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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Why the World Needs Heroes

Recent events have been particularly devastating to me.  On Tuesday, two people were killed at Clackamas Town Center, a mall I had been to often in the first 30 years of my life.  Yesterday, 22 children and 1 adult were stabbed at a school in China.  And in Newtown, Connecticut, 20 children and 7 adults were killed by a shooter who then took his own life.  One of those adults was the shooter’s mother, a kindergarten teacher at the school.  This hit me rather hard, as for the longest time, I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher myself.

While the gun control advocates and proponents are duking it out, I think they are completely missing the point.  “Where did he get the gun?” is not the first question people ask when they hear news like this.  It’s “How could someone do something like this?”  And that’s the real issue, how can anyone’s mental health get to the point where something like this seems the thing to do?

I’ve talked about my own mental health issues on this blog before, how I’ve faced my fears and encourage others to make their dreams come true.  I’m fortunate that my mental health diagnoses aren’t as severe as others I know, that I’ve gotten the help I needed when I needed it, and that I have so many wonderful and supportive people in my life.  Not everyone is as lucky as I have been.  It’s incredibly frustrating to know that some of my friends (or anyone, for that matter) can’t afford the medications they need or the therapy that will lead them out of the darkness.  We, as a society, need to stop ignoring that mental illness is a real problem.  But it’s a problem that has solutions, and we need to make those solutions more accessible.  We need to remove the stigma attached to any mental health issue.  We all go through periods when we find it hard to cope, and we need to ask for help.  We need to provide that help.  And we need to realize that the same solutions won’t work for everyone, and encourage each person to keep searching for something that does work.  And when they find it, we need to not take it away from them.

Which leads me back to City of Heroes.  I know several people that got through the rough patches through playing and talking with other players.  I’ve read countless stories, blogs, and forum posts about how important this game was to people.  It saved the life of a good friend of mine, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Here’s a comment posted by Mercedes Lackey, that explains just how important this game was to so many:

I’m right there in the front lines of the movement to find CoH a new home. I’ve got pages of stories from players that would break your heart. People who are disabled, who are only free in CoH because they can fly. People who are shut-ins, either confined to their houses by illness or mental trauma, who were free to wander Paragon City as if none of that mattered. Parents of autistic children, who literally brought their kids back to a normal life by playing with them on their laps–and vets suffering from PTSD who found healing in being heros–game therapy is only now being explored for these conditions, and NCSoft yanked what was working for these people right out from under them. We shared all these stories with NCSoft. They were ignored.

City was much more than just a game. It is said, “if you put yourself in the attitude of prayer, prayer will come.” Well, people who played in City put themselves in the “attitude” of heroes…and they actually became heroes. Not the kind that stop locomotives, but the kind that raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. The kind that would help out a fellow player with in-game cash–or real cash when they were hard up. The kind that stopped to guide a newbie around and show him the ropes (and how often do you hear about THAT in WoW?), who created healers just to run around low level zones and patch up the “babies” (getting no XP in the process, mind you). The kind who took time to interact with the little kid on player-mom’s lap. The kind who would stay up all night to talk a fellow player through a bad stretch in his life.

CoH wasn’t a game, not really. It was more like a city built around a theme park, full of (mostly) like minded folks who cared about each other–we went off into the world every day to make our living, then came home, and joined our friends in the park for adventures. So what if we had ridden the rides before? That didn’t make them any less enjoyable the 3rd or 33rd time around. Besides, the devs loved their game, and kept making us new ones! People who left the game 10 issues ago would never have recognized it at shutdown.

We’ve lost our home. NCSoft came in and bulldozed it to the ground, burying the characters we created and lived through in a giant unmarked grave. We have nothing left, and nowhere to go to. Our friends have been scattered to the winds.

Is it any wonder we are furious?

It’s been two weeks now since the game was shut down, and I’m still emotionally raw.  I downloaded and installed Champions Online, created a character, and entered the tutorial.  But I felt so lost.  I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going.  Granted, I don’t really have time to play, or to read the helpful posts in The Cape Radio’s forums on how to play, so it’s going to take me awhile to really figure out what I’m doing, but it’s just not home.  I’m still mourning the loss of my beloved City of Heroes.

Now, I’m not equating my devastation over the loss of innocent lives with the loss of a video game.  But my devastation at losing City of Heroes is no less real.  It wasn’t just a game to me, and the last day was roughCity of Heroes quite literally changed my life.  It’s been such a big part of my life for the last eight years, and despite the long stretches I was unable to play, it was always there to come back to.  Now it isn’t.

Yes, there are other games out there, and yes, I will be playing them.  But they’re not City of Heroes.  I can’t just “move on” and find a new place to call home.  Let me see if I can explain it in terms everyone can understand.

Imagine you have a really great friend, someone who you can visit whenever you want, and no matter how much time has passed between visits, he welcomes you with open arms.  And every time you visit, he’s having other people over, and invites you to join the party.  Some of these people are already your friends, some are strangers who become friends, some become even more.  And you all always have a place in his home.

Then one day, you’re told that your friend is terminally ill.  He even knows the day, the exact minute, he will no longer be around.  You search desperately for a cure, to no avail.  You try to spend as much time with him as possible before the end, or distance yourself from him thinking it will be easier to deal with his loss that way.  You do whatever it takes for you to cope with this news.  Then the minute comes, and he’s gone.  And his house is destroyed.  You can only watch as every trace of him disappears.

Yes, you still have the other friends you’ve made through him.  Yes, you’ve been invited to parties at the other houses on the street.  Some of your friends are already inside some of those houses.  But it’s not the same.  It will never be the same.

It wasn’t just a game.  It was therapy, a release from our mundane lives, an opportunity to be our ideal selves.  To be superheroes.  To express our creativity in so many ways.  Our friend’s house was filled with thousands of precious works of art, and while we saved what we could, so much of that is lost now.  We share our stories, our pictures, our memories, but that’s all we have now.

That’s part of the reason I want to make “real life” versions of the costume pieces that were available in the game.  To help keep City of Heroes alive, to keep expressing the creativity it fostered in me.  Perhaps it’s my way of paying tribute and giving back to the game and players that gave me so much.  Perhaps it’s my way of still being a hero, of bringing that feeling I had in game into the real world.

It’s so easy, especially in times like this past week, to feel helpless, like there’s no way we can ever hope to combat and win over the evil in this world.  Our reserves of cope are getting thin, and we wonder just how much more we can take.  But you know what?  This is exactly when we need to get up, put our underwear on on the outside, and take to the skies.  We are heroes, and this is what we do.  We never give up.  We may not be able to gather at our friend’s house anymore, but we are STILL heroes.  No one can take that away from us.

So I implore you, go do something heroic.  Make a donation to Real World Hero or your favorite charity.  Volunteer.  Help your friends and family who are having a hard time dealing with the tragedies, the holidays, or just life in general.  Be a hero to yourself and do something you’ve always wanted to do.  Only you can define your heroism, and only you can make it happen.

For some of us struggling with mental illness, our heroism may just be getting out of bed in the morning and facing another day.  It may be finally asking for help, admitting we need it.  It may be doing whatever it takes to never reach the point were we snap and do something awful to ourselves or innocent bystanders.  To keep fighting back our inner demons, to keep fighting to have a “normal” life, to just keep fighting.  Never. Give. Up.

Because you are my hero.  And you CAN fly.

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