there who don’t know that I’m a mess. 

I know. Frankly, I’m astonished too.

Fortunately, I’m pretty sure only strangers and people who are already at least a little privy to my personal life read this little blog of mine.

 That said, it’s still hard for me to talk about being suicidal because honestly it’s still hard to accept that I actually was.

When I think back I don’t ever remember thinking “I want to die”. It was always more of a nebulous desire to stop hurting floating around me than a solid wish. 

MAKE THIS STOP MAKE THIS STOP PLEASE GOD I WILL DO ANYTHING TO MAKE THIS STOP

I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t necessarily want to live. 

Now those might not seem like different things to some people but to me it was all the difference in the world.

I wanted out. I was so unalterably sad, in such constant pain, and in such a state of resigned terror that this was going to be the rest of my life that I didn’t know what to do. I was desperate and broken and scared and I just wanted it all to 

Stop.

I would get so scared when I thought like this that I would hold my breath, put knives against my skin, open windows in high buildings and stand there, crying and staring, willing myself to live.

So I told my therapist. And then I went to the hospital. I wrote a whole post on that when I got out, so I won’t go into much detail on that subject, but suffice it to say, that was both a wake up call and a turning point.

I was living my worst nightmare and that more than anything compelled me to get back to being alive. 

And so I did.

Two months later and some actual medication that works and I’m feeling more like myself than I have in years.

It’s exhilarating and unbelievable and absolutely terrifying.

I’m going slow at the moment. As hard as it can be for me to grasp sometimes, I’m sick. Mental illness is a disease like any other and like any other chronic illness it will ebb and flare and there will be good and bad days.

And I’m trying to be okay with that.

For now, I am good. I’m happy. I’m stable and yet I can still feel the whole range of emotions I’m used to.

I’m less reactive and yet I’m not numb. And for that, I’m grateful. 

I didn’t think I would ever get here for a while. And sometimes I still worry that I’m not here to stay. 

And that’s okay. If I slip it doesn’t have to be all the way back down. And if it is hell, I got here once, I can find my way back again.

But I’m not going to worry about that for now. For now I’m going to be alive, just like I promised myself I would be. 

Oddly enough, not all anxiety is created equal

Being an extrovert with generalized anxiety and panic disorders is a weird deal. Most people associate anxiety with social anxiety – which is a totally valid and prevalent symptom! It just happens to be one I do not have.

On the contrary, I thrive off of the majority of social situations. They cheer me up, calm me down, and are generally pretty essential to my overall wellbeing.

This can be a weird thing to explain to people. I’ve been in social situations where I’m anxious or starting to panic and don’t know what to do, so I tell the person I’m with. Generally their (totally well meaning!) response is: it’s okay if you need to go home.

Unfortunately, that’s probably the worst thing you could say to me when I’m starting to panic. If I wasn’t losing my shit to begin with, I sure as hell am now.

One of my biggest anxiety triggers is feeling like I’m unwanted. Being told that it’s okay if I need to leave typically comes across as —

I don’t want you here. No one does. Stop ruining this for everyone else and just get out.

Typically, this results in a bit of silence, a whole lot of crying, possible screaming, and cruel words on my end in an horribly misguided effort to defend myself and show that I am not okay and I know you’re trying to help but you are making it worse.

Similarly, people don’t always get that not having social interaction can set off my anxiety as badly as too much of it can with someone dealing with social anxiety.

If you have social anxiety, imagine what it’s like when you’re thrust into an unfamiliar social situation for which you had zero preparation that you are not allowed to get out of.

That’s how it feels for me when I don’t have the option of being around people and have to be alone when I just don’t have the capacity to do so.

Like most mental illness, my specific brand of anxiety has pretty frequent and visible effects on the people in close with.

It isn’t always easy on them. In fact, I know it’s pretty frequently rough. And I appreciate what they do for me more than I’ll ever be able to express.

Obviously, it’s irrational to expect anyone to be aware of every individual’s anxiety triggers and how they each need to be treated in panic situations. That’s not what I’m looking to accomplish here.

All I’m saying is, if you love someone with anxiety, panic disorder, or any other mental illness, talk to them about what they need. Even if you have previous experience with mental illness.

Especially then.

Well-meaning people who automatically think they know what’s best for you hurt in an indefinable but very real way.

Ask what helps your loved one when they’re struggling, find out if they’re comfortable with telling you what triggers them so you can avoid it, or help if there’s a situation where a trigger comes up.

See what there is you can do to help. And preferably, talk about it when your loved one isn’t already on high alert. 

From experience, few things are more stressful than being expected to tell someone how to fix whatever is going on with you when you already feel out of control.

Talk to the people you love, friends, partners, family — I promise that the effort will not only give you valuable tools in dealing with crisis situations, it will help show your loved one that you care, and often more importantly, that you respect their agency and ability to know what is best for their personal situation.

Love and respect, people. It goes a long way.

The vulnerability necessary to love

You can’t make someone stay.

Sometimes, you love someone with all your heart and want nothing more in return than them, pure and simple.

Sometimes you imagine someone in your future, as far as you can see, and the thought of having them in your life almost makes you giddy with joy.

But sometimes, you’re wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, love is not always enough.

A romantic relationship cannot function without love, but that does not mean that love is all it needs to function.

Sometimes people can love one another deeply, but there are so many reasons that a relationship can fall apart that has nothing to do with love.

Love might even end up being the reason things fall apart.

Everyone says that breaking up is hard to do. Whether you’re able to reconstruct a friendship out of the pieces, or you move on separate courses away from each other, in some way you always end up losing someone who you once wanted more than anything.

There isn’t any hard and fast way to deal with that.

Sometimes it feels like there isn’t any way at all.

Losing someone you love is pains in your chest that don’t ever seem like they’ll go away, it’s waking up in the wrong bed, it’s crying more than you ever thought possible, and it’s breaking down so completely that you don’t ever think you’ll recover.

But you will. You always do.

You keep waking up in the wrong bed and you keep getting out of it. You keep moving and breathing until your chest feels lighter, and you keep living until you begin to notice that you are still alive.

I don’t think there’s any use in diminishing the pain that comes from a breakup. Whether you’re 13 and have just been through a breakup with someone you dated for 3 weeks and you feel like you’ll never, ever love anything or anyone again, or you’ve fallen out of a relationship you’d been in for years and everything is quieter and more empty and you’re not sure anything will feel normal again, your pain is real. It matters.

It matters because for a moment, or a lifetime of moments, you cared deeply and fully about someone. In so many cases, love ends with heartbreak, and yet, you allowed yourself the vulnerability necessary to love.

And someday, in spite of it all, you’re going to do it again.