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.

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?

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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.

Controlling My Fears

I let fear drive my life for so many years. As a child I believed there really were monsters hiding under the bed. When I was six or seven I had this poster hung above my bed depicting various fairytale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Every night I forcibly reminded myself not to look at the poster before I turned the light out because I just knew if I looked at the Big Bad Wolf he would jump out of the poster and eat me.

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Fear never really went away. I always imagined the worst happening so I often never tried. If I did, there was always someone there to catch me when I fell. Even as an adult I was an extremely dependent person. If I was afraid to do something I convinced others—my parents, my husband—to do it for me.

Getting divorced forced me to become independent, which is actually a lesson I have been so grateful for. It has been incredibly empowering knowing that I can do things, that I can take care of myself, my kids, my house. Of course I have needed help. We all need help at times. A few weeks ago my washing machine broke. I couldn’t fix it, but I did reach out, seeking help, and one of my friends came to the rescue. He figured out that it simply needed a new part. So I ordered it, then he came back and installed it for me. When I was married I would have left everything up to my ex. Asking for help and calling someone on the phone were things I feared, so I wouldn’t have done them. I would have stayed in my comfy, cozy bubble and let someone else do all the hard stuff.

It has been a difficult lesson to learn, and I still often find myself initially giving into my fears. However, I recently made up my own form of exposure therapy, I suppose you could say.

There is a waterpark near my house that my kids and I love to go to in the summer. One of the waterslides has a pitch black tunnel in it. This summer was the first time I had ever gone it, and boy did I freak out! My very first time on it I had a panic attack, especially as I thought about how scared my son would be going down it. He came out smiling and excited! I came out trembling and nearly unable to breathe. I was never going on that waterslide again! But the next time we went to the waterpark my six-year-old wanted to go on the tunnel slide, so I forced myself to go on it as well. I decided I no longer wanted fear to guide my decisions in life.

Even though I know what the waterslide is like it still freaks me out every time I go on it. I hate the utter darkness, hate not being able to see where I’m going. Each time I enter that tunnel fear grips me in its dark, icy tendrils. Every. Single. Time. My chest tightens, my heart pounds, and my throat closes to where I can barely breathe. But I make myself go on it, usually several times, to remind myself that fear will no longer control me. I will control my fears.

A Day in the Life…of Mental Illness

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Originally I had planned on writing something else for my next post, but decided to focus on a recent experience I had instead.

One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog was to educate people about mental illness. It is real, and it can be debilitating.

I have depression, anxiety and OCD. They tend to feed off of each other, worsen the symptoms attached to each. As stated in my last couple of posts, I’m not doing very well right now. When my OCD goes haywire, I get really depressed. When I’m really depressed, my anxiety skyrockets. It becomes a monumental task to leave my house. It’s not that I want to be alone. I think that’s something people don’t realize. They think that people with mental illness want to be alone. Believe me, the last thing in the world I want is to be alone. I want to have friends, I want to go out, I want to socialize. I’m sure there are people with multiple sclerosis who want to go for a jog, who want to run a marathon. But they can’t. Just like there are things I can’t do when my depression and anxiety are so bad.

Thursday night I was supposed to go to this class/meeting with some other members of my church. I’d already been to one meeting, and the other people there were so great. I felt like they truly cared about me. I had been looking forward to this next meeting, yet at the same time I was ridiculously anxious about leaving my house and being around other people. I told myself it would be okay, reminded myself that they were great people who cared and wanted to help me. It did no good. Reason usually doesn’t when you suffer from mental illness.

Less than an hour before the meeting I had a panic attack—the worst one I’ve ever had. I thought I was going to end up in the hospital. I started hyperventilating so bad, each breath I barely sucked in strangled and labored. Then the world began to spin, and it felt as if my head was floating above my body. I knew I was going to pass out.

I thought about calling my ex-husband, who was supposed to be coming over soon to watch the kids while I went to my meeting, then I thought about calling 911. Then I thought about my crappy insurance and how much it might cost me to do that, so instead I got myself to the couch, rationalizing it would be a better place to pass out than standing in the hallway. I sat down and told myself to breathe—or breathe normally. But I couldn’t. It was terrifying—having my mind tell my body to do something and my body refusing to do it. I again thought about calling 911—it would be better than passing out and having one of my kids find me. I’d never been so scared in my life. Then, somehow, my breathing finally slowed, became easier, and I didn’t pass out. After a few minutes the light-headedness passed, and I was no longer dizzy or shaking. Just writing about what happened, having to think about it, is so damn hard. But this is what it’s like to live with mental illness.

I have different theories as to why I’m in such a bad place right now. One of those theories stems from something a friend said when I was talking to her about what was going on in my life. I think it warrants further research first, but maybe I’ll write about it later. As for now, I’m going to see if I can get on some medication that will work without turning me into an insomniac zombie—as some other medications have done. I’m going to look into other options/therapies that may help as well. I want to get out of this dark place. But it can take time—just like it would take time for someone, anyone, to find a light switch in a large, pitch-black room full of obstacles. But I’m going to try. It’s the best I have right now.

Molehills and Mountains

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I have anxiety. It probably first manifested along with my depression in high school, but it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t until after I had my first baby that it became more potent. There were times when my daughter was little—one or two—that my anxiety grew so bad as to throw me into panic attacks. One minute I was sitting next to her on the couch, uncontrollably nervous and anxious about something, the next I was hyperventilating and completely unaware of my surroundings. Eventually, I would come out of it to find myself still there next to her, but without any idea how long I’d been going through this panic attack. It was terrifying. My daughter could have gotten up and walked out of our home, and I would have had no clue.

Another time, I came out of my panic attack to find her in front of my face saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” over and over again. I had no idea how long she’d been there or how many times she had said my name. Circumstances like this happened several times—because that’s life with anxiety.

Everyone has heard the idiom, Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

Well, that’s exactly what anxiety does to a person. When I look at a pile of dishes that needs to be done, I don’t see a pile of dishes, I see a mountain of dishes that will take hours to do, energy I don’t have, time away from my kids, and my heart pounds, my pulse races, my breathing becomes labored … yeah, life with anxiety. I can’t see the one dish I could start with and go from there. I just see the mountain, and I panic.

A friend told me a story about her anxiety and a gym membership. She joined the gym in 1998, went a few times in the next year, then stopped going. Like many monthly payments nowadays, her membership fee was automatically withdrawn from her bank account. She continued to make these payments even though she had stopped going. Six or seven years later, she wrote a letter asking to cancel her membership, which unfortunately didn’t work. Meanwhile, the gym had been bought out by a larger gym, changes had occurred, and she was still making those monthly payments, though not going to the gym. It took a few more years before she finally got her fingers to dial the number, make the call, cancel her membership. All that time she had been making payments for a membership she wasn’t using. Because she couldn’t pick up the phone! It sounds crazy, right? I would think so, too, if I didn’t know what anxiety was like—or if I hadn’t had a very similar experience myself. I, too, get extreme anxiety when it comes to calling people. I, too, had a gym membership I needed to cancel, but just couldn’t do it. Every time I thought about it I would panic. Heart pounding, pulse racing, stomach clenching, throat constricting. And I just couldn’t do it. Luckily for me, my then-husband (now ex) who knew how bad my anxiety was and knew how hard it was for me to make a phone call, did it for me. He called the gym a few months after I had stopped going and canceled my membership for me. But I get it! And those of you with anxiety get it. It’s not that we want to be this way or that we’re weak or just don’t care. Sometimes I don’t do those dishes or I don’t make that call just to avoid a panic attack.

So what can you do to help your anxiety? I know people who have done very well on medication—it has really helped calm their anxiety. Medication helped with my depression a lot, but not anxiety as much. One thing that helps me are reminders. A friend recently posted a picture of a temporary tattoo she put on her arm that simply said, “Breathe.” I could totally relate to that! I honestly do have to remind myself to breathe sometimes. When I feel like I’m about to panic, I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Such a simple thing really does help to calm and refocus me.

Yoga and meditation are also huge for me. Give yourself time, distraction free, to meditate and relax.

Lists can help, as well. This doesn’t work for me because I am not a list person. I already wrote a post talking about that. But I know, for others, being able to physically mark something off a list helps.

Even though I’m not a list person, I am a planner. Sometimes I can be spontaneous, but for the most part, spontaneity garners anxiety and panic. If you need to plan things out, plan them out and don’t let anyone stop you!

Now to those who know or live with someone who has anxiety—like always, I can only speak from my own experience, so that being said, one of the worst things you can do to someone with anxiety is pressure or try to force them into something. Years ago, someone close to me, who didn’t fully understand what I was going through, often did this, and it only made my anxiety even worse. It built up walls between us, between me and everyone, really, and damaged our relationship.

I also, again, advise to be loving and compassionate. Instead of getting upset when things don’t get done, be understanding. Know that it isn’t because they are lazy or don’t want to try. Instead, offer encouragement, a listening ear, and offer to help them with the tasks that seem so monumental to them.

Another suggestion is to remember that just because we have mental illness doesn’t mean we are completely incompetent. It’s okay to offer suggestions, but it’s even better to ask someone with anxiety what they need and let them tell you. At least that’s how it worked for me. Sometimes I really didn’t know what I needed, so there may be times where you’re at a standstill. But there were times I knew I couldn’t do certain things or knew how I needed help with other things, and what a world of difference it makes when someone actually listens to that and treats me like a competent adult instead of a child who needs coddling or chastisement.

It’s not that I believe those of us with mental illness deserve to get off scot-free. I do believe in personal responsibility, but that is a subject that deserves its own post, and one I will get to eventually! For now, I hope some of what I have written has helped.