What does mental illness look like to you?
Someone who sits in bed all day, unable to face the world?
A person who goes around crying all the time and is never happy?
Or perhaps even a nutter who shouldn’t be alone with children?
The reality is far less interesting. For you see, mental illness looks like…me.
Or your brother, sister, mum, dad, uncle, friend, cousin. Even your son or daughter. Maybe even you.
1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from some form of mental illness. That’s an incredible number isn’t it? But despite what the newspapers, television programmes or social media might lead us to think, we’re not all nutters and weirdos. Most of us are normal people going about our business.
Let me ask you a question. Before I opened up about it, did you know that I suffered from depression? What about anxiety?
And here’s another question. Do you know that I still do? Or did you think I was all cured now?
How many of you have stopped to ask? How many of you even know what depression and anxiety are?
Depression is not being in a state of permanent sadness. Sufferers do not walk around constantly on the edge of tears. Most of us are not bed ridden or house bound recluses. Depression doesn’t care if you are happy or sad. As a matter of fact, depression is in some ways the complete absence of emotion. Life loses meaning, there is no joy to be found, no matter how we may be blessed. We exist because we have to but we do not live. Not really.
But mental illness isn’t a real illness, is it? It’s all just in the head. It’s not like having cancer or breaking a bone. That’s real, I can see that, it’s physical.
Well let’s put that myth to bed.
Mental illness is real and believe it or not, it is physical as well as mental. Quite apart from the complex chemical imbalances that cause depression in many sufferers, symptoms include the very real physical properties of loss of energy, poor concentration, changes to diet and changes to behaviour. Sufferers may withdraw from life, isolate themselves.
But even without these physical manifestations, the mental anguish is difficult enough. Imagine being told every day that you’re no good, that you’re stupid, that you’re ugly, that you’re fat, that you’re a failure, that you get everything wrong, that everyone hates you, that you don’t deserve happiness, that you can never change.
Now imagine that this voice is your own.
That is what it feels like to live with depression and anxiety.
But if it’s all in the head, just stop thinking that way, right? Just forget about it, don’t take things so seriously, pull your socks up, get on with it, think how lucky you are!
Oh if it were that easy. Depression is not feeling down because your favourite programme just finished or because they didn’t have any beans at the supermarket. Depression is a persistent, pervasive lowering of mood. It can come quickly, perhaps triggered by a specific event, or come on gradually.
And anxiety is not worrying that you’ve run out of milk or that it might rain at the weekend. Anxiety is a state of hyper stimulation, locked in a constant state of readiness for an event that will never come, expecting the worst.
Stress is not the enemy. Stress is a friend that gives us the impetus to move forward. But anxiety and depression hit when the stress becomes too much for too long. Like a kettle constantly at boiling point but never able to shut off. Or the elastic band, so pliable until you pull too hard for too long and it snaps in two.
Mental illness destroys lives. Sometimes it even ends them.
I am lucky. I had the opportunity to undergo therapy. I spent three months in a mental hospital, surrounded by patients with a broad spectrum of illness; from depression to OCD, bi-polar to self-harming.
In some ways my mental illness cost me my job. At least it didn’t cost me my life.
But two years on, I am far from cured. I am wracked by anxiety on a daily basis. Depression remains an uninvited guest, constantly banging on the door to come back in. Sometimes I let him, it becomes too difficult to say no. But it’s even harder to get him to leave.
I decided to be open about my illness because I wanted to change and to show others that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. But many others are fighting their own private battles or suffering in silence.
Together we can end the stigma around mental illness.
Mental illness is not mental weakness.
I am a married father of twin girls and a young son.
In 2013 I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and spent three months receiving treatment at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton. As part of my recovery, I began exploring mental illness in blogs and stories and in 2014 I self-published three collections, which are available on Amazon.
Recent pieces published on my website include a series exploring how a healthy living plan affected my mental health and a look at the highs and lows of being a parent whilst battling mental illness. I also write weekly retrogaming articles for a videogaming website.
Ever since I can remember, I knew that there was something different about me. As a child, when it rained, my Mum would find me in the back garden sat under an umbrella with a blanket. She would ask me what I was doing and I’d always reply “I’m thinking.”
Whilst normal kids would be running around and splashing puddles I would immerse myself in the sounds of the precipitation and of my thoughts.
Many children grow out of the “why” phases in life but mine grew deeper. I wanted to know why everything was the way it was. I longed for answers.
There was a kid in my junior school who was clearly different and stood out for the wrong reasons. She was really scruffy looking and often smelled of urine. Her hair was always greasy and you could tell it was cut by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. Her Dad always walked her to school he was extremely scruffy too and the playground dubbed him “a tramp.” Kids could be cruel. I always watched him wait until his daughter disappeared into the school building and with a final wave and blown kiss he would walk away from the school gates. My heart would sink. I always made an effort to be nice to the girl. I’d talk to her when everyone avoided her. At home I would think of her and again my heart would sink. The feeling you get just seconds before you cry…I felt so sad for her and yet it was as if I was feeling her isolation and her pain.
One of my all-time favourite films is The Color Purple. It was the first film to ever make me cry. I was quite young when I first saw it. “Nothing but death can keep me from it” When Celie and Nettie get separated is imprinted in my heart. I cried as a child and I cry as an adult. As a child, at night, I would think about the film and I felt sad for the characters then I felt sad for anyone in the world who had been separated. Anyone who has been abused. Anyone who was afraid to smile. Anyone who stood up for themselves. I think that film connected my heart with my brain but my thoughts projected a worry for everyone in the world. As a child this was overwhelming.
One night there was a massive storm. I was awoken by a flash in my room. There was a silence in the darkness before a crash of thunder. My stomach flipped. I didn’t like it. I could hear the wind outside pick up and moments later the smashing of glass. My nerves immediately throbbed and my heart was pumping so hard it was like a drum in the room. To me, the smash was my parent’s window. I was convinced they were dead. The storm had killed them. I lay there frozen with fear. A cold sweat. More flashes of light in the room encouraging that beating drum to play louder. Harder.
My consistent wonder and worry since being a child has enabled a highly sensitive life and I have been susceptible to both anxiety and depression. I’ve accepted being attuned to other people and their feelings but been unable to draw the line at taking these feelings on as if they are my own.
Anxiety has taken me to the highest emotional building where depression has called me to jump to ground zero from the ledge. Boy do I jump. I’ve jumped so many times, crash landed and still end up back at the unnerving top. It’s something I’ll never get used to but things I accept as a way of life. Only these days I try to pack a parachute or ladder and hope the bit in between the two lasts longer each time.
I'm 33 years old and living with mental illness. I originally trained in performing arts and in recent years worked in health and social care. I read books, listen to music and watch films to feel and connect and emotionally grow. I encourage uncontrollable pee-your-pants laughter and avoid the habit of a lifetime - to look at myself through other peoples eyes.
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Focus on your body
It's actually impossible to focus your attention onto your body and worry at the same time. Try it! Focus all of your attention on the feeling in your feet and toes. Notice the way they feel inside your shoes, pay attention to any tingles and their temperature. When we're fully focused on our bodies, there's no room for worry or overthinking and a calmness can take over the mind. You can do this anywhere to instantly start to feel calmer.
Often a racing mind can be caused by an excess of adrenaline in the body. We we perceive something as a threat, adrenaline is produced in an attempt to help us to deal with the situation. But this can mean our thoughts are all over the place and it's hard to concentrate on anything and feel calm. Exercise can help in a number of different ways. It can help us to burn off excess adrenaline and produce feel good hormones in the body that induce a sense of calm. In fact, the National Health Service in the UK say that if exercise was a medication, it would be one of the most effective ever!
Acts of Kindness
It's all too easily to get caught up in our own concerns – but something really interesting happens when we turn our attention to helping someone else. We're distracted away from our own troubles!
Doing an act of kindness has been shown to help you to feel more positive as well as boosting your sense of worth and value. Things like giving up your seat, buying food for a homeless person or paying someone a compliment could all help you to calm your mind and feel better.
Get it written down
Thoughts and worries can go around and around in our heads endlessly. However something interesting happens when we write down our thoughts. We get it 'out' of our minds and into black and white. Somehow, seeing it written down helps us to get a clearer perspective on things. We're also offloading it and this can be a big relief. Try it by just putting pen to paper and writing a stream of consciousness. As any thought or worry pops into your head, write it down. It can be helpful to do this is the morning to set you up for the day, or at night to calm your mind before bed.
Being more present is one the best ways to calm the mind. If we're truly focused on what we're doing and experiencing in the here and now, we're distracted away from worries and concerns. Being present is like a muscle, we have to exercise it and when we do it gets stronger. Practise paying close attention to the things that you're doing; if you're doing the washing up, notice all the sensations, the things you see, feel and smell. If you're walking along the street, practise being present then too, notice the feeling of the ground underfoot, the air on your skin, the sights and sounds around you. When we tune into our senses and pay attention, it's almost impossible to worry at the same time.
Take time for yourself
When it's all go go go, it's no wonder our minds can feel anything but calm. We're so often bombarded with information, demands on our attention and things that we have to do. How can you build some time and space into your day to give yourself a mental break? Perhaps consider a walk at lunchtime or some time to read a book, talk to a friend or get some exercise. Taking some time for yourself is a vital part of helping you to feel your best and helping your mind to function at it's best too!
Talk to someone
Our thoughts can seem a lot more terrible when we keep them all to ourselves. Talking to a friend or loved one and 'getting things out' can be an amazing way of releasing the mental burden. Don't keep things all to yourself, reach out to others and know that you are not alone.
I'd love to hear from you about any tips you have for calming the mind. Let us know in the comments.
Chloe Brotheridge is an anxiety therapist and Calm Coach. Get a FREE relaxation MP3, one of the most powerful tools for creating more mental calm, by signing up at www.calmer-you.com
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As most of the readers of this blog know, struggling with worry, stress or mental illness can be incredibly time consuming and destroys careers. I ran across this presentation from Darren Hardy that has some great information and strategies for people looking to achieve more in their lives. Experience has taught me that it can be difficult for someone who is struggling to process and extract the value in presentations like this so I have summarized it below for our readers. I have listened to this talk over 10 times this year and found new ideas each time. It is my belief that a successful career will not mitigate mental illness, but if you are struggling with your chosen career it can compound any mental struggle.
- Jay Coulter
By Joseph C. Lee, M.D.
“In the past when my father was diagnosed with cancer, it made me more focused, more dedicated, more connected to him. I was the best version of myself then. Now, I feel so frail. I don’t feel like my normal self.”
“I feel like I’m always one step removed.”
“I actually don’t feel sad. I don’t feel anything. I know that this should feel good, but it doesn’t.”
“I can’t get out of bed, even though a part of me knows that if I get out of bed, I’ll probably feel better. But I can’t get up.”
These are all ways in which people in my practice have described what they’ve felt during seasons of Depression. What they all have in common is that when they were depressed, they didn’t feel like their normal selves. I sometimes use this self-awareness to help people understand that this unfamiliar state only reinforces that what they are experiencing is indeed a clinical Depression, and not a “normal” reaction to difficult circumstances. This is one of the most valuable insights that I learned from one of my mentors during residency – that there’s “misery” which we’re all bound to experience at some point in our lives, and then there’s Depression, and they are not the same.
I’ve previously discussed the important role of emotions as it pertains to motivation, health and wellbeing – and this includes the value of unpleasant emotions. Some of these feelings that may not feel so great are necessary to help provide us the awareness and in turn the motivation to help course correct our behavior back towards healthiness.
Feelings of misery cause us to reflect on our negative circumstances and eventually create an internal tension so great that it creates a willingness to take the risks necessary to make meaningful changes in our lives.
Feelings of sadness are experienced when we’ve suffered a loss, and the process of grieving allows us to appreciate what we have, and take inventory of what is needed to move forward.
Feelings of loneliness help us to recognize our universal need for connection, creating an internal sense of longing, which builds a motivation to fulfill our relationship needs by seeking out opportunities to reach out to others.
All of these experiences are emotionally painful, but just like physical pain, they alert us to problems in our lives, and provide motivation and direction to attempt to resolve these issues. All of these experiences are also normal parts of our shared human experience. 100% of us will experience misery, sadness, and loneliness at different times throughout our whole lives, and if we respond appropriately, it’s a good thing.
Depression is different. Though certain emotions can feel depressing, a capital “D” Depression (or formally called a Major Depressive Episode) is a prolonged state of dysfunction, outside the scope of normal human experience. It is more common than most people think. About 7% of the American population will experience a Major Depressive Episode in any given year, but most people will not experience depression in their lifetime. However, it is common enough that you are very likely to know someone within your inner social circle that has experienced Depression, or you yourself may be that person. In fact, even by conservative measures, about 1 in 8 women will experience a depressive episode in their lifetime, which is about the same percentage of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. For men, the risk over a lifetime is about 1 in 15. To make these statistics more realistic, take the average sized class of 30 students. Two of the boys and four of the girls in that class will have Depression in their lifetime.
Another very important distinction between unpleasant emotions and Depression is related to the source of the feelings. Whereas normal emotional experiences are a natural response to circumstance (outside factors), the symptoms of Depression are caused by internal factors within the brain. For example, a person feels miserable because they have an ungratifying, underpaying job that they spend 70 hours a week at. Outside-in. Depression causes a person to believe that their previously perfectly acceptable job is now overwhelmingly difficult and stressful. Inside-out. Healthy emotions are also responsive to acute changes in environment. If a person is understandably feeling sad and lonely because of a recent breakup, some caring friends might be able to temporarily cheer him up by taking him out and providing good company to get his mind off of things. If a person is depressed, regardless of a change in environment or the presence of other positive relationships, this person still feels empty, disconnected, and is unable to enjoy themselves. If someone hates their job but goes on a two week vacation to Hawaii, they can have fun and relax while away, and will likely start feeling bad on the return flight anticipating their first day back to work. With Depression, that person still feels depressed in Hawaii, again because it is the internal state of mind that dictates their mood.
Depression is also much more than an emotional problem, but a reflection of the expansive dysfunction of the whole mind, where its symptoms reach into all the primary domains of brain functioning – including the physical, cognitive and emotional. In fact, when looking at the core symptoms of Depression, we can see that they are divided into these three categories:
Physical – changes to appetite, changes to baseline sleep patterns, changes to energy levels, changes to motivation and drive
Cognitive – concentration problems, memory difficulties, negative thinking patterns (hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness)
Emotional – inability to regulate mood properly, diminished ability to experience positive emotions, excessive feelings of guilt
A simpler way to think of how best to summarize these changes are that all brain functions are diminished during a depressive episode, and the above symptoms are the manifestation of that diminished functioning. Some symptoms are a result of losing the regulatory functions of the brain, such as with disturbances in sleep, appetite, and mood. Other symptoms are the direct result of impaired functioning – such as a lack of positive emotion, slowed thinking, low energy and drive. These core dysfunctions of the primary abilities of the brain lead to secondary impairments in social, occupational and the otherwise normal routines of daily functioning. The severity of impairment is usually a combination of symptom severity along with the degree to which cognitive distortions affect a person’s behavior. Depression by itself feels bad enough, but if a person is convinced that they can’t get out of bed, isn’t eating much, isolates, and recycles negative thoughts in their head all day long – they will feel worse. The most dangerous outcome of such distorted thinking is the triad of feeling hopeless, helpless and worthless – paired with the genuine anguish of Depression. This commonly leads to passive thoughts of dying as a form of relief to their suffering, and at its worst can lead to persistent thoughts of suicide. However, it is crucial to know that full recovery from depressive episodes is the norm, and so suicide would be an even more tragic attempt to find a permanent solution to temporary pain. With Depression, it will always resolve and recovery is usually complete.
As described above, the symptoms experienced during Depression are a reflection of problems of brain functioning, not related to brain injury. To use a modern analogy, if your brain was a computer, it’s more akin to a software problem, not a hardware issue. Once the software bug has been fixed, you can usually expect the computer to run as well as it did before. Talking about fixes, the good news is that Depression is readily treatable and most people respond positively. One big reason has to do with its episodic nature to begin with – there’s a beginning, and thankfully there’s an end. These episodes can last for a couple of weeks, or more commonly for few months. But almost always, they end. So in one sense, the most reliable “treatment” for Depression is time. However, there’s a lot of suffering during a Depression so all active treatments are therefore aimed at effectively reducing the severity, intensity, duration and recurrence of symptoms.
The most common options for treatment are the use of medication or structured talk therapy, the most studied and practiced being Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Many studies validate that the combination of the two tends to better than either alone. Beyond that, there’s also procedures that can be done for more severe cases, including rTMS and ECT. From the perspective of Mental Healthiness principles, I’ve previously discussed specific ways in which research has demonstrated that positive relationships, growth mindsets, and strategies that support self-efficacy also can be effectively used to not only treat a depressive episode, but also contributes to greater mental health in the long term, providing greater protection against future recurrence as well.
Misery, sadness, and loneliness are universal experiences of our human lives. Like all emotion, when we learn to recognize and effectively use them, they provide us healthy motivation and direction to resolve our problems and meet our needs. This is good. This is healthy. Depression is not good nor healthy. It is an experience that in some ways can feel like these normal emotional states, but in every other way is more painful, dysfunctional, and reflects an unhealthy state of mind. Thankfully, there’s many helpful and safe ways to accelerate the process of healing when depressed, and people always recover because depression comes and goes like the seasons. Winter inevitably ends and leads into the Spring. If you think that you or someone you care about may be experiencing Depression, reach out to someone and get help, because it will do just that – it will help.
About Dr. Joseph Lee: I’m a Psychiatrist in private practice in Redondo Beach, CA. After completing my training at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, my post-residency learning has been influenced by the successes and challenges of being a psychotherapist, the life changing experience of becoming a parent, as well as the study of Interpersonal Neurobiology, Social Cognitive Neuroscience, Nonviolent Communication, Positive Psychology, and Emotions Research. My other interests include spending time with my wife and kids, playing basketball, eating good food, the Lakers, and U2.
Is my heart a muscle that is tucked neatly behind flesh and bone, or is it the space within in me growing larger than the skin that once encased it, reaching out towards the world with each new experience of love? I say the latter. My heart is expanding, reaching out to greet you.
I tried texting my husband over and over again. I pressed three on my contact list and his phone rang. He wouldn’t pick up. I heard the key in the door, and I said, “Oh no! We need milk and I tried to catch you before you made it home.”
“Let’s go” he said.
I put my shoes on, he locked the door, and we walked the four blocks to the little market.
When we walked in, there was a disheveled woman getting a cup of coffee. My husband said hello to her, and she turned to him and smiled. I headed for the refrigerator to get a half gallon of milk. My husband was still talking to the woman who I knew was homeless, because I figured out how my husband knew her. She is a guest at the soup kitchen where my husband volunteers on Fridays.
My husband always speaks to the men who work at the store. They exchange formalities in Arabic. The man behind the counter asked, “You know her?” tossing his head in the direction of the woman who stood a short distance away from the counter sipping her coffee.
“Yes. I do.”
My husband turned to the woman and said, “Michelle, I will buy you your coffee.”
The man who was working the cash register said, “You know she is homeless, don’t you? She is homeless and she buys the most expensive water. She buys the French stuff” he said with obvious disdain.
My husband said that yes, he knew her.
The man at the counter said with sarcasm, “Why don’t you give her a room at your house if you like her so much?”
At the same time, Michelle, who heard my husband say he would buy her the cup of coffee was whispering, “There are good people in the world. There are good people in the world.”
As we walked out, my husband said, “Will I see you tomorrow, Michelle?
She smiled and said, “Yes. Thank you”
On the way home my husband said, “I’m fairly certain that Michelle has schizophrenia. She talks to voices a lot. She is also very fearful. We watch out for her on Fridays.”
I said, “I can’t believe that man! I don’t care if she buys the “French water” it is probably the only luxury she has. She needs to feel human too.”
My heart broke as I listened to the man behind the counter criticize Michelle as if she wasn’t standing there.
My heart grew in the store as I watched my husband treat someone who has so little the same way he would treat a friend.
When we got home my husband said, “Michelle couldn’t stay with us even if we brought her here. She is just too fearful of other people.”
What was said in sarcasm became a consideration for my husband. He thought about it, if only briefly. I know if it were a different world, he’d bring her home.
If you could see me, you would know my heart broke open in that store to make room for it to grow again. It’s so large now, it’s close to you. Reach out, and I’m sure you can touch it.
Rebecca Chamaa has been published on Yahoo Health, The Mighty, Role Reboot, Manifest Station, and others. She blogs daily about living with paranoid schizophrenia at http://www.ajourneywithyou.com
If at times I am a little unsure as to the state of my mental health, my dreams serve as a fairly good barometer. When I am feeling well, I remember few dreams, and those I do recall are cheerfully weird, like the one about the miniature albino hedgehog I decided to keep in a rice and lettuce wrap in the fridge. When I’m not, my dreams are convoluted and violent, full of people that I try hard not to think about when I’m awake. They leave me exhausted in the morning.
Last week I had a dream that I had a number of large blisters on my….well, I guess that vagina is as good a word as any. I popped the blisters and out of them came a number of very tiny embroidered sheep. My mom loves sheep, so I collected them all into a little pile and was pleased that I had this nice gift to send to her.
I’m pretty sure that’s not good. Right? I don’t see how that can be good.
If the word illness is right there, one half of “mental illness,” why don’t we treat it as such? If I had pinkeye I could stay home from work, but if I’ve summoned all of my stores of energy to get out of bed only to run out when I get to the shower, that’s not a good enough reason. If you have the sniffles and a low-grade fever, you’re allowed to take the day off. If you stare listlessly at your computer with your hands in your lap, taking frequent breaks to run and have a silent cry in the bathroom stall, you’re still expected to do 9 to 5.
I have been on medication since I was sixteen. If they make it, I’ve probably tried it. After a battle with my father, who insisted that if I prayed harder I wouldn’t be depressed, I was an early Prozac baby. When that stopped working I moved to Paxil. And then more, and more, and more, up to five at a time, until my bedside table resembled a pharmacy. I have the pill organizers that you see in catalogues for the elderly, pill cutters, and even empty capsules for when you’re trying to get off of Effexor, one bead at a time. I have slept through years on Ativan, had a full-scale freak-out on Adderall when I made my mom turn over a book because the boy on the cover was looking at me, and I even survived the Lamictal rash. I’d become accustomed to thinking, after four years on Pristiq, that the two of us would ride off into the sunset together, but in the past few weeks, for no particular reason, the world has shifted off of its axis, and a perfectly normal moment can segue seamlessly into a waking fever dream wherein my body cannot understand stairs, my brain cannot prevent me from losing hours staring at nothing, and if that first tear gets out, nothing will stop it turning into a river.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be clinically insane. I wonder how aware you might be of your own insanity. I wonder if it happens so gradually you don’t notice, or if it’s sudden, like a light switch being flicked from off to on. Can it be flicked back, or is it irrevocable? If you’re not aware of it, mightn’t it just seem…normal? It’s not that I’m aspiring to be declared clinically insane. But maybe once you are, you can relax. You can stop thinking about all of the things that you are never going to do, because you’re clinically insane, and it’s no longer expected of you.
I have not experienced much tragedy in my life, other than losing my father eight years ago. Some people don’t like that term for it, but I do. Like with a lost thing, I still look for him all the time, and I never find him. Depression is not sadness, or even grief. But when depression collides with sadness or grief, it’s like a hideous chemical experiment that can’t be undone. A poisoning with no antidote. The circumstances of my life right now are dissatisfying. But mental illness transforms them into something much worse.
Every therapist I have had (I am too embarrassed to say how many) has done some gentle prodding, asking if maybe I suffered abuse as a child, since many of my symptoms seem to align with those of people who have. I spent years racking my brain, trying to remember, wondering if there’s someone I could blame in all of this. In some ways it would be a relief to know that something caused all of this. But on the other hand, I’ve stopped looking for a reason. Maybe there isn’t a reason, maybe there is, but finding one wouldn’t fix anything. And it might start a whole new nightmare. If there’s something I don’t remember, I think I prefer to keep it that way.
When you’re depressed, you want to sleep. When they give you medication to combat your depression, one of the main side effects is drowsiness. I can easily sleep twelve hours in a row and then have a nap a few hours later. It’s hard to stay positive when you’re constantly plotting how soon you can be unconscious, honestly wondering if anyone would notice if you curled up on the sidewalk for a bit, or a subway platform. I once spent an hour lying under a jungle gym at night, and I only got up the willpower to leave because I was worried that someone might call the police and report a dead body. On top of the physical sensation, there is a weariness that hovers around what you might call your soul. My brain is tired, my heart is tired. If I knew where to go to officially give up, I would.
You would think that being so tired, I would get to feel numb, but I feel the polar opposite of numb. Numb is what I’m striving for, in all of the worst ways possible. I know that there is a special magic weight which, if I get down to, will grant me emotional numbness. I don’t know what that number is, specifically, and I don’t own a scale anyway so I wouldn’t know it if I saw it, but by God, I’m doing my best to get there. This is a Bad Idea. I absolutely know this. But I’ve had worse.
Oh, I know that I look like I’m walking around like the rest of you, laughing at jokes and saying excuse me, buying snacks and thinking about the kind of shoes I like, and sometimes I am. But sometimes I am walking around with the distinct impression that my air is running out and I am flailing my hands, and no one sees me. Or if they see me they mistake it for waving. Because who wants to go get a drink with the drowning girl? Not me. I have drinks with myself on a regular basis and it rarely ends well.
I have not cut myself for over seven years. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to. The other week I ran a rotary cutter blade across my leg (because along with being mentally ill I’m also a dork who sews), but luckily I’m pretty lazy and the blade has needed replacing for ages and was too dull to break the skin. I didn’t really try and then I gave up, because i wasn’t depressed enough to break a seven year streak. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve had friends and family members ask me why. It’s not because I have a thing for blood, or because I’m really into pain. This is the best way I can think of to explain: The late, great Barbara Park wrote one of my very favorite books, Skinnybones. I loved this book so much that I was once Alex Frankovich for Halloween. In the book, there is a part where he gets punched in the arm by his best friend, and he keeps checking it on the way home to see if it’s bleeding. And then he thinks this: “When something hurts this bad, the least it could do is bleed a little.” I do it because then I can point to it and say, here, look. This hurts. Doesn’t this look like it hurts?
I don’t consider myself suicidal, I never have. In Andrew Solomon’s life-changingly excellent book The Noonday Demon, he talks about the often-misunderstood relationship between depression and suicidality. They are definitely not the same thing, and for many people, like me, they have never co-existed. For one thing, when you’re depressed, you are way too lethargic to get up the energy to actually take your life. Personally, I’m way too petrified of death. I have also promised my mother, and since she’s gotten me through so much so far, it’s a promise I mean to keep. And if I ever did it, I would not put it past her to charge into the underworld Orpheus-style and haul my ass back, yelling at me the whole way. That’s how upset she would be.
That said, it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Not on my mind in a Google-search-of-popular-methods-and-techniques kind of a way, more in a Ryan Adams kind of a way, as I like to call it. Some days that line from ‘Dear Chicago’ runs on a loop through my head: “I’ve been thinkin’ some of suicide, but there’s bars out here for miles.” It’s punctuated by another line a little farther in, “I’m gonna die alone and sad.” I know I’m going to be a crazy cat lady someday, which worries me. I have allergies and I don’t actually like cats.
It’s not quite a voice in my head, it’s not a voice, but a sentence that has taken up residence somewhere near my ears. “I would like to kill myself.” Hush, I think. No I wouldn’t. I think about plunging a knife into my temple. Which I’m sure would be a really terrible way to do it. But once my brain has thought the briefest thought, I can’t get rid of it. Think about it: the first few times you hear something silly, you dismiss it out-of-hand. But the longer it sticks around, the more it might start to make sense. If you told the Molly of five years ago that she would now own a pair of harem pants, she would slap you in the face. But own them she does. (They’re really pretty, okay? Black, and kind of minimal, with this drapey belt…) I’m afraid if I keep listening, suicide might start to make sense. I can say that I know I will never try to kill myself, but I alsoknew that I would never buy harem pants. I am not a trustworthy person.
My past is littered with a trail of minor breakdowns. A three-hour anxiety attack in a hotel on Independence Square in Kiev after my brother’s wedding. A crack-up in the subterranean University College Dublin theatre when I sliced every finger with the shards of a broken wine glass. A gash I put in my thigh with a razor in my first grubby apartment in Brooklyn, bandaged by my roommate who found me weeping and blood-spattered, which is apparently a real turn-on to some people. A trip through Europe when I was a child that was akin to a month-long temper tantrum. A last straw upon my solitary junior-year arrival in Florence which saw me flee back to London in floods of tears. The half jolly, half sinister man at the hotel I checked in and back out of in half an hour hugged me and said, “Molly, a little girl like you should not travel alone. Always remember, the world is shit. You, you are the best!” He did not give me my money back. Trying to ask for a ticket to Paris on the overnight train in Italian would have been tricky in the best of times, but I also couldn’t breathe or stop sobbing. The clerk sniffed at me and said, in perfect English of course, “Miss, it is just a train, it is not life.”
But it was, and it is, my life. It is my life that seems to be racing past at an inhuman rate, with entire years swallowed up, and memories whose edges have been blurred by nearly twenty years of medications that no one knows the long-term effects of yet. I have lost friends due to behavior I am unable to control, and things I am unable to explain. I am a difficult person, and all I can do is apologize, and it doesn’t always make a difference.
I do not like being like this. But I have accepted it. It’s not like a cancer that you can fight, and maybe it will go away for good. For a long time I thought it was, and expended energy I didn’t have trying to draw a demarcation line between the illness and myself, pretending we were two separate entities. Now that I have accepted it as something that will most likely always be a part of me, it is easier. I do what I can to assuage the worst times. I keep busy. I do things out of the house more than I would like. I knit like a fiend. I am never without a book. I set myself immense tasks to see if I am stubborn enough to conquer them. Monsieur Proust is currently bending to my will, I bought Volume III of Remembrance of Things Past yesterday. I am bumbling my way through a sewing class at F.I.T.
There are things you have to do to keep yourself sane that other people will not like or understand, and sometimes those people end up being collateral damage. On those days when your own brain is your mortal enemy, other people are going to suffer too. You can only apologize so many times, and it’s easy to understand that there comes a point where the apologies seem meaningless, where people assume you are just willfully fucking up again and again, too lazy or unconcerned to act differently. I’m not excusing the genuinely shitty things I have done. But there are things that were not my idea, and although it may sound ludicrous for me to say there are times when I cannot control myself, it’s true.
Sometimes I do have good days, sometimes I have a run of good days. But so many days…one moment I’m dying and the next I’m fine. Mini-swings from blackest depression to mild mania wring the life out of you the way you twist water from a towel. It doesn’t stop. When the letup is the upswing, and you know that you’re too cheerful, that things aren’t actually good, even though you brace yourself against the inevitable fall, it’s always the same sucker punch. Every goddamn time it crashes into you like the first time, and you’re left reeling and confused. And once it starts, you look down and you can’t see the floor, and that makes it worse, because you just keep looking and looking and thinking oh shit not again and that just makes the abyss beneath your feet get bigger and darker by the second.
I am having a hard time writing this, because it means I have to think about it. Usually when the thought arises of My Life As It Is Now, the next thought is stop it stop it stop thinking you can’t think of this think of something else sing a song read a book be busy stop thinking please just stop.
I wish I had advice. Advice for me, advice for anyone else living through something similar. But maybe there are only two choices: keep going, or don’t. If you choose don’t, that could still be a whole range of things, it doesn’t have to be suicide. It could be quitting your job and moving home, it could be withdrawing from social life and spending every night and weekend in bed. Keeping going, just putting one foot in front of the other, sounds simple. It’s not. But it’s what I’m choosing. I hope I keep choosing it.
Not a week goes by that a therapist doesn’t hear about a client or a client’s friend self-harming. This is particularly true of therapists who work with teenagers – lately it feels like something of an epidemic.
After first hearing about self-harming behaviour – which usually takes the form of cutting, scraping, hitting or otherwise causing injury to the self – parents and friends usually react in one of two ways:
Shock and disbelief followed quickly by panic or Anger and irritation that this this might be “just” attention seeking and therefore a type of manipulation. Both reactions are valid.
Here’s what we suggest you do if someone you know/love is self-harming:
Do your best to avoid:
1: Asking for the gory details. You may feel the need to know so that you can feel like you know what you’re dealing with here – but this is your need, and will not be helpful. They will already be feeling vulnerable and shamed, and exhausted from telling you as much as they did. Now is not the time to push for more.
2: Jumping to the conclusion that this is ‘just’ for attention. Let’s be clear: it IS for attention – we need to leave the word ‘just’ out. And it’s a pretty dramatic way of getting it, isn’t it?! Instead, we need to consider ‘Why is this person going to such lengths?’ Be aware that something bigger than simply “just” looking for attention is definitely going on here. Even if it’s that they have not yet learned how to ask for support or acknowledgment. Again, there is always a reason.
3: Assuming that they are suicidal. While it looks violent and extreme, it is not necessarily a sign a suicidality, but it is serious, and deserves to be treated as such. Feel free to ask though, it might be a relief to them to be asked, and ay well take the power out of it for them. Back to points 3 and 4 above!
4: Insisting that they stop for your sake. This might be experienced as blackmail or that you are more concerned about your own upset than you are about theirs. They are already vulnerable and will see and hear everything through that lens, for now.
5: (Repeat) Dealing with this by yourself. If the person is self harming due to a crisis, outside help will be effective. If they are self harming to punish you or control you in some way, outside help will take the power out of that – either way, outside help is the way to go!
Keep looking after you, and as always – you’ve got this, and we’ve got your back.
- Two Wise Chicks
Last Saturday was a day of mindfulness meditation and learning with a small group of like-minded people who left me on a relaxed high. That all changed on Sunday morning with a distressing phone call from my daughter. She was in tears as she shared with me that her ‘Nanny’, her second mum, was seriously ill and had only 24 hours to live.
My emotions churned. But as I worked through my sadness, worry and grief over the next few days, what became clear to me was the ways I use mindfulness to navigate through emotional speed bumps.
The initial pain was almost physical. My body closed up and my mind shut down as anxiety and the associated stress responses kicked in.
So it was very early the next morning that I found myself wide-awake and experiencing intense and demanding thoughts about this sad situation.
But as I lay there I became curious about this situation and how much of my energy and attention it was demanding. What was the source of my demanding thoughts and why had they imposed themselves on my mind in such a forceful way?
But then I had a light bulb moment! I realised that I didn’t need to cling to these thoughts and the associated emotions and at that point I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to let this situation the opportunity to overwhelm me, especially at this time of the night.
What I did next was turn to my mindfulness practice through focusing on my breathing. Deliberately and calmly I slowed my breathing. (What works best for me is to breath in for the count of 5 and out for the count a 10.)
It took some minutes to release myself from the steel trap in my mind. Each time I felt myself spinning off track, I simply acknowledged that I was ‘thinking’ and returned the focus to my breathing. Finally, I got back to sleep.
Isn’t it extraordinary how an emotional shock or confrontation can demand so much of our attention - even well after the event?
In the past I wouldn’t have noticed the impact. Rather I would have just gone for the ride with the thoughts and emotions, no matter how long they take to dissipate.
But now, after three years of mindfulness meditation practice I realise I have learned the skill of observing my thoughts and letting them go! I can also use meditation practice to ease the physical pain and anxiety responses that I often experience when under stress. It provides a lot of relief.
So why do I allow my mind to be filled with so much debris that it prevents me from enjoying the moment? The good news is that I am increasingly developing the knowledge and tools to support my healing. I am learning to trust myself to find pathways to repair both my body and soul. I can tidy the junk shop of my mind!
For 30 years I worked hard, creating a successful business and raising four children with my husband, Grant. Then came a major crisis in 2012 due to a prolonged deep depression topped off with general anxiety. (I had experienced periods of mild depression before but had always been able to shrug these off.) The death of a dear friend, my mother’s dementia and too many years of ignoring the signs of stress finally caught up on me.
It’s been a long, lonely and dark ride at times. Currently my moods are good but the continuing anxiety symptoms serve to remind me to be patient with myself. Thanks to medication, meditation, family and friends, plus a healthy dose of bravery, I am making good progress.
My wish is to live every day with more grace by being kinder to myself, helping others and staying creative.
This revised article was first published with noozhawk.com on 6-25-15 under the title “How Toastmasters can Turn Fear Into Empowerment”
If you suffer from the common—but debilitating—fear of public speaking, struggle with social anxiety, and/or want to sharpen your communication and leadership skills, a visit to one of your local Toastmasters clubs can be an effective start towards a rewarding journey from fear to empowerment. A nonprofit (and very affordable organization to join), Toastmasters International, which was established in the U.S. nearly a century ago, is built on group encouragement.
Their club mission statement summarizes the supportive atmosphere that Toastmasters clubs all around the world (according to the Toastmasters International Website, there are 14,650 clubs in 126 countries) embrace: “We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”
The benefits members experience are both expected and surprising.
Real estate agent Pat Costello, who is an active Toastmasters member and is currently serving as president at her local club says that besides the increasingly effective communication skills that she’s seen herself and others acquire, Toastmasters has also become a place where she’s been able to better hone her listening skills. She feels, too, that even though every member has most likely felt some level of discomfort, the supportive environment that a Toastmasters club provides helps people grow out of their fears, which then increases personal confidence.
Barc Holmes, the President and CEO of Deliverse Consulting, is a three-year member of Toastmasters. An engaging speaker, Holmes states that Toastmasters has not only improved his speech writing, but has also helped him learn how to connect in front of a crowd. He’s surprised with how the power of humor helps this connection, even in speeches with a serious message. Holmes originally joined to overcome his fear of public speaking, and continues on with the organization in order to “…learn how to write better in a way that moves people.”
A dedicated member for over 16 years and past president of her local Toastmasters club, website and marketing consultant wiz Jacky Lopez says that Toastmasters is “…the greatest organization I’ve joined since I came to this country…” Lopez states that beyond the empowering gift of learning that it’s okay to speak her mind, as well as giving her the opportunity to shed her fear of public speaking, Toastmasters has also proved to be a positive group experience in which she’s able to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities.
An active member (who has also served in the past as a club president), Albert Mercado has been involved with the organization for 20 years. Mercado, a retired engineer and extraordinary storyteller, first joined because he wanted to improve his public speaking skills and feel comfortable in front of an audience. With time, he found that his presentation skills improved so tremendously that he was continuously selected to speak in front of customers and fellow employees. He was also pleasantly surprised to find that it became very enjoyable to appear in front of the public and speak.
A mentor and inspiration to members at his local club, Mercado says, “The hardest part is to make the decision to attend meetings, but once you go over that hurdle, you’ll enjoy the friendly atmosphere, the support you receive, and in a short time you’ll see the progress that you will be making. During my years at Toastmasters I have seen many very successful stories.”
When member Barc Holmes was asked what advice he’d offer someone contemplating on joining a Toastmasters club, he shared this: “Jump in, get nervous, screw up, laugh it off, and keep going.” This is the spirit of Toastmasters, where members know it’s okay to make mistakes because everyone is there to learn. In the supportive atmosphere that a Toastmasters club provides, fear can often blossom into empowerment through the simple, but powerful act of practicing in a safe and friendly environment.
Tracy Shawn, M.A.
— Tracy Shawn, M.A., lives and writes on the Central Coast of California. Her award-winning debut novel,The Grace of Crows, is about how an anxiety-ridden woman finds happiness through the most unexpected of ways — and characters. Click here for more information about Shawn, or click here to visit her author page on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter: @TracyShawn. The opinions expressed are her own.
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