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.

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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

Where do I go from here?

Where do I go from here?

I want to tell you everything. Without hesitation. Without judgment. Without conditions. To spill my words all over the table and onto the walls, in big, bold letters, so there’s no confusion. I’m afraid of what you’ll think, or do, or say. But if I’m to be true to myself, and continue to be the voice of many who also know the destructive powers of depression, I know that I’ll be safe no matter the consequences. In spite of what I’ve liberatingly revealed these past years, I remain standing — and with more than just a dash of dignity.

My absence from blogging over the summer was intentional. Raw fear held me back from sharing the nitty-gritty details of my life with depression. The uncertainties, the weirdness, the out-of-nowhere self-deprecating thoughts cause me to continually question my actions and behaviors. I habitually weigh the pros and cons of describing the not-so-pretty details. So while I do want to tell you everything, the first thing you need to know is that I am afraid. Terrified that when I pull back the curtain and reveal the next tier of how depression seeps into the crevices of my brain, it will scare you away, for good. That’s when I know that I’ve crossed that line — the invisible border that divides my literary comfort zone from The Twilight Zone where distorted reality reigns.

Living with Major Depression and Anxiety is menacing. Four years ago, aware of the risks, I publicly disclosed my diagnosis. Past reveals had garnered unexpected and hurtful reactions from life-long friends, colleagues and family members. They’d made me feel ashamed for having depression, “wasting my money on doctors and prescriptions, as it was all in my head and I should just think happy thoughts.” My unrealistic expectations of being understood and receiving compassion were rarely met. Yet, on the flipside, there were some people who I underestimated in their ability to be kind. I’ve accepted that an individual’s reactions are unpredictable whenever and wherever I talk about my depression and anxiety.

While everyone has something going on that they’re struggling with on some level, it’s obvious that some personal battles are met with nodding heads of “approval” and others are immediately judged negatively. I’ve learned that you just don’t know who will surprise you with a hug and an empathetic anecdote, and who will charge away in the opposite direction as if you’ve just sneezed on them during flu season.

I’m a staunch believer that the more you educate others on what it’s like to have a mental illness, the less terrifying it becomes for everyone. But I’m also making the assumption that there’s a genuine desire for more information. Is it enough to know that depression has the ability to trigger a complete lack of motivation, self-confidence, self-love, self-fulfillment, the desire to socialize, the quest for joy and, at its most severe, the loss of hope? Is that general information satisfactory, or is more needed?

I can choose to tread within the safe perimeters of a swimming pool, go on telling you what you’ve heard before, or I can take a leap into unknown waters — letting you peek into the porthole of my brain, with greater intensity and granular depictions. My throat tightens at the thought of going to that place with you. For once I take the plunge, I’m not so sure it’s possible that I can go back to the safe place I’ve created for myself. It’s petrifying to imagine that there won’t be anyone waiting for me if I panic. My concern is that I will I be left stranded, alone, cold and shivering as a punishment for peeling off another layer, and once again putting my dignity on the line.

I want to tell you everything. It would be magical to possess a secret ingredient to wipe away the stigma of mental illness, but some human beings will never get it. They say they do, but they do not. Certainly I can’t blame them. I’m envious of people who have gone through life without knowing deep depression or crippling anxiety. But if I’m to be disparaged and rejected because of my honesty and openness about my illness, it’s time to take further action, because I deserve better. And so do you.

While one circle in my life gets smaller, there’s another that keeps growing wider. As daunting as it is to remain honest and direct, to stop now would be a disservice to thousands of remarkable people I’ve met along the way – including those who currently live with and manage a mental illness and their family and friends who continue on their journey towards knowledge and understanding.

Depression used to keep me down and I hated myself for being a quitter. I believed I was incapable of seeing things through. My MO was to give up on everything I tried to accomplish. Now’s there’s a new opportunity for me to push through another blockade of fear, defy the wicked lies of depression, stand up to the immobilizing impact of anxiety and, at the same time, tell you all about it.

Link to Bring Change 2 Mind

Come Talk To Me

I come from a family of talkers. At home, in public, it doesn’t make a difference. My relatives love, love, love to talk and have absolutely no problem striking up conversations with total strangers – any place, any time – waiting on line at the supermarket, or with the couple at the next table at a café. Even at social events where they know no one, they’ll go right up and introduce themselves. As the shy one, I’ve always been envious of their ability to chitchat with others, like it’s no big deal. For most of my life, I’ve had social anxiety combined with self-doubt, imagining myself invisible or wishing to go unnoticed, just so I wouldn’t have to talk.

As I got older, I found that my timid nature was holding me back from making new friends and finding a job. I hid my shyness well, but, because I didn’t talk about my self-doubts and depressive thoughts to anyone, keeping up the façade of a confident person led to intense anxiety. It seemed easier to camouflage myself as a “normal” person, rather than to reveal the scary thoughts of dying that plagued my brain – constantly. The few times I let it slip that I had been putting up with suicidal thoughts since adolescence didn’t go very well. I was immediately accused of making it up for shock value. Other times, depending on the crowd, just saying the word suicide became an instant repellent. I was dumbstruck that with three syllables I could clear a room. For close to 30 years I lived this way, unaware that I had a form of mental illness.

I started speaking openly about depression and anxiety the moment I realized that sharing my experiences would help others in the same boat. It was important to me that they know that they’re not alone. If I had someone that talked to me when I was a youngster about his or her own encounters with despair, suicidal ideation and worthlessness, I believe I wouldn’t have white-knuckled my way through life, anticipating a tragedy every moment. I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself if I’d known I was dealing with a real illness, not something I conjured up.

My depression and anxiety started when I was 12 years old. I talk about my journey with the crippling symptoms of these illnesses in the hopes of reaching the frightened and confused girls and boys who don’t comprehend what’s happening to them. I want to encourage them to get help, now, at this critical stage in development. While there is no shame in asking for help at any age, we can’t continue to let the culture of stigma and cruel judgments from others stand in the way of becoming our best selves and learning to enjoy life.

Once I began public speaking and writing about living with mental illness, people from all pockets of my life began to open up to me about their grapples with similar disorders. It’s incredible to witness the moment when someone who’d been struggling in silence, suddenly not feel so isolated and hopeless.

What I’ve learned is that while most people are secretly getting professional help, there are some who still refuse. Stigma is usually the main reason why they remain silent – the terror of having their family or peers see them as weak or cowardly keep them trapped. However, they’re also terrified of facing their own feelings in therapy.

I talk about living with mental illness and the consequences of not getting help. Yes, it’s scary to peel away the outer shell that the world sees and dig through the layers of buried pain. I get it. I was there, too, and it nearly killed me.

Depression makes life unreliable. What makes it so frightening is the unknown length of time it will last. It has the power to destroy days, weeks, and sometimes decades. I had convinced myself that the ugliness in my brain would stay forever, but now I know that my thought process was flawed. I talk about depression to show that with proper help, profound sadness and emptiness can dissipate. I want people to know that it’s okay to not be okay. Get help, talk to a therapist, psychiatrist, social worker. Devise a plan for yourself so that when you do get hit with depression, you’ve already created a strategy that will save your life.

My team of professionals has taught me how to effectively communicate what I need from my loved ones when I’m dealing with a bout of depression or anxiety. My family has become a critical part of my support network. While they still adore talking, they’ve also become experts at listening.

I talk about mental illness because it paves the road towards mental health.

To Let Other's Know They're Not Alone
To Let Other’s Know They’re Not Alone

Link to Bring Change 2 Mind

A Fruitful Day

A short blog from the past, originally posted on http://www.hopetocope.com, in honor of my mom, who somehow always knows exactly what I need to get through a rough patch (of course it involves food).

It’s no secret that when we’re going through a depressive episode, every little task seems monstrous. The glass that needs to be put in the dishwasher looks like it weighs 1,000 pounds and the walk to the corner bagel place appears miles away. Eventually dread sets in and as a result, nothing gets accomplished. Add to that a quick log-on to Facebook for a barrage of photos of your friends running marathons, enjoying exotic vacations and having the kind of fun only seen in television commercials. The day ends with a mental berating of how useless, unproductive and lazy you are.

I’ve had some days and nights like that lately. It’s something I’m working on and it will pass soon. Until I get my mind and body back into sync, it’s critical that I push forward, as difficult as it may be.

Yesterday, in what could easily have been a day like that described above, turned out to be just the opposite. My mom, who somehow always knows what I need to get me through tough times, invited me to go food shopping with her. Reluctantly, I met her at the busy supermarket across the street from my apartment – and within a few minutes, my mood got better, simply by being around the fresh, colorful produce, the aroma of ground coffee beans and the delicious smell of just-baked baguettes. I started to grab items from the shelves and excitedly filled up my cart.

Strolling down the aisles, I wasn’t consciously aware that the perfectly untouched cantaloupe didn’t appeal to me, yet the clear container with the no-effort-on-my-part mouth-sized melon cubes grabbed my attention right away. At the checkout counter, I started to laugh when I realized that every thing I picked out required little to no preparation. All the fruit was sliced and ready-to-eat. The vegetables were washed and cut.

There are simple ways to combat the lack of motivation and energy brought on by depression. Apparently for me, the remedy can be found in the produce department.

Link to original post:

Link to Hope Blog

No Offense, But . . .

Ask anyone who has been bullied, humiliated and shamed and they will be able to recount, in agonizing detail, who said what and when and what scars it left.

As a teenager, I was harassed and ridiculed for my pale skin. No matter how much I tried to soak up rays, my body rejected the sun. Kids in school loved to compare their bronzed arms to mine. They teased me with words like ghost, marshmallow, vampire and corpse. I guess it made them feel superior.

Always one to avoid confrontation, I shied away from cursing them out but it was at my own expense. I laughed along with the names they called me and cried when I got home.

As an adult when I disclosed that I was diagnosed with and getting treatment for Major Depression and Anxiety, it was crushing to once again be made to feel inferior by colleagues, so-called friends, neighbors, and even individuals in the medical profession!

Oh, if only I could go back in time with courage to stand up for myself, I would. I would know what to say every time anyone started a sentence with, “No offense, but…”

Telling me to not be offended by whatever I was about to hear, gave people a free pass to say whatever they wanted because hey, they’d warned me. How I’d love to let go of those memories and erase the painful recollections of feeling shame for an illness I either tried to hide, or needed to defend, due to the ignorance and arrogance of others.

I’m just one among millions who live with an invisible illness of the brain. It took years of thought-correction therapy to build my confidence and self-worth and become brave enough to talk about depression and anxiety with the same ease as when discussing migraines.

Finally, after so much damage was done to my psyche, it came down to me owning my illness — and fair complexion — without humiliation and with dignity. When you take ownership of what makes you who you are, there’s no longer a need to justify or appease those who try to make you feel second-class. Speaking up for yourself means you are fighting stigma, not only for yourself, but also for all of us who sucked it up for way too long.

When you educate yourself about your diagnosis, physical and psychological, you become empowered by knowledge. You can see through the snide remarks from the no-offense-but-people. When you react from strength, not trepidation, you’re helping to erode the fear, misconceptions and stigma that are rampant in our local and global communities.

Since I can’t hit rewind and have no desire to ruminate over my past embarrassments with should-haves, I can use all I’ve learned about depression and anxiety, and how I have come to successfully manage it, as a shield against any unwelcomed comment. It’s actually been a few years since anyone has chastised me for going to therapy or taking anti-depressants. I no longer keep anybody in my life that drags me down. I also find myself meeting people who really do get that mental illness is not a weakness and certainly not a choice.

To all of those haughty types who told me not to be offended, but … therapy is a waste of time; medications are a hoax; if I didn’t get a grip I’d end up in the nuthouse; it was all just a ploy for attention; I should choose to be happy because children are starving in Africa — if YOU happen to be reading this, have you seen the light and corrected your ways?

Self-righteous behavior is a ridiculous reaction to someone diagnosed with mental illness. If you think you are smarter, stronger, better and worth more than those with a diagnosis – you are wrong. If you condemn and criticize others for reaching out for help, you are the one who should be ashamed. Dialogue, conversation, respectful exchanges — that’s how you can be helpful to others. Superiority has no place in discussions about any disease.

This summer will mark ten years since I found the right doctors and treatments for my depression and anxiety. It’s been an excruciating and eye-opening decade, requiring diligence, dedication and courage, so unless you stop with the stigmatizing, no offense, but, keep your thoughts to yourself.

Link to Bring Change 2 Mind

The Tradition Continues

It’s time to start thinking about the highlights of 2014. I have a feeling this year will be more about quality than quantity.

All is Quiet
December 31, 2012

Over a decade ago, on the first day of the New Year, I started composing a list of personal highlights compiled from the year that just ended. It was my way of reflecting on the past 365 days and documenting the special moments, as fleeting or as prolonged as they might have been, in order to piece together a chronological string of elated experiences. I did this so I would not forget how fantastic I felt at the time, all the while reliving these special occasions with a secret smile.

Without realizing it, these recollections became a coping mechanism for me – for the times I was down and out and losing hope, I could turn back to my list(s) as reminders that great things do and can happen at any moment, and I should never give up believing that I’d be stuck in a state of despair forever.

As I write this, it is the last day of 2012. Which means, tomorrow, I will retrieve my “book of highlights” and start to jot down my pockets of joy from this past year. I’m not looking forward to it. In fact, I’m dreading it. Just thinking about the grief and loss that are alive and well in my heart, combined with the absence of few memories of jubilation, I just know the register is going to be the shortest one since starting this practice.

What I think I’ll do on January 1st, 2013, instead of pounding my brain just to fill up a page of pseudo-happy memories, is write a list of all of the good things that came out of the bad things in 2012 – a list of silver linings. That won’t be difficult at all. Even if they don’t fall under the same umbrella as highlights, all I’m doing is putting a new twist on an old tradition.

Cheers!

Here’s a link to the original post on hopetocope.com

Link to Hope Blog

Time

It feels like years and years since I’ve posted here. Going through grueling physical recovery from two surgeries has changed me on a molecular level. It’s been a flurry of progressions with an equal amount of regressions. What I’ve learned is if I don’t take the time I need to fully heal, maybe this would have been all for nothing. My goal is to return to writing by the end of this year, or early next year. My brain is ready to go, yet my body still says no. I keep this photo handy every time I berate myself for not showing up. “They” say that time heals all wounds, but I’ve come to realize that it’s what you do with that time that evokes positive change and enlightenment – genuine growth.

Post-surgical X-ray from my spinal fusion
Post-surgical X-ray from my spinal fusion