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.

Anxiety VS Nervousness

I’ve been thinking about anxiety a lot. Probably because mine has been bad lately and partly from conversations I’ve had with others.

So what exactly is anxiety? According to anxiety.org it is “the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous or unfamiliar situations. It’s the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event.” It doesn’t sound that bad, but real, actual anxiety disorder can be debilitating.

Anxiety isn’t just being nervous. I get nervous when I play my flute in front of people. I get that tickle in my stomach, I get a little shaky, but it doesn’t trigger my anxiety.

praying-25596_1280Saying prayers at church or in front of people—that triggers my anxiety. I had to pray at church this past Sunday. I started feeling sick to my stomach before even getting to church. Then sitting there, waiting for church to begin, singing the opening hymn, I felt like I was going to throw up. I could barely breathe. It felt like someone had stacked weights on top of my chest, and I started shaking. But I said the prayer. It was nice and short, because that’s just what I do. Then I sat down and continued to shake—wanted to cry—but held on until the panic finally, eventually passed and I was mildly okay again.

I think it’s important to recognize the difference between anxiety and nervousness so as not to minimize what people with anxiety disorder actually go through.

Now, does that mean I should avoid all anxiety-inducing activities? No. That would be impossible. There have been times my anxiety has been so bad, so overwhelming, that I physically couldn’t bring myself to do something like go to church, engage in conversation at a party or make a phone call. But I’m grateful for the times I can push through and do something despite my anxiety because it shows me that I can have this terrible illness and still live in the world—as hard as it is sometimes. I can do hard things. You can do hard things.

Bouncing Back

The last few weeks have been really rough. On top of dealing with some difficult things in my personal life, my depression and anxiety have been worse than they usually are at this time of year. I’ve felt myself slowly sliding down this rough and rocky slope towards the bottom. Then Wednesday night I finally hit rock bottom again. But this time, I decided I wasn’t going to stay there.

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Emotions are real. All emotions. There’s nothing we can do about initial emotions we have as reactions to things that happen to us, things we might witness or hear or things that are said or done to us. No one ever tells you to stop feeling happy after you’ve just witnessed your child do something silly. No one ever tells you to stop feeling excitement after you’ve won a prize vacation. No one ever tells you to stop feeling peace after you’ve had a spiritual experience. So no one should tell you to stop feeling hurt, pain, anger, frustration, disappointment after something bad, sad, frustrating, hurtful or disappointing has happened. It’s okay to have those feelings. But it’s also your choice how you’re going to proceed and react after the initial feeling has happened. With mental illness, it is extremely difficult to let go of those feelings and not let them sink in and consume you. But there are things you can do to help.

I’ve often stated how there’s no one set cure, or even help, for mental illness. What works for one person may not work for someone else. We’re all different and we all need different things. It’s also frustrating that what worked for you a few years ago may not work for you now. Or maybe something that didn’t work for you before is something you should try now, as hard as it is to realize that. Each day, each time, can be different. Hitting rock bottom for me this time was different than last time.

trammpolin-2635260_1920Last time I stayed down. I moved forward, but it felt like I was inching along hard, rough ground the whole time, and it took a certain experience with a certain person to really pull me up. This time it was like I hit a trampoline. I landed hard enough to hit the ground, and it hurt! It really hurt, but then the trampoline bounced me back up. And it’s because I decided I didn’t want to stay down. I decided I was sick of feeling depressed and confused and in turmoil, and I was going to do something about it. I decided I wasn’t going to let initial feelings of hurt stew inside of me. I decided I wasn’t going to let someone else determine my emotions for me. I’m a fighter. I’m not weak, I’m strong. And I’m stubborn. And this time I needed to prove to myself, and others out there, that I am all of those things, that I know what I’m doing and that I can do it!

So, despite still having a lot of unresolved conflict, despite uncertainty, despite unfulfilled hope, yesterday was a good day. I was happy! There were times I started thinking of what has hurt me, what I have done wrong, and I’d start getting that sinking feeling in my stomach, but I’d move past it. I didn’t let it overtake me, I didn’t let myself drown in it. I pushed it aside, knowing it was still there, but also telling myself I was okay. And I was okay. I am okay. And I know I will be. You will be, too. You can be. Whether it’s by your own sheer will power or medication or therapy or coping mechanisms or help from another person and whether it’s the same as it was last time, or different, you can do it. You can come back from rock bottom. I know you can. And I know I can.

Sweating the . . . Anxiety Stuff

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You’ve heard the phrase “sweat like a pig” right? I like to say, “sweat like a boy.” I sweat like a boy. When I go to the gym I have to make sure one of their big floor fans is blowing on me, and I take my own little, personal fan that I can clip to the elliptical. I know, I’m a nerd. But I get hot, and I sweat, and it’s uncomfortable and gross and disgusting.

One thing that makes me sweat profusely is my social anxiety. Take this morning, for example. I went to a neighbor’s house to help clean. This sweet, sweet family has gone through so many trials and tough times lately, so some other women in my church and I went over to do some cleaning for them. I was really grateful for the opportunity to give service when I’ve had so much given to me the last couple of years. That didn’t stop the sweat.

The cleaning made me hot, anyway, and even though I was with these amazing, wonderful, friendly women my anxiety was bad. I’m so awkward around groups of people and my anxiety always takes over, making me feel so insecure and stupid and worthless—and it makes me sweat. So not only was I feeling more self-conscious than usual because of my anxiety, but it became a million times worse knowing my brow was sweating, my hair was sticking to my neck with sweat, and even though I’d showered that morning I wondered if I smelled bad. I wanted to dig myself a hole to crawl into and die. Why? Why sweat? And as soon as my anxiety dies down, I stop sweating and am totally fine.

It isn’t some earth-shattering thing that I have to go through with my anxiety—the sweat. But it is annoying and does add to the anxiety I’m already feeling and dealing with. So just know, if I’m sweating like crazy—even in a nice, cool house—it could be my anxiety, and maybe try not to be too disgusted. We’ve all got our things, right? Mine just happens to be uncomfortable, gross, disgusting sweat.

How Far I’ve Come

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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!

The Worst Part About Having Mental Illness

Do you want to know the worst part about having mental illness? The fact that it prevents and destroys relationships.

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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.

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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.

Sometimes It’s Best to Ignore Your First Instinct

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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.