This past week has been a rollercoaster of emotions. I’ve had some high highs and some very low lows. Last night I watched Hulu for hours and hours and feasted on waffle fries from Chick-fil-A for dinner, along with diet Coke and a whole six pack of raspberry-filled donuts. And I sobbed. A lot.
Today, I realized I couldn’t allow myself to engage in such destructive behavior again, so I thought about what might help me. I’ve talked about it before, but I will again—one of the tricky things about mental illness is that there’s no one set cure. Different things help different people. What works for one person might not work for someone else. I’ve dealt with my mental illness for so long that I’ve come to know what helps and what doesn’t—or at least what hasn’t helped so far. Two things that do help me are mountains and music. So I decided to take a drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon, while listening to music from my youth.
The drive was so good for me! Drinking in the towering granite cliffs with their varying shades of gray, black, blue, white. Being mesmerized at all the waterfalls I passed. It has been the second wettest spring on record here in Utah, so there were more waterfalls than I’d ever seen, and the river was raging harder than I’d ever seen. It made me downright giddy! And rocking out to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Collective Soul and Soundgarden—that was what I needed. That was my therapy.
Last night I was feeling pretty hopeless and defeated. I have those moments. We all have those moments. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to remind me that I don’t have to stay there. I’m a fighter. I will get back up and soar above that rock. It may be hard, it may be painful. I may stumble and falter as I scrape my way up, claw my way out, but I won’t stay down. And when I get up, I will be stronger than I was before. I will be able to look back at what I’ve learned and use it to propel me forward. Doesn’t mean I won’t get on anymore rollercoasters. Doesn’t mean I won’t have anymore lows. Doesn’t mean my mental illness will be gone. But it does mean I can keep going. It does mean there is still hope.
I just wrote about how hopeless things can be. Then I started thinking about how far I’ve come in regards to my mental health. If people could see where I was at twelve years ago, eleven years ago, ten, five, two—hell, even less than two years ago—I can say with confidence that they would be impressed! I have learned so much—from therapists, from books, from friends, from other bloggers. I have a better handle on my depression, anxiety and OCD because of what I have learned. I have grown so much, especially in the last two years. I have become myself again, and that is huge! I deserve to be proud of myself. I deserve to give myself credit for what I have accomplished. For those of you out there who are struggling, remember the good you have done, remember the good you have accomplished. Remember that and cling onto it with every ounce of strength you’ve got left!
Do you want to know the worst part about having mental illness? The fact that it prevents and destroys relationships.
It’s hard forming real, lasting relationships when you have mental illness. Obviously I can only speak from my own experience. So here’s my experience. If I’m standing by myself at a social gathering, looking around awkwardly or I sit down by myself at church and bury my face in my phone or—again—look around awkwardly, it’s not because I don’t like you or want to talk to you, it’s because my anxiety is so bad I feel like I’m about to puke. Be by myself or puke on someone? I’ll choose the former. But even though that’s the route I’ve gone in order to prevent myself from having a panic attack (and possibly losing my breakfast, lunch or dinner all over you) it doesn’t mean I WANT to be by myself. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want the distance. I want to talk. I want to interact. I just can’t always do it—because of my stupid mental illness. It’s like this thick glass wall. I can see through it, I know what I want, but I just can’t break through.
Even harder than not being able to form relationships is when mental illness destroys one that you somehow were lucky or blessed enough to form. It always becomes the wedge that splits, fractures and disintegrates relationships. Sometimes it’s because people can’t handle the illness. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t want to be burdened by it. Sometimes it’s because the person with mental illness refuses to acknowledge or do anything about it, and that’s on them. Oftentimes it’s because the mental illness overshadows who you are. It becomes all the other person can see, so they start formulating ways to fix it, to fix you. Of course they think they are “helping” you, but when the entire relationship revolves around your mental illness, it’s not longer about the relationship. Just because I have relapses doesn’t mean I’m not trying. It doesn’t mean I’m not using the tools I’ve received and used before for many years. Just because I say something in a moment of fear, panic, obsessive thoughts or depression doesn’t mean I’m speaking in absolutes. I’m just afraid, panicked, obsessing or depressed, and I simply need you to listen and reassure me that you’re there and that it will be okay eventually. Because eventually I will come out of the moment, and I will be okay again. I’ve lived with mental illness for most of my adult life and some of my youth. I recognize it, I know what it is, and I take responsibility for it—always.
But it doesn’t matter. As many times as I have believed a person is finally going to see me—just me, all of me, as me—my mental illness drives that wedge between us and destroys it.
I’m so tired of it. I’m so tired of this thing ruining so many good things in my life. I wish I could just cut it out of me, even if it meant scarring and maiming myself in the process. But I can’t. I have to keep living with it and all of it’s consequences. It’s hard not to be hopeless at times. But I know I’m resilient, I know I’m strong, and I know I can keep going and can keep improving. I won’t let mental illness take that away from me, even if it takes everything else.
My daughter had a panic attack today. My first thought was to tell her to calm down, that she didn’t need to cry, that she could be tough. Then I remembered how I react to others telling me those things when I’m struggling with my own depression, anxiety or OCD. It doesn’t help. Period. So instead, I sat next to her, put my arm around her, let her lay her head on my shoulder and my lap. I rubbed her arm and told her it was okay to cry and to feel sad sometimes. Eventually she stopped crying and was able to breathe normally again. I even had her laughing at one point.
So here’s the deal. If someone with mental illness trusts you enough to be honest in what they are going through or how they are feeling, just be there for them. Acknowledge what they’ve told you, give them a hug or a shoulder to cry on and tell them it’s okay for them to feel the way they do. I think our first instinct is usually to give advice or try to correct. Or worse yet, ignore. But those things don’t work. They only harm. Be kind. Be educated. Just be there. That is what helps, and sometimes that is all we need.
I’ve been thinking about how far we’ve come as a society when it comes to mental illness. We still have a long, long way to go, but I’ve observed how much better youth today seem to have it than when I was a teenager.
Or maybe it was just me. Maybe it was just my circumstance. I’ve just noticed how much more love, acknowledgment and support teens today get than I did when I was that age, twenty years ago.
I feel like there are more people letting teens know it’s okay that they have mental illness—because there are more of us acknowledging that it is real. We offer sympathy because we have experienced the same. We show them how much we care and love them and want to help them. I didn’t have that.
Twenty years ago, when I was first diagnosed with depression and going through absolute hell and darkness, most adults ignored the scars on my arms, the tears in my eyes, my hanging head, my choice to be sad—because that’s what they thought it was. They thought it was my own fault that I was depressed and that I could just choose to be happy if I wanted to. Other adults, like some of my church youth leaders, treated me like crap instead of lifting me up and offering support. The only adult who actually showed that they cared about me and sympathized with what I was going through was my high school band teacher. Years after the fact, my mom told me that my dad cried every day for two weeks after I told them I was depressed and had been cutting myself. Unfortunately, it was years too late. He never cried in front of me, he never told me how sad it made him because of how much he loved me—because you just didn’t do things like that back then. I didn’t have adults who had been through what I had sharing their experiences the way I have shared my experiences with young people now. I just had a few other people my own age, struggling like I was.
Mental illness is a devastating, discouraging illness to live with. In a way, I’m jealous of how much love and support youth these days are getting compared to when I was their age. But more than that, it’s encouraging and hopeful to see how far we have come, to see that we are making strides to improve awareness and resources. That is definitely something to be grateful for.
To build a brick wall, a foundation is needed. The foundation laid out, the wall built brick by brick. Emotional walls are similar. Mine was founded and built because of her.
“Can I help you with the dishes?” my best friend asks. ‘Do I have to do the dishes now?’ I complain. “Why can’t you be more like Safaa?”
Clink — The first brick
Violin at school, I can’t practice. “This is why no one in our house has musical talent”
Clink — Another brick
‘My photography teacher wants two of my pieces in the art show!’ Proud of myself, a rarity. Maybe I’m good at photography? The monotonous response: “How many does everyone else get?” ‘Two’
Clink Clink — A few bricks
Hiding in my room. Facing away from the door. Hide my shame. Blood trickles from self-inflicted wounds. She barges in. Seeing and crying. Apologizing. Promises to treat me better flow. She doesn’t.
Clink Clink — Two bricks
Heavy dresser blocks the door. Fingers against scalp, pulling at roots. Pain a distraction. She forces her way in, ignores my state. “Spoiled. Bad example. Problem child. Bully. Weak.”
Clink — Another brick
I buy my own kitten – Damian. My pride and joy, my child and my pet. Tiny body curled next to me, all warmth and purr. ‘I’ll come by and take care of him’ Banned from going. “He keeps peeing in my plants.” Kitten sold, no goodbye, no explanation.
Clink Clink — Multiple bricks
I try to leave the heartless manipulation of a mother. Silent screams, anguished mind. Tears mix with rain. Legs move involuntarily without drive, without destination. Obedient and mindless like she wants me to be. Sobs cut through the night. Fickle love I wished was true crumbles.
Clink Clink Clink — Many bricks
‘Why can’t we hang out with Tacy on Sunday?’ “Check email.” Demeaning intro. Father is the victim. She is the bully. I’m siding with him? “Good for you, Kelsey”. People should earn what they want? “Don’t care or hate your own mother, I still love you and hope that you choose the right things.”
Clink Clink Clink Clink — Countless bricks
She lets a lie slide. I pry for truth. A text to dad follows confession. She finds out. “Let me decide to communicate when can get to it, at your dad house I never hear anything, at my house your dad know everything.” ‘You do ask. You never answer emails’ “Things are between Mark and I, you need to stay out of it, understand?”
Clink — Another brick
Stressed and depressed. She notices that I am not myself and asks. Her fault. Tell her? I’m afraid of how she’ll react. Will she scream insults? Deny? Or will she listen and understand? Scream or deny, she will be angry. Listen, she won’t change. I tell her. She listens, promises to not do it anymore. She does.
Clink — Another brick
I root out another lie. She turns on me. A blizzard of accusatory words. Every possible flaw exploited. I can’t do this anymore. Unbuckled seat belt. Car door opens. She stops. Door alarm goes off. Sitting in stunned silence. Adrenaline of near death surges. We stop. My chance for peace gone.
Clink Clink Clink — Thousands of bricks
It scared her that I tried to jump? You care about me? Hope inflates like a balloon. Pop! Needle of insults deflates my balloon. “Spoiled. Bad example. Siblings will treat people horribly. Respect me. ‘A normal family listens’ I don’t have to listen. I’m the mother, you’re the child.”
Clink Clink Clink Clink — An endless waterfall
‘Clean up your mess, Khai’ He angers, mumbling. Throws a napkin. She chastises me for ‘provoking’ him. ‘He hits or throws something at me every day’ “Is it true?” A quiet yes. He asks if he can go to a friend’s house. Why would she let you? “Just clean your room first.” I can’t say anything. She’s the mother and I am not the favorite.
Clink Clink Clink — More bricks
For almost 18 years, I accepted the things she told me. Now, I am unable to feel emotion like a normal person. Extremely low self-esteem. Uncomfortable with affection. I worry about my future family. Who would want to marry me? Will I be like my mom? Will I have kids who trust me like a best friend? Will I be unconsciously abusive? For almost 18 years, I grew up with a mostly absent father who wasn’t there enough to give me the comfort that I needed. To give me the affection that every child needs. “I love you” my friends tell me. Well that makes one of us. My sister hugs me, I tickle her to get out. My friends hold my hand, I slip it out. “I really care for you” my friends tell me. Can’t say I feel the same.
For almost 18 years, I went through her abuse, the divorce, and my mental health issues without comfort. Without a hand to hold when I was afraid. Without a soothing voice to tell me that I am worth something. Without arms that wrap me in a warm hug while I shake with sobs that never come. Without someone to lower the gun that I’ve raised to my temple on multiple occasions.
But now, my brick wall has been built. It has curled around me and swaddled me like a newborn baby on cold nights. It has protected me from her, it has protected me from the storms that rage. My brick wall is the comfort I have lacked all of my life.
Walking through that door makes the blue a little lighter. She holds space as I gently spill. We sit, we talk - we water, dig and bury. Nurturing a shoot. Aiding it in light - to find its path through thorns - Malan Wilkinson