Respect Your Illness

Original post from Hope to Cope in 2014

I find it remarkable that although I’ve come to accept the fact that I have depression and all that comes with it, I still become frightened by how powerful this hardcore illness can be. Last week, I was forced to succumb to the violent strain of flu that’s been making its way across the country. The virus completely took over my physical being, the symptoms robbing me of sufficient sleep, nutrition and essential daily medications. After a painful four days, when the bug was finally out of my system, the shock of my ghostly reflection in the mirror paled in comparison to the invisible heaviness and despair weighing me down on the inside.

This has happened to me several times in the past – getting hit with a depression after a bad cold, for example. So much of managing my mental health is based on routine, and when that gets shifted for whatever reason, in addition to the inability to digest food (and meds) and not sleep eight hours per night, it really messes me up. While it helps knowing why I currently feel so blah, I can’t simply snap my fingers and make it disappear. As much as I hate having depression, I can’t pretend it’s not there. I have to acknowledge it and respect it, just like the flu.

Time and experience has taught me to never underestimate how quickly depression can take control of my life. Sure, it would be easy to surrender. I won’t deny the temptation to withdraw, hide away, unplug and disappear. But I’ve done that before and it only makes it worse. While my eyes burn with familiar tears of sadness, I can feel my bodily strength returning slowly. It’s a bizarre dichotomy – mental and physical powers pulling me in opposite directions. Yet, if history has taught me anything, there’s no reason for me to think that I won’t get through this rough time. I’ve done it before and I shall do it again!

Link to Hope to Cope Blog

Memorial Day Weekend

For most of my life, Memorial Day Weekend represented the beginning of a brand new summer spent with my family at our house in Sag Harbor, NY. My dad named the house The Great Escape back in the early 70’s when he and my mom purchased the property on which it now stands and built the summer home for us to get away from the city for the summer. Our house was always full of close friends and family, late-night parties, loud music, happy times for my younger sister and me. When my parents divorced in the late 70’s my dad kept the house out east, my mom kept the house in the city. So much has changed over the years, but the one constant through it all was The Great Escape. It was the one place that still said home, where I spent my formative childhood and teenage years and into adulthood, where I watched my dog Maya (RIP) swim in the bay across the road, season after season, giving me the most joyful feeling imaginable.

When the house was sold two years ago, well, I was sad, torn actually, but I understood that it was time for another family to take over and build memories of their own. Today, as I sit  in my living room, taking small sips from my second cup of coffee, with Anya, my 4-year old chocolate lab soaking up the sun’s rays as she takes her morning nap on the hardwood floor, I’m feeling a mix of melancholy and gratitude. Sad that I don’t have Sag Harbor to take Anya swimming, no more bbq’s or happy hours on the deck, no more breathtaking sunsets, but thankful that I have my dad and his wife, who I will be visiting at their home on Long Island in a few hours. It will be nice to get away for the day and spend quality time with my family. I realize that what made The Great Escape such a special place, was my dad and my sister and Maya and my extended family and old friends and new friends ~ without them, the house would be simply that – a house. Although it’s no longer physically part of my life, the soul, the very essence of that house, hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s alive inside of me and everyone and everything it ever embraced.

 

Know Your Own Strength

It’s been three years since this article was published in Esperanza Magazine for Anxiety and Depression. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve decided to share it again to give hope to those who are struggling for any reason at all. 966941_159343487568827_1020258947_o

High Time We Made a Stand

Originally posted in honor of  Mental Health Awareness Month on May 9, 2013 for Bring Change 2 Mind

In case you haven’t heard, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While I’m a believer that we should be doing something all year long to raise awareness of mental health, illness, and treatment options, now is a great opportunity to use this month-long occasion to start a dialogue of your own. Even the briefest conversation can make a difference in someone’s perception of what mental health is all about.

I clearly remember the days when I did all I could to keep my depression and anxiety a secret. It was exhausting and only added to the heaviness to my painful symptoms instead of alleviating the stress of appearing to be “normal.” Normal, in my case, was lying about going to my primary care physician for a sore throat, when, in reality, I was going to my psychiatrist for a medication management session. Normal was taking an anti-anxiety pill before getting on a flight while telling my travel companion that it was a decongestant. Sadly, normal also meant trying to come up with a valid reason for my public crying outbursts, when inside, I didn’t know where on earth these spells were coming from.

We, as a society, have come a long way, in terms of eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness – but we still have a very long way to go before it becomes an acceptable topic, just like a physical illness with visible symptoms is discussed openly and without prejudice. I speak from personal experience, as several times in my past whenever I even broached the subject of my depression and anxiety, I was told by others that it was all in my head and I should be thankful for what I have, (“because millions of people all over the world were suffering with real-life matters like starvation and homelessness).

Exactly one decade ago, I took a six-week leave of absence from my job. I had planned on resigning because the stress of constant traveling and absurd corporate pressure caught up with me. During my meeting with the head of Human Resources, I learned that since I had been at the company for several years, I didn’t need to resign, that with authentic documentation from my doctor I could take a paid leave for medical reasons – physical OR mental. This didn’t sit well with any of the higher-ups who counted on me to bring in revenue. They couldn’t SEE that I was falling to pieces on the inside and accused me of taking a vacation. Upon my return, a friend confided in me that while on leave, one of my colleagues, someone I mistakenly thought would have compassion for my situation, had berated me in front of my fellow co-workers, some of whom were not aware of why I was out of the office for so long. Shaking off the shame and hurt, I wondered that if I had taken the same six weeks off for maternity leave if I would have received the same type of reactions. I knew the answer.

It’s extremely liberating to be writing about mental illness, no longer having to make up excuses for who and what I am. Anyone who doesn’t want to be part of my life because I have an invisible illness which scares them, well, that’s their loss, not mine. There’s always going to be someone who thinks psychiatry is a made-up illness by the drug companies; or that depression is simply self-pity for those who seek attention and anxiety is a fear that’s easily overcome “if I just stopped worrying so much.”

We are the ones who are going to change the face of mental illness by talking about it. It takes courage, and not everyone is ready to speak up, and that’s understandable, it takes time and support from others.

What I’ve done is surround myself with people who bring out the best in me. We all have them, they are anyone who can make you smile and feel good inside. You never know when and where you will meet these people, so the key is to live your life and you’ll accumulate your own list of those with whom you connect – and they’re usually from places you’d least expect.

So, let May be the month you begin to talk, talk and talk some more, about mental health. It will get easier over time and I promise that you will be pleasantly surprised when you find out how many others are sailing in the same boat.

Link to Bring Change 2 Mind

Food – It’s All About Sharing

Random thoughts on a Saturday morning . . .

I’m trying to figure out why users of social media, myself included, feel the need to post photos of their food. Whether it’s something we’re about to eat in a restaurant or at home, why this sudden urge to photograph it and share it with our friends and followers? Pictures of family, friends, dogs, cats, rats riding the subway – I get it. But food? We all know what a salad looks like. So why the compulsion to snap a photo and post it on Instagram before digging in?  I have more images on my phone of pre-eaten meals, than of Anya, my dog. It’s become an exercise in self-control to not hit share now and I can’t stop wondering, how did this happen? It’s not as if I even cooked anything. The most I do with food is assemble. I have zero culinary skills, unless you include using the microwave, so it’s not like I’m showing off what I just nuked.

Perhaps, because eating is universal, we feel by posting pics of our food that it’s a safe way to reveal some personal details of ourselves. Hence the term, you are what you eat.

Or, maybe I just think too much. That’s probably it.

Life Lessons from the Couch

This blog is two months overdue. Missing deadlines and breaking commitments, even if due to events beyond my control, still make me feel oh so guilty and badly about myself. The rational part of my brain tells the irrational side to STFU, as I visualize two lobes going at it in a boxing ring. It’s only a blog, words on a page – life will go on with or without the world knowing what I have to contribute. But still, I hate disappointing my readers and I doubt that’s a trait that will ever go away.

It’s kind of funny, depending how you look at it, that I finally have a few minutes to unplug from work. Today makes two sick days in a row. Yesterday I had a needle biopsy in my left armpit for a lump I discovered five weeks ago. Today I’m home because my arm is sore; I’m tired as hell and I need to guard the incision against infection. The results will come over the next day or so. The doc says, “Based on your family history and what the ultra-sound and mammogram show, you don’t have to worry. It’s 99.999999999% likely to be benign.”

By the time you read this, I’ll have my answer. For now, I’ll write as if the news is good and I’ll be back at work soon. “This was just a scare,” I tell myself. It’s a reminder to be thankful for every day, even when I don’t have the threat of the C-word to bolt me into gratitude.

Living with chronic depression and anxiety has prepared me to be ready for the other combat boot to drop at any moment. There will always be the next catastrophe—real or imagined—to catapult me to the brink of despair. Depression has the power to not only brace myself for the worst, but to expect it. I’ve come a long way since the days I thought each phone call would bring tragic news. I used to joke that instead of answering with Hello, I’d ask Who Died? even if it wasn’t 3 o’clock in the morning.

Sitting here on my living room couch, despite sounds of horns honking and sirens 16 floors below, it feels almost peaceful to have a guilt-free day off from work. Admittedly, I’m eager to hear from the doctor, “It’s nothing. You’re fine. Come back in six months for a check-up.” But, for now, it feels right to use this time to clear my head and practice self-reflection. The past months have been weird. My depression started to get worse somewhere around Thanksgiving. No specific event sparked it, but that’s the nature of this mental illness. I’m used to it by now. I used to think I was a failure at life for becoming depressed for no cause-and-effect to easily explain it. It’s still frustrating, but to a lesser degree.

My doctors and I decided to increase my SSRI during this latest bout and I’m working closely with my psychologist to see if there was anything deep down that would trigger an episode. For a millisecond, I felt defeated. Another trip to the pharmacy—where the Cheers theme song plays in my head each time I enter.

I’ve learned to accept that there’s always going to be something to be depressed about but, on the flip side, there’s an equal amount of joy to be found. Seeing bright red tulips standing tall at the entrance to my apartment building is an instant mood-lifter.

Living like this for 30 years, I can go for months at a time feeling okay and then BAM! It’s back like termites I paid a fortune to exterminate. Learning how to successfully manage and cope with depression and anxiety (it only took a decade) has primed me to deal with unwelcome lumps under my arm and unforeseen bumps in the road. The stigma of having a chemical imbalance or faulty wiring doesn’t have the same upsetting impact on me as it once did. But that in no way means that if someone says something ignorant, or acts holier than thou, that I’m immune to it. It stings for a moment, sometimes two, then in a flash I remember that their actions reveal more about who they are – and say nothing about me.

Whatever news today or tomorrow brings, I can count on the loyal people who cheer me on, stick with me through every low and celebrated my triumphs. Despite life’s lumps, they always have my back—or in this case, my front.

Now, if the doctor would just call already.

*this post originally appeared on the Bring Change 2 Mind website

click here to go to Bring Change 2 Mind

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

It was a year of learning, growth, endurance and excitement.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 790 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 13 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Surviving Depression

“Let me tell you what I hate,” said the mysterious fedora-wearing woman making a grand entrance into the closed-door business meeting, already 30 minutes in-progress. I happened to be speaking at the time, making a presentation to a potential new client, giving them every reason they should go with my company instead of the competition. Until that moment, all had been going well. Signs of closing this deal were coming together like stars spelling Y-E-S in the sky.

In business, few emotions compare to the exhilaration of closing a new deal. It’s not the financial reward, but the burst of confidence from validation that I’m actually good at something. That is, until a total stranger, whose name I never managed to get, can suck all the energy out of a room. Within seconds she had undermined months of planning this presentation. The meeting ended abruptly — my colleague and I were quickly escorted to the elevator bank, looking at each other in disbelief.

The Fedora Lady story is one that has stuck with me for two decades. It happened early in my career, and although it makes for humorous storytelling, it serves as a stark reminder that there will always be someone or something that can knock the wind of out my sales, er, sails.

That was twenty years ago when depression was kicking my ass, lying to me, telling me that I was bad, stupid, ugly, worthless, and put on this earth for the soul purpose of suffering. It seemed like my profession provided me with daily opportunities for rejection — reinforcing my self-depreciation. Any analyst would have a field day dissecting the reasons why I chose to earn a living that fed my disease, day after day. Maybe the highs of bringing in a new account outweighed the lows of being turned down. Lately I prefer to not look back and question my decisions. What’s done is done.

Depression is a hideous illness that revels in taking down its victims. Despite my success with battling negativity, I have a vulnerability to succumb to toxic people, leaving the window open for despair. Today, after years of CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) and the help of antidepressants, I have a clear understanding of my disorder and how it affects my brain. That does not mean that I’m immune to suffering from depressive episodes. It just makes the experiences a tad easier to deal with. I now know that they will eventually subside.

For my mental and physical well-being and self-preservation, it’s my responsibility to remain vigilant. I must keep harmful influences far away by setting firm boundaries. If Ms. Fedora barged in on me now, I’d laugh it off; my skin has grown thicker over time. Nevertheless, for my own protection, I need to pick and choose who and what is allowed near me, whenever possible. It means cutting out the crap that can make me sick. The same way someone with high cholesterol must modify their diet, I’m no longer willing to risk my health for the sake of pleasing others, burying my feelings, biting my tongue, and later turning that anger inwards, leaving me with residual pain and long-term collateral damage. If I don’t put myself first, who will?

As I go about life with this strategy for staying sane, there may be people who won’t understand. They might get angry and perhaps even cut ties with me – and as much as that stings, it’s still better than becoming ill from avoidable stress. Why shouldn’t I treat depression the same way I would manage any other chronic illness? I know my road won’t be easy, but it’s up to me to set limits. I don’t want to end up with a tumor because I was too anxious to speak up for myself and do what’s best for me. Those days are over.

All you need to do is watch the news for five minutes to see how little power we have over horrific events happening around the world. These are scary, gruesome, fear-inducing times we live in, keeping even the most chemically balanced people awake at night.

If I can do my part in controlling stress and depression triggers, keeping them at a distance, or out of my life completely, by drawing a solid line between what I deem to be benign and what will definitely jeopardize my health – I’m going to do just that. It’s called survival.

Link to Bring Change 2 Mind

 

Lawyers and Snowflakes

Blog for Bring Change 2 Mind

I’ve had depression for most of my life. It started when I was 12. I went to bed at night and silently prayed that I would fall asleep and never wake up.

I lived with dread and gloom daily. I knew something was wrong with me. Twelve-year-olds shouldn’t be wishing to die. But back then I didn’t know how to express myself and I certainly was not aware there was medical help for whatever it was that was making me cry for no apparent reason — whether at school or hanging out with my friends, I’d frequently run to the bathroom and sob as quietly as I could. I thought doctors only treated colds and scraped elbows. It never occurred to me that there were remedies for inexplicable, profound sadness. I’d heard about grown-ups going to their analysts once a week for “neuroses” but it didn’t dawn on me that I could get help. It was turbulent at home. My parents were getting divorced, and I saw the emotional toll it was taking on them. Wanting to be the good daughter, I kept my problems a secret so it wouldn’t add to anyone’s tension. Last thing I wanted was to be a burden.

The sadness made me feel ashamed. I couldn’t understand the power it had over me. Each day seemed to get worse and I became more withdrawn and embarrassed. I couldn’t control this thing that was taking over my life. I learned to smile and laugh when it was expected of me, a skill I mastered over time.

My teenage brain made rules: Don’t make waves, don’t ruin everyone’s day, cry alone in your room or on your closet floor. Bite your cheek to distract from the chaos, and if asked, pretend it’s your head that hurts, not your heart. Take aspirin, retreat, sob until there are no tears left to cry, bang your head against the wall four to five times for being a failure at life, for not belonging on this earth, crawl into bed, pray for the pain to end.

Throughout college anxiety attacks entered into my daily routine. Balancing 18 credits per semester, an internship and a part-time job as a waitress in a busy Mexican restaurant, all while suffering with inescapable melancholy and self-hatred, was too much for me. The innate pressure I put on myself to succeed at everything caused me to have episodes of dizziness and nausea, tightening in my throat, heart palpitations and throbbing headaches. I was positive that I was going TO DIE RIGHT NOW in front of all my classmates. Thanks to one of my astute professors, she suggested I make an appointment with the campus social worker. From there began the journey of years searching for the right doctors and mental health specialists who could figure out what was wrong with me. Wanting to live was the new goal I worked towards, even to this day.

Just a few weeks ago, I was part of a panel at the New York City Bar. It was titled, “Lawyers and Non-Lawyers with a Mental Health Diagnosis: A Conversation About Stigma.” I was the only panel participant with a diagnosis, making me the designated mental patient.

The two-hour discourse was described as: “A candid discussion of issues involving the stigma of mental illness: the ‘sanism’ bias in the mental disability law system; character and fitness for Bar applicants/attorneys with a mental health history; the stigma’s chilling effect on getting help; confidentiality issues; the value of supported employment; and helpful resources.”

When it was my turn to address the room of lawyers, law students and assorted professionals, I opened with the first five paragraphs of this blog. Speaking to an audience in the mental health field is something I’m comfortable doing. Even if I don’t know anyone, I’m among people who get it. They are both strangers and friends. If I stumble in front of them – no biggie.

In the 10-minute time slot I had to drive home the gravity and momentous correlation of stigma and mental illness to the widely diverse group at the NYC Bar, I used the tactic that has always worked best for me. I told my story and used the words depression, anxiety, fear, death and stigma while attempting eye contact with each individual.

In my five years with Bring Change 2 Mind (BC2M), it has become clearer by the day that the more we speak openly about mental illness, the more empowered we become. Without BC2M, I don’t know if I would have the courage to tell my story to a room of strangers without worrying how I’d be perceived and judged.

Although I was nervous as I walked to the microphone to speak, I also knew that statistically one in four of those in the audience either have experienced mental illness themselves or know someone who has. I was bound to have friends in the audience who’d relate.

Depression and anxiety are diagnoses that are broad in description, but unique to each person. As I summed up my speech with 10 seconds to go, I went back to the origins of my story and reminded everyone that this was my story. Like snowflakes, no two accounts of mental illness are the same although they may sound alike and share similarities. We are all one-of-a-kind. With each story told, we get closer to chipping away the stigma that keeps millions of people secretly suffering from getting the help they need.

Let’s keep the conversation going.

Link to BringChange2Mind.org

Lawyers and Non-Lawyers With a Mental Health Diagnosis: A Conversation About Stigma

Bravo to the NYC Bar Association for raising awareness of the impact of stigma surrounding mental illness. These types of events need to take place on a regular basis throughout the country and worldwide. It was a honor to be included in this conversation with top professionals from both the legal and mental health communities.

On September 29th, the City Bar held a program entitled “Lawyers and Non-Lawyers With a Mental Health Diagnosis: A Conversation About Stigma.” From left to right: Deborah Meyer, Chair, Committee on Mental Health Law; Deborah A. Scalise, Partner, Scalise, Hamilton & Sheridan LLP; Eileen Travis, Director, Lawyers Assistance Program; Frank G. Dowling, Medical Director, Long Island Mind and Body Medicine Group; Michael L. Perlin, Professor of Law Emeritus, New York Law School; Jennifer Rivera, Director of Human Resources & Veterans’ Affairs, Fountain House, Inc.; Adrienne Gurman, VP, 1212-Studio, Inc.; Ambassador, Bring Change 2 Mind; Priscilla Lundin, Member, Committee on Mental Health Law.

Stigma Event - September 29, 2015

Stigma Event – September 29, 2015

Photo Credit: New York City Bar Association