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

 

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

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

Smile for the Camera

I was not born depressed. I have proof. The images of me in old photo albums show a normal, happy child. A wide grin appears on my face as I’m being passed around from my mom, to her mom, to my dad’s mom, to aunts, uncles, cousins, and close family friends. My smiles were real. I can tell. The yellowed tape that still barely adheres the pictures to the cardboard pages is a stark contrast to my bright, alert eyes and pearly-white smile. “Let’s see some teeth!” my dad, an orthodontist, used to say as he focused his camera lens and clicked away. It’s ironic that so many years later I’d be using these images as concrete evidence that I didn’t come into this world with anything close to the chronic depression I developed in adolescence.

By the time I turned 12, everything around me appeared to be distorted. The ease and fluidity of my childhood seeped out of me like air from a balloon. The daily short walks to and from school with my friends became a hike up Everest. I began having trouble concentrating on my homework and started not caring about my grades. Somewhere between leaving my house in the morning until the time I crawled into bed at night, I faded into the background and became a reluctant observer of life, not a participant. I showed up to wherever I was supposed to be, but I wasn’t there.

An aura of sadness surrounded me at all times. I saw tragedy in strangers’ expressions – the teenage check-out girl in the supermarket, the middle-aged waitress in the diner, the greasy guy at the gas station – normal everyday people suddenly seemed like tragic figures who lived a life of desolation, just like me.

Gradually I felt completely invisible, but I didn’t think anyone around me realized it. That’s when the thoughts of making myself vanish permanently began to permeate my mind. Nothing about disappearing from the physical world seemed abnormal to my young, developing brain, and I kept that notion tucked away as an escape plan if “it” ever got to be too much to handle.

Depression is different for everyone. It can come and go quickly, or it can stay a while. When I’m in a bad way, it’s as if my mind is polluted with thick black fog. I frequently fantasize about drilling a tiny hole in the top of my skull and letting the smog spew out like a geyser, releasing all the toxic chemicals from my brain. When my depression is at a high point, I live most days with a sense of impending doom, a belief that life is going to come crashing down around me at any moment. Not believing that I deserve to be loved for any length of time – being “found out” that I’m really not worth much, and worst of all, becoming a burden to the people I love the most.

When I decided to speak openly about my illness, my disease, my disorder, there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. “But you HAVE so much, how can you be depressed?” is one question I’m asked frequently. It’s true – I have my own place to live, a close family and good friends, an interesting career, an education, excellent health care, an affectionate dog, and a touch of creativity. I also happen to have Major Depression. There’s nothing to sugarcoat – it totally sucks. Even with the greatest doctors and highly effective medications, there are days, sometimes weeks, in which I cannot find the speck of hope I so desperately need to see past my dark state of mind.

I made a promise to my family that I would never die by suicide. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think about it. I do. The ugly disease of depression keeps that f-ing idea alive and it scares the hell out of me.

Suicide does not make sense. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. When I heard the news a few days ago that Robin Williams died, from the exact same disease I have, I was struck with profound sadness, grief, disbelief, anguish, horror . . . I’m struggling to attach words to the emotions that have only become more acute as the hours go by.

I’m never comfortable writing about other people, especially someone I’ve never met. I did not know Mr. Williams. The closest I ever got to him in person was sitting in the audience at Radio City during one of his famous Comic Relief shows. It’s not my place to publicly speculate on what was happening to Mr. Williams in his final hours. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. All I can do is imagine the immense amount of pain he was in – the unthinkable hopelessness and despair.

Out of fear of ever going to that awful place, that filthy sub-basement without light, where I fail to see any aspect of my existence ever getting any better, I’ve devised a new plan of action with only one possible outcome – LIFE. I would advise anyone who lives with Major Depression and Anxiety to do the same for themselves. Everyone’s course of action will be different, however the result will be the same. We can’t allow stigma or shame to get in the way of staying alive. Make the call.

If you have ever smiled before, there is no reason to believe that you won’t smile again. That’s what Robin Williams did for all of us. He made us smile. That will be his legacy.

Bring Change 2 Mind