Friday, November 25, 2016

Anxiety and Depression: 7 Things You Can Do To Help

I wish I didn't have to write this post. Unfortunately, I think it is needed.

People with mental illness have been accused of using their illness as a crutch.  They have been blamed for not trying hard enough to get better. We know so many people who think taking a medication for our illness is "unnatural" that we're amazed we ever talked ourselves into going to the doctor for a prescription. We've been told we just need to think more positively and that will fix our attitude. Our doctors make remarks like "everyone gets stressed in college," and we wonder if we're overreacting. We've heard family and friends talk about mental illness as if they are authorities, assuming that we just need to "deal with it."  Some people are willing to offer support to us only on the condition that we are not "using depression/anxiety as an excuse."  And last but absolutely not least, there is the classic religious response that anxiety and depression are a spiritual attack straight from the devil himself and that if we were holy enough we could just shake it off.

 The people who said these sorts of things to me are for the most part people who care about me and mean well. I believe that they intended to help, comfort, or advise me. The problem is that I have tried to believe almost every one of these perspectives and my anxiety has twisted them even further out of reality. I have convinced myself that all the suffering is my fault, that I am the problem and that I could be getting better faster if I wasn't so selfish and lazy and defective and problematic.  These beliefs have had such an unhealthy grip on me (and on others with mental illness) that I am writing this post to explain and defend myself to the world, something no one should really have to do.  I am writing this to convince myself just as much as to convince you.

This is what mental illness stigma looks like.  In fact, this is a really good example to illustrate that mental illness is not rational.  Anxiety and depression are different from stress and sadness and lethargy because they aren't proportionate to the reality of situations and they can't be cured or silenced by factual observations.

But, facts are still important.  For example, it's a fact that depression and anxiety are real chemical imbalances in the brain. It is a fact that people can genetically inherit these illnesses, and that they may need treatment- which for some people may be a medication to restore the chemical balance. It's a fact that even though they are mental illnesses, anxiety and depression have physical symptoms like fatigue, loss of sleep, cold hands, panic attacks, muscle tension, and more.  It is a fact that more than 15 million adults in the United States struggle with depression and more than 40 million struggle with anxiety disorders.  So, by extension, it is also a fact that there is likely someone in your life dealing with one of these illnesses and you don't even know it. It is a fact that that these illnesses are treatable...but there is a difference between "treatable" and"curable."  There is a difference between coping effectively with an illness and not having an illness at all, a difference between finding healthy solutions to a problem and not having a problem to begin with.

Finally, it is a fact that these illnesses are serious and need to be taken seriously.  It is a fact that depression can be lethal.  It is a fact that some people who do not get the help they need die from mental illness. It is not trivial, and it deserves more than a band-aid or a casual anecdote in the way of support.  I hope that if you have read this far, it means you care enough to want to help.  It can be hard to understand mental illness if you have never experienced it, and you may not know where to start.  I am here to help you help us.  My suggestions are not exhaustive and they may not apply universally for every person with a mental illness, but they are a good starting point and will hopefully help you to communicate with your friends and relatives about the support they need.

1. Remind us to take care of ourselves.
If we seem to be overextended or just plain hard to put up with, this is the best place to start.  Did we get enough sleep? Have we eaten anything healthy recently? Have we eaten at all? Do we need a cup of tea or a hot shower? When was the last time we took our medication? My best friend and I both deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis and check-ups like these are one of the most important things we do for each other. We can easily get so wrapped up or bogged down in our anxiety that simple self-care slips our minds or at least takes a backseat to our raging internal dialogue. Depression especially can drain us of the motivation we need to complete these care routines. This can make us irritable, numb, and unyielding and we will probably not be able to appreciate any of the other help you may have to offer, however wise it may be, when we are in this burnt-out state.  You can show you care by offering that motivational nudge.

2. Be patient with us.
When you know you have a mental illness and you know your thought patterns are not always healthy, it can be very difficult to sort out your thoughts.  If you need us to explain why we are upset, why we are making a certain decision, or why we feel the way we do, try not to put us on the spot.  It takes time and space for us to sift through our thoughts and weed out the ones that don't make sense so that we can communicate what really matters to us about the situation. We want to open up, but it's challenging when we don't get the room we need to do so.

We also appreciate your patience because we know our moods or outbursts are difficult to handle, and we want them to stop just as much as you do.  It's okay to ask us to work on this, but realize we will again need time to develop the strength and the strategies needed for curbing these reactions.

3. When in doubt, ask questions instead of assuming.
It is okay for you to not understand us.  We are not offended that you are still learning about what helps and what doesn't.  We aren't disappointed if you don't have the answer to improving our health right away. But please, try not to assume you know everything about an illness you've never experienced. If you really want to become an expert, you will need to spend more time reading and listening than you do talking.  If you're like the average person and don't have time for that much extensive research, feel free to ask simple questions when you need to care for or understand someone with depression or anxiety.  You can start in the comments on this post if you want!

It's also good to ask questions because this both helps us open up and feel a little more in control.  We don't want to be spoiled or babied through our illness; in fact, we really like those times when we feel strong and capable. If you assume we need you to do things for us that we actually want or like to do on our own, it can seem like an insult to our competence even if it is well-meant. Try to steer clear of assumptions of all kinds and this will help us immensely.

4. If we confide in you, respect our privacy.
I have been very open about my struggles with mental illness, mostly because I know I have a few understanding people backing me up and because I think I can make a small difference by speaking up and educating others.  Not everyone with a mental illness is this comfortable talking about it...honestly, "comfortable" is a strong word even for me. It is very difficult to discuss anything that makes you feel vulnerable. The rushes of thoughts and emotions that come with anxiety and depression are tricky to navigate, and as I mentioned in #2 we don't always understand them ourselves, much less have the ability to explain them to others.  If someone talks to you about their anxiety or depression, you should treat that information carefully and respectfully. Except in cases of emergency, don't share what they told you without their permission. You may simply be looking for better understanding or advice about how to help your loved one when you consult others, but first recognize the courage and trust it took for them to approach you at all. If you still can't decide, see #3.

5. Don't joke about mental illness. Seriously, don't be that guy. 
Hopefully this one is obvious. Making us laugh, even at ourselves, is good.  Very good. Laughter boosts us up against anxiety and depression and we are all for that! Just don't use "humor" that criticizes or misrepresents our illness, even if we're not around.  (As we've already discussed, there is probably someone among your family, friends, or acquaintances that has anxiety or depression and just hasn't told you.) So, telling people to "jump off a cliff" as an affectionate joke? Not okay. Asking sarcastically if someone has taken their meds yet when they seem emotional? Also not okay. I think you get the picture.

6. Don't blame yourself. In fact, don't blame anybody. 
By this time you may be thinking to yourself, "Crap, I've done some or all of these things wrong!" Honestly, in that case, I'm proud of you. You're reading something to educate yourself on how to do better and you're willing to admit your mistakes. Go, you! You should know that it is not your fault that someone close to you is struggling with anxiety or depression. These illnesses often seem to worsen as a direct result of specific experiences or interactions and that makes people feel guilty that something they did or said made the illness worse. This struggle is often especially difficult for parents of individuals with mental illness. They can feel like they failed to recognize the illness soon enough, failed to get their child the right help, failed to prepare their child for certain challenges or to teach them to cope properly. They may even feel that their child is repeating their mistakes. I am here to tell you that taking your loved ones' mental illness personally will not help anyone. You will be a better support if you focus not on whose fault the illness is but on how best to support your loved one through their treatment. (Besides, science points to anxiety and depression being genetic, not just circumstantial.)

7. Let us experience our healing even if it's not what you expected. 

My favorite movie about mental illness is Disney/Pixar's Inside Out.  I highly recommend the movie to anyone interested in learning more, and I'll try not to spoil too much, but in the movie the main character Riley starts to struggle with depression.  At first, this consists of more sadness than usual, but eventually both the characters Joy and Sadness disappear, leaving Anger, Fear, and Disgust behind to hold down the fort (these three emotions are very prevalent in my experience of anxiety). Riley has to get back both Joy and Sadness to move forward. Sometimes, acknowledging sadness is essential to healing. The most common misunderstanding about anxiety and depression that I have encountered is that trying to be positive will fix everything. I think the bigger problem is that I feel obligated to put on a positive front instead of unpacking, understanding, and working through my negative emotions. Perhaps the greatest challenge of having anxiety and depression is finding the right people, places, and opportunities for doing this.
My healing process so far has become very personal, but sometimes I feel as if my solutions and decisions get put under a microscope because all those concerned for my health want to have a say about what I should be doing. It's really hard to heal under a microscope. I want to be able to find the best solutions for me through trial and error and sometimes my own intuition. The more my family and friends allow me to do this while standing by for me to fall back on when I need them, the stronger I will become.  Unconditional love and support as a backdrop to a personalized program of professional help and other remedies or coping mechanisms is the help I need.

I hope these thoughts and tips help you.



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Heart of Gold

I have anxiety.

I started seeing a therapist this summer because the emotional breakdowns got worse, and I was getting so overwhelmed that I'd just procrastinate on everything, even simple tasks like replying to emails or doing my laundry.  I was brave enough to try therapy because of the influence of a few understanding friends. I've been learning why my hands are always cold (physical symptom of stress) and why I eat so much pasta (craving carbs = imbalance in serotonin levels).  I'm finding some comfort just in the fact that something really is wrong with me and it's not necessarily all my fault.

But I still have to struggle with the three-headed monster that is my mental illness.  The cascade of thoughts churning in my head is a familiar sensation now and I dread it. Some of the worries are rational, some are not.  Some come back over and over while others seem to pop up out of nowhere.  It's like Audrey Assad says: "Just when I think I've reached the center of my heart, I inevitably discover inside myself whole worlds and galaxies that terrify me." That's why I have to write- I am continually learning about myself and I write mostly about not what I have already mastered, but what I am currently learning and struggling against.  There are some nights I read my own words and feel as if a stranger wrote them, someone much smarter, stronger, and better than I am.  But it helps to know I have the power to express myself in a way that lets others relate and learn with me.  It helps to know when my thoughts get ugly that I can still create something beautiful.

The anxiety can be scary and painful, keeping me awake and overly involved trying to juggle the problems, but it doesn't threaten me quite as much as the other two monsters I live with.  In fact, the anxiety is sometimes what prompts me to put on the happy face and helping hands that a lot of people know me for.  It turns me into a sponge, absorbing the emotions and concerns of everyone around me.  And helping people makes me happy when I can manage it.

It's the depression that stops me.  The utter exhaustion after chasing every wild goose of a thought the anxiety throws at me.  The sudden and random surges of loneliness, both when I'm at home in bed in an empty room or when I'm at parties and public functions surrounded by people. The anxiety makes me cry my eyes out sometimes, but the depression makes me feel unable to cry, which is even worse.  To lose your heart, your capacity for emotions, your empathy, can make you feel like the monster.  It is strange to be so lost and isolated that you miss yourself.

Anxiety and depression are in a sense two sides to the same coin, despite how different they are.  I have slowly become suspicious that they are both symptoms of a deeper problem, minions of a more terrible monster.  At least for me, they stem from my perfectionism, which I've written about before both as my blessing and my curse.  I have too fickle an idea of perfection to be a good perfectionist.  I listen whenever my anxiety tells me what things in life to value and what things to cast aside.  It's like being King Midas-- you learn that gold is the ultimate treasure, so you start to fight all the raw, authentic little imperfections that make life and people beautiful, squeezing the life out of things, leaving them glittering cold and hard.  You give up on your desires to fill the mold of the ideal.  And eventually, you turn your own heart and everything you love to gold.

I am trying to learn how to get mine back.

I am trying to allow things to live and breathe in my life.  I am trying to love the fact that I'm human.  I am trying to teach myself that I don't have to be complete or "fixed" before I can be happy.

This probably seems different from my standard blog post.  It's a bit of a downer.  You may very well be wondering why I'm telling you all of this.  I'm not quite sure.  I think different people are meant to read this for different reasons.  I have often been surprised by the response my writing evokes.  I just know that I am supposed to write it because it is an act of defiance toward my fear and because it is dangerously honest.  And if I become more honest, maybe I can stop hiding from my imperfection and pretending to have a heart of gold.

"I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." ~ Ezekiel Chapter 36 verses 25-26

Thank you for reading this.

Love, Sarah

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why I'm Dating That Guy With Green Hair (or Love, the Receiving End)

" I guess it's true that love is all you wanted/ cause you're giving it away like it's extra change/ hoping it'll end up in his pocket/ but he leaves you out like a penny in the rain..." ~Taylor Swift (yes, Taylor Swift is in my philosophical reflective post; sorry not sorry.)

I started dating for the first time this past December.  The best word I can think of to describe it is: surprising. And no, that's not just because my boyfriend does things like dye his hair the color of the ocean or randomly buy me a HUGE bag of Reese's peanut butter eggs ( the middle of Lent. Luckily I didn't give up chocolate this year. Besides, it's the thought that counts, right?) It's because dating is nothing like I thought it would be. We go on dates sometimes and we love each other, but other than that I can't say it matches my expectations.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that sometimes dating makes me feel terribleNot my boyfriend. Dating.  My boyfriend is a kind and awesome person who tries very hard to make me happy.  That is why sometimes, I feel like a terrible person.  Because often, I am not happy at all and my non-happiness no longer affects only me.

I am grumpy, irrational, and negative. I am irresponsible.  I am impatient.  I am anxious.  I am afraid.

He worries about me.

Kyle wants me to stop being so hard on myself.  He knows I need to take care of myself and he tries to take care of me, too.  And it's honestly confusing for me.  I am still unused to the phone calls where I can talk about and work through my anxieties, the offer of hugs or even a shoulder to cry on after a long day, the amused toleration of my grumpiness, messy hair, and weird food choices (why am I randomly obsessed with applesauce? nobody knows.) Sure, I do nice things for him just like I try to do nice things for everybody, but why would he pick me? 

People tell you often that loving the right person will bring out the best in you, and I think it's true.  My boyfriend doubles my enthusiasm, my goofiness, and my sense of accomplishment.  I also think he brings out the worst in me, which isn't really something people warn you about.  The truth is, trying to communicate and cooperate with another human being on a daily basis pretty much puts all your flaws you might be vaguely aware of (or avoiding completely) under a microscope.  I have a lot of issues.  Sometimes I'm tempted to call things off between us just because I'm so discouraged by my imperfections and worry they will discourage him, too.  I want him to be happy and I feel like I get in the way even if he denies it.

It's in my nature. I take care of people.  I have five younger siblings.  I have a lot of friends who come to me for advice because they're the kind of introverts who don't do the whole "feelings" thing or because they trust my empathy.  I have students now who rely on me to teach them.  There are younger girls at my church who look up to me.  So I take care of people, dang it.  I took the "it is in giving that we receive" part of that Saint Francis prayer to heart and gave away love like extra change, hoping it'd come back in my direction eventually but assuming it was only fair if it didn't. And when I felt I hadn't earned it, I pushed it away because I couldn't love myself enough to accept it.  I feel sometimes like I owe the world the straight A's, the service in my parish, the things that got me labeled "good".  Good example, good girl, good job.  In my mind, my worth depended on these things that I did and how well I did them.

I have become someone I can be proud of, but not always someone I can love.   Pride does not mean loving yourself.  Pride and love are two entirely different things, and pride has me trying to win the world record for perfectionist people pleaser.  I question whether I deserve to be loved, supported, and forgiven so much and so often-- in spite of the fact that I have learned to love, support, and forgive others. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "deserving" anything, actually.  I didn't even have to exist; my whole life is a gift to me, so my whole life should be a gift back to the world. I do this to such an extreme that I almost threw myself under the bus and didn't date Kyle because I didn't know if my family and friends would like him as much as I do.  I do this to such an extreme that I still feel that it is a challenge for me to believe God loves me.  Unless I'm perfect, and I never am. 

I have tried so hard to give love, that I forgot how to receive it.

Until I started falling for someone who only tried harder after every mistake he made, who forgave himself, who actually believed me when I told him how amazing he was.  He has grown so much in confidence and accomplished so much just in the short amount of time we've been dating.  And I find the way he embraces being human and imperfect so inspiring.  Even better, he loves me whether I think I deserve it or not, just like they always told me God does. He's helping me understand one of the major flaws in the way I imagine God, and helping me heal it. 

God is okay with me being weak and imperfect like a little child.  He is happy when I get it right, and he cries with me when I get it wrong, and he holds me either way.  God doesn't expect me to drain myself giving away love that I don't have.  He's returning his own love to me so that I have a home to come back to when it hurts to love others.  He is teaching me, with the help of an amazing person who cares about me, that love is incomplete until it is returned. 

The scariest, most vulnerable part of love isn't throwing yourself under the bus and letting yourself break for others.  It's letting them come inside your heart to help you put yourself back together when you're a mess.  It requires admitting you are not always the capable person you want to be.  And it requires forgiving yourself and letting yourself be happy anyway.

I've decided it's worth a try. 

The Forgiveness Myth

I do not enjoy forgiving people because it makes me feel like a doormat. I would honestly rather get all Carrie Underwood/Miranda Lambert up...