Article by Irving Schattner
Edit and post design by Christy Zigweid
Photo by Unsplash via Pixabay made using @WordSwagApp
Our brains are constantly working. Neurons are firing and chemicals are released and absorbed, leading to thoughts, emotions, and actions. Whether we are in a state of motion, standing still or sleeping, our brains accommodate to ever-changing circumstances and states of consciousness. As much as we may try to convince ourselves of the need to slow down the process of brain function, there are elements of biology and conditioning that dictate the flow of energy circulating up the spine into our brain and down to our organs. That is a given.
What is less of a given is the extent to which we can exercise control over our brain and, therefore, bodily organs. The extent to which we are able to exert conscious control over mind and body can be dictated by a number of factors. One factor is how aware we are of what we think and feel. It is through conscious awareness that we can begin to gain some mastery over how we channel our thoughts, emotions, and actions. “Failure to be aware” leads to automatic thoughts, feelings, and actions that may be counterproductive to our goals. While this may seem an obvious conclusion, many people in distress often find themselves “stuck” in the very patterns which perpetuate and even exacerbate the problems from which they seek freedom.
For some in distress, it is more comfortable to accept one’s fate than to examine what influences and motivations keep them from seeking change and joy. Admittedly it is a daunting task to examine that which is hidden from consciousness, and break through the defense mechanisms often used as self-protection.
To engage in a process of self-awareness can begin the process of change. If we continue to ignore or avoid what has been brought to our consciousness, we perpetuate self-sabotage. Some believe that motivation is what is needed and continue to wait for motivation that never comes. The stark reality is that motivation is usually achieved by the mere act of doing. The act of doing, or being, may seem at times like an uphill battle, but once undertaken becomes a process through which motivation is reinforced. In other words, one can sit idly by and think about taking action, or one can learn through repeated attempts (trial and error) until success is achieved. Success is best achieved when fear of failure is challenged through opportunities for learning made possible by taking action. By taking action, assessing what went right and what needs to be modified or corrected, one is on the path to adaptive change. Unfortunately, having gained conscious awareness (or understanding), many people in distress often recoil into typical patterns of thinking and behaviors which further reinforce their negative self-image and disbelief in their ability to gain mastery over their distress. The fortunate few, often with the guidance, support, and encouragement of a well-trained mental health professional, are determined to undertake this next phase of action which flows from their newly-discovered awareness.
It is my wish for each one of you that you take the necessary steps to move from awareness to action, in order to achieve a life of joy, purpose, and direction. Show the courage to change. Reach out and give me a call so we can explore taking this journey together. The rewards are fantastic!
About the Author - Irving Schattner, LCSW
Guest Post by Hillary Doerries
Edited by Maureene Danielle
Post Design by Christy Zigweid
Photo by Skeeze via Pixabay CC made using @WordSwagApp
Looking back on my life, I can confidently say that my struggles with depression began when I was in high school. I remember having days when I would cry and cry for no obvious reason. Life was good – loving parents, an attentive boyfriend, and a seemingly bright future. But the sadness would strike out of nowhere, and there was no telling when it would end. My parents – especially my mother – would try to cheer me up by leaving me handwritten, encouraging notes on my pillow; or an uplifting card in my lunchbox.
No one, including myself, had any idea what was going on or how to handle it.
A handful of years later, I started seeing a therapist when I was in graduate school. After a conversation I had with Mark, the man who would become my husband, where I admitted that things that seem easy for other people just aren’t that easy for me, we decided that seeing a counselor was the next best step. We discussed my symptoms one by one: the days where I couldn’t get out of bed for class. My irrational anger and irritation toward the people in my life. My past relationships that failed because of my unfounded jealousy and unrealistic expectations. My extreme mood swings that I could never predict. My tendency to hole myself up in my basement apartment for days at a time. My general solitary, negative outlook on the world and my place in it.
I was a mess. I was never good enough. And I never would be.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helped to rewire my brain and taught me how to look at my world differently. It was tough work. One therapist I saw during my last year of graduate school often gave me homework to take home. Things to ponder, charts to fill out, and lists that tracked my mood at the end of every day. I had to somehow make sense of layers and layers of emotions that were just beginning to surface. I feared those close to me would leave. I learned to look at the hard evidence: what clues or information did I have that confirmed that this would actually happen? Many times, there was no evidence. After a time of practicing this type of mindfulness, my fears lessened, and I realized that I was not so alone after all.
It was also by seeing a therapist that I finally had a diagnosis for my struggles: Major Depressive Disorder, or MDD, coupled with General Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. For me, it was important to have a name for what I was going through, if for nothing else, to confirm that what I was feeling wasn’t my fault.
Therapy was only a piece of my healing process. There were also drugs. Lots and lots of drugs over the years: Wellbutrin, Lexapro, Zoloft, BuSpar, Cymbalta, Klonopin, Effexor, Deplin, and Abilify, to name a few.
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It was a constant battle to find the correct combination of drugs. My medications were always being tweaked and adjusted, and each adjustment was always preceded with a crash in my mood. But I picked myself up and was back in the doctor’s office each time. It was also a battle to find a psychiatrist who would listen to me and not just dope me up with the latest drug. I’ve seen every kind of doctor from a general practitioner to a psychiatrist to a psychiatric nurse. Then, after six years of taking psychotropic medications, I gained over 100 pounds and I began to take medicine to counteract the side effects of the antidepressants: fish oil for high cholesterol, Levothyroxine for thyroid, and Metformin to help regulate my blood sugar. Now I was fat, still depressed, and looking for a way out.
In December 2014 I had a plan to end my life. I was overworked, stressed out, mad at the world, and in general, not taking very good care of myself. After an argument with my husband at work, I got in the car, floored it home, and went upstairs to my nightstand. I took a bottle of Klonopin out of the top drawer and through tears and cries of desperation, decided that while a part of me wanted it to just be done and over with, there was a larger part of me that wanted to figure this out. Somehow, I got back in the car, drove myself to my local inpatient mental health facility, and checked myself in. This move shocked some, but for me, it was the safest place to be for a few days. I stayed there for four days and completed all the tasks that were set before me. I met other people who were struggling, saw a new psychiatrist, who adjusted my meds, and cooperated with the nurses. After four days, I was ready to come home.
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The next couple of years were kind of fuzzy. I was functioning – going to work, completing everyday tasks, and was social enough to see and be seen by others. But things still weren’t quite right.
Despite continued therapy and my cocktail of medication, I still felt there were persistent, undulating waves of depression that accompanied my everyday being. Sometimes the waves were small and not very noticeable. Other times they were loud and clear. I slept a lot during the day. Often I could only work for a few hours before feeling like I needed to go home and recharge with a nap. My psychiatrist kept adjusting my meds but I couldn’t shake this unsettling feeling that my life could be better. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. I remained this way for several months - just kind of existing in a fog. It was like looking at myself in the mirror without my glasses, my face blurry and misshapen.
The months rolled by until finally my psychiatrist told me about a relatively new type of treatment for those with persistent depression for whom medication didn’t seem to cut it. It was called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and my own doctor happened to administer it right in his office. I discovered TMS works very much like an MRI. It’s a large machine that emits magnetic pulses meant to stimulate the brain’s pre-frontal cortex so over time, it can relearn how to make those good brain chemicals on its own, therefore possibly eliminating the need for antidepressants. After going round and round with the insurance company, I was finally approved for the treatment.
TMS is a big commitment. I had to be at my doctor’s office every weekday for six weeks in a row for about an hour at a time. For those six weeks, my life and my daily plans revolved around my TMS treatments. I ended my TMS therapy in April 2016 and I can say with confidence that going through TMS was a profound gift of new life for me. First, my mood has stabilized. People that know me often comment that I seem lighter and have more life behind my eyes. Sure, I have ups and downs as anyone does, but I am better equipped to deal with them in a level-headed, rational way. I still take naps, but now I take them because I want to, not because I feel like I have to. The best part is my doctor has started to wean me off of my antidepressants. I’ve been on the drugs for over six years now, so the process is a slow one, but by this fall, I hope to be rid of all of my meds.
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While we may not know it as we’re plodding through the journey, we are changing every day. Even the small steps we take to help ensure a better quality of life help us in big ways down the road.
We have to believe, even when we feel stuck, that things won’t remain difficult and stagnant forever. As someone who has just managed to get my head above water regarding my mental illness, I want to tell others to never give up. Keep fighting for your mind and your health. Try new things and be an advocate for yourself, because at the end of the day, nobody else can but you.
And above all, if you are suffering, reach out and share your story. If nothing else, your bravery in doing so will prove to you that you are not alone.
To our health,
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