Trial and Error

Last year, I wrote about my decision to go on medication for my anxiety. It was a complicated decision for me to actually seek help from a doctor. I’d never discussed my mental health with a doctor before, only my therapist, and it felt like an overwhelmingly vulnerable thing to do. My first appointment with my doctor, I sat on the examination table with sweaty palms and shortness of breath. It’s a little over a year later, and I’m still on a journey toward balance, healing, and figuring out what medications are right for me.

Unlike many physical health problems, the medications for mental health are much more of a trial and error situation. I know that some issues like autoimmune disorders, cancer, and chronic pain can feel this way, too, so I don’t want to discount those experiences. But I’d never had an experience where a doctor didn’t know exactly how to treat me. I’m rarely sick, and when I am, it’s usually with something predictable like a cold or flu, bronchitis at the worst. I’ve had a few surgeries, mainly due to routine dental procedures and sports injuries. I’ve done physical therapy countless times. However, being prescribed a medication in the spirit of “we’ll see how this goes!” is a new and somewhat scary journey.

Medications for mental health can sometimes have side effects that are worse than the thing you want them to prevent. They can cause suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and depression. They can make you tired, dizzy, nauseated, gain weight, lose weight, hungry, not hungry, the list goes on. My body has always operated on a pretty predictable rhythm. I’ve exercised at least five days per week since I started running cross country in middle school. Growing up, fried foods, red meat, and other unhealthy options were never made available to me, a pattern I took with me into adulthood. Whenver I was experiencing something unpleasant in my body, I could usually point to exactly why that was and do something to make it stop. But these new medications are a different story.

I started out taking Zoloft. I felt like it was helping my anxiety, so we increased the dosage. After a few months, though, I was feeling exhausted and depressed. I went back to my doctor and we decided to try something else. Next, I tried Lexapro. I felt like I had more energy and experienced less side effects, but I was still feeling depressed. After talking with my therapist, I realized that maybe the depression wasn’t a side effect of the medications but was actually a symptom of mental illness. My anxiety had been my main concern for so long, and once that was quieted, my depression was free to settle back in and take control.

The past six months have been a slow trudge through day to day life. Some days were better than others, but I struggled find joy in my work and in my hobbies. Spending time with friends was exhausting, but sitting in my house alone made me feel even more worthless. There were times I had to call friends to come and sit with me because I didn’t feel safe to be alone. There were times when I had to take several days off of work. There were times when I texted the crisis hotline and thought about admitting myself to a hospital. It hasn’t been the best season. But I’m so grateful for the people who showed up for me and for my own ability to ask for help and to get up and keep trying.

So, now, not only am I taking Lexapro but also Wellbutrin. And I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in months. My insides feel less dreary and I’m excited about things instead of feeling burdened by them. I want to be creative again. I want to be spontaneous and try new things. The fog is slowly lifting. I know there will be bad days again because mental illness doesn’t just go away overnight, but I also know that my therapist and doctor will be there for me along the way. Maybe one day I’ll need to switch medications again. Maybe one day I won’t need any medications at all. But for now, the best version of me is the one that takes two pills per day, and there’s no shame in that.

Lies Religion Told Me About My Depression

CW: disordered eating, depression, religious trauma, self harm

I first struggled with depression and body image in high school. For the better part of my junior year, I restricted my eating or avoided eating altogether. I was in a theater production at school, so my evening rehearsal schedule meant I could pretend to eat all three meals at school while managing to only munch on some free oyster crackers from the cafeteria throughout the day. After several months of this, as well as constant urging from my friends, I summoned the courage to talk to someone at my church about what I was going through.

My youth leader and I went to dinner at Chik-fil-A (the classic Christian restaurant, obviously), and I confessed my hatred for my own body and general unhappiness with my life. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m so unhappy. I have a boyfriend. I have a lot of good friends. I’m doing well in school.” To which my youth leader responded, “Yes, but you need to be able to be happy even if you don’t have those things. That’s why we find our joy in Jesus.” Here is the first lie: If you really love Jesus, you won’t ever be unhappy.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized how disturbing this was. There I sat, a fragile, 95 pound 16-year-old, and instead of getting the mental health assistance I so badly needed, I was being told that my unhappiness was directly correlated to the depth of my religious belief. If I would only pray more, read the Bible more, and be a better Christian, then I wouldn’t be having these problems. I wasn’t referred to get any outside help and instead was referred to a devotional book for teenage girls.

For whatever its worth, I did start eating again after the conversation with my youth leader. Whether it was the confession of my issue itself or my deep belief in what I’d been told, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d started eating all three meals again. But, really, that’s not the thing that matters the most. What does was my belief in my ability to be cured from mental illness simply by praying and going to church. Sure, prayer, meditation, and community can all help improve mental health and personal awareness. I don’t discount that. But my brain chemistry cannot be cured by sitting in a dark room with my eyes closed. People far more devout than I experience unhappiness and depression all of the time. And the refusal of many church communities to acknowledge the dark emotions we all face leads to a church full of shiny, happy people. When church does not allow us to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry, it denies us the fullness of our human experience.

Earlier in my high school experience, I struggled with other self-harming behaviors. Like any addiction or illness, I would go through periods of recovery followed by periods of relapse. Every time I fell back into old patterns, I would spend the next spiritual retreat with my youth group reflecting on my own short comings. This is the second lie: My inability to overcome mental illness is based in my unwillingness to let God work in my life.

I spent countless high school retreats crying while participating in whatever metaphorical spiritual practice had been employed to help us “let go” of the things holding us back in our relationship with God. Sometimes this was writing down what we needed to let go of and nailing it to a cross. (Don’t get me started on the disturbing theological implications of this one.) Sometimes it was writing down our sins on a piece of paper and throwing it in the fire. Sometimes it was holding a small stone in our hands, meditating on it, and then laying it at the foot of the cross to represent our burdens. While I understand what was being attempted with these practices, for me, they did nothing but damage. Each time, I contemplated the same things. I wasn’t happy: I was depressed, self-harming, anorexic, and lonely. I believed that if I tried hard enough and really meant it, then God would take these problems away. Each time, this turned out not to be true, and each time I thought it was my own fault for not having enough faith for God to take away my burdens.

I do not believe that God magically rewards “good people” with joy, wealth, and easy lives. I do not believe that God spitefully punishes “bad people” with mental illness, sickness, and poverty. My brain chemistry has nothing to do with my actions in the world. I was born with a brain that is suceptible to anxiety and depression, and this does not make me a failure in the eyes of God. While I do what I can to maintain my mental health – exercise, healthy diet, meditation, therapy – I am the best version of myself when I’m on the right medications. This does not mean God made me incorrectly or that I’ve done something to cause God’s anger at me. It just means I have to work harder each day to find the things that ground me.

Earlier this week, my therapist asked me what things were grounding me currently. I struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, I was able to mention my partner, my cats, a vegan pot pie I made for dinner, and my new garlic plant. I certainly did not mention guilt from being unhappy or a lack of faith. Days are hard right now, but that makes me no less faithful. It does make me more grateful for the good things when they grow. I am also grateful for the people and spaces that allow be to feel all of my feelings, even when they don’t make sense, even when they are overwhelming. I am grateful for a God who honors all of my feelings, especially the ones that hurt.

Healing Old Wounds

In high school, I had no concept of self care.  I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork.  I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk.  I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6.  I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.  

Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me.  I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others.  No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me.  The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school.  It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself.  In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school.  Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest.  Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.

What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later.  I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly.  I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore.  I believed her and tried to move forward.  But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.

During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks.  Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days.  But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade.  My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection.  I was paralyzed by the two extremes.  I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.

The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body.  I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast.  I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value.  I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.  I let her rest so she is free to cry.  I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine.  I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.

Magnum Opus

“I’m Trash,”
she says,
“or whatever you want to call me.”
In the Kroger parking lot
in January
she wears pajama pants and flip-flops.
She asks for money.
She says she’ll
clean windows
but can’t offer her regular services
because she has an infection.

He wears a white turban made of blankets
and a puffy ski jacket
no matter the season.
He’s always in the same places,
walking up and down
next to the road
staring at cars,
never speaking,
never walking on the path
with all the other walkers and joggers.
Instead,
he travels parallel,
ten feet away,
to keep either others or himself
safe.

Ten minutes into the church service,
a man in dirty jeans,
carrying garbage bags full of belongings
sits in the third pew.
A large, graying man in a suit
hands him a hymnal.
He holds it away from his chest
as if unsure how to use it.
But when the soprano soloist
takes the stage,
he raises his arms
making small motions
from his fingertips
in the air,
conducting her voice,
his own personal symphony.

Why and How to Make a Mental Health Safety Plan

*tw* suicide, abuse, assault, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders

I once thought that mental health safety plans were only for people who were “really suffering”, only to be used right on the verge of self harm or suicide.  But recently, I realized that once someone reaches a place that urgent, it’s too late to make a plan.  Asking for help should happen much sooner, immediately after symptoms and warning signs start to appear.  Many of us, myself included, think our symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to get any serious help from a hospital or a helpline, but the truth is that it’s much better to ask for help too early than too late.  So, based on my limited experience (DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional), here are some helpful insights into creating a mental health safety plan.

  1. Know your triggers.  Do you have something really stressful coming up at work?  Are you going to have to have a difficult conversation with someone you love?  Are you going to be interacting with someone who makes you feel unsafe?  Have you been looking at literally anything on the news? Be able to identify the things that trigger your anxiety and depression (or whatever it is you experience) so you can make sure to have a plan ready before the triggers are present.
  2. Make a plan while you’re feeling helathy. By the time you find yourself in a hole of panic or depression or suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, you’re not able to make a cohesive plan.  Have you been feel good lately?  Now is the time to make a plan.  Every office building and hotel I’ve ever been in has an emergency evacuation plan posted on each floor.  They don’t wait for the building to catch on fire to make an emergency plan.  They make the plan while things are still safe and functioning well.  Once the emergency begins, the chaos makes logical thinking impossible.  It’s important to be thinking clearly when you make a plan for yourself.
  3. Know your warning signs.  Know what to look for within yourself so you’re aware of when you should start to reference the plan you’ve made.  If you can stop yourself from spiraling deeper by implementing your plan early on, that’s a huge victory.  Knowing yourself and how you respond to triggers is crucial.  If you can identify what you’re feeling and understand your symptoms, that’s honestly half the battle.
  4. Plan for the worst case scenario.  As an anxious person, this is not always something I would suggest.  When I’m getting on an airplane, I should not imagine the worst case scenario because I’ll find myself in a panic spiral about my plane falling out of the sky in flames.  However, when it comes to imaging what you might do at your worst, you need to be prepared.  Even if you’ve never harmed yourself or attempted suicide or abused substances or developed disordered eating, mental health can be an unpredictable monster.  Know which hotlines to call, even if you’ve never needed them before.  Know what resources are available at hospitals near you.  Know your therapist’s phone number.  It’s not overkill to have the resources at hand.
  5. Have a support system.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  This is huge for me.  I hate asking for help.  I’m an #indepedentwoman and I don’t like having to depend on others.  But I promise that your friends would much rather get a call at 2am or have you ask them to come sit on the couch with you in silence than know you were suffering and didn’t reach out.  List a few people you can call when you’re struggling.  If you’re not good at saying how you’re feeling, develop code words with your partner or best friends so you don’t have to do the emotional labor of explaining what’s going on.

RESOURCES

This is all fairly new to me, so if you have any suggestions of your own or things that have worked for you, please share them!  Also, here are a few resources I’ve found helpful:

  1. Check out the My 3 app (not sponsored, just a great resource).  It’s available for Android and iPhone and provides a place for your safety plan that’s always in your pocket.  You can choose friends to contact, list resources for yourself, keep track of your warning signs and coping skills, and make a plan to keep yourself safe all in one spot.  10/10 would recommend.
  2. If you’re more of a “write it down” type of person, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a great Patient Safety Plan you can print out.
  3. Lastly, here is a template that I made based on personal experiences.  I had trouble finding a template related to interacting with your abuser, so I made my own.  Check it out here: Assault/Abuse Survivor Safety Plan Template.

Stay safe out there, friends.  It’s a crazy world, and we have to take care of ourselves in order to fight the good fight!

If you are having thoughts of suicide (or if you are concerned about someone), there is help available right now. A trained counselor is ready to talk to you and provide help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is a free 24-hour hotline. (Press 1 for a dedicated line for Veterans and their families. Para español, oprima 2.) If emergency medical care is needed, call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.

 

Mental Health is Not a Straight Line

*tw*: depression, anxiety, sexual assault, abuse, self-harm

I hate the process of getting somewhere.  When I’m traveling, I hate driving for long periods because I feel like I’m wasting time when I could be accomplishing something.  Flying makes me anxious, and even though it’s faster, I hate the concept that I have to arrive so early before my flight just to sit in the airport and do nothing.  I love traveling when I get to where I’m going.  I love exploring new restaurants, seeing new sights, and doing things I haven’t done before.  But it’s the process of getting there that makes me uncomfortable.

For a long time, I felt the same way about my mental health.  Once I overcame an issue after a prolonged period of suffering, I thought I was done.  I could check it off the list because I had overcome it.  In high school, I had problems with self-harm, and once I stopped self-harming, I thought I was done with it.  I was proud of myself for overcoming an obstacle and moving forward.  I thought I’d never have to worry about it again.  But mental health recovery doesn’t work like that.  There are good days and there are bad days.  Our negative patterns tend to show back up in difficult times.  Recovering addicts probably know this the best, and the fact that they use the phrase “recovery” to describe their process shows a much deeper self-awareness than my own.  Recovery is a process, not a checklist.

Things have been difficult lately.  I’m still figuring out what the proper medications are for my anxiety, and because I also have a history of depression, it’s proving more difficult than I expected to find an anxiety medication that doesn’t also trigger my depression.  I’m working with my doctor to figure out what prescription will be best for me, but it’s essentially a trial and error process.  Also, our current news cycle hasn’t been any help, triggering memories and fears surrounding my own experience of sexual assault.  I didn’t spend nearly enough time processing these feelings, which resulted in a breakdown during my therapy session last week, after which my therapist wouldn’t let me leave until I had a friend to meet me at home to make sure I was okay.  (Overwhelmingly grateful for my therapist and my friends in that moment.)  Because I’m a perfectionist, I rarely let people see me at my most vulnerable.  I don’t like for people to see me cry, so asking for help in that moment was a big step.

I’m also supposed to be training for a marathon that’s happening the first weekend in November, but I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be able to run it.  I sprained my ankle (for the millionth time) at the beginning of August and just started coming back from that injury a few weeks ago.  I had some calf and shin issues while getting back into training because my left leg wasn’t used to the strain, so I’m incredibly behind on training.  Injuries combined with mental health struggles, not to mention that I’m now battling a cold, mean I haven’t trained past 12 miles.  I ran a marathon earlier this year, so I might not die if I tried to run this one, but it definitely wouldn’t be what I had hoped.  I can’t stand this because I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped when I ran the Nashville Rock ‘n Roll marathon earlier this year, so I chose Savannah (a super flat and easy course) to redeem myself and try to PR (run my best time).  But now, I’m facing whether or not I can even complete this marathon.

All this to say, things have been in a downward spiral lately.  My depression and anxiety have caused me to spend a lot more time sitting in my room not exercising, making strange meal choices (i.e. cereal for dinner like every day), not cleaning my house, and not getting things done.  Without my routine, I get even more depressed and anxious, so you can see how this spirals out of control pretty quickly.  I haven’t been moving toward my goals.  I haven’t been checking things off of my to-do list.  Heck, I haven’t even put on make up most days to go to work.  But it’s important for me to remember that these things don’t make me a failure.  I’ve made it through times like this before and I can make it again.  I made it through an intense bout of depression in high school.  I made it through the aftermath of being sexually assaulted.  I made it through breaking up with someone I had dated for 5 years only to realize he was emotionally abusive.  I made it through coming out.  I am strong, and sometimes strength looks a little different than we expect.

Right now, it looks like managing to eat several times per day, remembering to wash my face, going to bed at a decent time, drinking water, and taking my meds.  Eventually, it might look like running a marathon again or striving toward getting more pieces published.  Being mentally healthy isn’t a straight line forward, so I have to remember to celebrate the small victories along the way.

The Haitian

I can’t understand
most of his
jumbled words –
between his
French-Caribbean accent
and unavoidable mental illness,
his sentences all mush together.
But they are still lovely.

At first, I admire
his words –
like freshly born animals,
they are wobbly when they walk,
still slick with afterbirth,
eyes still closed.
Each time I ask a question
with a simple answer,
he has a monologue prepared
to go along with
his demographic information.

He pulls faded pictures of children,
who are now fully grown,
out of an old leather briefcase
and tells me where
all three of them live:
New York, Chicago, Houston.

Eventually,
I’m exhausted
by his relentless storytelling.
I interrupt his run-on sentences
with the questions
of my case work.
Where did you stay last night?
Do you have a history of substance abuse?
How much income are you receiving monthly?

With each question,
I see him return
to himself,
as though he were
previously unaware
of his own voice,
just a moment ago
echoing off the concrete walls.