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Mental Health FAQ

When you go to a psychiatrist appointment, a general practitioner appointment, or a therapist appointment to address your mental health issues it can be scary, especially if it’s your first time. I was terrified the first time I decided to see a therapist when I was 20 years old. I was alone, I had no support, I didn’t know anyone who had seen a therapist, and I had stress diarrhea for weeks. The first time I brought up my depression with my general practitioner was scary also because I was terrified that he wouldn’t take me seriously. The first psychiatrist appointment ever was daunting because I didn’t want to believe that I needed a psychiatrist.

I imagine I’m not alone in my fears because living with mental illness is scary. We are up against a stigma that spreads through almost all parts of our lives. Even when we ask for help, things can go wrong. But when things go like they’re supposed to, there is progress. I have been to many therapists, may psychiatrists, many GP’s for mental health, and I’ve seen good ones and bad ones, and ones that have just not worked for me. Here are a few things that I wish I could have known when I started treatment. If you are considering getting help for your mental health, I applaud you and hope this helps.

Q: What will a therapist do on my first visit?
A: They will introduce themselves, and they will ask you why you came in. This is not a judgement, they want you there, and they want to know how to help you. Even if you aren’t able to be articulate why you’re there, do the best you can. They will ask you questions and lead the conversation when you’re not able to.

Q: What if I’m embarrassed by something I need to talk about with my therapist.
A: Your therapist will never judge you. The truth is that they’ve probably seen it all. I tend to seek out older therapists who have been practicing for a long time because there is literally nothing you can say that will surprise them. Being honest is the only way to make true changes in your life. You’ll get out what you put into therapy.

Q: What if I don’t like my therapist?
A: The best thing you can do is be honest with your therapist and yourself. It’s okay to discuss this with the therapist. If you can’t work it out, find another therapist you can work with. It takes some trial and error sometimes, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with leaving a therapist you’re not comfortable with. This applies to all doctors and psychiatrists as well. Trust is a big part of mental health treatment.

Q: What could a general practitioner possibly know about mental health?
A: Enough to help point you in the right direction when you need help. Sometimes a GP is all we have available to us, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. They can prescribe medications and refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist if they think you need it. Go to who you trust as your first step.

Q: Is it as interesting to sit in a psychiatrist’s waiting room as you’d imagine?
A: Waiting rooms are always professionally discreet. No one is even paying attention to you much less trying to guess why you’re there. I’ve never felt unsafe in a psychiatrist waiting room.

Q: What is the difference between seeing a psychiatrist and a general practitioner?
A: A psychiatrist specializes in only mental illnesses and mental illness medications. They will be more up to date on specific medications and specific diagnoses and can provide a more in depth mental illness treatment. Generally, the philosophy is that if it works, keep doing it. I mean that if your GP prescribes you some medications that make you feel better, then keep taking them. If your GP has tried everything they know to try (like in my case) they may say go to a psychiatrist to try something different.

Q: What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
A: A psychologist will be your therapist and cannot prescribe medications. A psychiatrist will prescribe your medications. Most psychiatrists don’t do therapy, but there are some who do. I’ve never been to one who does, but it sounds like it could be a nice simple “one stop shop.”

Q: What’s the deal with medications? Are they pills that make you happy? Are they just a crutch?
A: Mental illness is much more complex than happy/sad. The hardest part of getting mental health treatment is that there is still so much that even the experts don’t know about it. They don’t know exactly why some medications work and some don’t, or why it’s different from person to person. While mental illness is a real, diagnosable medical condition, just like diabetes, or a broken arm, the treatment is different for each person. A doctor will pretty much treat a broken arm the same way for each person, because if they do, it will heal. Unfortunately depression and other mental illnesses are not so linear. We use medications as a way to stimulate our brain chemistry to do what it should be doing anyway. Just like a diabetic gives insulin because it’s what their pancreas is supposed to be doing anyway. Medications are not happy pills. They are not a crutch. They help clean up your thought processes and clear pathways so that you can function as yourself, just like when you clean out the hallways of a house so you can get around the house with less stress. I was prescribed medications for the first time at age 20, and I carried the bottle around, unopened, until I was 22. I was afraid of the stigma. I was afraid that they would give me a false perception of the world. I wish I had been more open minded sooner though, because it was the depression that was giving me the false perception. The meds helped me see more truth.

Q: Is it possible that medications won’t work?
A: Unfortunately there’s always that possibility. Sometimes it takes trying a few medications that don’t work before finding ones that do. It can be a frustrating system because often you have to take the medications for several weeks before you know if they’re helping. It can be so time consuming. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s the best one we have right now. There’s so much research being done about treating mental illness, learning why it happens, and learning what the symptoms mean that there are new options available all the time.

Q: Can insurance be a pain in the ass when it comes to mental health?
A: Sometimes. Mental healthcare is still a completely separate section of insurance from healthcare (guess what, it’s all healthcare!) and it can have its own rules. The issues I’ve run into over the years are that insurance can sometimes dictate how many therapy sessions you get per year, and they can limit the options for doctors you can see. The staff at therapist and doctors’ offices are pros at dealing with insurance, and will work the system if they need to to get you what you need.

Q: Is it okay to be scared?
A: Absolutely. Getting help is supposed to be the greatest thing you can ever do, and there are supposed to be circles of cheerleaders following you around wherever you go, and everything is supposed to be perfect and amazing and rainbows and smiles. Well, getting help is a great thing, but more than that it’s a brave thing. We’re still in a world where it’s often an uphill battle to get help for mental illness. I wish to god it wasn’t. I wish that mental health was treated like the rest of healthcare, and that people didn’t have to be afraid and anxious to seek help or even avoid seeking help because they’re afraid they won’t get it. I’m going to be real with you – getting help can be hard work. I will cheer for you and assure you that you’re not alone, I will share everything I’ve been through in hopes that it helps, but I can’t tell you that it will be smooth sailing. I do think you’re worth the fight. I also believe that you can be strong and brave and terrified all at the same time. And I think it’s worth asking for help, even if it looks like just showing up in a doctor’s office, not making eye contact, and saying the word “Help.”

These questions and answers are based on my own experiences, and my own fears before I got into treatment. I have not had a smooth ride with mental illness or its treatments, but I have met some really good people along the way who have helped me a lot. I’ve met some good people who haven’t helped me too. And I’ve met some idiots. But so far I haven’t given up on myself, and I don’t think you should either. I hope that at least some of this is helpful.

If you have any other questions, or if you have any other insights from your own experience that you think might be helpful to someone else, leave them in the comments or you can e-mail me. I don’t claim to be an expert, but between all of us I bet there’s a lot of really good information out there.

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TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is a new, non-medication non-invasive depression and anxiety treatment that uses MRI waves to target and stimulate areas of the brain responsible for regulating neurotransmitters. Dysfunctional neurotransmitter communication is the closest known cause of depression and other mental illnesses, so TMS is a way to potentially treat the source of the problem without using medicated stimulation of the same neurotransmitters. TMS is performed without anesthetic and is reportedly pain free. Insurance will cover it if at least 5 other medications have failed to treat depression successfully. It’s a less invasive procedure than ECT, which is more intense treatment and is done under general anesthesia.

It does not appear to be a magic cure that Pharma’s been keeping a secret from us because the success rate is about 30%, the same as for medications. Supposedly if you have tried several medications without success TMS is less likely to work for you. In the last two years alone I have failed on at least 5 medications. I’m currently on six different medications that are helping marginally but creating serious side effect problems.

The weight gain that is common with some antidepressants and bipolar medications is causing more serious problems than just making me uncomfortable. The medications make me crave sweets and my appetite is through the roof. It’s bigger than self discipline. I’ve gained 30 pounds since starting two different medications, and because I am so hungry all the time my blood sugars are out of control. 400 – 600 mg/dL high. Daily. I should be able to just not eat so much, and I should be able to control myself since it’s actually making me face my own mortality, but I can’t.

I need something to clear itself up – the bipolar, the depression, the insatiable hunger, the grief, the foggy brain, the sleep problems, the kidney damage caused by not only the lithium I’m taking but now my extremely high blood sugars. Something! Help! I’m tired of watching myself die.

So I’m trying TMS. The success rate isn’t as close to 100% as I would like, but it’s not going to hurt me. It might be a little expensive, but insurance covers part of it. Incidentally I learned that TMS can treat anxiety too, but it’s not approved by the FDA. This means that insurance won’t cover it and it’s around $11k.

The treatments take 30 minutes a day, and you go every Monday through Friday for seven weeks. I’ll be awake, there will be scalp discomfort for the first few days and I might get a headache afterward for the first few days. That’s the worst of it. If this can help me get off even one of these meds I’m on I will be grateful. I’d like to get off most or all of them, but I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s something I’ve never tried, and I’m pretty damn close to having tried everything and still feeling very depressed. It’s my normal. What if it could be different?

I’m willing to venture an answer to that question by trying TMS. The answer might be “It can’t be different,” and I’m prepared for that. If it’s anything other than that I’ll be thrilled. I am so tired of trying the same things over and over and getting the same results. I do not want to accept that this will be the rest of my life.

I am going for a final consult with my doctor today. Assuming I go forward with the procedure I will report the progress and the things I learn along the way. Here’s to voluntary brain zaps!

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Poetry in the Wild

I went on a hike through the forest the other day and I found this tree about a mile in. It says:
“It’s nice to know
That you’ve got so many choices
So many paths
So many things
To fiddle and play with
Enough so that you can drop one
And pick up another
No matter how you choose
You’re gonna be happy
 
It’s nice to know
That I’m the one
You chose to drop.
But that’s okay.
‘Cause now I realize
For now and forever
I am your loss and he is your gain.
So make the best of it.
You got one life.
So make your choices now
Before it’s too late
 
It’s nice to know that I can walk
Or even crawl
And – – – run
Well I keep going
Someday you’ll be a wall
And someday I’ll pass you.
 
And it’s nice to know
That I’ll never look
Back”
 
– The Forest
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In the Moment

I wake up early. I never used to, but, and I guess I’ll blame age, now I wake up at around 5:00am every day, no matter what time I go to bed. This morning I was an overachiever and woke up at 4:30 feeling fully rested and ready to start the day. We are vacationing at the beach right now, and when I got up early I realized that the ocean also gets up early while the seagulls sleep in.

Time to go to the beach.

Despite the inclement weather and the fog and the inability to see the sunrise, the ocean was beautiful. The waves rumbled and crashed against the shore, the fog blurred the horizon, the low tide painted the sand with rivulets still streaming with salt water, and there were seashells everywhere. No one had come to pick them over yet and I decided to collect them.

I hesitated, though, before walking out to the surf, and tried to pinpoint why. The ocean is larger and more powerful than anything else my brain can imagine. When I’m not face to face with it, I can’t even imagine the depth of its power – one wrong move, all alone on the beach, and I could be erased. I took that in before deciding to carefully begin my shell hunt and getting lost in the moment.

Except I hesitated again because the first shell I found still had a creature in it, and that was more terrifying than somehow getting sucked into the ocean. To my credit, I did not scream, and I fully own that I am a wuss. But I began finding shell after shell.

Former homes of unknown animals peeked out from under the sand, and I rushed over to dig them up. The more I walked the more numerous they became and I got better at spotting them. The only thing I could hear was the waves, the only thing I thought about was spotting shells, the only thing I felt was happiness. I was so wrapped up in my activity that I even got physically lost, which is hard to do when you’re walking in a straight line. I was one hundred percent in that moment.

With anxiety and other mental illnesses, it’s hard to lose yourself in a moment. There’s always that part of us that is screaming, demanding our energy and attention or even altering our perception of the world so that we can never be fully present in any given moment. Even in the important ones, and it’s a big burden to carry.

This beach moment wasn’t a ceremonial rite, or a significant event in my life, but it was important to me because for that small piece of time, the negative messages paused, the gnawing worry dissipated, the weight of depression lifted. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and I didn’t want to go back to bed. I got a break from all of that. It’s even held off a little since then.

If you can’t find an ocean today, I hope you can find a moment where you get a break. I hope you can lose yourself, even if only for a few seconds, in something that brings you joy. If you can’t, just remember that you’re not alone. I’m over here in your corner, cheering for you.

Remember – you woke up today! You are a badass!