At My Worst

I recently read Sara’s post “Depression Does Not Make You a Monster” and her follow up post, and felt compelled to finally put pen to paper, so to speak, on something that has been on my mind for a long time now.

I’ve spent a lot of time mentally processing my diagnosis, and here’s what I’ve concluded: Depression is and is not controllable. Depression is disabling, sometimes. And trying to tease out whether any particular bad patch could have been prevented is not worth the effort.

Most advice about depression is contradictory. That doesn’t mean it’s incorrect; depression is just complicated. The advice about how to help people with depression is similarly full of conflicting ideas.

On the one hand, I have had days where I agree with Sara’s advice to “ignore the depression, not the person suffering from it.” Sometimes the only way to feel better is to escape the thoughts in your head, which cannot be done if those around you are constantly asking you what’s wrong, why you’re not happy, and if there’s anything they can do. If I’m out and about, trying to distract myself, the last thing I want is to be pulled back to the thoughts I am trying to get away from. I certainly don’t want to feel like a burden, or like everything needs to come to a standstill while I get my emotions back in check.

All that being said, it is my responsibility to communicate my needs. If I drag my husband to the beach in an effort to lift my spirits and am still in the dumps, it is only natural for him to ask me why I’m upset. He is not a mind reader.

On those days, the best thing I’ve found to do is to go somewhere I’ve never been before and focus on the new surroundings. Otherwise, I read, sing, or otherwise find a way to silence the unwanted thoughts.

I should note that my therapist has also recommended focusing on sensory information. For example, think about the way your body feels against whatever furniture you’re in contact with. Now imagine what the furniture feels like supporting you. It’s slightly different, but it effectively changes the flow of your thoughts. (Aromatherapy can also work wonders.)

On the other hand, there are times when you need to express what you are feeling. I’m going to borrow again from my therapist. If you are worrying about something, imagine your brain is trying to send you a letter. It wants to tell you something important. First it’s going to knock on the door. If you ignore it, the mailman is going to start ringing the bell. Then, he might start yelling or trying to shove the letter through the cracks.

Once you acknowledge the mailman, he stops trying to break down the door. The urgency is gone and you can peruse the contents of the letter and move on. This is partly why it is so therapeutic to journal (or blog).

However, even writing about your experience has some problems. I experienced this when I tried online therapy. I spent so much time finding the words to describe what was happening to me and waiting for a response that I never gave myself the chance to bounce back from my bad times naturally. Writing is wonderful, but it makes you revisit your old emotions so you can immortalize them accurately. Then later on you might notice a typo. Before you know it, you’ve read your own angst-ridden sentence twenty times. Sure, your creative head space is probably not as bad as your original raw emotion, but you still relive that moment every time you interact with your writing.

All this is to say that there isn’t a “right” way to handle your depression. There isn’t a “right” way for others to interact with you. Every day, you have to assess your capabilities and determine what you need to do to maximize your productivity. Some days, all you may be able to do is cry over your failed drawing of a Tyrannosaurus rex (my Tuesday afternoon). Other days, you can muster the determination to clean half your house, put in a few hours of professional work, and write a blog post to boot.

What’s important is that you give yourself an A every day you do your best, even if your best today isn’t what it was yesterday.

What Should You Do With Your Life?

The fears started creeping in during my senior year of college. It’s actually time to decide now, what do you want to do?  It’s been 3 years and 6 jobs since I graduated (2 of which I currently have). I still don’t know exactly what I want to do career-wise, but I had a bit of an epiphany, and I’m not panicking anymore.

I quit my office job at the end of March, flew home to see my parents for the first time in about 2 years, and returned a week later, telling myself I was ready to find a job that would make me happy. At the end of April, I did get a job. And it was writing-related, which is what I always thought I wanted to do. But I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was more depressed and anxious than ever.

I tried a lot of things to get back on the right path. I took a skill/career/personality quiz from my college’s career center to see what careers it matched me with. I had zero results that were a true match. That upset me a little but I looked at the possible matches. They ranged from hilarious to depressing. (Broadcast news analyst, choreographer, DJ, foreign language interpreter, etc.)

Time passed and nothing changed. One evening, I was watching videos on minimalism and YouTube recommended I watch a video on the Japanese concept of ikigai. Your ikigai is basically your purpose in life. This diagram came from this site and it sums up how to find your ikigai really nicely. If you love it, you’re good at it, you can be paid for it, and the world needs it, that is your calling.

I loved the concept, but this still wasn’t all that helpful for me. Sure, I could say that writing fits in all these categories, but getting paid for it isn’t all that easy and I needed something more reliable to get my life back on track.

A couple weeks ago, I watched a Ted Talk called “To find work you love, don’t follow your passion.” In a nutshell, the speaker made the argument that passions fade and to feel fulfilled, you should have a career that helps others. The passion will come from seeing the difference you make in others’ lives.

This talk was pretty much the exact opposite of horrible advice I was given by a pyramid scheme recruiter. Pyramid scheme sleazeball said that instead of instead of focusing on nurturing your passion and making a career out of it, you should look at the people around you and see who has the lifestyle you want. Then, you should do what they do. He shared his story about running a pharmacy because he aspired to basically be able to set his own schedule. He wanted to own a business where he didn’t have to be there all the time, in other words. (He also said some really degrading things about anyone who earns an hourly wage.)

I definitely trusted advice from the Ted Talk much more than the sleazy pyramid scheme guy, but it still seemed really off to me.

Today, I took a step back. I feel like I’ve been angsting over the same question since I first began trying to decide what I should major in. To take the pressure off, instead of trying to answer questions like “what am I good at” and “what makes me happy,” I just thought about what I want out of my life. I came up with ten things.

What I discovered when I did this was that there is no specific job that is going to help me meet my goals (aside from funding). Let me say it a different way: what I want from life is not going to come from my job.

All that soul-searching I was doing trying to find a fulfilling career was misguided. I already know what I want. I just need to go after it.

I don’t need to get the perfect job to achieve my goals. There is no entry barrier, no hoop I have to jump through to make progress, and that’s pretty dang empowering.

Logic and Mental Illness

Sometimes, mental illness feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I have the worst of my worst days, it is easy to write off what I’m feeling as a consequence of being mentally ill. I am anguished, disconnected, and listless because I have anxiety and am depressed. There is no logical reason for me to feel so incredibly low. Therefore, it is just a thing that happens to me.

That is how I viewed my depression for a long time. There was just this cloud of sadness that followed me around, and sometimes it would come low and I would be forced to wait for the fog to clear to be able to interact with the outside world.

Any alternative solution seemed completely dismissive of what I was going through. If I divulged that I was having a hard time with my depression, I would get angry and defensive if someone asked me why I was depressed.

depressed

What do you mean, why am I depressed? I am like this because I *have depression* and my emotions aren’t logical. If I knew why I was like this, I wouldn’t be like this. Don’t you get it?

When I was diagnosed with depression several years ago, I didn’t think I viewed myself any differently. It just felt like a logical conclusion for my behavior/my personality. I accepted the label as an explanation for why it was always nigh impossible for me to get excited about anything, an explanation of why I was so passive about everything, and I moved on. The diagnosis was a means to an end; because I was depressed, I could receive therapy and try different medications.

A few months ago, I called my mother specifically because I knew I needed to go back to therapy, but I couldn’t afford it. Yes, I called my mother to ask her to pay for my therapy. It was embarrassing and the whole conversation just made me want to puke and punch things at the same time. I’d definitely say it was one of the lowest points in my life.

When we got off the phone, my mother had agreed to pay for one month of therapy. But I was infuriated. She had asked me, “what are you depressed about?”

“Well, I quit my job…  and now we could be homeless in a few months… and other things.”

“Don’t you think you’d be better off to spend your time looking for a job, then? If you’re stressed about money, spending money on therapy is probably just going to make it worse.”

“Mom… no. Did you miss the part where I was having panic attacks at my last job? I had to quit. Getting another job isn’t going to magically make me better. It’s so much more than that. I feel like I am actually losing my mind.”

At that point in the conversation, I completely lost control and started sobbing hysterically, so it took another twenty minutes for me to work up the nerve to ask for money.

The whole conversation just reinforced my belief that depression and anxiety make zero sense. In my mind, yes, they were triggered by the stress of my everyday life, but trying to say, “I am depressed because x, y, and z” would never be able to cover it. There was no explanation for what I was feeling, and trying to answer why I was broken felt like a huge slap in the face.

The next day, my mom e-mailed me and said I should try taking St. John’s wort. I had never heard of it, so I did a quick Google. This was the first thing I saw:

Psychosis is a rare but possible side effect of taking St. John’s wort.

St. John’s wort is not a proven therapy for depression. Do not use St. John’s wort to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing your health care provider. Inadequately treated depression may become severe and, in some cases, may be associated with suicide.

Um… thanks, ma? I know you’re trying to help, but this isn’t the right way to go about it. Just let me go to therapy.

The thing is, her suggestion actually fit with what I was thinking. If depression/anxiety is totally random, there’s nothing you can do about it except medicate and hope that it goes away. I have never thought that medication is my only treatment option, but I have always felt like it can’t be helped that depression is a condition that I have.

Something finally clicked in my brain this week. Last week, my therapist stressed the importance of allowing yourself to feel what you feel without guilt (something I struggle with). However, she also said (for probably the tenth time and it was only my second session with her) that one way I can help ward off panic attacks is to acknowledge what is making me anxious. Accept that my emotions are, in fact, logical and use my emotions as information.

What does this look like?

When I am nervous about taking my trash to the dumpster, I will remind myself that my reaction isn’t crazy since we’ve had so many car break-ins and we live in a rough area. I will try to not let my feelings hold me back.

When I am scared of going to the store by myself because something could happen to me, I will acknowledge that there are good reasons to be cautious. I will be grateful that I wasn’t at the mall when the shooter was there and say a prayer for the victims and their families. I won’t tell myself I’m being stupid or to get over it.

When I am angry, I will try to stop feeling guilty about being angry and not tell myself that I am overreacting. That doesn’t mean I give myself free reign to be hurtful and say horrible things when I’m angry. Rather, it means that when I am angry, I won’t tell myself that my feelings are illogical and I shouldn’t be upset.

I won’t write off doing fun things as a waste of time because I could be making money. My happiness is important and worth setting aside time for.

When I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack, I will try to tell my husband so he can help me through it instead of hiding my anxiety. I shouldn’t be ashamed.

I will try to not feel weak when I cry. When I start feeling guilty for being sad, I will remind myself that I am trying to get better.

When I wake up feeling anguished, I won’t dismiss my feelings as a side-effect of depression.

And, most importantly, I will remember that my past failures are not indicative of my future successes.

Thoughts on Square Breathing

The basic premise of meditation is that our lives are too busy and we need to take time to slow down and smell the roses. Therefore, we sit down for 15 minutes once or twice a day, focus on our breathing, and arise, fresh and ready to battle the world again.

This might work for very busy people like overbooked celebrities and mommies that just need some time alone, but for those with mental health issues, the idea of devoting more time to sitting still and being in your head does not make sense. Ideally, we want to gain momentum, not lose it.

Instead of meditating, then, the idea is to practice mindfulness. While meditation, very generally, is about letting go and learning to dismiss unwanted thoughts, mindfulness is about focusing your thoughts – thinking more actively.

If you are depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself is chase your happiness. Of course, if you are depressed, that feels impossible. Mindfulness is like taking baby steps.

This week, I was advised to try square breathing up to 6 times a day. If that seems like a lot, I would have to agree. I’m lucky if I remember to do it two or three times a day. However, I get the logic behind it.

So, what is square breathing?

Breathe in for 4 beats, hold 4 beats, breathe out 4 beats, hold 4 beats. Repeat until completed 4 times.

Super simple, right? Too simple?

For me, I do think this is too simple. I’ve played piano since I was 5 and was in choir for several years, so I have so much practice doing this that I barely have to focus to do it. That’s why, in my very unprofessional opinion, this should be modified. If you can do this and still have room to think about other things, you’re either doing it wrong or you need to make it more difficult. Count backwards, count in a different language, count backwards in a different language, count backwards in intervals of 7, etc.

If you’re wondering about the method behind the madness, let me explain further. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, so why should I bother with talk therapy or this weird mindfulness stuff when I can just take antidepressants,” I totally get it.

Think of every thought you have as a chemical reaction in your brain. If you have a bunch of sad thoughts, your brain is going to be full of sad chemicals. In a way, mindfulness helps your brain take a break from having so many incoming “sadness chemicals” because you are focused on something else. Over time, this helps improve your emotional baseline. While you’re probably not overjoyed when you practice square breathing, it makes it easier for you to be happy every day.

Harry Potter and the Reason I Stopped Trying to Meditate

I would not be the person I am today if it were not for the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter was the first thing in my life that I was truly passionate about. It was such a big part of my life that I really struggled to understand why anyone who enjoys reading wouldn’t like the series.

In high school, one of my friends revealed that she didn’t like Harry Potter. I was flabbergasted. My reaction was honestly just downright unreasonable.

What didn’t you like about it? How long ago did you try to read it? Have you tried to read it since then? Maybe you should try reading it again. It really is great – I think after you get past chapter 2 you will find it is so much better than you’re giving it credit for.

Luckily, my friend was very sensible and rightly told me (as kindly as possible) that I was being an idiot. You can’t expect people to keep trying to read a book they don’t like and hope that one day it will click with them.

I felt like a real dummy after that, to say the least.

It’s pretty well known that treating mental illness in some ways is more of an art than a science. You never know what to expect from a new medication. It could make you as chipper as a squirrel or you could be suicidal. If you do have a good few days or even weeks, you have to wonder if it’s because of the medication, because the circumstances of your life have altered for the better, because you’re proud of yourself for even trying something new, because you listened to your therapist and are trying this other thing, or simply because of the placebo effect.

If you go up and then down again, does that mean the medication isn’t working anymore? Should your dosage be adjusted? Should you try something else? (By the way, if you want to try something else, remember you have to detox for about 2 weeks and will likely feel mentally wretched during that time period and have a lot of headaches.)

I think, regardless of whether or not you have a mental illness, part of maturing into a successful adult is being able to not only set aside emotions and only deal with them when you are in the right setting, but also to dismiss unhelpful or unwanted thoughts. For instance, if your home life is making you miserable, you are expected to function like nothing is wrong at work or vice versa.

Meditation is one way for people to practice dismissing unwanted thoughts. Focusing on your breathing, your surroundings, or recalling a good memory, imagining you’re in a peaceful area, or otherwise finding ways to make your body relax when you want to panic or are having a bad thought spiral makes perfect sense.

That doesn’t mean it has to work for everyone.

One of the most common things people say about meditation is that it takes a really long time to master it or to get what you’re supposed to out of it. Just keep trying.

Finding inner peace through meditation is something that is never going to happen for me, just as trying to reread Harry Potter every few months is not going to make my friend like the series any better than she did the first time she put the book down.  No amount of telling me that I am simply doing it wrong or need to be more patient is going to make meditation more effective. And that is okay. Meditation is not the way to better mental health, it is just one of many ways.

Just like you have to learn to trust yourself to gauge whether or not your medications are working for you, you have to figure out for yourself what non-medical practices are going to help you feel better. I personally find exercise, talk therapy, reading, writing, and otherwise expressing myself creatively to be much more efficient uses of my time than meditating.