Dear Mom, You Did Good

Lying in bed the other night, I was thinking about when this all began. “This”: My lifelong battle with mental illness in its many varied forms; showing up as depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, panic attacks, and finally, bipolar disorder. This past Spring my mother and I had an enlightening and healing conversation in which we both agreed that it was around the age of seven that I changed. I became, somehow, an unhappy child.

I was laying in bed, thinking about this. This pivotal year in my life. Thinking about how there was no rhyme or reason for this sudden shift of brain chemistry and fate and then it occurred to me: why my mother had, during that Spring conversation, said to me, “I always thought it was my fault.”

The year I was seven was the year she and my father first separated. Is it possible that somehow my mother had convinced herself that if only she had been able to make her marriage work, I wouldn’t have developed a mental illness?

The thought brought tears to my eyes, and then a sudden and profound healing and gratitude. I realized what must have been the depths of my mother’s guilt and despair over my years of struggling, diagnoses, and hospitalizations. I realized that while I had spent years trying to understand why my parents hadn’t done more to help me, my parents had likely spent years trying to understand where they had gone wrong.

Mental illness is no one’s fault. There are contributing genetic, environmental, and neurobiological factors (among other things) that interact to cause mental illness. There is no one thing that can predict whether one person or another will develop a mental illness. Two people with the exact same genetic and environmental factors can experience the same life events and one will develop a mental illness, while the other won’t. Science can’t tell us exactly why.

I have never once in my life thought to myself, I have a mental illness because my parents separated when I was young. Sure there were years when I wished they had gotten me more or different help, but it never occurred to me to blame them for the illness itself. When I was teenager I remember people telling me that someday I would realize that my parents had done the best they could, that I would no longer blame them. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like my parents had done the best they could. But over the last ten years, this idea became so ridiculous as to feel obsolete.

The idea that my mom could have somehow saved me from mental illness is too ludicrous to even consider. But it wasn’t until the other night that I realized my mother might not know this.

Mom,

Mental illness has tried to kill me over and over again. It has tried to convince me that I am crazy, worthless, stupid, fat, lazy, unloved, and fundamentally unlovable. It has twisted my thoughts, my beliefs about myself and made me believe that my friends and family would be better off without me. But the things I learned from you have kept me alive.

I learned from you that it is not only okay to take of yourself, but necessary. And since we are not always good at taking care of ourselves, it is sometimes okay to let others take of us. If I hadn’t learned this from you, I never would have survived this. I am strong, resilient, and brave because you raised me. I am still alive because you are my mother.

Thank you for doing the best you could in the face of this senseless and life changing illness. There is nothing to forgive. Thank you for being my mother. I love you.

Maybe there’s someone in your life who blames themselves for something between you. Maybe they have reason for blaming themselves, maybe they don’t. Think about the people in your life, take the time to thank them today. It will do you both some good.

Just Breathe

Last week, I spent six days in Alamosa, CO at Adams State University. The week was first two intensives that I have to complete in order to graduate from the Counselor Education Program with my Master’s in Counseling. The week was called an “intensive” and with very good reason.

Our day started with breakfast at 7am and most days didn’t end until 6pm. I spent two and a half hours every morning in group therapy and three and a half hours every afternoon in class practicing counseling skills as both the counselor and the client. After this class I spent one to two hours in meetings with the faculty and staff going over other aspects of the program. Every day was exhausting. We spent a lot of time talking about self care, which was paramount during this week.

In addition to simply having quite a lot to do each day, we were all worried about being graded, judged, and accepted into the program, while trying to show up in authentic ways in the counseling environment. We were stressed and emotional on an almost constant basis.

At home I occasionally remember to focus on my breathing in order to manage stress and anxiety. But while in Alamosa, it became not just helpful, but necessary to remember to consciously breathe. Sitting in my therapy group trying to manage my tears as I tell a story, taking my turn as a counselor in practical class and getting triggered by my ‘clients’ story, trying to stay present and attentive during our after-class meetings.

I never would have made it calmly through the week if I hadn’t spent a significant portion of the week just breathing. This was great practice for every day life and had been incredibly helpful for reintegrating into my regular life. Every time I start to feel anxious or stressed, angry or frustrated, I’m remembering to go back to my breath.

Breathe in, Breathe out, Hold it. Breathe in, Breathe out, Hold it. The holding it is key, because it helps our body move from the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) to the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system).

Emotion isn’t just cognitive, it’s physical too. So remember to breathe. Just breathe!

Guest Post: Bipolar Transgender Life

Hey Everyone,
Below, you’ll find a fantastic post from my friend Danni. I invited him to write something for my blog because of his unique perspective as a transgender man who also struggles with Bipolar I. I hope you enjoy his post and that you have a fantastic week. Please show Danni some love!

My name is Danni, and I came out on Facebook as male on May 1 of 2014. I had told many friends and family in the months leading up to that, but it was an important step to announce it online. I have a lot of online contacts that I don’t see regularly and that might have missed it otherwise. I lost a few friends, but mostly ones that I didn’t realize were missing for months. It was empowering to change my pronouns and gender identity on Facebook.
I was diagnosed with Major Depression at 17, and then later it changed to Bipolar 1 when I was 19. When I started to come out as transgender, at 27, people doubted my sincerity because I was also struggling with my bipolar symptoms. It added to the struggle of people not taking me seriously. My updated diagnosis has become Bipolar expressive. It was a really hard time for me, and it took months before that got settled.
Being bipolar and transgender brings its own challenges. Last week, I wondered why I was getting more depressed. I had run out of lithium and missed three doses, so it could have been that. I recently switched from biweekly shots of Testosterone to weekly shots, hoping that would make my moods more stable and not on a two week long roller coaster ride. The depression was bad a day after the lithium had been reintroduced into my system, and also during the last day before my next Testosterone Shot. Sometimes there is no reason for my feelings, but other times it is worth examining what is going on with me chemically.
Sometimes things people say to me can set off my bipolar symptoms even though the reason they upset me is due to disrespecting my transgender status. When I get mis-gendered, it feels like someone is looking at me and not seeing me for who I am. When it happens on the phone at work, I just correct them and it doesn’t upset me very much, but when it happens in my personal life it is harder to deal with. I tend to be very open on Facebook about this, but at the same time I try not to call people out in that way, especially when I know they don’t mean to be malicious.
One of the things I do to manage my bipolar is to keep a mood chart, which can directly assist me in figuring out why my moods have changed.  Changes in medications are recorded, as well as other stimulants/depressants. I often see that if I have an alcoholic beverage, that I will be more depressed either that day or the next day. My mixed episodes tend to appear the same way… once I experience hypomania or mania, usually I will experience depression of the same extent within 48 hours. I have talked about this on Facebook, but it usually leads to people judging me for giving up instead of trying harder during the depression part. I talked to some in more detail about it, but it was clear they haven’t experienced mania and I let it go.
I have been at my current job for a year now, and most of that time I have been pretty stable. However, January and February were particularly hard, and I had a lot of mixed episodes during both months. I tried changing meds, which made my insomnia worse. I also got a nasty case of the flu in there, so I missed a lot of work during that time. My employer was upset at me, but I was not reprimanded officially. During that time, I might post about how I was having trouble with my mental illness, but other times I was too ashamed to say anything. A lot of coworkers are friends with me on Facebook, and I wanted them to know what was going on. However it also can lead to rumors and meanness because I choose to share personal details on Facebook.
For the last few months I’ve been depressed a lot. I miss the mania a little, because it makes me feel alive… afraid, but alive. The depression is numbing, and when it is so constant, it gets worse with time. Right now my coping mechanisms that I’ve been using haven’t been enough to really curb it. I woke up one day last week with soul-crushing sadness and I was too paralyzed with it to move for a while. I ended up coming to work more than an hour late. I have tried really hard to be better with my attendance, and aside from the panic attack that caused me to miss work a few weeks ago, I had been doing much better. Last night I was looking at my charts and noticing how the depression is less debilitating than the mixed episodes, as far as making it to work goes.
The internet has been very helpful in communicating how I’m doing, keeping track of how I’ve changed, and as a source of information. I have been able to direct friends and families to sources that can help them understand my dual diagnoses. I have support groups on Facebook where I can talk to about symptoms and experiences, and reading what others are going through helps me as well.
I recently learned about the spoons theory for those with invisible illnesses, (http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/) and it has given me a new way to view and communicate my limitations. I shared it and a lot of my friends thanked me for it. My journey as a bipolar trans man is enriched by my online interactions, and I am honored to be a guest blogger for my old friend, who I haven’t seen since we were in high school over a decade ago. We’re not alone in our struggles, even when it feels that way.

Finding Peace

How does one find peace?

Is it a matter of simplifying one’s life? Eliminating all avenues of fear or worry? Avoiding negative people and events? Can we find peace simply by meditating the negative away?

For the last couple of weeks, I have been experiencing anxiety at bedtime. I will lay down in bed and start intermittently and involuntarily shivering, like I’m cold. Sometimes, I am able to simply breathe through it and fall asleep. Sometimes my darling husband will wrap me up in his arms and that will soothe me enough to fall asleep.

Last night, I could not be soothed.

For the last two weeks, we have been battling an indoor mosquito problem. In general, I don’t like bugs, but I have a deep and utter loathing for mosquitoes. Ever since I was a child, I have been allergic to mosquito bites. I used to get these massive, baseball-sized red welts. Now I get much smaller welts, but they take much longer to heal than most people and I sometimes end up with these permanent lumps where I got bit. This is all by way of saying that an indoor mosquito infestation was a nightmare for me. And to make matters worse, it seemed to be concentrated in our bedroom.

So, for the last two weeks, we’ve been sleeping in our spare bedroom. Now, this spare bedroom is simple and functional. It has a queen size bed a night stand, a shelving unit and a closet. There is no other furniture, no clutter, and clean floors. This was the perfect remedy to my mosquito infested bedroom/bathroom. Nowhere for the little $%&*#@$ to hide.

While we were sleeping in the other room, we’ve been running the fans in the house non-stop (since mosquitoes have a hard time flying in moving air) and we poisoned our bedroom that first night in an attempt to kill as many of them as possible. These two methods appear to have been effective. It’s been about 48 hours since I last saw a mosquito in the house. (Hooray!)

So yesterday, we thought we’d try sleeping in our regular room again – our king size bed, our clothes, our master bathroom, etc. It’s our room. We’ve been sleeping in that room, in this house, for almost a year.

But the room is, shall we say, a disaster area. There are clothes all over the floor and not a single surface is clear. And while this bothered me before, last night it came to a fever pitch. I knew that we’d be moving back into our room soon, but I wasn’t exactly prepared for it to be last night. I had been thinking that I would clean up our room before we moved back in there. I thought I had more time.

But I wanted to accommodate my husband’s desire to get back into our regular bed. He has not been sleeping well in our temporary bedroom and misses the space and comfort of our master. Understandable.

Only one problem, I have become very attached to the simple, minimalist, and clean guest bedroom. So when we moved our stuff (phone chargers, pillows, books, bedtime paraphernalia) back into our master, I started to feel panicky. I couldn’t sleep with all of this crap everywhere. So, I started cleaning, organizing, putting away. But there was too much to do at 10 pm. I’d never get it all done. So I threw a fit, yelled at my husband, and refused to move back into our master. He could if he wanted, but I was sleeping in the guest room!!

Cut to laying in bed (in the guest room) with my patience-of-a-saint husband, and I’m shivering more than any other night. He wraps me up and promptly falls asleep (because my tantrum has made us go to bed much later than normal and he worked a twelve hour day) and I lay there shivering away. I finally fall asleep only to have two consecutive nightmares, the second of which I go back into every time I fall back to sleep. I wake up shivering, I fall back to sleep and get terrorized again.

Around 5am, I finally give up on sleep and decide to try to think happy, calming, peaceful thoughts. I try to meditate. I try to follow my breathing. I try to say affirmations to myself. But because I am so tired, I keep nodding off, which allows the anxiety to take over again.

I am trying to push away the fear. I am trying to ignore the anxiety. I am trying not to think about what it means that in both my nightmares I was being chased, caught, escaping, and being chased again. (In the second one, I was being chased by an evil Tom Cruise. What the %^&* is up with that!?)

So, around 6am I find myself wondering about peace. How do I find peace? Clearly, sleep is not an avenue to peace. At least not this night. Meditation, affirmations, avoidance doesn’t work. And then I was reminded of something my counselor said this week. “You’ve tried everything else. Maybe you need to embrace the fear.”

When she said it, it was in relationship to another issue entirely. I embraced that fear and almost immediately felt better. I’m not sure what this fear is; it feels scarier than the other fear; and I definitely don’t want to embrace it.

Which is probably why Tom Cruise is chasing me in my dreams, trying to steal my memories so he can make robot copies of me. (Was that a movie?)

So, here I am, trying to embrace my fear so I can find peace. Life is nowhere near perfect. I am terrified of failure, of not reaching my dreams. I am afraid of not being enough. I am terrified of not being in control and so I seek to control my surroundings (things and people). Today, I will embrace the unknown. I will set myself up for peace by creating a peaceful living space. I will love first, myself and my husband. I will fail, but I will do my best.

And hopefully, I will find peace.

 

We Are All Grieving Something

What do we associate with the word grief?

For a lot of people, death is the first thing that comes to mind. The loss of a loved one or beloved pet. But death is not the only cause of grief, and I would think, not even the most common.

The role of grief in our lives is so much larger than I think most of us realize. We experience grief for the death of a loved one, of course, but also for the loss of a loved one by other means – through divorce, geographic loss, distancing of a friendship. Any time we experience a sense of loss, grief can help us heal. The loss of a job, a hope, health, an opportunity, an expectation, missing a treasured event, etc. – all of these are losses that may need to be grieved.

Several years ago I was suddenly, unexpectedly, and indelicately removed from a position at a company that I absolutely adored. I was offered the chance to stay with the company in a different capacity, but without all the parts of my job that made me excited to go to work every day. I left the company shortly after.

I was devastated by this experience – the loss of this thing I loved to do, of daily purpose and meaning. I was terrified of going back to work and experienced severe anxiety, depression, and frequent bouts of agoraphobia for almost a year afterward. But even while I was experiencing all of that, I felt guilty and ashamed. I blamed myself for the loss of the job and for being unable to “pick myself up” and go back to work. It took me years to realize that I had never given myself permission to grieve, or even realized that what I needed to do was grieve.

The loss of that job completely changed the course of my life. I had worked at the company for only two years, but I had begun to see a path for growth and a future for myself there. I had begun to form an idea of what my life might look like. When I was fired, that future vanished in an instant along with any grasp I had on what my future might look like at all.

Five years later and I still have not gotten over the loss. This is the first time I’ve ever talked about it openly. Five years later, it is still a loss I am grieving, easier now than at the beginning, but as with all grief – a loss that may never completely go away.

I work from home now because of the wound inflicted by that loss. I have severe anxiety about getting attached to a job, about loving my work, about negotiating relationships with coworkers and bosses. The latter of which, in part, led to my dismissal.

I hope someday to find work that lights me up in the way that job did, that makes it possible for me to leap the hurdle of my anxiety and fear and have coworkers again. But this grief will take as long as it takes to heal. I can’t rush it no matter how much I might want to. And no one else can rush it either, no matter how much they might not understand it.

No matter what kind of loss you may be experiencing or have experienced, remember that in this way, all loss is the same. It requires time and room for grief before you will be able to successfully move on. And though the pain of the loss may ease, you may never completely get over it.

No one else can tell you how or how long to grieve, only your heart knows that. We are all grieving something. You are not alone. small-heart

Fighting Grief and Depression

One of the worst things about mental illness is that when things go wrong in your life – typical, regular, normal things – it’s difficult to figure out if you’re feeling shitty because of the thingor because of your mental illness.

Take my situation for example:

  1. I have been diagnosed with rapid cycling depressive bipolar disorder II. Translation: I’m depressed and angry and irritable, a lot.
  2. I also have varying degrees of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and agoraphobia, depending on the day. Translation: Sometimes I can’t go outside, or do things for myself because I’m scared of invisible ninjas.
  3. I’m also married, have a job, extended family, in-laws, a pet, a house, bills, taxes, other health issues, etc. Translation: I’m a person.
  4. Specifically, I have a husband in the Air Force who moves us around a bit. In the last year I’ve moved away from all of my family and friends. In the last month, I had my gallbladder removed. My husband and I would like a family, but for right now can’t have it. And for the last three weeks, I’ve been experiencing increasing levels of unexplained pain on the left side of my abdomen, which has required one visit to the ER, a CT, x-rays, an ultrasound, two rounds of blood work, six different prescriptions, and a bajillion doctors. And still, no one knows what’s wrong with me. Translation: I’m a person with a number of issues.

I went to a new psychiatrist last week. (Because on top of all of the above issues, it turns out that Tucson has a serious lack of behavioral health care providers and it has taken me this long to find a psychiatrist.)

I was sitting there telling her about all of the issues I’ve been dealing with in the last year and in particular in the last month. She pointed out that I have been going through quite a lot at the moment. (Hello, Captain Obvious.) She pointed out that in all likelihood, my depression is more situational than biological. Or at the very least, the situational stress is making my biological stress much worse.

You know what sucks about that? If you have had this experience, then you know the answer.

Medications won’t fix it. I can take something to help me sleep. I can take something to calm my anxiety. But there is nothing I can take to lift the grief, sadness, and frustration of these normal, every day challenges with which life is presenting me. I just have to go through it, one day at a time.

Which really, isn’t all that different from living with mental illness.

5 Tips for Fighting Grief and Depression
  1. Give yourself a massive break. If it can’t be medicated, meditated, or exercised away, then you absolutely have to stay in bed, sit on the couch, cry, eat chocolate, watch TV, write about it, and read books until you start to feel the will to go outside again.
  2. Your pain, grief, frustration, sadness, and depression will eventually lift. You will not feel this way forever. If you need a daily reminder of that fact, write it on your bathroom mirror or the back of your hand, so you won’t forget.
  3. Talk to people who have been where you are, or at least, some version of it. If you’re experiencing infertility, don’t call up your friend who got pregnant while on birth control, twice. If you don’t know anyone who is going through what you’re going through, look online for chat rooms or support groups in your area. There are chat rooms and support groups for everything.
  4. Make a list of the things that you have enjoyed doing in the past and set a goal to try one of them as often as you can. Whether that’s once a day, once a week, or even once a month. You won’t know when you’re feeling better unless you try to do the things that you used to love doing.
  5. Give yourself a massive break. Yes, I said this one already, but it seriously bears repeating. I have been feeling guilty for my ongoing pain. It feels like one thing after another, and I know that my husband is feeling caretaker fatigue over the last month of ER visits, my hospital stay, doctor’s appointments, prescription pick ups, and coming home to a lump instead of a wife. But none of this is my fault and what you’re going through isn’t yours either. Let yourself off the hook.

Death by Word Choice

The tragic way we talk about mental illness deaths

An obituary might read, “John Adams lost his ten year battle with cancer,” but will never say, “Joe Smith lost his life-long battle with mental illness.”

Statistics talk about deaths from heart disease, cancer and obesity, but not from depression, bipolar disorder, or anorexia. These deaths are referred to as suicides, which comes with a mountain of negative connotations and built-in bias.

The words suicide is related to the words homicide, genocide, and patricide.

-cide: denotes a person or substance that kills and also denotes an act of killing

These are words associated with crimes, abominal acts condemned by society. These are crimes punishable by imprisonment or death. (We will sidestep for the purposes of this post the irony of imposing the death penalty for homicide when suicide is punishable by imprisonment in some countries and was illegal in some U.S. states up to the 80s and 90s. As if attempting suicide wasn’t suffering enough.)

People commit crimes. And while losing a battle with mental illness is incredibly tragic, it shouldn’t be that the language used says we “commit suicide”. This sentiment is not appropriate to people who are suffering. We don’t say someone comitted illness – comitted cancer, comitted heart attack. We say they succumbed to heart disease. They lost their battle with cancer.

People with mental illness who suffer every minute of every day until they literally can’t stand it any more – we say they gave up. They failed. They were selfish.

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This is how we talk about suicide, and then we’re suprised when someone we love suddenly commits suicide with no sign or symptoms. If someone told you that something you were thinking about doing was terrible, selfish, or inconceivable, would you be willing to talk to them about it?

As more and more people open up about their struggles with mental illness, we must also change the words we use to talk about it. We need to be careful to differentiate between “depressed” and “sad”, to stop making jokes about “being so embarassed we could just die”, or “oh god, I could kill myself”.

“Schizo” is not an insult to casually throw around.

It should be clear that a “panic attack” is not something a person without mental illness has because they saw a spider or somebody scared them. People are not bipolar because they feel happy about something one minute and then the next minute something else makes them sad. “Schizo” is not an insult to casually throw around. Making jokes about slashing your wrists or cutting yourself because your bored or not looking forward to something, can be incredibly hurtful to someone has struggled with self-harm.

Our words matter. And they matter even more to the people who are actually experiencing depression, anxiety, panic disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, self-harming behavior, and eating disorders.