Revelations and Recovery

I meant to write this post last May, for Mental Health Month.  I had hoped to get it finished during Mental Illness Awareness Week.  I’ve discovered that it’s very hard for me to write in depth about my own mental health issues.  But before I get into that, I want to share an analogy about mental illness that my dear friend and personal hero, Steven Hall wrote.

The Batman Analogy  by Steven Hall

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Batman.

Imagine that you fight crime with the help of a butler, a sidekick, a police commissioner, and several Bat-themed accomplices. You have virtually limitless resources from which to either purchase the tools and weapons you need, or you just craft them yourself. You have a computer that can analyze anything and a vast secret base from which to operate. Your most diabolical enemies are locked up with a brief, intense struggle, and while they always manage to escape Arkham, you always manage to put them back where they belong.

Now imagine that your most diabolical enemies have discovered where your Batcave is, and have taken up residence there. They have access to all the gadgets and the computer, the support network, and your secret identity, and they’re somehow using them all against you. There’s no place you can hide, nothing they can’t access, and nowhere to run that’s safe. They will always find you because they know everything about you, so you just sit there in the Batcave and let them torture you day in, day out, using the very tools that you built to fight them with. The Scarecrow is there, too, making sure that your reality is a constantly fluid and everchanging concept. There’s no sense trying to put them all back in Arkham, because they built a tunnel that you can’t access leading them straight back to the Batcave. The whole idea of being Batman is suddenly and utterly pointless.

The first scenario is, what I understand, how the normal brain works. You have your resources, you have your tools, and you can usually overcome your obstacles with a little bit of effort and determination. You’re a hero, and that’s what heroes do.

The second is the brain of an individual with mental illness. Eventually, the fight becomes so ludicrously overmatched, you just give up hope and start to just sit there and take it, not fighting back, wondering when the fight is going to end. You start rooting for the bad guys in the hope that in the end, there will be mercy.

But the point is this.

In that second scenario, you’re so far beaten that you forget who you are. You draw a blank on this Batman guy and all you can think of is how badly Bruce is getting his ass kicked in his own safe house. But no matter how bad things get, YOU’RE STILL A HERO, AND YOU’RE STILL FIGHTING, even if all the fight that’s left in you is to just breathe and survive the day.

Because one day, you’re going to find something left within you, just enough strength to rise once more and take the fight to your enemies again.

And THAT’S what heroes do too.

***

I hate to admit it, but for awhile there, the bad guys were winning.  I’ve been diagnosed with Chronic Depression, Anxiety/Panic Disorder, and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.  I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and Insomnia, plus a handful of physical ailments such as Arthritis, Raynaud’s Phenomenon, and Eczema, which are worsened by stress and anxiety.

Last winter, my anxiety was completely out of control.  Between the stress of my husband’s uncertain health (he’s still getting migraines and cluster headaches several times a week), our even more uncertain financial situation, going to graduate school, and running a business, I was having some major pain issues in my neck and shoulders, my own headaches (not as severe as my husband’s, but that’s not a competition I want either of us to win), and heart palpitations.  I’ve since described anxiety as a flight or fight response where you’re stuck on the “or” part, and boy was I.  It also exacerbated my SAD, Insomnia, and ADHD to the point I was in a constant state of fog, unable to sleep, and unable to stay awake.

***

I started back on antidepressants (I had managed without them for years), but it took several months to find a dosage that helped.  In the meantime, I couldn’t keep up with the work required for my MLIS classes, and I was disqualified from the program.  This was a pretty big blow that did not help my depression one bit.  I couldn’t keep up with getting orders from my Etsy shop out in a timely manner, and had to shut it down.  Another blow, which only added to the stress of the uncertain financial situation.  I was feeling like I’d failed at everything.  My general mantra of “it’s okay, just try again tomorrow,” was sounding like a broken record and I was beginning to wonder if trying again was really worth the effort.

It’s ALWAYS worth the effort

It’s not easy living with mental illness.  It’s not easy to go undiagnosed for 40 years (my ADHD diagnosis was about a month after my 40th birthday).  Some days, it’s not easy to even get out of bed.  But it is always, always, always worth the effort.  Even when that effort is simply “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

***

I don’t like to talk about my mental health issues very often.  I look at what some of my friends and loved ones are going through, and I feel like I’m whining if I mention mine.  But that’s one of depression’s traps.  My illness isn’t any less valid because it’s less severe than someone else’s.  My pain might not be as intense as what my husband is suffering, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.  I get pissed off if anyone tries to tell anyone with a mental illness that “it’s not that bad,” or “suck it up,” so why do I tolerate it when I say it to myself?

I am a fiercely independent person, I don’t like being told I can’t do something, and it can be very difficult for me to ask for help.  So part of my issue is not wanting to give in to my mental illnesses, not wanting to admit how much they really affect me.  Admirable in theory, but ignoring them does not make them go away.  I don’t want to “wallow” or use them as excuses, though.  It’s a strange dichotomy, not letting mental illness rule our lives while advocating to eliminate the stigma we face on a daily basis, even within our own minds.

I’m also an optimist.  Yes, optimists can have depression.  My depression isn’t necessarily a sadness, and my anxiety isn’t necessarily a worry.  I don’t really tend to dwell on the negative or concern myself with thoughts of what might go wrong.  I am more of a Pollyanna and a cheerleader, and my positivity and enthusiasm don’t really go away when I’m having a bad bout of depression and/or anxiety.  It’s more like they’re on the other side of a glass wall; I can see them, but I can’t touch them.  And that makes things worse, because I know it’s irrational, I know I don’t really believe whatever negative thoughts might be creeping in, but I’m stuck.  I can’t do anything but press against the glass.

***

If you have a mental illness, you are a superhero.  Every day you exert superhuman strength just to appear “normal.”  You live a kind of double life with a secret identity.  But instead of your secret identity being a “normal” person, it’s your superhero identity that is the “normal” one.  Your superhero identity is the face you show the world, hiding your secret identity as much as possible.  It’s like you’re two different people, and others don’t see the connection, that they really are the same person.  But unlike Clark Kent and Superman, it takes more than a pair of glasses to switch between the two personas.  And some days you just can’t.  So you try again tomorrow.  Because you are a superhero, and that’s what heroes do.

***

So I am “heroing up” here.  I am taking back my life, getting back in business, and writing a book.  Yes, I’ll still have bad days.  But I also have the right medications now, and amazingly supportive people in my life.  I’m not in this alone.  And neither are you.

You are my hero

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Thursday Thoughts: Resourcefulness

Resourcefulness

  • the quality of being able to cope with a difficult situation

I’ve been thinking about writing this post since my friend, The River’s Wayward Daughter, mentioned the Spoon Theory, which really hit home with me.  It’s part of why I reposted my story about Facing the Fear yesterday.

You see, I’m not right in the head.  I have been diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses, including chronic depression, anxiety and panic disorders, and Seasonal Affective Disorder.  This comes as a shock to some people, who know me for my sunny disposition and optimistic outlook on life.  They have no idea just how much of my resourcefulness I’m using on a daily basis.  How my definition of a “difficult situation” may be something that sounds simple to them: making a phone call, going someplace I’ve never been before, meeting new people, finding a job.  My theatre background comes into play a lot, as I put myself on whatever stage I need to perform on, and fervently hope the rest of the actors stick to the script.  And the stage fright doesn’t make me throw up.

For the most part, I do okay.  I’m not currently taking any medications other than for allergies.  I do take a variety of vitamins and other organic remedies, and we have full-spectrum and daylight-like bulbs all over our house.  I’ve learned to cope pretty well with the depression and SAD, and they’re basically under control.  The anxiety and panic disorders, however, usually hit me without warning.  I do my best to avoid triggers, but sometimes I don’t know what is and isn’t a trigger.

Crowds, especially large crowds of strangers, and even more especially strangers in my personal space are big triggers.  This makes vending at craft fairs and conventions a little tricky, but usually I can have my table between me and my customers, which helps a lot.  I paste on a smile, engage in inane conversation, and kick myself that I’m not a better salesperson.  It’s like I’m on trial, that everyone is judging every aspect of my products and display and finding them as inadequate as I feel.  If you see me at one of these events, please be nice, and try complimenting one of my creations.  This will soothe the anxiety monster a bit and let me slip out from behind my mask.

The phone is another trigger.  If I call you, know that you have a special place in my heart, because I don’t make phone calls very often.  I’m happy to talk if people call me, but if I don’t recognize the number, I won’t answer.  I used to work in a call center, and I was very good at my job, helping people figure out their bills or change their service.  Yes, I got cursed at occasionally, but usually I was able to end the call with the customer happy and singing my praises.  Then, without my consent, and in violation of the promise the company made me when I was hired, they switched me to Outbound Winback.  I was calling customers who had cancelled their service and trying to get them to reinstate it.  First of all, one of the reasons I hate making phone calls is the fear of calling at a bad time.  Most of these calls were definitely not welcome, so I was already on edge before the conversation even started.  Then when I explained why I was calling, I’d hear something along the lines of, “Wait a minute.  I went through all the trouble of cancelling your service, uninstalling your equipment, sending it back to you, getting another service out here to install their equipment, and now you’re calling to tell me I can have everything I asked for before I cancelled the service?”  Then the cursing would start, the disparaging remarks on my intelligence (another thing I really can’t stand), and the inevitable slamming of the phone in my ear.   It wasn’t long before the migraines hit.  One lasted TWELVE DAYS.  I had a nervous breakdown and had to take FMLA leave.  I went back part-time, but it wasn’t long before I just quit, because I couldn’t deal with the anxiety and panic attacks I was having on a daily basis.  So now I avoid the phone as much as possible.

My current anxieties mostly center around money.  I’ve worked hard these past years to rebuild my credit after trusting the wrong people to give me the money they owed me, as promised.  Right now, I have bills due that I can’t pay, and next month is the same boat.  My financial aid kicks in in October, and I should be okay for the rest of the school year if my calculations are correct, but that doesn’t help me with my August and September bills.  So I’m desperately trying to sell things, figure out exactly what my inventory is worth, rework my business plan, and see if there’s any way I can get a loan.  I’m working to get more items up on Etsy and eBay, but that takes time.  I sold 300 CDs for $60 while I was in Ohio, which hurt, but it had to be done so I could pay for my storage unit there.  I’m doing everything I can think of, and those who care about me are helping as much as they can (thank you, I love you).  Asking for help and admitting I can’t solve my own problems are another trigger for me, thanks to another aspect of my past that I’m not going to get into.

A lot of you are probably thinking, “Why don’t you just get a job?”  Fact is, I’ve tried.  I’ve applied for well over 400 jobs in the past year.  I’ve had five interviews from those applications.  FIVE.  And I don’t generally do well in interviews anyway, thanks to the anxiety paralyzing my mind.  Once I have a job, I do great, but getting my foot in the door is problematic.  And I have moved around so much and lost touch with so many people that I can’t provide references from any of my past jobs.  It’s been over three years since I was laid off my last full-time job, and the part-time job I worked last winter never contacted me after the holidays were over.  Then there’s the issue of what aspects of the job will trigger my anxiety and panic attacks.  Working in a call center, as a receptionist, or any kind of telemarketing is flat OUT.  I just can’t, not if I don’t want to spend my entire day crying and in pain.

I know what’s best for me is to continue what I’m doing, to keep Rewondered going and keep adding new products.  To keep using my creativity and artistry.  To spend my days in my studio, where I feel safe and calm.  I am getting an increasing number of views, fans, and orders, but getting to the level I need to be at will take some time.  The instability of my finances is stressful, yes, but the fear of working in an environment that will trigger another twelve day migraine is worse.

Those who have never experienced this kind of paralyzing anxiety won’t understand, and will probably think I’m whining and I need to just suck it up and do whatever it takes.  But when I use up all my spoons, that’s it.  I’m done.  I’m completely useless.  I don’t know how to explain to someone who has never had a nervous breakdown just what that experience is like, and just how much I want to avoid going through that ever again.  Even thinking about it enough to write this post is inducing tears.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love my life and I’m really very happy.  I’m getting married in about three weeks to the love of my life, and I am eternally grateful that he understands that I’m kind of broken and still loves me exactly as I am.  I have awesome, amazing friends and I love living in New England.  I know that my anxiety and fears are irrational, and that just makes things worse, because I want to stop but I just can’t.  I’ve stopped beating myself up over that though.  This is a part of me I can’t change, no matter how much I might want to.  So I deal with it as best I can.  I avoid it when possible, I hide it if I can, and sometimes I just embrace it and let myself cry.  Then I wipe off my face, blow my nose, and get back to work.  I am coping with a difficult situation, and I am grateful for my resourcefulness.

Repost: Facing the Fear

I’m home from Ohio, and I’ll have more for you tomorrow, but today I was reminded of this old post I wrote about three years ago, and felt the need to reshare.

 

Originally posted Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

I have a horrible, unreasonable but completely paralyzing fear of crowds. I think it’s a form of Agoraphobia, I feel trapped and afraid I won’t be able to escape. I’ve had panic attacks at concerts and dance clubs, and gotten quite violent trying to get free. Now I have no problem with confined spaces where I’m alone or with friends, and I can even be on a crowded bus or train just fine (maybe because I know it’s always just for a few minutes), but the larger the crowd of strangers, the greater my fear. I have no idea where this comes from. And as much as I tell myself I’m being stupid, I can’t get over it.

I LOVE music. I love dancing, I love concerts, I love singing. Music is very, very important to me. It’s one of the reasons I love DJing so much. I think I’d rather go blind than not be able to hear music anymore. So I love going to concerts, but I usually go to ones where I have my own seat and thus SOME personal space. Or I take friends with me to surround myself with so no strangers are touching me. In fact, I’ve never gone to a concert alone. Until Wednesday, August 19th.

Let me back up a little bit here and talk about the concert I went to on Friday, August 14th. It was CrueFest and I’d promised my roommate months ago that I would go with him. I nearly backed out though. Large outdoor concerts are the worst for me. There’s no assigned seating and everyone is always pressing to get closer to the stage. Doesn’t help that I’m short and if I get caught up in that crowd I can’t see the stage or an escape route. Having two close friends with me in that type of environment wasn’t enough to prevent a panic attack at a Van Halen concert in my past, and I was going to go with just one this time? But my roommate told me he didn’t care if I was completely incapacitated, he’d toss me over his shoulder and take me to CrueFest. So I went. I gulped down two glasses of wine as soon as we got there and we found a place off to the side that wasn’t very crowded. Not the best view but it worked for me. I was able to enjoy the show and was glad I went.

On the way in I saw the marquee advertising the next show. Saving Abel, Papa Roach, Hinder, and Nickelback on Wednesday, August 19th. I ADORE all of these bands! I have to go to this! A chance to see all four at one time, I can’t pass that up! Only one problem: NO ONE CAN GO WITH ME.

And thus sets in the panic.

I waffled all the way up until it was time to leave. I arranged for coverage of my show on The Cape. I told myself I couldn’t afford it anyway. I got the albums I didn’t have yet of those four bands and listened to a continual playlist of every song I have by them for four days. I alternated between convincing myself to go, and convincing myself not to. And I cried. I got myself so stressed out that the only way to release it was through tears.

Wednesday was the worst, of course. I tried taking a long, hot bath to relax me, reading something frivolous enough to occupy my mind but not tax it. But the closer it got to the time to leave, the worse I got. I was shaking and crying for a good hour. And berating myself for being so stupid. I HATE having this fear but I don’t know how to turn it off. Intellectually I understand how unreasonable it is, but that doesn’t stop my heart from racing.

Lucky for me I have some really good friends. I was chatting through IMs with a couple of them who basically gave me a pep talk, telling me that I was strong enough to do this and I’d have a good time, that I’d always regret not going. One suggested imagining that his City of Heroes character, a big rock giant guy, was there with me as my bodyguard. That made me giggle. So after their encouraging words, I got in my car.

As I sat there waiting for the AC to kick in, taking deep breaths and repeating the “you can do this” mantra, my radio happened to be tuned in to the station sponsoring the show. They were talking about the concert and then played a song by Papa Roach. It was Lifeline. I had to laugh, how much more appropriate could it get? That’s exactly what I was doing, looking for a lifeline to get myself through this.

I got a phone call on my way to the show and my best friend kept me entertained as I made my way to the show, parked, bought my ticket, and got through the gate. I looked at all the people inside and stopped, taking another deep breath to try and calm my racing heart. I looked to my left and saw a sign! It said Southern Comfort. My favorite! I knew I couldn’t get as drunk as I’d like to get me through this ordeal since I was driving home after the show, but I figured one drink to relax me at the beginning would be worked through my system by the time the show was over. So I bought a Hurricane and wended my way through the crowd to the far side, near where we had been for CrueFest. I was hoping to get a little better view of the stage than we had had on Friday, so I went up the little hill and staked out a spot just at the top of the rise. I figured people wouldn’t stand on the actual slope so I had an escape route. And a pretty decent view of the stage. My timing was perfect because Saving Abel came on just then and broke in the evening with one of my favorite songs of theirs, New Tattoo.

I was able to lose myself in the music and not notice the gathering crowd around me. The set changes were the hardest for me, as my heart would start racing again. I did a lot of texting during those down times! Something, anything to keep me occupied. Huge thanks to those friends that put up with my inane chatter during those times!

It began to rain about halfway through Papa Roach’s set, which thinned out the crowd a little bit, so I didn’t mind too much. Besides I’m from Oregon, what’s a little rain? It was done with by the time Papa Roach was too. My only complaint was the sound system going out during my favorite song of theirs, Scars. Luckily it was back before the song was over. They really put on an awesome show and mentioned they’d be back in my area in November or December. Might have to give myself a Christmas gift and go see them again.

All of the bands were fantastic, and I had apparently found a really good spot, as most of the time I could have stuck out my arms, turned around in a circle, and not touched anyone. Maybe I was just really giving off some good “don’t touch me” vibes. I tried not to look around at the crowd, keep my eyes focused on the stage and just enjoy the music. I was doing pretty good until Chad Kroeger mentioned that there were 15,000 people in the audience. Yikes! They started playing one of my favorite songs and I was able to put that number out of my mind for a bit. Until the show was over anyway and I had to leave the venue with the rest of that mass of humanity. Having been there the one time before, I knew I was close to the exit, so I was able to insert myself into a good sized gap in the stream and head straight for it, and my car.

Sitting down in the driver’s seat, I realized two things. One, I was sore all over and felt like I’d just ran a marathon. And two. I DID IT!! I faced my fear, and I made it through! I even enjoyed myself, though it would have been a lot more fun with someone else to share it with. Of course, I did have my imaginary bodyguard there, so I wasn’t really alone. :)

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