Tag Archives: depression

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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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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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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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Commitment?

Today is October 31st. Lots of people believe today is the best day to dress up in funny clothes, confront their fears, and have a lot of fun doing it.

Here in Australia, it’s the middle of Spring. The days are long and lovely, the sun is shining, and it’s hard to imagine ghosts or goblins hiding behind the garden beds in flower. But that doesn’t mean we can’t share in the fun.

Eight years ago today, I dressed up in my own once-in-a-lifetime costume, and did the scariest thing I could think of.

I got married.

Today is our 8th Wedding Anniversary. It’s the 12th Anniversary of us making the choice to move from friends to lovers, and the 13th Anniversary (give or take a few weeks) of our meeting and falling into a deep and immediate friendship. It’s a special day. Not just because it’s another anniversary — more proof that we’re getting older and (hopefully) wiser — but because the last couple of years has been really hard work.

About eighteen months ago, not long after Little Brother was born and while I was struggling emotionally with the reality of having two children in the house, my husband was diagnosed with depression. In some ways, it made things easier. He began treatment and we could both finally understand why everything had been so difficult for what seemed like forever. But in other ways, it made things more difficult. It made things real.

Emotions flew back and forth like petals in a hurricane. Love. Anger. Frustration. Guilt. The occasional moment of intense dislike and regret.

There have been good times. There have been bad times. But, most of all, there have been times. Because no matter how hard it’s been on both of us, no matter how much we’ve struggled, we’ve always remembered the love that we felt on that day eight years ago, and we’ve fought and struggled to find those feelings within ourselves. No matter how many times we’ve each thought about walking out, calling it quits, or deciding that this marriage thing is all too freaking hard, we haven’t done it. We remembered the friendship that came before and after the love, and we remembered the many, many reasons we decided to tie our fates together for eternity.

Eight years ago, at 9:00am on the 31st of October 2004, our lives were entwined during a handfasting ceremony on the top of the mountain. Harp music played while the celebrant called to the earth, water, wind and fire to bless our union. Our hands were fastened with rope of braided white and gold to ensure our lasting love and friendship. Vows were said, rings were exchanged, and toasts were made.

And now, after all the trials and tribulations of the last two years, we’ve refound the solid love and friendship that was always lurking under the surface of our harried, hurried, stress-filled lives. For the first time in a long, long while I look at my husband and I breathe a sigh of happiness and thank the Gods we found each other.

And so, to my husband and the world, I repeat the vow I made all those years ago.

Destiny has made our paths to cross. Today, I make the choice to entwine my heart and spirit with yours for all eternity. In our life together, I pledge to respect and honour you. I will support you always, as friend, lover and confidante. I will share your hopes and help to make your dreams come true. I will stand by you in the good times and the bad. I will cherish and protect you always.

I love you.

Do you have any special anniversary traditions?

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