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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I’ve got to make this quick. My time online has been reduced to about 30 minutes per day. That doesn’t leave much for a scroll on Facebook, reading and responding to emails, online grocery shopping, and the one thing I miss the most – writing/blogging. If not for my iPhone and iPad mini, I’d be completely out of touch with the cyber world. I was not expecting to suffer so greatly from FOMO – the fear of missing out on who my friends were in past lives (Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde), which city they’re supposed to be living in, which flower they were meant to be. It’s one thing to choose to take a break from the online world, but being forced to choose how to spend half an hour a day (before Percoset kicks in) has forced a new way of prioritizing the best use of 1,800 seconds. Today I decided to post on my Chat Lounge, and I’m not even going to spell check or proofread for grammar fuckups. Yeah, I just cursed, BFD.
I’m really just dropping in to say ‘ello to my pals, let everyone know that I miss them and that I can’t wait to have my surgery and get back to normal (my normal, not society’s definition) and reconnect and catch up on the fun stuff I feel so left out of – like the notes to yourselves about never leaving the house without checking that your socks match, and to always be kind to strangers, as we’re all struggling with our demons and that your cats love you even though they don’t show it. I knew I was going through cyber withdrawal when I nearly had a panic attack on siblings day – luckily I made it just in time to post a profile pic of my sister and me but not without breaking into a sweat, searching for the “right” photo where we both look decent and uploading it (and cropping the thumbnail so we both have even space in the shot) – it was a marathon I tell you.
So while I have at best ten minutes to go on my laptop before my arms start to feel like they’re being pulled off, I still need to sort through about 100 resumes for a job I posted last week, order pet food for Anya, pay bills, and see if anyone’s cousin had a baby, if a friend of a friend I’ve never met in person is able to get WiFi (Yay!) during their holiday on an exotic island in the middle of who-knows/cares-where, and which teams are playing and which of those teams suck ass or don’t deserve to be on the field and who on FB is sitting on field level and must take a photo from every angle and post it like right now, like immediately, to show that they have THE BEST seats and how close they are to the players – so close that they can see the pores in their skin even under their helmets or hats. Personally, I am sad that this is Jeter’s last season with the Yankees. He’s turning 40 – and now I feel old, so I better NOT look at Facebook because I’ll feel even older, fatter and more loserish than I did 20 minutes ago – because EVERYONE on earth is living a healthier, more fun, more interesting, more fulfilled, more cultured and definitely tanner life than I’ll ever have.
Anya told me to bark hello to all of you and seriously hopes that I post a photo of her soon because she’s afraid you’ll all forget how cute she is. What’s that, Anya? You want your pic on Instagram too? I better go then, looks like those resumes will have to wait until tomorrow.
In fourteen days I’ll be having my spinal fusion surgery. I can’t express the catastrophic thoughts I’ve been having about the surgery, because they’re so daunting and unpredictable. Living with non-stop pain in my neck, shoulder, arm has made me cranky and the tug of depression is pulling harder as each day goes by. Yesterday the pain started to creep upwards towards my right ear, and I feel a headache coming on at this very moment. Painkillers are as effective as jelly beans at this point, maybe if I take some more I’ll find a speck of relief.
Last night I slept for 90 minutes total – not good for my depression, anxiety, mood, stamina, concentration or hot flashes. I find comfort in snuggling with Anya – her velvety chocolate fur against my face does wonders for my psyche. I expect to crash later today. Like a car without enough gas to reach the corner, I’m running on fumes. It’s just a matter of time before I conk out. Whatever charm I have will no doubt be gone after lunch.
My fingertips are starting to tingle – I think I’m done writing for the day, except for Scrabble. Today I’m playing to win.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”
From “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns, Scottish Poet
I’ll be taking a break from posting in this space for the next few weeks. What I thought was a routine problem with my shoulder, turned out to be a much bigger and more serious health risk. Long story short, I need to have surgery relatively soon, and will be using my energy to prepare for what lies ahead. All of the projects and plans I had scheduled over the next six weeks are currently put on hold until further notice. While this is disappointing, the good news is that I’ll be in better health all around once I’m fully recovered. As always, I’m so grateful to be living in a time in which medical advances for treating all sorts of mental and physical illnesses were not available fifty years ago – maybe even twenty years ago.
Thank you to my friends at esperanza magazine for your good wishes and for holding a place for me on the Hope Blog while I’m out.
I’m looking to chat or email offline with others who’ve had cervical spinal fusion. Please contact me if you’re willing to do so. I would really appreciate it! Thanks.
Many thanks to everyone who has reached out to me after I shared the news of my upcoming surgery. I’m still scared and anxious, but just knowing that I have the emotional support from near and far makes this ordeal more manageable. I’m especially grateful to those who have told me about your loved ones who have gone through the same operation. I don’t know anyone who has gone through this, so just knowing that some of you have witnessed this first hand and the results have all been successful takes a lot of my fear away. I was hesitant about even mentioning the spinal fusion at all, but now I’m so glad I listened to my inner voice telling me that if I shared my situation, I’d be helping myself and anyone else who is going through something similar, just as I do when I talk about my struggles with depression and anxiety.
I started making a list yesterday of everything I need to do before the surgery. Since I know that my throat will be very sore for a few days, making it difficult to swallow – I’m now researching to see if my daily medications are available in liquid form. I’d rather drink my meds, than crush up the pills and mix them into yogurt, but if that’s what it comes down to, I’ll make do. Included in my list are questions I have for the surgeon. I’m carrying around a notebook because if I don’t write down my thoughts as they pop up, I will totally forget them. Keeping lists has always been a good method for keeping my anxiety in check. Being anxious about my surgery can lead to confusion and uncertainty. This is one operation where I want to know every tid-bit of info before I step foot into the OR.
Again, I really wanted to express my gratitude for the good wishes, prayers and support you’ve given me these past days. Sending you all one-armed hugs for now.
Here’s the latest from my never-boring world:
After two MRIs and many x-rays to find the cause of the unbearable pain in my right arm, shoulder and neck from the past two months, I was diagnosed on Thursday with degenerative disc disease (spondylosis) I’m shocked, terrified and haven’t gotten past the “WTF???” stage yet. What I can tell you now are the facts.
1) My surgery for spinal fusion in the C3/4, 4/5 and 5/6 vertebra in my neck is scheduled for April 23rd at Mount Sinai Hospital.
2) I have to meet with a plastic surgeon prior to the operation, since the incision to reach my spine will be made on the front of my neck, next to my voice box, and I don’t want to be left with an unnecessarily big scar.
3) My voice will be very hoarse for 2-4 weeks post-surgery.
4) From today forward, I’ll be making preparations for the surgery and post-operative care – meaning prioritizing my work-load, writing/blogging and personal responsibilities.
That’s all I can say for now, even though there a gazillion thoughts running through my brain, trying to sort them out here on my blog page isn’t something I’m ready to do.
Follow my personal blog for what’s sure to be an emotionally charged, freak-out rollercoaster ride.
Have questions? Don’t be afraid to ask: