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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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

 

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

 

Spinal con-Fusion

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.

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Hope Blog/Less Stress? I’ll Take It!

Each of us has our own level of tolerance for stress. Some people thrive under pressure. I’m not one of them. One of my top triggers for anxiety and depression, is feeling overwhelmed by having too much to do. A full but manageable plate is one thing, but when the plate suddenly becomes too small, I know I have to take action before it cracks and everything falls to pieces. Every so often, usually when I’m over-tired, I feel overloaded by my responsibilities. My thoughts turn to doubting my abilities and I’m convinced I can’t handle even ONE MORE THING.

The best way for me to manage the situation, so that I don’t get riddled with pop-up panic attacks or pangs of depression, is to prioritize my to-do list. I start by doing the easiest things first. That way I get an immediate sense of accomplishment and I’m encouraged to move on to the next item. For example, the beginning of March is when I start the dreaded task of tax preparation. If I made that chore my number one priority, I’d avoid my list of obligations entirely, like a carton of sour milk humming in the fridge, wishing it would disappear on its own. Instead of making any progress, even on a tiny scale, nothing would get done. The list would keep growing and my anxiety would skyrocket exponentially each day leading up to April 15th.

So, if I can check off the easier jobs, like paying bills or scheduling business meetings, I obtain that instant gratification needed to keep my confidence strong and build momentum towards organizing my tax info. I’ve learned that it’s critical for me to be aware of my threshold for the daunting responsibilities that come with being an adult. The method I’ve created to maintaining my sanity may not work for others, but it’s kept my anxiety levels in-check. My personal goals in life are not about being perfect, but continuing to make self-improvements – that’s something that will always be at the top of my agenda.