Leaving the House in the Winter

It is winter, the time of low spirits, comfort eating, shitty body image, and “NOT THE HOLIDAYS” anxiety. For lots of people who deal with mental illnesses of any variety, winter is a time when it is incredibly difficult to leave the house. Isolation is the name of the game when it’s cold, dark, and you feel like crap that doesn’t deserve to see the outside world.

There are a few different brands of this kind of isolation, and each comes with a unique set of challenges. So here is Olivia’s Handy Guide to Leaving The House in Winter. These are my tactics for getting my ass out of my pajamas and into the great wide world when all I want is to sleep for another 12 hours.

Depression Isolation:

This tends to be the isolation that comes from having no energy. It’s dark, it’s cold, and I want to stay where it’s fucking warm thank you very much. I don’t care anyway, nobody likes me.

Ways To Fight It:

Bribe yourself. What sounds remotely good right now, other than being in bed? Make that thing happen outside of your house.

Make plans with people that you’d feel bad about canceling.

Keep your goals reasonable, and don’t get down on yourself for what “reasonable” means right now. Sure, in the summer you might be a machine of productivity, working from 8AM to 10PM nonstop. That is not reasonable right now. Is there one task that absolutely needs to get done today? Leave your house for that, and don’t expect more. Think you can make it to two? Awesome. Get to the bank and the grocery store. Set clear time limits of how long you have to be gone so that it doesn’t feel like a gigantic pile of “oh god not out there” weighing down on you.

Reward yourself! Yes this is hard. Yes it is easy to just be annoyed at yourself that leaving the house is a challenge. Yes it is easy to berate yourself for struggling so much with “basic adult tasks”. Secret: many, many adults struggle to complete “basic adult tasks” because they are annoying and emotionally draining and actually really hard in a lot of ways. If you manage to drag your unhappy self out of bed, put on adult clothes, and sit your butt in your adult chair at work for eight hours AND THEN still go out and be social like an adult is supposed to, or run your errands like an adult is supposed to, or whatever else it is that is calling you away from your bed, THROW A PARTY. If you like chocolate, eat that chocolate. If you like bubble baths, take that bubble bath. If you like not thinking, flip your brain into the “off” position for the remainder of the evening. You earned it friends.

Prepare before you venture out into that frozen tundra. This is actually just generally helpful, at least for me. Look up the location and hours of the places you need to visit. Have documents filled out and signed. You want to work out? Great, get in your workout clothes ahead of time so that the moment you hit the gym it’s sweatpants off and sweat on. This means less time stressing while you’re out and about and more while you feel mildly safe, comfortable, and warm.

And finally, a tip that is very personality dependent, so think carefully about it and how it might work for you before you do it. Do all of the things you possibly can in one go. This tends to work well for me because I feed off of accomplishment. Some people get tired. For those of us who get one burst of energy a week, when you have that energy and you’ve made it out, be the efficiency monster you know you can be.

Anxiety Isolation:

Everything is scary! I don’t know what I’m worried about, but it’s something, and so I should probably not speak to or see any human beings indefinitely in case there’s work I need to be getting done or I’m doing something wrong or I look stupid. People are scary, the world is scary, the cold is scary, the ice is scary, and there are so many things that need to get done I will avoid them all right here.

Ways to Fight It:

Start with a little bit of mindfulness, breathing, or other calming activity. You probably know what works best for you. If it’s at all possible to get your body and mind functioning in a way that’s more even-keeled, this will help you with getting out there.

Focus on activities that are not anxiety provoking. Is socializing sounding really hard right now? I’m sure that there is an errand or two that you have to run that requires minimal human interaction. Try that for now. Is there someone that makes you feel more comfortable no matter where you are? Meet up with them for coffee. Leaving the house and seeing or hearing other people goes a long way towards keeping you out of the depression/anxiety spiral, so any way you can do it is a good thing.

See above: break things up into manageable tasks.

Give yourself an out, and try to remind yourself leaving early is nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s say you made it to that awful holiday party your parents throw every year, you’ve been there for an hour and the panic spiral is starting. First of all, you made it! Good job! You built up your social relationships, got into a new setting for a while, probably moved around more than you would lollygagging in bed, and got a bit of fresh air. Success! Now is there a friend who can say they desperately need you to come help them with something? Do you have important other plans that will interfere? Are you feeling unwell? Because you can skedaddle with any of those easy outs. If you have to talk to someone close ahead of time to set something like this up and develop a secret hand gesture that says “dear sweet Jesus, please let me go somewhere quiet and have a book for a while”, make that happen.

Despite its many downfalls, winter is a season of delightfully comforting things. Hot chocolate while watching snow fall outside. Soft, fuzzy blankets. Cuddling under said soft, fuzzy blankets. Good food, steaming hot. Candy canes and other Christmas goodies. Excuses to spend time with family/friends/people you like. Revel in these things and incorporate them into your “going out” routine as often as possible. This might be one of those seasons where you have to decide that spending money on your favorite coffee drink once or twice a week is what will get you through, and that means it’s worth it.

Body Image Isolation:

Ugh, I am a hideous beast of disgustingness and I should never, ever, ever leave my house. I can’t believe I ate so much at Thanksgiving/Christmas/that utterly arbitrary meal last night that I binged on because I was cold and lonely. Flee from my hideous mug, poor mortals!

Ways To Fight It:

Cover or dispose of your mirrors. And your scale. You better not have a scale. *glaring eyes until you properly dispose of the evil scale creature that tells you your worth is a number*

Pick one: choose clothes that feel comfortable. This is my personal preference. Oversized shirts and warm sweats are my uniform once I get home from work. I give a big ol’ finger to anyone or thing that implies I should have put more effort into my appearance because these pants are soft and I don’t like wearing bras. Option two: choose clothes that make you feel confident. Even on our worst body image days, most of us have one outfit that still fits just right. Maybe it’s a pair of boots. Maybe it’s a dress. Maybe it’s fancy earrings. Doesn’t matter. If it makes you feel confident, get it on.

Have you eaten yet today? I don’t care if you feel oversized, put some food in your body. Your emotions will feel more stable afterwards. It’s hard and it feels counterintuitive, but most of the time it helps.

Check out some body positive blogs, like Dances With Fat. Not everyone feels better about themselves after body positivity, but sometimes it helps to get a role model or some optimistic thoughts.

There is very often a correlation between low mood and bad body image. If your body image is being incredibly stubborn and getting in the way of your daily functioning, it can be helpful to circumvent that particular fight by focusing on raising your mood. All of the suggestions for anxiety and depression apply, as do any other techniques that you’ve found helpful in the past.

 

So there we are friends. Winter is hard. During this time especially make sure you’re eating well, sleeping enough, getting vitamin D, exercising a little bit, and treating yourself kindly. We will survive together.

 

The Reality of Chronic Depression

I’ve known for quite a while now that I have chronic depression. I first struggled with it when I was 14 or 15 and got hit with my first major bout at 17. What followed was a good five years of nearly constant depression, with some slight reprieve here or there. Depression runs in my family, as do a variety of other colorful diagnoses, making it more likely that my depression has genetic components and thus will not change with changes in circumstances. I’m not sure what other signals I would need to illustrate that mental illness will probably be a part of my life forever, but if I did then a diagnosis of a personality disorder and an eating disorder (both widely known to be stubborn creatures that never really go away) would do it.

But despite knowing all of these things for years, I’ve always had some measure of hope that things could get better. I mean they had to get better. There was no way I could continue living if they stayed the same. Some day my brain would switch back over into “not utterly unhinged” territory and I’d be able to make it through days at a time without bursting out into tears or struggling to breathe due to anxiety. There was another version of myself that I imagined, maybe not one who was ebullient and joyous and energetic, but one who was functional and content. That version was waiting for me if I chose to accept her.

This past summer, I finally knew what it was like to be her, at least for a while. Getting relief from depression is one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had. You get tiny realizations here and there: it’s been weeks since I last cried. I’ve laughed every day this week. I ate three meals yesterday and didn’t notice until now. Each one is a victory, a delight. I’d find myself giggling in joy over my life for no reason.

Last night I got hit with an attack of the jerkbrain. It’s been dark and cold lately, something that’s always hard for me. The day started out well enough, but somewhere in mid afternoon the undercurrent of worry that asks whether I’ve done enough today to be worthy of living started to swell. What if my life is not enough? What if I never do anything worthwhile? What if no one actually likes me? Behind the questions is simple despair. There are no words to make sense of it, and it comes from nowhere. It just hovers over me and trickles in when I have spare moments. Sometimes it brings its friend, panic, which takes up residence in the lowest pit of my stomach and bubbles up and over into my heart, just to keep me on my toes.

I know how to deal with these things. I talked to my boyfriend, I left the house, I gave myself permission to go out for dinner instead of cooking. I had some ice cream and played Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. I systematically listed all the things I needed to get done in the next week and ticked off all of the ones I had already completed, making it abundantly clear that I was not behind on anything. The feelings receded and today I feel average.

What I don’t know how to deal with, today, in the aftermath of that little depressive episode, is the reality of chronic depression. I knew before that it existed, but it has only been with the contrast of feeling good that I’ve internalized I am never safe from my own mind. No matter how much work I have done or will do, no matter how many wonderful people I have in my life, no matter how many things I accomplish or if I find my dream job, there will still be days or weeks or months during which everything will be a struggle.

On some level I always knew this, but feeling it is different. The randomness of a depressive attack is what hurts the most. It makes me feel childlike, dependent, incompetent. It reminds me that my mind isn’t really my own. It says that recovery is always temporary. This is terrifying. There is nothing more scary to me than the possibility of feeling the way that I did for the last five years. Nothing except for the sure knowledge that I will feel that way again, there is nothing I can do about it, and I don’t know when it will hit. Life is Russian Roulette.

And tied into all the fear is the inability to explain it to the people around me. Sure, they get it, but when they ask what’s wrong and all I can say is “I’m worthless”, they’re left trying to help an unhelpable situation. I’m afraid to inflict myself on other people.

I’m reminding myself today that the people who love me see something in my ability to continually feel like this and continue on that is worth caring for. I’m reminding myself that chronic does not mean constant. I’m reminding myself that the episodes are smaller and shorter now, and that I get so many happy days. I’m reminding myself that when I think about my own survival, I am in awe of my own strength. I’m reminding myself that writing that sentence is hard and I did it anyway.

The reminders help. I know that chronic depression doesn’t have to define my life. But under the reminders I’m scared for the next bad night.

Having Difficult Conversations: Depression Edition

The last couple of days have been hard for me. I’m moving out of my apartment and the whole “leaving the country” thing is starting to get real. That means my emotions have been all out of whack, and I’ve been trying to rely on the coping skills I’ve built up in the past year to deal in a healthy manner. One of the things that I’ve really been trying to practice is asking my friends for help when I’m in a bad place, particularly if I think I’m going to use symptoms. But as I experiment with this, I’ve noticed that there are some serious potential pitfalls to asking for help. As someone who wants to be a responsible adult who manages their emotions without demanding things from other people, I want to be able to ask for help without being manipulative, obnoxious, or clingy.

The first issue I’ve run into is that when I tell someone that I think I’m about to use symptoms (especially self-harm), it can come across as extremely manipulative. “Pay attention to me or else!” it screams. “If you’re actually busy and can’t make time, it is ALL YOUR FAULT if bad things happen” seems to be hiding under “I think I want to hurt myself”. Partially this is your support person’s responsibility: they need to learn that they are not responsible for your behavior, and that a request for help is not the same as foisting off responsibility. Oftentimes when we think we’re going to use symptoms we have to pull out every coping mechanism we have, and even when we do everything right we still slip up and do the thing we’re not supposed to do. That’s ok. Part of being a good support person is knowing that you can’t fix the other person or control their behavior.

All of that being said, there are better and worse ways to ask for help. Any “if…then” statements should probably be avoided (e.g. if you don’t talk to me then I will hurt myself). If you are capable of letting your support person know what it is you want from them, that’s also preferable (instead of just saying HELP, say “I want to talk to you/I want someone here/I want a giant hug and a bowl of ice cream”). One of the hardest parts of this for me is giving the other person a way to say no if they legitimately feel as if they can’t help in that moment. It comes across as super passive aggressive when you say “well it’s not important but…” or “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine…”. These things seem to imply that you really really actually do want and need the other person you just don’t want to be pushy about it. I have yet to find a really solid method of signalling to my friends that it’s ok for them to say no in nasty jerkbrain situations, but thus far the best method has been to let them know that I do have other people I can go to.

But there is some tension in trying not to put too much pressure on someone while also letting them know that you are really truly struggling. This does actually make a difference because a. if you want help it’s best to be honest about that rather than just trying to chat with someone and then halfway through sliding your problem into the conversation and b. your friend might be a lot more willing to make themselves available if they know what’s up. There’s a balance to be found between signalling that you really could use some help and that your support person should probably prioritize this interaction higher than any old chat, but also signalling that they have the space to set boundaries and take care of themself. I suppose this is just a microcosm of the struggle that is all human interaction, namely finding ways to get what you yourself need while allowing the people you interact with to get what they need as well.

So even asking for help is extremely difficult, but let’s say that you ask your friend for some time and they say yes: one of the other things that is extremely difficult is that when you’re in the midst of a depressive episode, your honest to god feelings are things that are not deemed socially appropriate. They’re things that no one knows how to respond to, they’re things that are ugly and gross and embarrassing. And quite often, they come with an intensity that means it can feel as if you’re beating your friend about the head and shoulders with your Sad!feels.

I have been on the receiving end of an interaction in which one party just throws all of their depression at me. It’s overwhelming and leaves the support person fairly incapable of doing anything useful or helpful. It feels icky and like the individual is fishing for compliments and over the top. Especially when the depression feels are of the self-hating variety, it’s like walking through a minefield (often because the person with the self hatred feels both wants to be contradicted and validated).

The problem is that when you are in the midst of feeling incredibly depressed, you really truly feel that you are the least lovable human being on the planet, and that you’re ugly and horrible and stupid and disgusting and cruel and selfish. And for me personally, I often just want to be able to say those things out loud to get them out of my head. But what do you and your support person do with those ugly words once they’re out in the open? How do you make them something that is ok to talk about and acknowledge and validate while also letting your support person pull you back onto the solid ground of facts and reality?

I mean, if I knew the answer to this I’d probably be making a lot of money off of an innovative therapy technique, but it seems to me that it might be a good idea to ask your support people to set up some ground rules with you before you’re in the midst of a shitty headspace. These might include: no invalidation (I get to feel however I want), if you have evidence that might change my feelings, please present it, or here is our secret signal for when I just need you to listen to how I feel. Conversations in which someone who has a mental illness can actually tell another person what they feel about themselves without being judged and without putting pressure on the other person to fix or reassure are few and far between, but they also have the potential to be transformative. While they are difficult and terrifying and vulnerable, they also illustrate to someone with mental illness that those bits they feel the most shame about are acceptable and wanted. I’m still working on my scripts for these conversations, but hopefully we can share them as we make them.

“What Can I Do To Help”?

I’ve been a bit absent in the last week, mostly because I’ve had a fairly horrible week and have been simply trying to get through. Because things have been really tough for me, I’ve had a lot of people ask what they can do to help, to make it better. I understand this impulse. I’ve done it enough times myself, usually with the answer “I have no idea!”

My answer to most of the people who have asked me that this week has been “I just need to keep feeling shitty until I stop feeling shitty”. It sounds trite, but for me (and I think for many people) it took an extremely long time before I could feel any sort of satisfaction with answering that way. Things really did warrant sadness and anger this week. My emotions were appropriate to the situation (and the situation wasn’t about to change), so not only can you not do much to change them, it’s actually probably  not a good idea to change them. When emotions make sense for a situation, it’s probably good to feel them, at least for a while.

What does make some sense to do is to try to regulate your emotions. This means keeping the appropriate emotion from dictating your action or taking over your day/life. This means sometimes distracting yourself, sometimes tolerating distressing situations, sometimes practicing mindfulness. These are the things that someone potentially can use help with, but often doesn’t know how to ask for help with because it’s not solving a problem (which is what we tend to think of when we imagine “helping”). Holding on and trying to keep yourself from doing anything stupid while you’re feeling overwhelming emotions isn’t generally thought of as a partnered activity.

A big part of feeling shitty until it stops feeling shitty is not doing anything to make the situation worse. Existing with painful emotions is actually a skill and a difficult one to learn. But if you want to help someone learn it, what you can do instead of asking how you can help is suggest concrete things that allow someone to tolerate distress. These are things like distraction (do you want to go to a movie?), a bit of venting/validation (do you just want to talk about it?), help them to soothe themselves (here’s a very soft kitten if you would like to rub it against your face for a while), or encourage them to pick one thing at a time to focus on and work on (you can help with this by engaging in an activity with them and keeping them focused on it while you’re doing it).

Sometimes it helps to even just provide for the little things while they’re trying to regulate their emotions. Cook them a meal, tell them to take a nap while you clean something up, or help them get outside and on a walk. These are the basics that help someone’s body keep functioning (sleep, food, exercise) and will help lower their emotions just a bit.

The biggest problem with asking how you can help is that when someone is in a situation that warrants strong emotions, the appropriate course of action is often to just keep going on autopilot and surviving. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time learning things like DBT skills that give you concrete ways to continue surviving while feeling horrible, the idea of someone helping you exist while feeling a lot doesn’t make any sense.

So instead of asking, sometimes it helps to suggest and see what seems to stick. If you do some research on what it takes to regulate emotions, you can even suggest “skills” without looking like it. Asking someone to a movie seems like just being nice, but in reality you could be helping them temporarily distract from their emotions so as to get some reprieve. Similarly, you can do things that clearly are helping but are actually sneakily incorporating what we know about emotional regulation (getting someone a present of a nicely scented candle as an example. Obviously getting someone a little something to get through their week is trying to help, but focusing on the senses and sensory pleasure can be hugely helpful to regulating emotions).

I love the impulse behind “how can I help”, but hopefully this will help support people to help in an easier way so that the person who is surviving can just keep on keepin’ on until everything hurts a little bit less.

 

 

Asking for Help and Taking Responsibility

When someone you care about is dealing with depression or a mental illness, it can be incredibly hard to figure out how much to help and how to take care of yourself while also being there for them. And when you are suffering from a mental illness, sometimes it feels like all you can do is just yell for help. Two things that all parties are often told is that everyone is responsible for their own emotions and that it’s important to ask for help. I have found that on both sides (as a support person and as someone suffering), these two things often feel contradictory.

Let’s say you’re feeling really down. You go to your best friend and you tell them you’re struggling.  You tell them you don’t know what to do. You say “help”. From your perspective, you’re taking responsibility. You’ve owned up to your feelings and now you are asking for help. From their perspective, it seems like you’re foisting off the responsibility for your emotions and they’re expected to simply fix what’s happening, make it better, make you happy. Who’s right? Where’s the balance?

There is a difference between asking someone to help you take care of your mental health and making your mental health someone else’s responsibility. No one else is capable of fixing your depression or anxiety or sadness or whatever else might be getting you down. Sure, they might be able to alleviate it for a while (especially if you’re dating them and you get the nice fluttery feelings around them), but that doesn’t actually turn out to be a long term fix. It’s too much pressure to be the only source of someone’s happiness, to be expected to turn on a switch that makes the bad go away. It’s taken some time for me to start to identify the signs of “fix me” rather than “help me”, but for those who are still navigating a relationship in which mental illness plays a role, here are some things to watch out for.

1. Diversify

We all need people. It’s part of our emotional needs. We need to socialize, we need to talk, we need people to take care of us when we’re sick and people to share things with. All that makes perfect sense. But as adults, we also need to realize that no one person can meet all of our emotional needs. There’s simply not enough time in the day. That’s why we have networks with a variety of people. Our networks don’t have to be huge: mine is basically my parents, my boyfriend, and one or two close friends (plus my therapist). But each of these people provides a new perspective and can support me in different ways. It means that when my mom is having a horrible week at work, I can give her some space and go ask my boyfriend to hang out with me for a bit. No one should be required to always be on call, and if you find that you’re constantly waiting for one person it might be a good time to think about building up some other relationships.

2. Make a good faith effort

If your first recourse when you’re depressed is to call that certain someone, this might be a sign that you don’t have other coping mechanisms or that you aren’t trying to rely on yourself. It’s certainly ok to call someone, but there should be other tools in your toolkit that you’re willing to reach for first (and this can be dependent on the seriousness of a given situation. If you’re experiencing severe suicidal ideation then PICK UP THE PHONE. If you’re feeling kind of blah and bored and empty, then see what options you’ve got). This can also be on a larger scale: if medical help is feasible, you should probably be willing to try that out (e.g. meds or therapy). You might try changing your situation (volunteering, getting out of a bad housing situation, etc.). Of course making an effort is one of the hardest things to do when depressed, but before you tell your friend/SO about how miserable your day was, you should at least have tried to get out of bed, shower, and leave the house.

3. Articulate what you need (as best you can)

One of the things that leaves a support person feeling like they should be able to snap their fingers or wave a magic wand and just “fix it” is when their loved one doesn’t give some hint of how to help. Of course there are times when we don’t know what we need and we have to do our best to explain how we’re feeling and ask for a general kind of help, but as best as you can, let the other person know what you need. Tell them if you need to vent or if you need to brainstorm solutions. Call someone up and say “I need a distraction do you want to go out” instead of simply saying “I’m bored help”. This means more work on your part. You have to brainstorm what might help you. That’s part of being responsible. If you can’t figure it out, you can ask for help figuring out what you need (e.g. “I feel horrible and I can’t figure out what to do. Do you have any suggestions?”). Simply expressing how you feel without giving the other person an idea of how they fit in feels like you’re just throwing your depression at them.

4. Be independent

This can mean a lot of things, but at its heart it says please don’t have one person be your only social life, job, or interaction all day long. Have a job, have interests, volunteer, have friends, have a side project. Have things that belong to you and that you’re willing to do by yourself or with a different friend. There’s something intensely unpleasant about having another person waiting around for you all day to entertain them. If your partner/support person sees you at the end of the day, your answer to “what did you do today” should not always be “nothing”. Sure there are days when you can’t manage anything. Sure, there are days when the depression gets too bad and all you can do is crawl out of bed. But if the only times you get out of bed, get dressed, talk to people, accomplish something, or have fun is when that one special person is there, you’ve made them responsible for you.

5. Never imply or say that the other person is required to be there for you.

I’ve had people tell me that they need me, that they’ll have to kill themselves if I leave, that if I’m not around they’ll hurt themselves, etc. etc. Don’t do that. Don’t call someone from your vacation and tell them how miserable you are because they’re not there. Make a serious effort to have at least a few examples you can point to where you were on your own and you were ok so that they can trust that you can spend a night without them.

That crap is not romantic. It’s cruel.

6. Be willing to feel like crap.

This might sound odd, but for people with mental illness, one symptom seems to be a serious inability to tolerate distress. Because many of us start to panic and look to bad coping mechanisms when we feel bad, our support people worry whenever we are in a bad mood. Something that is oddly reassuring is to tell your support person “yes, I feel like shit right now, but I will be ok. I’ll get through it.” As a corollary to this, if you have to ride out a shitty mood, your partner/support people get to choose how much they want to be around you. It’s nice to give them a little heads up: “I feel like crap right now. If you’d like to come over you can, but I’m going to be miserable company and that probably won’t change at least for today.”  This lets your support person take care of themselves. They can let you know they’re willing to be on call if things go really bad, but they’ll see you tomorrow, or they can choose to see you anyway and brace for a bad mood.

 

All of these things exist on a spectrum. Most of the examples I gave were towards the extreme end. Obviously it’s fairly abusive to threaten suicide if someone isn’t always around you, but that type of behavior can exist in a subtler way (the passive aggressive sigh and “I guess I”ll be ok with you”). But if you notice these types of behaviors in  yourself or your partner it might be a good time to reevaluate what’s happening to treat the mental illness in the relationship and have a frank discussion about who is responsible for what.

A Change In Perspective

It’s been a bit of a rough week here in Olivialand. I’ve had some ups and downs in my family life, and a friend that I care a great deal about has had an incredibly bad week. The good thing about having these two events happen at the same time is that I was treated to opposing sides of the mental health talk: that of the person suffering, and that of the person who wants to help. Because of this kind of parallel, I’ve had a chance to gain some insight about the people who have tried to help me, and I think that the conversation between the perspectives can be beneficial for both sides.

One of the things that’s always been hard for me while dealing with treatment and my mental illness is having sympathy for my friends and family, particularly when they become scared and will do just about anything to change my behavior. There have absolutely been times when people close to me have acted inappropriately out of fear, most often in attempts to keep me safe. They’ve done things that hurt me, scare me, and feel overly controlling.

For quite some time I’ve felt resentment about this. I’ve felt like I have to be the one who manages everyone else and that I can’t be open with people because then I’ll have to deal with their fallout and freakout. I’m sure anyone who’s dealt with mental illness has had these feelings before, because no support person comes ready made with a  perfect knowledge of how to support you, and that means sometimes they step in it. Lately in particular I’ve been feeling as if my family wants to control me and keep me close to them so they can keep tabs on my behavior and I’ve been a bit frustrated with it.

However this week has put me on the other side of the spectrum. I have felt the utter helplessness, the desire to just grab the person who is suffering and hold them, the need to make things better. I’ve been part of discussions that desperately try to find some way to ask the other person to listen, to change, to grow. I’ve seen how someone I love and care for is not acting like themself, is lashing out and being cruel, is seeing everything anyone says as negative. It’s so frustrating to see how someone is falling apart and not be able to show them all the ways they’re being self-destructive and all the ways you know they could fix it. There’s this certainty that if they just did what you told them, you would make it better.

Of course that’s not actually true, and probably my solution would be to see a therapist which is a whole bucketfull of hit or miss and really hard work by itself. What is true is that when one is spiraling out of control in depression or anxiety or any other mental illness, it might be a good idea to trust your support crew for a while because they’re likely thinking a little more clearly than you are. What’s also true is that your support crew is not at their best because they’re terrified and they really want you to trust them for a while, so they may resort to bad tactics.

High emotion situations mean that no one is acting at their best. In the situation, it’s easy to always see how the other person is behaving badly rather than take into account the ways that you yourself are not acting the most rational. Experiencing both at the same time made me realize how I was getting frustrated with others for doing the exact same things that I do when I’m put into their same situation. And when you’re already stressed out and frustrated it becomes infinitely harder to cut others slack. Of course this is the most important time to do it.

What I’ve learned most about this situation is that while it’s ok to be frustrated or hurt by someone else’s actions, getting angry and retaliating is the worst possible response. Cutting some slack, recognizing that people are being motivated by fear, trying to see that it’s not actually about you, and then calmly setting boundaries is probably the best response (although like any ideal it’s nearly impossible). In reality, I will probably do my best to balance the anger that I feel when someone violates my boundaries with my understanding that they do so from fear.

When someone is spiraling and they lash out at those trying to help, I will remember what it feels like to have my coping  mechanisms yanked out from under me, to be confronted with the sort of person that I’m being, to have people tell me that I’m not being a very good version of myself. I will remember how much that hurts.

When someone I love starts to hold on a bit too tight, I’ll remember the panicked feeling that there’s got to be some guarantee that will make your loved one safe, that they need to get better, that they can’t see how bad it is. I’ll remember all the words and scripts that flooded my mind when I saw someone hurting themself. I’ll remember how nothing I say seems like the right thing, but that I know I can’t just sit back and do nothing.

There are no good solutions to a mental health scare. But I’m making a commitment to try to do better by the people around me by having more patience.

An Open Letter to a Struggling Friend

Hey you.

It looks like things aren’t going so well right now. In fact it looks like things suck balls right now. It looks like you’re terrified and hurting, and you don’t know how to let people help without giving up who you are and all your coping mechanisms.

Trust me, I understand. I understand what it’s like to know, deep down in your gut, that what you’re doing is right and that everyone else should piss right off because they don’t get it. I understand what it’s like to know that you can’t get through a day without doing those things that everyone else says are “bad” and “dangerous” and “self-destructive”, but you know that you wouldn’t even be alive right now if you couldn’t use them to cope.

I also know what it feels like to not want to be alive anymore. I don’t have any trite words of wisdom about how it gets better. Some days I’m still not convinced that I make the right decision by choosing life over and over again. Life is exhausting and thankless, and seems to be a hamster wheel of attempts at happiness. I don’t know what we get out of it, and I don’t know whether it’s worth it. What I do know is that I care about not hurting people, about being a compassionate, decent human being. I know you do too. And I know for a fact that hurting yourself will hurt many, many other people. Not a small, insignificant hurt either. The kind of hurt that lasts and lingers and comes out of nowhere when you least expect it.

You know that kind of hurt.

I know it comes across as unfair and guilting when other people ask you to be healthy for their sake. They don’t know how hard it is. You’re not doing anything to them. You have the right to your own life, and they need to get over it. You’re doing what you need to do to get by, so screw everyone else who wants to change that. Why is it your responsibility to take care of everyone else’s god damned emotions?

It isn’t fair. In no way is it fair. However it is also the reality of the situation that your actions affect others, and if you want to be consistent with your values you have to start taking care of yourself. You also have to start listening. I know that you are a strong, brazen individual who doesn’t give a fuck…except that you do. You give so many fucks and that’s why it hurts so bad when others are hurting. That’s why you have to poke and poke at the people who want to hurt you, that’s why you want to prove you’re stronger than it all, that’s why you want to look stone-faced. It couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it? Maybe it will get bad enough this time that you won’t have to keep going, you’ll be able to give up.

That doesn’t work. I have tried nearly every trick in the book to turn off the feelings. They keep coming back. Always.

And you and I have something in common that means you will never give up. We have a special kind of stubborn streak. You may be the only other person I’ve met who has one quite like mine. It’s the kind of stubborn streak that means we never leave things half-assed, including our own lives. Oftentimes it leads to problems. But this is one of those times where the stubborn can be used to your benefit. You will hold on to your bad patterns with the strength of Superman, but you will also hold on to life because change is terrifying and you’re used to being alive. Relish that stubbornness. Relish the fact that you’ll survive just to prove that you fucking can and you’ll be fine without any help thanks very much.

Except of course that you won’t be fine without any help.

There are people who are telling you that they love you and that they want to help. That’s not what you want to hear. You want to hear that they’ll leave you alone because you don’t even know what help looks like and you don’t know how things could possibly get any better (because they always seem to find a way to get worse). Somehow it doesn’t hit that these people really might have a perspective that you can learn from. How on earth would they know better than you about your life? They think they care about you and they think they love you, but if they knew who you really were they wouldn’t? They’re lying, it’s a trap, it’s a trick, they’re condescending fucks.

Or that’s what you tell yourself.

In reality, you cannot understand how terrified and in love your friends are. You will never understand what you mean to them. You will never understand how badly it hurts them when you lash out, when you tell them that you know they hate you. You think that you have to be the one to manage them all, to keep them in line. You have to come up with the magic bullet that will fix all your problems and they’ll stand there and smile nicely and maybe lend a hand, but they don’t know what’s going on and so they can’t help.

Except that each of your friends has an entire lifetime of coping behind them. The feeling of finally being able to fall into their arms and give it all up is amazing. They might not know exactly what to do, but a little bit of trust goes a long way: they probably know how to help a lot better than you think they do. They are willing to put up with so much more than you think they are.

Imagine, briefly, that one of us was far away and hurting. Imagine that we were cutting off contact, instigating fights, hurting ourself. Imagine what you would do to get to us, to save us, to make god damn certain that we were ok. Imagine how badly you would want to fold us in your arms and get us to a doctor and shut out the rest of the stupid world until we were safe.

And I get that it feels like we want to control you, and I get that it feels like you’re a damned adult and you can handle yourself, and I get that this all feels like a stupid overreaction and you don’t want it. But you know what being an adult means? It means taking responsibility for your relationships. It means being willing to do shit that is hard and terrifying and unpleasant. It means being willing to talk to your friends and listen when they say they’re worried and do silly, potentially useless things to help calm their fears.

Because really, how would it hurt to let them in? Besides the overwhelming fear of rejection (which you’ve already forced by pushing them away), what would happen? You’d have to stop doing all the things that rip your body apart and leave you broken but in control (or so you tell yourself). You’d have to stop holding so damn tightly to all the little things in your life that are making you feel human.

So yeah, it does hurt to let them in. And maybe some of them won’t be able to handle it. And that is a horrible, miserable feeling. But I can promise you that if you don’t let your friends in, none of them will be able to handle it and you’ll be really, truly alone. I can promise that you KNOW it hurts right now. It may very well get worse if you ask for help and you do the damned hard work of learning new ways to cope. In fact it probably will. For a while. It is a thankless task. But when you hear your friends and family saying things like “I never could have said this to you a year ago”, or you notice how much more relaxed they are around you, or how you haven’t felt like you have to hide or lie in weeks…somehow it’s a little bit worth it.

I’m not going to tell you it will all get better. There are no rainbows and unicorns. But you can get better. You can do better. And I expect better of you. I know that you’re hurting, but that doesn’t give you license to treat your friends the way you have. So please, stand up and be the version of yourself that is vulnerable, open, and compassionate, to yourself and to others.

I love you more than you can imagine.

Olivia