Enough

It’s been a rough week here. Lots of time to just sit and … think. Generally, I like thinking – it got me through college and to where I am now, after all. But when I think too much, sometimes bad things start to happen.

I like to think of the Bad Thoughts as a separate entity. If I envision this entity, it looks like me, sweet-faced and innocent, but with one heck of a mean streak. She’ll sit by my side and poke at me, trying her best to whisper in my ear. She’s never very loud, but she never stops. If I’m tired, bored, or sick, and my guard starts to slip, I have no choice but to hear her.

What she kept telling me this week was: remember all the times you weren’t enough?

Remember when enemies, loved ones, and medical professionals alike looked at you, at the amount of pain you were in, and decided you weren’t hurting enough to warrant their concern and time?

I don’t think what happened to you is enough to warrant PTSD. You overreacted.

Your distress is inconvenient to me. It’s not enough to make me worried instead of angry.

You always snap out of it eventually. As long as you’re not in physical danger, you’re not struggling enough for me to help you.

And to an extent, she’s right. All those people who pushed me away to sink or swim were right. I’m healthy and strong. No longer constantly engaging in those self-destructive tendencies that caused my physical body to become a reflection of my mental state. When there are limited mental health resources … as there are in this country … someone who is physically unstable should receive priority over someone who is stable, always.

But that’s the unfortunate thing. My level of functioning is currently high enough that I’m not visibly sick, but low enough that I still fight those self-destructive thoughts every. Day. I fight not to hear that other-me, but she’s still there, watching and waiting for the moment I let my guard down.

I don’t cry anymore. Not really, not like I used to. Enough people have rolled their eyes and walked away, or gotten angry at me for crying and being dramatic, or simply left me to cry myself out, that I have no choice but to suppress those emotional outbursts as best I can. But my affect is more stable for the same reason that I don’t engage in self-destructive behavior … I’m afraid of the consequences.

Is that really recovery? No. I don’t think so. At best, it’s a stopgap measure, allowing me to function – mostly – in the short term.

One of the problems with mental illness is that, well, it’s internal. No one really knows how much you’re struggling until you tell them. And when you do tell them, you’re making yourself incredibly vulnerable, trusting that they will believe you and act compassionately.

Except … except that doesn’t always happen. Older generations might tell you to suck it up and power through, because that’s what they were taught. Among my own generation, I think our first instinct is still to deflect and minimize the person’s suffering (e.g. “You’re not really suicidal, you just think that right now”) or to simply feel uncomfortable and ignore the person, perhaps labeling them unstable or toxic.

Which makes sense, really. When I seek help from lay people – even the kindest and most compassionate people I know – in the middle of an episode, I imagine it would be similar to approaching someone with no medical training while waving a massive bleeding cut around.

“I need help,” says the bleeding person.

“Y-yeah, I see that …” says the person they approached, who is maybe starting to feel a little nauseous and panicky because hello, giant bleeding wound. “What do you need me to do?”

“I don’t know,” says the hurt person. “I’m just in a lot of pain and can’t think clearly.”

“Uh, maybe you could go lie down … over there … and elevate your injury?” the other person stammers.

Person #1 does so. Maybe they go to the doctor (like they should); maybe the wound stops bleeding on its own and starts to heal. Either way, the message – intentional or not – from the other person is the same:

I wasn’t hurt enough.

So what can we do? How can we, myself included, make ourselves better allies for those who may seek our help?

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  1. Realize that people react differently to the same situations.  Just because you don’t find something stressful or upsetting doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.  Likewise, if something is disturbing to you, it probably won’t be disturbing to everyone else.  Give someone the benefit of the doubt if you feel they’re overreacting to something.
  2. Know your own limits.  At the end of the day, most of us are just normal people who probably want to help, but don’t really know how.  Someone who is really struggling may have the ability to drag you underwater with them, especially if you’ve had similar issues in the past and are now mostly recovered. It’s OK to tell someone that you don’t feel like you can give them what they need, but you’ll help them find someone who can.
  3. Don’t turn away.  If we all made more of an effort to help people when they were at the “annoying”/”toxic” stage, maybe less people would get to the “seriously mentally/physically ill” stage.  Just some thoughts …

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading my little debriefing session.

And if you, too, are inwardly struggling and outwardly looking fine:

Your struggle is valid.

Your emotions are real.

You are “hurting enough,” and I honestly, absolutely care about you …

But you are also strong enough, resourceful enough, and determined enough to keep fighting the Bad Thoughts and working towards a brighter future, one day, one hour, one minute at a time.

You can do this.

We can do this together.

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[July 1]

A sequel to [October 1]

This is how to forgive
when you are probably being forgotten:
cry, huddled on your bathroom floor,
at 2 AM. Let the loneliness
wash over you and recede, a baptism
of sorts, waves of light. Wake up
at six and pet your favorite cat
as the sun breaks bleakly
over the desert. Pet your cats
often. Pretend that you’re not
looking for texts. Become good
at honesty. Become a good cook. Wish you were
a better cook. Sing through the tears.
Donate blood and let the needle’s sting
return you to your body. Start to heal
your body. Medicine, vegetables,
stretching. Take lots of showers.
Write in your journal every day:
thirty-five days, thirty-six, thirty-seven.
You knew this would happen. One day,
approximately three hundred days
from now, you will look out onto a sea
of people who love you, and he will not
be there. He never was.
Pursue sleep fiercely. Run your fingers
over your old scars and accept each one
for what it is. Weave lavender and ribbons
into your hair, tucking the memory
of him away with each deft movement. Walk home
in the sun. Curl yourself into your bed
like a fox into its den, and remember:
the choices you made were never wrong.

???: The Continuing Story

On April 21, 2018, I had the worst breakdown of my life.

I was driving at the time, and I pulled into a grocery store parking lot, crying so hard I could barely see. I couldn’t breathe. I felt nauseous and my hands were shaking. The worst part was the feeling of total isolation – that even though I was in a busy parking lot, surrounded by people, none of them cared and I was totally alone. I had no one to call or text – no one who hadn’t heard this a dozen times before, who had talked me down from dangerous highs or up from frightening lows. I could not bother them again.

For months, I had felt like my mind was increasingly divided into two parts – the part that was rational and the part that was sick. It was then, in that car, that the rational part spoke quietly but clearly. It said, You can’t go on like this. You are hurting yourself and scaring the people who love you. You need help now.

I picked up my phone and searched for crisis hotline. The next thing I searched for was counselors.

That’s how I found myself, a few weeks later, in a counselor’s office. I told him about the behaviors and emotions that had become more prevalent over the past year and gradually brought my level of functioning to near zero. I told him about my tendency to cry, more easily than ever.  I talked about my self-destructive behaviors, my paranoia, and my mood swings. I left unspoken my fear of abandonment and constant need for validation. I didn’t need to say it.

He looked at me and said, “This sounds a lot like borderline personality disorder.”

I guess I knew deep down that this wasn’t just a resurgence in my depression (hence my tendency to refer to my mental health issues as ??? in recent months), but BPD carries such an awful and not completely undeserved stigma that I was shocked and scared by the possible diagnosis.

BPD is one of the Cluster B personality disorders, joined by antisocial, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorder. Sufferers of these disorders exhibit traits of being dramatic, emotional, and erratic, and are commonly perceived as being manipulative, toxic, and abusive. If you form any relationship with someone who has a florid, undiagnosed, or untreated Cluster B personality disorder, you will carry the scars from that relationship for life. I know. I’ve been there.

Someone who knows that they have a problem and is actively working to overcome it, however, is different. It took that quiet voice of insight to pull me out of my downward spiral. We are still working to determine whether I indeed have the full-blown disorder or just a few of the traits, but the fact remains that my core problem is emotional instability, and the treatment is the same regardless … working to increase distress tolerance and to strengthen both parts of my mind, the rational and the emotional part, so that both will be healthy and neither will be sick.

To those of you who have seen me cry or seen me hurt, I am so sorry. I realize now that these actions were disturbing. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you understand this: that none of my actions were intentionally manipulative or dramatic. I think only another person with emotional dysregulation could understand the horrific pain that accompanies sadness, grief, jealousy, anger, etc. And, of course, under the tears and distress is another profound fear: please don’t leave me.

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I know you were singing this in your head, too.

At the time I’m writing this, there has been a lot of discussion about mental illness and how best to reach out to someone who may be hurting or suicidal. Now might be a good time to point out that close to ten percent of the population has a diagnosed personality disorder, and the actual prevalence may be much higher. And one of the diagnostic criteria for BPD is suicidal thoughts or non-suicidal self-harm.

Mental illness and personality disorders are never straightforward and easy to fix. Sometimes they’re scary, or they’re messy, or they’re disturbing. But remember that there is a person on the other side of that screen … someone who is sick and scared. Reach out to them, not as a counselor or a doctor, but as a friend.

Some parts of me are broken, but I am more than that. I am here, and I am learning.

[May 27]

The sun in my sky is gone,
and so are the stars at night, hanging above the freezing sea.
The ice that burned my face
has melted away, and the rocks
that hurt my feet are nowhere to be found.
This path is a smoother and lonelier one,
its dust pale, not red,
and as I climb it I can hear the ocean
singing under an even haze.
My memories of you, still beautiful
but jagged, rusty, cut deep into my palms
and will leave scars.
I had no idea how tightly I held them
until I let them go and felt my joints and tendons
ache, not with sadness, but with relief.
I am the only person on earth
who remembers where we met, both younger,
before the desert’s scouring wind
wore us both down. Sand against rock.
Rock grinding, unpadded, against itself,
over and over. Here, I do not smell
dust or jasmine, but blood and salt,
and the air is sharp and clean.

You left me broken and adrift,
but I am free, and never more certain,
and I will not stop climbing.

Pieces

I’m a crier.  I always have been.  One of the only memories I have of first grade is of preparing to cry, and of my teacher – her normally sweet, patient face turned cold and hard – snapping, “No, Amber.  You will not cry today.”  I remember being ten and walking in circles around our tiny backyard because my mom was tired of listening to my sobs.  And yes, of course it was raining, and of course my windbreaker was black.  Once I got started, it seemed like nothing could stop me.

As I’ve gotten older, my tendency to cry has lessened, but when it does happen, it is more embarrassing.  Two weeks ago, I cried at an airport because my traveling companions were cranky and because a crossing guard mimicked my clumsy, waddling attempt at running across the road.  I wonder what people thought when they saw my tearstained face.  If they noticed.

The bottom line is that I cry quite often for no real reason.  Even when I’m otherwise happy.  Since relapsing with dysthymia this past fall, I have cried even more often.  It’s horrible.  It’s embarrassing.

Having depression as an Adult™ is much different than having depression as a college student.  In college, I was surrounded by people who cared.  Some were paid to care, some cared because they saw me so often, some cared because they were experiencing similar things.  Now, I feel like I have to earn concern and sympathy.  Chronic mental illness gets old when you’ve had it for nearly ten years.  It has altered my development as a person – not necessarily for the worse, but its mark will always be there, just like the freckle on my nose.

I feel such tenderness and compassion for the nineteen-year-old girl who started this blog.  The younger me talked about recovery as if it were a finite goal, something to be achieved and then discussed breathlessly and optimistically forevermore.  I wanted my battle with depression to be a Lifetime movie, and I almost got my wish.

And then – this fall.  Back to the nauseating waves of anxiety and guilt.  Back to the isolation and the recurring thought that would hit me out of nowhere – You are a failure at everything you have ever done.

And back to the crying.

When I was given the PHQ-9, I checked off every symptom on the list.

Since resuming medical treatment, I have come to realize that recovery is not a goal that you reach and just sit at.  You have to work to recover, tirelessly, every day.  Doctors can help, and medicine can help, but the majority of the work is up to you.  And it is thankless.

Sometimes you stumble in your recovery, and you have to face the consequences.  Because – let’s face it – real life doesn’t care that you have depression.  Real life cares about things like chores and nutrition and profits and productivity.  The government will not accept crippling self-doubt as a reason why your taxes are late.

So you apologize.  Pick up the pieces.  Forgive yourself, and move on.

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Take Up Your Spade – Sara Watkins

Remember when I used to skip the weather? Why did I do that again?

Sun is up, a new day is before you
Sun is up, wake your sleepy soul
Sun is up, hold on to what is yours
Take up your spade and break ground

Shake off your shoes,
Leave yesterday behind you
Shake off your shoes,
But forget not where you’ve been
Shake off your shoes,
Forgive and be forgiven
Take up your spade and break ground

Give thanks, for all that you’ve been given
Give thanks, for who you can become
Give thanks, for each moment and every crumb
Take up your spade and break ground
Break ground, break ground, break ground

[October 1]

One of my favorite poems that I have written, and still relevant, although under different circumstances.

Glass Half Fuller

This is how to forget
that you are probably being forgotten:
make your coffee strong, with dark brown sugar.
Go to bed at nine. Wake up at six
and sit outside in the lightening blue
looking at your phone. Look at your phone
often. Pretend that you’re not
looking for texts. Become good at pretending.
Become a good writer. Wish you were a better
writer. Don’t cry. Dig your nails into
your arm and forget you put them there until
the skin turns white around the grooves
and puffs up and stings in the shower.
Take lots of showers. Put a counter
on your phone: thirty-four days, thirty-five,
thirty-six. You knew this
would happen. One day, two thousand
two hundred and twenty-six days from now,
someone will say her name and you’ll say Who?
even though your heart will skip a beat anyway,
as it does from time to time.

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