A Mental Health Primer

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And though I don’t have a Ph.D. or anything, after several years of mental health recovery and several diagnoses under my belt, I feel like I can pass on a pearl of wisdom or two. Here’s what I think are the most important things that you need to remember if a) you have a mental illness, b) you think you might have a mental illness, or c) if you love someone who has a mental illness. Living with mental illness is no small feat. And I need to be reminded of most of these things daily. So, consider this your reminder. And refer back as needed.

First of all, mental health is a spectrum. This, to me, is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING to remember about mental illness. People seem to think that mental illness is all or nothing. Black or white. Yes or no. Healthy or sick. It’s just not like that. You can have a touch of this, a smidge of that, and a dusting of the other. And just because you’re not a complete spaz, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the treatment options available to you, that work for you.

You don’t have to fit someone’s mold of what “anxious” or “depressed” is in order to get sympathy and understanding. You deserve to have your mental health be taken seriously, no matter what state it is in. Just because a certain treatment worked for your great aunt’s cousin doesn’t mean it will work for you. You have to know that’s ok. You and your doctor or therapist can decide what will help you.

It’s important to know that mental illness has a significant impact on your daily life. A lot of people say that “we all have our stuff.” As in, we all have mental issues, to a certain degree. And that’s very valid. The majority of people have a bit of social anxiety. Very few people feel comfortable talking to large groups of people. We all have some bit of introversion in us, using time alone to “recharge.” People get depressed. People get anxious. People eat too much, drink too much. But real mental illness, the type you should take seriously and seek help for, will impact your ability to live a normal life.

Maybe you have trouble getting out of bed. Maybe you don’t feel like showering. Maybe you don’t feel like eating. Maybe you eat too much. Maybe you don’t feel worthy to hang out with a certain group of people (though they have invited you to several times). Maybe you just plain don’t feel worthy. You don’t feel like you will be missed if you were to be gone (this is suicidal, you don’t have to be actively trying to kill yourself, or have attempted to kill yourself, in order to be considered suicidal).

If you are sleeping all day and not taking care of yourself and avoiding situations you are likely to enjoy because of the slight possibility that you won’t enjoy it and you’re doubting your own worth, then your mental health issues are having a direct and dire impact on your life. You cannot function normally under these circumstances. This is how it is different than just being “shy” or “sad.” This is not how a normal mind works. And you know that it is not how a normal mind works, you just don’t know how to change it. That is where treatment comes in.

If or when you need it, medication is a valid treatment for mental illness. Taking medication is not “taking the easy way out.” Taking medication is not weak or wrong, or a crutch, and it doesn’t take away from your authenticity. People who use medication for their mental illness are not drug addicts or “pill poppers.” And no, a walk in the woods is in no way a replacement for antidepressants. Stop this. I began taking medication as a last resort. Truly a last resort. I had turned it down for years. And finally, after my second stint in rehab, I finally caved and said sure, why not. And you know what? It worked. It was amazing. I felt better and my life got better. And I won’t be made to feel ashamed for that. Are there people taking Xanax who don’t really need it? Sure. But don’t let that stop you from taking medication, recommended by a medical doctor, that will help you get better.

Something that my current doctor says to me a lot is that recovery happens in a sawtooth pattern. Meaning, there are times of great success, upward movement, good thoughts and feelings, productivity. And then there are times where you feel less successful, not happy, very anxious, in a slump, not interested in doing things. And it’s normal. You are not failing, you are not going backwards, you are trying perfectly hard enough, and you needn’t give up. There will be ups and downs, just as there are for everyone. The idea is to learn to ride out the low times without letting them break you down.

A lot of the time, if I have a bad day, someone will ask me, “well, are you doing the work that you’re supposed to be doing?!” And, of course I am. Of course I am taking medication, journaling, going to therapy, going to meetings if I need them, doing something creative, getting out of the house. I’m walking the walk in addition to talking the talk, and just because you are having a bad day doesn’t mean you are not trying hard enough.

If you’re reading this because someone you love is suffering from a mental illness, something to consider is to stop making mental illness a punchline. You know how it has become passe to use the words “retarded” and “gay” to mean derogatory things? Consider how it would make someone feel if you organized your spice rack and told everyone how you’re “soooo OCD.” Or if you watch the last episode of your favorite show and then you’re “so depressed!” Or if you change your mind a thousand times about the couch you want to buy because you’re “so schizo.” Or my personal favorite, if you eat avocados every morning because you’re “totally addicted” to them. I mean really consider the message you’re sending when you say these things. It’s not fair to people who truly suffer to diminish their reality and their struggle in this way.

If you have a confirmed mental illness: Remember to take your medication. Remember to get out of the house for a little while each day. Remember your personal hygiene. Remember to visit your doctor and/or therapist. You are worthy and you matter.

If you suspect you may have a mental illness: Seek help. Find a therapist. Be completely honest with them. Know that it is possible for you to feel better. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t need help. Listen to your instincts.

If you know someone with a mental illness: Be as patient with them as you can. Know that they want to get better. Listen. Even if you don’t understand, just listen.

Mental health is just as important as physical health. And you would not tell someone with a physical ailment to “just go for a walk.” So, why do we do this? Why do we, as a society, downplay mental illness and mental health? Why do we stigmatize the perfectly legitimate treatments for mental illness? A healthy mind makes for a healthy person and a productive life. Mental illness is much more common than people think. One of my favorite quotes:

barrie

My Meds and Me

This is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, but I haven’t been able to figure out where to start. But I was reinspired this morning when I read this piece. A fellow mom in the trenches, chastised on social media for using medication to balance her mood.

I take an antidepressant and, on occasion, an anti-anxiety medication. Which frankly I find harder to admit on here than I did to admit I was an alcoholic. Because that’s just how stigmatized mental illness, and medicating mental illness, is in this country.

Now, anxiety is not a cop out, not some new diagnosis I’m trying out. Some of my earliest memories are of being anxious about something. A thunderstorm, having to hug grown ups I didn’t know at church, the health and well-being of my infant brother, even death. Yes, at four years old, I feared death. I won’t forget this memory. My parents were watching that TV show Fame. And in the theme song, it is declared, “I’m gonna live forever…” Which, of course, they are talking about living forever because they will be famous and therefore remembered forever. But my four year old brain thought, “Can you live forever? You can’t, can you?” And suddenly, my first time struggling with the concept of death.

So, anxiety has always been there. The one constant in my life. And when I got sober, my counselors and psychiatrist worked with me to treat the underlying cause of the alcoholism. Which was mostly the anxiety, peppered with depression to keep things exciting. And I took the medication as a last resort. They kept offering it, and I kept refusing it. But, you might remember from my story, I left rehab and almost instantly relapsed, and I was willing at that point to try any goddamned thing to help. And as it turns out, the medication helps. A lot.

And the medication makes me a better mother, not a worse one. In the article I mentioned at the beginning, the woman got endless negative comments about what a terrible, pill-popping mother she was. How selfish and irresponsible. And I take heavy issue with that. My kids don’t need me moping around the house all the time, struggling to find the energy to take a shower, dropping them off for school and saying goodbye with that hollow, far-off look in my eyes. They need me here, present, happy and capable of my mom duties.

And, as the woman also says in the article, the use of alcohol to “deal” with parenting is applauded and celebrated. You can’t get through one Facebook scrolling session without seeing a half dozen of these memes. “Mommy needs her sippy cup.” “Is it wine o’clock yet?” And the photo I see every mother’s day of a chalkboard sign outside what I assume to be a liquor store, urging patrons to buy their mom a bottle of wine because, “You’re the reason she drinks, after all.” I started collecting screen shots of these memes, to share with this post, but I had to delete them all off my phone, they were making me uncomfortable.

And honestly, I think my addiction took such a strong hold because I was caught up in this culture. I thought I was fine because I was just like everyone else. And I bet there are moms out there right now who think the same thing, but really need help.

I couldn’t even get myself to watch that new movie Bad Moms because of the party scene in the previews. I mean, this is the idea of what moms would do if they gave up trying to be perfect? Had a night to do whatever they want? Throw a kegger? The whole idea makes me sad.

I’m not condemning drinking here. Go ahead and have that glass of wine if you want to. But if you feel like you need it, then maybe think twice. And have compassion for those of us who struggle, and leave the picture of the coffee mug that says, “There’s a chance this is wine” off the social media.

And if you think you need meds, if a medical professional thinks you need meds, by all means take them! You will be helping yourself and your sanity, and some of us just need to exist this way. It’s not a crutch, it’s not a fad, it’s not weak, it’s what must be done. And let’s do away with the double standard here. A mom drunk on wine is more fit for motherhood than a mom that takes a Xanax once in a while? I don’t think so. And you know that’s not true, I know you do. So, why all this love surrounding motherhood and drinking on social media?

No, when I was finishing a bottle of wine a night, I was not being fun and blowing off steam and taking the edge off of parenting, I was fostering a terrible habit and putting myself and my children in danger. And when I take my medication, I am setting myself right. I am putting my brain in the right mindset. I am a better person for it, and will no longer apologize for it or feel ashamed for it. The article I read this morning has empowered me to feel proud that I’m doing something good for myself and for my family, and no amount of berating will make me feel any differently.

Take good care of yourself, my friends. If I learned nothing else through the process of recovery, I learned that we have but this one life to live. One chance to do it right. Make good choices, choices you can be proud of. Take care of yourself, no matter what that means. And treat other people with respect and give them their dignity.

So, today is a big day for me.

Today is huge for me. But in order for you to understand why it’s such an important day, I have to let you in on a little secret.

Today I have been sober for one year.

I’ve kept it from you guys for some reason, but the truth is, I’m a recovering alcoholic.

I don’t know why I’ve kept so mum about it on here. I guess I was feeling ashamed? Even though I’ve spent the better part of the last year learning how not to be ashamed of it.

It has been a long, hard road, but I’m so much happier today than I was a year ago. Alcoholism is a scary thing. Always feeling alone, lost, ashamed. Wondering why you can’t just stop. I wanted to stop, but I didn’t know how. It took rehab and a lot of support from my family to figure it out. To figure me out again.

Some of you may judge me, I get that. It’s hard to understand addiction if you haven’t been there. It’s hard to know why someone becomes addicted, it’s hard to know how out of control they felt.

Things all started to go downhill for me 5 years ago when I had my miscarriage. When I had the miscarriage, it was like somebody turned out the lights. I didn’t know what was happening, and I didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. Instead of reaching out and finding help to get the lights turned back on as it were, I decided I could fumble around in the dark on my own and figure it out. Throughout the recovery process, I have learned about myself that I often don’t ask for help when I need it. And this was no different.

And I managed for a while. But then stuff started piling up on me. A cancer diagnosis, my 20 year old cat dying, having a blog post go viral (which essentially is a good thing, but still very stress-inducing) my mom and stepdad getting divorced, being forced to move out of our house, it was just a long, terrible couple of years. And I was still trying to do it in the emotional blackness I had been wandering around in. I was already a very anxious person, but all of this took my anxiety to new, unbearable heights.

At first I just drank in the evenings. Just to give my mind a little rest. Then the day drinking crept in. At first, one day a week, I’d start at noon. Then a couple days a week. It didn’t help that they serve wine at the museum and zoo and there was wine at playgroup, and pretty much everywhere. This is California, after all. Eventually it felt like I couldn’t go an afternoon without it. At at the very end, it felt like I couldn’t bear any moment of my life without it. I was trying to drink away all the feelings of sadness, loss, frustration, fear and anxiety. And it worked, for like five minutes. But those five minutes were all I needed to think that alcohol really was the answer to all of my problems.

It was a couple of years ago ago that my husband asked me to cut back. And then eventually asked me to quit completely. And I had some minor success. But I always kept falling back into my old habits. It was about a year and a half after those first conversations we had that I finally made the choice to be sober. I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t know how bad it really was. Only an outside observer can see an alcoholic’s problems for what they really are. I thought I was fine. I thought I had it under control. But I really didn’t.

In January 2015, I checked into an in-patient rehab home. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To admit that my problem was so bad that I needed their help to get better. And to spend 30 days away from my husband, my children and my home. I kept a calendar in my journal at rehab, and it was the most satisfying feeling to put a big X over each day in the evening. Another day gone, another day closer to being back home.

When I got back home, things were really awkward. I had to learn how to fit back in to my own family’s dynamic. They had gone on living their days while I was gone, and learned how to do it without me as a part of it. Now we all had to learn how to be together again. And the people who knew where I had been those 30 days didn’t know how to act around me. I had the big scarlet A for Alcoholic on me.

Shortly after my return home, my husband was in a serious surfing accident, and had to have his nose reconstructed. It was one of the scariest days of my life. And my alcoholic brain tricked me into thinking that because I had been to rehab, I was all fixed, and I could have some wine to take the edge off, and it would be no big deal. Which kick-started another awful month of drinking.

I went back to the rehab house for 10 days, and basically said, throw everything you’ve got at me. I need to make this work. That was April 22, 2015.

The past year of my life has been the most difficult on record. I’m finally in a place where not drinking is not such a big deal. Most days, I don’t think about it at all. I can’t even believe who I was a year ago, I’ve made such a change. I couldn’t have done it without my rehab counselors and psychiatrist, and the support of my family. Asking for help is so hard for me for some reason, but I’m so glad I finally did.

Only one thing still scares me: the future. There’s so much unknown in the future, so much we don’t know is coming. And I hear so many stories from people at my AA meetings about having years and years of sobriety under their belt, only to relapse and have to start all over again. My addiction is something I have to keep in the forefront of my mind every day. Every morning when I wake up, I have to remember that I’ve made the choice not to drink ever again, and if I’m not careful, alcohol can creep back in and take hold again. I don’t ever want to go back to that place, but I have to stay on my toes.

I’m sure you’ve heard somewhere that alcoholism is a disease. Which is supposed to make you feel better about needing treatment and help. You wouldn’t deny yourself treatment for diabetes or cancer, they’d tell me in rehab. So of course you get treatment for alcoholism. But, it’s a disease with no cure. You can only keep treating it and live with it day in and day out for the rest of your life. So, if you know a recovering addict, have compassion for them and their fight. And let them know once in a while how proud you are of them, because this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and it’s nice when people acknowledge that.

So there you go, Internet. My big secret, out in the open. Thanks for listening, and I hope I didn’t scare you off. I found this great article on Babble that explains how to deal with some of the awkwardness when an alcoholic comes out to you. It’s a great read.

one yar

 

Sore But Relieved

post op

Hey! The surgery went off without a hitch. Well except that I have a huge gash and broken bone in my foot. But, whatevs.

Originally the surgeon thought they’d have to break two bones, and have me in a cast and fully off my feet for 6 weeks.

In reality, I have one broken bone, no cast, and I can walk around. They didn’t even give me crutches! And, it’s not my driving foot, so I am not housebound. I feel like a really big weight has been lifted, now that the procedure is over.

If this turns out as well as the surgery on the other foot, Im’ma be one happy mama. I am sore, but not like I thought I’d be. I am groggy, but not like I thought I’d be. And I’m hobbling around but NOT. LIKE. I THOUGHT. I’D. BE.

I’m like, seriously considering telling my mother-in-law she doesn’t have to come down and help on Monday and Tuesday like we had talked about, because I’m going to be fine! I mean, this is a whole different picture than the one I had set myself up for. Score one for Worst Case Scenario Thinking! But, just the one. Because that shiz is not good for you. No.

Funny story, somehow my cell phone fell out of the plastic PATIENT BELONGINGS bag at the surgery center, and when I got it back it had a bunch of pictures of rando nurses. Apparently the one who found it was trying to look at my pictures to figure out who the phone belonged to, but was actually just taking a bunch of pictures. Both adorable and hilarious.

Thanks, Internet, for being there to cheer me up. Here’s to my brand new foot that might be able to fit into those fabulous boots I found at the Salvation Army that I stupidly tried on with my good foot.

Slow Going

I am getting through the muck that is getting past a miscarriage. I say “muck”, because most days lately, I feel like I’m walking through the world in slow-motion. My feet feel heavy, like I’m walking through a muddy, mucky swamp or something. The world just seems to be zipping past me at light speed, while I trudge along.

I have to analyze my life plan. I have to re-evaluate my future. My whole existence has changed, and getting used to that is going to take some time. It takes a lot of energy, just to focus on that. So, it would stand to reason that the rest of my life would move a bit slower.

I don’t think I’m depressed, though (well, not anymore). For the past few mornings, I have woken up with a sense that I have been granted a new day to go out and do things and fix things and get my life back in order. I’m no longer afraid to face the world.

My confidence and my whole world view were completely shattered. But, I’m managing to pick up all the pieces, put them back together (albeit in a new way) and take a few steps forward.

It’s times like these when one can be amazed at their own resilience. You hear about other people’s misfortunes, and you think, “I can’t even imagine what I would do if that happened to me.” But, the truth is, you manage it somehow. You reach deep down inside of yourself and you pull out the courage and the strength you need to get by. And you look forward to all the tomorrows you have ahead of you, instead of fearing them.