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. 

Notes from a panic attack

It’s hard to accept when you’re not okay.

You do things that have worked before, you convince yourself that you’re not slipping out, you spin and you spin and try to claw our way out until you’re blank and bleeding.

It’s hard to accept that you aren’t okay.

Being sick, being lost, being unable to connect with your surroundings, being unable to quite convince yourself that things are real, it’s terrifying. It’s fucking terrifying.

You’re not okay right now.

You’re not in control of this, and tonight, you can’t be.

You’re sick and you’re never going to be able to control your symptoms all the time.

There’s no use in railing against this any more than there’s use railing against any other chronic disease.

This won’t be forever.

There will be days when you feel better.

Those days may seem like moments but I promise, they are not.

The good days are as much a part of your life as the bad.

It’s hard to accept when you’re not okay.

And it’s even harder to remember that sometime soon, you will be.

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.

Octobers

This has been a bit of an evening. I just met with the Into the Woods cast for our last (official) gathering and I’m feeling it.

As is always the case near the end of a show, I was exhausted and ready for a bit of a break. It hadn’t really hit me that Woods was over and that I had actually done it until tonight.

Tonight, I also started coming to terms with how vastly different my life is from a year ago.

A year ago I dropped a callback for a show that I loved, sobbing because I couldn’t imagine adding any more pressure to my life. This year I worked my ass off to get cast in one of my dream shows.

If you’ve never dealt with anxiety or panic attacks, I don’t think I can quite convey what they feel like. The feeling that you’re completely useless, disappoint everyone you love, and have nothing to offer the world. It can get hopeless. It can get to the point where you feel like you’re watching your surroundings blur past and you can’t move and you can’t scream and there’s no one who can convince you that this is real, that you are alive.

You can become so numb, weak, and terrified that all that matters is getting from moment to moment. Forget getting through the day. Get through the morning. Get through your class. Get through waking up crying for no reason and forcing yourself to move, to get up, to just get up.

In general, the parts of last year that I remember are not the happy moments. I remember being desperate to snap out of it, to be able to breathe, to be able to handle stress like a normal human being.

I remember the complete dependence on my friends and loved ones, reliance on people who I will never forget and who I will never be able to repay.

I remember crying until I threw up, hyperventilating until I passed out, and screaming without being able to stop myself.

But you know what? I’m lucky.

I had people who loved me, and little by little I became stronger, more aware of myself, and lucky enough to pull myself out. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone has the resources or a mental illness that will allow them to do that.

I don’t think that I’m stronger than anyone else and I know that there are people who go through hell I couldn’t imagine, but I won’t minimize my personal hell to acknowledge someone else’s.

Last October, I was secluded. I was addicted to my friends and family, putting far more pressure on them than they deserved. I hated and feared myself so much that I was terrified to be alone. I had a boyfriend who endured more than he should have for me. I could barely get through my classes and could barely remember my weeks.

This October, a lot has changed. I worked on a huge show that I adored, and had the time of my fucking life. I learned how to do things on my own, and little by little, I’m learning how to be okay with being alone. My relationship ended. And I finally accepted that it was okay to let that happen. I’m here, and I feel like I’m actually living my life. I am so grateful, and so proud of what I have been able to do.

I still have anxiety and I always will. I’m sure that I haven’t endured my last panic attack. But you know what? I’ve gotten this far from October to October. I’m not afraid to keep going.