Experiences and the Full Spectrum

The first day of Ancient World Civ my sophomore year of high school, my teacher, Mr. Dau, told us we were programmed. Of course there was an uproar of disagreement, but he persisted. He said we would have a discussion on it later. He told us to go home, talk to our parents, our seminary teachers (a religion class for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), our Bishops and other religious leaders. We had our discussion without a single person agreeing with Mr. Dau. Later in the year, I wished so much that I could go back to that first day so I could be the only one to side with him. See, the experiences I’d gone through suffering from severe depression had changed my perspective.

The word “programmed” has a negative connotation when applied to people. But I don’t think it should. I do think we are programmed. That programming comes from various sources—parents, culture, place, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. Some people may like the words “mold” or “shape” better, but it’s all the same to me. It doesn’t mean we don’t have choices, it just means those choices are based very heavily on our programming. However, as we get older, and especially as we go out on our own, who we are becomes more about our experiences than our programming. We outgrow the program, I guess you could say. Our choices, our perspective and perception of things and who we are as individuals is born through the individual experiences we have. That means we will all vary on those things because we all have different experiences.

Take the world today—dealing with this virus and quarantine. Some parents are struggling being with their kids 24/7 while I’m loving the extra time with mine! Some are struggling to help their kids with their schoolwork, while others aren’t because they’ve been homeschooling their kids for years. Some people, like me, are struggling with the isolation, while others are realizing nothing much has changed because they aren’t very social anyway. This time means something different to everyone based on our different experiences.

Mental illness is the same way. I’ve said before that the things that help with mental illness are different for everyone—because everyone is different. Some people have great experiences with medication while others don’t. I’ve had both! For some, therapy is the greatest thing ever. Others swear by natural remedies or changing their diet and lifestyle. It saddens me when I see people acting like what works for them is the only thing that works and trying anything else is stupid. I’ve seen people condemning medication and those who use it. I’ve seen people making fun of those who go to therapy. Just because your perspective is that therapy doesn’t work because it didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it’s not going to work for someone else.

We can support and encourage what works for us while at the same time supporting what works for others. Just because medication didn’t work for you doesn’t mean I’m lying when I say it worked for me. Just because I’m loving the extra time with my kids during this quarantine doesn’t mean you’re lying or faking it when you have to take your own time out from your kids to keep from going completely insane! It simply means we are different because we have different experiences in life that have shaped our different perspectives.

Another thing to remember is that our perspective can change as our experiences change—just like mine did in high school. My perspective as a mother has changed through the years, as well. I’ve often told people that when I was married and was a stay-at-home mom it was all about getting time away from the kids. But now that I’m a working single mom it’s all about getting time with my kids. I hate the weekends my kids are away. I absolutely hate it. I hate the silence. I hate being alone. I hate missing them. The way my life has changed has changed the way I look at things, the way I handle things, the way I react to things. I think it’s important to realize that just because you believe something now, just because you feel something now, doesn’t mean you always will. Or it could mean that what you believe and feel will be strengthened even more. I always loved being a mom, but it means even more to me now because of being a single mom and because of this quarantine.

I’m grateful for my experiences in life. But I also want to do better at remembering that they are my experiences, not everyone else’s, and that’s okay. It makes it a whole lot easier to love and support each other when we can take off those narrow-minded goggles so many of us wear—when we can see the full spectrum of colors rather than just black or white.

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Writing Poetry

I used to write a lot of poetry when I was in high school. It was a form of therapy for me. I think writing is therapeutic for a lot of people. There’s something about getting our demons out on paper that helps to heal.

I went years barely writing anything and never writing poetry. But the last few years my muse has come back, or at least the need to put my feelings in words. Some days are just bad. Some days I lose hope, and I feel worthless. I try not to stay there. I think getting the words out still helps. It helps me process, and it helps me heal and move on.

Shroud and Shadow

I look out the window,
hoping to find you pulling into the driveway.
Every hum of a car engine I hear
makes my heart jump.

Even though I know you’re not coming,
I still wait for a knock on the door,
still imagine opening it to see you standing there,
surprising me like you have before.

They say, “All good things must come to an end.”
I didn’t believe them.
You made me believe anything was possible.

But as day turns to night,
casting its shroud of darkness,
I wonder if I, too, must fall
and remain in shadow—
alone forever.

Safe

“Stay home. Stay safe.” It’s plastered all over—well, everywhere right now. The thing is, “safe” has a different meaning to everyone. For some, staying home isn’t safe. For some of us with mental illness, for those in abusive relationships, home may be the least safe place of all.

I knew it wouldn’t be safe for me over spring break. My kids were with their dad, which would have left me home, completely alone, for an entire week. I’d already bought a plane ticket to go see my boyfriend months earlier. I thought a lot about whether I should still go see him or not. But I knew—I knew—that staying home would take me to a very dark place, a place I couldn’t afford to go to. For the sake of my mental health (possibly my life) and the sake of the children I have and love, to look after, I got on a plane and flew to another state.

Staying home also wasn’t safe for the family member of a friend. The pressure and darkness of isolation took a toll on her depression until she took her own life, leaving behind a spouse, children and others who loved her. And she’s not the only one. The Scientific American has some of these stories. And US News also shares expert’s concerns about suicide during this time, while also encouraging mental health to be emphasized right alongside news of COVID-19. Sometimes staying home is the most dangerous thing a person can do, and yet we’re being told, we’re being shamed into doing it. Aren’t our lives important too? Aren’t our lives of worth too?

So, to those of you urging others to think of the elderly and those at risk, I kindly urge you to think of those with mental illness, and others, who are not safe at home. Be kind. Be understanding—of everyone.

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Mental Illness is Still Here

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that this new virus spreads throughout the world and no one is afraid to talk about it. People don’t feel uncomfortable when the words “Covid-19” or “coronavirus” are mentioned. No one is denying that it’s real. And yet people are still afraid to talk about mental illness. People still get uncomfortable when someone uses the words “depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder” or “schizophrenia”. So many still don’t believe mental illness is real. Or if they do, they seem to have forgotten or shoved it aside because apparently Covid-19 is the only thing in the world that matters anymore. No, no it’s not. Other illnesses are still raging and actually worsening because of the virus. Not because people are contracting it, but because of being being shut in and shut out.

Similarly, people have had no problem voicing their outrage about not enough tests being ready to administer. Where is this same outrage and concern for people who may not be able to get the help they need during this time? Hell, where is this outrage and concern for people like me who constantly struggle to get the help we need with our medical conditions that never go away and are also life-threatening? That’s right. Mental illness takes lives, too, but nobody seems to care about that right now. Nobody seems to care that their guilting and shaming on social media may be having a dire, destructive effect on people with the pre-existing condition of a mental illness.

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Being shut up in my house so much of the time the last couple of weeks have definitely done a number on my depression and anxiety, and I know I’m not the only one. This is hard enough without having to feel like I’m a terrible person if I go for a walk around the block—because that’s what so many people are passively-aggressively saying on social media. I find it rather hypocritical that these people don’t have a problem with people who may have been confirmed to have the coronavirus getting medicine, but they don’t think I should be able to get my medicine for my health problems. Getting outside is my medicine. Going birding is my therapy. And yes, it is needed. In order to continue functioning as a person, and especially a mother, I need my medicine, I need my therapy. So do others.

So I beg you—please, please—think about your words and your posts. You are giving people with OCD yet another thing to obsess over, to feel bad about. You are giving people with anxiety yet another thing to have panic attacks over, to feel bad about. You are shoving people with depression even farther into that bottomless, black hole they are already in, giving them something else to feel bad about. There is already so much negativity and judging going on right now, without shaming and guilting. Why not show understanding and love? Why not encourage and build up and show kindness instead? Make a positive difference, not a negative one. Please.

Helpless

girl-3422711_1920Have you ever had one of those moments of helplessness where time seemed to stand still? I had one several years ago when my son and his friend were running across the street. I was watching them from the front window, saw how neither of them stopped to look for cars before taking off, saw the huge pickup truck barreling toward them, as intense panic flooded through me, but there was nothing I could do. I felt frozen in time, able to see what was happening, but not able to move a single muscle myself to stop it. Luckily the driver of the truck saw the boys and was able to slow down before hitting them. Once they got to the other side of the street and the truck had moved on, you better believe I ran out the door and yelled at them across the street!

I’ve had another of those moments—more than one recently, as I’ve watched my twelve-year-old daughter struggling with depression and anxiety. Severe depression. Severe anxiety. Do you know what that’s like? Do you know what it feels like to watch your child suffer that way? I’ve done what I can, what I think is right. She started anti-depressants a couple of weeks ago, and I got her into a therapist who I think will be able to help her, but as I watch her living in this darkness that I know all too well, I feel frozen, helpless . . . lost, like I never have before.

Sure, I know what depression and anxiety are, but I don’t know what it’s like to experience it that young. And as much as I try to love her, comfort her, be there for her a teenager that age needs other kids her own age to turn to, to just . . . be a kid with. But she feels like she has no friends, that the ones she thought she could count on have turned away from her. I’m sure it scared them hearing her talk about just how depressed she is. That’s a lot of responsibility to be placed on one so young. But maybe it wouldn’t be so scary, maybe it wouldn’t seem so heavy if we, as parents, did more to talk to our kids about mental illness. If we let them know that it’s normal, that it’s not someone’s fault to have this illness. I know—I know—there are more kids like her that are also struggling. They shouldn’t have to live in silence, they shouldn’t have to wear a mask, they shouldn’t have to fear being different. They should be able to talk about it and not be turned away from, not be abandoned. As the mother of a child who is suffering, I beg you—I beg you—educate your kids. Help them. Because they can make all the difference in the world of another child who is living the cold, lonely darkness of mental illness. Please.

Looking for Spring

I wrote a poem today. I think I did it, trying to convince myself, but not actually feeling it. I want spring to come. I want light and warmth back. But right now all I can see . . . all I can feel . . . is coldness and darkness.

Looking for Spring

Pairs of sandhill cranes,
flocks of red-winged blackbirds,
signal spring is around the corner.

The freezing days and the long nights
suggest otherwise.

The cold and darkness of winter
clutches me in its claws,
attempting to squeeze the hope out of me.

But I try to take courage in the song of blackbirds,
the sight of cranes,
the belief that the needed warmth and light of spring
will soon be upon us.

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Let’s Talk

woman-1302674_1280I had another panic attack today. And I almost hurt myself. I wanted to. I wanted to so bad because I thought what I always used to think back when I did cut myself long, long ago—that the physical pain would distract from the emotional and mental pain. It was the worst panic attack I’ve had and worst I’ve felt in a long time. But I have more presence of mind (even feeling that bad) these days to remind myself how it doesn’t really help. I have more strength to keep myself from doing it. Even so, it’s hard to admit. It’s hard to write it on a blog where people will see. Even now, when I tell people I used to hurt myself or I have thoughts of hurting myself, I get that look—that same one I got when I first started admitting to people that the scratches and scars on my arms came from me, from myself. They look at me like I’m crazy, like I’m not normal. They look at me like I have some fatal disease they don’t want to catch and can only think about how fast they can get away from me. But I write it anyway—because I’m not the only one.

Last October at the General Conference my church holds, Sister Reyna I. Aburto spoke about mental illness. My favorite quote from her talk was, “…when we open up about our emotional challenges, admitting we are not perfect, we give others permission to share their struggles. Together we realize there is hope and we do not have to suffer alone.” We need to talk about these things so others can talk about it. So we can give each other hope. So we don’t have to suffer alone.

Mostly Doing Well

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I had a panic attack today. First one I’ve had in a long, long time. I’ve been doing really well. I’ve barely been affected by SAD this winter. It has been amazing! But I had surgery a week ago. My boyfriend has been here, taking care of me. He goes home tomorrow, and I was feeling so overwhelmed with all the things I need to do and wondering how I was going to do them without his help, as I continue to recover. (He lives over 1600 miles away.) At first I was just crying, but then it turned into a full-fledged panic attack where I was hyperventilating and getting light-headed. My boyfriend heard and came rushing in. He pulled me into him and held me, then started breathing deeply, for me to hear. I tried to match my breathing with his, and eventually calmed down.

Living or being in a relationship with someone who has mental illness can be hard. I know it hasn’t always been easy for my boyfriend, but I’m so grateful to have someone who has let—and even encouraged—me to be open about it. I’m grateful for someone who has been willing to be patient and learn and help. I don’t believe mental illness should be used as an excuse. It can make certain things much harder to do, but I never think it should be used as an excuse, and no one should be expected to allow themselves to be abused or remain in a toxic relationship with someone who has mental illness who isn’t willing to do anything about it. But I do wish, still, that there was more discussion on it, more openness and more willingness to be patient, to learn and to help—on all sides. I still continue to be hopeful that one day there will be.

The Unknown, The Unexpected

cranium-2028555_1280Life is full of unknowns, the unexpected. Sometimes those unknowns and unexpected things are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re exciting and sometimes they’re scary. I had one of those scary experiences recently—when I found out I might have cancer. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced—especially since my mind automatically started playing out the worst-case scenario over and over in my head. I kept seeing the doctor telling me I only had so long to live. Waiting to go back to the doctor, waiting for the biopsy, waiting for the results of the biopsy was agonizing. Excruciating. It was so hard to focus, so hard to be present. I kept obsessing about how I would tell my kids, what I would want my ex to know with raising the kids on his own. I couldn’t stop wondering how it would affect my relationship with my boyfriend—a man I love, want to marry and spend the rest of my life with—a life that could be cut short. There were times the fear and panic took over, and I’d find myself sobbing on the floor, feeling so alone. But there were also times of incredible peace and comfort as I chose to turn to my Father in Heaven and my Savior, Jesus Christ. That is a huge part of how I have survived mental illness for so many years. As difficult as mental illness is, as much as I wish I could just be completely free of it, I’m also grateful for what it has taught me and how it has prepared me for other hard things in life.

Some people ask, “Why?” when hit with one of those hard, difficult unknowns. Anytime I hear someone ask, “Why me?” or, “Why them?” I ask, “Why not you? Why not them? What makes you so special that you shouldn’t have to suffer the way everyone else does. Because everyone suffers.” It’s true. Every single person in this world suffers and struggles, and who are we to say that our suffering or our struggles are greater than someone else’s? During my own time of uncertainty I never asked why. Instead I turned to another lesson learned from living with mental illness. I told myself to look for the things I could learn from this. And beyond that, I told myself that if I did have cancer I was going to make sure my kids saw the beauty in life, the things to be grateful for. I would want them to learn from the experience, to grow, to discover how it could help them rather than ask why or blame God.

As scary and agonizing as it was to wait and wonder it was even more relieving and exciting to find out the biopsy came back negative—to find out I didn’t have cancer. But I’ve been trying to keep those lessons and moments of peace I had with me. Sometimes it’s hard. Everyday life can get so busy and distracting. That’s one reason I write—to remember. To look back and remember what I’ve learned. To look back and remember what to be grateful for. To look back and remember the hard times, but also the beautiful ones.

Teach Your Children About Mental Illness

I believe it’s important to educate children about mental illness. “Cancer” and “diabetes” and “autism” are common words children know. We don’t shield them from what they mean or the effects they can have. At least I never have. So I’ve also never put my kids in a bubble that excludes mental illness. They both knew from a young age what it was and that I have it. I believe it helps them understand others. It helps them learn to see things from more than their own perspective. It helps them learn compassion. And it has helped them learn how to cope when my depression or anxiety gets bad.

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Take the other night. We went out to eat. I was really hungry, which makes me cranky anyway, but also heightens my anxiety. They sat us near the door, which I hate, it’s a small space and was crowded and noisy as well—all things that get my heart rate up, my head spinning and make my breathing more difficult. The kids were asking about menu items, what to order, trying to show me things, all while I was trying to figure out what I wanted, but couldn’t as I was bombarded with everything else. I started shaking and getting very irritated. Did I mention I was hungry? I finally told my kids, as patiently as I could, that my anxiety was getting bad, and I needed them to be quiet, to stop talking to me for just a little while, so I could figure out what I was going to order. So they stopped talking. They were quiet. Because they got it. They understand what anxiety is. They understand that I need time to get it under control. I’ve done the same for my daughter when she has had panic attacks. I try not to get mad when she starts freaking out. Instead I give her time. I let her cry. I rub her back. She’s learned to do the same for me.

Teach your children. Help them understand. Maybe, if we’re lucky, they will be the ones to finally bring mental illness completely out of the shadows. Maybe they will be the ones to more openly seek treatment. Maybe they will be the ones to provide more treatment. But it starts with us teaching them.