The Power of Shame

Shame is a pit in the ground. When you’re young, if your shames are small, then the pit starts out shallow. If your shames are large, then the pit starts out deep and dark. But no matter how it starts, over the course of our lives, all of the shame we experience makes the pit bigger, deeper, and darker.

For years, I admitted to myself only the shallow shames, the ones that kept me up at night, but not the ones that kept me silent. I compartmentalized my shame, convinced myself that there was no shame in my past that I needed to face. And then one day, an issue in my marriage brought me face to face with a shame experience from my past that I had never faced before.

I started exploring shame in counseling and I started reading Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. Brown writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Once I started talking about the experiences that made me feel shame, my feelings of shame increased exponentially. I explained it to my husband like this, I had begun by shining light onto one experience in my pit of shame, but inevitably this light uncovered other shame experiences and now I have to face them all.

At first glance, this feels like a terrible thing. I am more symptomatic, in more pain, then I was before this whole thing started. I am experiencing increased anxiety, loss of time, and out of body feelings. But I have to believe that in the end working through these shame experiences will result in becoming a healthier and more emotionally integrated person.

Brown’s brook is a crash course in shame management and developing resilience. She writes, “We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” We must process and resolve our shame in order to grow into the better versions of ourselves we all want to be.

We can help each other do that by listening compassionately and empathically to each other’s stories without letting our own fear and shame get in the way. Brown explains, “If empathy is the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us, compassion is the willingness to be open to this process.”

I encourage you to stretch your empathy muscles toward yourself and your loved ones today. The world needs more of it.

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.

There’s Nothing “Hypo” About It

Four or five weeks ago a wave of hypomania hit me so abruptly I felt like I was suddenly caught in the midst of a hurricane. It was in fact the beginning of a mixed episode more intense than any I had ever experienced before. I had read and heard that bipolar disorder has a tendency to get worse with age, that for some people each episode implies that each concurrent episode may be more severe than the last. And so, I had experienced with bipolar depression, but never with the flip side.

I was feeling so angry, irritable, and upset. There were some situational things going on in my life that would explain being upset, but that couldn’t explain my desire to put my hand through the wall. After a few days of feeling progressively worse, I realized that it was more than situational. I was furious all the time and the only thing getting me through the day was a particular fantasy. When I started to feel my anger spiraling out of control to the point of feeling violent, I would imagine myself holding a sledgehammer, walking through various buildings, and breaking everything in site. It was a very therapeutic fantasy and it got me through the most difficult periods.

My nurse psychiatrist put me on trileptal at first, but that almost immediately may be significantly worse. Within twenty-four hours I felt maniacal and didn’t take more than two doses. During the several days without medication while I was struggling with this furious anger and maniacal energy, one day I got up, put on my sneakers and went for a run. If you know me, you know that this is completely out of character. I think the last time I was able to run more than ten feet was at the age of sixteen. So this in and of itself gives you some idea of what it’s been like. At the end of that first run, I finally felt normal again for the first time since the whole thing began. I’ve been running a few times a week since then. It’s the only thing that pretty reliably makes me feel normal.

The sledgehammer fantasy led to the idea to go the batting cages, which is something else that my husband and I have been doing about once a week since this whole thing started too. It’s been very therapeutic to just get all my energy and aggression out. It’s also been a way for my husband to help and support me through this process.

Incidentally, hypomania is an eminently misleading name for this phenomena. Mania is a much more fitting term, though I appreciate that there is a big difference between mania and hypomania. The prefix “hypo-” makes hypomania seem so much quieter, calmer, less disruptive than it is in reality. I wish there was a better name for it. I really like the descriptor maniacal, although that really makes me sound crazy, doesn’t it? I mean, it feels pretty crazy in the moment.

My nurse psychiatrist switched me to lithium now, which I’m not thrilled about. It makes me really tired and I think it turning the hypomania into depression, which I don’t think I prefer. Honestly, I’d rather not be on any medication and just run off the energy. But the reason I went on the medication in the first place was because of the violent anger, because of feeling like I wanted to put my hand through the wall all of the time. That was not a good feeling at all. So, it’s an evolving situation. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I hope you are well.

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.

Anesthesia Anxiety

For me, anesthesia is the worst part of having surgery of any kind. For some reason, whenever I wake up from anesthesia I start crying and sometimes have a panic attack. I know this about myself. It happened for the first time after my first serious surgery when I had my ankle repaired in 2004. I woke up from this outpatient surgery in a curtained off “room” by myself. My mom had come with me so I called out for her and as soon as she was by my side I was able to calm down. Ever since then, when I have any kind of anesthesia I warn the doctor’s and make sure that whichever family member is with me can be there when I wake up from anesthesia.

This time I told every doctor, nurse, and tech I was introduced to the morning of my surgery. They told me Erik probably wouldn’t be with me when I woke up. Their recovery area is very strictly controlled, we were told. Family members are not usually allowed in there. The staff of the acute care unit (ACU) would not let him in, but would notify him when I was out of surgery. I wasn’t happy about it, but there was nothing we could do.

anesthesia
Inevitable Mental Health Consequences of Anesthesia

As expected, when I woke up in the ACU with only strange faces above me, I started to cry. The nurse stood over me telling me I was fine, the surgery was over, and that I was in recovery, but I was confused and traumatized and she only made it worse. I started to have a panic attack and instead of bringing my husband to me, they gave me drugs to calm me down.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not above anti-anxiety meds. I have used them in the past and I’m sure I’ll use them in the future. What I am opposed to is using meds when there is something else that can be done to mitigate symptoms. All I needed was my husband to be the first face I saw when I woke up, but that wasn’t allowed because of the ACU’s policy’s. In this case, policy was put above patient care.

As I mentioned yesterday, my experience at St. Joe’s was fantastic. Everyone we met (almost) was kind, compassionate, and accomodating. This was the one glitch in their patient care system.

On the best of days, anesthesia can have mental health side effects for anyone. For people who experience mental health challenges normally, anesthesia is much more likely to cause bouts of anxiety and depression. This has always been my experience. In addition to the trauma of surgery knocking me off my game, anesthesia always makes it more difficult for me to recover.

Advocate for Your Needs

Even though advocating for my needs didn’t work out this time, I will continue to do it in the future. As I have mentioned before, it is so important for those of us who struggle with mental illness to be our own best advocates. We need to know more about our illness than anyone else, and especially know more about what helps us when we are struggling.

When Depression Almost Ended My Marriage

Mental illness threatens all relationships it effects. Anyone telling you otherwise is selling something.

I’ve talked before about the dynamic in my own marriage that resulted from my repeated, severe depressive episodes. That is an ongoing battle that requires me to find my voice and motivation for daily life.

But more insidious even than that is this idea that sometimes goes hand in hand with depression, that a change of scenery in whatever form will change your mind.

As a kid, every summer I thought each new school year brought a new chance to reinvent myself and have a happier year. And then, when I finally gave up on that, I thought junior high (which was a new school), and then high school, and then college would afford me a new outlook on life. Before each of those new experiences, I thought, here now is a chance to be happy. It will be different. I will be different. But as the cliche goes, wherever you go, there you are.

I eventually resorted to moving away, first across the country and then across the world. But I couldn’t outrun myself no matter how hard I tried to reinvent myself with every new beginning. Eventually I realized that it didn’t matter where I was or who I was with, I had to face the truth of my Self.

No matter what self-help books and other people said, I had to claim my mental illness as a part of me. I had to stand up and say, This is something I have and it may never go away. By pretending it doesn’t exist and that it can be vanquished with mind over matter, I am letting it define me. I will claim it and diminish its power over me. The day I accepted that my bipolar disorder was a fixture in my life was the day I started really managing it.

But a pattern that you have repeated your entire life is hard to break completely. And so, even though I had accepted that my life might always be a series of ups and deep downs, I still find myself thinking from time to time, I am unhappy and unsatisfied. Perhaps I am unhappy and unsatisfied because I have been doing the same thing for too long.  And this is exactly how I found myself contemplating leaving the only consistent and stable thing in my life, my marriage.

Not because there is anything wrong with my marriage. Not because my husband had stopped being the most amazing, supportive, and loving person I have ever had in my life. But because part of my illness is believing that circumstance is somehow responsible for my unhappiness.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say I contemplated leaving my husband, because it wasn’t logical. I thought about where I might live if left to my own devices, about what I would do with my time. I didn’t think about not having E in my life. But as soon as I did, I panicked and rewound, realizing that I was suggesting leaving one of the people who loves me most in the world. Blowing up my marriage wouldn’t fix my depression.

My point is this, don’t blow up your life because you’re depressed. Never make decisions from inside the darkness. Get help, get treatment and when you are feeling balanced again, reassess what you thought from inside the darkness to see if it still applies. My guess is that nine times out of ten, it won’t.

I am loved and so are you.

A Badgered Groom

Today is my 4th wedding anniversary.

When we woke up this morning, after the sweet stuff (Happy Anniversary, I love you, etc.), I said to Erik, “I’m so glad I badgered you into proposing.”

Five years and three months ago, Erik and I met online (eharmony) and started dating. Three months later, we moved in together. And three months after that, Erik proposed.

This may sound like a whirlwind fairy tale, but here’s what really happened.

  1. Erik and I met on eHarmony and hit it off from the first date. We started spending a lot of time together very quickly and almost immediately hit our first relationship road block. I wanted to spend more time together, Erik thought we were spending enough time together. Upon further discussion, I realized that Erik had a specific idea about the pace of relationships. (Read: slow, abominably slow.) And I was of the opinion that as long as you’re enjoying each other, who cares at what pace you move? My logic won out and we started spending more and more time together.
  2. Around three months into our relationship, I rather suddenly lost my job. Shortly after I met Erik, I had moved into a rather expensive apartment right near my office building and upon losing my job could no longer afford it. We were essentially wasting apartment space anyway, because one of us slept at the other persons apartment almost every night. So, when I lost my job, we moved in together.
  3. We had managed to successfully combine our physical stuff and things were going well. We were both in school and as such were spending a lot of time hanging around the house together. We negotiated time alone and space to ourselves rather well (if I do say so myself) and after an unknown, but brief amount of time, I started thinking I wanted to marry him. And if I wanted to marry him, why wait? This is where things got complicated. (re: #1, Erik’s ideas about the pace of relationships.) What was the rush? We had only been together for a few months. But I didn’t see any reason to put it off. I wanted to start our life together as soon as possible. After probably two or so months of badgering him, Erik took me camping and proposed. (When we told his family, I very quickly discovered where he had learned his ideas about the pace of relationships.)
  4. We set the date of the wedding for a year and a half later, which gave us plenty of time to satisfy anyone’s notion that we hadn’t been together long enough and that people should be engaged for a year before marriage. But then Erik enlisted in the Air National Guard. And we were told he could be sent to basic at any time, wedding be damned. Our July wedding became a rather rushed January wedding. We got married in front of about 50 people and lived happily ever after.

Darling, I am so glad I badgered you into marrying me.

Happy Anniversary!