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

What If I Don’t Know?

This week was April Fool’s, and one of people’s FAVORITE jokes on April Fool’s is coming out as gay. Miri, a fantastic beast of a human being, decided to do the opposite yesterday. Her essay is hilarious and you should probably go read it.

But there was one element of Miri’s essay that stuck out to me as potentially damaging for those who are questioning or who (such as myself) are rethinking elements of their orientation and identity. I understand that within the context of the essay this paragraph is about the assumptions of many that bisexuality is fake, however this same rhetoric can be used to delegitimize those who might have questions or be uncertain, and to shut down conversations from those who are simply trying to understand their own sexuality.

“I’m straight because I started seeing guys long before I started seeing women. How could I have really known I was bisexual if I didn’t have “experience”? Unlike straight people, bisexual people do not have the luxury of being born with an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. Nothing–not their turn-ons, not their crushes, not their romantic daydreams–nothing besides Real Sex with someone of the same gender is sufficient to prove for certain that they are really bisexual as they say they are. ”

Because here’s the thing: there are some people who don’t have an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. There are some people who feel like they need to try sex to find out if they’re attracted or not. There are people who don’t know what their identity or their orientation is and who take a great deal of painstaking reflection, experimentation, and thought to figure out what it is that they feel they want in their lives. Sometimes feelings just aren’t clear: not all of us get crushes that come screaming at us that WE REALLY LIKE THIS PERSON. Sometimes instead it’s a slight inkling that we want to hang out more or a little bit of anxiety when we see the person.

In fact, even for those who might have a very strong attraction (or lack thereof), life itself can make it extremely difficult to recognize those feelings. As an example, my eating disorder certainly disguised some of my lack of sexual attraction for a long time: it’s easy to simply write it off as “I’m just self-conscious”. I imagine that there are similar intersections with race, gender, class, physical health, or any of the other ways that our lives differ from the basic script of “very white guy falls in love with very white girl, actively pursues, gets married and has babies”.

Sexuality and attraction are far more complicated than we give them credit for. Attraction doesn’t feel the same to everyone. Our sexual desires are not all the same. Not only do you have to determine who you’re attracted to (men, women, other), but you have to figure out what you actually want to act on, how attracted you are, what type of attraction it is, whether you’re attracted to multiple people or not and in what ways, what relationship style works best for you…each of these things can be clear or muddy, can be specific to one person or very generalized, can be affected or obscured by other things in your life. Maybe you are actually quite poly at heart, but you’ve grown up in a culture that deeply prioritizes jealousy as a healthy and good emotion and now even the concept of being attracted to multiple people doesn’t make sense.

I think sometimes it’s easy to forget that if you’ve never seen a template of what your sexuality might look like that feels right to you, you often just assume that you’re basically the same as what you’ve seen. You might have some weird feelings that don’t quite fit, but it’s fairly easy to write them off as something else, especially if there’s anything else about you that’s outside the norm.

This is not the narrative that we hear from those who talk about GLBT issues. We often hear “I knew I was different” or “I tried to be like other people but it felt completely wrong”. And that’s true for some people. But for some people, muddling through doesn’t feel completely wrong it just feels a little bit off. By no means do I think it’s inappropriate to assert that some people know right away. But for some people it’s really hard to figure out what the heck they are. It’s fairly invalidating to hear over and over that your sexuality is an innate drive that you just “know” because of your daydreams and crushes and attractions. What if it’s a hard process of learning to listen to your emotions, your boundaries, your likes and dislikes? What if you actually really don’t know you like/don’t like something until you try it?

Just like there’s no one way of having a relationship, there’s no one way of figuring out what kind of a relationship you want. I think it’s quite possible that some people’s identities are more fluid than others, just like some people are far more committed to a national identity or a career identity than others. It’s important that we learn to validate the experience of “knowing” without simultaneously implying that everyone should know, or that identities which are a little gray (like demisexual or gray asexual) don’t get blown off as special snowflake syndrome or stealing the real queer identities. The identities that are more indicative of uncertainty are just as valid and just as real: being straight up confused is a valid identity!

I seriously doubt that anyone is intentionally invalidating people who aren’t sure of their sexual identity, but simply using a little more care in how we talk about sexuality and being willing to multiply the possible experiences rather than close them off can go a long way towards validating those who are already confused.

Taking the Long View: On Recovery and Motivation

Recovery from a mental illness is a rough gig. I’ve written many times before about how I wish people would be more honest about just how difficult it is and what that difficulty looks like. Right now, my motivation is low. I want to be done with this stupid, frustrating, painful process. I want people to just leave me alone to wallow and make bad decisions. I want to be allowed to feel bad.

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

Now in the traditional narrative of recovery, this means that I’m slipping. It means the “eating disorder voice” or the depression is getting louder. It means that what I really need to do is double down and fight harder. It’s part of the “roller coaster ride” of recovery. If I don’t nip it in the bud though, then I’ll have given up, I’ll have wasted my progress. I’ll be back to square one, fallen harder than I did the first time and it’s all because I didn’t have “the proper motivation” or I didn’t “fight hard enough”. So if I’m slipping I need to keep my eye on the prize of recovery, think about how great I’ll feel, post a few affirmations around my house, and remind myself once again that I can’t live my life the way I have been living it (because who wants to live in the hell of an eating disorder if you can have recovery, amirite?)

If I was telling the story of my eating disorder, that would be the expectation of how I’d frame this. But that is not the reality. Here is the reality.

Recovery sucks. By most basic cost/benefit analysis standards, it’s a really risky, difficult, long venture. It takes flipping forever, and the time that you put into treatment is not fun. In fact it’s more than not fun: most of the time you feel even worse during treatment than you did when you were happily living out your delusion that starvation was the way to a great life. Things have suddenly gotten a whole hell of a lot more complicated and you can’t just rely on rules anymore. So say you’ve been trucking along in your mental illness and then treatment comes and hits you like a ton of bricks. You spend the next 2/3/4/5/forever years working through mountains of crap. And those years SUCK.

And the more you realize that they suck, the more you realize that a lot of the suckiness will still be there even if you do “recover” because life isn’t easy and being healthy isn’t easy and it’s hard work to enforce your boundaries and balance your needs with the needs of others and fight against sexist and damaging media and somehow put together a clear and cohesive identity that can stand up to the trials of life. So you get this picture that in the long run you’re going through a whole hell ton of suffering right now to maybe feel like you can cope with the fact that life is really hard later.

Now pile on the fact that it often looks as if you’ve made no progress whatsoever. Seriously. I’ve been at this for about 3 years (with the same therapist), through intensive programs, groups, dieticians and many, many, many hours of therapy, and a lot of commitment. Three years is a long time to be spending at least 2 hours every week in therapy and most of the time in between wrestling with all the hard questions. And yet when I think about the things that really get in the way of feeling content or grounded, I see no change. Perfectionism still drives me. I still feel unlovable. I still cannot accept praise and focus exclusively on the negative. I can still be flattened emotionally by one negative comment. I still personalize, I still tend towards black and white thinking, I still feel anxiety for no reason, I am still afraid of social interactions…

Logically, it makes sense to be a little low on motivation when there is little evidence of how far you’ve come, much evidence of the pain you’ve suffered and will continue to suffer, and no guarantee that things will be a whole lot better if you continue to work (for another 3/4/5 years?). Part of recovery is trying to make sense of what is worth it and what isn’t, what life can or can’t be like. This isn’t some sort of slip, this isn’t an indication that I just need to fight harder. This is coming to grips with reality.

But there’s another truth and it’s one that I’ve had a really hard time accepting. It’s about the long view. I spent the better part of 20 years developing these really bad coping strategies. It will take me a long time to change them, nearly certainly more than 3 years. For many things that I care about I am willing to invest huge amounts of time (schooling as an example), often because I can see that the end goal is worth it. And many times I can make these investments on faith (when someone tells me that I’ll get a diploma at the end as an example). With nearly everything else in my life, I can take the long view; I am willing to put up with the pain of the now to get something in the future, even when that something isn’t happiness or a perfect life. Why does the pay off for treatment have to be held to a different standard?

Now there are very real differences here. I like school, the pain that I’ve experienced while in treatment far outstrips anything else I’ve ever felt, and the evidence I have of the benefits of recovery aren’t as strong as the evidence I have of many other things (that, for example, a higher degree would make my life a lot easier). Recovery is harder than anything else I have done in my life because when I look at it logically I can’t guarantee that I’m making the right choice to pursue it. But if I look at the long haul, I can see that I can’t come to the conclusion that it’s failed yet. The experiment has to continue. And I do believe that when people are waning in their motivation, it’s because they are re-analyzing the long view and that view is scary.

But I hope others can join me in realizing that it has to be long, but we are capable.

 

 

 

NAMI Week: What Can I Do?

Welcome to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2014! I’m going to try to spend this week blogging about issues surrounding eating disorders and eating disorder visibility as my own small part of eating disorder awareness.

To start out the week, I want to try to make eating disorders a little less scary. Oftentimes when we try to shine a light on mental health issues, the average joe who does not have whatever condition we’re talking about gets overwhelmed. What am I supposed to do? If I see someone who seems like they might be dealing with this how do I help?

These are important questions because we are just scratching the surface of psychology and neuroscience, and for the most part we don’t have good understandings of the etiology of mental illnesses. It’s hard to tell someone what to do to help fight a particular illness when we don’t know what causes it. It isn’t like diabetes where we can promote healthier eating and more exercise. Eating disorders are complex beasts that can react negatively to almost anything you throw at them. So during this week of heightened awareness, what sorts of things can you commit to to improve relationships with bodies and fight against eating disorders?

To me, the best place to start is at home. We learn from each other and there are very few models of healthy body image and healthy eating. In a world filled with shitty messages about how you should treat your body and how you should relate to your body, the hard work of feeling at home in your skin is fairly radical.

Fight against Cartesian dualism and see if you can’t learn to see your body as an integral part of yourself. Practice less negative self-talk and judgments. Try engaging in activities that ask you to take up space, like dancing, and revel in taking up space. It may not seem like a lot, but your good mental health can be great for someone else. Some really concrete ways of doing this can be cutting out calorie talk. It’s one thing to say you want more protein and less sugar, but calories are actually really unhelpful at assessing the healthiness of a food and feed into diet culture.

Another thing to try to cut down on is “bad food” talk. Many people like to say things like “Oh I’m being so bad” when they eat something sugary or fatty. No, you’re not, you’re eating something tasty. There is no such thing as bad food and it is not a moral failing if you eat more fat or sugar than is maximally healthy. See if you can stop putting moral judgments on any food. It’s hard. You will see how ingrained size, food, and morality are. The more we can cut those ties the more we create a healthy environment.

But there’s a lot more to eating disorders than food and food discomfort. Obviously. So is there anything you can do to help create a positive environment that will help combat some of the underlying fears? YES! Something that I’ve noticed over and over with my friends and acquaintances who struggle with eating disorders is feelings of inadequacy, feelings that our emotions are bad and wrong, feelings that we will never be good enough or perfect enough.

A great thing to practice towards all people in your life is validation. Validation at its most basic is just letting someone know that what they’re feeling is real. It’s acknowledging their emotions and not passing judgment on those emotions. It can be as simple as saying “wow that sucks” when someone tells you they’re having a rough day. This can be done in conjunction with all sorts of other types of interactions like problem solving, but I’d suggest practicing validating all kinds of people for all kinds of things. You never know who needs it and it’s a good skill to get in the habit of doing. Your coworker says they’re swamped. Instead of one-upping or asking if you can help, start by simply saying “wow that sounds exhausting”. This may not seem like a lot but if you make a practice of it you can do a lot for other people by sending them the message that their feelings are valid, real, and acceptable.

Another good idea might be to educate yourself on some of the basics of mental illness. NAMI has some good resources. I would suggest in particular getting a basic understanding of depression since it’s one of the most common mental illnesses out there. A little bit of understanding can go a long way. Hand in hand with that it’s a good idea to keep your own mental house in order. If you’re struggling, be willing to see a therapist. Take some time to think about how you communicate and how you can improve your communication skills. Make sure you’re taking responsibility for your own emotions and learning about how to keep yourself stable and content. Tall orders yes, but the more we all work on these things the easier it is for people who have serious hurdles.

So say you’ve done all of this and made your best effort to keep yourself and your environment validating and fairly healthy. You’re paying attention to your friends and family, trying to be a helpful person, and you start to notice some of the signs of an eating disorder in a friend. They’ve suddenly become obsessed with food, they’ve started to isolate themselves, they avoid situations that involve food. They may have lost weight suddenly or just become secretive about their eating habits. You hear them making cruel remarks about their body. They start going to the gym ALL THE TIME, or eating huge amounts and then disappearing suddenly. You can tell their mood is down. What on earth do you do now that you’re faced with the real beast that is an eating disorder?

One of the most important things to remember in these kinds of situations is that you cannot fix your friend. It is not your responsibility nor is it possible. Hard to accept, but super important. It can be hard for someone who’s depressed or in the midst of an eating disorder to reach out for help. One good thing to do is offer yourself and your time. Ask them to hang out instead of waiting for an invitation (mustering up motivation and intention to do these things can be nearly impossible when depressed), make sure they know you’re available to talk to, offer to go for a walk with them or do something else you know appeals to them.

It’s important to remember that confronting someone about food is probably the least helpful thing you can do. The eating disorder will interpret this as a threat, double down, and make life hell for everyone. If you’re extremely close to the person you  might suggest that they see a therapist because their mood has been off or down and you’re worried about them, but food is a scary place for someone with an eating disorder. Provide them with options, make sure you’re eating enough and that you’re offering them opportunities to eat, and validate the hell out of them.

There is no one perfect answer to what you should do to support a friend or family member. These are some places to start, but there are also support groups available for friends and family members at some eating disorder clinics and that’s a great place to get yourself if you want some additional ideas and people to rely on. If you can spend some quality time with your loved one, try to listen to what’s really bothering them underneath the food. That may be the most helpful thing you can do.