Resilience and Mental Illness

Content notice: eating disorders, suicidality, self harm

The last couple of months have been trying for me in ways that would be challenging even to the most even keeled and mentally healthy of human beings. Today, my mother told me to remember that I am resilient. I am holding up well.

I have lived through some fairly horrific things. So much so that when I think back on the worst times in my life, I feel completely disconnected from them. Someone else must have done them, because I do not understand how anyone could have done what I did. For some reason I’ve been thinking about college lately. At the time, I hardly thought that anything I did was impressive. I didn’t change the world, I didn’t start my own club or create an initiative, travel abroad, or do anything particularly outstanding, as far as I was aware.

In college, with little variation, I did not eat more than once every two days. There were periods (up to a month or so) during which I ate once a week, supplemented by coffee with milk. In the picture above, I hadn’t eaten in days. My body was remarkably resilient. I could feel it falling apart under me. I was weak and tired, and found my heart and lungs struggling. But every doctor told me that there was nothing wrong, my blood work was good, I could still run and swim and bike and climb. I kept going.

One summer, I took two classes over the course of a month and a half. I could count the number of times I ate during that time on one hand. I walked away with A’s. I don’t understand how I did it, and when I think back on the time, it feels like it must be someone else who did it. That was too much, too painful, too cruel. I could not have done those things. How did I do those things? How did my mind follow a single sentence, much less Kant and Aristotle, Nietszche and Mill? When it was happening, it hardly seemed extraordinary. But now? No one could survive that.

But I did survive. I put one foot in front of the other. I held down a job, and I took my classes, and I graduated, and years later, I finally started to eat again. I became healthy. I felt joy again. I felt like I was giving up, over and over again. My body kept moving but I felt no purpose. I’m not sure if that constitutes resilience. I know that I could not live through it again, even as I know that nothing I experience now could ever feel as awful as spending years of my life actively suicidal every moment of every day. Is it resilience if you only keep going because you know you can? Because you know you’ve been through worse? I don’t understand how I did it, but it is hard evidence that I can survive nearly anything.

I suppose it doesn’t matter why as long as you keep going. Your boss tells you your work isn’t quite up to par and it feels awful, but you keep going. You haven’t seen your friends in weeks and you know you should, but you just keep going. Is this resilience? Because if I’m honest, it feels awful.

I don’t particularly want to keep going anymore. I want to collapse on the couch and eat tubs of ice cream. I want to drink a bottle of wine in one sitting. I want to stop picking up my phone and disappear from work. Perhaps that’s the secret of resilience: knowing how to be miserable for days and weeks and months on end. Not knowing if it will end, but moving forward nonetheless. I’ve found that most traits that keep you healthy feel awful in the moment. I suppose mental health is no different.

So I guess that I will keep feeling hideous and broken. That’s how it’s supposed to feel right now. In a year or two years I will look back and wonder “how did I survive?” And then I will continue to live through the seemingly unlivable parts of life. It is mundane how much pain there is in a single life, even as living that pain is an experience that is full of awe and fear. I think on the enormity of living in starvation for years, and how simple it seemed at the time. How normal. The juxtoposition with how overwhelming this feels is stark. I can feel my feelings now. But I will hold on to the resilience I had when I was cold and sick and broken. It is one of the few lessons that my eating disorder has given me.

Just pick up one foot and put it in front of the other. Repeat.

 

Grief is a Kaleidoscope

Anger is one of the stages of grief, or at least that’s what literally every self help book says. This week I’ve been angry. Easy enough, right? I know that my temper will be shorter than usual, and I’ll be mad at people who don’t deserve it. I’ll take my emotions with a grain of salt, and try not to put myself in stressful situations. There’s ways to deal with this.

Except that anger doesn’t always come out in those clear, straightforward ways you expect. It distorts things. It makes harsh lines and colors where the world is really soft and confused. I have been numb to politics and injustice for months now, too drawn up in my personal anxieties and sadnesses to expand my empathy beyond immediate family and friends. Yet suddenly, I am strident, passionate, full of declamations about mental illness and President Trump and self harm. Somehow grief has turned into this righteous anger at the state of the world.

And then there was the funeral, and suddenly the anger was turned to religion, and it felt righteous, and I know that it was just sadness. Anger seeped away, and my throat went tight. I haven’t been able to swallow properly in days, the tightness in my shoulders edging upwards until it feels like I’m going to puke out emotion.

Yesterday I had to admit to myself the hard truth. Grief is turning to my familiar friend depression. I’m beginning to lose joy again. It’s the first thing that goes when depression appears. It’s the empty sucking hole of inert disinterest. Why bother to go on living? It barely feels like anything anyway. The books tell me that depression is a stage of grief too, but perhaps that’s easier to bear when you haven’t lived for years under the weight of depression. Any return feels like an ending. Fear overwhelms the depression, and I begin to panic, wondering if the reprieve of the last two years was a blip in the larger flatline of my life.

What’s hard to explain is the way that the grief turns things. I thought I knew anger, I thought I could predict the path of healing. But it splinters your life in ways you don’t expect. I find myself sitting at work, reading the same line over and over again. I’ve never done that before. I get home, and my head hurts, my body aches, my chest feels hollowed out. I have no energy. I have always been active, but not today. Grief is not the same as the depression that is so familiar. Depression is a dark lens, but a predictable one. Grief is a kaleidoscope, turning some things bright and some things distorted and breaking others into a thousand pieces. It is the essence of unpredictable.

I am splintered and scooped out and empty inside. And where yesterday was righteous anger, today I can’t write a word about impeachments or intelligence leaks, all I can write is this emo bullshit that does nothing but lets it out and lets you in.

I’m grieving, and waiting for acceptance.

 

Life and Death Muddled Up

Last week, my fiance’s father died.

I don’t know what to write after that. It’s less than two months until our wedding. Later this summer, fiance’s older brother is moving away to complete a pastoral program. In the fall, there’s a new nibling on its way. Fiance’s family packs a lot of life into six months.

I live in the future and in the past. My therapists inform me that this is not the best way to live if you’re looking to minimize suffering. The present can only contain so much suffering, but the past and future are infinite you know. But here we are, which means that my mind is already two, four, six months into the future, imagining vows and journeys and births.

And I’m looking at a dead body.

I don’t do well with contradictions. It turns out that one of the traits of autism is black and white thinking (whodathunk), and for me that is particularly acute when it comes to emotions. I live my life in themes. I remember moods and underlying concepts. High school was anxiety and driven perfectionism. College was exhaustion and depression. Graduation was confusion and exploration. And now? Now I am all things, and I cannot understand any of them.

I never imagined that executive functioning might be the reason I struggle to parse my emotions into manageable pieces. I feel them as wholes, overwhelming waves of SOMETHING that is indescribable and undefinable. They cannot be chopped into reasons and elements and components. They just exist. But it turns out that emotions aren’t actually incomprehensible, unreasoning beasts. It turns out that there is a rhyme and reason to them, and with the right skills you can break them down in ways that make sense. And there’s the rub: my brain’s particular foibles make this mess of allthethingsthatlifecanhold not only overwhelming, but incomprehensible. How can I feel joy and excitement, then cry five minutes later?

Life doesn’t actually happen in clear, delineated pieces that allow you to process each one separately. The whole process of planning my wedding has been intermingled with fear, anxiety, and sadness at father in law’s diagnosis and decline. One month after we were engaged, he was diagnosed. And now, just over a month before we are to be married, he’s gone. Even in its chaos, life gives me some shapes and patterns to hold on to. Patterns are the only way that I know how to cope. Rituals, routines, comfort. 3 comes after 2, and it’s easy to rely on orders that don’t change.

My mantra these days is that events are separate. They feel mixed in and mushed together, but despite the fact that this death will affect my wedding, my wedding is still a separate event, fully contained, with its own joys and anxieties. I am allowed to feel all of on its own terms, without guilt. He is dead and I am making happy, exciting promises to my future husband. He is dead and there is a baby coming. Life doesn’t exist in “but”s, it exists in “and”s.

Rather than exchanging rings, my fiance and I have decided to get ampersand tattoos (no comments on the wisdom of wedding tattoos please). The symbol feels more fitting now. We aren’t removing the part of the sentence that was his father. We are adding to it. I hope that would have made him happy.

 

Picture thanks to Kaitlin Mackenzie Photography.

My Work Is My Mental Health

A couple of weeks ago I started to realize that thanks to a large pile of external stressors, my mental health has been suffering this winter. Pretty normal. Even someone who didn’t have some vulnerabilities would probably be struggling right now. But as someone who does have vulnerabilities it became quite clear to me that for the next month or until things start to feel better, my job needs to be caring for my mental health.

I’ve heard people use that phrase before, but I don’t know that it’s always clear what it means. Particularly when you have an actual, literal job, and responsibilities, what does it mean to make your mental health a priority? Why do people choose the “job” or “work” metaphor when they’re talking about mental health? For people who haven’t been through the process of managing depression or anxiety before, the whole idea can be overwhelming, so I wanted to break down my process a little bit to show others how it can be manageable.

One of the main reasons I like the job metaphor is because it gives me a clear picture of how I can successfully approach being more mentally healthy. It’s easy to just say “I want to take care of myself” or “I want to deal with my depression”, but when you approach it like a job you recognize that you have to set concrete goals, that you have to work with other people to achieve those goals, that you break your goals down into steps, and that you might have to try a variety of different techniques to achieve the results you want.

For me, it helps to have something like a “workplan” so that I can know what concrete actions I’m taking and what I hope to get from those actions. For example I’m currently trying to decrease my stress and anxiety. To break that down, I have brainstormed with my therapist things that have helped in the past (being more social, working less, doing mindfulness exercises, being more physically active) and set goals for each of them (see friends 3x a week, do 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, go climbing 3x a week etc.). In a few weeks I can see how I’m doing at those tasks and if each task is helping.

I also find that when I think of it as a job, it becomes a priority. I write it on my to do list each day (and then I have to do it), which helps me to reprioritize, as well as remember to check in regularly and see what’s working and what isn’t. For me personally, including things on my written to do lists keeps it at the forefront of my mind because I am seeing it regularly. That to me is what it means when my mental health is my job: no matter what else I’m doing, my well being is always in my brain. I’m at work? Cool, I’m also doing deep breathing regularly. Out with friends? Great! Make sure you’re also eating enough and venting when you need to. No matter what else is happening, self care is taking priority. If something isn’t serving your long term well being, stop doing it.

Of course there are times where it becomes difficult to know if it’s helping or not. For example I am stressed due to a bunch of big expenses coming up. I’m worried about money. In order to deal with that stress I have been taking on more freelance work to build up a better savings account. Of course taking on more freelance work means that I have less down time and less time with friends, more work to do, and less flexibility in my life and schedule, leaving me with higher levels of stress. Which is more important right now…the money stress or the immediate scheduling stress? For me it’s easier to think of it as a business trade off: which will earn company Olivia more Joy in the long run? Can we outsource any of this work? In this case, it helped me realize I needed to talk to my fiance and family and see if there were alternatives to Olivia just dealing with it, which it turns out there are.

The metaphor might not work for everyone, and this might not be what everyone thinks of when they say “my mental health is my job right now.” But I find that it’s an appropriate metaphor because it restructures the way I approach things, and it makes me more serious about the real amounts of work it takes to take care of myself.

Do you have a different metaphor that works when you need to prioritize mental health? What helps you kick self care into high gear?

 

You Can’t Always See Anxiety

I want to give you all a glimpse behind the curtain of anxiety for a brief minute. Maybe this is stupid and you all already know it, but I feel as if the outside face that I present to people makes me look way more together than I am.
 
So you all know that I’m getting married, and you all know that I’m a pretty hyper organized person. Basically everyone I have spoken to about my wedding has been nothing but compliments on how far ahead I am in terms of planning and organization. People have told me over and over that they are impressed with the way I’m working ahead and doing so much DIY far in advance, how good I’m being at keeping everyone up to date and making lovely spreadsheets and lists and staying right on schedule in terms of what needs to get done.
 
And I smile and say thank you and “Oh I really hope so”. Because what I can’t say in the moment is “this is all just a coping mechanism.” Underneath the very competent exterior, I am regularly feeling so anxious and overwhelmed that I’m giving myself headaches and nausea. I am having trouble being social because I’m so nervous that I’m behind. I regularly will just start crying at Jacob that everything is wrong and I don’t know how to fix it because there’s no way I’m going to finish everything on time and the wedding will be a disaster.
 
If you knew me in college you knew I was typically a week ahead on any work. Everyone always acted as if this must mean I didn’t feel any stress over deadlines. This could not be further from the truth. I was SO terrified of deadlines that i had to work that far in advance. I felt all the stress of pulling all nighters and working straight up to the deadline, but weeks in advance, because if I wasn’t ahead I was behind. That is how I feel about my wedding. Every day I wake up and feel short of breath and tight in my chest, and I look over my to do lists again and again and see that I’m doing perfectly fine and wonder what am I missing? What haven’t I done? What is slipping through the cracks? And then I find something that needs to get done and I panic and wonder how it’s ever going to get finished on time and do it all right this instant, but the feeling of “this is too much I will never finish it” lingers and lingers, and every time I find another to do it builds on every other lingering certainty that I will never finish in time.
 
No amount of rationality dispels the continued anxiety from every project that has to be done and even the ones that are already finished (am I sure they’re complete? Are they ALL THE WAY complete or do they still have things to be done? What if they need to be changed?). In my mind I am carrying every single task that it takes to put on a wedding ALL THE TIME.
 
THAT is why I’m so far ahead on everything. If I let a single ball drop, the panic comes crashing in. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m weeks ahead on my to do list, I can put it all down for a minute and relax. I can accept that it will all get done on time. Maybe if I finish it all a week or two weeks before the actual wedding I’ll have time to calm the fuck down and actually enjoy my time.
 
But when you look at me and think that I’m really competent and have everything under control, what you miss is that the reason I hold so tightly to everything is because it feels like a mass of chaos that I’m barely grasping at all. THAT is what anxiety is.
Note: this was cross posted from my Facebook because it seemed like it needed to be a blog post.

Engagement is a Liminal Period

I’ve been struggling to write lately. Normally I write about my own experiences primarily, as that’s what speaks to me and what I feel familiar with. But for some reason I haven’t felt any particular drive to write about mental illness or autism or any of the other personal topics I tend towards.

I don’t know why it took me this long to realize it, but it’s now super obvious to met hat it’s because all of my emotional thought is going in to my engagement right now. I’ve been trying to limit the amount that I talk about it, because it’s easy to fall into the myth that no one wants to keep hearing about your wedding and it’s obnoxious to only talk about it, blah blah blah. But there’s a reason we have this in between stage, and it’s not just for planning the physical event. It’s so that we can examine ourselves and become more familiar with what the idea of marriage means to us, address our anxieties and fears, find out how this “marriage” business fits into our self identities. It’s to work out some of the kinks before we’ve already said “yes” and signed the document.

In most rituals and rites there is something called a liminal period, a period of separation from what you were before and waiting to become what you will be. It’s the between place. Often it’s represented by a physical separation from the place or people you were with before, or it might be a journey or task to complete. It’s the in between stage, when you are no longer who and what you were before the ritual started, but you have no longer reached the final stage of completion that will be after the ritual takes place. It’s the place where we actually transform. If rituals were butterflies, this would be the cocoon.

Engagement is a liminal period. It’s a long one, granted, but it’s a time of change. I’ve been thinking a lot about those changes recently, and what it means to decide “yes, I’m going to turn into a married person” and “no, I will not be exactly the same person I used to be”. What does it mean to have this ritual?

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I want to get married. For a long time I was stridently against it and I still have a variety of friends who are uninterested in marriage. I feel defensive about the choice in some ways, but I also have a lot of anxiety that I’m only choosing to do it because a lot of other people do it. I have a lot of fear about marriage, not because I’m uncertain of my relationship, but because I’m uncertain of the institution. I find myself asking a lot of questions.

I say that I’m getting married because I care about it. Why do I care about it? I have never felt any need to proclaim my love publicly before. Do I really care about that? Or do I care about appearances?

I’ve tried to focus on the ways in which I can make marriage something that works for my relationship and drop some of the baggage. Is it ever possible to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools? Who am I fooling?

Am I being selfish and ignoring all the people that marriage hurts by getting married?

What does the public ceremony mean and do? What is it meant to symbolize? What do I want to focus on moving forward in my relationship and how does this ritual play a part in that?

Is there a way to take all of the tiny, internal feelings that create the relationship I have with my fiance and turn them into ritual and ceremony, make them public so that everyone understands why him?

And even deeper down, what will change in our relationship?

I’ve already noticed people giving our relationship more legitimacy, calling us part of each other’s families, making more assumptions about what we mean to each other and who we are as a couple based on their understanding of marriage. I’m glad that I have time before it’s “official” to get used to that, and start preparing responses to assumptions.

For me, this liminal state is less about imagining the future of my relationship than it is reckoning with myself as a privileged, straight, cis individual. It’s about taking the time to think through the ways that I let assumptions live in my relationship, in my gender, in my every day choices, and then trying actively to combat them. It’s why I am so focused on ensuring that my ceremony has elements that make it clear I suppose marriage equality, that show that my fiance and I are equals, that show that I may happen to be cis, but that I fully support my queer friends. Marriage is the most visible I will ever be in relation to sex and gender, and I cannot help but feel that I have a responsibility to use it as a platform. This liminal time is for me a chance to purge myself of unwanted remnants of the patriarchy.

And even more than that, it’s a time where I’m thinking excessively about my identity. Not that this is anything new, but it’s so easy for people to throw out the truism “You want your wedding to reflect YOU!” It’s a lovely thought, but much more challenging when it’s always been difficult to know who “you” are. Do I care more about indulging myself with a gorgeous, over the top dress, or do I care more about ensuring everyone has delicious food and free flowing drink? Do I care if other people think my choices are weird or unorthodox? When my partner and I disagree, how do we prioritize and compromise? The liminal state is made clear by the fact that a ritual has symbols, and I must decide for myself what I want those symbols to be. It’s a rare opportunity that one gets to stand in front of all their family and friends and speak about how you want to behave towards others. Those words and symbols become very important. Perhaps that’s why my mind keeps retreading questions of readings and songs and rituals: I have grown up so much in the past few years and now I get to say “this is who I am. This is what I want.”

How would you answer?

The Depression/Creativity Link

I’m having a hard time writing lately. My brain feels sucked dry, as if I just don’t care about the things that I used to care about. I’m not sure if it’s burn out on the topics or burn out on writing, but getting words out is a serious challenge right now. I think there are some deeper issues here about putting forth a lot of time and effort without seeing a whole lot of pay off, but there’s also something a bit more personal.

In a twist of epic proportions, I have spent most of this month not being anxious.

I forget the last time that happened. It seems this therapy thing is starting to get at the very deep seated issues and perhaps it’s convinced my brain to run a little more slowly. Everything seems a little more balanced: I’m happy with my work, with my relationship, with my friends. I haven’t had any serious depression signs in a while. Cool.

Here’s my worry: I feel less passionate. One of the benefits of anxiety was the heightened awareness that came with it. I noticed things that were a problem and I made connections between things. My brain was always racing, always on. I couldn’t move on from an issue without dealing with it somehow, and that included social justice things that didn’t even affect me. It was how the wheels of my brain and my work kept going. My emotions just don’t hit as hard and as fast anymore, which is really great for being a functional human being who can go through a day without feeling like the world is ending, but not great for someone who wants to have Serious Inspiration.

I feel so tired and dull and numb. My brain is quieter now. I am fairly certain that I’m not as smart as I used to be. I wonder if I’m finally feeling all the stuff that I was pretending didn’t exist for a long time, all the tiredness that comes from pushing too hard for years, the deep hurts that come from using food and work as your only coping skills. I wonder if I’ll swing back towards the middle some day when I’ve recuperated from the long illness that is depression.

I know that it is a myth that mental illness is the way to be creative. I have seen for myself that I think more clearly when I’m not starving or suicidal. But what I wonder is if balance makes passion difficult. When my brain is in the midst of depression and anxiety, writing often feels like the only escape. It’s a necessity. I’ll prioritize it over cleaning or calling my insurance or doing other unpleasant, adult tasks. Without that driving, painful, intensity of mental illness feelings, it’s easier to do all the functional things that one should do. I make more time for my friends, I make time to improve my house, I do stupid adult things like cleaning regularly and researching the best vacuum cleaner. I just don’t have as much time to write because it isn’t a screaming priority. I still care about writing, and I try to make time for it, but when it’s coming after a full day of work and therapy and freelancing and taking care of my cat and managing insurance, I just have less left in me.

There’s a selfishness to being sick that comes of necessity. It’s the selfishness that says I have no choice but to pay attention to me because I cannot function otherwise. I miss that selfishness. Even as I’m learning a different kind of selfishness that comes from saying no and setting boundaries and listening to my wants, I’m still not sure how to balance the things that I’m passionate about with the mundane tasks of existing. Maybe this is why so few adults can keep up their hobbies and passions. Intentional self care is far less exciting than the self care that comes out of desperation.

Without some need or want, my writing doesn’t have the drive that it used to. It comes out slowly when I make myself sit down and create a topic out of thin air. Questions and concerns aren’t whirling around in my brain, ripe for a blog post, the way they used to be.

In many ways this parallels a larger difficulty I’m feeling: a loss of identity. There was so much happening inside my head for so long that I felt as if there was too much of me. These days, I feel as if I’ve shrunk. It feels more manageable, but I’m sad about it too. There isn’t as much chaos, but I’m not sure what’s left. Writing has often served as a stand in for who I am. I’ve stripped away so much of the sickness. Now I suppose it’s time to build up again.

I’ve never heard people mention that recovery might take away some of the abilities that seemed normal for my whole life. Even if overall the changes in my life are positive, any change is hard, and this change has side effects that affect my fundamental self. It’s not as simple as “there’s no relationship between mental illness and creativity.” I don’t think I’ve lost all my creativity, but I do need to relearn how to be creative. I don’t want to ignore it for the sake of presenting a good face on recovery.

So here it is: recovery is making it harder for me to do some of the things that I love. I don’t need them in the way that I used to. I trust that eventually I will figure out how to make this version of my brain work for me, but that doesn’t change that it’s harder now.