6 Ways to Survive the Winter

It’s snow secret that winter sucks. It brings a blizzard of unwanted feelings to those of us who suffer with depression. While the title of this post may seem lighthearted and rings like a sleighbell, don’t be sled to the wrong conclusion. “Winter Blues” are a slippery slope that can easily become an avalanche and bury us.

OK, done with the puns. Seriously, whether caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder, heightened sensitivity to change in seasons common with Bipolar disorder, a Depressive Disorder that gets worse as the days grow short and cold, or simply bad associations with “the most wonderful time of the year”, winter depression is a very real experience for millions of people each year, and it is a serious topic.

I live in New England, and winter is the time of the year for increased symptoms for those of us living with mental health struggles. I am no exception to this rule. The days are shortened and it’s often dark only an hour after I get out of work. It’s cold and windy, and often the roads are slick with snow or completely frozen, making travel difficult or impossible. Staying indoors is more appealing than it is in the warmer months, and the blankets and comfort of a bed are even more alluring than normal. All of these facts contribute to a lack of motivation and an increase in depressive symptoms for me, and many others.

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This is my cat, The Lord Commander Jon Snow, refusing to come inside despite the fact that he’s clearly miserable. Don’t be like Jon.

Winter is here in northern Vermont, and, much like my beautiful cat’s namesake in the Night’s Watch, I’m bracing myself for the coming onslaught and trying to prevent myself from joining the legion of the walking dead.

In the past, I’ve simply fallen into the helplessness and hopelessness of the winter months. I always know it’s coming, but I never take steps to preempt any of the difficulties ahead. I’m usually resigned to the fact that winter is also Depression Season for me. This year, though, I’m trying something new. I’m planning ahead. In the spirit of trying to survive the next 5 months without falling into a deep hibernation, I have some specific strategies I intend to use this winter that I’d like to share with you. This is a strategy list I’ve been compiling these last few weeks. I’m hoping it’s helpful to all of us.

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Isolation is Bad

For me, it is far too easy to cut people out of my life. At the height of depressive episodes, I’ve gone longer than a week without leaving my apartment save one trip to the store for toilet paper. This did not even occur in the winter. And we all know it’s far easier to stay inside when it’s cold, snowy, iced over, and dark outside. This winter, I am forcing myself to make plans with friends I know will make me keep them in an attempt to stay ahead. It’s key to have friends and/or family that you know will hold you accountable for keeping the plans that you make. Personally, I’m connecting with friends who also struggle in the winter, and making a sort of “Accountability Buddy” system. We are all aware that winter is the hardest of the seasons for all of us, and that we need to make sure that we see each other frequently to avoid falling into the trap of a near-complete lack of meaningful human interaction.

 

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Get Light Exposure When You Can

Letting light into our lives is important when battling depression, and I don’t just mean the metaphoric light. Actual, real, UV rays like we get from sunlight are very important in combating depressive episodes. Some people use light boxes for this. But light boxes can be expensive. I certainly don’t have the disposable income to get one. So, my plan is to go outside. I know, I know. It’s cold and miserable. In the area of Vermont in which I live, at least a few times a year we get “frostbite warnings” which advise all of us chilly citizens not to be outside with any exposed skin for longer than 15 minutes at a time to avoid getting frostbite. Around February, negative temperatures are common occurrences. I believe that the lowest temperature I’ve ever seen is -35 fahrenheit  with a wind chill factor of -50. So, I don’t say “go outside” lightly. My plan is 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes on my lunch break, and 10 minutes right after work. A minimum of 30 minutes of light exposure is recommended, so that’s my goal. If going outside is too intimidating of a task, or it really is just too cold, I’ll sit by windows as often as possible. In my understanding, anything helps.

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Find a New Hobby or Build on an Existing One

Personally, I need activities to occupy my time and mind when I am home, especially when my daughter is with her father. I enjoy playing guitar, reading, and writing. As you can see, mine are pretty exclusively indoor, but there are fantastic outdoor hobbies one could have to get through the winter and get that light exposure and fresh air – snowboarding, skiing, snow shoeing, snow sculpting, etc. These things do not appeal to me, but they may to you, so I’m listing them. This winter, I’ll likely be focusing on expanding on my current hobbies rather than picking up a new one. While I love watching sports and sci-fi, I’m going to try to limit that and focus more on the hobbies that engage my mind. I know that staring at a screen and getting sucked into a new show tends to fuel my desire to isolate, and is therefore counterproductive. Whatever your current hobbies, though, make sure you have at least one or two you can focus on, or, if you don’t have any, pick something you’ve always wanted to learn to do and give it a go!

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Make Plans for Spring/ Summer

When the winter has really got you down, think about what’s to come. When I’m depressed, I try to remind myself that it will pass. It always does. I’m going to apply that same philosophy to winter in general. When the days are dark and cold and miserable, I’m going to think of all the things I’ll do once it’s warm and light again. My favorite parts about the warmer months are hiking, bonfires, swimming, taking day trips, and going to Boston. Planning for these things builds a sense of excitement and anticipation. It’s also a fantastic distraction technique. Googling places which I can visit in a day, trails I can hike and explore, and planning nights full of barbecue, bonfires, and laughter with friends and family will, in theory, help keep my mind off the dreary cold.

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Find Someone to Help

If you’re so inclined, find somewhere to volunteer. Helping others and positively contributing to our respective communities can increase our sense of self worth while also providing a tangible distraction from our own depression and getting us out of the house. Honesty time: I’m not sure if I’m going to use this trick. I’ll likely have my hands full with work, my daughter, and the rest of the techniques on this list, but I can see the potential in using it as a coping skill, which is why I’m adding it to the list. Look into local nursing homes, food shelves, soup kitchens, youth mentoring programs, or hospitals for volunteer opportunities. Or even just be there for a friend or family member who’s struggling as well. If you choose that option, though, be sure to do so with healthy boundaries in place.  

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Find Comfort

Winter is cold. Once you’ve gotten your sunshine for the day, it’s actually really beneficial to your health to stay warm. (And not just to avoid hypothermia or frostbite.) After the tasks of the day are done, indulge in those comfy blankets, put the heat up if you can, if you’re lucky enough to have a wood stove, sit next to the fire with a nice, warm cup of tea. Find some comfortable fuzzy socks. Curl up with a book or a favorite show. Everything in balance. Music is a huge part of my life, so, while I’m in comfy clothes and blankets and relaxing with tea, sometimes I like to listen to music instead of watching or reading something. I have a playlist specifically for when I’m feeling depressed. It has upbeat, positive songs that also validate my feelings. One of my go to albums when I’m having a hard day and I want to get out of my head is “Positive Songs for Negative People” by Frank Turner. He populates my depression playlist, along with Indigo Girls, Modest Mouse, Alanis Morissette, Third Eye Blind, Goo Goo Dolls, Bastille, Linkin Park, and The Lumineers, among others. (Judge away if you’re so inclined. I like it, and that’s the point – find the music that lifts you up and listen to that.) The idea is to find things that comfort you and use them! 

TO PUN IT UP: 

  • Don’t ICE-OLATE
  • Keep those days merry and bright (with light)
  • Slide into a new hobby or brush off an old one
  • Think of The Most Warm-iful Time of the Year
  • Help dig out a neighbor
  • Chill out, stay comfy!

OH! And don’t turn a cold shoulder to my winter pun-derland.

There it is! Six ways you can beat the winter blues! Do you have any strategies that didn’t make the list? Please leave them in the comments below or hop over to Facebook or Tweet me @paradichotomy. Let’s share tips and tricks with each other to make sure that we all enjoy this winter as much as possible or, at least, survive it!

NOTE: This list is preemptive. If you find yourself in a rough situation, check out these other tips for getting through: Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse) and Grounding Techniques. And, of course, if you’re worried that you or a loved one may be at risk of self harm, call 911 or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

Shutting Down Internal Stigma: The Grand Re-Re-Launch of Parallel Dichotomy

Being a mental health advocate while living with mental health challenges is sometimes a tricky prospect. The nature of a chronic mental health diagnosis(es) is that there will be times during which you are more symptomatic than others. Advocating for wellness while you are ill is particularly draining. Doing anything while you’re ill is draining. Sometimes, doing things while you’re well is draining. LIFE is just downright draining sometimes.

It takes an awful lot of energy to raise a child, go to work, maintain friendships, make dinner, clean the house, and, yes, to advocate. To write.

In reality, we all have a limited amount of energy to dedicate to tasks each day. When you’re living with mental illness, that energy fluctuates a little bit more between the days and weeks and months. We all know this. And it’s true.

I wish I could simply say that energy and motivation have been scarce commodities these past few months, and that that lack of energy is the main culprit in my silence. In my outward life, I have a lot more going on now. I’m employed full-time at an elementary school as a behavior interventionist, I’ve been putting more effort into maintaining friendships and avoiding the isolation trap that is so easy to fall into, I’ve been preparing for the holidays. I’m dedicated to attending therapy weekly, and we’ve been digging into some pretty heavy topics there recently. It’s been a lot. Almost all positive, but requiring an awful lot of energy nevertheless. If you’re familiar with my blog, you know that I am a big fan of what I like to call Radical Honesty.

And here it is:

I could easily say that, with everything going on, I simply haven’t had the time or energy to keep this project going. And many of you would likely express understanding and acceptance of that. And, while it would be easy to use that as a scapegoat, it would not be honest.

When I blog, I tend to do one of two things. I either reflect on the skills and techniques I’ve learned, or, I share my own personal struggles in hopes that they may help someone else feel a little less alone and a little less “crazy.”

Writing out specific skills allows me to review them and encourages me to apply them in my own life – an external, public system of checks and balances, if you will. Resource posts like those take a lot of thought and planning. And, honestly, I tell myself that I need to write them from a place of “wellness.” I feel compelled hold the perspective of “This has helped me, and I think it may help you” rather than “This is something that is currently helping me, or something that I hope will help, and I wanted to share it with you as well.” Which, I realize now, is a big part of my struggle with keeping this space up and running.

I have an easier time writing posts that relate to sharing personal thoughts and experiences. It’s a little less homework on my end. (See, honesty!) And it helps me process. Personally, though, sharing only feels possible up to a certain point. If I’m at or below a 6 on the 10 scale of emotional pain, I’m your gal. I’ll share my thoughts and feelings with honesty and happily reflect on my own experiences. These are the posts that lead to messages in my inbox saying, “Oh my god! I didn’t think anyone else felt that way.” Eliciting that response is a core goal of this blog. (Not for the messages, not for ego, but to know that I’m helping someone else by sharing my own journey.) To make sure that someone who reads this knows that someone else feels similar feelings and faces similar struggles.

I’ll be honest again, though. Once I top a 7 or 8 on that 10 scale, my go-to defense mechanism is complete shut down. I start to pretend everything is fine. I reject my own belief in radical honesty as a way to combat stigma. I start to think that I need to make sure everyone thinks I’m “good”, or else no one will take anything helpful from my words and I’ll be a complete failure.

These feelings are a major contributing factor to the fact that the blog I posted on the day of my suicide attempt was a rather uninspired piece on the DBT Skill of Interpersonal Effectiveness. It was a safe topic. Something concrete. Something far less personal, even compared to other DBT skills.

I wanted nothing to do with radical honesty. Not to myself, and certainly not to anyone else. I was simply too far “in it” to care to reach out. I was solidly in “white knuckling it” mode – that “siddown, shuddup, grit your teeth and push through” mentality that is so dangerous. I was trying to pretend that everything was OK, trying to fake it until I was truly feeling better.

This mentality nearly cost me my life. I see that now, and I am doing much better in my personal life in reaching out for support when I need it. But, that doesn’t answer the question, does it? Why has the blog been so radio silent? Why haven’t I returned to share more stories, more skills, more recovery realism and radical honesty? I certainly have plenty of stories, new and old, left to tell, and many more skills and insights to share. So, where have I been?

It’s simple, actually. I’ve been incredibly ashamed and I’ve been avoiding posting anything because of it.

How could I possibly come back here, to this space, dedicated to recovery and strength, after a suicide attempt? How could I possibly show my face to you all again? How could I advocate for wellness while ill? I felt doing so would make me a dishonest hypocrite and, frankly, that the mental health community deserves much better than someone so tenuous and young in the recovery process that a small slip could start an avalanche.

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Actually me these past three months thinking about how I could possibly continue this blog. 

Personally, I have a pretty incessant internal narrative about myself. Sometimes it’s positive, but more often than not, it focuses on everything I’ve “screwed up.” It replays memories, from horrific, traumatic moments down to conversations I wish I’d handled differently. I have an obnoxiously good memory, so pretty much anything in my life is right there, ready to be inserted into this endless spew of self-judgement.

This narrative and, more specifically, my inability to ignore it, has been responsible for many bad choices and many of my struggles throughout the years. In relation to recovery, it’s “I can’t possibly get better, I’ve had this crap going on my entire life. What’s therapy going to change?” (For anyone thinking that – a LOT. A lot, a lot. For one, I am now getting better at ignoring this annoying strand of self-judgement and self-loathing.) In relation to friendships, it’s “How could this person possibly like me?” In relation to regrets, it’s “Oh, if I had only done that differently, I wouldn’t have lost x,y,z.” In relation to this blog, it was “How can I possibly be a mental health advocate after struggling as much as I was in August? How can I return to this space after promising consistency in posting and then going radio silent? How can I show my face in the mental health community after attempting suicide?”

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Like this, Sheila. Just like this. (This is my face, and I’m showing it.)

Many of you have reached out in one way or another, even more of you have expressed that you miss the blog. I miss the blog, too. And, frankly, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my mental illness stop me from advocating mental wellness.

We’ve all heard the airplane and mask metaphor. It’s so worn out, I kind of don’t like it, no matter how true it is. But, the fact is, for the past few months, I’ve been beating myself up for not being able to get my mask on right 100% of the time. I’ve been thinking that, unless my mask is on perfectly, I can’t possibly share any of the mask-putting-on steps I’ve learned. I’ve told myself that I’m completely useless until I have a PhD in the science of putting on a mask. My internal stigma has told me, again and again, that I cannot advocate for mental health education or help anyone else unless I am “better.” That my illness prevents me from being able to take part in the conversation.

This, of course, is bullshit. Many of the most impactful advocates I know struggle. Most of the people I admire in the mental health community live with diagnoses of their own. It’s a part of what makes them such effective advocates.

Honestly, I’m not sure if my mask is on just right, yet, but what I am sure of is that I’m on the damn plane. And being on the plane allows me the opportunity to potentially help someone else actually get their mask on. When the plane lands, I’ll be one of the people qualified to call out any misconceptions of what being on a crashing plane is like. If I wasn’t on the plane, I’d actually have very little to contribute to this conversation.

Yes, being a mental health advocate while also navigating my own mental health journey is difficult. It’s difficult for all of us. But each of us in the advocacy arena are in the plane. And we have the power to share the things we’ve learned about putting on the mask, even if we sometimes fail to do it ourselves. I’ve had so many messages from people over the course of this project. People who have shared with me parts of their own journey and told me that, by sharing my story, I’ve helped them feel less alone and more empowered to reach out for help when needed. That’s something worth continuing.

That’s the power each and every one of us has when we speak out, challenge stigma, and share our journeys with radical honesty. None of us are perfect. None of us are “cured”. When living with a chronic mental health condition, the truth is that none of us will ever be “cured.” We can learn to manage symptoms, though. And we can share that knowledge with others. We can live our full lives, knowing that our diagnoses do not define all of what makes us “us”. In sharing those stories, we can challenge stigma.

In my mind, mental health advocacy is a multi-pronged approach. It involves sharing our struggles as well as our triumphs, it involves building community and sharing coping mechanisms and tactics that can actually help others in the community improve overall quality of life. It involves engaging with each other in a way that can benefit all of us, as well as engaging with those who do not live with diagnoses to help educate and raise awareness that the stereotypes around mental health issues are misleading and dangerous.

But there is another important component to mental health advocacy, and it’s being willing to advocate for yourself. I don’t mean with doctors or therapists (that’s important, too), but advocating for yourself, to yourself. The fact is, I would never say any of the things that I say to myself to anyone else, fellow advocate or not, and if I heard someone speaking to someone in the way I speak to myself, I would say something.

Our internal narrative can really mess with us sometimes. If you’re anything like me, you have immense empathy for others, but struggle finding it for yourself, especially when things are hard.

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The movie isn’t worth your time or money if it’s tearing you down. Walk out.

I’ve been working hard on dismantling the internal stigma I hold that tells me I need to be “stronger”, to “snap out of it”, to “white knuckle it”, to “keep quiet”, to “be ashamed”, and that I’m “too fragile” to share my experiences. That voice that tells me I’m a “hypocrite” for advocating mental wellness while struggling from time to time. Stigma tries to tell me what I “can” and “can’t” do. This blog was solidly in the “I can’t” section. “I can’t because I’m too weak.”

Would I look at anyone else who survived a suicide attempt and tell them that they are weak? Would I tell someone else who’d survived that they were pathetic and had no right to speak about mental health and wellness? Of course I wouldn’t! As I said earlier, the voices of those struggling are often the most poignant and valuable voices society can hope to hear to find a true understanding of what it actually means to live with a mental illness.

If you’ve followed from the beginning, you’ve watched this space shift and grow over time. Sometimes, it hasn’t had much direction at all, other times, it’s been more resource and technique based. I think that the best components of Parallel Dichotomy are found somewhere in a marriage of everything it’s been in the past.

That’s the goal moving forward. I can’t change the past, I can’t go back to August. I can’t “snap out” of my own struggles, but I am actively working on coping skills and healing. And I firmly believe that, by sharing the things I learn, I may be able to help others along the way. I also believe that opening conversations on these topics and inviting other perspectives allows all of us to learn.

Parallel Dichotomy is back. I appreciate all the patience. The blog is still accepting guest post submissions, should you feel so inclined. As for the schedule of postings, I need to be realistic with myself. I guarantee you a post once a week. Every Friday at 5 PM EST, there will be new content covering tools and tricks we can all use to cope with our symptoms, or resources those of you in a care taking position may find helpful. There may be occasional bonus posts.

In the spirit of the holiday season, next week’s post will be on “Beating the Winter Blues.” I hope you’ll keep an eye out for it as it’s shaping up to be a good one!

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback, and I’d love for you to join the conversation! Please feel free to drop a comment! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter! I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

 

Radical Honesty in Recovery 

***TW: This post addresses suicide***

“Recovery is a process, not an event.”

I first heard this sentence in January while I was in the hospital. I’ve spoken it and typed it out both on the pages of this blog, and in encouraging messages to friends who are struggling. It resonated with me as profound. In truth, recovery is all about self reflection and self awareness. It’s about looking at yourself with radical honesty and openness and willingness to do the painful work of becoming aware of your own mental health diagnosis(es), your own symptoms, and your own way of relating to those symptoms in a healthy way.

You may not know this about me, but I pretty much only do things that make me feel at least remotely competent and capable. I’ll never be Steinbeck, but I can passably fumble with word choice until I’ve got a decent sentence; I’ll never be David Gilmour, but I know my way around a strum pattern on my acoustic guitar; I’ll never be Dorothea Lange, but I have a cursory understanding of what angles and edits make a photograph powerful.

As you may have noticed, my hobbies all revolve around expression. Which, I suppose, is a bit ironic. It’s just part of the dichotomy of my life, I guess. Because, were I making a list of areas in which I have absolutely no competence in my personal life, expression would top it. When I’m having a really hard time with something, I am spectacularly bad at reaching out. Conversely, were I making a list of things at which I am too good, over-thinking would be the crown jewel. I can analyze anything to death. You’ve heard of beating a dead horse? I beat the glue and jell-o that dead horse became. (Metaphorically. No animals were harmed in the making of this blogpost.)


This combination of not reaching out and turning inward and falling into my thoughts, it turns out, is quite dangerous.


If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that Tuesdays are the day I “Tell All.” I pour my life into a sieve and dig through the pebbles of my experience to find those gems, those moments which are deeply personal, but also relatable. The ones that demand display; the ones I hope will make an impact.

And holy shit, have I found a lot of gems hiding in the sediment in the past three weeks. Possibly pyrite, possibly gold. But demanding display either way. This is a story which I feel, with every fiber of my being, must be told. 


But, I’ve hesitated to write it.


I’ve given pause to the idea of putting this out there for many reasons. Fear of the response it may receive. Self-doubt about even having the right to tell this story in a public forum. Anxiety for needing to tell it. Guilt for my actions. Deep shame and the idea of not being worthy, not just for this blog post, or even the blog in general, but of life in general. The past three weeks have been very sobering, very healing, very reflective. But I still feel that sense of dread in putting this “out there.” I feel that, somehow, my actions may invalidate my message. 


Some of you reading this may know the events leading up to today, and, ultimately, this post; some of you may not.


For those of you who do not know what’s been going on, but know me personally, I apologize that this is the means through which you are learning those specifics. But that same shame has prevented me from reaching out to all of my beloved family and friends and explaining it over and over again. For you, I certainly hope that this post is not viewed as dismissive of your feelings or offensive. I simply do not have it in me to explain everything repeatedly. That said, I am around and happy to talk with you on a more personal basis after you’ve read this if you would like.


Remember how I said I simultaneously struggle with expressing myself and thinking way too much? I also am pretty horrendously bad at reaching out for help in times of crisis. I think myself into a corner, sometimes obsessively. The problem with being an over-analytical person is that you can gain a false sense of security in your thinking. You can fool yourself into honestly believing that you have considered every angle in depth and that you have, for lack of a better term, “the whole picture” on the table before you. This is problematic for everyone, but it is particularly difficult for those of us living with mental health diagnoses and battling the constant onslaught of distorted thoughts. That’s where my downward spiral began.


I began to slip into a depressive episode. I recognized it. I reached out to reschedule my appointment with my psychiatrist to a sooner date. I spoke with friends and my therapist about it. I did all those things we’re “supposed to do” when things are getting rough. And I am fantastic at doing those things if I’m at a four or five out of ten. They become more difficult when I’m at a six or seven. Once I top seven, they become impossible.


My bipolar depression was getting me all dressed up. The demented black fabric of a veil that distorts my vision but seems not only normal, but necessary, given the occasion, was draped flawlessly over my head. Then came my PTSD. Toddling alongside me for a little while throwing the little explosive bits of memories at my feet, a sadistic flower girl; then, transforming into a malicious father, holding my arm tight and leading me to the altar of the unholy union of screwed up brain chemicals and trauma.


Depression and PTSD are wed, and have always been wed. A truly unbreakable vow. Depression and Bipolar are also wed. I guess I’m stuck in the middle of a polyamorous, abusive relationship, of sorts, from which I can never fully escape. 


Depression feeds off distorted thoughts, and PTSD likes to stuff depression’s face by the shovel load. About six weeks ago, now, I began experiencing a truly incessant attack of memories. Flashes. One or two seconds max for each. But each memory would trigger another. Each memory carried with it a sense of self-loathing. Each fragment coupled with thoughts like, “I’m such a fucking idiot.” “How could I let that happen to me?” “I didn’t do enough.” “I’m a coward.” 


These thoughts and memories increased in frequency until they were a constant companion. The days were flashes; the nights were horrific nightmares. This went on for three weeks.  


In a previous post, I used Jaws as a metaphor for PTSD. In the final week of July, if we were following the movie timeline, I was frantically trying to shut down the beach after several attacks. But my attempts were unsuccessful. I convinced myself that my support system was indifferent or ill-equipped to handle such a beast. So, I went off-script. I didn’t need the shark expert; I didn’t need the dedicated but inexperienced sheriff. So, the next week, I was out in the water with all the hubris of Quint, pushing full speed ahead into the ocean of my symptoms, believing that I had not only the knowledge and ability to kill the beast, but also that I was the only one who could. I didn’t need a crew. I didn’t need backup. On August 11th, I was in the decimated, broken boat being torn apart by the shark.


Feeling as though I had alienated or shut out everyone who may be able to help me, and realizing in a moment of complete shock that I was, in fact, wrong in my assumed knowledge and experience in handling the situation, I resigned myself to my fate and let the shark take me.


Because on August 11th, I attempted suicide.


The “sheriffs” in my life are, thankfully, persistent and tenacious. And despite my best efforts, one of them chartered a dingy and followed me out to sea without my knowledge. Then she dove into the treacherous waters, beat the shark back, and pulled me to safety.

I won’t talk about the specific reasons why, on this day in particular, I was resolute, because reading the specifics of other people’s reasons online was a big contributing factor that day. I won’t go into the specifics of the means of my attempt, because research shows that that is not only ineffective at suicide prevention, but actually harmful to prevention efforts. 


What I will say is this: Had it not been for my friend, I would not be writing this post. Had it not been for a fast response EMS team, I would not be writing this post. Had it not been for diligent doctors working all night to save a life that, honestly, didn’t want to be saved, I would not be writing this post. I very nearly succeeded in my attempt to end my life.


But that’s not the point I want to make. The point is this: I am so thankful that I am here and able to write this post.


I talk so often about transparency on this blog. I truly believe that it is important to look at ourselves, look at our supports, look back on moments of success and moments of crisis to evaluate them and learn from them. And man, have I been doing some serious looking at myself the past three weeks. With the help of professionals, I’ve been able to use my analytical skills in a healthy way, to better identify the moments in which I truly need to reach out for help.


I spent five days in a voluntary crisis stabilization house which utilized a Trauma Informed approach. I learned a lot while there, about myself, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about coping with that damned shark. With the help of my psychiatrist, my medications have been adjusted to be more effective. With the help of my therapist, I walked through the entire timeline of my attempt, in a safe, non-triggering way, to understand exactly what factors “pushed me over the edge” and the moments in which I could have (and should have) called someone. With the help of a few close friends, I’ve learned that the people in my life who say they care about me kinda, actually, you know… mean it. With the help of family members, I’ve made and implemented a safety plan. All of these strides took some serious, guided self analysis and some massive humbling on my part. 


Because despite hitting what I hope will be the lowest point of my life, I still struggle with the idea that I can’t “go it alone.” Despite my amazing friends and the family members and professionals who’ve been with me these past 11 months (and longer) through the hospital and my recovery up to this point, when things get really tough, I still feel the need to grit my teeth and push through without help. And it takes an awful lot of humility on my part to finally admit to myself that that approach ain’t workin’. It’s never really worked, but now, especially, it’s not going to do it. As I move out of trauma, as I move into awareness of the implications of living with Bipolar, as I move toward recovery, I can’t move alone. We all need help and support sometimes. And there’s no weakness in accepting this.


And I feel the most hopeful I’ve felt about the prospect of recovery in a long time. Honestly, since all of this started back in November, and probably before that. It’s been a long year. And the stress of all of it culminated on that late Friday afternoon three weeks ago, and the weight nearly crushed me. But now, a large portion of that weight has been lifted.


I am, honestly and with every single bit of my soul, happy to be alive. I’m still in a bit of a depressive episode, but I’m on the tailend. I write that to say that moments pass. They always pass. Even the really long moments that stop time and make you feel like you’re trapped in the event horizon of a black a hole, those moments that make you feel as though time has stopped and there’s no progress or escape to be had, pass. I assume many of my readers have had many dark moments in their lives. I know some of you are also suicide attempt survivors.


I know that the darkness comes in waves. My depression is still with me. I will live with Bipolar Disorder and PTSD for my entire life, but I am so thankful to get the chance to live with them. To be able to get to know them better, to learn to coexist in a manner which puts the power of my recovery in my hands and doesn’t pass it along as chum for the circling sharks.


I’ve learned that true strength is not found in white-knuckling it through the worst moments of our lives, but in finding someone (or a group of someones) willing to come along for the drive and take over when you get too tired. There is strength in vulnerability. Immense strength. Those are muscles I’m going to have to build. They’ve atrophied a bit. And ripping them apart to allow them to heal bigger and better than before is going to be hard work, and it’s going to hurt, but I’m going to do it. I will get that strength.


If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, please know that I’ve lived with them in various stages of passive and active since I was thirteen years old. I’m now twenty-nine. I know how draining it is. I know how many tricks our stupid brains can play on us. I know how easy it is to convince yourself that you don’t matter, that you are a burden, and that everyone and the entire world would be better off without you. I also know that these thoughts are lies. You have worth. You have dignity. You matter. I matter. It’s not easy. It’s exausting and it’s painful and it’s hard. But, three weeks out from my attempt, I can already assure you that it’s worth it. I am already so thankful that my attempt was unsuccessful. 


I’m still doing the hard work. I’m still looking at myself. I’m still battling with those memories. I’m still dealing with anxious thoughts. I’m still dealing with depression and a tendency to obsess. I’m still living with Bipolar and PTSD. But, for the first time in my life, I honestly feel like I can live with those things. That I can make peace with the fact that these are things I will always live with, to one degree or another, but that I have the power and capability to navigate them. (With help.)


I also want to take a moment to recognize that living in Vermont affords me access to levels of care that not everyone has. Vermont truly does lead the nation in areas of Trauma Informed Care and in treatment with dignity from a strengths based perspective. I don’t want to minimize the struggles to accessing quality care that others face. But, I also don’t want to make it sound as though you can’t move toward recovery without access to the various treatment options. If you live an area with limited access to care, please message me, and I will try to help you find something that can help. (I’ll put that almost-social work degree to good use!)


I will say, though, that I am currently using Medicaid as my insurance, and all of the services I’ve received are through the state designated mental health agency in my county. I’m not a “medical high roller.” I don’t have a choice in my psychiatrist. I have limited choice in my therapist. My primary care doctor was assigned to me by the state. And I believe that access some level of support and care can be found anywhere, even if it’s a support group in your area, or a state funded mental health agency. Something is better than nothing, and once I realized that my recovery was in my hands, my PCP, Therapist, and Psychiatrist options suddenly mattered a little less.


And, if you’re really struggling and truly cannot figure out what to do, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is always available. They have a phone and texting service, as well as an internet chat service, if you’re uncomfortable with making the phone call. Please utilize them. 


As always, thanks for reading. Hit me up on social media or drop a comment! Let me know what you think! We’re all stronger together. You matter. 

Quick Update 

I am dealing with a mental health crisis right now and I need to get myself well before I can resume regular posting. I am not sure when I’ll be back, but I anticipate a couple of weeks at the least. Thank you all for your support, patience, and understanding in this matter. Remember to reach out if you need help. There is no shame in seeking higher levels of care when necessary. Stay safe. You are loved. 

Interpersonal Effectiveness… What is that?!

Welcome to the newest edition of Recovery Thursday! Are you ready for some more DBT skills? ‘Cause I am! Before we get into some Interpersonal Effectiveness, I want to bring you attention to the first ever guest post hosted on Parallel Dichotomy, which is part one of a personal narrative about Medication Induced Psychosis. If you haven’t read it yet, please do and send Lori some love in the comment section! Also, if you missed it, I was recently published by The Mighty again, and I’m really passionate about the topic of my article. It’s all about the immense, sometimes deadly, stigma around psychiatric hospitalization.  You can read it here and I would really appreciate it if you could give it some love and share it directly from The Mighty Site!

Alright, per the new schedule (which, if I may say, is working really well so far! Thank you all for your patience with me through the past 8 months as I struggled to find consistency!), today is a recovery based post.

Today, I’d like to go over the basics of Interpersonal Effectiveness, a pillar of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. We’ve hit on some serious DBT skills on Parallel Dichotomy before, with the four part emotion regulation series, but today, we’re going to be working in an entirely different area of DBT.

When you read the title of this post, what was your immediate reaction? When I was introduced to interpersonal effective, it was described as “how to get what you want in relationships.” With my somewhat off-base view of the definition of “getting what you want”, my visceral reaction was, “I’m not looking to manipulate others and have power over them!” and I was shocked that such a concept would be addressed in a group therapy session!

See, my view of a “good” relationship involved consistent self-sacrifice. This, it turns out, is not healthy. (Which was one of many reasons I found myself in a group therapy session to begin with!)

Interpersonal Effectiveness is actually just about how to be assertive and set boundaries in healthy relationships. Which are necessary skills to maintain the wellness of yourself and those with whom you find yourself in relation. As I mentioned, it is a pillar of DBT, so there are many facets to it. Overall, though, in its simplest form, interpersonal effectiveness is about knowing when and how to ask for something for yourself and when and how to say “no” to a request made of you.

As is common in the DBT curriculum, acronyms abound! You may have heard some of them if you’re familiar with group or hospital-based therapy. D.E.A.R.M.A.N., G.I.V.E., and F.A.S.T. are my personal favorites.

But before you can use any of the skills linked to those creative letter strands, you have to be aware of what kinds of relationships you have. We all know (at least in theory) that there are many different relationships with varying degrees of closeness and intimacy. Your relationship with your coworkers is likely very different from your relationship with your parents. You relationship with the clerk at your regular gas station is much different than a friendship. People that you barely know don’t need your whole life story, but you should be able to open up about those details to people that you know very well.

In all of these circumstances, relationships fall under three general categories:

POSITIVE, NEGATIVE, AND NEUTRAL.

Positive relationships will feature give and take on the part of both parties involved and will be balanced overall.

Negative relationships will infringe on the Personal Bill of Rights (featured in the post Self-Love is NOT a Bad Thing), it will not feature a respect of boundaries, and it will be one-sided but not agreed upon.

Neutral relationships are strictly task related. Interacting with the guys at the gas station, your server when you’re out to dinner, customer service representatives, cashiers, etc.

It is important, in learning when and how to properly communicate our feelings, wants, and needs, to recognize the type of relationship and whether or not our desires are appropriate. Oftentimes, I know, I struggle to express my feelings with the “correct” degree of emotion. Something seemingly small may happen and I may completely fly off the handle; conversely, something may happen that really makes me angry or uncomfortable and I will minimize it, put caveats and modifiers on it, and try to pretend that it is not a big deal at all.

Building healthy, effective relationship skills is, at the end of the day, about getting your emotions and expression of emotions to match and being able to clearly communicate what you want and need. It’s about learning the balance between when to compromise and when to hold firm.

In order to do this, we all need to understand clearly what our objectives are in an relationship. Clarifying priorities is really important. To get started in doing this, ask yourself:

  • How important is it that I get what I want or succeed in attaining my goal?
  • How important is it that I maintain the relationship?
  • How important is it that I maintain my self-respect?

Once priorities are clearly defined, it then becomes easier to figure out the best course of action to meet those priorities.

As an introduction to the topic of Interpersonal Effectiveness, and to allow you to begin to measure your own communication strengths and the areas which could use some T.L.C. and improvement, I’d invite you to reflect briefly on the following statements. Which are true for you, which do you wish were true, and which (if any) do you think are ridiculous?

  • I’m skilled at asking for what I want.
  • I have people in my life who I can ask for help.
  • I’m a “yes-person.”
  • I don’t know how to ask for help.
  • When people say “no”, it means they dislike me.
  • I have trouble saying “no” to requests.
  • I say “yes” so much that I don’t have time or energy to do anything for myself.
  • Other people really aren’t that interested in helping me.
  • I rarely do favors for friends or family.
  • When someone tells me “no” once, it means they will never say “yes”.
  • When I want to say “no”, I make up excuses to avoid having to say it.
  • I can tolerate and accept when others say “no” to me.
  • I am deeply hurt and upset when others say “no” to me.
  • I get upset thinking about asking for help from others.

Learning interpersonal effectiveness requires a level of reflection and radical honesty with yourself. Are you in healthy relationships, or are your connections unhealthy? Are you someone who tends to feel “overly attached” to strangers or acquaintances? Do you tend toward being passive and sacrificing your core values to keep others happy?

These are the kinds of questions I’d like to invite you to consider today. I’ve spent countless hours mulling them over myself. And I still struggle with them frequently, to be honest.

Sometimes I really need to remind myself that I’m only 8 months out from my hospitalization and, while I have done a lot of work, there is much more to do. I remind myself of DBT skills daily. Interpersonal Effectiveness is one of those skills that I’d like to share with you over the next few weeks, so that maybe we can all get a little more comfortable with boundaries and autonomy together.

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As always, I’d love to hear what you think! Lemme know in the comment section below, or on twitter! (Tweet me @paradichotomy)

Thanks for reading! I hope you all have a wonderful day! Check in tomorrow for the return of Friday Finds!

Lies Depression Tells Me

I think, oftentimes, people seem to regard depression and anxiety as “lesser” mental health diagnoses. They’re the “common ones.” The most relatable. The “Oh, well, that’s not too serious. Everyone gets it from time to time” of mental health.

That’s a pretty stigma heavy line of thought.

A depressive episode is brutal. Chronic depression is the underlying, “gentle” version that says “you will never be able to be fully happy.” I live with this kind of baseline chronic depression, mixed with episodes of Bipolar depression thrown in. Even my “manic” is depressed. Depression is my unwanted tag-a-long on this journey in life. It’s my shadow. I can’t get rid of it, no matter how I try.

Depression lies. Constantly. It tells me “your friends and family are sick of you,” “you’ve tapped everyone out,” “no one wants to hear that you’re struggling again,” “stay in bed, there’s nothing out there for you anyway,” “why would you clean your house? You don’t deserve a clean space,” “just cancel those plans with your friends, they really don’t want anything to do with you,” “you’re worthless,” “you’re a piece of shit,” “you’re weak for letting me win,” “you’re pathetic for trying to fight me,” “this will never get better,” “people will be better off if you’re gone.”

Those are my depression thoughts. Yours may be different, or they may be similar. If you have not lived with depression, you may be wondering how one’s mind could be so brutal.

This stream of garbage is constantly flowing in my brain. Sometimes, it’s quieter; sometimes,  it’s louder; sometimes, it’s deafening. But it’s always there in one way or another. Even with meds. Even with therapy.

My job is to cope with it. To keep tabs on it. To be honest about it.

The last thing depression wants me to do is open up to someone about how bad it is. It wants me to isolate and sabotage relationships and sit alone in my apartment at 4 AM thinking about every single crappy thing that has happened to me and how it’s all my fault. That it was all deserved. That I am not worthy of friends, family, love, support, laughter, fun, or happiness.

So, I battle. Sometimes, my battle is simply making myself get out of bed and clean up a bit around the house. Sometimes, it’s making plans even though I feel like locking myself away from everyone. Sometimes, it’s having the strength to be vulnerable and reach out to someone even though everything in me is screaming that no one cares, that I’m an annoyance, that I’m a burden.

Sometimes, I win those battles. I use the coping skills I’ve learned, I recognize that sometimes “action precedes motivation” and I’ve got to get up and do shit in order to want to be up and doing shit. Sometimes I can beat back the incessant lies and insults my depression flings at me. Sometimes, I can turn the volume of that constant stream down to a 1 or 2.

Other times, though, I lose. I sit. I isolate. My brain says “Self Destruct: Check Yes or No” and I hover over the options, tempted to go with Yes. To drink. To call out of work. To give all my friends the silent treatment. To just allow myself to spiral.

This kind of behavior landed me in the hospital, though, so I know I have to be careful with that. The truth is, I’ve gotten better most times at reaching out to at least one person I trust and love when things are feeling super hopeless. But that has taken immense practice. In my recovery,  I’ve learned the phrase “act the opposite”. Depression tells you no, you say yes.

It is very difficult to do that. Especially at first. It feels impossible when you’re depressed to do anything, let alone spend your whole day fighting every instinct you’ve got just to get through a “normal” day, doing “normal” things, without being in bed. That is completely exhausting.

But, it’s also possible.

Especially after practice. I think of it like a muscle I need to to strengthen.

There are days I slip up. Days (sometimes multiple days on end) that I really can’t summon the energy to use those coping skills. Those days are about damage control. “OK, I don’t have it in me today. I’m going to stay in bed, but I’m not going to get alcohol.” Being in bed all day is not ideal, bit it’s the lesser of two evils for me, in that moment.

This way, I am still doing something. I am not at the mercy of depression. Never fully. I have agency, and I have power to resist it.

The fact is, depression is terrible. It’s uncomfortable. It’s miserable. It’s not easy. Nothing about mental health recovery is easy. But learning coping skills and tools and actually using them when things are really bad is worth it.

 

Unintended Side Effects: Medication Induced Psychosis (Guest Blog)

I am pleased to host the very first guest entry to ParallelDichotomy! This piece is the first segment of a personal narrative on  medication induced psychosis. Written by my friend Lori, this is a first hand account of what she experienced when she began taking a prescribed medication as her doctor ordered. Medication induced psychosis is very rare. If you have concerns about a medication you take, talk to your doctor. Do not stop taking a prescribed medicine without first discussing that decision with your primary care doctor and psychiatrist.

If you have lived through a psychotic episode or episodes, reading this may be uncomfortable. It is a personal account of how Lori’s psychosis manifested.

This is “Part One” and more of Lori’s story (including recovery) will be available at a later date.

With all that said, let’s get on with Lori’s story!

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PART 1

This is so exciting – I’m waiting outside with my family for my new Jaguar to be delivered. Always been my dream sports car, since I saw a beautiful silver E-type, 12 cylinders, in the late 70’s/early 80’s. I assumed the reason that everyone was outside with me was so that they could also listen expectantly for the sound of my approaching car. I kept hearing large trucks and sirens in the distance, yet they never arrived. I remember excitedly telling my daughter about lots of big plans that I had.

You know how well you know your kids; their moods, unique personalities? Something about my middle daughter’s expression led me to realize that she didn’t believe what I was saying, but she was being uncharacteristically diplomatic. I was cognizant enough at that moment to get that, but reality kept slipping away from me.

What I didn’t know then was that they were all gathered around to support me; I couldn’t be left alone, and they set up amongst themselves quite an impressive team to help deal with this new situation.

I’m not aware of the exact moment that this whole saga started horribly unfolding. There are still many gaps that I cannot remember, which I’m assuming, is a good thing. Only my family and their wonderful significant others can fill in the timeline and details that I don’t possess.

What was apparent was that I wasn’t communicating very much, but there was
certainly multiple layers of psychosis happening. Hallucinations morphed and evolved in my brain.

I’ve never done drugs, never even smoked a cigarette; I’m just a social drinker. I’ve always shied away from accepting any strong prescription pain killers. But I am on regular medicine for a chronic health condition. The addition of a supplemental medicine for a week caused things to go scarily downhill, very quickly.

About a month earlier I had started a new medicine to add to my daily regimen, which seemed to be working well for me. I followed doctors orders, and the side effects were minimal.

The next week or so was a blur of internal chaos, blips of lucidity, music, talking to deceased friends and relatives, a conversation with Steve Jobs, and some paranoia.

PART 2

We don’t have music playing in our office, but I can clearly hear songs that were popular
back in the 1970’s. It wasn’t just snippets of songs, however. It was complete with every note and lyric, exactly as I used to hear on the radio. I look around to see who might be listening to music on a cell phone, but I see no music lovers. This keeps up, I think for a few days. I keep furtively eyeing my co-workers for a plausible answer, but nothing external seems out of the ordinary.

Sometimes a disc jockey’s voice filters in. It all sounds so authentic. Looking back now, a year later, I don’t know why I didn’t immediately start freaking out. But I didn’t. For some reason I just accepted this bizarre development.

I do remember feeling embarrassed. What do I say when my co-workers tell me they hear music emanating from me?

I know that this is not good, but I am primed as always to keep my head down and keep
plugging away.

Later that night, one of the most horrific aspects of my ordeal occurs. I’m in bed, reading.
The internal music is still there, playing over and over in a continuous loop. I haven’t yet
mentioned it to my husband. I’m guessing I was simply hoping that it would go away as
inexplicably as it started.

I am hearing a conversation, word for word, between a female and male. At first I try not to tune in and keep trying to return to my book, but this proves impossible.

“No, this can’t be. Is this what I think it is?” I am silently protesting.

To this day I don’t have much understanding of what was occurring in my brain, but it becomes obvious that I am clearly hearing a verbatim “transcript” of a bad break-up I had with a boyfriend over 34 years ago.

Every word we said was replayed, back and forth. It felt like it would never stop. It was beyond strange and disconcerting to hear my younger voice, and his, and have to unwillingly experience the drama and emotions I believed I had left behind eons ago.

I think of myself as pretty well adjusted. I don’t tend to live in the past. Until this point, I felt that I had successfully moved on many years ago from a difficult, trying childhood and young adulthood. However, I’ve now learned that the brain retains exact memories, as if they were taped and stored away. This still spooks me to this day.

At some point that night, things went from bad to unbearable. The conversation/old tape
changed to a replay of a very bad session with my father. We were arguing about
something, as was typical, and he kept getting more and more hot and crazed. Cue the
physical abuse. The blows kept coming, over and over. Every time I thought it was stopping, it started back up again.

I tried desperately to not hear this terrible scene. I put headphones on and listened to music. I tried my favorite shows on Netflix.

I realized this was beyond my ability to deal with; I finally told my husband what was going on and off we drove to the local hospital.

They gave me some pills to calm things down. I’m back at home, once more trying
to lose myself in a book.

If this was a deranged play that I was writing, at this point the stage directions would cue in the cast of dead family and friends.

I’m really off and running now, into a realm I didn’t know existed.

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Thanks for reading! As always, lemme know what you thought! Drop a comment or find me on social media!

If you missed it, I have a new article on The Mighty about the dangerous stigma around mental health hospitalization. Please give it a read!

Be sure to check in on Tuesday for the next new post! To hear from me before Tuesday, find me on Facebook TwitterTumblr, and Instagram! Also, please swing by ParallelDichotomy’s new Sarahah page to say whatever you’ve got to say! Suggest topics, ask question, leave constructive criticism, lemme know about your day – really, anything!

And, if you enjoy the work that’s happening on this blog, please consider becoming a Patron on Patreon!

I hope you have an awesome weekend!

We Need to Stop Believing This About Mental Health Hospitalization (The Mighty Article) 

My second contribution to The Mighty is live! Fighting stigma around Mental Health Hospitalization! 

Read it Here! 
As always, I’d love your thoughts and feedback! If you like the article, I’d also appreciate it if you’d give it a “heart” on The Mighty and share it directly from the source! 

Thanks guys! Later tonight will be the first ever guest post to MY blog! Keep your eyes out! 

Grounding Techniques

Per the new posting schedule, every Thursday is a Resource and Recovery themed post. In this series, you’ll find coping skills, tips, and tricks for coping with a mental health struggle, whether crisis or day-to-day management. The Thursday posts won’t necessarily relate to the more personal Tell-All Tuesday posts every week, but when I can tie them in, I will! My Tuesday post this week was on what it’s like to be triggered and some thoughts on the “Trigger Warning” debate. For this Recovery Thursday post, I’d like to share some grounding techniques I find helpful when I am triggered.

I explained my personal favorite grounding technique in my post Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse) earlier this year. Click that link to read all about the 5-5-5 grounding tool. But in mental health recovery, what works well for one person may not be as effective for another. And, honestly, sometimes success in grounding is situational. So, I wanted to make this post about multiple ways to ground yourself when triggered, so that hopefully you can find one that works best for you or one to guide a loved one through a flashback or a panic attack.

What is grounding? Grounding is getting your mind to stay in the here and now even if you are panicking or having a flashback. Often times, this is best accomplished by using something physical and tangible to “bring yourself back.”

I find physical grounding to be the most effective for me. In addition to the 5-5-5 technique, there are several other approaches you can take to physically anchor yourself to the present. Most of us do things to get “back in our bodies” already, but some of those coping skills are maladaptive and unhealthy. I’m thinking specifically of self injury: cutting, burning, punching walls, etc. Yes, these actions can keep you “here,” but “here” isn’t so great when you’re hurting yourself.

IMG_20170803_183119_744

If your go-to coping skill is self harm, I’d like to give you some alternatives that may work as well and be better for your wellness in the long run.

ICE CUBES: I like to use ice cubes over everything else. I hold the ice cube in my palm and squeeze it. When that hand is numb, I switch it to the other hand and do the same thing. Sometimes, I put the ice cube on my arm or on my neck. The cold is usually a very helpful grounding technique. You may have heard of the ice cube trick before, but just because it’s floating around out there doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve tried it. You may have heard of the next one as well.

RUBBER BANDS: Keep a rubber band around your wrist and snap it against your skin when you need to ground. It will sting a little bit, but will not have the lasting impact of more drastic forms of self harm. The rubber band trick is only suggested to those actively struggling with self harm impulses. If you don’t currently engage in self harm, it’s not recommended as it could actually build the habit of hurting yourself when you’re overwhelmed, and that’s not a habit you want to start if you don’t have it already.

FROZEN ORANGES: This one is going to sound a little weird, probably. It definitely did when I first heard it. But, I keep a frozen orange in my freezer at all times. If I really need to ground, I take it out and put it against the back of my neck. Then, I start to peel it. Fun fact, it’s really hard to peel a frozen orange. And, if you’re focusing on that task, the combination of attention and fine motor skills needed to peel it and the strong citrus smell keeps you really grounded and often the panic or dissociation will pass before you are finished with the task. And being able to “dig” into the skin of the orange can help negate the need to hurt your own skin.

Now, let’s look at grounding techniques that are not necessarily substitutes for self harm. What can you do when you are starting to have a flashback?

Again, the answer is mostly physical. If you can prove to your body that you are here and not in the past, the flashback will pass much quicker.

GET ON YOUR FEET. Taking the term “grounding” quite literally, try to stand up, Feel your feet against the floor or the ground. Walk a little. Feel your legs moving. Stomp a few times. Ask yourself “where are my feet?” and answer “On the ground.” This may seem silly, but this is something I have used both in my personal and professional life to help keep myself or my clients grounded. And it tends to work very well.

FEEL YOUR ARMS. For me, when a flashback is happening or is about to happen, my arms are usually numb. Lifting them above my head (or having a friend raise them for me), wrapping myself in a heavy blanket and feeling where my body ends, or rubbing my arms to warm them helps immensely in grounding.

MINDFULNESS. Pick something up and really focus on what it feels like, walk around and focus on your feet and the floor, if you’re sitting, focus on where the floor or chair connects with your body.

OPEN YOUR EYES. If you’re eyes are closed, it’s usually game, set, match for the flashback. It’s got you. It’s really hard to stay present if you can’t see the present. Keep your eyes open and try to look around you mindfully. Focus on every small detail you can find. (the pattern of the floor, wood grain on cabinets, decorations on walls, leaves of grass, etc.) This really helps me stay “here” or, at the very least, get back faster than I otherwise would.

OK, so those are the “external things” you can do. What about internal? What can you say to yourself to help stay grounded?

IMG_20170803_191913_138

ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS. “Where am I? What year is it? What was I just doing? What time is it? How old am I? Where am I right now?” By thinking about and answering these questions, you will bring yourself back to the present.

HAVE A SCRIPT. “I’m having a panic attack right now. I am safe. I am not in any danger.” “I’m having a flashback right now. The worst is over. This happened in the past and is not happening now. I will come out the other side of this.”

THINK ABOUT DIFFERENT THINGS. Set your mind to a weird task. Count in 7’s, name ten different countries, think of your 5 favorite books and try to name the authors, name all of the characters in your favorite TV show, try to name 5 animals that start with the letter “M”, etc. If you can get your brain away from focusing on the trigger, you can show yourself that you are safe.

Remember that you are not powerless and at the mercy of your diagnosis. These are tangible coping skills you can implement immediately. Practice them, see which ones work best for you, and keep them fresh in your mind so that you can access them easily when you’re struggling.

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There you have it! I hope you find at least one of these coping skills helpful! As always, I’d love to hear what you think of the post! Drop a comment, Tweet me, and check out my FacebookTumblr, and Instagram! Also, be sure to check out the perks available to YOU on Patreon for becoming a Patron of this blog! (You’ll love ’em, I promise!)

And finally, ParallelDichotomy now has a Sarahah account! Drop in to leave comments, suggestions, questions, constructive criticism, etc!

Be sure to check in tomorrow for ParallelDichotomy’s first ever guest post! It’s part one of a first hand account of medication induced psychosis in someone who does not live with a mental health diagnosis. I feel it’s important to honor all mental health struggles, and through the guest post series, I hope to host the voices of people living a different experience than I am. If you’d like to be a contributor to this series, please get in touch via social media or email me at Paralleldichotomyblog@gmail.com.

Being Triggered and Trigger Warnings

What’s it like to be triggered, really? We hear the terms “triggered” and “trigger warning” thrown around a lot, even used as a joke. Because people hurl the phrase so thoughtlessly, others have come to mock it, even hate it. If you’ve been anywhere near the discussion around trigger warnings in the past year, I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard someone spit out the phrases, words dripping with indignation and contempt.

Per the new blog schedule, today is “Tell All Tuesday.” (One day, I’ll have a more intriguing name, but, while I love to write, creative naming is a bit of a struggle for me.) What’s the idea behind this Tuesday series? It’s more personal. It’s not about resources and recovery as much as it’s about sharing my experiences in what I hope will be a meaningful way to help further discussions on mental health and combat stigma. In that spirit, I would like to spend the inaugural post in this series talking a little bit about what it’s like, for me, to be triggered, and what it’s like to hear these debates around trigger warnings as someone who lives with the potential of being set off by external events.

I live with complex post traumatic stress disorder. Complex trauma occurs when a person is living in a dangerous situation from which there is no obvious form of escape. For me, those traumatic experiences involve growing up in a home with abuse and domestic violence, and then living in a marriage with domestic violence myself. I am very new to “the PTSD thing.” I only became really symptomatic after my husband left in November of last year. But, I’ve learned quite a lot about being triggered.

First, and very importantly, a trigger can be anything. The word “Trigger” means different things to different people. For the purpose of this post, I am talking about triggers that relate to trauma and a traumatic reaction. They can be large and “obvious”, or subtle, sometimes seemingly coming out of no where. “Obvious” triggers would be graphic depictions of a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, war, a car wreck, a hostage situation, etc. Depending on your particular trauma, any realistic reenactments of  something similar will probably get you revved up and incredibly uncomfortable. “Subtle” triggers can literally be anything related to your specific trauma. To give you an idea of how something “mundane” can really trigger someone, I cannot listen to Journey. My stepfather used to listen to it when he was drinking, and if I hear the opening notes of “Faithfully” or someone singing “Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world,” I become seriously on edge. Honestly, even thinking about those songs to type that sentence has upped my anxiety a little bit. I hear Journey and my physical, subconscious reaction is “danger is likely coming, and I need to be prepared for it.” Living with PTSD is living with your particular triggers, the known and the unknown, the avoidable and the inevitable. Hearing Journey is pretty inevitable. Talk about overplayed! It’s something I’m still working on as far as being able to ground myself and prevent a flashback or panic attack. I think of triggers like a lurking monster, always ready to jump scare you, horror movie style, when you least expect it. Much like horror movies, even when you know it’s coming, it can still make you jump.

I’m a huge fan of the movie Jaws. It’s one of my all time favorites. I watch it every fourth of July. I think of my PTSD like Jaws. Sometimes, it’s in my face, trying to rip me apart. Sometimes, it’s lurking just under the surface as feelings of suspense and concern rise. Sometimes, it’s not really on the radar, but I know in the back of my mind that the threat is always there. I no longer have the ability to enjoy a nice, relaxing swim in the ocean in this metaphor, because I know what is hiding under the waves. I have a very hard time “just chilling” and “fully relaxing.” I’m just too hyper-vigilant for it.

Being triggered, for me, is a complicated spectrum of responses. It’s not just one reaction, or one behavior. Sometimes, it’s simply heightened anxiety and being on edge. Sometimes, it’s a full blown panic attack. Sometimes, it’s a dissociation; no panic, no reaction, just shutting down for a bit. Then, there are flashbacks.

Flashbacks are brutal. They are Jaws leaping from the water and ripping flesh from my body. There’s a lot of misconception around flashbacks thanks to the media. They are not all word for word reenactments of trauma, or hallucinations that the trauma is happening again. (Though, sometimes these types of flashbacks do happen.) Occasionally, with very direct and strong triggers, I have had full blown flashbacks. I don’t usually remember much from them (even the “mild” ones) but I usually remember what brought them on. When I was in the waiting room at the hospital, a lady in the next room was screaming. She believed that the doctors were going to kill her. But the words she was screaming were “No! Stop! Please!” etc. This triggered me deeply, as it sounded very much like my mother during violent situations with my stepfather. My friend tried to keep my attention in the present, but I could not. The room faded and I was not there anymore. I don’t know what happened, but when I came out of it, I was across the room against the wall with my friend in front of me looking very concerned. That was a “full blown” flashback. But mine, at least, are nearly always what I call “half flashbacks. These experiences are not typically that dramatic. I dissociate. I can feel it coming on sometimes. I start to “drift.” First, my body gets tingly. My hands and feet get cold, but my core feels hot. My heart rate increases. I start to “zone out”. I’m half “here” and half “there.” I’ve had a few of these types of flashbacks around friends. Obviously, being friends, they tend to attempt to help me through it and find my tether back to the here and now. I can hear my friends speaking to me, but responding is very difficult. Sometimes, I do lose touch with “here” and it usually takes me a little bit to “get back.” But I don’t do a whole lot physically. I don’t really speak. I pretty much comply with whatever someone tells me to do. I’ve heard that my leg tends to shake a lot and that my muscles tense up, but that’s really it. Not nearly as “exciting” as the flashbacks you see in movies, I know.

Remember how I said that triggers can be anything? I meant it. I’ve been triggered into a flashback before simply because I felt tense and panicky. Sometimes there is no trigger beyond the fact that I feel similar to the way I felt during a moment of trauma. That is how subtle a trigger can be.

So, with all that said, the question we see posed a lot is “are trigger warnings necessary or are they just ‘coddling’ those pesky, oversensitive Millennials?”

First of all, the “trigger warning debate” is typically centered around classroom settings. In an educational situation, trigger warnings are not just a good idea, I would argue that they are essential. In these instances, I’m talking about the “obvious” triggers. 1 out of every 3 girls and 1 out of every 5 boys will be sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 18. 700,000 children in the United States experience child abuse annually. 5 million children witness domestic violence each year in the United States. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience domestic abuse of some form in their lives. And these numbers only speak to four forms of trauma one may endure. Statistically speaking, if you’re teaching a lecture class on a college campus, a decent portion of your student body has experienced some form of trauma. Being fully triggered is an all-encompassing feeling. When  trigger blindsides you, and you have no time to prepare, the effect is often much stronger than if there is warning. There are grounding techniques and coping skills one may use to stay present and engage in their education. Without a warning, those students who have experienced trauma will not be learning anything. They will be battling with their memories, intrusive thoughts, and panic trying not to make a scene.

In college, I studied social work. Thankfully, even prior to trigger warnings becoming “mainstream,” my social work classes were full of them. Teachers would say, “Today, we’re going to be talking about working with sexual assault survivors. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself if this is a sensitive topic for you.” After an intense class, each of my teachers would always make themselves available to talk and process with students who may have reacted strongly to the topic covered in class that day. In the small sized social work classes, it was very rare for someone to leave class during such a class. There was a carefully fostered sense of trust and openness in our classrooms that allowed for very intimate conversations. When talking about trauma, it was perfectly acceptable (and honestly encouraged) to share personal connections. One teacher would always say, “What about the people in this case study and the situation presented hits a tender spot in your heart?” This would allow for engaging and supportive conversations around our own experiences, how those experiences would shape our clinical practice, and what we could each do to take care of ourselves and each other as friends and colleagues.

I recognize that most classes are not designed to facilitate such self-exploration. But having trigger warnings in place can help someone prepare for the trigger, and utilize coping skills to stay present. Anyone who has a problem with an English Lit. professor saying “The reading today contains a rape scene. Please take care of yourself.” at the beginning of a class does not properly understand the reason for trigger warnings. There seems to be a misconception that “trigger warnings” somehow means that the material is not taught. This is not the case in any college class in which I have participated.

In America, the sad fact (as demonstrated by the statistics listed above) is that a substantial amount of our population has survived some form of trauma. While it is true that not all trauma survivors develop PTSD, I don’t believe that there is any shame in shifting our standards, especially in learning environments, to something a little more trauma-informed.

It’s true that no one can predict every potential trigger. (Even don’t know all my triggers, and I sure as hell don’t expect you to know them.) Generalized trigger warnings harm no one and may substantially help a trauma survivor. As someone who has been through the hell of flashbacks and panic attacks set off by a trigger, I fully support the use of trigger warnings.

The overuse, and superfluous use of the term “triggered” is a very frustrating issue to me. When people use it as slang for “upset” or even “mildly inconvenienced”, I get very angry. It’s right up there as saying “So and so is so bipolar!” It’s stigma. It’s ignorance. Saying “I’m so triggered” flippantly is a large part of what creates this “debate” around “trigger warnings.” It shapes the conversation toward “Those kids are just too oversensitive. They need to grow up and face the real world. There are no trigger warnings there.” And that is a true statement. Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. But to diminish the experience of being triggered, to suggest that using trigger warnings in classrooms is unnecessary, and that the people asking for them are childish and spoiled, is incredibly invalidating and demeaning to trauma survivors. It can be deadly. The shame around PTSD and being triggered is already immense. (Believe me, when you’re just doing life and all of the sudden you “come to” with a friend in front of you looking worried because you just went catatonic for ten minutes, you feel pretty damn stupid. “Why can’t I control this?” “I need to be stronger so I can make this stop.” “Oh, great. I’m crazy and now my friend knows it.” These are all thoughts I, personally, have had after being triggered.) When I say I support trigger warnings, and someone says, “You’re just being oversensitive.” my traumatized brain, which already tried to minimize my feelings and my memories and the things I’ve experienced, latches to the sentiment that I’m overreacting and that it can’t really be that bad. And that starts a vicious cycle of depression, shame, and self-loathing. I can’t wait for the day when we no longer minimize people’s lived experiences and recovery process by flippantly throwing around psychological terms like they’re nothing. Until then, I’ll keep raising my voice in opposition and speaking my truth.

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***PTSD is a lot more common than you may think. 1 out of 10 women and 1 out of 20 men will develop some form of PTSD in their lives.***

If you’re interesting in the “other side” of this debate, I’d like to aim you in the direction of my friend Elizabeth’s blog Betty’s Battle Ground for her post on why she doesn’t use trigger warnings. It’s a good read, and I respect her opinions!

Thanks for reading! As always, I love hearing your thoughts! Drop a comment or find me on FacebookTwitterTumblr, and Instagram! Also, a friendly reminder that I now have a Patreon account with some pretty cool perks! If you like my work here on ParallelDichotomy, I would love to have your support! Come back in two days for the second installment of Recover Thursday! Pop in for tips, tricks, resources, support, and understanding in mental health recovery!