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!

 

On Expectations

I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of a personal update post. Emotion Regulation Part 4 is coming, I promise! It’s taking a bit longer to polish than its predecessors, but it’s almost complete. According to the schedule that I keep trying to implement, but almost never follow (please remember, I’m still quite new to this “blogging” thing and there’s a lot of stuff I’m still figuring out), Wednesday is meant to be some form of a personal post – usually one of my Scrawling Toward Sanity posts, or a tidbit from my personal life that has broader applications and relatability, such as When Someone You Love Dies by Suicide.

Tonight, though, I’d like to throw it back to the style of my older posts – like my very first post or On Shoveling, Fathers, and Forgiveness. Straight up reflection on something that’s been on my mind a lot lately in my own, personal life that I’d like to share with you. Maybe you’ll relate, maybe you won’t, but I really feel the need to give this line of thought some air time.

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Prior to January of this year, I was employed at a fantastic (if stressful) job: one with great pay, amazing benefits, and the absolute best co-workers a person could ever hope to have. It was meaningful work, too: supporting young men as they learned to regulate their emotions and grow life skills as they worked toward independence. I loved my job. Truly. I looked forward to every shift and left every single night immensely grateful to be where I was. On nights that featured violent escalations, I was grateful for my teammates and the support and skill we all shared in keeping the situation safe for ourselves as well as our clients. On nights that included long, thoughtful, impactful conversations with those clients, I left grateful for the opportunity to walk along side those young men in their journeys; I was grateful and humbled to have the chance to make some lasting impact in their lives, however small it may be. On nights that were not particularly eventful at all, I was grateful to work in a “home like” environment: to have a job that sometimes consisted of geeking out to a Star Wars movie or the staff and clients enjoying each others’ company over a friendly, for chips, game of poker. Regardless of the events of each shift, I was always thankful to work in such an amazing place. And I miss it every single day.

As you know if you’ve been following my blog, my life changed pretty drastically in January. A seven day stay at an inpatient psych unit, another month and some change of Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient, difficulties navigating the mental health system as a patient, and a general lack of direction have more or less consumed the past six months of my life. Finally, though, I am on all of the correct medications, I am in regular therapy, and, as of today, I am once again a member of the work force! The part time, minimum wage work force, maybe, but a member of the workforce nonetheless!

But here’s the thing: going through something like this, living in this state of limbo of med adjustments and intensive therapy; meeting with professionals of all different specialties and areas of treatment; telling my story over and over and over and over again: these things can really start to wear a person down. And the truth of the matter is this: once you’ve gotten “into the system” as “mentally ill”, people’s expectations of you change. In a really big way.

Treatment professionals, I’ve found, tend to have generally low expectations of someone “like me” – you know, bipolar, PTSD, hospital stay. These things, these labels, these events, sometimes seem to carry more weight than anything I do or say. Never mind the fact that prior to this very difficult chapter of my life, I was employed – full time. Often working much more than full time, honestly. I was a student at the University of Vermont, trying to finish my senior year and earn my Bachelor’s in Social Work (and I made straight A’s first semester despite being mid-breakdown). I was an active participant in my own life. I had a pretty vibrant social life, actually. I had a lot of things going for me. But all of that sort of fell through the cracks of crisis stabilization, psychiatrists, primary care visits, and counselors.

I get it. When one is in an acute mental health crisis, it’s not the time to push getting back to full time work and school and all of the responsibilities of life, at least not all at once. I understand that. But, looking back, I realize that somewhere in the crisis stabilization process, the expectations placed on me became less and less.

When I was in the hospital, the doctors said I would just need a few weeks to complete the PHP program and then I’d be back to my regularly scheduled life. At the PHP program, they suggested I hook up with Voc Rehab to get some support around finding a different, less stressful full time job. I was discharged from the IOP with a note saying that I could “maybe work” in a “part time, low stress environment.” When I started up with my new therapist, there was only talk of further therapy. She suggested I join the DBT group the agency runs. I LOVE DBT. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that. And I say this with absolutely no disrespect to the members of this particular DBT group or to the facilitators, but the fact of the matter is no one in that group was a “peer” to me. The pace of the group was far too slow. The facilitator would spend thirty minutes explaining a concept I understood after five. I don’t want to sound like a judgmental, arrogant jerk here, but sometimes groups are just not a good fit, you know? There was nothing wrong with any member of that group. Their lives are theirs; my life is mine. But it was very clear to me that this group would not challenge me at all, and that I would struggle even staying engaged in it. I would not be getting much from the sessions. But my therapist (who I really do like) thought it would be a good fit, and honestly, that stung a bit.

But why wouldn’t she? By the time I made it to her office, professional expectations of me were so low that no one even mentioned a job. Those of you who know me personally know that such a low bar would almost be laughable, were it not for the fact that something started to happen over these months of the medical professionals’ gradually lowered expectations of me: they became my own. The consistent explicit or implicit suggestions that I was incapable of achieving anything remotely close to the life I used to have burrowed into my subconscious and set up shop. And I sat in resigned acceptance. I thought “Maybe this is all life has for me from here on out. Maybe I am incapable.”

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And it wasn’t until I realized this, until I recognized what was happening in my own psyche, that I knew I had to put my foot down a bit and refuse to allow others’ perceptions of me to run my life. I’m taking my recovery process very seriously, and I fully intend to continue with the treatments my providers believe will be helpful, but I refuse to do it blindly anymore. I refuse to sit back and have my capabilities dictated to me. I realized that this is just an attitude that I need to adopt for my own well-being. A little self-advocacy can go a long way toward boosting self confidence, I think.

And so, I told my therapist that the DBT group was not a good fit for me. She was a little disappointed, but I think she understood. And I applied for a job. Not through Voc Rehab, not through my therapist, not through the state offices, but by myself. Because I needed to do that. I think I needed to prove to myself that I could. So, I did some good old fashion pavement pounding and filled out applications and handed them in. TJ Maxx is the only place that called me for an interview (I assume because the jump from residential instructor to unemployed for six months to looking at retail jobs is probably a little off-putting to some potential employers).

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When I was offered the job, I was understandably excited (because a part time job beats no job, and having something to get me out of the house on a regular basis is exciting, and the idea of being able to be a productive member of a team is motivating in and of itself.)

But again, those pesky expectations reared their somewhat ugly heads when I told loved ones and my therapist about it. More than one person responded with “Oh that’s awesome! You know, it’s really great that you have something to fill your days.” Other people said, “Oh, do you think you’re ready for that?” Some said, “That’s great! You know, some people make full careers out of retail.” My therapist asked, “So, what, you’ll working 4 hours a week?” Now, again, I appreciate the congratulations and I am excited about this job. Retail has always been fun to me, and I’m pretty excited about the discount, too! I enjoy helping customers and making upsales and all of that jazz – I have since I was a junior in college working at F.Y.E.

But do I see myself working part time retail for the rest of my life? HELL. NO. Could I consider making it a career if I got a managerial position? Maybe… but honestly, probably not. I enjoy retail, but I’m hard wired for a career that involves helping people beyond making sure they have a shirt in the right size and are signed up for a credit card to get savings. I’m still not sure what that looks like for me now. Will I ever work residential again? I don’t know, but I know I won’t be doing it in the foreseeable future. Right now, my job is about one thing above all else, and that’s money.

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The fact is, one cannot live in this society without cash flow. I’ve got bills. I have a lot of bills, actually, with all the doctors I’ve needed to see over the past six months. And I need to start making a dent in the stack of collections notices. I don’t meant to knock retail by any means. As I said, I enjoy retail. And I have a lot of friends who have careers in retail. But they don’t just enjoy it, they are passionate about it. And that’s the key, right? It’s building your career around your passion.

But passion can get snuffed out pretty quickly in the land of low expectations. If enough people don’t believe you’re capable of something, and they tell you so, you can start to doubt yourself pretty damn quickly, regardless of everything you thought you knew to be true.

So, that’s where I’m at. I’m setting my own expectations for myself. And I’ll be sharing them with anyone who will listen for as long as it takes until they hold those expectations of me as well. And you know what? If it turns out they are right and I am wrong, and for some reason, a sales associate job is too stressful for me at this specific time in my life, then I’ll find a job with a little less commotion and a little less social interaction. But I reserve the right to determine that for myself. And frankly, I need a couple of people in my life to take off the kids’ gloves. I need my treatment team to know that I am not satisfied being the “unemployed crazy person”, and that I am not going to be satisfied working a part time sales associate job for the long run, either. Or even a full time sales associate job. I need my treatment team to recognize that these are stepping stones right now. I need acknowledgement that, yes, I am still hiking that mountain, but there’s no way in hell I’m pitching a tent and living here.

This post is, of course, very specific to me. There are many people who are incapable of work due to their struggles. And it’s feasible that I will be in that situation again at some point in my life. I certainly was not capable of working in January or February of this year. This is in no way a “pull yourself up by your boot straps and stop making excuses” post. I hope it’s not interpreted that way. This is not meant to minimize the experiences of anyone living with a mental health diagnosis or diagnoses.

I just know that, for me, the lack of faith in me by others lead to a lack of faith in myself, which then lead to further depression. That, coupled with med adjustments, lead to me kind of dropping off the face of the earth for a few weeks there. But I’m back. And, honestly, I’m more motivated than I’ve been in the entirety of the last 6 months to continue to recover, to learn to live within and adapt to my limitations (because I do have limitations), and most importantly, to grant myself permission to have the dignity of risk and find those limits for myself, through experience, and not from some checklist on a therapist’s clip board.

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And that motivation is not limited to my employment status, either. It is for this blog; for the fight against stigma and against false assumptions and expectations around someone’s abilities; for the fight for support, understanding, and access to resources to those in our community who cannot work; for the dignity of risk for everyone who wants to give it a shot; and for a more comprehensive understanding of the ways that the same diagnosis can look very different for different people. I’m motivated to continue to educate and advocate, and to share my struggles and triumphs with anyone who’ll listen. Because that’s the single most effective method to attack stigma and misinformation.

Thanks for reading.

AS ALWAYS, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever been in a situation where others’ expectations of you dictated your own? When you were first diagnosed and receiving treatment did you feel helpless? Do you agree that finding and setting our own limitations is a good idea, or do you think it might be too risky? Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to engage in a deeper conversation in this topic! Leave your two cents in the comment section below, Tweet me @paradichotomy, or hit me up on the blog’s Facebook page

ALSO, in case you missed it, I had the opportunity to be on a podcast last week – check it out here! I’ll catch you all later!

 

When Someone You Love Dies by Suicide

I’ve been waiting for a “good time” to write this post. But, the truth is, there is no “good” time to write about this stuff. The timing will never feel “easy” or “right”, because that’s simply not the legacy suicide leaves.

Now, to the possible chagrin of any conservative readers out there, I am going to preface this post with a trigger warning. In real life, trigger warnings are hard to come by. As someone living with PTSD I know all too well that triggers usually just pop up unexpectedly and you kind of have to white-knuckle your way through the fall out. In this particular case though, I feel a heads up is my obligation. This post deals with murder/suicide, suicidal thoughts, suicidal action. If you feel that any of these things may threaten your emotional and psychological well-being, please do not continue to read. IF YOU ARE ACTIVELY STRUGGLING WITH SUICIDALITY, PLEASE REACH OUT FOR HELP, EITHER BY CALLING A CRISIS LINE (IN THE US, THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LINE IS 1-800-273-8255), CALLING 911, OR GOING TO THE ER.

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The week that transitions us from mid to late April is my absolute least favorite week of the year. In Northern Vermont, many people are wondering at the trees finally starting to bud, the green grass finally creeping out of hibernation, the sparse colors of early blooming flowers speckling the fields, and, of course, the wonderful warming rays of the sun caressing the land and our skin with long-awaited Vitamin-D. When you live 20 minutes south of the Canadian border, everyone and everything seems to gently, tenderly, slowly awaken from the dark and cold winter months this time of year. And, naturally, everyone loves it. They post pictures of the first signs of Spring on Facebook, they break out the grills and clean out the fire-pits, they revel in the fact that wearing short sleeved shirts will no longer result in hypothermia or frostbite, and everyone has a smile. That’s life in this neck of the woods. But I’m not originally from Vermont – I’m from Boston. And I do not spend this week basking in the glory of Spring. I spend this week tense. I’m perpetually bracing for the next tragedy, even though it’s been a few years since tragedy “hit”.

20170420_010843.jpgThe Boston Marathon is known across the country. In New England, we’ve named the day that thousands flock to our flagship city “Marathon Monday.” It’s loved by many for its spectacle, as some of the best athletes in the world take to the streets and run like hell. Since the bombings in 2013, it’s become a sign of strength, resiliency, and defiance.  We are all Boston Strong. 

And that’s one of the things I love about Boston (and New England in general). We’re all tenacious. The blood of Revolution flows through us. We are tough. We fight through anything – we might be pushing through bare knuckled, bloody, and bruised, but we always push through. And afterwards, we brag about our victory over drinks with friends; but in public, we’re tight lipped. Stoic, even. There is no sharing the tales of our glorious battles to any but a small group of family and friends that we can “safely” talk to with out “airing our dirty laundry.” When something terrible and painful happens, we stand tall and proud and act as though everything is the same as it was yesterday, last week, last month, last year. The facade must never crumble. That’s the Boston-Irish way, anyway. But, I suppose such strength and resiliency can only last for so long. Eventually, it will fall apart. Eventually, in one way or another, we all break down.

I was born in the great city of Boston, and I’m truly glad to be able to say that. I love Boston. My family, going back generations, fits squarely into the Boston-Irish, Catholic box. My grandparents were raised in Southie and moved out to the suburbs after adopting my mother. My Papa faced indescribable hardships and difficulties in his life. I will not go into the details, because it’s not my story to tell. It will never be mine to tell. All I’ll say is that he was the quintessential stoic, stiff-lipped, fighting-Irishman. And he was my hero. My Nana faced heart ache and sorrow as well. In line with the Irish tradition, though, neither of them spoke much about the painful parts of life. The focus was always on the good – growing up in Southie where “everyone knew everyone” and if you did something “wrong” as a kid, you better hope NO adult from your neighborhood saw you, because if they did, your parents would surely hear about it and “boy, would you get it!” (Quotations are Nana’s words, not mine), memories of the “good ol’ days”, Papa telling stories of sailing in the harbor as a boy, and jokes and sarcasm at every turn, in every situation.

IMG_20170420_000530_410Growing up, my father was not a part of my life. Struggles with addiction and the legal system prevented it. In his absence, my Papa stepped in. When I was small, Mom and I actually lived with them for a time. Nana quit her factory job to be with me while Mom worked. Papa doted on me like no one else. I was their first grandchild, and, by all accounts, they were smitten. As was I. In fact, Nana and Papa were, and would remain, some of the most influential and positive people in my life. They were, truly, everything I aspired to, incarnate. When Mom made the decision to move to Vermont, they both took great pains to come up and visit often and called me every single night, just to see how my day was. I spent just about every school vacation with them in Weymouth. They were my rock in what was otherwise a very turbulent childhood. For 25 years, Papa was the one I would call if I needed advice or help; Nana was the one I would call for everything else – every Sunday was spent “gabbing away”, as my Papa called it – from the Bruins to the weather, my horoscope to the Patriots and the ‘Sox, the latest news from Nana’s neighborhood to celebrity gossip – Nana would talk about anything! (And talk, and talk, and talk – *I say with affection*.) They cheered me on every step of the way, and supported me each time I tripped and fell.

FB_IMG_1492664301695.jpgWhat’s more, their marriage was strong. The extent of arguments they had were over truly silly things. Like what show or movie they recognized a certain actor from, the appropriate term for a public water dispenser (Nana said “water fountain”, Papa said “bubbler – a water fountain is that thing in a city park!”), and whether or not Molly, their tiny Lhasa Apso, was blind. Their love for each other always shined through, though, in my eyes.

In 2012, what I will refer to as the “Marathon Monday Curse” began. Prior to 2012, my family was far from immune from tragedy and loss – but Marathon Monday 2012 was a turning point. It was a blow to everyone. My Great Auntie Barbie was murdered in her Three Decker in Southie by a guy looking to rob her for money to get heroin. I didn’t know her well at all, but watching family members I did know and was close to in so much pain was very hard. Marathon Monday 2013 was, of course, the bombings. My cousin Ricky was running in that marathon in honor of Great Auntie Barbie (his mother). Thankfully he was uninjured, but he crossed the finish line just moments before the first blast. I spent the next several hours frantically trying to get a hold of family and friends to make sure they were OK. I’m grateful that none of them were hurt or killed, but having something like that happen hit way too close to home. The whole family found it strange that both events happened on Marathon Monday. What kind of a cruel cosmic joke was that? Then came 2014.IMG_20170420_011249_669.jpg

Monday, April 21, seemed to pass without incident. The runners ran, and there was no phone call about someone dying. I actually breathed a sigh of relief. I, along with the restFB_IMG_1492660823856.jpg of my family, would learn on Tuesday morning that the Marathon Monday Curse had indeed hit again. When I say “hit”, I mean sucker punched me. And then lifted me over its shoulders and slammed me on the concrete. Then kicked me in the ribs a few times before spitting on me and staring me down with its unimaginably cruel, merciless eyes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014, I was at work. I was in a fantastic mood; my client was in a fantastic mood. We cooked breakfast. My phone rang. I ignored it. (I made it a habit of not answering my phone while at work.) My client requested to go to the local WalMart to buy some new headphones, and I drove him there. During the drive, my phone rang two more times. It was Mom. Then, in rapid succession, I received a text from my boss telling me I should call my mom (uh-oh) and an email from Tom, my stepfather of 15 years. Tom’s email was short: “Give me a call when you can. I just talked to your mother.” For some reason (and I’ll never understand why) it felt safest and most logical in that moment to call Tom. I guess I didn’t want to hear my mom hurting. Or maybe I was worried something was wrong on with her, and I wanted to be prepared for “The News”, whatever it was, before talking with her. In some desperate form of denial, I even had myself convinced that Mom was blowing something way out of proportion, and I just “didn’t have time for stress or drama”. So, calling Tom it was.

In the middle of the electronics section of WalMart, I called his work line. He answered, and I responded with an overly-cheery “Hey Tom! Got your email. What’s up?”

There was a beat. Then, in a slightly shaking voice and tentative tone he said, “You haven’t talked to your mother yet.”

“No, I haven’t. I’m at work. What’s up?” I replied, in the same forced-upbeat-tone. I thought maybe if I could keep myself positive, everything would be OK.

After a short back and forth of Tom insisting I call Mom, and me growing more and more concerned and telling him that he needed to tell me what was going on, he finally relented. “Nana and Papa.” he almost whispered.

Nana and Papa? I thought. Jesus, what happened? Did their house burn down? Did they get robbed? Maybe they got sick. Oh, I hope they aren’t sick. “What about them?” I asked, head misty with the fog of complete confusion and denial. I couldn’t bring myself to even think what I suddenly knew, in my bones, to be true. I could feel my hands and feet start to tingle. Every hair hair follicle on my body felt on end.

“They’re dead, Sheil.” His voice broke.

I had vertigo. It literally felt like something inside me, maybe my soul, dropped from my chest to my feet. I got dizzy. My vision blurred. I must have heard him wrong. They can’t both be dead. That’s not possible. I’ll call them as soon as I hang up with Tom. He must be wrong. He has to be wrong. Instead of voicing my frenzied denial thoughts, I simply said, “OK.” My voice was calm and even as I quietly asked, “How?”

FB_IMG_1492660808395Tom shared with me the information he had – that it looked as though Nana had died of natural causes and Papa had then died by suicide. Suicide. Papa? The day continued and only got more horrific as it went on. I left work after securing coverage for my client, Mom headed straight to Boston, and I took my younger brother and daughter to Tom’s. I told my other younger brother when he got home from school. We commiserated and speculated some, but mostly we just sat in silence.

I followed all of Boston’s local news sites on Facebook. They kept me up to date for my weekly conversations with Nana. After deciding I could take the sitting around and feeling numb no longer, I decided to distract myself by cruising around on my Facebook app. As I was scrolling through my news feed, I came to a News Center 5 article: a picture of my grandparents’ house with the headline “Elderly Couple Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide in Weymouth.” It didn’t register at first. At first, I groaned and started to hand the phone to my brother. I was about to say, “The news guys have to make a story out of everything, don’t they?” As my brother touched the phone, about to take it from my hand, it was like a thousand watts coursed through me. I ripped the phone back and looked at the headline again. And again. Murder-Suicide. Murder-Suicide? 

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what I was reading. I was trying to make sense of FB_IMG_1492660697017.jpgit, but it might as well have been another language. The letters were a jumbled mess. Then, suddenly, they all fell into place. Papa killed Nana. Nana didn’t die of natural causes. Papa killed her. Oh my god, Papa killed Nana and then himself. Vertigo again slammed into me. I started to shake. I stood up, I headed for the door because I needed air, turned around, sat down again, and then stood and went outside. I don’t know how long I sat on Tom’s porch, just staring blankly at the gravel and my shoes. Shoes Nana had bought for me. I couldn’t process any of it. And, to be honest, I still can’t. Not fully, anyway.

The end of their lives will never make sense. “Unexpected” is the softest, most muted and ineffective word you could use. I don’t even have a word (or words) for how blindsided I was. I don’t think I ever will. Just like I’ll never have that answer to the question everyone who loses someone to suicide asks repeatedly: “Why?” There was no note. There were no warning signs. Hell, I talked to them on Easter Sunday (the day before it happened) and Papa was running to the hardware store to get a piece for his lawn mower. Nana talked to me for over two hours that day. How does the corner get turned that quickly? 

Friends called me to check in and I either didn’t answer at all or I kept the conversationsFB_IMG_1492660771302 short. I couldn’t feel the grief. That was too threatening. I couldn’t talk about it. That made it too real. I was much more comfortable helping my younger brothers process. At the wake and funeral, I didn’t really cry. Sure, a few stubborn tears broke through my wall of stoicism and propriety, but, for the most part, I held it together. At the gathering after the funeral, I did what any good Irish gal would do – I got plastered. And still, I didn’t cry. I cried some at home, and I did break down sobbing when I went to pick up Papa’s car and found “our” recorded cassette tape (A-Side: Willie Nelson, B-Side: Pink Floyd). That was the one we always listened to on car rides to and from Vermont. When I played it, I could almost here Papa’s off-key humming to “Coming Back To Life.” I bitterly thought about the irony in that. In the grand scheme of things, though, I was completely disconnected and numb.

I started going to therapy a few months after they died. I deemed their deaths “worthy” of seeking help. (A little aside about me: for a Social Work major and a direct service mental health worker, I am fantastically terrible at reaching out for help for myself.) My tendency is to close off, push anyone who might actually care away, and turn my back on the world at large. I won’t go to therapy unless something “really bad” is going on. If I do, I feel like I’m taking help away from someone who might need it more. (I know that that is backwards and illogical, just sharing my twisted train of thought.) In fact, I’ve had an actual, real, live, on-going therapist only three times in my life: once in college, when I was handling what, in hindsight, was Bipolar creeping out of my genes and into my every day life and screwing with my brain chemicals in all sorts of ways – including pulling me head-first into suicidal depression; after Nana and Papa died; and now, after a manic episode, deep depressive state, PTSD, and a hospital stay.

Depression has been a constant companion of mine for most of my life. Sometimes, it’s just static crackling in the background of my brain, other times it’s cranked right up to 11 and it’s all I can hear, but regardless of the volume, it’s always there. The first time I had a thoughts of self-harm or suicide, I was thirteen or fourteen years old. They were fairly passive thoughts for the most part. In talking with friends, I was able to avoid needing to tell my Mom or step-father and going to counseling or a doctor. (Honestly, I didn’t even know you could tell your pediatrician about depression and I didn’t want to get in trouble for saying the “wrong” thing.) Since those first, fleeting suicidal and self-destructive thoughts surfaced, they’ve been a sort of terrible companion, too. They’ve blended into the same speaker responsible for my depression. The two resonate in harmony, over one frequency. The only thing that’s changed over time is my ability to drown them out with other noises – noises like “I am worthy.” “This is worth it.” “I will accomplish something in my life.” “My family needs me.” “My friends need me.” etc.

These thoughts have never “cured” me (obviously). I’m not sure anything will ever be precise enough sever each wire carrying the high-voltage surround sound of negative self-talk, depression, and suicidal thoughts through my head. They’ve been intertwined with the tendrils of my brain stem far too long. They’re corroded in place.

But the volume and pitch changed after my grandparents died. The background static almost completely vanished. Instead, it was just a matter of how loud the thoughts were day to day and whether or not I could drown them out with my speaker of positive soundbites and self affirmations. Suicide was suddenly on my radar as a very real option, more real than it had ever been in my life. When you think about it, it makes some sort of sick sense. The man I admired most in this entire world not only died by suicide, but also took my Nana with him. That’s the kind of gaping murmur in your heart that simply can’t be fixed. It’s a hole burrowed straight through the grey matter of your brain.

My therapist made an observation one day, saying, “Once you lose a loved one to suicide, it’s going to feel like a valid choice by default. It’s no longer an abstract notion. It’s tangible. Real. It’s common to have an increase in those kinds of thoughts after something like this – for anyone.”

I found myself in a “special” category, though. I was not someone who lost a loved one to suicide and was now depressed and having my own thoughts of ending it. I was someone who had non-nonchalantly tossed the idea of suicide between my fingers for years. I idly twisted its fabric in my hand, feeling its texture on my skin, shaping my tongue into each syllable until it sounded soft and calming. For someone like me, my therapist said, of course losing someone so very dear to me in such a horrific way would increase those thoughts, and, if I wasn’t careful, breathe life into the idea of taking my last breath far too young and by my own hand.

The past three years have been a back and forth. Like summer afternoons spent on my Papa’s sailboat as a child, sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it’s choppy and makes me sea sick. I won’t lie, I’ve come way too close to just saying “Fuck it” and jumping off the proverbial boat into the abyss on more than one occasion. On the especially rough days, now, though, the thought that gives me the energy to steady the sail and reach out for help is the way that Nana and Papa’s death impacted me. While it used to be justification, after that conversation with my therapist, it’s now a deterrent. I realize that if I, too, were to die by suicide, in some ways, I’d be granting a sort of permission to my brothers, to my friends, to my family. Because that is the true legacy of suicide. On top of the pain, hurt, anger, confusion, guilt, and grief, it opens the gates and says to those you care most about, “This is a valid solution to your pain.”

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Memorial Tattoo – My Papa’s Handwriting, reminding me daily that no matter how he left, he loved me always.

Speaking from my experience, though, when suicidal thoughts are cranked up to 11, and blaring through your brain, your rib cage is shaking with the bass of them, and your ears are ringing with the treble. Nothing else matters. Hell, nothing else even exists. You can’t make your family or friends or job or any other aspect of your life matter. You convince yourself that the entire world would be better off without you in it. This is where a safety plan comes in. This is where you talk to people you care about (and who care about you) when the noise isn’t overwhelming your central nervous system and tell them what warning signs to look out for. This is when you save a Crisis line number or two in your phone for easy access. This is when you plan the most effective distractions. This is when you resolve, no matter how terrible it gets, that you will not grant anyone else in your life permission to die by suicide.

“It gets better” is not an empty platitude. Living with Bipolar, my depression comes in waves. And sometimes, the wave is massive and when it hits me, thoughts of suicide flood in and sometimes, they threaten to carry me back out into the dark, frigid sea of complete hopelessness. But, through therapy and medications, they are easier to beat back now. My “really bad days” are not as bad as they used to be. Slow but steady progress is being made. It’s work, but it’s worth it.

Thanks for reading. Again, if you or someone you love is struggling, please do what you can to get in touch with a therapist, call a local crisis line, call 9-1-1, or go to the hospital. I might not know you personally, but I don’t want this world to go on without you in it.

Stigma Kills: On Amy Bleuel, Project Semicolon, and the Complex Nature of Mental Health Activism

Today is World Bipolar Day. As an actual, real, live human being living with Bipolar Affective Disorder, I had a post planned for today around my experiences with being diagnosed, accepting that diagnosis for myself, explaining it to friends and family, and, ultimately, sharing it with you beautiful humans that actually take time out of your day to read the things I write.

This is definitely not the personal, occasionally lighthearted post I had initially planned. Because yesterday, news broke that impacts the entire mental health community. Yesterday, we learned that Amy Bleuel, founder of Project Semicolon, had lost her life to suicide. To say this was an unexpected loss is an understatement. While I did not know Amy personally, I knew her work very well and have followed her since the semicolon went viral in 2013.

Before I was blogging. Before I was diagnosed. Before I was in regular therapy. Back when I sat quietly with my depression determined to “push through.” Back when I passively thought about suicide at least once a day. Back when I was tongue tied by stigma and chained in silence. Back when I felt the need to be “stronger”, to be “better”, to be “normal.”

Though it was only 4 years ago, it feels like a lifetime. In the time that’s passed since, most of my life has flipped so many times, you’d think it was a gymnast. But 4 years ago, I saw semicolons starting to float around my facebook timeline, with increasing prevalence. Intrigued, I clicked on one of the links and read about this amazing person, Amy, who had been suicidally depressed, and had nearly died by suicide more than once. This wonderful human, about my age, was reaching out to the world and spreading hope through a simple piece of punctuation. And I admired her. I was inspired by her. I hoped to get a semicolon tattoo myself one day.

Though I remained largely silent myself, still needing to swing some more swords in my own battle against mental illness and the stigma associated with it, I was encouraged to see Amy and people like her, out there, giving hope to others. The whole mental health world was impacted by Amy’s work.

She was viewed as “inspiring”, “brave”, a “hero”, and a “life saver” (these are all terms you’ll find describing her in various articles and interviews). And she was all of these things. But she was so much more.

Our society likes tie subjects and people up in neat, pretty, easy to accept, gift wrapped boxes. But life is not neat and aesthetically pleasing, and life with mental illness is anything but simple. Living with mental health issues is challenging, confusing, and complex. And, while society said, “Look at this amazing woman who survived suicide, overcame depression, and is now inspiring others!”, Amy was still engaged in a battle for her life. And she lost that battle last week. But HOW could someone so well-known for suicide prevention die by suicide?! I’ve seen that question, in various forms, multiple times over the past 24 hours. And the answer, in my opinion, is the same as it always is when someone loses the fight against depression: STIGMA.

We have not beaten stigma. People are still afraid to speak up, to reach out. Stigma is complex. It’s deep. It’s layers of suckage. Stigma encompasses everything from fear of the homeless man talking about the CIA by the subway entrance to embarrassment when you try to explain why a loved one is in the hospital. From unwillingness to accept that depression is a real struggle to complete empathy for people with “normal” mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, but silence when it comes to people experiencing psychosis. From posting on social media to “stop being lazy” or “there’s a pill for that” to supporting loved ones for what’s deemed an “acceptable” time frame of recovery, and then growing impatient and blaming them for their illness. Stigma is all of these things. Stigma is also looking at someone who is speaking out against stigma and labeling them “inspirational” people who have “overcome” and are now working to “help” others. Can you imagine how much pressure that would put on someone who is struggling?

But that’s the box that our society deems suitable for public consumption of mental illness. The only way we want large scale conversations on stigma is when they are delivered in that meticulously cultivated package labeled “inspiring.” The only way we accept a discussion on mental illness is if it comes from a person so recovered from their tumultuous past that they can now “pass” in the broader society as “not crazy.” Someone high functioning. Someone who can be redefined as a victor.

No one wants to watch that Ted Talk on living with Bipolar Affective Disorder and think “that person spends every day working to manage his mood with medication and coping skills”, instead, the preferred lens is, “Wow! He got better!” You don’t want to read a book about someone living with Schizophrenia and think “This person works hard everyday to reality-check and stay present and ignore or integrate the voices they hear.” You want to think, “Wow! This person is cured! And what a thing to have lived through! I’m so happy she got through it.” And you don’t want to look at the smiling, short haired woman speaking with confidence and eloquence about her struggles with depression and think, “She’s still battling for her life every single day.” You want to think, “Hey! She’s all better and now she’s helping others! That’s incredible!”

There’s this idea we all like to hold that those who speak out and share their stories with honesty and bravery are “better.” That they have mastered their own mental illness and their role now is to support and inspire others to do the same. This is deadly. Think of how hard it would be to reach out for help for suicidal thoughts if you were known as a person at the forefront of the suicide prevention movement. Imagine how difficult it would be to not only tell your close friends and family that you were going to a hospital because you were unsure you’d be able to keep yourself safe, but also to have to make some sort of press release through your non-profit organization, an organization aimed at fighting suicide. Imagine the position in which Amy found herself. I can’t speak to her thoughts, obviously, but I can envision how hard I would find it to reach out and open up to someone about the depth of my despair were I in her position.

In life, Amy was featured on MTV, ABC, People, BuzzFeed, and many other stations and sites. When her semicolon idea went viral, everyone wanted to interview her. In death, her local news sources have articles and mental health publications have articles, but beyond that, the silence is overwhelming. Because no one wants to look at the truth behind all these “amazing” public figures at the forefront of the mental health discussion in this country: each and every one of the people speaking out and sharing their personal struggles is still living with mental illness. Every single one of those people you like to deem “inspirational” are battling their illness every day. And sometimes, people lose that battle. That Amy lost her battle does not and cannot invalidate her fight, or the contributions of hope and encouragement she gave all of us. In fact, I believe that the fact she was doing such amazing things while engulfed in her own immense struggles adds to the impressiveness of her work. Much like a soldier awarded the Metal of Honor posthumously, her death does not negate her courage; rather, her death draws a circle around her bravery and dedication. 

Fuck Stigma.

I’m going to be completely honest with you right now: I’m still fighting my own battles every single day; I’m just hoping to help a few other people along the way.

To Amy: you DID inspire, you DID shift perceptions, you DID amazing things. You did all this while battling for yourself. You did all this while struggling every day. THAT’S why you inspired me. You will be missed. Rest in Peace.

IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING WITH THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE, PLEASE REACH OUT FOR HELP BY CALLING 911 OR THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LINE AT 1-800-273-8255. 

Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse)

There’s a lot of information out there about preventative measures for relapse into a mental health crisis. There are also great resources on what to do in a crisis situation. But what do you do when you’re just having a really hard time? What if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed, but you’re not posing any threat of serious harm to yourself or others?

I’ve learned a lot in the past few months about distress tolerance skills. These tips and tricks have been immensely helpful for me in my recovery. Tonight, I’d like to share with you my Top Five skills for dealing with negative, overwhelming emotions.

NUMBER ONE

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If you’ve been following my story, you know that I live with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Included in the PTSD gift basket are things like dissociation, panic attacks, and flash backs. Each of these events are about as fun as getting your tooth drilled without Novocain (this happened to me once at the hands of a very incompetent dentist, so I feel justified in making the comparison). You may have heard of different variations on this particular grounding technique, but my favorite method is this: look around the room you’re in and pick a color. Now, find five different shades of that color, or, if you can’t find different shades, just find five different objects of that color. Once you’ve done this, find five things you can touch. If you can, physically reach out to objects around you. Are they hard or soft? Are they smooth or rough? Are they warmer or colder than your hand? Etc. If you cannot manage to reach out, consider things you can feel without moving. What does the fabric of your shirt feel like against your shoulders? If you’re sitting – what does the chair or couch or bench feel like against your thighs and back? If you’re standing, what does the floor feel like against the soles of your shoes? How does your hair feel against your ear or neck? And so on until you’ve hit five. Finally, what are five things you can hear? This one really helps bring me back to the present, because you have to really focus to find five unique sounds. It can be challenging, and it may take a few minutes of intense listening, but I have yet to be in a place that I could not, with concentration, find five different noises. If you are still not grounded after going through these steps, repeat. In my experience, this is nearly 100% effective when I need to get back to the present and back to my center ASAP.

NUMBER TWO

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Sometimes, you’re so overwhelmed by your emotions tolerating them feels impossible. Everything starts to close in and your anxiety or depression seems to be consuming your entire being. When I’m really overwhelmed with depression, it feels like there’s a gaping hole in the middle of my chest and everything “good” about me is seeping out. It physically hurts. When I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, it seems as though the entire world is folding in on me and it’s suffocating. How can you sit with such intense emotions? Often, the mere thought of being “in your body” anymore seems impossible. You almost wish you could just crack your rib cage open and shrug off your skin and muscles for a few minutes to get some relief. These intense feelings tempt many of us to revert to old, unhealthy, maladaptive coping techniques, such as: self injury, binge eating, or substance abuse. In these moments, sometimes the best thing you can do is remember that the discomfort is temporary and find some way to distract yourself until the intensity of the feelings decreases a bit. It’s important to note that there is a difference between distraction and avoidance. Avoidance is complete neglect of your feelings, unwillingness to get curious about the causes of your distress, and, in the long run, it is not conducive to mental wellness. Distraction, on the other hand, can provide a healthy, temporary reprieve from those feelings until the intensity has diminished enough for you to sit with them and consider what may have triggered you. I’ve found it very helpful to keep a list of easy-access distraction techniques on me at all times. I keep mine in my smartphone, but I have friends who carry theirs on actual pieces of paper in their wallets. Some people I know also have a list posted somewhere in their house. Whatever method you feel will work best for you is the one you should use. When you’re not in distress, compile a list of short distraction activities you can utilize. My list includes playing a few rounds of Galaga or Tetris on my phone (10-15 minutes maximum), doing dishes, playing the “Wikipedia game” (pick two completely unrelated topics, start at one, and click links in each article to see how few clicks you need to get from the first topic to the second), and going outside for 5 minutes of fresh air and a change of scenery. Your distraction list will be unique to you, but it’s important to choose activities that will take a short time to complete to decrease the intensity of what you’re feeling until you can face it and deal with it. Choose things that you enjoy; choose things that will help clear your head.

NUMBER THREE

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I’ve mentioned this one before, but I want to expand a little on it here, because it really is a wonderful tool! Whether you’re living with a mental health diagnosis or not, every single one of us gets overwhelmed from time to time. For some of us, it’s completing that big work project or research paper for school; for some of us, it’s getting out of bed or doing the laundry. Whatever the task at hand, if you’re feeling stuck, the 10 minute rule can help. It’s pretty self explanatory – you set a timer for ten minutes and work on whatever it is you need to work on until the timer goes off. If you’re seriously depressed and feel like you can’t get out of bed, set a timer for 10 minutes and walk around your apartment for that time. When the timer goes off, you can go back to bed if you feel so inclined. If you’re writing a paper for school, set the timer for ten minutes and write until it goes off. If you feel the need to, stop once the timer goes off. I say “if you feel the need to” because often times, I’ve found, action precedes motivation. Once you actually start moving around or start writing, you might find that you’ve gained some momentum to keep going. Or, you may be completely exhausted after the ten minutes. But either is fine! You’ve done something. In those ten minutes you are tolerating a task that you thought you absolutely could not do. And you can be proud of that!

NUMBER FOUR

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Mindfulness is invaluable. Truly. I don’t care what your diagnosis is, or if you even have one – in this rushed, consumer driven, plugged in, instant gratification culture of ours, mindfulness can save your life. Mindfulness takes many forms. You can mindfully eat an apple by focusing on the texture of the fruit on your teeth and lips and tongue, the flavor, the juice, the smell, and the crisp snap of each bite. You can mindfully take a walk by considering your feet against the ground, the feel of the air on your face and hands, the sounds of traffic or nature around you, and the way the sunlight reflects off your surroundings. Mindfulness is simply being present. Not considering the future or the past. Traditional mindfulness practice involves things like deep breathing and guided meditations, but practice is definitely not limited to these things. Some people prefer traditional mindfulness practice, and that’s fantastic! If you’re moving through a busy work day and need a few minutes of guided meditation on your lunch break, I’d recommend checking out the Headspace App, if you haven’t already. As a trauma survivor living with PTSD, though, I struggle with traditional mindfulness. Focusing on my body and breath tends to trigger a panic attack, and if I’m doing it with my eyes closed, I’m in for a full-blown flashback. So, I’ve needed to get creative in my mindfulness practice. Doing the 5-5-5 technique mentioned above when I am not triggered is great mindfulness practice, and, it keeps the method fresh in my mind for easy access when I really do need it! Choosing to walk away from my phone to engage with my daughter, focusing solely on whatever game she wants to play, the details, the characters, and the inevitable laughter, is mindfulness practice. Completely devoting my attention to learning to play a new song on my guitar is mindfulness practice. Photography is mindfulness practice, as you need to really take in your surroundings, consider the person or object you’re shooting, evaluate the lighting, and position yourself in relation to that person or object to best capture the message you wish to convey with the photo. Opportunities for moments of mindfulness are everywhere. And practicing mindfulness every day can really help you access those skills when you are feeling distressed.

NUMBER FIVE

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Self soothing is intrinsic in the fabric of our beings. Self soothing skills are some of the very first things we learn as tiny, brand new humans on this planet. When things are really bad, though, we have to remind ourselves to get back to the absolute basics. We need to feel warm, safe, secure, and comforted. My favorite self-soothing techniques are wrapping up in a heavy blanket or wearing a baggy hoodie that I can burrow into and away from whatever it is in my environment that is overwhelming me. I also like to light candles or burn incense with comforting scents. Sometimes, I will put on some music, either calming or songs that bring up good memories of time spent with friends and loved ones (I have a special playlist for these moments). Occasionally, I’ll take a very warm bath. I also like to snuggle my cats. Tactile. Real. Sense-based. Basic. These are the essence of self-soothing. These techniques are for the really bad moments. I use them most when I’ve just had a flashback and I’m grounded and present but need that extra level of feeling secure and comforted. I use them when I’ve just woken up from a terrible nightmare and I’m not ready to even attempt to go back to bed yet. I use them when that gaping hole of depression in my chest feels like it’s going to swallow me up entirely. I use them when anxiety is making the world collapse on me and I feel like I’m being crushed. Self-soothing is very literally about just holding on and riding the wave of intense emotion until it passes. No goal in mind afterward. Just getting through the moment as comfortably as you can.

 

There you have it! My personal Top Five distress tolerance skills. What do you do to get through a bad situation without making it worse? Do you have any favorite grounding techniques, healthy distraction methods, motivational tricks (like the ten minute rule), mindfulness techniques, or self-soothing activities or items you like to use? If so, I’d love to hear your tips and tricks in the comment section below, on Twitter (@paradichotomy), or on Facebook!

On Parenting Through Depression

Depression sucks. It sucks your energy. It sucks your joy. It sucks your motivation. It sucks just about every good thing you’ve ever felt, and the ability to recall every good memory you have, right out of you. It sucks like the vacuum cleaner that’s in the corner, unused, because you are too tired to drag it over your carpet a few times to pick up the crumbs from the cookie you let your toddler eat right before dinner because you were too tired to put up a fight. It sucks like the television that sucks in your preschooler because you just can’t entertain them anymore, so you say “Screw it” to the screen time limits “good” parents set. It just sucks.

Depression warps your entire outlook on yourself, your life, you future, and, yes, your parenting and your kids. That’s not a popular thing to say. Shouldn’t your kids be enough to fight your depression? Take pride in your little ones, take joy in their laughter. Your kids should make you happy no matter what you’re “feeling.” 

Yeah? And this door should have a freaking window! But it doesn’t. Someone boarded and painted over where the window used to be and now it’s just a cracked, monotone, locked door that no one can open and no light can enter.

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Yes, I’m using this door as a visual representation of depression. 

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I got the double-whammy of environmental factors and genetics in the mental health lottery. There’s no Nature vs. Nurture debate with this gal, I’ve got a solid combination of both. For this post, though, I wanted to broaden the scope of things considered a little bit. I am currently parenting through depression, and I have many friends who have done and are doing the same. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and there are also a lot of hard truths many people feel ashamed to voice. This post is a combination of my personal experiences and those of my friends. I will not name names or differentiate which experiences come from who, because, I suspect, there are moms and dads out there who will be able to relate to everything in this post. My guess is that those of us who are ashamed to admit these things out loud will find that our experience is not nearly as unique as we think, and, in turn, we’re not the “bad” moms and dads our depression tells us we are. So without further ado, here are Five Things Parenting Through Depression Is and Five Things it Isn’t.

Parenting Through Depression: 

1) It’s locking yourself in the bathroom/ taking a shower to cry so that your child(ren) don’t see you. 

Depression is not “sadness”. Hopefully, by now, we all know this. If you don’t, let me explain: sadness is situational; depression is a state of being. Your dog died and you’re crying in front of your kids? This is deemed “ok” because your tears are “justified”. Depression crying is not always “justified”. Depression is a deep loss of joy and a loss of the ability to find joy, and sometimes, the smallest thing can bring tears to your eyes. Sometimes, there’s no obvious trigger at all, you just break down and sob. When this is happening, in whatever frequency, you want to shield those little (or not so little) eyes from seeing you like that. You want to prevent those little mouths from asking “What’s wrong? Why are you sad?” Because you don’t have an answer, or, if you do, it’s far too dark and burdensome to lay at the feet of your children. You hide in the bathroom because you want to protect them from the emptiness you feel inside. Because you don’t want it to spread to them. You don’t want them worried. You don’t want them to feel obligated to try to comfort you because that is not their role. Parents comfort children, not the other way around.

2) It’s dragging yourself out of bed in the morning despite having absolutely no energy or motivation. 

Let’s face it, the kids aren’t going to feed and dress themselves. (Especially the younger ones.) As a parent, you’re responsible for getting the kiddos out the door and on their way to school or daycare each day. You may be responsible for getting yourself to work as well, but let’s be honest, the thought of work in the morning is so far on the back burner when parenting with depression that it’s not even heating up until you finally get the kids off to their respective destinations first. Also in this category, sometimes it’s not getting up on time, despite your best efforts. Some mornings, you just can’t peel yourself off the mattress in time to get the kids to school (or yourself to work) on schedule. Once the kids are late to school a few mornings, teachers start mentioning it, and you feel like a complete and utter failure as a parent. You just have to try harder, you think. But you can’t try your way out of depression. You can’t will your way out, either.

3) It’s feeling detached from your life. Feeling alone even if you’re with your child(ren) and/or significant other. 

Oh! You wanted to actually enjoy family game night? You wanted to engage in that art project your 5 year old is so excited about? You wanted to laugh at that funny family movie you’re all watching together? Tough luck! Depression has a way of taking the fun out of everything. Sure, sometimes you can muster up the energy to go through the motions, you know, roll the dice, hold the paintbrush, push the play button on Netflix, but in reality, you’re so drained emotionally that that’s just about all you can do. Your biggest fear is that your child(ren) will notice this and internalize it as “Mommy/Daddy isn’t really interested in what I have to say/ want to do”, feel rejected, feel hurt, and then stop wanting to do things with you at all. And then depression convinces you that this is already the case and that you’ve failed as a parent and you are screwing up your kid(s) for life.

4) It’s phoning it in on dinner some nights. 

If you’re at all like me, you prefer your child(ren) to eat at least mostly healthy things. You know, 3 meals a day, hitting ideal nutritional values, not having too much sugar or junk… But there are some nights that I honestly cannot muster the energy to cook anything at all, to say nothing of a meal consisting of meat, starch, and veggies. Some nights, we have PB&J’s for dinner, some nights it’s cereal, and some nights it’s Spaghetti-O’s. Am I proud of this? Absolutely not. But sometimes “it is what it is.” Bellies are full and I’m not condemning my kid(s) to a lifetime of health struggles if we have an unhealthy dinner occasionally.

5) It’s pulling the energy to make sure your children are clean, warm, and loved when you can barely find the energy for any of that yourself. 

Depression has a way of attacking you in sometimes unexpected and not often discussed areas of life. One is hygiene. Now, look, this is the conversation no parent (or any adult) really wants to cop to, but the fact of the matter is, on the really bad days in your battle with depression, if you can manage to take a shower, you pat yourself on the back for it. If you can manage to put on clean clothes, that’s a freaking gold star moment. If you can manage to care enough to actually brush your teeth and hair, you’re officially winning for the day. Because you have that little energy. But your kids? They need to be bathed, they need clean clothes, and they need brushed teeth and hair. It’s your responsibility as a parent. Not doing so constitutes Child Neglect. So, you’ve got to drag that energy from somewhere. Honestly, most nights, I don’t know where it comes from. But I do know, despite being exhausted, despite having zero patience, despite not being able to find a single ounce of energy to care for myself, I have to take care of my kid(s), so I do.

That’s my completely non-comprehensive list of what it is to parent through depression. Now, let’s take a look at what it isn’t. 

1) It isn’t laziness, and it’s not a reflection of your love for your child(ren). 

We all have ideas of what it means to be a “good” parent. Depression, and the lack of energy, enjoyment of life, and engagement that comes with it, is not in anyone’s definition of “good parenting.” But please be gentle with yourself. It’s not something you can “snap out of”. It’s not something you can wish away. It does sometimes impact the way you interact with your kid(s). (As seen above.) But it does not make you a bad parent. Depression tells you you’re failing. It tells you you are dropping every ball in your life. It tells you you are worthless. But you’re not. And your kids don’t think you are either. We all love our kid(s). Our depression doesn’t change that.

2) It’s not you scarring your child(ren) for life. 

So, your kid(s) had “too much” screen time this week (or month), so they ate canned or frozen food for dinner more times than you would have liked, so they wore mismatched socks or clashing clothes because you didn’t have the energy to wash, dry, fold, and sort laundry. Your child(ren) love you, and you love them. They will not be permanently affected by your hard time. As parents, we have a way of showing up for our kids even when we can’t manage to show up for ourselves. Even if we’re doing “less” than we think we should, if your kids are clean, fed, and clothed and they know you love them, you’re doing just fine. I promise.

3) It’s not easy. Forgive yourself. 

Depression makes parenting (which is already a job of work) much harder. It tends to not only decrease your levels of interest and enjoyment, but also increase your irritability. There will be days that your fuse is short. Sometimes, a mess left in a room you just spent all day (and all your energy) managing to get clean is going to cause you to lose your temper. You may snap at your child(ren) for things that, on a good day, would not be a problem at all. Forgive yourself, but also ask your child(ren) for forgiveness. It’s ok to have age appropriate conversations with your children about what you’re facing. In fact, I’d encourage it, because there may be a time in their life that they struggle with depression or anxiety or some other form of mental health issue. Though no parent would wish that on their child(ren), having an open, honest dialogue about it may give them the foundational understanding to seek support in the future without feeling the shame and stigma so many of us feel.

4) It’s not permanent. 

Even if you’ve struggled with depression for your whole life, you know it comes in waves. The “bad days” are not everyday. You are not doomed to a life of half-hearted engagement with your child(ren), you are not doomed to live in this darkness forever. You will feel joy and connection again. Depression tells us that it will never leave, and for many (myself included) it is a life-long struggle. But there is a certain ebb and flow to it. Remind yourself of that on the bad days, if you can.

5) It’s not weakness to ask for help. 

Be it from your natural supports (friends and family) or from a professional, depression is a battle you do not have to fight alone. Everyone needs help sometimes. If a friend of yours had cancer and needed help managing the responsibilities of parenting while they were receiving treatment and recovering, would you deem them a “bad” parent? No? I didn’t think so. So why do so many of us hesitate to reach out for support while we’re struggling? Why do so many of us feel that no one will be around to help if we do need treatment? Of course, the answer to this is the stigma placed on mental health issues. People are taught not to view mental health the way that they view physical health. The distinction is a fallacy. Whether it’s clinical depression or cancer, generalized anxiety disorder or diabetes, you’ve got a medical condition that sometimes requires medical intervention. So many of us believe that reaching out and getting help will somehow paint us as “weak,” or as a “bad” parent. But that’s the depression talking! If you need help, or if you just need to talk, reach out! I promise you, good friends will be there, good family will be there, and they won’t judge you.

That last one is deeply personal to me, although it was initially offered up by one of the friends with whom I connected. If you’ve been following my story, I had to spend a week at inpatient care on a psychiatric unit in January, which meant not seeing my baby girl for the duration of that time.

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My Katie. 

I cannot stress enough how much I did not want to admit myself to the hospital. I cannot stress enough how much I feared the implications of my stay at the hospital on the perception of my parenting ability, especially having recently separated from my husband. I thought for sure my stay in the hospital would be all the fodder needed to ensure that I’d lose any shot at equal custody of this beautiful girl. I thought that my family and friends would abandon me. I thought that no one would help. I thought that leaving her for a week was the absolute worst thing I could do as a parent. I thought that I should be able to push through and carry on with my daily responsibilities as a mom. I thought, for a long time, that I had no choice in the matter. Moms can’t take “time off”, right? In my mind, “taking a break”  was tantamount to neglecting my daughter. I thought getting help meant I was a complete and utter failure at the one thing in my life that mattered most.

In truth, it was the exact opposite. If you’re struggling with depression and parenting, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your child(ren) is reach out for the support and help you need. 

It may be just telling a few close friends and getting help with the day to day stuff so that life is a little less overwhelming for you until you get through your depressive episode. It may be seeking out a therapist and/or psychiatrist, and finding child care to allow you to go to those appointments. If you’re really struggling, yes, it may mean utilizing more intensive supports, such as hospitalization, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment. Wherever you’re at, and whatever level of care you need, reaching out for help does not make you a bad parent. In fact, it makes you an even better one. (And you’re already a pretty good one if you’re raising a child through the fog and darkness of depression, believe me!)

IF YOU’RE REALLY STRUGGLING AND HAVING THOUGHTS OF HURTING YOURSELF, PLEASE CALL 911 OR THE NATIONAL SUICIDE HOTLINE AT 1-800-273-8255.