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.

It’s Okay to Fail

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As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I think we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be perfect. We have this religion we believe in, and we want to be good, we want to do the things we know we’re supposed to, so we give ourselves unrealistic expectations. The truth is, we aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. We fail. We fall. And that’s okay. It only means we have somewhere to go. I wrote a single line in a poem about it.

Wanderlust to Roam

My wanderlust to roam
like the cravings of an addict to nicotine,
living high on wind and earth and sky,
free of anchor or root to chain me down,
free to soar and fall and soar again.
My wanderlust to roam.

The poem is twofold. Obviously the main idea is about my desire to wander and explore. But the line free to soar and fall and soar again was about failing. It means that it’s okay to fail because we can succeed again. Falling isn’t the end. We fall, we get up. It reminds me of Imagine Dragon’s On Top of the World. There’s a line toward the end of the song that’s about how hard it is to fall and get up, but get up, anyway.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve fallen or failed in my life—too many to even remember. Depression is something that beats you down, anyway, makes you feel like a failure most of the time. In high school, I beat myself up anytime I didn’t get a 4.0. I felt worthless never finishing college with a Bachelor’s degree. I think women in the LDS church especially feel pressure to be perfect—to have these perfect little (or big) families with perfect children and perfect spouses, and of course we have to be perfect too. And we’re scared to show the world otherwise. Well, through this blog, I’m showing everyone how I’ve fallen, and I’m saying it’s okay.

I think going through a divorce is what has truly taught me what it means to get back up. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, the worst hell I’ve ever experienced. I feel as though divorce is still somewhat of a taboo in my religion. But it happened. I got divorced. The worst panic attacks I’ve ever had were shortly before it was final, as I thought about how my life had come to this, how much it hurt. A couple of times I ended up on my bathroom floor, crying and shaking so hard I literally couldn’t breathe and thought I was about to pass out, thought I might end up in the hospital. Those first couple of weeks after my divorce was final were extremely hard too. I felt like the most epic failure ever, felt so incredibly worthless. Suddenly becoming a single mom was so hard. Yet, I did it. As my routine fell into place I realized how strong I had become—because of the fire I had been through. I failed, and I fell, but I got back up and was stronger and more refined than I’d ever been in my life. After that, I realized I was happier than I had been in years.

Life certainly isn’t perfect. I’m still a divorced woman and a single mom. I still deal with mental illness on a daily basis, yet I’ve learned to get back up when life gets me down because I know it’s okay to get pushed down. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to fall. Falling isn’t the end. Sometimes it is a beginning—one that leads to knowledge, strength, resolve and refinement. One that can lead us closer to our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.