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

No Offense, But . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to Bring Change 2 Mind

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 

BC2M/I Know What I Know

I picture a tiny hole drilled into my head, two inches or so above my right ear, piercing through my skull, forming a perfectly sized aperture to implant a spout, much like the ones used in Vermont Maple trees to collect sap for making syrup.  Once inserted and locked in place, I open the spigot and feel the satisfying release of sticky sludge running through the grooves of my brain, seeping out from the hole in my head, landing in a tin bucket resting at my feet.

If only a procedure like this one really existed – a cleansing of the brain, where all of the cerebral sewage would be emptied out, washed away like grime from a clogged kitchen sink, perhaps my life with depression would be a heck of a lot easier. When a bout of depression marches in without warning, whacky ideas for unconventional remedies automatically start to formulate in my head. None of these quirky inventions make medical sense, but that’s what my desperate mind does to survive. We all know there’s no instant cure for depression, however it’s remarkable how wild my imagination can run when I know I’m in for a long battle.

There was a point several years ago when I lost all hope of ever getting better. It was a depression so fierce that it clouded my every thought and action. My meds stopped working, therapy wasn’t helping and I was convinced that I’d be trapped in the claws of despair for eternity. I started to obsessively research ways of getting a blood transfusion. I envisioned that the substance running through my veins was not blood, but a thick, poisonous liquid. I thought if I could rid my body of this venomous fluid and start fresh with blood from a non-depressed person, there might be a chance that I’d be cured. When I presented this ingenious idea to my doctor, he cut me off at “transfu…”

Okay, no transfusion – my medieval remedy proved to be a very frustrating setback. Determined to survive, I became adamant about finding a place, not a psychiatric hospital, nor a rehab center, but a welcoming resort, a Club Med(ication) where individuals with depression can go for a month or two, to get away from it all. I imagined a Fantasy Island for all the morose and melancholic people just like me, desperate to regain their lives back, to find a twinkle of hope. Sadly, after too many late-night Internet searches for Prozac Paradise or Zoloft Zen, I couldn’t find one place that allowed dogs.

I once read that each person who lives with Major Depression has his or her own brand. I gave that some thought and wondered if anyone else with a form of mental illness ever daydreams about abnormal ways to get rid of their symptoms like I do. It’s embarrassing to admit, but through the years, I’ve devised dozens of imaginary products – one of them is Drano for the brain, or Braino. It’s an antidepressant that you drink while hanging upside down. The super strength liquid goes straight to your head instead of your stomach, leaving your brain crystal clean with a sparkly shine. Why do you think Mr. Clean is always smiling?

Sometimes the only way for me to make it through a rough patch is to laugh, even at my own expense. When I’m in a bad way, having a sense of humor seems impossible. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I become withdrawn, inclined to cancel plans, close the door on life and only resurface when I’m ready. Apparently having deranged thoughts and concepts are part of what makes my particular brand of depression a tad peculiar. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a survival instinct. It may be warped, but it certainly keeps me amused.





Hope Blog/Pain and Shame

I’ve got an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon this coming week. Based on results from recent X-rays, it appears that I have a large bone-spur in my right shoulder. The excruciating pain running up and down my arm for the past four weeks is what prompted me to go to my doctor in the first place. This second appointment will be to decide if I need an MRI, and/or surgery. I’m well prepared what to expect, since the same problem arose in my left shoulder just a few years ago. The operation itself is not very complicated, however the recovery part is not something I’m looking forward to in any way. In fact, it’s something I was hoping I’d never have to relive.

But, if I had to guess . . . chances are, I’ll be having surgery within the next six weeks. Besides the need for prescription post-surgery painkillers that totally mess with my head in a bad way, I’ll also require something that makes my very uneasy – relying on other people to help me with every little thing imaginable. I feel like a hypocrite, because I’m constantly preaching that there’s no shame in asking for help, and here I am cowering at the thought of requesting assistance for walking from the bedroom to the kitchen. All the years of living with depression, of not believing I had a smidgeon of worth or value, not having the courage to ask for anything out of fear of rejection, apparently has left an emotional scar that’s starting to flare up once again.

The horrid belief that I would be burdening a loved one with having to take care of me is a thinking error of major proportions. I already know who I can count on – and truthfully I don’t even have to ask for help, it’s already been offered and arrangements will be made before I even step foot into the operating room. Decades of shyness, fear and self-loathing sure do play a role in the person I am today. At least I can see now that the people who love and care about me want to help me, and I’m no longer ashamed to take every drop of support that I can get. I don’t think a day goes by without me reminding someone in psychological or physical pain that they are not alone – now it’s time for me to look in the mirror and do the same.