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.

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.

Empathy and Ignorance

Surprising no one, I’m changing my game plan for this post.

I had planned on writing a post looking back on 2014, the things I learned about myself, how I changed my outlook, the negative things I needed to deal with, and the ways I and others made my life better.

However, I’m scratching that post because today, I’m going to rant.

While in an upper level English class, we were discussing the book Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (a wonderful book that I would definitely recommend) and we came to the arc of a certain character, Nyasha. Our professor asked the class how we felt about her.

“I really liked her until the last chapter of the book.”

I paused in my notes and looked up, slightly confused. Throughout Nervous Conditions, Nyasha had been a hardworking, independent character. She was spectacularly written, a realistic, relatable young woman who refuses to accept the patriarchal civilization in which she and her family live. She continues to be this woman all through to the end of the novel. The only thing that changes in the last chapter is that she suffers a mental and emotional breakdown.

“I really liked her and how much effort she put into her education, and then she just threw it away at the end! It was so disappointing.”

Hold on. You looked at a character who was anorexic and bulimic, heavily depressed and suicidal, who was institutionalized after she tore apart her room and declared her intent to kill herself and saw that as throwing away her education?

Are we fucking kidding?

In regards to my mental health, I am in an exceptionally fortunate position. My friends, my boyfriend, my parents, my extended family, they all know about my situation and they care, they understand, they try to help. Even the people in my life who have never had to deal with mental illness in once capacity or another make an effort to educate themselves, to empathize, and to try as best they can to help.

In short, I’m lucky because it’s infrequent that I have to deal with callous ignorance.

I doubt that the girl in my class meant to be unfeeling toward mental illness and anyone who deals with it. I doubt she made her comment out of malice. But I also doubt that she has ever had to experience mental illness, or that she has made anything more than the most superficial effort to educate herself.

Mental illness is still taboo in America, and in most parts of the world. It’s so demonized that people who are suffering can go to the deepest depths of their diseases without seeking help. The people who do seek help can be denied it, by insurance, by complicated doctor’s visits and referrals. They can be ostracized by their friends, their communities — even their families.

Two of the biggest contributors to these issues are a lack of information, and a lack of empathy.

One of the greatest things that humans are capable of is empathy. When your mom is ill, you feel for her and want to help. When a friend’s marriage falls apart, you give them support, even if you’ve never had a long term relationship yourself. When your colleague’s father dies, you send a sympathy card, maybe you even bake them something to show you’re sorry that they’re hurting. Hell, if you see a stranger crying alone on the street, it’s likely you’ve checked in to see if they’re okay.

We all practice empathy in our day to day lives, so why is it so difficult to put that empathy toward understanding and accepting mental illness and those who live with it?

Maybe it’s because you’ve never challenged yourself to look mental illness in the face. Proper education and information have the power to completely alter a person’s viewpoint. You don’t have to be completely knowledgable about a subject, whether it’s related to mental health, poverty, race, gender, or any other issue.

You just have to try.

Make an effort to learn about mental health, whether you suffer from mental illness or equally importantly, if you don’t. You may never have given mental health a second thought! If that’s the case for you, you are lucky and I am truly happy for you. But I’m also here to tell you that that does not exclude you from having a knowledgeable, informed view of an issue that affects millions of people around the world.

Open yourself up to learning about mental health. When it becomes evident that you have problematic views, it is necessary to educate yourself. It is necessary to do better. You owe it to yourself, and to those around you to be better.

The Fear

I haven’t been having a spectacular few weeks.

Now, don’t get me wrong, for the most part things are going really well for me. A few things ended that needed to end and some new things are happening that I didn’t expect but am genuinely excited about. In the general sense, I’m happy.

At the same time, I also had my first panic attack since August last week. Then, this week, I had an anxiety attack.

(Now, I know those aren’t necessarily separate things, but for the purposes of defining my own life, I essentially label my less severe panic attacks as anxiety attacks.)

Anyway.

I’ve been doing well for so long that outside of having the occasional off day, I was starting to forget what this feels like.

And to put it simply, I’m scared.

I’m terrified that every time I have a panic attack it will be the start of a set. I’m terrified that one day I’m going to wake up feeling sick and that that feeling won’t stop, won’t go away for a week, a month, a whole semester.

I’m terrified of falling back to where I was.

I promised myself that I will go to whatever lengths necessary to keep going, and the amount of commitments and activities in which I have been engaging have helped me tremendously.

But at the same time as I’ve been getting better, I’ve stopped fighting.

Sometimes I take it for granted that I’m better. It feels so good where I am that I stop. Stop running, stop doing yoga, stop showing up to therapy with valid concerns, stop actively pushing against this bullshit disease that takes up so much of my mind.

I keep getting sick. Not with colds, or anything really concrete. Just this general feeling of malaise. Headaches, nausea, constant exhaustion. My chest gets so tight that I breathe in until my lungs can’t hold any more air and I still don’t feel like I’m getting an ounce of oxygen.

Last year, the physical symptoms hit me hard before the mental. The way I’ve been feeling recently is feels too similar for comfort.

I know that I can get ahead of this, and that’s what I’m going to do. Realizing what’s happening and knowing that it is possible for me to stop it, or at least slow it down so it can’t progress as far is everything.

As clichéd as it may sound, I didn’t know what I was up against last time. The slide was so gradual that I didn’t even realize I was losing ground until I couldn’t climb back out. It took months for me to accept where I was and how I had gotten there, and to realize that it did not have to be my life.

I still won’t let that be my life again. The fear I have of regressing is real and not necessarily unfounded, but realizing that I have control over this situation, over how far I go — well, that’s everything.

If not everything, it’s still enough. It’s more than enough.

Bad days

Sometimes I wake up and there is something wrong. There is an infuriatingly indefinable sense of something being off and I immediately know that I’m going to spend the day trying to shake it.

Sometimes I can. Sometimes I breathe and stretch and eat and distract myself and before I know it I’m laughing at myself for feeling strange and upset in the first place.

Sometimes I can chalk it up as a win, and go about my day as usual, grateful that I made myself feel better and convinced that I am getting better. I’m proud of myself for using the things I’m learning about myself in a practical fashion where I can help myself.

But some days aren’t that easy.

Sometimes when I wake up feeling wrong I shoot around from fine to crying to numb to terrified of myself. I keep fighting and pushing to try and feel better and the moment I do, I fall back to where I started. By the time I fall asleep I’m exhausted and frustrated and can’t remember half the day.

On the days like this I get so angry at myself because I know how to make things better — I just can’t. What good is the therapy and the deep breathing and the increased self-awareness if they aren’t going to do anything?

I am fully conscious of how much my mental and emotional state have improved in the last year. I know that I have far more good days than bad and that the bad times are hours or days, not weeks or months.

Sometimes I am so proud of myself for literally picking myself up off the floor when I was so numb that I didn’t believe I could move. But sometimes that pride doesn’t extend to the days when the awareness that I am getting better means nothing because in that moment, I don’t feel like I have changed at all.

There are days that you can’t win, where you will feel sick and exhausted and heartbreakingly empty for no reason. And you know what? That’s okay.

Those days don’t change anything. You are still the person who knows how to calm yourself down. You are still the person who brings yourself back after a bad day, or a crying jag, or a panic attack.

Let it go.

Let yourself breathe. Push as hard and as far as you can, and if you need to pause or take a full stop, forgive yourself and then acknowledge that there is nothing to forgive yourself for.

The bad days do not negate the work you have done or the progress that you have made.

And sometimes I just need to remind myself of that.