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.

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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.

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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.

Self-Discipline and Self-Hatred

If you ask my husband, last night I tried to kill him.

I was feeling a little down, and decided it would be better to go out and do something to make myself happy than to try to power through the emotions and force myself to work and slowly feel worse and worse. It was a bit late when we finally got out the door and we ended up going to a beach we had never been to before. (Beach count: 3.)

When we got there, I was racing through the woods, eager to get down to the beach before sunset. The hike was about 1.5 miles, and it was mostly downhill. I didn’t think at all about getting back up. The woods were beautiful and I knew the beach would be absolutely breathtaking.

As we were walking, I felt like I was back in Scotland, making my rounds by the loch. Then, I remembered playing Dinosaur Safari at my grandparents’ when I was little and how much I would love an updated version of that game. I was babbling about it to my husband. You get in a time machine and travel to different dinosaur habitats and wait for them to emerge from the scenery around you so you can photograph them. Then, you come back to the present day and sell your photographs. Some carnivores would also attack your time machine so you had to leave sooner. Obviously, I loved it to pieces. If I could code and had the assets to do so, I would make a game just like that with better graphics. It was both exciting and very relaxing. For some dinosaurs, you had to wait several minutes and you could hear them approaching. It was like being Nigel Thornberry or Steve Irwin, except I was sitting on my grandpa’s lap.

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I felt kind of bad racing through the woods, sometimes letting my hubby get pretty far behind me, but we didn’t get there until about an hour before the park/beach was to close. I would be so disappointed if we didn’t get there in time to actually see the beach or enjoy it once we got there.

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This is how close it was to sunset when we got to the end of the path. To get to the beach, you had to walk under the railroad tracks behind the fence on the left.

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Sure enough, it was stunning.

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Lately, nature has been a drug for me. Going out and seeing how beautiful the world is makes me happy, grateful, excited, and reinvigorates me in a way that nothing else does. Sometimes, it’s a good thing. It is not a sin to take the time to be happy.

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But, at what point do you stop and say to yourself, “yes, this makes you happy and it helps you get back on your feet, but you really need to ‘escape’ from your responsibilities less and put in the hard work required to succeed?” Finding that balance is something I have been struggling with since I quit my last job at the end of March. There have been so many days I have spent in a trance, staring at my phone, unable to muster the energy to get out of bed. Yes, there are days that I feel I need to take care of myself and put my mental health first. Then there are other days when I feel down but more or less okay – that is what I would call my typical day right now.

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As these are my typical days, I feel like I have to push myself really hard to make up for all the bad days. I have to do a lot of editing, clean the entire house, apply for jobs, talk to the friends I have neglected, catch up with my family. If I fail to meet my own standards, which are always set impossibly high, I get down again. The weight of failure makes the next day worse and worse until I crash. It is too easy for my self-discipline to turn into self-hatred.

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Escaping into nature helps me fend off the bad days. Getting that high keeps me from sinking so low. But when I’m having a good day, sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s okay to celebrate the good days. The reward for having a good day shouldn’t be more work and more pressure to keep having good days. Yet, I do it to myself over and over again. Last night, I felt compelled to do something, anything, that would make me feel less trapped, less hopeless, less incapable. So we went to the beach. I flung myself into my desire to feel better, and it worked. Then we had to start the walk back.

What Light Remains

To say that the walk back was difficult would be the understatement of the century. It took us about 35 minutes to walk down to the beach. We stayed there for maybe 15 minutes. The walk back took a full hour and it was pitch black by the time we got to the car. I felt so guilty. My husband hurt his ankle a while back and this definitely set back his healing. When we got to the car, my trunk was open. (Making this the third time since we moved out here that we have had an incident with someone breaking into one of our vehicles.) Luckily, nothing was damaged and nothing valuable was taken. In addition to all that, the park ranger showed up as we were getting ready to leave and had to give us a talking to about making sure we are back by the time the park closes.

This is partly why I say that nature is like a drug to me. I was feeling bad and I put my needs in front of everything else. My husband was in pain for me, I put us both at risk, and we were lucky we didn’t get a ticket.

In college, it was so much easier to be self-disciplined. If I was feeling bad, I could play Candy Crush Saga until I was out of my five moves, and then I had to do whatever it was I was putting off. Sometimes it got a little out of control and one distraction led to another, but everything then had a hard deadline. Things had to be done. The consequences for not doing what I was supposed to were clear, and classes had a set schedule.

Now, things are much different. The stakes are a lot higher.

I want to end this post with some enlightening sentiment, but I can’t. I don’t have it figured out. But I’m trying to move forward, to hold myself to my ideals without loathing myself if I fall short, to set goals that are reachable.

And, I’m trying to be happier.