Friday, May 11, 2018

The Most Important Thing I've Ever Written

In my newsfeed this morning were two stories about people (one a teenager) who had committed suicide.  Last week, one of my kids came home from school with the news that one of their classmates had committed suicide.  A few weeks before that, I learned that a school worker’s child had committed suicide. 

I’ve been away from this blog for a long time.  I’m sorry about that, but I’ve been struggling with something that only those very close to me know about.  I suffer from extreme anxiety and depression.  It’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life, but the last few years have been especially hard.  Some days it was all I could do to get out of bed and feed my children.  Most days I couldn’t leave the house.  Going to the grocery store sent me into a panic attack. 

Writing (even just here on this blog) was the last thing I could manage.  But today, I have to break my silence-both on this blog, and about the mental health issues I struggle with.  As a mother, my heart breaks for the survivors.  But as someone who struggles with depression I understand how distorted your thinking becomes.  How your world grows dark and you start to believe you will never get better. 

I started taking anxiety meds several years ago.  At first, they worked wonderfully.  I could leave my house without having a panic attack.  I could focus on my work.  I felt “normal”.  Unfortunately, that medication stopped working, so we switched to another medicine.  It too worked, and for longer than the first medicine.  My anxiety leveled off and I was able to function. 

But then the depression hit.  It was like I had walked into a dark cloud and couldn’t find my way out. 

I struggled alone with this for months.  Some days I would be cooking dinner for my kids with tears streaming down my face, and no idea why.  Intellectually I knew I had a good life.  I have great kids and a wonderful husband.  I have so many people who love me and depend on me.  I had achieved my life-long dream of becoming a published novelist. 

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the world would be better off without me.  And honestly, I just wanted the mental pain to stop.  I contemplated suicide.  I didn’t make a plan.  I didn’t attempt it, but the thought was there.  Some days, it was the only thing I could think about.  It seemed like a way to make the hurting stop. 

For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone I felt this way.  Not even my husband.  I was afraid if anyone knew what was really going on in my head I’d be locked up.  Or they wouldn’t love me anymore.  I’m already the girl with Crohn’s disease.  I didn’t want to be the crazy girl too. 

Eventually, the dark place I was in overwhelmed me and in desperation I told my husband.  He convinced me to go to my doctor.  He made the appointment for me, knowing that in my current mindset I couldn’t make that phone call. 

I went to my family doctor and I was terrified.  I thought he’d immediately have me committed.  But he just listened in a kind and understanding manner, pretty much acting as if feeling this way was no big deal. 

This was exactly what I needed.  I needed to know that I wasn’t crazy.  I needed to be treated as a normal person who just happened to be dealing with an issue in my thought process.  By treating me that way, he took away the stigma.

He prescribed an anti-depressant to add to my anti-anxiety medication.  It worked for a few months. 

And then it was like someone flipped a switch and turned off all the lights.  The darkness was back.  And this time it was worse.  The panic attacks also came roaring back.  It got so bad that I would scratch myself until I bled.  I couldn’t write.  I couldn’t read.  Two things that had always brought me peace. 

Again, I didn’t say anything at first.  Why?  I don’t know.  This is what I mean when I say that depression and anxiety are issues with your thought process.  They cloud your perception of reality.  If you haven’t ever experienced this let me describe it this way: It’s like you’re trapped in a house and none of the windows are clear.  Instead the glass is scratched up so badly that while you can see vague shapes and muted colors, but you can’t make out details.  Put another way, it’s like looking through a blurry camera lens and not being able to (ever) focus it. 

Finally, I told my husband I was struggling again.  Again, he called doctors for me.  At the beginning of this year, I started seeing a Psychiatrist who added more meds to the cocktail I was already taking.  Now I want to pause here for a moment and say that I was terrified of being overmedicated.  I didn’t want to walk around like a zombie or sleep all day.  I shared my concerns with my Psychiatrist.  (She didn’t want that for me either.  Contrary to some opinions, most doctors don’t just want to push pills.) 

She added medicines slowly and at a low dose.  I saw her every few weeks.  At those visits we would adjust my medication level and/or add new medicine—always only one change at a time.  A very cautious approach that I appreciated. 

I also started seeing a therapist.  I have some trauma in my past that I thought I had already worked through (with a prior therapist) but it resurfaced with the #metoo movement.  I started having nightmares again.  I’ll share more about that later.  Right now, all I will say is #metoo. 

Between the Psychiatrist and the therapist I learned that anxiety and depression can be caused by biological factors or environmental factors.  Or in my case—both.  Lucky me!!

I’m almost 5 months into treatment now.  Improvement has been gradual, but steady.  At first I wasn’t sure it was working.  But slowly as we adjusted my medication and as I learned new ways to process my thoughts, I started to feel differently.  I still have really rough days, especially when I’m overwhelmed with too many things to do.  But I’m starting to have good days too.  And that hasn’t happened for a long time.  
I’m writing this because I want to share my journey in the hopes of getting rid of the stigma and shame that’s attached to mental illness, and to share the things that helped me.  We’re not ashamed if we develop cancer or pneumonia or the flu.  Why should we be ashamed if we struggle with an illness that targets the brain?  The brain/nervous system is an organ system and just like any other body system, it too can suffer from illness. 

I believe pushing through the shame and telling someone is the biggest factor in my inching toward wellness.  Having my doctors and my family and the friends who know treat this as just another thing I deal with is huge.  Because of this, when I’m having a bad day, I can just say, “It’s a bad mental health day.”  Or “My anxiety/depression is really high today.”  By bringing it out into the light, it loses a lot of its power.  I don’t feel alone, and I don’t have to struggle to hide my bad days. 

An unexpected added benefit is the way my kids are viewing mental health.  Several of my kiddos have trauma in their background.  Some of them struggle with the same issues I do, and some them have their own mental health issues.  Watching me take my medicine, go to therapy, and talk openly about my “bad” days makes it ok/safe for them to do the same.  A lot of healing has come from of this. 

Something else I try to do is to keep busy.  If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see I’m always making something.  Diving into the visual or fiber arts (especially now when I struggle to write or read) helps so much.  It gives me something else to focus on instead of just thinking about how bad I feel, and because I have to concentrate, eventually the anxiety/depression subsides.  So find something you can immerse yourself in.  It doesn’t have to be art.  I could be gardening or playing with your dogs.  Anything that helps quiet your mind for a bit. 

Finally, tell someone and go see a doctor.  Don’t be afraid of medication and/or therapy.  It’s taken several months but in the past two weeks, I’ve had more good days than bad. 

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and no, it’s not an oncoming train.  It’s peace and even, dare I say it?  Happiness.