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.

males-2358244_1920.jpg

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.

guy-1987283_1280

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

hug-1315545_1920

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.

Then and Now

stairs-3614468_1280

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.

Brick Wall

guide-contruction-brick
Borderline Personality Disorder is something I don’t know a lot about, but have been trying to educate myself on the last few months. From what I have learned it is a terrible form of mental illness, and I have so much sympathy for the many people who live with it. But I also see the devastation it can have on those whose loved ones suffer from it when it goes unacknowledged and untreated. My boyfriend’s seventeen-year-old daughter wrote this slam poem for her creative writing class about what it’s like living with someone who has BPD. I thought it was really good and asked her if I could post it. Luckily for me, and everyone reading this, she said yes. Here is Brick Wall by Kelsey Gibbons.

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

backdrop-21534_1920

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.

face-1370956_1920.jpg

I Miss Writing

I miss writing. I miss my books, my characters, the worlds I’ve created. We writers are a strange bunch, aren’t we?

fantasy-landscape-1481184_1920

I’m the kind of writer who edits and revises as I go—over and over and over again. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to. I’ve heard fellow writers and published authors at writing conferences say not to go back over your work until you completely finish it. But I can’t. My OCD doesn’t allow it. I have to revise as I go along. Sometimes I get sick of my books, my characters, my worlds because of it, and I end up having to take a break. Now, I miss them because they have long been absent. I have long been absent. I have no time. My day starts at 4:00 in the morning and usually ends between 9-9:30 at night when I collapse into bed. I’m going all the time. I miss writing. I miss my creations. I miss having time.

I don’t mean to whine, I don’t mean to complain. I am blessed, so very, very blessed. I’m just overwhelmed and missing the thing that has been such a part of my life for such a long time. I had a panic attack last week, the first one I’d had in quite awhile. Even though I am blessed and doing better, mental illness is still a part of me, too.

We Are More Than One Piece

I think I can confidently say that all of us with mental illness have been judged, stereotyped or stigmatized (or all three) based on that one simple fact—we have mental illness. Rather than seeing all of us, people just see that one thing. But we are more than our mental illness. All of us are more.

puzzle-1538246_1280

It’s extremely frustrating to be judged, stereotyped or stigmatized based on one illness, one choice, one mistake, one anything. Who wants to see a single puzzle piece rather than the whole picture? And yet that’s what so many people do. They base their entire opinion of you on the puzzle piece rather than the whole, big, put-together puzzle.

How do we deal with people like that? Do we? Is there anything that can be done? I don’t have the answer, but I sure wish I did.

My Own Life Lessons

I’ve been reading Life Lessons in the Band Room, a book my high school band director recently published, just after he retired. So far I’ve been loving it and highly recommend it. You can check it out here.

The book has brought back so many memories from my time in marching band, things I had completely forgotten about and probably would never have remembered, otherwise. This morning I read from chapter 6, The Power of Choices, and from within the chapter, Choosing Hard Things. For those who have followed my blog from the beginning, you could probably guess that this section of the chapter spoke to me. I’ve written before about doing hard things. My own personal mantra or saying for my life, ever since I gave birth to my first child, has been, “You can do hard things.” In reading this chapter, I realized that marching band was probably one of the first lessons I really got in realizing that I could, indeed, do hard things.

20180730_223142

In the book, Steven Hendricks describes how hard marching band is. “. . . can you play that well while marching around a football field? Can you play while concentrating on moving forward, backward, and sideways? Can you play and successfully navigate through a drill that requires you to memorize eighty-plus coordinates? Can you learn to separate your lower body from your upper body so you are an athlete and a musician at the same time? Finally, can you do all of this and trust every other kid on the field to do his or her job so you don’t have to worry about running into someone or falling over a prop that was misplaced? Marching band is hard!”

20180730_223043

It really is hard! I remember being so excited to start marching band. I had neighbors and friends of my brother’s who had done it and all loved it. Summer band was okay. Most of the time we marched in a straight line, and I could handle that. But learning the field show for fall competition season just about killed me! And I was a pretty decent flute player! I had sat first or second chair throughout most of junior high band, but I struggled so much with being able to play and march at the same time. I remember being embarrassed at how much help I needed from my section leader at band camp. As the season wore on I got better. I could play a little bit while marching. But I wasn’t going to give up. I loved band, and I loved playing my flute. By the time our very last competition came that year I was able to play the entire field show while marching the show at the same time. I was so happy! And by the time my junior year of marching band came, I had no problems. It’s strange to look back on it now and wonder why I struggled so much. I even went on to become the flute/piccolo section leader my senior year. Even though it was easier by then, I can still say with complete honesty that marching band is hard! But it was so worth it. I still look back on it, nearly twenty years later, and can say it was one of the best experiences of my life.

In the same chapter, Steve talks about how people often choose easy things over hard things. This was definitely me for much of my life. I always did really well in school, got good grades, graduated with high honors, got scholarships to college. A huge part of that was because I worked my butt off, but some of it was also because I chose the easy way within my classes. I chose to read books or write papers on subjects I knew would be easy for me. Then, during my third year of college, for some reason I decided to challenge myself.

Instead of a final test in my Native American Lit. class we had a final paper to write. I automatically thought of the easiest thing I could write. However, I figured I should go out with a bang. I had known since I was in ninth grade that I wanted to major in English. There I was, at college, starting my upper division courses in English, and I realized it wasn’t right for me anymore. So I decided to change schools and change my major. This was going to be the last Lit. paper I ever wrote. So I chose to go with a tougher topic, using a literary theory I didn’t feel I understood super well, but that I knew my professor appreciated. Writing that paper was harder than any other one I had ever written. It took so much time, and I stressed about it so much. When I finally finished and turned it in I decided I would be happy with a C on it. I couldn’t believe it when I picked it up during finals week and saw a 90 on it. I got an A-! It was the hardest paper I had ever written, but it was the best paper I had ever written as well. And my professor had seen that. I still am just as happy today as I was then that I chose the hard over the easy. It yet again proved to me that I could do hard things.

Probably my favorite quote from Steve in this chapter is when he talks about all the kids who make the choice to do marching band despite how hard it is. He asks why we choose to do hard things. “We do them because the reward for doing hard things is so much greater than the reward for doing easy things. We do it because it prepares us for the hard things that will inevitably arise in the future.” I know this is true. I know I wouldn’t have felt the sort of accomplishment I did on my paper had I written something easy. There are so many things I wouldn’t have learned, experiences I wouldn’t have been able to cherish, had I given up and not continued doing marching band, something that was hard. And I know these experiences do help us. We can allow ourselves to grow and add upon what we’ve already been through.

Giving natural childbirth to my daughter a little over eleven years ago was the hardest thing I had ever done up to that point in my life. Giving natural childbirth to my son a little less than four-and-a-half years later was even harder. He was a lot bigger! Even though it was painful and so, so, so incredibly hard, it was so, so, so worth it! Those were the two best days of my life! Not just because I had brought these beautiful beings into the world, but because I had chosen to do something hard, and I still use those experiences to help me do hard things to this day. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I now believe choosing to do marching band, choosing to stretch and challenge myself with that lit. paper, helped me believe that I could do other hard things, like giving natural childbirth, which helps me do hard things now.

As I’ve said before, doing hard things, such as dealing with mental illness, might not be pretty. Trust me, giving birth, whether natural or not, is never pretty! With my son, I screamed, and I cried, like I scream, and I cry through some of the difficulties life throws at me now. That’s okay. You don’t have to do those hard things in a pretty or perfect way or in any certain timeframe. You just have to do them. And you can. You can do hard things.

A note about the pictures: They are pictures of pictures. That tells you how old I am! My high school marching band days were before the era of digital cameras, and my scanner isn’t working. So pictures of pictures. The first one is a shot of us on the field at a competition my senior year of high school. The second one is of me leading a sectional before a competition when I was section leader. Such good memories!