My very first column – “Depression: Cancer of the Mind,” published October 15, 2008.

major depression, memories, stigma, therapy, three hopeful thoughts, Throwback Thursday

This marks the beginning of a new mini-feature on the blog: Throwback Thursdays. See below for more!

When I was nineteen (and probably manic), I submitted a column proposal to my hometown’s newspaper. Shockingly, they decided to pick it up. It wasn’t a huge reader base—my hometown’s population is somewhre in the 60,000 range—but I was surprised and elated to have the opportunity to share my experiences and put a face to mental illness, which was a big deal in a small city in Iowa.

I had to abandon the project seven months later, when taking a full course load and working two part-time jobs plus an internship became too much; however, I was approached the following summer by two women in my hometown to write a series of articles regarding the transition from high school or college to the “real world.” The series caught the attention of Mental Health America (the Iowa branch) and I was honored with an award and some cash (which, as a poor twenty-year-old college student, was greatly appreciated). 

I’ve kept all of the articles and letters in a box for years. I still pull them out sometimes when I start to feel like a hack or minimize the impact of the things I’ve done. Ultimately, it’s not about recognition or awards (although I must admit that my writerly ego really enjoys being stroked from time to time). It’s about having tangible proof that I was here, that I was able to accomplish something despite having been dealt what most would agree is a fairly difficult hand in life. 

As an existential nihilist, it’s difficult for me to see any inherent meaning in the universe, which I view as absurd and often confusing. But it’s actually a very hopeful philosophy/worldview to have, because it means that each of us has the opportunity to create meaning for ourselves and share it with others. I am slowly beginning to learn that “hope” is a four-letter word, but it’s not necessarily a bad one.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share my articles, some memorable stories about my time as a columnist, and perhaps a few of the more poignant letters and emails I received in response to my columns. I’m somewhat mortified by how young my voice is, but I’m reminding myself that it’s an interesting and valuable snapshot of who I was at 19: a girl who wasn’t afraid to put herself out there, who believed she could make a difference in her own small way and was maybe a bit idealistic.

In some ways, I think I am still that girl.

“Depression, cancer of the mind” was originally published on October 15, 2008. My editor had titled the first article, which I’m assuming was because I was too disorganized/cycling too hard to do it myself. I can’t remember who came up with the titles after that; it was probably a mixture. The column appeared every other Wednesday.

Note 1: The features editor decided to give my series a title—Depression: Cancer of the Mind—and a little banner at the bottom, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.

Note 2: At this point in time, I was still diagnosed with and being treated for mild-to-moderate PTSD and general depression. It wasn’t until September 2012 that I was re-evaluated and diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and it was an even longer wait (July 2013) until my correct diagnosis—rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, type I, and C-PTSD with dissociative features—was confirmed and I was able to begin treatment.

Depression, cancer of the mind   Published October 15, 2008

Sometimes people ask me, “How did you do it? How did you make it through 11 years of severe depression without ever once asking for help?”

I guess I can understand their disbelief: I have been through the mental equivalent of hell and come out the other side. I have climbed over Satan’s frozen back, much like Dante traveling through Hell in The Inferno. The only difference is that in this case, “Satan” is the despair trapped inside my mind, causing it to decay slowly from the inside out.

Some say that schizophrenia is the cancer of mental illness, but to an extent, I disagree. It’s true that schizophrenia does kill the mind and allow the sufferer to descend into madness. But just as there are many types of cancer, there are infinite varieties of mental illness that could be considered cancerous.

Depression is one of them.

When you are depressed, most people assume that you will “snap out of it,” even though the stereotypical person living with depression does not leave his or her bed for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. It is every bit as destructive as cancer or diabetes, though even now few people realize it.

I suppose this is because people traditionally fear the unknown, and mental illness, aside from death, is one of the biggest unknowns of all. It can strike anyone at any time. Even those of us living with depression who have found ways to cope and make it through the ending and exhausting days look just like everyone else. Unless you are having a particularly bad bout of depression and feel the urge to run from the room crying (which society views as unacceptable), depression usually goes unnoticed.

It is my hope that by sharing my struggles against the silent suffering associated with depression, others will know that they will be OK, that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and will share this knowledge with others. The more that people know about mental illness, the better; educating the public is the first and most effective step in fighting to tear down the stereotypes.

Something that I would like anyone who has lost hope to know is that you are not crazy, only extremely sensitive to the world around you. You are very brave, but you do not need to suffer alone. There is always help available, and accepting it is not admitting defeat.

Affirmations.

a cure for what ails you, ptsd, three hopeful thoughts

Last summer, I met a wonderful woman completely by chance. I was heading home from a nearby gas station after a cancer run and wished her a good afternoon. I wandered over to her patio, noticed she was reading a book called “Fuck It Therapy,” and struck up a conversation.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to drop by for chats, and she revealed that she’s been journaling about her life for several decades—no small feat! I was particularly impressed because I’m notorious for purchasing pretty journals in hopes of actually sticking with the one-entry-a-day plan, only to give up after a week or two. She invited me to leaf through them, and I happened upon an entry where she’d written a list of affirmations.

They resonated with me because she’d managed to put to paper the types of things I tell myself when I’m feeling particularly low—things I’m good at, things I like about myself, and so on. But her entry contained one vital piece that my own thoughts were lacking (disclaimer: I’m paraphrasing here) : I am worthy of being loved not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but because I am human.

I’ve been even more introspective than usual over the last few weeks (if that’s even possible) and have been ruminating about what’s behind these words. It occurred to me that while I may tell myself these things, I’ve never stopped to digest what they mean, particularly in the context of my life.

It’s an important thing to consider, but it’s been particularly helpful recently because I’ve been feeling pretty low and down on myself. I’ve been having nightmares about the rapes almost every night and on top of it, the formerly repressed and still-patchy memory of possible molestation that I’ve been carrying around since I was five years old is starting to come into focus.

My ex-husband is seeing someone new; this person is wonderful, but I’ve been comparing myself to vim a lot, and as a result, my self-worth and self-esteem have been taking a huge hit. Combined with my brain “thawing out” and the defense mechanisms lowering a bit, life hasn’t exactly been easy lately. We had a good chat this afternoon, the first discussion we’ve had since we split in September that’s left me feeling loved and cared-for. I’d been seeing myself as a failure, something not meant to be happy or loved because I’ve been through too much. I am spiky and emotionally cagey and, as of the last few months, unable to handle physical touch from anyone outside my family without having a mini panic attack and dissociating even more. (It’s worth noting that I still consider D. family, and vice-versa; you can’t go through what we’ve been through and not remain close to the other person, even if you’re no longer romantically involved.)

But I have bright spots most days, even if they don’t last that long. I’m starting to see my worth as a person, totally independent of the J. who survived decades of abuse and plays the piano well and is bilingual and a writer and applying to grad school to become a therapist, the J. who is pretty and funny and interesting and outgoing, even if the “outgoing” part is often affected.

Humans deserve to be loved. We need love. We need affection. Every person on this earth, no matter how objectively terrible they may be, is worthy of love and care.

This revelation makes me feel better about my decision to become a therapist, as “misanthrope” and “counselor” are a somewhat unusual pairing. But I’ve been capable of stashing my inner life away in favor of objectivity for most of my life, so I’m hopeful that my ability to compartmentalize will help me in the long run. The fact that I can think of literally every person other than myself in such a positive light seems laughable, but I guess we’re all our own worst critics.

Baby steps, baby steps. Where are you in your journey to loving yourself?

Five stigmatizing/problematic phrases and why you should stop using them.

abuse, explanations, stigma, three hopeful thoughts

I’m generally a pretty tolerant and patient person when it comes to talking about mental illness— I want to be polite and educate people and I think it’s counterproductive to get pissed off about every single thing (also, I don’t have the energy for that). That being said, there are a couple of phrases I hear on a regular basis that make my blood boil. They’re often used out of ignorance, not actual malice, which is why I believe it’s so important to call people out and use the mistake as a teachable moment.

1. “I’m so OCD about that!”

What people usually mean: “I have some quirks and like to have some things a certain way.”

Why it’s hurtful: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental illness, and by misusing this phrase, you’re essentially invalidating the everyday struggles of those living with the disorder.

One of the main characteristics of the disorder is obsessive, invasive thoughts, ideas, or behaviors that often interrupt other thoughts or activities. In order to alleviate these thoughts, the person typically has to partake in a certain behavior or set of behaviors (sometimes called rituals)—this is the compulsive part of the disorder.

For example, I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fear of being contaminated/hand-washing obsession/compulsion. What people don’t realize is that many people living with OCD find the disorder distracting, disruptive, and embarrassing. By saying things like “I’m so OCD!” you’re minimizing their very real concerns and struggles and turning it into a cutesy one-liner. Don’t do that.

2. “I don’t want to go to that party; I’m so antisocial.”

What people usually mean: “Well, ‘social’ means you like being around people, right? So ‘antisocial’ must mean the opposite!”

ImageWhy it’s hurtful: This one actually does piss me off because the people who say this are completely misusing the word. It doesn’t even mean what you think it means so in addition to trivializing a very real and serious disorder, you’re also making yourself look like an uneducated ass-hat.

In reality, “antisocial” refers to a specific personality disorder, the hallmark of which is a persistent disregard for the rights and feelings of others. There’s a whole list of diagnostic criteria at the linked page, but the most common example/trope used to describe this disorder is the person who hurts people and feels no remorse for what they’ve done.

People with antisocial PD are not bad people. It’s problematic and can cause a lot of emotional damage, but again, the thing to remember with any mental illness is that the person suffering from it did not cause it.

3. “I’m so bipolar!”

What people usually mean: “I had, like, one mood swing today and it took me off-guard so I’m going to misappropriate a mental illness because of my very general and poor understanding of what it actually is.”

Why it’s hurtful: Like most of the examples on this list, “I’m so bipolar!” is problematic because it minimizes another really serious disorder by presenting it as one-dimensional, and that one dimension everyone knows about is the mood swings. If you ask a person on the street what they think bipolar is, nine times out of ten they’ll say “mood swings.”

That’s why this phrase is so damaging—it completely ignores all the other symptoms of this very complicated illness. I’m assuming most of you have been following this blog for a while, so I’m sure you’re familiar with what goes on in the brain of someone who’s bipolar. (I prefer the term “manic depressive” because while it’s technically outdated, it’s more descriptive than “bipolar,” implying a range of emotions rather than two strict “poles.”)

If you’re new or need a refresher, check out NIMH’s website for an awesome and relatively simple description.

4. “He’s so schizo/psycho!”

What people usually mean: “He is behaving erratically or in a way that does not make sense to me.”

Why it’s damaging: This is two-fold.

First of all, schizophrenia is a particularly severe mental illness; there is no cure, and treatment options are kind of dismal at the moment. When you call someone “schizo” when you’re referring to nonsensical or erratic behavior, you are (once again) minimizing the actual severity of the illness and all of its nuances.

This is bad for one simple reason: it perpetuates misinformation and makes it seem like having a mental illness makes someone “bad,” which perpetuates the stigma.

The same goes for the term “psycho.” I’ve actually cut people out of my life for repeatedly using the term after I’ve explained why it’s so harmful and offensive. “Psycho” usually refers to “psychosis,” which is a break from reality. It can happen for a variety of reasons—trauma, substance abuse, or mental illnesses like schizophrenia (the one most people associate with psychosis) or bipolar type I (psychosis/hallucinations/delusions are not at all uncommon during severe manic or depressive episodes).

You say “He/She is psycho/schizo,” and what happens? People laugh. When you misuse those words (and really, you shouldn’t be using them at all because they’re offensive abbreviations that are always used in a derogatory manner), you’re telling people that it’s okay to laugh at people with mental illnesses because they’re “different.” They’re “crazy.” I’d like to think that the people who fall into this category are simply misinformed, but the reality is that there are a lot of terrible people out there who are unwilling to learn or change their behavior.

5. “She’s crazy!”

What people usually mean: This can mean one of two things. It’s sometimes used as a positive descriptor, in which case it means something like “She’s wild and uninhibited, which makes her fun.” I really don’t have a problem with it being used in that context because “crazy” is one of those words that can be used in a variety of ways, and this one happens to be complimentary. If you want to use that term to refer to yourself as a coping mechanism/making light of the situation, that’s totally fine. It’s when other people begin to use it that it becomes an issue (if you haven’t given them permission to do so). But in general, I still believe that people who aren’t mentally ill have no right to use that word to describe someone.

When it becomes problematic: When it’s used to hurt people or make a generalization about someone’s mental health. I’ve had “You’re crazy” thrown at me hundreds of times in the last twenty-some years, and it has almost exclusively been used to mean “You’re unhinged, you’re different, you’re not like us, there’s something wrong with you.”

That’s what stigma is—perpetuating the idea that the mentally ill are somehow “different” or “wrong,” not like the general public and certainly not worthy of being treated like people who are mentally healthy.

I’m sure you’re having the knee-jerk “Jesus H. Christ” reaction when you read it broken down like that—or at least, I hope you are. I hope you realize that it’s definitely not okay to discriminate against another human being for any reason, and I hope you’re doing your part to call people out and be more mindful of your own phrasing.

What to do when you’re called out: This is pretty simple. There are three steps to dealing with being called out for saying something problematic:

  1. Listen to what the person is saying and make every effort to understand why they’re upset.
  2. Apologize sincerely. Say something like, “I’m sorry for saying x. I didn’t realize it was hurtful, but now that I know, I am going to do my best not to say it anymore.”
  3. And then move on. Don’t get butthurt or dwell on it (“Those mean social justice people! They’re too uptight, they made me feel bad, bawwww.”) Just take it as a learning experience and try to use what you’ve learned to educate other people.

That’s really the only way we can fight this thing, the gigantic stigma-beast that makes life unpleasant, if not downright hellish, for most of us. At some point, we’re going to need people on the outside, allies who aren’t mentally ill (and remember, “ally” is a verb, not a noun) to help spread the word and back up what we’re saying.

The sad reality is that a lot of people are dismissive of our experiences with mental illness because we’re mentally ill, and therefore we’re apparently not credible sources about our own oppression. (Lollll.) And common sense tells us that the more people are fighting this battle, the more people we’re going to reach and the more minds we’re going to change.

Manic Depression: A Brief Explanation

authoress in motion, explanations, major depression, medication, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, self-harm, stigma

I finally got around to editing the explanation video on bipolar disorder/manic depression (I prefer the latter term as I feel it’s more descriptive).

In the video, I talk about the different categories of bipolar disorder, what each phase (from depression to mania and mixed states) is and what it feels like, and tips for dealing with a mixed episode.