Tag Archives: anxiety

Parenting, Helplessness, and a Brand New Adventure

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Master Nine came home from school one day in February and burst into tears. “No one likes me,” he said. “Everyone’s mean to me.”

My heart froze. I would do anything to have my children avoid the type of bullying I went through as a child. And yet here he was, saying the exact words that I remember saying at his age. I wanted to scream and shout and wrap my arms around him and never let him go. But before I did anything, I took a deep breath. It was possible — only possible, mind you — that I was overreacting.

After all, he was eight. And it’s developmentally normal for children his age to go through a period where they feel like no one likes them; where they feel like they have no friends as they take place in normal social push-and-pull power plays.

So I listened to him, and I gave him a hug, and l I told him it would be all right.

I was wrong.

By the end of March, Master Nine no longer wanted to go to school.  He no longer wanted to go anywhere. He was scared. All the time. Of school, yes, but also of everything else. He was terrified of familiar stories; of movies he’d seen a hundred times; of the thoughts in his head; of new people and old friends and leaving the house. He couldn’t get to sleep. And when he finally did, collapsing from exhaustion, he’d be woken by nightmares once, twice, three times a night.

Every night.

By April, he was suffering panic attacks every night. He’d lie in bed thinking about having to go to school the next day, and then stagger out, hours later, whimpering and struggling to breathe. I’d put a hand on his chest and feel his heartbeat, like fluttering hummingbird wings inside his chest, then hold his ice-cold hands while I helped him calm down; breathing with him, in and out, and gently reassuring him that he was okay. Eventually, he’d collapse against me and sob himself into a restless sleep, and I’d carry him back to bed.

One day in mid-April, when I was encouraging Master Nine (yet again) to tell the teacher if someone made him feel upset or uncomfortable, he looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do to stop them. Not even the teachers can stop them. There’s no point trying.”

I cried.

I cried for his pain. I cried for my own. I cried for eight-year-old me who felt exactly like the same way, and desperately wanted an adult to step in and make everything better. I cried for current-day me, because now I was that adult. And I still didn’t know what to do.

I thought I’d felt helpless as a child. But being a parent, watching you child feeling helpless, and still being helpless yourself? Helplnessness to the power of infinity.

We need help, like quick, on the double

One morning in late April, Master Nine snuck into my bedroom and said, “Mummy, I think I need to go to the doctor.”

“Okay, Sweetheart. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. But everybody hates me, so something must be wrong with me. If we go to the doctor, she can give me some medicine to make me normal.”

Once upon a time, about six months ago, Master Nine was a confident young man who didn’t hesitate to talk to people — whether adults or children — and wouldn’t let me go with him into doctor’s offices. So on the day that we went to the doctor — after many hugs and reassurances from me that he is not only normal but perfect just the way he is — I realised just how much he’d changed.

He flat-out refused to talk tot he doctor without me, clinging to my arm like a tired two-year-old and not making eye contact with anyone else in the waiting room. When we went into the doctor’s office, he hunched his shoulders over and hid behind my back, then collapsed into a chair, pulled his knees up to his chest, and pulled the hood of his hoodie up over his head so he could hide in its shadows. Over the next ten minutes, Master Nine answered the doctor’s questions in whispered monosyllables . He said only one full sentence during that visit; one full sentence in response to a question about what makes him feel happy: “I don’t remember what it feels like to be happy.”

We didn’t get magic medicine. But we did get a referral to a child psychologist.

At his first appointment, I took Master Nine into the psychologist’s office and waited for him to be engrossed in an activity before quietly making my way back out to the waiting room. The psychologist talked to Master Nine for almost an hour, and then called me in. “He’s highly intelligent, isn’t he?” was the first thing she said to me. “Such a conceptual thinker.”

In the psychologist’s opinion, Master Nine had a healthy attachment to me and the rest of the family, felt completely secure and at ease at home, but was struggling to deal with the trauma of the bullying he’d endured. Her biggest concern was that he’d lost confidence in his own ability to tell friend from foe — he’d developed trust issues. She suggested he start a new social activity — one completely unrelated to his school or anyone he already knew — to get some social “wins” on the board, and taught me some relaxation exercises to use to help him with his sleeping.

Things started to improve a little. But only a little. The relaxation exercises helped him sleep, and nightmares became less frequent. But he still hated school. His reading ability was getting worse and worse, and he was too scared he’d get a question wrong to practice any maths. I started to get concerned not only about his emotional wellbeing, but also about how his emotional wellbeing was affecting his learning. And then, towards the end of May, he started telling me that he couldn’t remember whole chunks of time. A particular example that stayed with me was the time he remembered going into class, then the teacher raising her voice. The next thing he remembered, the teacher was crouched in front of him, gently suggesting he go out to lunch. That’s when he realised the class was over, and all the other kids had already gone outside.

Decision-making is hard

I started thinking about pulling Master Nine out of school back in March — back when his anxiety symptoms were starting to worry me. But I persevered, trying to make things work out. I probably did so for far too long, in retrospect; not trusting myself to make the right decision. I second, third, and fourth-guessed myself.

  • Was I projecting? Did I think things were worse than they really were because of what I’d been through as a child?
  • Was I being over-protective? Was this something he needed to experience to help him grow? Would removing him from the situation stunt his emotional growth?
  • Was this experience something that would pass? Was it a storm in a teacup?
  • Was this experience teaching him resilience and courage? If I removed him from the situation, would that just teach him to run away when things got hard?

I didn’t trust myself to make the decision. And so no decision was made. Right up until a day came when I tried to drop Master Nine off at school and he literally couldn’t get out of the car. Every time he put his feet on the ground, he started shaking and retching convulsively. His skin had turned a distressing shade of grey, and his hands were freezing cold. I closed the car door, got back in, and drove away.

We saw his psychologist later that day. She listened to me describe what had happened, talked to him for an hour, then told me exactly what I didn’t want (but needed) to hear: “He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. You need to get him out of that environment. Now.”

I withdraw him that afternoon.

Playing the blame game…

The first instinct of people on hearing about something like this is to cast about for who to blame. Well, here’s what I think: Playing the blame game is counter-productive, unhelpful, and irrelevant. And I have no interest in doing it.

I don’t blame the children who bullied him. Firstly, because they’re good kids — I’ve known most of them since they were five years old. And while their behaviour led Master Nine to a place of trauma, it hasn’t (to my knowledge) had the same effect on the other children. Besides, children will inevitably push boundaries and see what happens. It’s how they learn about the world.  They need guidance to help them develop empathy and socially acceptable behaviour. If they don’t get that guidance… well, we’ve all read Lord of the Flies, haven’t we?

But I certainly don’t blame the parents. Again, I’ve known most of them for years. They’re all wonderful, loving, generous, kind people, doing everything they can to raise their children to be just as wonderful, loving, generous, and kind.

It would be easy to blame the school, but easy isn’t the same as right. I do believe there were some systemic issues that contributed to the situation, however as soon as I spoke to the staff about them, changes were made. The teachers and admin staff were responsive and open and caring. They did everything they could to change and manage and improve things for Master Nine. And I thank them for that.

If I was forced to lay the blame somewhere, however, I would lay it at the feet of our society as a whole, which simultaneously condemns and endorses bullying. But that’s a discussion for another day.

New Adventures, Dead Ahead!

Since the day I told Master Nine that he didn’t have to go back to that school, he’s been getting better. It’s a slow process, and sometimes it feels like two steps forward, seventeen steps back, but we’re getting there. We celebrate the little milestones along the way: A week without nightmares. Two weeks without a panic attack. Talking to a shopkeeper. Attending social activities by himself.

Our Homeschool Emblem

Our Homeschool Emblem

And on Monday we start our next grand adventure.

For the next six months (at least) I will be homeschooling him. It’s not something I expected to be doing, and I am heartbroken about the events that brought us to this point, but I’m excited for the future. And that, my friends, is the lesson I hope Master Nine takes away from this. Not that bullies can’t be beaten, or that running away is the solution, but that all hard times come to an end, and the future shines bright.

 

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Filed under Life With Kids

With a Whimper, Not with a Bang

Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n

Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n

Last November, my world fell apart.

I didn’t get sick. Nobody died. I didn’t have an accident. There was no big, explosive event that shattered the world as I knew it. No, my world fell apart with a whimper, not with a bang.

One morning, on a day just like any other, I woke up to find that the black tendrils of depression had snaked their way into the edges of my brain and made themselves at home.

Depression is nothing new to me. I have Bi-Polar Disorder II, and depression is a “normal” part of my life. The first time I had a serious bout of depression, I was eight years old. Since my diagnosis with BPD II, I’ve been aware that it’s not a matter of if I’ll ever be depressed again, but when and to what to degree. So those black tendrils didn’t scare me.

Not at first, anyway.

BPD II? Is that first-person shooter?

The world’s response to mental illness has changed a lot over the last twenty years. There’s generally a lot more understanding of depression and anxiety disorders (which I also have — gotta catch ’em all!) and a lot more acceptance of people with mental health issues. But Bi-Polar Disorder still gets a seriously bad rap.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has described how such-and-such is a bitch, and then finished with, “But she has bi-polar.” As though that explains it. As though rattling off a medical diagnosis at the end of a litany of complaints should make the truth of those complaints self-evident. As though BPD is scapegoat and divine judgement all rolled into one.

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

Bi-Polar Disorder I  is a mental illness characterised by ongoing, often alternating, bouts of depression and mania. Depression is something we all understand these days (at least, to a degree), but ‘mania’ is a little less widely understood. Basically, it’s a state wherein the person has excessive energy, needs very little sleep, talks much quicker than usual, is intensely creative, and feels euphoric and bullet-proof. It’s these latter things that can be dangerous. Euphoria and fearlessness can lead to poor decision-making, especially in regards to risk-management. Coupled with sleeplessness, they can also lead to delusions and, in some cases, hallucinations.

Bi-Polar Disorder II is very similar mental illness, however depressive episodes can actually be much worse — sufferers of BPD II are at a much higher risk of things like self-harm and suicide — and the contrasting “pole” is hypomania, rather than full-blown mania. Hypomania has many of the same symptoms as mania, however they manifest to a lesser degree. It’s unusual for someone suffering hypomania to suffer delusions or hallucinations, for example, and while they still have impaired judgement when it comes to risk-assessment, it’s more likely to manifest as lowered inhibitions than straight out dangerous behaviour.

It’s almost impossible to manage BPD I without medication. Manic episodes may require hospitalisation. BPD II, on the other hand, while often treated with medication — and I strongly encourage trying medication if BPD II is affecting your quality of life — can sometimes be managed with sleep, food, and exercise coupled with self-awareness.

Your Mileage May Vary

Personally, I’ve come to love my bouts of hypomania. That’s probably not a very politic thing to say, but nevertheless. Spending 4-6 weeks (or, occasionally, longer) filled with an unending feeling of joy and optimism while creativity oozes from my pores is wonderful. I’ve learned how to mitigate my risk-taking behaviour–I call a friend or family member before making any decisions that seem different to ones I’d usually make–and I’m energetic and enthusiastic about life.

Depression, on the other hand, is freaking debilitating.

I can usually count on two or three episodes of depression per year, each one generally lasting for 3-4 weeks. Over the years, I’ve learned how to fast-track my recovery by making sure to get enough sleep, eating healthy, and increasing the amount of exercise I do. I try not to make too many decisions while depressed, because, if I do, I come out of my depression and discover that I’ve opted out of everything and am suddenly committed to being a life-long hermit. Instead, I plod along, doing my best to act the way I remember acting when I wasn’t depressed.

But, here’s the thing: It is an act.

When I smile, I’m not feeling happy. I just remember that I would usually smile at that point.

When I laugh, I’m not amused. I just remember that I would usually laugh at that point.

When I suggest that we get together for a coffee, I don’t really want to spend time socialising. I just remember that socialising is something I usually enjoy.

Now, this normally passes without anyone being any the wiser. I mean, anyone can pretend to be themselves for a few weeks, right? Going through the motions of life is easy enough when I can still remember what that life is usually like. And while I get a few twinges of guilt over my act, a lifetime’s worth of experience has taught me that faking it is easier on everyone.  No one except the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Woods or Fraggle Rock willingly chooses to hang out with someone suffering depression. So even when I bravely tell people that I’m “a bit depressed right now”, I laugh at their jokes, and tell some of my own, and agree to social encounters that equally terrify and exhaust me.

Last November, my world fell apart

So, what was different last November?

At the same time that the black tendrils of depression invaded my brain, I suffered a foot injury. I developed plantar fasciitis, which is a relatively common soft-tissue and tendon issue that makes walking — or putting any weight on your foot — intensely painful.

So, as the black tendrils invaded my mind, I became physically unable to use my go-to depression-minimising activity of walking. I found myself locked inside a depressed mind, trapped inside a wounded body. I was doubly confined. My anxiety disorder reared its ugly head, and I found myself tag-teamed by Depression and Anxiety until I could barely breathe.

“It’s only for a few weeks,” I told myself. “Just fake it for a while, and the depression will go away. Just like it always does.”

So I smiled and laughed and went out for coffee with friends. I had a girl’s weekend away. I went home for Christmas. I enroled in a University course. I did all the things I new Normal Jo would want me to do, and I waited for the depression to pass.

But it didn’t.

It only got worse.

January

I was in my room one night, staring at my computer screen, trying desperately to figure out whether the FB message I’d just got from a friend meant what I thought it meant. Did they really hate me? Or was I projecting? Was it real, or was it the tendrils talking? An itch spread across my body, and centred itself on my foot. I scratched at the itch, still staring at the screen. Tears started to roll down my face. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to respond. Suddenly, I felt a weird, sticky sensation on my fingers.

I looked down to find the whole top of my feet was bleeding. My fingernails were coated in blood. A wave of relief hit me, and tension drained out of my body in time with the blood flowing freely from my wound.

A second after the relief came the terror. I’ve been down the self-harming path before. I cleaned and dressed the wound, cut my fingernails, and removed all potentially sharp objects from my room.

February

School started for the year, and I was forced into the social nightmare of school drop-offs and pick-ups. Twice a day, I sat in my car and forced myself to breathe deeply and find the strength to enter the throng of parents surrounding the classrooms. People I know and like were transformed into terrifying caricatures of themselves by my tendril-filled mind.

When they looked at me, their eyes were full of judgement. Their smiles hid barely-contained hatred. I tried to fake it, but it had been so long since I felt like myself, I couldn’t remember how people behave in social situations. It took all my mental energy not to turn and literally run screaming. I was a pinch away from pure panic at every moment.

March

I stopped trying to fake it. I felt like a monster trapped in an alien world. Nothing around me made sense. I had no peripheral vision, and was seeing the world in chromatic tones of misery, through a tunnel of pain. I didn’t know how to smile. People spoke to me, and I’d forget how to make words, my mouth opening and closing like that of a drowning fish.

I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake in bed at night, my mind forcing me to relive the most traumatic times of my life. Around and around and around. I’d fall asleep somewhere between four and five in the morning, exhausted, and drop into anxious and confusing dreams, only to be woken from them at 6:30 when my alarm sounded.

I couldn’t eat. The sight or smell of food made me retch. I made dinner for my children, and pretended to pick at my food until they’d finished and gone away and I could dump mine in the dog’s bowl. I drank coffee and forced myself to nibble on dry crackers — the only thing I could eat without immediately throwing up.

I was in agony. The pain in my foot from the plantar fasciitis wasn’t getting better. If anything, it was getting worse. I was in constant, chronic pain. I couldn’t walk through the house without crying. I thought about stabbing myself in the foot just to release some of the pressure — to feel something different to the constant aching pain — and I removed myself from sharp implements.

April

After months of averaging less than four hours sleep a night and not being able to eat, I was exhausted. I’d developed the shakes, and couldn’t apply eye makeup without getting it all over my face. Not that I wanted to apply eye make-up anyway. I was barely even aware of the meat-suit wrapped around me as anything other than a conduit for the pain in my foot.

I didn’t feel anything. Physically, I felt the pain radiating from my foot. Mentally and emotionally, I was numb. I was separated from existence by the smoky glass wall of extreme depression. Nothing felt real. I wasn’t even sure if I was real. Maybe I was a figment of my own imagination, trapped in a dream of a world that had never existed….

Help! I Need Somebody.

Eventually, I hit rock bottom. I needed help. If I didn’t do something, I was going to drown in the darkness. I called my doctor and made an appointment to go see her. I got a referral to a podiatrist to help me with alternate care options for my foot. I got sleeping pills so I could get some rest. And I started to see a psychologist to help me through my depression. And I started to get better.

During those months, I struggled with some big stuff on top of my depression. I lost friendships that I thought would last forever. I watched my son go through trauma associated with bullying, and was unable to help him. I suffered financial setbacks and lost faith in my writing ability. Would those things have happened if I hadn’t been depressed? Would I have recovered more quickly if those things hadn’t happened? Chicken and egg. Impossible to know.

58 Days Later…

I’m doing better now. I’m still healing — some of the emotional injuries are still raw — but the black tendrils of doom have withdrawn from my brain, and I’m no longer feeling disconnected from the world. I’m back. The depression has receded. And it feels good.

I imagine there are people who will read this and say: “I had no idea you were depressed! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because, yes, life kept going. I kept loving and caring for my children. I kept posting status updates on Facebook. I kept writing articles for Writer Unboxed every month. I kept entering writing contests (although I didn’t do well). I kept teaching my novel-writing course and participating in my monthly writing group. I kept studying, and did well at Uni. I did my absolute best to maintain the appearance of being me. And it largely worked.

So, why didn’t I tell anyone? Because, for all the general awareness of depression, people are still uncomfortable with it. They don’t know what to say to someone who is depressed. They don’t know how to react. And I feel guilty and pathetic enough when I’m depressed without having to watch the discomfort on someone’s face when I explain that everything is grey.

Telling someone you’re depressed doesn’t feel like telling someone you’ve injured yourself. It feels like unwinding the bandages covering your injury and forcing them to stare into the wound, in all its horrific grossness, while simultaneously telling them that you did it to yourself on purpose.

What if someone I know is depressed? What should I do?

Look, I can only give you my perspective on this; I can tell you what I need. If you know someone with BPD or someone who suffers from chronic depression, try asking them this very question while they’re not being eaten alive by the darkness. But if that’s not possible, here’s some general guidelines.

  • Acknowledge that they feel depressed, and accept it at face value. Don’t question whether it’s real or serious. It doesn’t help to have someone ask if you’re really depressed, or whether this is serious depression or if they’re just tired. The fact that they’ve even told you means they trust you implicitly. That’s a big deal.
  • Accept that there is no easy fix to depression. You can’t say the right thing and magically cure your friend. What you can do is be there for them, as much as they want you to be. But (and this is important) their depression is not about you.
  • Please don’t ask what you can do to help. If they knew what would make them feel better, they’d do it. As soon as you ask what you can do to help, you put the weight of your assistance on their shoulders. I know that’s not your intention, but that’s how it feels. Instead, tell them what you can do to help, and then ask if that’s okay. “I’m making a casserole for dinner tonight, is it okay if I drop some off at your place for you?”
  • If you offer them help and they say no, accept it. Just let it go. There are a whole range of reasons they may have said no, and none of them are about you. Just make a different offer next time.
  • Accept that social interaction is hard for someone who’s depressed. They are rarely, if ever, going to initiate conversations — whether in person or via text/online — and will opt out of as many social situations as possible. This doesn’t mean they don’t like you. In fact, it’s still not about you at all. It’s about them protecting their fragile sense of self and hording their limited energy for more important things like breathing and not self-harming. Don’t make them feel bad if they can’t participate the way they normally do, but keep letting them know that they’re welcome to join in when/if they’re able.
  • Let them know that you’re happy to listen, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through. And then actually listen. Don’t try to cure them, don’t tell them that it’s not as bad as they think it is, just listen.
  • Encourage them to seek help, but don’t push them into it. No one wants to be depressed. Everyone wants to feel better. But getting help is scary, and they may need your non-judgemental support to be able to do it.

The main message here is that your friend’s depression is not about you. About fifteen years ago, someone said to me: “So, does that means you’re allowed to treat me badly when you’re depressed and I’m not even allowed to be upset by it?” No. No, it doesn’t. If your loved one is depressed and treating you badly, then you should absolutely call them on it. (Although be prepared for them not to know with how to deal with that.) But, first, ask yourself if they’re actually treating you badly.

If your friend developed a physical illness or disease, their behaviour would change — and you’d accept it without question. You wouldn’t expect them to keep partying with you on Saturday nights, or calling you every day to talk about your latest date. You’d undertand that they needed time to heal, you’d worry about them and offer them help, and you’d be there for them when they recovered. If your friend is suffering from depression, the same things apply. Depression is not a state of mind or an inconvenience, it’s a real, debilitating sickness.

That’s why they call it a mental illness.

To everyone who stuck around for this whole, insanely long post, I thank you. I’m doing much better than I was, and continuing to heal from what was the worst depression I’ve suffered in at least ten years. I know my blog has been abandoned during that time, but I’m hoping to post once a week from now on. There’s been a lot happening in my life — beyond my mental health — and I’d love to share it with you.

Happy travel, my friends.

 

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Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

Depression, Poetry, and Guilt

All my good intentions fell apart after my last blog post, and I was MIA for a couple of weeks. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just…. Life.

I’ve mentioned before that I have Bipolar II and a general anxiety disorder. Both are only minor in the overall scheme of things. In that I can manage them with lifestyle options such as exercise, food choices, meditation/prayer, and avoiding high-anxiety situations. However, “managing” isn’t the same as “curing”, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself on a down — which is to say, I’ve been depressed.

Living with depression is something I’m accustomed to. Since I was eight years old I’ve been through three or four periods of depression every year. Then I’d “magically” snap out of it, and everything would be fine. (I was only diagnosed with Bipolar II a couple of years ago, and suddenly my whole life made sense.) So I know how to cope. I know the warning signs to look for, so I know when I’m not coping, and when to seek help. I know how to minimise the worst of it through exercise and food. I know to treat myself gently, and not try to “push through it” — which includes not pushing myself to write when I don’t have the energy. I know how to cope.

But once my anxiety disorder kicks in, it’s a whole other kettle of crazy.

Over the last few weeks, my life has felt like it’s spiralling out of control. Circumstances outside of my control have left me in a situation that has been thoroughly dependent on friends for my everyday necessities. I don’t want to get into the details here, but trust me when I say that I am eternally grateful to have friends willing to sacrifice their own time and plans to help me in my hour of need. But gratitude only gets you so far, and on Thursday night I found myself having a major panic attack — the first in eleven months.

And around and around in my head went the thoughts.

Other people have it much worse… You have no reason to feel like this… You’re just being silly… Stop being so melodramatic… Somewhere in Africa, children are dying.

And so I grabbed a pen and paper, and I poured my pain and anxiety and guilt on to the paper. This is what I wrote.

The Guilt of Africa

 

Anxiety strikes like a copperhead snake
My vision is blurry, my hands start to shake
Too many weights pressing down on my mind
The burdens are boundless, I’m not doing fine

My problems are first world, my life is a mess
My heart won’t stop racing, I’m tight ‘cross the chest
My children are calling, I want them to stop
I need to curl up in the dark now and sob

My thoughts are a spiralling circle of pain
Why can’t I be normal? My head feels insane
My breathing’s too fast, my head is too light
I’ve lost all my hearing and most of my sight

And somewhere in Africa, children are dying
Putin is marching and oceans are rising
And my well-fed children have pain in their eyes
While their mother just cries and cries and cries

Is this all I am? A heartbeat? A tear?
A mess of emotional, overwhelmed fear?
My fingers are tingling, my toes have gone numb
I’m not even worthy to wear the name ‘Mum’

It’s dark now and cold and I’m sitting so still
If I move, then I’m worried that I’ll break the spell
Of peace, just a little, of paper and pen
And words spilling out like the Duke of York’s men

I have vodka and cigarettes, stars and the moon,
Two children who love me, friends and a spoon,
And a tub full of yoghurt in the door of the fridge
I wish I could eat, but my stomach is sick

And somewhere in Africa, children are dying
ISIS is killing, Ebola is rising
And here I am safe in a home of my own
Strung out, defenseless, completely alone

 

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Filed under Opinion, Poems

My Year of Mental Health

RainbowDespite my best efforts to blog every day, my posts have been somewhat sporadic. I’m sorry about that. For what it’s worth, it’s not you, it’s me.

No, really.

Do you remember back in January when I shared my carefully laid out my goals for 2013? They mostly consisted of reading more, writing more consistently, and taking charge of my writing career. So far, that’s going pretty well.

But there was another goal — nay, more a resolution — that I didn’t publicly share.

I resolved to make 2013 my Year of Mental Health.

Since I was a child, I’ve suffered from various mental health issues. There are times I’ve been fine. But there are lots of times when I haven’t.

Over the years I’ve been depressed, I’ve been manic, and I’ve heard voices and been unable to tell if they were real or in my head. I’ve been suicidal and I’ve self-harmed. I’ve taken crazy risks without caring about the consequences. I’ve suffered panic attacks and near-constant anxiety. I’ve been overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness that have left me curled up in the corner of the room for hours at a time. I’ve been hypnophobic and suffered from insomnia. I’ve obsessed over details, and been filled with rage because someone left a glass in the wrong place. I’ve feared and hated the outside world. And, on more than one occasion, I’ve hated myself.

And through all of this, there are two things I’ve always been: undiagnosed and untreated.

But it was okay. Because I got good at faking it in public and managing my symptoms in private.

Not controlling, mind you. Managing.

I got so good at it, most of my friends didn’t even know I had a problem.

When I was ‘up’, I could take on the world. I didn’t need sleep, so the hypnophobia wasn’t a problem. I could achieve anything. And sure, there was always a part of my brain anxiously fearing the day I’d crash into a ‘down’ condition, but I’d manage. I always managed. I was okay.

And then…

And then Little Brother came along. Little Brother, with his propensity for leaving a trail of mess in his wake. Little Brother, who demanded to be held and cuddled and loved, even when I needed my personal space. Little Brother, with his whirlwind tantrums and unrestrained laughter and overwhelming joie de vivre.

Little Brother, who threw my carefully ordered existence into disarray in a way that his old brother never had.

And suddenly I wasn’t managing.

Suddenly I was floundering.

Suddenly I was anxious and angry and unpredictable, as likely to burst into tears as scream or laugh or hyperventilate. Suddenly I was having panic attacks two, three, sometimes four times a week. Suddenly I wasn’t okay.

But I was scared. Scared to step outside my comfort zone and admit that I wasn’t okay.

But I needed to do it. For my children, if not myself.

And that’s why I resolved to make 2013 my Year of Mental Health.

I saw a psychiatrist in January. It was a big and terrifying step.

And now I can’t say I’m undiagnosed or untreated.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and mild OCD.

I was prescribed medication.

And now…

Look, I’m not magically okay. It’s… trying. To say the least. There’s trial and error in finding the right medication, and I don’t think I’ve got it right yet. Some days I find myself wishing for the good old days when I may have been “crazy”, but it was my kind of crazy and I knew who I was and how I would react to things.

Then I look around and notice how much calmer my children are, and how much I’ve come to enjoy the feeling of Little Brother curled up against me for “more more cuggles” before bed, and I know that no matter how hard this adjustment phase is, it will be worth it.

I’m not going to regularly talk about my mental health on my blog. But I wanted to let you know why I haven’t been around as consistently as I’d like. Oh, and also?

Speaking up about what I’m going through is another big, scary step.

And sometimes it’s important to be brave.

You never know who will benefit.

Ship in port

I’d like to dedicate this post to my good blogging friend Kim “The G is Silent” Pugliano. Her honesty and openness about her own mental health not only inspired me to write this post, but also went a long way toward helping me come to terms with my diagnosis. Thanks, Kim. You’re the best.

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Don’t Panic! — Writing About Anxiety

Panic -- Photo by ClaraDonWhen I was at a writing convention last year, I took part in a workshop designed to strengthen characterisation. We did a number of exercises in the workshop, many of them in small groups where we could discuss our characters and stories.

During one such exercise, we split into groups of three or four people and were instructed to share the pivotal dark moment of our novel; a turning point, where the protagonist has to face and overcome a major conflict.

One of the women in my group was writing a YA novel about a girl facing bullying at school. The scene she described went something like this:

The protagonist has to get on a school bus and everyone is mocking her and she has a panic attack. Then she sits down on the bus and doesn’t let the mean kids win.

As someone who has suffered anxiety attacks for most of my life, I had questions. Lots of them. Like, what triggered the attack? What happens while she’s having it? Has she had them before?

The author seemed bamboozled by my questions. Confused.

The other kids are making fun of her like normal, and she’s just had enough. So she has a panic attack and then decides not to put up with it anymore and just sits next to someone she doesn’t know.

I ask some more questions, but get the same information delivered in a variety of ways.The other two members of the group nod and smile and congratulate the author on using a panic attack as a form of conflict, because it’s so “original” and “unique” — and, one of them adds, fairly easy to write, because there’s no actual bad guy and the girl just has to stop panicking.

And I found myself wondering: Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this scene is nonsensical?

Over the last few months, I’ve come to realise that most people don’t know what it’s actually like to experience a panic attack. Look up ‘panic attack’ on the internet, and you’ll find various websites that list symptoms like breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, light-headedness, weakness, dizziness, feeling of doom, nausea, intense fear, and depersonalization — plus plenty of other “less common” symptoms. Then there’s a note advising that “not everyone who experiences a panic attack experiences all of these symptoms”.

But it’s rare to find a description of what it actually feels like to experience a panic attack. Now, I’m not an expert on anxiety. But I’ve suffered through more panic attacks in my life than I care to count. (The first I clearly remember was when I was eight years old.) Allow me to share what it’s like to be in my head during one of these attacks.

Maybe it will help you in your writing. Maybe it will help you understand what someone close to you is experiencing. Maybe it will help you feel you’re not alone. Just keep in mind that not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way. This is how I experience them.

(If you suffer from panic attacks, please consider whether you wish to read further.)

——————————————————————————————————-

These clothes need to be washed by hand. Whose idea was it to volunteer for this job, anyway?

I turn on the tap and let the water run for a bit before I put in the plug. The kids are in the next room. I can hear them playing, giggling and laughing. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be arguing again and I’ll have to go intervene. I have to hurry. I have to get this washing done.

The water splashes into the tub, filling it up far too slowly. The rush of water, drops spattering on the sides, the harsh sound of water against metal. It echoes off the walls, drowning out other sounds. I can’t hear the kids now. Why did I volunteer for this? Why am I washing these clothes? This isn’t my job. I can’t–

I can’t do it.

The water is too loud. Everything is too loud. I need to turn off the tap, stop the water running. But if I do that, I can’t do the washing. And I have to do the washing. I can’t–

I can’t let them down. I can’t–

Too loud. I turn off the tap. That will do. The water will do. But there’s too much of it. The water makes it hard to breathe. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. My heart races. It’s pounding so hard, it feels like it will pound its way through my chest. I can feel it there. Pounding. Harder. Faster. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. No breath. My lungs don’t work. My chest is tight. Too tight. Squeezing my heart. I try to suck in air, but my heart is pounding too hard. No air. My arms go number, pins and needles starting at my fingers and racing up my arms like wildfire. All consuming. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I have to get this washing done. Dump the clothes into the sink. Try to act like I can’t–

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this . I just can’t–

I can’t hear the children. Is that good? Are they okay? Should I go check on them? No. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I can’t–

I can’t stop this. My heart feels funny. Light. Like there’s no air. My eyes are hurting, sucked back into my head, like there’s nothing in the space behind them. No air. No blood. My heart is racing and I can’t–

I can’t feel anything in my arms. I can’t–

I can’t make it stop. I can’t–

I can. I know what this is. It’s just anxiety. It’s just panic. I know what this is. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. I can–

I can’t.

I can’t see . The world is black and grey. Spots of colour. It doesn’t make sense. My arms are numb. My legs. The ground is rolling and I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. Slowly. I need to…

The children are calling. I hear them, but I can’t–

I can’t go out there. I can’t face them. I can’t breathe. The air is too–

The clothes. I need to wash the clothes. I need to feel normal. Dump the clothes in the water. Take a deep breath. Start to wash them. Stop my heart from pounding. Concentrate. Focus. Breathe. In. Out. In Out. I can’t–

I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t face this anymore. I can’t feel. I can’t–

I can.

Wash the clothes. Deep breaths. Calm. I need to calm. I can’t–

I can’t find myself. The weave of the cotton I’m washing is so loose. I can see the gaps between the strands and I slip between them, slip into nothing, disappear. I don’t even exist. I am nothing. My head is full of clouds and water, and the water is in the tub, and the clothes in the water, and there’s nothingness. I am nothingness. I can’t–

I can’t feel myself. I don’t–

I don’t feel–

My eyes hurt. They fill with tears. Are they my eyes? I can’t–

I can’t cry. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop. I can’t–

A child. Talking. His words are noise, so loud, so loud I can’t hear them. I can’t–

I can’t fall down. I can’t give up. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I smile. I nod. I hope the child will go away. I try to breathe. I feel something behind me. A wall. I sink down it and let my head fall and tears fall and life fall and I fall and I can’t–

I can’t.

I can’t.

I can’t move.

Time. I’m on the floor. I don’t know how I get here. How did I get here? My eyes hurt. My chest hurts. My arms are numb and tingle. Time. How much is gone? I run my hands over my skin and it hurts, like needles in my flesh. The light is too bright. It hurts my eyes. I can’t–

I can’t go out there. The lights are too bright. The sounds are too loud. Every touch on my skin is agony. Don’t get too close. Don’t look me in the eye or you might know me, you might see me, you might see I’m not real. I can’t–

I can’t just sit here.

I can’t just sit here forever. I have to move.

My head aches. I feel tired. Empty. Hollow. Like the life has drained out of me.

My breathing evens out. My heartbeat slows.

I stand up and go back to washing the clothes.

I can’t keep doing this.

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