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

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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

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

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

 

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

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

Miracles

Four months is a long time to be away from expressing myself through the written word. I’ve missed sitting at my desk, in front of my computer, using a keyboard to write about living with depression. I enjoy sharing my stories to connect with others who might be struggling and hiding in the shadows with their mental illness. Writing is a form of therapy for me. It helps me to manage my anxiety when I’m overwhelmed and keep my priorities in check when depression has managed to seep through every pore and infect my brain.

I’ve been off the radar because I had surgery on my spine last April. My condition is called Degenerative Disc Disease, something that I inherited from my grandmother. The physical recovery from the operation has put me in the very uncomfortable position of relying on others – technically I am completely dependent on family, friends and neighbors to do chores for me like throwing trash bags down the garbage shoot and going to the store to buy me Gatorade during a few scary bouts of dehydration.

Asking for help has always been difficult. Depression robbed me for so long from having a healthy sense of self-worth. How dare I ask for assistance when I didn’t believe I was worthy enough to receive it? From the outside, I gave the impression that I was strong and didn’t need anyone or anything. But that wasn’t the case at all – my fear of rejection and lack of confidence left me convinced I was not good enough to accept help from others.

All of this changed in an unexpected moment of complete surrender. On the day before I checked into the hospital, among the many good wishes of love and support was the popular advice to “Be Strong.” Since I was going in for a very serious operation, the kind where you’re asked your religion as you’re being wheeled into the OR, I knew I would have to exude a sense of courage right up to the minute I was put under sedation. However, it wasn’t until I was in the recovery room that being strong meant having to place all of the negative beliefs about myself aside and motion to the nurse that I needed a bedpan, immediately.

Being strong was throwing away decades of negative thoughts. I had to believe I’m worthy of help, and to receive it with grace and gratitude. Realizing I had survived the operation, my spine intact, I gained a new appreciation for my own life. I never imagined an epiphany of this scale would take place laying on a gurney, emerging from hours of anesthesia, dressed in a flimsy, untied hospital gown and debating whether to pee or not to pee. Who knew it would take all of that to convince me that I count, too.

Accepting help got me through the most arduous times in my recovery. Some days the agony was so fierce that I had to dig deep down to conjure up the strength I needed to endure. So it was with some trepidation that after being home from the hospital for eight weeks I said yes to have a day in my life documented and recorded for a cause much bigger and greater than any physical pain I’d sustained.

Reading the email on my iPhone from bed, I knew that the company philosophy and their new hope and grace initiative was something I had to participate in. The only way for me to join in was to ask for aid from the production crew. On what was the hottest day of the year, the kind and patient team said yes to everything I’d requested: breaks from shooting to rest and ice my neck; cold orange juice within reach at all times; finding a comfortable interviewing chair; allowing me to wait in their air-conditioned mini-van while they set up outside.

These may seem like small, no-brainer requests, but the old me would not have asked for any of these things. I would have suffered at my own expense – not feeling that I was worthy of being comfortable and hydrated.

It took a long week for me to recover from that grueling day. But when I saw the final product, the incredibly moving and powerful video that launched philosophy’s hope and grace initiative on July 15th, I was bursting with pride. In what is a groundbreaking commitment by any corporation, philosophy will contribute 1% of product sales on philosophy.com to the hope and grace fund, which will award multiple financial grants each year to local organizations working to empower women through the promotions, prevention and treatment of mental health and wellbeing.

The first grant will go to Bring Change 2 Mind. As someone who has been a volunteer, spokesperson and official blogger for this incredible organization for over five years, being part of this new Bring Change 2 Mind venture has been nothing short of amazing. The collaborative effort to eliminate the ugly stigma that surrounds mental illness is one of the many silver linings that have resulted from asking for support and receiving the gift of reward and recognition.

In one month, I’ll be having yet another surgery – this time on my shoulder. Again, I’ll need to rely on others for help while I recover. My friends and family need not worry that I’ll ask them for a bedpan, but coming up to my neighborhood for an iced-cappuccino and a slow walk around the block is always welcome.

hope and grace initiative