Monday, June 26, 2017

You're Coping Well . . . Now What?


I think playing on swings is the way to be.
Mental illness, whatever your diagnosis may be, comes with its ups and downs. No one is at their lowest all the time. No one is coping well all the time, though some of us excel at coping most of the time. The yo-yo of symptom severity can make it tough to enjoy the down time when it comes. When you are coping well, and life isn't controlled by symptoms, you can sometimes forget what to do with yourself. You may also feel like the shadow of your illness is waiting to jump out at you any time. Therapists give us all these tools for dealing with being sick, but what do we do when we're not feeling sick?

It is important to be somewhat diligent about how you treat yourself mentally and physically no matter where you're at with your symptoms. Feeling great? You can either hasten a decline in your mental health or you can bolster your well-being. At the risk of sounding like your mother or your doctor, here are a few things you shouldn't do: Drink alcohol to any sort of access, do drugs, engage in self-destructive behavior, etc. Here are a few shoulds to balance it out: Eat relatively well (I say relatively because you have to splurge); exercise as much as you can, practice your coping mechanisms, etc.

Now that we've got the "nurture yourself to stay better longer" part out of the way, I want to get to the short and simple answer to our question. What should you do when you're coping well, even if you're afraid of your symptoms coming back at any moment? LIVE. Check off some shit on the bucket list. Build strong and healthy relationships by bonding with loved ones. Go to a movie theater. Visit friends. Travel. Hey, coping well might mean you still have limitations. For instance, I still have anxiety all the time, so I still don't travel far when I'm coping "well," but let's push the boundaries while we're up for it. Let's dare to have fun. Give yourself memories to help you get through the hard times. Love every second of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Distraction is a Good Thing

Here I am distracting myself with water
Whether you have OCD or not, you've probably heard that distractions are a bad thing. They take your eye off the prize! They keep you from fulfilling your potential! They do all manner of unspecific things to your life, leading you on a spiral of chaos that will only lead to you never facing a challenge head on! Okay, you've heard all that. If you have OCD, you've also heard distraction isn't good for your recovery. I want you to consider that perhaps distraction isn't a bad thing at all.

As a crappy student, I was always distracted. When I was younger, bullies and my efforts to keep my head down, metaphorically, distracted me. When I got older, I was distracted by boys, drugs (very mild, folks; calm down), rock 'n roll and all other manner of mild mayhem. Sure, if I had focused, I would have done better in school. Maybe I would have been happier or more successful now that I'm in my 30s. Nobody knows, so let's not speculate. I do know this, I was going to be distracted to some degree no matter what. Telling people distraction is bad is the same as telling them farting is disgusting. You've just made them feel bad about something they're going to do naturally.

Now for the other side of my distraction story, which is actually distracting me from work. When I fully realized I had OCD, professionals told me that ERP (exposure and response prevention) is the way to go. Most proponents of this method would tell you distraction is bad. Distraction helps you avoid the problems you are having, reinforces the "badness" of your OCD fears, etc. In some ways, they are right. In order to do an exposure, you have to be present, but what about when you are not doing an exposure or your anxiety is more generalized?

Here we get to the part where I tell you it's okay to use things like music, television, video games, family time and exercise to distract yourself from your mental illness. Firstly, your entire life is not an exposure. Sometimes, you need to reset your brain before you can get better. You need to break the loop of worry and reaction by just doing something else. This applies whether you have a mental illness or not. Do you have a cold and feel like shit? You're not going to dwell on it and tell yourself it's okay all day. You're just going to watch a movie and be miserable. The movie helps you forget that you're miserable for a moment. Sick people deserve that break.

I haven't fleshed out this idea as much as I would like to, but some thoughts don't need more than a few paragraphs. You get my meaning. Don't feel bad that you had to play a video game to keep your panic at a manageable level. Don't beat yourself up about needing some down time after a tough exposure. You don't need to live in your illness all the time. By all means, show up for your exposures. Be present. Challenge yourself to face your fears. Just don't forget to unplug when you're done. Really. You're not going to get in trouble or hurt your recovery. I promise.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Getting Through It or "Is that a Chucky Doll in my aunt's coffin?"

December was a great and terrible month. I allowed myself to thoroughly enjoy the holidays, which gave me quite the happy hormone rush to get me through the end of the year. However, it was also a time of stress and sorrow for my family. My great aunt on my father's side was on her way out and not for coffee. My mother's sister was determined to be resurrected repeatedly through a series of pneumonia and cardiac hospitalizations. I'm not sure how many times she died in December, but I'm pretty sure she's a cat. She's recovering now, but my great aunt is not a cat. She only got one life and she lost it a few weeks ago.

People who aren't all that well upstairs (read: a little crazy) handle grief in many ways. We may have breakdowns. We might retreat into depression. Some of us are even pretty stalwart in the face of death. I mean, we see this kind of shit in our heads every day. Myself, I laugh at funerals and check to make sure I'm displaying the right emotions. It's not that I don't care. It's just that I have an extraordinarily emotive mother and a stereo-typically emotionally tough dad. I'm never sure whether I'm supposed to shrug and say "She was old." or exclaim in a grave whisper "She cried out for me in the end!" Whether she did or not is irrelevant.

I was doing pretty well anxiety-wise when my great aunt passed away. I was able to say goodbye to her in her home. I cried a little, but mostly felt awkward about how I was supposed to behave. The only time I felt comfortable was when my mother left the room and I was alone with her. I was able to just say what I wanted to say to her without looking at the pained face of my great uncle or hearing odd reassurances from my mother that she would "take care" of everybody. I'm not sure what she meant or if I was supposed to also lie about taking care of everybody. (Love you, Mom. Don't worry. I'll take care of you.)

After considerable stress about what you're supposed to wear to a funeral now that you're a grown-up, I managed to make it. I parked my car, walked to the funeral home and spotted my mother, whose first act was to stage-whisper "I just wanted to give you a head's up. It's an open casket!" Great. Now everyone around me thinks that I have some fear of dead people that my mommy is protecting me from. I still have no idea why she announced it to me upon arrival. I hope she was trying to be helpful, even if it was unnecessary, and wasn't just bizarrely thrilled about the dead body.

The fact that I had been to this particular funeral home before was both sad and comforting. As an anxious person, it helped that I knew my way around. As a family member, I was sad to see the same faces grieving the loss of yet another important woman in their lives. Still, I was strangely completely unanxious. I was fine, apart from being bombarded with thoughts like, "Thanksgiving is going to be so weird without her." evening though she'd only celebrated a handful with us.

When I entered the room,  I saw the open casket my mother referred to. It was beautiful. All white and ready to be my great aunt's time capsule. I didn't approach because that's not how I roll. It's not that I'm disturbed by the dead. It's that I'd already said goodbye, and I'm pretty sure she had long since left the building. However, after I had said my hellos to my loved ones and sat behind my father, I looked up at the body lying at the front of the room. That's when I noticed it. There was a Chucky Doll in my great aunt's coffin standing over her!

Now I know you're thinking we all should have fled, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Chucky Doll that was possessed by the evil spirit of a serial killer. It was just one of those Good Guy dolls, complete with overalls, freckles and playful cap. Okay, it probably wasn't a Good Guy doll from the Chucky films, but it sure looked like it. I wasn't the only one who thought so. Every person I asked agreed after looking at me like I was weirder than a Chucky doll in a casket.

Listen, I know everyone deals with things differently. My aunt dealt with things by collecting dolls, one of which kept her company at her funeral. My mother deals with things by speaking in solemn tones. My husband deals with things by keeping a straight face while his wife kicks the back of his mother-in-law's chair during a funeral. My sister deals with things by reconnecting with everyone down to our third cousin's proctologist. (Maybe an exaggeration. I'm not sure any of our third cousins have proctologists.) My point is, everyone has their thing. Mine is to laugh, even if someone else thinks it's disrespectful. My great aunt would have laughed with me if she had been there. I hope people laugh at my funeral. I hope they laugh a lot and at my expense. It would be beautiful.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Holidays and Hospitals

Trapped in the death grip
of a mall Santa
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years . . . some mentally ill folks would rather skip these orgies of food, festivities and family. They're a sensory overload combined with forced family fun that can end in frantic family fighting. Panic attacks, depression, reminders of lost of loved ones and financial stress are just a few of the things that can make us want to run for the hills. Me? I love the holidays and try not to let the triggers catch up to me. I fail sometimes, but this year, in spite of the universe's efforts to the contrary, I had a fucking fabulous Christmas, though sprinkled with some serious family health scares.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite ladies, a beloved aunt, became very ill with pneumonia. She wound up in the hospital in critical care for weeks. I hate the hospital. It reminds me of shitty days. Still, it was HER! I had to go, and did several times without freaking out. (Bravo, me) She got better with every visit and I loved getting to watch it happen. Christmas came to life around us and things were looking great. Come Christmas Day, I was ready. Everyone had a perfect present. I made amazing dip and cinnamon pastries. I received beautiful and thoughtful presents. Christmas was fanfuckingtastic.

A few days later, we heard that the same wonderful lady who was at home recovering was back in the hospital on the brink of death. She'd had what we thought was a heart attack, then another and another. It hit us all hard. I'm not going to reveal any identifying characteristics of this great lady because she's a private person, but let's just say she isn't old enough to go this way. It was finally time to freak out a little, have a cry and worry without distraction.

This right here is why a lot of people who are sensitive hate the holidays. It reminds them of moments like this. It reminds them of people they love who aren't there or of the shortcomings of those who are there. It might be because things are really starting to look up for My Brave Lady, but I refuse to hate the holidays still. She loves them. She enjoyed every second of them, in spite of her illnesses. I'm not sure how she feels about it now because she isn't awake yet, but I think she will continue to love Christmas. You have to take advantage of the dopamine rush of giving and receiving, the oxytocin boost that comes with hugs and the amazing smells. Hospitals can suck a fat one, but holidays are still my favorite.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Suicide is Selfish . . . and Other Lies About Mental Illness

I'm going to start this off with a rare disclaimer. While I'm saying a lot of things people think about suicide and mental illness aren't true, I'm not saying the opposite of what they think. When I say suicide isn't selfish, that doesn't mean I think it's selfless. I think it's a horrible thing that people do sometimes because they can't figure out another option. I want those people to get help, first and foremost. If you're contemplating suicide and you're in the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255. If you're outside of the U.S., just type suicide into Google. The first result will be a help line near you. Please use it.

Now for your irregularly scheduled post. People with mental illness get bombarded with misinformation constantly. I'm sure it's true for patients with any kind of illness really. The cancer patient whose friend on facebook says drinking holy water cured her neighbor's mother-in-law. The fibromyalgia patient who hears it's all in her head. We're all in the same boat. Everyone has a damn opinion, usually accompanied by some lame attempt at credibility, such as my "my mom has depression, so it's impossible for me to be insensitive about your bipolar disorder." So, what are the more common misconceptions I hear about mental illness and what do I think of them? If that sort of thing interests you, read on.

Suicide is Selfish

This one is so common that I hear it my regular life, not just in the wilds of the Internet. I hear that it's selfish because it hurts the people who are left behind. I hear it's weak because the person just didn't snap out of it and keep fighting. These people 110% do not understand clinical suicidality. They may have lost a loved one and thought, "I just want to die." They may have even passingly considered suicide at one point or another as a way to escape their problems. It's easy to see why they think it's selfish because their feelings on it have always been that way. Let's explore why it isn't.

Depression, anxiety and hallucinations are examples of some of the mental pain that can lead to suicidality. When felt at the more extreme end of the spectrum, these symptoms/conditions are all-consuming. They can convince you that you're useless. They can convince you that you are a burden on your family. They can convince you that you will never contribute to society, you are dangerous, you are in danger and that the world is better if you are dead. They can cause tremendous anguish in the sufferer. People who are suicidal often think about it as an option because they think it will be better for others. What's selfish about that? Sure, they're wrong, and even if their illness makes them a little needier, it doesn't matter. Being wrong does not a selfish act make, so why not leave these poor folks to rest? If suicide really bothers you, maybe don't waste time calling it selfish and spend that time showing someone their value.

Nature, Talking to a Friend, Etc. is Better Than Medicine

I see these memes all the time online. They'll have pictures of a puppy and say "the only therapy I need" or show a forest and read "medicine is bullsh*t, doctors should prescribe a hike." There are so many of these I've lost track. Listen, we all know that the happy things in life are good for people with mental illness. They're good for all of us. That doesn't mean they can replace medication. Medication can save people's lives. This kind of misinformation backed up with a dismissive "it's what works for me" only proves that these people aren't mentally ill. They're just people having people problems. That's fine. Go for a walk. I'll be over here taking my prescribed medications so that I can also go for a walk.

Mental Illness Means You're Weak

Oh, please. Tell that to soldiers with PTSD. Tell that to people who've survived sexual trauma more times than they can remember. Tell that to the guy managing to take care of his family in spite of voices he hears telling him lies about himself and others. Tell that to the girl having a panic attack in a class and finishing anyway. People with mental illness are not more strong or weak than anyone else. They have to deal with more emotionally, but there are the weak and the strong among us just as there are among any other demographic. We're all just humans and mental illness can happen to any of us.

People With Mental Illness are Violent

This myth is particularly damaging to people with mental illness. I'm not going to argue that there aren't volatile individuals among us. I won't argue that sometimes an agitated sufferer can act out. However, I will argue that mentally ill people aren't the cause of gun violence in America. Mentally ill people don't even make up the majority of gun violence perpetrators. Numbers seem to point to mentally ill individuals being more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators. As for myself, it would take a lot to get me to do something violent. I'm terrified of even accidentally hurting someone, let alone doing it on purpose.

Mental Disorders Aren't Medical Conditions

Thanks to Scientology, anti-pharm and armchair doctors across the world, there is a common misconception that mental disorders aren't the same as medical conditions. Thanks for that one, guys. That's why you can't get decent help in an ER for a psych crisis. Your brain is part of your body. I'm not sure if they've noticed that yet, but yeah. It's not separate. It's an organ inside of your body. If it malfunctions, you have a medical condition. It's only differentiated inasmuch as a heart doctor is for your heart. A mental health professional is for your brain and may be part of a patient's support team that includes a neurologist.

I get that a lot of misunderstandings come from personal experience with a few mentally ill individuals or simply from ignorance. Just try to remember that anecdotes aren't evidence and what a person does to treat their condition is none of your business. We're all just trying to feel better.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Shut the F*ck Up Anxiety!

This image couldn't be
more unrelated. I just like it.
I like to pretend I'm cultivating an attitude of calm. I meditate. I do yoga. I'm mindful. Many days, I can hear the whispering of anxiety that almost constantly lingers in the back of mind and ignore it. Other days, it's a bit louder. Some days, it's like, "Hey, remember me? Yeah, I'm going to make you have a major meltdown that will take you months to recover from again. You'll never see it coming." On thosee days, I just want to tell my anxiety to shut it's f*cking mouth. You know what I mean?

I know, I know. Fighting anxiety is one of the reasons we suffer from it. Radically accepting can truly be helpful. Just letting it happen while trying desperately not to do things like go to the hospital, neurotically clean your house, pace around the block multiple times a day can also help, if you can manage not to react to the anxiety. Distraction is one of my favorite tools. That's nice too. I get it. Playing nice works better. I don't always want to play nice, though. Sometimes, I want to get mad.

I want to say, "Hey, *ssh*le. This is my head. I've got stuff to do and I don't care if you think I'm going to get a UTI and die. I don't have time to obsess about relapsing. I don't want to hear your incessant fear mongering. I don't want to shake or cry or have to use the bathroom twenty times in an hour. I want you to pack your sh*t and move out." My therapist would tell me that's cool. She'd say to go for it. I just feel like if I do, I'm going to make myself miserable.

Instead, I'm going to spend today distracting myself from my fears. I'm going to do things I love. I'm going to keep myself busy enough that the voice in the back of my head can't shout over the rest of the stuff that is going on. I'm going to try and I'll probably succeed.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Opposing Anxiety

Took this gorgeous photo
when I opposed anxiety and
spent the day in the city.
I may have said here before that I think we suffer more when we fight anxiety. I believe that to be true. Trying to get rid of it, hating it and otherwise making your struggle greater seems counter intuitive to me. However, that doesn't mean you can't oppose your anxiety. Instead of coming to blows with it, just go against it. Do what it doesn't want you to do.

Exposures are a common enough concept in anxiety. It means doing the thing you're afraid over and over until it becomes old hat and thus less terrifying. This is a similar concept, but less structured. It's something I try to do in the moment. For example, say I think about going to the movies and it makes my stomach flip-flop. Well, before I was maybe going to the movies, now, hopefully, I definitely am. An emotion doesn't get to tell me who to be and how to live life. I, we, deserve to go to the movies.

I am starting to think of it as doing the opposite. It isn't always appropriate, so I can't always implement it, but it's a fun tool to have. If anxiety says, get up and move around, clean, workout, do something! I sit. I work. I read. I play video games, but I stay still. If anxiety says, stay here. You can't go out and do the thing! I don't stay. I go out and do the thing. Listen, it isn't successful every time or this would hardly be a disorder, but I'm enjoying trying to stay ahead of my anxiety and showing it that's it's wrong from time to time.

I'm not saying if you're anxiety tells you not to hurt yourself or someone to do the opposite. That's horrible, and you don't want to do that. I'm not saying that if your anxiety smartly tells you not to drive 101 miles on the interstate that you should put the pedal to the metal. These are areas where anxiety is useful . . . and correct. Deep down, you know when your anxiety is being rational and when it is irrational. Try to know when to oppose and when to listen up.