Category Archives: anxiety

Real Ways To Help When Your Loved One Has Depression Or Anxiety – 46 People Weigh In

 

When I’m in the midst of a deep depression, or grappling with a bout of anxiety – both of which often come together – very few external things help me.  I never want someone to try to help me fix it (I have a therapist for that), and it’s extremely rare that I want to talk about it, if I even can talk about it (I have a therapist for that, too). More often than not, even the best of intentions and attempts to make me feel better only serve to make me feel worse.  I feel like it’s important to clarify that I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, and I don’t mean to lay blame.  I blame nothing other than ignorance, inexperience, and a stigma surrounding mental health that means it’s not talked about nearly as often, or as openly, as it should be.   How could anyone possibly know what to do – and what not to do – if no one’s ever told them?  The irony of course is that the times I need support the most are the times when I’m least able to articulate, or even identify for myself, what may or may not be helpful.  When I’m depressed, I’m not rational.  I’m never “with it.”  I’m not always nice.

Still, there *are* a few things that help, none more than simply being there.  Not trying to fix, not judging.  Just seeing me, and loving me, right where I’m at.  When I asked my readers to share their own experience on my Facebook page, the response was overwhelming in its solidarity.  People with depression and anxiety just want to know they are loved.  While that might look slightly different for everyone, the sentiment remains the same.  Far and away the most common response was some version of, “Just be there.  Just love me.”

A selection of those responses, plus several others, are what follow.  A few times the responses directly contradicted one another, which I loved (we’re humans, not robots).  I tried to group those together.    I added a bit of commentary a couple of times, but mostly let them stand on their own.

Listen – and really hear – what helps these brave individuals when they are struggling:

“Just listening and not trying to fix things.  I usually just need a sounding board, not answers.” ~ Kelsey S

Validation helps, not necessarily trying to find you a solution.” ~ Ladasha M

“When they reach out and just offer support or when they let me just “be” until I’m ready to talk.  It’s super helpful when they don’t try to “fix” things.  I think that helps me more than anything.  Just to know that they are there for me and don’t see me as broken and unuseful.”  ~ Laura L

“Letting me talk about it without offering an “answer.”” ~ Valerie S

“The most helpful thing is when a friend/loved one just sits next to me (literally or metaphorically) and says “I’m here”. No false promises that things will get better soon, no attempts to cheer me up, just sitting with me and letting me feel what I need to feel” ~ Chelsea S

“The most helpful for me is for my friends/family to just be there.” ~ Katie C

“”I’m here if you need me”. You have to truly mean it, because you might get a call in the middle of the night.”  ~ Alisha T

“Nothing they really say helps because when I am in deep, I can turn anything into a negative.  Just being there, never giving up on me, and loving me helps.” ~ Ashley A

“Just being listened to.  Having someone just witness my experience.  Believing my experience is real and not just “in my head.”  ~ Patty M

“”I’m here if you need to talk.”” ~ Jay T

“Giving me some space to just be with how I’m feeling, and letting me know they’re there when I’m ready to talk.”  ~ Jessica M

“Just simply saying they are here for me but also reminding me that I’m strong and brave.” ~ Kellie M

“Empathy:  ‘That sounds really hard.  Do you want to talk about it?'” ~  Catherine D

“It’s not anything said; it’s simply being near me. Even if the company is silent, having somebody sit with me and be willing to listen, watch a movie, or just exist for a moment makes me feel supported, more supported than any words.” ~ Reggie R

“I have anxiety and panic attacks so it’s very helpful if my family can remind me when I have a panic attack that I’m okay and that I only have to get through the next few minutes.  Asking why or what I’m upset about or trying to “fix” it does not help.  Also, being understanding when I need to leave the room to have a few minutes to breathe and let the anxiety wash over me.” ~ Ursula D

“Mostly just NOT saying, “What’s wrong?”  There doesn’t have to be anything wrong, and there usually isn’t.  Expecting me to be able to give some reason makes me feel guilty, like I have no business feeling awful when everything is going well in my life.” ~ Elizabeth S

“Being a compassionate, non-judgemental ear helps me a lot.  Being able to talk it out or cry it out works for me.”  ~ Michelle J

“Believing me.  No second guessing, no hedging.”  ~ Julia J

“The best thing ever was when I was having a bad day and I felt like I was causing so many problems for my husband. I was crying and promising him I would try harder to change. It was such a relief when he told me that I didn’t need to change, that I was fine just the way I was, and we just needed to find ways to cope. I had never felt so accepted and loved and it helped give me a solid base from which to blossom.” ~ Alicia R

A lot of people pointed to physical affection, along with physical presence:

“For me what is most helpful is when a friend is there for me letting me know they are there to listen.  When they make time to just come over and be present.  When they try to get me out of the house and out of my own head.  Another big one for me is a hug.  Hugs really help me.”  ~ Tamarah C

“Holding me tightly until the storm passes- that feeling of someone seeing you at your ugliest and not running away, not trying to make it better either.” ~ Crystal M

“It’s not so much what my loved ones say, it’s what they do (and don’t do). My partner gives me massages. He does my head, neck, back, shoulders, arms, and hands. Tension melts away. My family all knows the special treats I like, so they’ll bring me truffles or a bottle of sparkling cider or spicy hot V8 or chile rellenos from my favorite restaurant. Then they leave me alone. They don’t try to talk to me unless it’s essential. They know I’ll eventually be okay, and time alone to sleep or read or snuggle my cats helps immensely.” ~ Jenny R

“”Are you having a hard day?  Do you need a hug?””  ~ Naomi R

“Hugs. And not all hugs are created equal.   Also, encouraging me to take a break, because I get stuck in the “I need to finish this,” mindset and have trouble seeing the solution.”  ~ Rob T

“It depends on how close I am to the person.  With my house humans, I definitely like hugs, back rubs, and someone just sitting quietly with me.  Hugs from acquaintances… nope.  A sincere compliment from anyone goes a long way, though.”  ~ Joan C

For some of us, tangible, practical help with the necessities of life goes a long way:

“Cleaning or cooking. Taking over administrative household things would be a tremendous help.” ~ Renee M

“When someone notices I’m down or very anxious and instead of asking me what’s wrong they simply do something kind.  Another question to ask instead of “what’s wrong” is “What can I do for you?” Or “What do you need right now?”  I don’t really get asked these but wish I do more often as they are the most helpful words at the time.” ~ Rebecca B

“Taking something off my plate or doing something kind for me helps a lot.” ~ V Sue H

“What can I do to help out?  What can I take off your plate for you?  What would make you feel better that I could do for you.  Feeling overburdened (by my own rules and expectations, mostly) was a huge part of my depression and anxiety.” ~ Sue S

“When they ask me what they can do to help.  That’s the best help.  Instead of assuming what I need, it’s nice for them to ask.” ~ Stephanie J

“Dear Lord, not the open ended, “How can I help?”  That question is so overwhelming to me when I’m depressed.  “Can I do X for you?” is much more helpful.  Trust me, if an alternative is better, I’ll let you know.”  Mariellen M.  I could really relate to this, and it took me a long time to realize it.  I’d often just wonder what the heck is wrong with me.  (That’s something I wonder a lot, especially when I’m depressed.)  Here I have this well-meaning, loving friend who wants to help me, and the offer only makes me more frustrated.  It’s not because I don’t appreciate it, and it’s (usually) not that I don’t want help.  It’s that I DON’T KNOW what kind of help I need.  The question feels overwhelming and impossible to answer.  A specific offer would be much easier to respond to.  I still might decline it!, but it’s far more likely to help.

“I would say whatever they think would help me out, just do it.  When I’m overwhelmed by depression and anxiety, someone asking me a question is incredibly stressful.  But if they just go ahead and hug me, call me, clean something, etc, it’s definitely appreciated.” ~ Issa W

“Can I bring you a cup of soup or a Coke?  Or can I watch the kids for you for an hour or two?  Just these simple things remind me that I can get through the darkness and I am not alone.” ~ Jennifer E

“Would you like to have a cup of tea with me?”  It just helps to fill the empty hours more pleasantly.”  ~ Margaret B

“Basically treat me like I have stomach flu!  I’m sick at the moment, let me act like it, and treat me like it.  Tuck me in and bring me tea.  The show of understanding and love will give me the strength to rise up.” ~ Seana R

“Not trying to whisk me away to my bedroom for alone time, and then taking over all the household things with the family. That would be helpful. I like knowing I can be present and included even if I am depressed. I don’t need to be quarantined.”  ~ Shelly C

And sometimes, what we need is a little bit of gentle pressure from the right person:

“Want to take a walk?  No?  I’d like to take you for a walk.  I know it helps.”  ~ Heather Y

“”Have you taken a shower today?  Text me after you get out of the shower.”” ~ Roya D.  Self care, even something as seemingly simple as a shower, can be incredibly hard when you’re depressed.  Gentle encouragement from a trusted friend can go a long way.

“Make me food.  Offer to get me out of the house.  Gently ask if I’ve showered/eaten something/taken my medication/stepped outside.” ~ Idzie D

“My husband helps me by giving me alone time or encouraging me to go to yoga.  I often give up yoga when I’m overwhelmed, and it’s one of the things that helps me the most.  He also gently helps me get to bed, as sleep always helps.  He just kind of takes over and says, “Why don’t you get in bed and I”ll put the kids to bed.”  No judgement.” ~ Audrey B

One of the biggest reasons that I continue to write about this is that it has helped me SO MUCH to hear from others who get it.  Commiseration from someone who’s been there is a powerful thing, and I’m not alone in that belief:

“When I went through a four-year struggle with depression and anxiety, what helped me the most was 1) knowing other people had been there.  I loved it when people were willing to share their experiences. 2) Learning to seize the day.  That is, I had to learn to live life to the fullest.  I had to learn to do things I enjoy.” ~ Kandy C

“Personally, hearing someone say, “I’ve struggled with that too” has helped me the most. That hardly EVER comes from my spouse or family.  It has to come from someone outside my current situation like a close friend.”  ~ Mandi P

Depression is an incredibly isolating illness.  It’s about us, and no one else, so it’s important not to take it personally.  Here are just a couple of examples:

“Not take it personally and keep getting angry because I won’t say what exactly is wrong.  Most of the time I don’t even know what’s wrong, but everyone is so quick to think I’m upset with them” ~ Kelly J

“Don’t take it personally when I cancel plans to go out at the last minute”. ~ Jenica M

One of the things that helped me a lot when I first started talking about this was simple honesty.

“”I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just glad you told me.”” ~ Jessika B

And finally, when all else fails, there is this:

“Saying that no matter what, you love me.” ~ Rebecca R

46 different people in different places, with different struggles, and different stories.  But one common plea that unites us all:

Just be there.

Hear us.

See us.

Love us.

xo

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Broken: How Therapy’s Destroying Me

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I recently whined to a good friend about having to go to therapy.  It was the morning of my appointment, and I wanted – with every little fiber of my being – to stay home.  “I know it’s hard,” she said.  “But don’t you feel better afterwards?”

“No,”  I told her.  “Most of the time, I feel worse.”

Having no basis for comparison, I have no idea if it’s it normal or not, but I dread it.  I do.  I sort of leave one appointment, and immediately start stressing out about the following one.

And I mean, there are positives.  I like my therapist… he is warm and good at what he does.  There are those rare times I leave feeling good, having made some big breakthrough or something.   Sometimes I gain a deeper appreciation of the absurdity of it all.   Sometimes we laugh.  Sometimes I leave with a helpful new tool for dealing with worry or anxiety or any of the other perks that come with being me.  Sometimes I go home having learned something really huge about myself, or about life, or about how the mind works.

But… yeah, it’s still pretty much breaking me.  And even on the good days, it’s all just so MUCH.  So exhausting.  So emotionally and mentally draining.

The other day, I realized something (In the shower, because that’s where I do my best thinking.  I also tend to do a lot of thinking in my car, but there are so many things to distract me when I’m driving.  There’s not much to distract me in the shower, unless I’m running out of conditioner, and have to keep reminding myself for the rest of my shower – conditioner, conditioner, conditioner – so I won’t forget to write it on the shopping list when I get out.)  I realized that my brokenness, my feeling raw and ripped open and vulnerable, no matter how unpleasant it is, serves a real purpose.  It’s a precursor – a necessary precursor – to healing.  Sort of like how doctors sometimes have to re-break a bone in order to set it so that it can heal correctly.  I’m the broken bone.

And I hate it.  I hate everything about it.  I hate uncovering more broken bits that need attention.  I hate talking about myself.  I hate worrying that I’m being too ______  (fill in the blank).  Too annoying, too crazy, too whiny, too narcissistic.  I console myself with the fact that maybe to a therapist it’s like I was when I was teaching yoga.  All the new people worry that they’re not flexible enough, or that they’re doing the poses wrong, or that they’re being judged.  And I – and every other teacher I’ve ever known – think they’re rock stars just for showing up.  Every single one.  Every single time.  It would make me feel a lot better if I could think of myself as a rock star, just for showing up.

But I’m not a rock star.  I’m a human.  A human who’s working and fighting but raw and bruised and bloody from the battle.  A human who’s broken.  And sweet baby Jesus, I didn’t think I could get more broken than I was when I first walked into his office three months ago.  I was wrong.

It’s a weird thing, therapy.  Did you ever think about it?  It’s just an odd, odd thing.  Baring the most shameful, embarrassing, painful parts of your psyche to … a stranger?  And there’s a professional rapport there I guess, and a certain amount of trust, but … you know NOTHING about this person.  And for all the sharing you do, for all the emotional gut-wrenching stripping, you might as well be completely naked.  Now that I think about it, because I’ve really never looked at it in that way before, I’m pretty sure that I’d find being physically naked preferable.  I’m not even kidding.

So this is me, naked.  Barenaked (anyone remember that song by Jennifer Love Hewitt in the early 2000’s??).  I’ll be okay.  I will.  I WILL.  But right now, I’m not too okay.  I’m naked and afraid and vulnerable and would legitimately be contemplating drinking right now – at nine in the morning – if I hadn’t given up drinking, one of my favorite things, in my quest to face my issues and finally be well.

This is hard you guys.

A dear friend recently, and aptly, described it like this:

It’s like cleaning my damn house

Every time I think “surely I’m almost there”

Some new closet of junk appears

The closets are killing me.  So very many closets.

I know my online presence has been a little scarce lately, but I’m still here.  Still plugging.  Still learning.  Still broken. And naked and…. in a closet, apparently?  (Sorry, way too many metaphors for one blog post.)  But I’m here.  And after all the hard work and time and tears I’ve invested in myself over the last three months, I feel confident in saying that I’ve no plans to go anywhere.


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Bipolar Is A Football Game

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It’s been nearly three months since I began treatment for Bipolar Disorder.  Three months.  Which is …. a long time and also no time at all.  Most people, even those who were remarkably supportive in the beginning, have pretty much gone silent in my life by now.   And it’s not that I blame them.  I don’t.  I think that a general lack of understanding just makes them believe that I’d be “better” by now.  That I’d take a couple pills, go to a few therapy sessions, and voila.  All cured.  Or maybe it’s not that at all, and it’s the fact that life just goes on.  We’re all busy, we’re all involved in our own stuff.   We all have our own problems.  Truth be told, I think I’m a little jealous of those who’ve essentially stopped talking to me.  I wish that I could live in the oblivion, if even temporarily, of not having to think about it.  But I don’t get to take a break.  Bipolar is a cheap polyester Christmas sweater, permanently woven into every fiber of my being.

But I’m still here, still working this all out, still finding my way through a mysterious world that is revealing more and more to me as I go.

About a week ago, I started getting sick.  And then I got really sick… with something I’m pretty sure is the plague.  Or at the very least, dysentery.  So, so sick.  Sickness of any sort, of any duration, tends to throw me completely off my game.  My mind immediately bends toward what my therapist calls, “Catastrophic thinking.”  I’ll never feel well again.  I’ll never catch up on the housework.  I’ll never be able to do anything fun again.  I’ll lose all the momentum I’ve gained with exercise.

This time though, the thing that most plagued me was the fact that I missed a concert (and meet & greet) that I was, so, SO looking forward.  The concert was A Great Big World and Matt Nathanson, two of my absolute all time favorites, but the part that I was looking forward to the  most was meeting Chad and Ian from GBW, so that I could see them in person, and put a face with my “won’t stop running” story.  (If you’re wondering what the heck that means, skim this post) I was looking forward to it so, so much.  So much.  The day of the concert, I woke up nauseous and light-headed, as I had for the last week.  I prayed I’d rally though, and for a little while I did.  I took a shower, got dressed, put on some makeup, started doing my hair…. and just the act of being up and about made me feel sicker and sicker as I went.  In hindsight, I could have made it through the concert – probably – and just felt 0ff while I was there.  But in the end, I couldn’t in good conscience risk having to leave early and ruining it for Tegan, (who’s eight at the time of this writing, rivals me as their biggest fan, and was looking forward to it every bit as much as I was)  So I stayed home, sent her off on a Daddy/daughter date, and nursed both my sickness and my bitter disappointment, curled up in a ball on the couch.

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Do you see how freaking HAPPY she is?? I couldn’t forgive myself if I was the cause of her missing this. I’m so thrilled she got to meet them. And hearing her and Mike’s story of what they were like in person…. I just love them. I’ve never met them, but I love them.

The next day, Sunday, saw me sliding, or SLAMMING as the case may be, into a deep depression.  The combination of being sick for a week; the forced and abrupt halt of the momentum I’d gathered with exercise, sleeping right, and faithfully taking my supplements; the house arrest; me being me; and the final nail of missing the concert just smashed me right into a Very Bad Place.    I knew I was feeling better physically – not good by any stretch, but better – while mentally I was withering.  Seeing this, Mike (mostly gently) made me get up, get out and go to the store with him.  After that he (again, mostly gently) convinced me to go the arena football game with him and the kids.   He would tell me later that what he was seeing in me scared him, and he didn’t want me to be alone.  Which scared me too.   Ordinarily I love Rattlers games, and look forward to going every week…. but yesterday, I didn’t want to be there.  Didn’t want to be here.  Didn’t want to be anywhere.  But I made myself do it, and I put on my blinged-out Rattlers shirt and my Mardi Gras beads, took a bunch of ibuprofen for my headache, and steeled myself for the trip.

Now, a lot of people compare bipolar to a roller coaster.  And I mean, sure, it’s an apt enough (if grossly overused) description.  Ups, downs, twists, turns.  Blah, blah, blah, blah.

Last night I realized that what it really is is a football game, one that starts before you even get there.

We usually take the light rail when we’re going to any sort of sporting event downtown.  I hate the light rail.  It’s crowded, it smells funny, and it always makes me nauseous.  Which is apropos in its own right, but it’s not the way we traveled last night.  Last night we drove in and parked in the parking garage.

And that’s where I first realized it, the moment I stepped out of the car.

The parking garage is the depression.  It’s dark and spooky.  It’s the depths of hell, or at the very least, it’s Satan’s armpit.  It’s hot.  It’s steamy.  Like the light rail, it too smells funny.   But not ha-ha funny.  More like car exhaust and Mexican food farts and death.  It’s dirty, but not regular dirty.  There are stains on the floors (and the walls and in the corners and on all of civilization that managed to survive) that make you wonder if someone was recently murdered.  The stairwell seemingly takes you up and up and up, but its oppression is so heavy, so stifling, that it makes you doubt if you’re ever going to see the light of day again.

Then suddenly you’re out, and there’s the burst of sun, so strong it takes your eyes a minute to adjust. You’re in the real world.  Those are the days in between the mania and depression, the days when you get a feeling for what it must be like to be a “normal” person.  They’re not particularly exciting, but they’re not particularly depressing either.  You exist in a state of sort of homeostasis.  A state of just being for a few minutes.  It’s a nice place to visit, but it’s a very short walk to the stadium.  Those days of normal are short lived.  Soon you’re at your destination.

The stadium is the mania.  There is just So. Much. Going. On.  Your senses are all heightened, by sixty jillion percent.  There are the people, and the sounds, and the smells, and the relentlessly constantly whirling, swirling energy.  It’s exciting.  It’s exhilarating.  Unfortunately, what starts off as exciting and exhilarating eventually descends into overwhelming and scary.  You look for a corner to hide in, but no such corner exists.  The only option – if you can really call it that, since you have no other options – is to keep walking, right through the fray.

The food is the mania and the depression. Sometimes, those over priced, fast food, ball park chicken tenders are the most juicy, succulent morsels of food you could ever put in your mouth, better than any meal you’d choose to order at a 5 star restaurant.  Other times, those very same chicken tenders taste like fried moist cardboard, sit like a rock in your stomach, and make you spend the rest of the game praying you’re not going to suddenly and violently have to vomit and have diarrhea.

I never know which one I’m going to get.

Your family and friends sitting beside you, they’re (and I kind of hesitate to say this, because I feel like it minimizes the huge role they actually play), but they’re the mood stabilizers.  They’re the right diet.  They’re regular exercise.  They’re 8 hours of sleep.  In other words, they don’t cure you.  They don’t make the ups and downs go away.  But they soften them.  They make them less intense.  They smooth out the edges.  They remind you to breathe when you’re anxious.  They hold your hand when you’re scared.  They give you light on the journey, and they make you laugh along the way.  Your friends and your family are the safe spot in the middle of the chaos around you.

The game itself is the actual work of reaching, and maintaining, wellness.  It’s the therapy.  It’s the day-to-day changes you make to control your illness instead of letting it control you.  Of course you’re not actually watching the game… you’re playing, in every position.  Sometimes you’re the quarter back, calling the plays.  Sometimes you’re a receiver.  Sometimes you’re on defense.   And you’ve got a whole team of people ready to back you up.  There’s a defined set of plays, but you have to be able to read what’s going on, and adjust and tweak as you go.  You have to stay flexible, and think on your feet.  (And just as a football game often – usually, always – veers off from its best laid plans, so do medication, therapy, and all other aspects related to treatment.  You have to roll with it)  Sometimes the game is exciting.  It’s not just the touchdowns, but it’s the little moments – that are really big moments – along the way.  The thrill of an interception.  A sacked quarterback.  A recovered fumble.

Sometimes it’s frustrating.  The missed PAT.   The tackles and fumbles and penalties…  sometimes a lot of penalties.    Sometimes there are fist fights (although if you’ve got good, classy teammates, they gently pull you away from the fight, use their bodies to block you from the heat, and make sure everyone stays safe).  Sometimes there are injuries.   Sometimes you need to call a time out.   Sometimes the game makes you sublimely happy, but half the time it just pisses you right the heck off.   Sometimes you’re down by 4 touchdowns, and you’re really discouraged and demoralized.  You can hear the taunts from the crowd.

But wait.

Sometimes there are cheers from the crowd too.  Sometimes the stadium is just FILLED with cheers.  Sometimes there’s an opening, and you manage to perfectly execute a really long pass, resulting in an epically beautiful touchdown.  It’s those kind of plays that make the entire game worth it.

Win or lose, it is all So.  Much. Work.  At the end of the game you are spent, you are sweaty, and you are exhausted.  But no matter the final score, you learned something.  You gained something.  You got better, and stronger, and more experienced. You took another step toward the Arena Bowl.

As for me, personally?  I’m still in the first quarter.  I have a lot of work ahead of me.  I’m continually trying to find that balance of giving 100% without burning myself out before I even get to half-time.

And then, it’s over.  That brief visit to the land of normalcy, then you’re once again in the pits of hell.  AKA the parking garage.  AKA depression.

Lather.

Rinse.

Repeat.

On an endless loop, every day, forever.

And the thing is, just like me on Sunday night, you don’t necessarily choose to go the football game.  But since you have to be there, you learn not to just make the most of it, but to embrace it.   You learn to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of every little moment that you can.  You learn to appreciate the color and the joy and beauty that exist both in the middle of the game, and in the stillness between the plays.

You learn to grab that football game by its balls (see what I did there?), you hold on for all you’re worth, and you tell your teammates, and you tell the crowd, and you tell the WORLD:

“My game.  My rules.  And dammit, I’m gonna play to win.”


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Today, I Climbed A Mountain

*Full disclosure* I actually climbed the mountain yesterday, but today flowed better. Also, it wasn’t really a “mountain” mountain. It was more like a hill.  Okay, technically it was rocks. I climbed a pile of rocks.

Now that we have that out of the way…

I climbed a mountain yesterday, and it was a long time coming.  May 3rd is just a few weeks away, and it marks the one year anniversary of when I finally went to the ER when the symptoms I’d been experiencing for months reached the point of unbearable, and thus began a year of the worst health (both mental and physical) I think I’ve ever experienced.  It was chest pains, lower back pain, and nausea that finally made me act, but it was crazy relentless unexplained bruising, swollen lymph nodes in my clavicle – and eventually in a whole bunch of other places, – chronic flu-like symptoms, exhaustion, dizziness, and a racing heart that would confound my doctor and send me all over the city to no less than a dozen specialists.

In hindsight, it was most likely a panic attack that I had had that night we went to the ER (the first of MANY such panic attacks over the past year).  We’d gone out that evening to watch an arena football game, and I already wasn’t feeling well when we left the house.   The fear of any sort of medical event happening in public prompts my anxiety to kick in, and anxiety prompts my body to freak out, and a freaked out body does bad, bad things.  The worst part of the evening, besides the fact that it took the EMTS five tries to get the IV placed, was that my then 7 year old asked Mike if I was going to die.   I feel guilty about that, while simultaneously telling myself that it wasn’t my fault.  Could I have willed myself better if I’d tried hard enough?  I don’t know.

Chronic illness and pain (most of which is still unexplained, though some can finally be attributed to disc issues) is exhausting.  And when I say, “exhausting”, I don’t mean very tiring.  I mean it sucks the actual life out of you, to the point that you’re a shell.  A human shell that can intellectually understand that things could be worse and that there is much to be thankful for…. but who is too lost in the muck and the mire to acknowledge it.

What I’ve realized over the past few months though – again, through the magic of hindsight – is that it isn’t the physical symptoms that have been my undoing.   The much greater burden, beyond a shadow of doubt, is the depression and anxiety.  I’m not a stranger to either one, but the past year has seen them both reach heights that I didn’t know were possible.  Depression made me not care, about anything.  Anxiety made me care too much, about everything.  Too much, and not enough, all at the same time.  One made me unable to get out of bed, the other made me too afraid of being alone with my own thoughts not to.  In the past 12 months, I’ve gained and lost and gained again the same 30ish pounds, partly because eating/not eating helped with some of my physical symptoms, but mostly because I’m still that damaged 16 year old who believed that food – either restrictive, careful monitoring like a wrestler trying to make a weight class, OR eating ALL the things, all the time – was the answer.  To everything.

I was hurt by friends who seemed to vanish when I needed them most, and pissed off at friends (and strangers) who offered solutions. Partly because unsolicited advice and people telling me what do make me crazy, but also because – and I’m not proud of it – I was pissed off at everyone.  And everything.

Yes, I’ve been tested for Lyme disease.   Yes, I take vitamins.  Yes, they ruled out lupus.  NO, it’s not all in my head.  Yes, I do meditate. Yes, I understand the importance of sleep and nutrition.  Yes, I’ve tried an elimination diet.  Yes, I use essential oils.  Yes, I’ve looked into non-pharmaceutical solutions.  NO, I am not interested in your naturopathic doctor, or your liver flush, or the special drink that changed the life of your sister’s best friend’s coworker’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend. Leave me alone, leave me alone, LEAVE ME ALONE!    Wait, I can’t do this alone.  I take it back.  I need someone.  Please listen. Don’t leave me alone.  Come back!!!

There was no winning with me.  If they didn’t keep their distance because they didn’t know how to deal with me, I just pushed ’em away myself.  Really, it’s a wonder if I have any friends left at all.

I think one of the most painful paradoxes of depression (really, of mental illness in general)  is that it is excruciatingly difficult to interact with, to talk to, to be physically touched by others, at least in an authentic way …. and yet in equal measure lonely and terrifying to live in its self-created world of isolation.

I don’t believe that my depression and anxiety caused my physical symptoms, and I don’t believe that my physical symptoms caused my depression and anxiety. But mental health and physical health are of course irrevocably yolked together, and as such I know that any attempts to address either one need to be multi-pronged.

Which brings me (finally) back to my mountain.

I have a friend who posts lots of pictures of her hikes… these amazing day-long adventures up in to the mountains (mountains-mountains) all over Phoenix and its surrounding cities.  I keep telling her – in my double-life, put-a-smile-on-my-face-and-pretend-I’m-not-falling-apart-inside alternate reality – that we should go hiking together sometime.  But in reality, I am not able to do that right now. Side note:  In yoga teacher training, which now feels like a lifetime ago, we had to give our teacher 25 cents every time she caught us saying, “I can’t”  After losing a few dollars each, most of us broke the habit.  Instead, we were told to say, and think, “Not today.”  It’s not that we CAN’T do it, it’s just that we can’t YET do it.   That stuck with me in a major way.  Lengthy mountain hikes are not my reality today.   Both because of my physical state (simple walks around the block render me out of commission for a day or days afterward), and because of the real possibility of a sudden mountainside panic attack that would leave me begging her to just go on without me.

But I really do want to start hiking again.  The desert is my happy place.  I can breathe easier there than anywhere else.  The solitude and the wide open spaces feel healing, not oppressive.  In fact I’ve pretty much convinced myself if I ever moved back to New Hampshire (or anywhere else surrounded by trees), that I would effectively suffocate.   My mental health thanks me whenever I venture out into the desert.  Plus, I miss my old butt  regaining a higher level of physical fitness is good not just for my body, but also for every other area of my life.  I know this.  I do.

And still, it took me a month of pep-talks to do it.  There’s a nature preserve that’s a five minute walk from my house, and I decided that I would start there. I’d gone for walks on its trails a few times in the past several weeks, but it had been years since I’d climbed to the top of its not-quite-a-mountain.  It suddenly became really important that I do so, as a literal AND symbolic first step.  But first I had to get there.

It’s way too hot.

It might hurt.

I don’t have anything appropriate to wear.

What if I trip on the loose rocks and fall and hit my head and knock myself unconscious?

What if I’m not knocked unconscious, and think I’m fine, but later suffer a brain bleed?

What if I’m near a drop-off and  get light-headed and can’t sit down fast enough to keep from toppling over the edge?

What if I forget to pay attention to where I’m walking and I startle a rattle-snake who thinks he needs to bite me?  (In my defense, of the three live rattlesnakes we’ve come across in the ten years that we’ve lived in Phoenix, one of them was at that very park)

What if I don’t bring enough water and I get dehydrated and can’t go on?  We like to joke about it because of the quote in The Breakfast Club, but I really do have a low tolerance for dehydration.

What if I lose my cell service at the top, and have a medical emergency and can’t call anyone for help?

Etc.

There were a million reasons not to go, and two really really good ones to suck it up and make myself do it.  I deserve to practice self-care.  My kids deserve a healthy mother.  All the people who’ve suffered the collateral damage of my unintentionally treating them like shit for the past year deserve some atonement.  (I guess that’s three reasons.)

Hiking to the top of that ridge wouldn’t cure me.  But it would be something.

So I made myself go, and with each step I repeated a mantra that was more feelings than words.  If it had had words, they wouldn’t have been sweet and flowery, but more like:

Screw you, depression.  Screw you, anxiety.  Screw you, bad discs and chronic migraines and muscle pain and achy joints.  Screw you fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or whatever the hell else they want to call my mystery ailment this week.  You don’t get to make the decisions for me.   Not today.  All the way to the top, and all the way back down again.

I wish that I could conclude this post with a mountaintop epiphany, or a defining moment of catharsis.  But, you know… sometimes life is epiphanies and defining moments, and sometimes life is just a red-faced, slightly overweight, sweaty middle-aged mom scrambling her way to the top of a rocky hill in Northern Phoenix on a random Wednesday in April.  A girl who felt okay for a moment, but who knows she still has a lot of work ahead of her.

It took 45 minutes, to the top and back down.

I climbed a mountain and I lived.

Today my calves hurt, and I find it delightful because I haven’t done any sort of level of activity that would lead to sore calves for an entire year.  Delightful is good.  Delightful is rare.

And now (if you’ve gotten this far, and if you have, thank you) it’s 12:45 in the afternoon, and I haven’t yet left the couch, but I will. Later I’ll take the 12 year old to football, and the 8 year old to the playground, and I’ll smile politely at the people around me, and they won’t know my secret.  They won’t know that I hurt, in so many different ways.  But they also won’t know my other secret.  They won’t know that I decided I’m stronger than all of it.  They won’t know that I climbed a mountain, or HOW MUCH FREAKING EFFORT it took to do it.  I sometimes often tell Mike how hard it is to be me, how hard it is to live inside my brain, and over the past year inside my body as well.  But I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.  I really wouldn’t. Because the wiring that makes me prone to depression and anxiety is the same wiring that makes me passionate, and creative, and someone who loves and lives and feels deeply.  It’s the same part of me that allows me to express myself through writing! I realized a long time ago that it’s kind of a package deal.

I think there’s a sort of poetic and beautiful and bittersweet synchronicity to the fact that my least favorite part of my psyche comes inextricably linked with my favorite.  I wouldn’t take the magic pill (if such a pill existed) to take away all my problems, if the price was also taking away the very essence of who I am.

So I have to resolve – again and again and again – to do the work I need to do to be well, whatever wellness is going to ultimately look like.  I can’t WILL myself well, this much is true.  But I can take steps, both literal and figurative, towards wellness.  I can.

I CAN.

I have the sore calves to prove it.

P.S.  This article is the most apt description of depression that I’ve ever read.  He so eloquently puts into words what I’ve so often tried – and failed – to write myself.


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