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 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.