Thanks to this title, I bet you all think I have some magic solution to this conundrum. But ha! I don’t. This is where I’m writing to open it up to a discussion.
I have written just once before about spirituality and a connection to God as it relates to depression/mental health problems, and my conclusion was and stays the same: my deep faith in God and knowing that He is there and ready to help and support me carries me through the toughest times, but I don’t feel it at the toughest times very well. It feels like a thick cloud has covered the heavens and all I have left are memories that God is there.
Where does this leave me when I know we’re supposed to lay our burdens at the feet of Jesus? That we can’t carry them ourselves, that we absolutely need divine help? When I am depressed, I don’t feel much except distance: from my family, friends, those I logically know support me but, as I’m in it, feel far. I’m muffled. This distance especially takes in God. It can be difficult for me at times to feel Him because I tend to be a deep thinker. It’s hard to make SENSE of it: how in the world does He do what He does? How can He possibly know ME, just me, so well that he’s really there for me all the time, any time I need Him? He has billions and billions of children He loves as much as He loves me. How can I matter so much when I’m one tiny speck? It baffles me, even as that logical part of me can look back and tally up times I have no doubt He was doing things for me and supporting me.
When others say, and I remember talks or scriptures telling me to do this, Lean upon the Lord, let Him take your burdens, and so on, I have absolutely no idea how that works when I’m depressed in a way I feel surrounded by cotton, my ears and mind just stuffed with it. He won’t take away the depression. I know that over years of experience. So how do I lay those burdens down when He won’t take them or make them feel lighter?
Midway through my life, I don’t have an answer to this question. I simply know that there are plenty of beautiful, joyous, strong times in my life, and the darkness, the aloneness, do take good, long breaks… Well, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer… Is that hope, that knowledge from the times that I get to be above the clouds and feeling those rays of God’s love, enough? Is simply having faith and experience to know that tough times don’t last the best I can do in terms of laying down my burdens and showing faith?
I’ve heard a few times that Winston Churchill experienced depression and referred to it as his “black dog.” It may or may not be completely accurate, but it has become one of those anecdotes that’s oft repeated. I’ve had some black dog times throughout my life, where the giant mutt mistakes me for a dog bed and nearly suffocates me. But I’ve also faced a gray dog often enough, who is mostly content to sit next to me and put his big head on my shoulder.
I am working on trying to pull out of a current visit, shooing away this stray dog who isn’t welcome but manages to barge inside my house and settle in for a while now and then.
I feel sure many people have experienced gray dog times, whereas not everyone has faced the big black dog. I’ve struggled with mental health for decades and am what I consider to be in mostly good shape at this point. I’ve got it managed with good medication and a good psychiatrist and therapist. But I think that means I’m a bit more susceptible to a down time that might not bother others so much if they don’t have a predisposition to depression or other mental health challenges.
So when I lost my job a couple of months ago, it just sent me into the fog. I knew it would be a danger and I knew I had to face head-on the grief of losing something I really enjoyed and I was very good at. But I’ve still had to push on, moving through what feels like mud many days just to keep up with all my responsibilities. I still have three children at home, who are busy and keep me going, and who depend on me emotionally and for taxi-ing and providing nourishing sustenance, among many other things. So I’ve kept on getting up and getting moving, pulling myself to the grocery store, to the errands, taking the girls to their events and practices and so on. Providing a listening ear, an embrace, love.
A very unwelcome side effect of my gray dog visits is that I tend to eat more (gotta eat for me and for a huge furry animal, after all!). I have struggled with emotional eating my whole life, and I have yet to get past it, despite much awareness and much investigation into ideas of ways to combat it. I lost 44 pounds last year and now after the past few months, I’ve regained a lot of it (not all, yet, though!). That, of course, just makes me feel worse. One horrific complicating factor, unfortunately, is that the society we live in does not look kindly on fat, on weight gain (though we cheer others on whenever they lose weight, for any reason; heck, I enjoyed all the compliments when I lost weight), on what is supposedly an outward manifestation of personal weakness. I feel weak, and now I feel others judge me as weak, but in a negative way, not a compassionate way. And I feel doubly bad that I look so weak because society at large is wicked on this count.
But here’s the kicker — as much as I’ve said to those close to me I’d love to have a sign that warns people I come in contact with (and who likely are needing something, expecting something, from me) that I’m not my usual kick-butt, get-stuff-done-with-a-vengeance, talented, skilled, intuitive, amazing woman, and to just give me a little leeway, breathing room; to lower their expectations, to not ask for that favor or expect me to do what they need me to do; I almost DO have one. That weight gain is a pretty good bet I’m eating emotionally, and that means I’ve got a lot going on in my heart and head, and I need some gentleness, some TLC, some hugs, some quiet time, some understanding. And to not ask anything but “would you like to go to a spa?” or “let’s get you a pretty new dress that fits just right and looks awesome” or something similar.
But pretty much no one knows, or believes it, maybe, because I pull off really well that appearance of having it together. Because I don’t have a lot of choice otherwise. And I try to quietly tell people when it’s appropriate that I’m not my best and I’m working on getting back to my better self, because I do want some understanding and I want to be honest. I do know I’ll feel better; it’s just a matter of time, and I can reassure others of this. But I do want to share, in the meantime. I do want to be open.
But I CAN’T FORCE IT, force being better, being at the end of that rough road and back onto a smoother one. And neither can anyone. I have such compassion and empathy for those who are struggling with any of these unwelcome dogs, darkest of midnight black or a paler dove gray. Because anyone who is outside doesn’t get that you can’t do the simplest of things. You cannot say, “But can you just do ____?” Because any of those “just” things are somehow far too hard to do when you’re in fog.
I’ve not been going to the gym for two months. I got sick twice (that did NOT help this whole matter) and didn’t feel well enough. I always enjoy my workouts. But now I’m out of the habit, in small part, but I’m also stuck in the mode of “I can’t get GOING” on many “extra” things that aren’t absolutely necessary every day. I am denying myself something I enjoy and that helps my health and my weight and even would help improve the depressive symptoms. ! But I can’t make myself do it. My brain is stuck.
I’ve also not been using my CPAP machine. I only needed it once I’d gained a fair amount of weight after my daughter got married (my last real gray dog episode, a bit under 4 years ago), and it did help. But then last year I lost weight and I felt pretty good without it. I know now I need it again. Here is the exchange I have had in my brain a number of nights:
Me: Just put the thing on your head.
Brain: Nope. We are resting comfortably, and reaching over and getting the thing that’s two feet away on the nightstand would be too much effort and then we’d be too worked up to get to sleep.
Me: We need this. It’s so close.
Brain: No. Toooo tiiiired to reach for it. It won’t make a big difference anyway. Why bother?
Me: This is ridiculous. It’s right. there. Good grief, get it already!
Brain: No thanks. Just go to sleep. Maybe tomorrow.
Me: Ohhhhkay. Maybe tomorrow will work. Pfffttt.
So when my doctor tells me, “You need to use your CPAP,” I nod and agree and tell her I’ll do it soon, knowing the mental hassle it’s going to cause. She will NEVER get it. Oh, and don’t get me started on how I have to brace myself when she notices the weight I’ve gained…. grrrr. That’s nowhere NEAR as easy as putting on a CPAP mask. And that’s ridiculously difficult sometimes, as you just read. I (kind of) grin and bear it through any doctor visit.
As I said, when I know that this one tiny, tiny thing, which seems so easy and so obvious to outsiders, is that difficult to actually execute (and this is simply one example of a number of other things I know logically I need to do and that would be good for me), I know that depression, whether it’s gray or black, is NOT something people can just pull out of on their own. Don’t ever say to someone going through this, “If you just…” Because it’s far more difficult than you can possibly imagine if you’ve not been through it yourself.
I managed to actually put on my CPAP two nights this week, so I’m feeling like I’m actually pulling out of the fog. The dog is showing hints it’s going to be heading out for a while. That’s very good news. One or two things get the ball rolling. But it’s on the dog’s time, not mine or anyone else’s. I’ve come to terms with this. And I guess that’s a lesson learned and it’s OK. It’s OK if you’re in this spot, too. I’m with ya.
Part of the reason I write this blog is to document my particular struggles with mental health. Having to deal with some kind of challenge that’s within the range of mental health is just as common as dealing with some kind of difficulty with any kind of physical health. In other words, either category is EXTREMELY broad. Physical challenges can range from diabetes or thyroid issues to cancer or gallstones. Any disruption in mental health can lie anywhere in a big range, too. Physical illnesses can sometimes prove tough to pin down, but it seems figuring out a diagnosis of a mental illness can prove consistently more difficult. Even if a diagnosis seems mostly straightforward, finding a treatment that will help the person going through it to get to a fairly “normal” state is far more difficult.
I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve been diagnosed with depression, bipolar, or atypical bipolar disorder variously over the past 25 years or so. I’ve gone through a number of antidepressants and some medicines that are usually prescribed to treat bipolar disorder. Some have helped for a short time, some haven’t helped at all, some have made me feel worse. Some have helped enough for me to live my life pretty normally. I’ve been seeing a very capable nurse practitioner for the past five or six years, I think, and I’ve been on an antidepressant that’s pretty much kept me mostly in “normal” mode. But I’ve still had bouts (or very, very long, standard stretches) of what I’d just call irritability. And I know that just isn’t ME. I’ve known instinctively that it’s more a quirk in my brain chemistry or something, rather than a defining characteristic of who I am. And my extremely busy life managing a household, taking care of four daughters (now one of whom is married and out of the house, so the dynamics and responsibilities have somewhat changed, but not at all taken her “off the register,” so to say), working from home part-time and volunteering and managing fairly big church responsibilities, just for a short summation, keeps me running at a high level. It’s easy to say it’s “understandable” I’m irritable. But recently I thought it was time to check in with my practitioner and address the irritability again. I’m exhausted from “managing” it. Surely there’s something out there to help me with my underlying mental health so I’m not working so hard to manage and can just live, expending a bit less energy on coping?
So we visited a few weeks ago, and talked for a while. She is fantastic because she’s very thoughtful and discusses the issues with me, asks probing questions, revisits assumptions, etc. We’re partners in my care, and I really feel she’s very knowledgeable, and she’s sensitive as well. That’s a biggie. She said to me that perhaps I’m not really on the bipolar spectrum at all. All she could say was that I’m just my own thing. So there might not be either a diagnosis for whatever I present as yet, or because mental health really is so varied and unique to each of us, maybe there isn’t or won’t be, if that makes sense. All we know is there have to be some kinds of ways to help me with some kind of existing medication so I can function better. So she said she’d try something, a medication that psychiatrists sometimes use to help with that part of mood. It’s a seizure medication used off-label in this way. She tried me on a very small dose, and I actually do feel it’s helping. My life is still CRAZY BUSY!, but I feel a little less like I have to work hard to manage my mood even while I’m managing my life. So I’m feeling hopeful and a little happier, just to have an extra tool in my arsenal, and to know that my practitioner is really awesome at her job.
This just leads me to a few conclusions yet again: we still don’t know a lot about mental health and illness. We’re doing better than 30, 50, 70 years ago, but we have far to go. And we need far, far more practitioners who have the training, experience and skills to deal with this complex issue. So many people are suffering and there simply aren’t enough practitioners around to help them. I’m blessed to have found someone who can do what she does. Even that’s not perfect, but it’s really about the best I think there is. Meanwhile, I just wish, wish, wish we had more incentives for people to go into the profession and stay there, that the specialists were available in every small and underserved area.
I write this because I just want to put my voice out there. I’m mostly a “success story,” and that’s just because I’m not crippled by my lapses in mental health, and pretty well functioning, and I’m a very resilient, determined personality. I have at least enough income and resources that I have been able to find someone to really help, but that’s still taken a great deal of time and work on my part. It’s been a long and tough journey. It shouldn’t be this hard.
As we work to try to improve outreach, availability and quality of care, and genuine help for those of us with mental health challenges (again, not at all just a small portion of our population), let’s continue to just be kind, patient and understanding to those around us who struggle and need our help. It still does mean the world.
I’ve decided I’m going to make reading this book a once-a-year activity. Body of Truth is just that helpful. When I read it a year ago before it was even published, I dog-eared pages as I devoured it in just a day or two. I made my husband read it. THIS, this, is what everyone needs to know. I read it again this week in a day, dog-eared more pages, and considered making my husband read it again.
Now, I was able to keep my review to a reasonable length, but I’m going to write more about the insights I gained by reading Harriet Brown’s book. And I’ll have to split up the info into a few posts so it won’t get weighed down (ha ha). Today I’m just going to address the damage that is done by dieting. And let me tell you, that is one of the takeaways of this book that has me the most furious.
I never considered myself a dieter until the past 7 years or so. I noticed myself gaining when I was nearing 40. But I had actually dieted when I was about 12 by reducing a bit what I ate and not eating desserts. I didn’t keep track of pounds, just slimmed a little of “baby fat,” you could say. And then each time after my three pregnancies I breast-fed, counted calories (stuck to 1800 or so), and kept up my regular exercise. I got back down and a little bit more and was looking nicely trim at 33. I kept it up until, yeah, almost the 40s. Then I saw 10 pounds creep on and got a bit panicked (ha!). Then I happened to move to a new state and put on another 10 pounds, then another 10, then another 10. All of a sudden, I was a lot heavier and was feeling much different than I had before as generally an average-weight, trim-ish person. I dieted first by just really counting calories (and going hungry often) and lost 30, but it only held for a year or maybe two. It came back on, and then I started looking at other options. I did the hCG diet (yes, I know, I never DREAMED I’d be the person to do something drastic like that), but it worked and I at least lost almost 20 pounds and felt a lot better really quickly. That crept back on, and I did it again a year or so later. A couple of years ago, my best friend started doing Atkins, so I tried it. It worked and I did well enough to lose maybe 20 or 25 pounds and feel it was worth the work and sacrifice. My daughter got married, then, last year, and all bets were off. I ate, and I ate, and I ate. I was depressed and stressed and just went straight to food. And what do you know, I am now by far the heaviest I’ve ever been. I went back on Atkins for a few weeks in the fall, then something crazy happened, and then I went back on it this last month, then my grandma died. And I am 20 pounds heavier than my heaviest weight ever before.
So not counting the post-pregnancy “getting back to pre-pregnancy weight” work, I have dieted, lost and gained, at least four main times, plus a few more little times, in the past 8 years. I have been successful. I have been tough. I have focused. And then I’ve either gone back to semi-normal eating (not being hungry) and gained back, or I’ve had some eat-a-lot periods. And what do you know, I’m completely normal. Studies show very low rates of “long-term” success, which is at most watched over 5 years, and almost nothing for rates past that time period (3 years is really even the limit of most “long-term” studies). Evidence also shows that not only do people who diet tend to gain back what they lost, but they gain more on top of that.
So if I had never dieted, I’d most likely just be at my previous “heaviest,” but not the 20 pounds more than that that I am now. I might even be 10 or more pounds below that. And I’d have saved myself a lot of unnecessary work, focus and energy that could have gone to something more productive. I don’t know if you’ve been in this situation or not (likelihood is many of you have been), but this realization absolutely OUTRAGES me.
Brown writes this:
(An) oft-repeated lie about weight and health is that dieting makes us thinner and healthier. At the very least, we consider dieting benign, something that can’t hurt us even if it doesn’t really help. But the truth is, dieting is actually harmful for many of us for all sorts of reasons. And it doesn’t make most of us thinner or healthier. On the contrary.
And she says this: a 2007 investigation (as one example) confirmed that diets don’t work. “The mind-boggling element here is that we’ve known diets don’t work for a long time, and so has the medical establishment.” But still society at large, doctors, individuals … we all think they can work if people just are motivated enough, have enough willpower, work hard enough. And that big fat lie is causing us health problems. Just think: doctors who are all encouraging patients to lose weight may very well be making their patients’ health problems WORSE.
Here are some sobering points Brown tells us:
“Dieting nearly always makes people heavier over time. In one study of Finnish twins, the more diets people went on, the higher their risk of becoming overweight and the faster they gained weight later in life.”
“Dieters tend to have higher levels of cortisol, sometimes called ‘the stress hormone,’ and free fatty acids, and dieters tend to exhibit diminished executive function, (‘strained bandwidth’), maybe because using so much mental energy thinking, worrying, and negotiating about food choices leaves them too distracted to think about much else” — which in turn actually causes us to gain more weight.
Dieting actually has been shown in studies to lead to binge eating. It’s not just psychological, either; physiology on various levels causes us to eat more after dieting, reversing all our work (brain circuitry even changes!).
”An ever-growing body of research suggests that weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting, correlates with higher levels of heart disease, impaired immune function, cardiometabolic risk, insulin resistance, triglycerides, hypertension, and abdominal fat accumulation.”
Studies have “found correlations between weight cycling and disordered eating, higher stress, lower well-being, and less confidence about food and eating. In other words, the more loops of the yo-yo you go around, the worse you feel about your weight, your eating, your very self.”
Each loop of the cycle then is harder. It’s tougher to drop the weight every go-round. Dieting changes metabolism. “People who have intentionally lost weight generally use about 15 percent fewer calories than non-dieters to perform exactly the same activities, which means they gain weight eating fewer calories than non-dieters.” As one research professor told Brown, “We know there’s some sort of derangement of the metabolic pathways, and that has a cascade effect on everything from the hormones involved with obesity to hunger.”
So people who feel fat or have been told they’re fat and need to lose weight feel “incredible shame.” Our whole culture reinforces that. Doctors reinforce that. And it’s not helping anyone. It’s not helping health; it’s not making anyone motivated; it’s not making us feel good; it’s a wicked prejudice that is still allowed. Feeling the outrage yet?
In the next few blog posts, I’ll focus on some of these last ideas and more.
Today is the anniversary of my father’s death — officially (he was on life support for a day or two and then “declared dead”). I think he was really gone very late on the 13th or early the 14th. His brain experienced two big hemorrhages and I’m sure it was really “over” fairly soon. I clearly remember the moment at 9 p.m. that day that I got the call he was unconscious. I know I went into shock myself: I sat down on the couch and was just stiff, cold and shaking.
I was not at all prepared for him to die. He was only 71, and he had worked ridiculously hard (we joked with him that he worked TOO hard) to keep himself healthy by eating well and exercising. I thought for sure he’d be around a good long while. The shock of that unexpected loss took a long while to shake off.
Six years later, I’m accustomed to his being gone. When I think of him, I don’t experience a painful stab in my chest as I did for a long while. Now it’s just a small pang of longing, much less painful. It hits in the same place, right in my heart, but the wound is no longer a gaping hole. It’s scabbed over, enough so that no one else even knows it’s there, I’m sure.
This year brought me another unexpected loss. I saw the loss coming, so I guess saying the loss itself was unexpected isn’t accurate: the grieving period I went through was what took me by surprise. Because who really thinks about the notion of mourning for a beloved child who has grown up and flown from the nest?
My firstborn got married, to an incredible young man who’s just about as incredible as she is. I was thrilled about the union (once I processed the notion of her being married pretty young, which I hadn’t seen coming either, but that’s another story. The very short version: she found a wonderful person, we love him, we love them, and it was right. Plans/expectations are one thing, but life always throws interesting curve balls.).
To say the period of engagement/wedding planning was stressful is almost a cliche. Very few people say their engagements were breezy and stress-free, and, yeah, it was busy and had its bumpy moments. Bringing two families together, planning, coordinating, … it can be tough. But all through it, you know you have this amazing day to look forward to. The reward’s huge. And the wedding day and reception were beautiful, sweet, poignant, fun, full of love and friends and family celebrating together. It was a wonderful memory.
I was thinking I’d need some “recovery” time afterward to wind down from the stress of preparation. It didn’t go quite as I’d hoped, because then my girls were all home from school for the summer and I had precious little time to myself. And my personality, my particular mix of needs, requires a certain amount of alone time, to just process the rest of life, to take a breath.
As it turns out, I realized a month or two ago, I was mourning all summer. But I didn’t really recognize it as such because it wasn’t as clear-cut a “grieving situation” as, say, my dad’s death, and my younger kids kept me so crazy all summer I didn’t get to really think much and just let everything go through my brain, my emotions, my self.
One day in the middle of the summer, I did have a moment where it struck me that I felt the loss of my daughter almost as a death. It was just one day, one morning. We hadn’t seen her in a week or more, hadn’t really had any quality time with her (she lives with her husband about a 45-minute drive away from us, and they live next door to his parents, so they get to be with his family all the time and we make a lot of trips up there to see her; as time has gone on, I’ve been able to decrease the number and frequency of trips a bit so it doesn’t seem like we’re there all the time). And I just said to my husband, “I feel like she’s dead. She’s gone. How strange. It feels like I feel with Dad.” It was so clearly a loss, and it hit me square in the chest, same thing. We saw her the next day, I think, and my husband and I ended up taking her and our 13-year-old to lunch at a salad place, and that one hour being our “old” selves in a familiar environment “like we used to be” before it all changed so much made that feeling go away, or at least recede into the background for a while.
Nearly five months after the wedding, I’m starting to feel a little more myself again. When you’re in mourning, you’re a reduced version of yourself, parts shuttered, shut down, the world seeming a little dimmer. I’ve felt the world brighten up again, I think, and I’m coming back into my own. I was sad for a few months. One consequence, in my arsenal of bad habits, was that I just ate. And ate. I went through quart after quart of ice cream. I must have gained 15 to 20 pounds over the summer. I was swallowing the pain. That last consequence I’m dealing with right now, and making progress: I put myself on a low-carb diet. I was just feeling physically cruddy, and I know all the sugar I was eating was making me feel even cloudier than the grief was. A week and a half in, I’m feeling clearer and physically much better. It’s a gift I’m giving myself: to take care of my body.
So life brings grief in various ways. Death is an “obvious” vehicle for it. But we must mourn all kinds of losses. I’m reminded occasionally, with my 17-year-old, that I mourned the loss of a “normal” child when she was born because of her Down syndrome. There are days that remind me she’s not like the “typical” teen at this stage: she’s not going to be driving (not anytime soon, for sure), she can’t babysit. We have to check on her personal hygiene sometimes, and we have to remind her about appropriate behavior around other people. It’s a loss, and I am reminded more of that now because our family dynamics have changed so much since our oldest got married and moved out.
The reality is we need to be gentle with ourselves when we mourn any loss, and realize that we have to take time to grieve. We must move through it. We also need to realize that others are mourning losses as well that may not be visible to us. Be sensitive to anyone’s mourning periods of any loss. They may breeze through the period of mourning, or they may slog through. I felt “weak” somehow this whole summer because I just wasn’t myself. I felt silly because so many of my friends had children leaving the nest, whether it was for college or for church mission opportunities or some through marriage. They all seemed to be just fine. Why wasn’t I? The truth of the matter is that it didn’t matter how other people fared, when it came to my own feelings. I had to be respectful of how I felt and how I had to work through it. I hope it makes me more sensitive to others through whatever losses they’re grieving.
Life is beautiful. It is bittersweet. It is a hodgepodge of opposites: highs and lows, gains and losses. Despite the pain of grieving, I’m grateful to be on this grand adventure.
Ever had a problem; been frustrated, angry or a little depressed; felt stuck? Ever had someone tell you, “Well, if you just did this ______, you’d be fine?”
I’ve had people say that to me. And it shuts me up. It doesn’t help me, but it stops me from talking to those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it to someone else; I hope I haven’t. I know I’ve thought it. But at least for a long while now, I’ve known better than to say it out loud. And I’ve tried to remind myself of the truth:
Any one of us can have problems and challenges that, compared with someone else, somewhere, can look tiny, easily surmountable. Sometimes it’s helpful to realize others have it worse. If we look at our lives with appreciation and gratitude for the good things we have, it can help. But usually, trying to tell ourselves logically (or have someone else “helpfully” do so) that our problems shouldn’t be such a big deal does squat for our feelings.
Here’s why: we are allowed to feel how we feel. We’re meant to feel. We’re meant to have feelings in response to life situations, whether they’re kind of everyday things or unusual things. We’re meant to have all kinds of feelings all over the spectrum of emotion. And those feelings include “bad” ones. We’re meant to just feel those feelings. And what usually happens is once we allow ourselves to feel them, really feel them, we can move on to other feelings about other life events.
The problem is when we stunt that natural process by telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling “so bad” or by having someone else tell us so. It stops us from moving through the feelings, talking or thinking through the ideas and emotions.
Same applies to things we could or should be doing or doing better, not just what we’re feeling. Likely we’re comparing something we’re just naturally not so good at with something that really is easy for someone else, so we feel inadequate. Or we could compare something that’s easy for us with something someone else finds more challenging. And we say those dreaded words: “Just do ___.”
We all not only have a complex mix of weaknesses, strengths, natural talents and acquired skills, but we are at different stages in life. Something that was hard for us 20 years ago might be much easier now. Ditto for those around us. And something that was easy for us a year ago might be harder now because our circumstances are more challenging in other areas or we’re struggling with events that are zapping our emotional strength.
For me, I’m finding that I am feeling a general sadness in one layer of myself/my life because my oldest daughter got married a few weeks ago and moved out. But I hate to say anything to anyone because it just “seems silly.” She lives only an hour’s drive away and we can talk and visit. Every other parent my age has already had children go off to college or serve as missionaries for our church, during which time they’re gone for a solid 18 or 24 months and only generally in contact via email or letter once a week. So I feel ridiculous saying out loud that I’m grieving a little over the “loss” in a way of my first, amazing child. But it does make me sad she’s not around all the time anymore. I miss the daily interaction and talks and jokes and hugs and smiles and everything that was our relationship while I was raising her. Things are changing, have changed. It’s real to me. But I don’t want to say anything to anyone else for fear of being compared, of essentially having my feelings belittled because their “loss” is bigger. Their child is across the country or across the world … or something “bigger.”
I also find that I feel down on myself because I have generally been doing well with eating healthy, cutting out sugar and a lot of carbs, this past 10 months or so. But the past month, since right before my daughter’s wedding and since, I just haven’t had it in me to “diet” properly. I’ve been eating junk, and lots of it, and I feel physically yucky. I feel bad because I had done so well. But I also realize that circumstances are different: I’m “recovering” from all the work and stress of preparing for my daughter’s wedding; my kids are now out of school for the summer and my “alone time” is a lot less; I’m adjusting to the change of our family dynamics, and I’m trying to “play catch-up” for some work and things that got put on hold with all I did for the wedding (because I am not just an awesome mom but very capable in planning things and organizing, and the wedding was awesome too). In short, it takes a lot of work for ME to eat well. And even though I feel yucky physically and would really like to feel better, I have to have the emotional and mental energy to focus on taking care of myself, truly properly. Others might say (and heaven knows plenty of “professionals” and bloggers say) “just do it.” Just stop eating sweets. Just stop emotional eating. Right now, for me, it’s akin to saying, “Just stop smoking. It’s so easy.” I’ve never smoked, but I have certainly heard how hard it is to stop.
I’m trying to allow myself to feel, to validate my own feelings. I’m talking to a few trusted friends who are kind enough to listen and validate as well. I’m also trying to allow myself not to take it too hard that I’ve gained a few pounds and am having a hard time with the junk food. Because I also know that I’ll be fine soon enough and will get back to where I should be. If I’m not there at this very moment, today, it’s OK. I will be soon. And that’ll be OK.
In short, I’m giving myself permission to feel, to not be “my best.” And I strive to do that for others. When they talk about feelings or issues they’re struggling with, I know that even if they sound “easy” for me, they’re not easy for them. I nod, I listen, I hug. I say, to them and to myself, “That is hard. I’m sorry you’re going through that. I love you and care about you.” And it’s true, and that’s really all it takes.
Four days after the devastating news of Robin Williams’ suicide, I’m still feeling the loss of someone I never even knew personally. Perhaps it’s because his genius acting work has been a part of my life pretty much ever since I can remember (oh, yes, I was watching when he first hit the airwaves with “Mork and Mindy”). I can mark important times in my life with what movie he was doing at the time; for instance, my husband and I saw “Aladdin” on our first date nearly 22 years ago. Even now, our family quotes from that movie.
But another part of the reason this event has affected me so deeply is that it strikes close to home. I started this blog to write, in part, about mental illness, to just put my own experience out there. And Williams’ death has had me thinking a great deal in relation to how I can understand it and how I want to be able to continue to share my feelings with others. There have been some poignant tributes and some spot-on blog posts and articles about suicide, about depression, about the almighty struggle some experience with their mental health. I don’t think I can do any better, but I can just share my viewpoint.
Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a study focusing on cognitive issues in women who have breast cancer (I was part of the control group). I was happy to do my part for science, even if I had to drive a few hours away to get to Stanford University. Since the study is looking at cognitive effects of cancer or the treatment for it, it included questions and assessments not only about impairment of cognitive processes overall but also about emotional status. Since I had indicated on the questionnaires and intake forms that I take medication for depression, the researcher who worked with me asked me at the end of our time a little bit about my feelings and opinions on it. She said she focuses on psychology and has noticed in her time studying it that there are still not nearly enough treatments available for depression and other mental illnesses. Some people in the blogosphere and media have wondered why Williams, for example, didn’t just “get help.”
Here’s the sad truth: there isn’t nearly enough adequate “help” out there, whether it’s in the form of medications and other medical interventions and treatments or it’s in the form of professionals and non-professionals who really are good at what they do and can give superior guidance.
There is still an epic shortage (in my experience and opinion) in the number of qualified professionals who can treat people from all economic and health-care-coverage situations. This is particularly true in the case of the number of doctors or other practitioners who specialize in and are licensed to provide medications. In my experience, for instance, there are three psychiatrists covered by my health insurance (which might also be the total of all the psychiatrists in my city), and only one is taking new patients. That one I didn’t particularly like, and it’s crucial to have a certain level of rapport with someone who’s treating you for your brain chemistry. So I was lucky enough to hear about another provider who ended up being a better fit for me, but her office is an hour’s drive from my home, and her practice is not covered by my insurance. I am also lucky enough to be able to afford paying out of pocket for her care. But what about those who don’t have insurance at all, who can’t afford out-of-pocket costs, who don’t have access to transportation, etc.? There are a LOT of people not being served.
Then we move on to the issue of actual treatments available, even when one has unlimited access to doctors, therapists, and whatever medical intervention is available. And as the researcher and I discussed a few weeks ago, there are far too few options. I’m on an antidepressant that’s worked well enough for me the past couple of years to get me to where I can cope adequately with life’s challenges without being taken down completely. But there have been times medications weren’t doing enough for me, and it was hard.
There have been at least the number of times I can count on one hand, and possibly up to two hands, moments I’ve been in the blackest and deepest abyss and felt suicidal, even if it was only briefly. And I could go on and on about how if you haven’t been there, you can’t possibly know what it’s like. Logically, in a part of my brain, I knew I didn’t want to hurt my loved ones, didn’t want to deprive them of me. (That’s addressing the “selfish act” observation…) But it was a very distant part of my brain and one that was clouded over by the overwhelming despair and hopelessness of my feelings. As I’ve written before, it’s those times and others that I now feel my brain chemistry betrayed me. And it’s a very weird, unnerving feeling to have your brain working against itself and yourself. Even though I could logically call to mind times I enjoyed life and felt fulfilled and useful and vital and important to others, to the world, I just didn’t FEEL it. And it became impossible to imagine or believe I would feel that way again.
No amount of love and support and encouraging words from others (assuming the best, that one does have that kind of support system — believe me, there are plenty who don’t have that, making things even worse) can make that feeling go away. If your brain chemistry is off, it’s off. And that’s why we absolutely MUST find more options to treat that chemistry. There are far too few options now.
I appreciated this one article on Mashable, for example, that asserted, “Finally, We’re Talking About Mental Illness Like Adults.” People have generally been very thoughtful this week as they’ve discussed Williams. I sincerely and strongly hope that this discussion can continue, that a few important good things may come from this tragedy: 1) Let’s stamp out the stigma for good. Let’s work towards a culture in which people who experience any kind of mental illness can talk openly about it without fear of being judged or misunderstood or mistreated. Let’s make it as easy to talk about as any other illness that’s more “physical.” 2) We need to push for more research into more varied medications. There are a number of drugs out there (but not nearly enough) that are made for the treatment of mental illnesses, but a lot of them are similar to each other and work the same way. Pharmaceutical companies need to branch out and work on far more kinds of medications that attack mental illnesses in different ways, from different directions, etc. 3) We need more doctors. We need more prescribing practitioners available everywhere to everyone. This will not only be the kind thing to do, but one that will contribute to reducing many other existing societal problems: homelessness, joblessness, some violent crimes.
These aren’t easily attainable goals. But we certainly need to work towards them. It will make a world of difference to millions.
I just came across this brief article about a Jewish rabbi visiting a newly built temple of my faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “What I learned from visiting the new Mormon temple.” I am always interested to hear what others think about visiting our sacred sites, and I enjoy discussion and interaction with other people of faith, regardless of their doctrines or denominations. I heartily agree that we can all learn from each other, which is hardly a revelation, but a simple but important reminder. What struck me tonight was this sentence from his article: “My Jewish beliefs are strongly built on the Jewish idea of covenant (humans as partners with God) and Israel (humans wrestling with God).”
This really encapsulates what I’ve been experiencing myself, today alone, and the past weeks. I’ve been going back and forth, sometimes within minutes or hours, between the partnering with God and the wrestling with God. I have moments of clarity, of Spirit, of confidence that I can keep moving forward, of just-enough-hope, and then moments of frustration, anger, sadness, fear, and not-enough-hope. I’m seesawing.
I am all too aware of my firm belief that we lived as spirit beings with God before coming to this life. We knew we were coming here, and it was part of a plan for us to grow from spiritual toddlers to at least spiritual adolescents (that last bit is my little twist). I believe that I accepted and understood, at least in some measure, that life would be challenging, most of the time. But for some reason, right now, with whatever mixture of things that are working on me (a series of particularly challenging events, my particular chemical balances or imbalances, my background, my expectations, my hopes for my own future and those of my children …), I’m finding it difficult to feel consistently optimistic about my ability to just keep up, to keep pushing forward, “enduring to the end,” as scripture puts it. I’m wondering just how much faith I had in myself back in that time I can’t remember right now, when I was eager to come to this life, even knowing some degree of how difficult it would be. The question always is: how much did I really know then? How could I really know without having experienced it yet?
I’m really digging down deep to try to change some ingrained mental habits, and they’re fighting back hard. I know that my faith is both getting me through/should be getting me through. I’m trying to figure out how to truly rely on God at a level I most surely have not yet attained. I am all too aware that I’m trying to do too much on my own without being yoked with the Savior. But getting from point A, where I am, to point B, where I know I could/should be, is a bit of a mystery to me at this very moment.
My spirit soars when I experience those moments of covenant, of successfully partnering with God to do something good, to serve and uplift someone else, to create, to make something or someone better. But I’m still struggling mightily. I’m coming to appreciate more fully the concept of wrestling.
So this evening, I thank this good rabbi for his simple words. He probably had no idea what sharing a brief blurb about his beliefs would do for my thinking. I’m still going to be wrestling for a while, but it’s a mitzvah to have new insights.
Thanks to the magic of WordPress, I just found out (a couple of weeks into the party) about the 2014 Blog for Mental Health. How nifty! I began this blog nearly two years ago because I wanted to share my own experiences with mental health, among other things. I’m happy to see others speaking out about their own experiences with quirks of the mind, or with those of loved ones.
Yes, there is most certainly a stigma surrounding the topic of mental health/mental illness. Our culture is making progress but we still have a long way to go. If someone were to “go public” with their diagnosis of cancer or diabetes, for instance, pretty much everyone else around them would know what it meant, how it was going to affect the person, and maybe even how to be of support. But use the same scenario but with the diagnosis one of a mental illness, then far fewer people would know what that diagnosis entailed, how it was affecting the person, or how to be of support.
I will concede that mental health is a little trickier to diagnose or pin down with such clarity or certainty as other physical diseases or conditions. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist or that it’s a person’s “fault” or some sign of weakness. There are still many people, even in 2014, an age where we have pretty much eradicated polio and can easily and cheaply treat other diseases that used to decimate communities, who consider mental illness either “all in someone’s head” or something that could easily be defeated if someone just tried hard enough. That’s simply not OK. Too many people are suffering without proper help because of too much misunderstanding and not enough support. I admit that I feel a tad nervous sharing what I experience (despite my being a fairly outspoken person) because I know what others’ misconceptions can be, and life is tough enough already, folks.
So I say, Kudos to the people at A Canvas of the Minds who began this project two years ago. I repeat the words they share from the founder: “I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”
So I was appreciative this week to receive a book to review called Pros of Prozac: A Faith-Based Memoir of Overcoming the Stigma. Given my experience in book reviewing and my personal interest in mental health issues, this book was a welcome read.
It’s a little slip of a book, just over a hundred pages, which the author says is mostly intentional, so someone interested in the topic can just get a quick overview of her experience. So I read it in one sitting this afternoon. Beca Mark writes about her experience with postpartum depression after the birth of her first child, struggling with mood and depression, and finally deciding to seek professional help and take medication for her depression. It took 15 months to choose to take Prozac, and Mark discovered two things: one, why did she wait so long while suffering so much? and two, she realized that she had actually been struggling with depression her whole life but hadn’t known it until Prozac made her feel really good and really herself.
Mark’s experience is actually what I would call fairly straightforward. She was really struggling, and then struggled with just the concept of taking medication because of the stigma it has in our society (and the real lack of open discussion of the topic in her otherwise close-knit, very large family), and then finally decided to give in and take the medicine. And in fairly short order, she just felt a whole lot better. And she has felt consistently better in the years she’s been taking it, which I’m guessing is probably about five. She makes clear that it hasn’t made her life easy-peasy or super-simple or solved all her problems. It has simply made her more able to think clearly and be motivated and to just be her best self. As I put it, it’s helped her to be able to cope in the way that most “normal” people (i.e. those who don’t have depression or other mental-health struggles) do.
Mark says this is a faith-based memoir, but it’s really not very heavy on the faith angle. I think her beliefs and the culture that surrounds those faith beliefs give a frame to her story, but even those who don’t consider themselves very religious can find a lot of value in her story. All in all, this is really a simple tale, and one that seeks simply to provide some basic information and encouragement to those who may find themselves struggling emotionally but feeling hesitant to accept that there might be a “label” for what they’re experiencing and that medication might help. Our culture at large still places stigma on mental health issues, as well as taking psychiatric medication. And individuals within faith communities may very well sometimes compound that stigma by saying that if a sufferer could just be more self-reliant or more faithful, they wouldn’t suffer.
I heartily support Mark’s goal to contribute to the general discussion and bring this topic “out of the darkness” into the light of day. The more those of us who do struggle with emotional challenges really talk openly about this and show that we’re pretty normal, typical, “good” people, and not weird or weak or something negative, the more others will be better educated, aware, and accepting — and supportive. And, even better, the fewer the number of people who do suffer from mental health issues will feel marginalized or hesitant to seek treatment. Mark really doesn’t want more people to suffer in silence and without treatment. Why should they? It’s pointless to suffer when there is help.
In applying Mark’s story to my experience, I find that mine is a bit more complex. (She does say that mental illnesses are complex in cause, etc.) Because I have bipolar issues, finding medications and treatments to keep me on an even keel can be trickier. Antidepressants help the most, but they tend to “poop out” after a year or two. I’m in that spot right now, I think. I have been on a number of different medications over the years, and it hasn’t been as “simple” (that’s relative, I know) as being able to get on Prozac and stick with it for years. I would like that a lot if it were that comparatively simple.
When it comes to the faith angle, I just wrote that there really isn’t a lot of it in here, so this book is really accessible for everyone. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more, personally. I have written about how my faith informs and is affected by my mental issues, too, and I don’t think Mark really digs into that as much as I have, even.
But bottom line: a good read, particularly for those who are “new” to the idea of having possible emotional struggles, and one that’s simple and straightforward and encouraging. Kudos to Beca Mark for putting her story out there and just being honest. The more of us who do so, the better.