My constant companion(s)

Mental illness is a bitch. She’s the shadow behind you when you look in the mirror. She’s the one who whispers, “I’ll always be with you.” And she’s not wrong.

I had a stark realization that this will forever be with me. I can’t shake it. You name it, I’ve tried everything. Prayer. Medication. Meditation. Yoga, all kinds. Therapy. Hot baths. Cold showers. Running marathons. Running in the woods. Retreating from the world. Writing my thoughts with pen and paper. Turning up the music so loud I can feel it in my bones. Playing “Moonlight Sonata” with all my heart and strength. Focusing on work. Distracting myself with alcohol, sex, TV. Watching sunrises and letting the hope of a new day dawn. Scanning sunsets for ways to make the light last longer so I don’t have to start over.

I guess there are things I haven’t tried. Drugs. Cigarettes. Sleeping around. But I know better than to dabble in those painful pleasures. There’s an indelible line that I won’t cross, a glass wall. I’ve been observant enough to see others go down that road, and to then see the pieces of themselves that come out on the other side.

When I was a young teenager, when all these ups and downs were new, the roller coaster was admittedly a little intoxicating. I felt such strong feelings as the pendulum swung and caught me in its arc. Back then I thought it wouldn’t last forever. That it was part of adolescence, a rite of passage that a percentage of people went through. It wasn’t treated seriously, and I surrendered myself to the god of achievement. I flayed my heart open on its altar, all for a chance at acceptance. And it delivered, until it didn’t.

As a young adult, freshly and acutely aware of my responsibility to the world, I realized that the dark clouds weren’t going away. Oh, I desperately wanted them to. I thought there would be a wind that would finally blow them away. I was taught that if I prayed enough, had enough faith, really truly believed that God could heal me, that it would be gone. But I still trusted in science, in sound logic, in the words of people who were smart and got degrees in things like medicine and counseling.

I opened myself up to a counselor at the health center at my university. I tried Prozac and then Celexa after Prozac gave me crazy nightmares. Finding a medication that worked was not easy, but it was worth it for the relief I felt was coming. There was a moment where I thought, “Will I have to take these for the rest of my life?” A big component of the depression and anxiety back then was situational. If only I could get into some new situations, things would be better.

Situations arose, but not necessarily good ones. Depression and anxiety found me in the valleys of military life and infertility and losing loved ones. Anxiety found me at their gravesides, worried about my fate, wondering how their genetics might live on in me. Still, I thought I could pray it away. Or that if I could just get through the grief, happiness and freedom from illness would be waiting on the other side.

I’m here to tell you that they’re still here, those long-suffering companions of mine. Maybe a therapist would say that I shouldn’t personify them, that doing so gives them power. But they’re part of me. I see my reflection in the way they enter my mind, color my vision, convince me of half-truths. They already have power, but their power can be measured and analyzed only in the light. The dark casts shadows that hide their true form.

And the truth is that they’re not going away. The spiral can still catch my heel as I struggle to get free. It can still tap me on the shoulder when the sun is shining and I least expect it. Or it can be a black hole, and drag me down so deep that time stops and it feels like I’ll never be free.

Today I had one of those spirals take me down. While I’d been entwined in its throes before, it hits you the same way the exhilaration of zero g’s hits you on a roller coaster. It can feel like a slippery oily hug, comforting like a blanket but snuffing out the light when you turn your head to catch your breath. It can make you think that the present experience is all there is. You stand on the porch and look at the storm as it comes for you. There’s a beauty in the power, and colors become saturated. That pendulum falls and catches you and pulls you along effortlessly. You know after the storm, there will be sun. It’s the law of nature. No matter the damage from its path, the sky will turn from sickly green to scary gray to brilliant blue, all within a matter of minutes.

These forces within me are as much biological as they are psychological. I have been the constant in the Universe’s fucked up experiment. I know this because of all the things I’ve tried to “fix” it. And nothing fixes it. So it must be inherent in me. So don’t feel pity for me, don’t try to tell me that it’s not me. It is me. And the sooner I realize it, the sooner I can treat it, the sooner I can come to terms with it and try to find its blind spots.

I can sleep at night knowing that I will come through; I always do. There’s never been a time I’ve seriously contemplating taking control of that outcome. I can rest my head on the pillow knowing that I will never pass on this shitty biology, these genetic curses. The students and children I work with see the best of me. They see the strength that rises from the ashes of the Universe’s arson on my soul. For those things I am grateful.

Writer’s block is a bully.

Maybe if I write about writer’s block, it’ll go away. You know, just like those bullies that called me “four eyes” and “nerd” and “goody two shoes” at school.

In a way, writer’s block bullies me too. There are many times throughout the day whether I’m in the car, in the shower, on a run, teaching a lesson, that I have this idea that is just bursting forth like a storm on a warm summer day.

And then by the time I have the time and space to write about it, it’s retreated. And it’s hella frustrating. And probably the #1 reason I haven’t been writing here regularly, as regularly as I’d like.

However, those moments of existential clarity as frustrating as they are serve a purpose. They remind me that I’m a whole person. A human being with a soul experiencing life and emotions to the fullest. Someone who is more than aware of her own struggles and attempts to overcome them.

Tangent: do we really overcome our struggles? Climb them like a hill and forget them when we get to the bottom? Because of my experience this week with a resurgence of depression, I don’t think we fully overcome them. I think they become a part of us, perhaps to the extent to which they’re a thorn in our side. Or they serve to make us stronger.

I’ve been living with dysthymic disorder since I was probably 13. Before that, I remember feeling an awareness of emotions. I don’t particularly remember if I was a “high-strung” child, but I know I screamed for basically the first six months of my life. I think they call those kids “high needs” now.

I don’t know when or how it kicked in, but I don’t remember a time without it.

Sarah Wilson

For twenty years, I’ve been trying to tamp it down, hide it, and bury it six feet under. I’ve been in therapy, taken medicine, prayed for healing, and created endorphins by running to overcome it. Recently I read this book called First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, and it’s all about depression’s cousin Anxiety. And for the first time in my life, I came away with an understanding and hope that anxiety can actually be a good thing, and it doesn’t have to rule over me, and I can use it in a positive way.

And all the while you’re being told there’s something wrong with you that has to be fixed. All the while you’re dependent on others’ ideas about what’s wrong with you.

Sarah Wilson

I had a moment this weekend when I realized depression could be used in the same way, or at least the type of depression that afflicts me. (I still struggle with how to word this… I hate saying ‘I have depression’, like it’s a pet.) Depression has spurred me into so many things that are actually good for me… cue the list:

  • regular exercise for those sweet sweet endorphins
  • staying involved in a church for the positive environment
  • prayer
  • writing… this one is probably the most significant
  • openness and vulnerability about my struggle, which can contribute to a larger sense of community for myself and others
  • eating/drinking well – I had a philosophy professor that said if we all just eat lettuce we won’t be depressed. He was kind of right, kind of wrong, but I see his point.
  • Self-examination
  • Yoga/meditation (totally prefer the former and avoid the latter….)
  • Getting regular sleep

I believe with all my heart that just understanding the metapurpose of the anxious struggle helps to make it beautiful.

Sarah Wilson

And as it turns out, all the things listed above help with anxiety too. The truth is, these mental health issues are part of who I am. But they’re not the whole picture. I am lucky (blessed? happy?) that the type of depression and anxiety I have are not debilitating. I am very thankful. And as sad as it is to me that I won’t be having any of my own biological children, I am glad that I won’t be passing on whatever genetic makeup has been responsible for depression/anxiety in my family for generations.

What I’m understanding from this early-morning writing session (fueled by coffee, lolz) is that we need to talk about this more. We need to talk about how it is to live with these ailments and how to be a fully engaged human on earth. We need to talk about how they affect our lives but also make us who we are. It emboldens me to see the stigma and conversations surrounding depression/anxiety changing in my lifetime. People seem to be more open about it than ever, and I think that is the true balm… connection and community.

The Mean Girl in the Mirror

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You’re too tall. You’d better feign an interest in sports so people think you’re living up to your height.

You’re too skinny and too tall.

Your handwriting sucks. Erase and write your name again. And again.

Be careful about showing too much of the silhouette of your body. Men will make noises at you when you walk down the street. You’d better wear baggy clothes.

Glasses make people look smart, but they make you look too smart.

You messed up again when practicing that song on the piano. Better start over.

No one wants a smarty pants for a friend.

No one wants a smarty pants for a girlfriend.

You suck at playing piano. You didn’t practice enough and that’s why you messed up. You deserved it.

You don’t know how to do your makeup. You should learn because you can’t look as pretty as the girls who do.

Stop being so emotional. People don’t care if you feel sad about that. You’re too sensitive.

You don’t have a mental health problem. What could you ever be depressed about?

You need to get all A’s otherwise your parents won’t love you as much.

You need to pick a career that’s good for a family otherwise a man won’t want to marry you.

Stop caring so much. It’s exhausting. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway.

You’re dirty and slutty for thinking about sex.

Don’t wear that; it might tempt your boyfriend to have sex with you.

Why did you have sex again? I told you that if you did, you are weak and can’t control yourself.

I can’t believe you think you’re old enough to get married. Are you sure he even loves you?

Now you’re fat. See what happens when you don’t exercise and eat right? You have no control.

Stop eating that! Run more. It’s good if you let yourself be a little hungry. You’ll look better.

From the side you still look chubby. Suck it in.

Your thighs are too big. Why do they still touch? Haven’t you been working out?

Look at how ugly your veins are, I can see them under your skin.

Check over that email again and fix it. No one’s going to take you seriously if you write like an idiot.

Your body sucks. You can’t even grow another human. What’s wrong with you?

He’s going to leave you if you can’t get pregnant. Stop disappointing him. And stop crying about it.

Another glass of wine? I told you a long time ago you don’t have any self control. I told you so.

You need to make sure you look good. What if he dies and you need to find a new husband? No man is going to want a woman who looks like that.

He says he loves you but maybe being together now is just easier than not.

Why did you say that? Just stop talking. You’re so annoying.

Did you see the way she looked at you? No wonder you don’t have any friends. No one wants to be your friend.

You’re well into your thirties now. Why haven’t you figured this out yet? 

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