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.

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.

 

Look for the Helpers

It’s been a difficult week.  Nationally, there is fear about what Justice Kennedy’s retirement will mean for the future of SCOTUS.  ICE continues to separate parents and children.  Personally, I’ve seen some overwhelming and  difficult things, as I do often working in a social service agency.  When I look at these broken parts, all I can see is that we are failing to take care of each other.

Our country claims to be a place with a government that is “for the people, by the people,” but right now that couldn’t seem farther from the truth.  Our government is failing to take care of its most vulnerable citizens.  What’s more, their lack of assistance is touted in the name of Christianity – a religion that espouses care for the poor and marginalized in both Old and New Testaments.  It’s no wonder the Church is dying when its mouthpieces refuse compassion.

On Tuesday of this week, I started the morning by calling EMS for a man who suffers from seizures and was also experiencing alcohol withdrawal.  He spent the night at the hospital and came back the next day to our agency, having received minimal care for his ongoing issues because of his lack of insurance and income.  A few hours later on Tuesday, my coworkers and I bore witness to something terrible.  A man drove a white sedan up the street from our agency, parked it on the side of the road and got out.  He walked across the street, directly in front of our agency to the steps of the Georgia Capitol building.  He doused himself in gasoline and set off rounds of fireworks on his person, causing his whole body to burst into flames.

His name is John Michael Watts and he’s an Air Force veteran from outside of Atlanta.  He was so angry by the lack of care he had received from the VA and was suffering so greatly that he saw no other option but to light himself on fire in front of a government building.  Mr. Watts is still alive, but in the hospital in critical condition with burns of at least 85% of his body.  This is not the image of a nation that cares for its citizens.

States away, children have been taken from their parents who came to our country seeking asylum.  Their countries of origin were so frightening that the best option seemed to be to travel miles with minimal supplies, hoping to be accepted at their destination.  Their children are now alone in a strange country, some of them so young that it is impossible for them to understand what is going on.  Some are infants, still being breastfed, who were forcibly taken from their mothers. While our government has promised to reunite these families, the logistics of doing so seem nearly impossible, with hardly any way to know if the right children are being returned to the correct families.  We are failing to care for those who aren’t our citizens yet, but would like to be.

Every day at my job, I see others who experience the constant failures of a system built for their destruction. Lack of healthcare and affordable housing are some of the biggest problems.  Many of them have physical disabilities, injuries, amputations, chronic health issues, and mental health problems that make it impossible for them to hold regular jobs.  Being on the street exacerbates their health problems, and they fall deeper into the hole of homelessness.  What little money they do have access to is in danger of disappearing.  Benefits like food stamps and welfare are being threatened.  We are failing to care for those who have no option but to rely on the assistance of our government to stay alive.

I am tired of bearing witness to these tragedies.  Lately, I’ve often felt hopeless about changing these broken systems.  My heart breaks over and over for people like John Michael Watts, Marco Antonio Munoz, and the faces I see every day at work.

This past weekend, though, I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a documentary about Mr. Rogers.  Toward the end of the movie, Mr. Rogers cited his famous quote about tragedy , and tears filled my eyes.

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

People took to this quote after 9/11, after recent shootings which are too many to name, and after Hurricane Harvey, among other disasters.  It is associated with so many difficult moments for me, that to hear Mr. Rogers finally say it out loud was breathtaking.  It reminded me that this is why I come to work each day.  I want to be a helper.  I don’t always do it well, but I’m out here trying.

We are the helpers.  Whether we are holding protest signs, soup ladles, or the hands of another, we are the helpers.  Being a helper also means taking care of ourselves, even in the most simple ways.  Mourn.  Grieve.  Feel the heavy pain of it to free yourself to provide hope.  Rest.  Be present in your body.  Clad yourself for the fight ahead.

We are here, and we are many.  Be the helpers.