Anxiety and panic attacks are no joke. No matter how many times they happen, they are terrifying every time, and it’s easy to feel like you might die if you’re not able to talk yourself through it. I have them every week if I’m in a sustained hypo-manic state, and about once a month if I’m in a bad depressive episode. Still, even without the emotional extremes, they can happen seemingly out of nowhere, triggered by things I often don’t understand until after they’re over. A big thing in therapy is learning to recognize triggers, which is helpful for perspective, and sometimes helps in the moment. But still it’s only part of the anxiety picture.
I had an anxiety attack as recently as the other night when I was grocery shopping with my family. I had gone off on my own to look at a few different items and soon realized that I no longer had my phone on me. I rushed back to the cart and asked the family if the phone was in the cart. They glanced in the cart and said no, so I rushed back to each place I had been to look for it, not finding it anywhere. My pulse and breathing quickened, I couldn’t think about anything but my phone, focusing, oddly, on the panic of losing my shopping list. Then I lost my family and started crying. My vision blurred and I’m sure I caused other shoppers some concern. I made eye contact with a few of them (a mistake).
Finally I found the family and breathlessly started throwing things out of the cart until I finally saw my phone at the bottom. I grabbed it and left them gaping to try to walk off the physical symptoms. When my mind started clearing I found that I was in the freezer section staring at Eggo waffles with the freezer door open. I felt better eventually, I still had my shopping list, and my access to my supportive texting friends and family, and more importantly, my shopping list. I can’t go into a grocery store without a list or I become too anxious. Ah, yes, there was the trigger.
There’s no way I could have prepared for that, though I did try to talk myself through it as best I could. Mostly it sounded like, “Breathe slower you’re not going to die. Breathe slower. Breathe slower.” It didn’t work though because my panic brain replied, “MY LIST MY LIST MY LIST!” Afterward I was able to talk myself down better. “It’s going to be okay. I am okay. Everything will be okay. Let’s go get some waffles,” apparently.
The most severe panic attack I ever had lasted three days. I know therapists and doctors say that a panic attack can really only last 25 minutes because after that your body chemistry is depleted of panic chemicals. So sure, I had breaks from the actual panicking, usually when the Xanax allowed me to calm down. But as soon as it started wearing off I panicked again. Sobbing, blurred vision, hyperventilating, shaking uncontrollably.
It reminded me of when I was working in the veterinary field and we’d see severe epilepsy cases where we put them on the strongest medications to get them to stop seizing and as soon as it wore off the poor animal was in another seizure again.
I was in a situation where there were about 20 unexpected triggers hitting me all at once. None of which I saw coming. I almost missed the wedding of one of my favorite people in the whole world because I was trapped in a prison of my own panicking head. Anxiety does not care where you are, what you were planning on doing other than panicking, or who you are with. It’s coming in anyway.
I feel like I learn my triggers just in time to find out that I have a whole new set waiting for me. The work is never done with mental illness. Nothing is ever fixed, it just morphs into new challenges. That’s what makes people living with mental illness such badasses. They are constantly fighting invisible battles that threaten to take over their whole lives, but they still manage to wake up every single day to fight again. How much more badass can you get? And sometimes they get dressed, have jobs and relationships and friends, all while doing battle.
Fight on, you motherfucking badasses. I’m fighting right next to you. Let’s have a waffle together sometime.
“Oh, excuse me,” I say to the person I’ve accidentally cut off in the hall leading to the ladies’ room.
“Haha, no problem. The squash at the mall is rough!” I think I hear.
Not wanting to make this crazy talker feel bad, I say, “Well, they can’t all be gems, can they? Haha!” and push past her and her disappeared smile and confused, slightly concerned eyes, and let myself into the bathroom ahead of her.
While I’m in the stall, I realize that she must have said, “Well, this hall is small enough!” and not whatever I thought she said about squash. My response made less sense to her than the squash mall made to me. Another missed connection.
I don’t hear very well, so add that to my momentary panic whenever someone tries to make small talk with me, my mind reeling, trying to force words out so I don’t completely mangle the transaction, and it’s a disaster. I’m starting to accept that I’m going to mangle it anyway, so I try to keep my tone light and hope for the best. I used OKCupid to date people after my divorce, and under What I’m Best At in my profile I said “Making it weird.” And I meant it with all my heart.
I have a lot of wonderful friends who love me very much, but even with them I’m socially awkward enough to make it weird on a daily basis. And it’s not just my hearing loss or loathing of small talk either. At first I didn’t think mental illness played into it at all, but now I’m not so sure. When I’m doing everything I can just to stay alive with the minimum amount of functioning, not to mention summon the courage to be around other humans when I feel like that, polite conversation is the last of my energy priorities.
I might be at a store in the checkout line and the friendly cashier will say something like, “Any big plans for the weekend?”
Dear god, that question. I hate that question.
My first instinct is to lie, desiring to be someone who does things on a weekend like normal people. It sounds something like this: “Oh yeah! We’re going paddle boarding at the lake. Standing paddle boarding. With Martha Stewart. She’s buying us beer. Then we’re all going off roading in her Jeep. In the mud. I’m very excited.”
My next instinct is the honest one. Let’s not waste time being polite, let’s just tell it like it is. It sounds like this: “Yeah. Big plans to not put pants on or shower or brush my teeth for two days. Just kidding it’s already been a month. I’ll probably lie in my bed sideways and watch The Office reruns for thirty hours while eating these four bags of dill pickle chips and wiping my hands on the dog. What will you be up to?”
There’s the third response and it’s one I call The Best I Can Do. It goes like this: “Is it the weekend? What day is it? Can you just… I’ve got to get home. Because…I have to.” and then I start to cry as I avoid eye contact while o wait for the cashier to finish scanning my items, imagining them judging me for buying dill pickle chips in bulk along with tampons and one single celery stalk.
No matter which choice I go with, I make it weird. The cashier, or whomever I’m talking to will give me a blank, confused, or pitying look. And that’s just the way it is. At one point in my life while working customer service, I learned to have a separate customer service personality. I was charming, helpful, funny, cheerful, and I could do it as long as I was getting paid for it. Afterward I didn’t want to talk at all. To anyone. About anything.
This feeling is the inspiration for my “today is a no talking day” sticker. I feel like that so many times when I am too busy fighting my own brain to have energy for conversation or even responses to simple questions. It costs me a lot of myself to survive depression, anxiety, bipolar, and type 1 diabetes. It would be nice to be able to enjoy being social instead of feeling like it’s an obstacle or a puzzle that’s too difficult for me to figure out most of the time. At least I also don’t have enough energy to care what these strangers think of me and my awkwardness. That’s an asset, especially when I know I’m doing the best I can. It’s an asset too when I’m writing a blog that talks about things that no one wants to talk about. I don’t care what you think of me because I know that there’s someone out there who will read this and not feel so alone anymore.
Trigger warning: this post talks about cutting and self harm
This is probably the most difficult subject to talk about, but that might be why it’s the most important to talk about in order to fight the stigma of living with mental illness. That’s the theory I’m working from, anyway, because that way the pain of talking about it publicly has a purpose.
I have used cutting and other forms of self harm such as bruising myself and using diabetes as a weapon – binge eating without giving insulin, or even eating normally and purposefully not giving extra insulin – since I was a teenager. As a teen I was not allowed to ask for help when I needed it, so I would cut myself – usually on my face – to show people I needed help. I stopped doing this until I was in my early thirties.
I was in a toxic marriage and needed help but wasn’t getting it, so I started cutting again. The urges surprised me since they were so strong and I haven’t felt them since I was a kid. All of my pain in my marriage was invisible, so the cuts, the blood, the scars were all proof that I was in pain. It was outside of my head, which was a relief.
My marriage ended and I started cutting again. My life was suddenly in chaos. I lost everything: my house, my family (in laws), my job, my car (totaled it), my jobs (lost two in a row), my dog (liver failure), I almost lost my dad to complications of surgery, and I was trying to survive on my own in an upside down world. My depression was spiraling downward at an alarming rate, and I started cutting again. I dug into my legs with a sterile needle (always sterile, I don’t want to do damage, I just want the pain) as a way to gain a sense of control.
If I cut I bleed. If I bleed there’s pain. Cause, effect. Very straightforward. Absolutely nothing in my life was straightforward, I was in control of nothing, none of the causes had effects that made any sense. Surgery is supposed to heal, not try to kill. Working hard is supposed to give you job security, not take it away. Dogs are supposed to live forever. But I know exactly what happens when I put a needle on my skin. This year when my marriage ended and I lost everything was what led me to my second ever psych-hospital experience, but I will go into that story more another time.
I had a counselor recently whose response to me talking about my cutting was, “Most people grow out of these urges eventually. Almost no one continues to cut after age 30.” Yeah, well first of all, you’re talking to one of us over 30, so check your facts. Second of all, that’s not true at all, there are many adults who self harm. But people over 30, this arbitrary age when life is supposed to magically get better, don’t feel like they’re allowed to talk about it. I told this counselor, “I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me. Do you think I’m doing something wrong?” She said no, I was doing nothing wrong, I was just using an old coping mechanism. She said the urges should be getting fewer and further between. I said they’re not, they’re more frequent and getting stronger. And I know I’m not the only one. I’m not an anomaly of her inaccurate statistic.
There are many many many adults who hurt themselves in secret, suffering in a very painful silence. There’s an Instagram account I follow that is called Faces of Fortitude: “This project lays a foundation of healing thru portraits of those affected by Suicide & Mental illness.” A photographer takes pictures of people who have survived depression, suicide attempts, trauma, and self harm, and tells their story in the caption. There are amazing stories and powerful photos, and it is inspiring to read. In one of the stories the person advised against tattooing over or hiding your self harm scars, but advised wearing them proudly because they are reminders of what you survived and of how far you’ve come.
I respect this sentiment, and if it were anything but self-inflicted scars I would agree. But I still have times when my own scars can be triggers for me to want to hurt myself. I have gotten several tattoos that cover my scars, and I did it because I wanted to turn something painful into something beautiful. That is what I would rather look at than scars, reminders, of painful moments. When I have the urges to hurt myself, they are difficult to shake. The pain is actually what brings me relief. Totally intuitive, right?? So when I see the scars, the memory of the pain makes me want to cut again. It’s all complicated.
Cutting and self harm are complicated. We don’t do it for attention. We do it because the pain, the blood, the bruises, the scars give us something that we need so desperately that we have to hurt ourselves in order to get it. Maybe it’s validation we need, or a way to ease our depressive thoughts without trying to kill ourselves, or maybe we need to get the pain out of our heads and into the outside world. Whatever our reasons are, we don’t have to be teens. We are mature, fully functioning adults with hidden pain that we don’t know how to express otherwise.
When you see us in the wild, don’t judge us. Just know we are in pain, or at one time we were in pain. You can understand and relate to that. That’s all it is, so I wish it didn’t have to be a secret. Thank you for letting me share a little bit about my experience.
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!
People like traveling with me because I’m very laid back and adaptable. I can be as happy staying in a fancy hotel (I get unreasonably excited if there are more than two TVs in the room and at least one of them is in the bathroom) as I am staying in a cheap motel as I am sleeping on the forest floor under the stars as I am camping out on a near-stranger’s floor in the middle of a city I’ve never been to. I can navigate a very wide range of social situations, I can pack like a man, and I can get as sweaty as anyone else while hooking up a trailer to the back of a truck. So I’m popular with travelers because I appear to be not needy at all.
The truth is that I can take care of my own needs, and when I can’t, first I try to suck it up and push forward anyway before I will finally ask for help. I hate holding up group plans by needing something weird, like a trip back to my hotel room for a bottle of insulin, or something with sugar in it to treat a low blood sugar which may require half an hour out of everyone’s way to find me a soft drink. I try to plan for everything, but inevitably something weird and 99% diabetes related will happen that I can’t plan for.
Lately, too, in my healing but still weakened mental health state, my needs have increased. I am traveling right now, and my usual laid back, adaptable self has been replaced with some kind of high maintenance needy woman that I never wanted to be. Outwardly I am still flexible, but my inner monologue has kicked it up about ten notches. “How am I supposed to sleep with only ONE pillow? I can’t find ANYTHING, who packed this backpack? Whyyyyyyyyy can’t we be there yet?!”
Outwardly I’m like, “We’re not stopping for 4 hours? Cool.”
We stayed the night with my boyfriend’s family last night. Granted I had met them before, so there was no first impression pressure, but we had also been driving for about twenty four hours and we were all exhausted and cranky. Also, I was on my period, which will become relevant soon.
We ate dinner with the family, watched a little TV, caught up a little, then a few of us excused ourselves to go to bed early. My boyfriend and I and our two dogs were staying in one of the kids’ rooms on a twin bed and a twin trundle bed on the floor. I was so tired and cranky that I laid down and cried because I had to poop and I didn’t want to poop in someone else’s house. (high maintenance)
I was also terrified to go to bed because I was on my period and didn’t want to bleed on a kid’s bed sheets. I decided to delay the pooping and change my insulin pump, which involves needles but very rarely involves bleeding. I changed the pump and realized I was bleeding, which only happens once out of every 30 or so times I change it. And I bled a lot. Right onto the kid sheets. Right where my ass would be if I was laying down. I was terrified for the wrong blood. But now so what, the worst has already happened, I can sleep sound.
Until I pooped in the kids’ bathroom and clogged the toilet. And the 12 year old had to bring me a plunger with a look on his face that said, “I know what you did and it’s gross and I don’t want to talk to you ever again.” Or maybe I’m reading into that. But I spent several minutes unclogging the toilet and sobbing a little to myself until I came out of the bathroom and made a poop joke, laughed, and went to bed still sobbing a little.
I know how to suck it up. On a road trip there’s not much choice but to endure and do the best you can. Sometimes I have to admit that I have needs, and sometimes I have to change other people’s plans to get those needs met. Always I have to be okay with that because what’s the alternative? Making myself miserable stewing over it while everyone else has moved on.
We finally arrived at our destination, and I can breathe a little bit. The toilets I clog from now on will be our own. And even though there’s still only one pillow for me to sleep on, the ocean is about 500 feet from where I’m sitting, so no matter what, everything is going to be okay.
Now I’m going to go take a fucking shower.
Have you ever heard a version of the saying, the only way you’ll get what you want is if you ask for it? In a lot of ways this has proven to be true in my life. I’ve learned to stop waiting for things to happen for me and to start making things happen. I’ve learned not to complain about my life not being what I want it to be if I haven’t made any efforts to make it so. I’ve learned to trust the things that I want and to think about what it would look like for me to actually go after them. Sometimes with that last one I find that what I wanted, even when it is a genuine, strong desire, isn’t what I really need.
Often this lesson comes along with life experience. For example one time when my nephew was two years old, he felt with all his heart that I wanted to go play with the white and orange lane bumps in the middle of the road. He turned to run into the road, and when my sister stopped him he cried and cried and cried as though by not getting what he wanted, even if it was dangerous, his world had just ended. I think this is a fight that we continue to have with ourselves in different forms our entire life, we just don’t always have my sister to stop us from running into the road. As adults the decisions are ours.
How can we amass four decades of life experience, fully understanding that certain decisions will be dangerous, and still make the self destructive choice over and over again? Just because I want something doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for me. And just because something is the right choice doesn’t mean it’s going to be attractive to me at first. I want a lot of things. I want speech without consequences, I want sex without consequences, I want to deal with my problems by drinking and getting high, I want a baby elephant, I want to live in a self sustaining house in the middle of the forest and never talk to anyone ever again, I want to eat strawberry frosting from the tub with my finger.
Because I’m adult, I can choose to do any of those things. People may try to stop me, but no one can really stop me if I decide go for the frosting tub. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, don’t get between a diabetic and a tub of frosting. Just don’t. But any of those other things on the list are either not realistic, or they would have consequences that I do not want. I could speak like there are no consequences, but then I would end up hurting people I love or going to jail. I could adopt a baby elephant but I would ruin its life, and possibly vice versa.
All I’m saying is that sometimes making out lives better isn’t a matter of demanding what we want. I don’t go up to my boyfriend and demand that I want to start living in the forest and may not be home very much anymore. That would not make my life better at all, even though it’s something I think sounds attractive. Because the world isn’t black and white. It’s all grey, everywhere. Want doesn’t equal need. Want leading to happiness is as much a truth as want leading to disaster, so we have to fish around in the grey to make the best choices we can.
My heart can be an idiot and my brain can be a bitch, but every now and then, with effort, they can work together and take care of me.
Another “note” on “journaling” sounds a little redundant, and I tried to make a pun out of it, but I couldn’t make it work. Let me know if you come up with something better. As I mentioned in a previous post, I discovered journaling as a coping and survival method in my early 20s with the help of one my therapist at the time. She recommended a book called The Artist’s Way, which is a book I ended up loving. It has exercises for your brain and spirit to discover the artist within you. The exercise from this book that spoke to me was “Morning Pages.” This is where you write three pages in a journal every morning. It doesn’t matter what you write, how big or small you write, or even whether or not the words can be found in a dictionary. The idea is to develop consistency and to empty your brain of whatever is cluttering it so you can start your day with a clear head.
It was difficult for me to start writing in a journal, but once I got the hang of it I started doing it every day. There is so much cluttering my head at any given moment – racing thoughts, depression fueled thoughts, negative self talk, positive self talk, jokes that are hilarious until I write them down and read them to myself – that getting some of them out on paper, a place outside of me, frees up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth and helps me continue to survive, function, and thrive.
My most recent psych hospital stay reminded me of how much I need journaling. I had given up journaling for about a year, and apparently a lot of thoughts and feelings and misspelled words got backed up in there and gummed up the works. My lack of journaling did not lead to my suicidal thoughts, that was my lack of functioning brain chemistry. But once I started writing again while in the hospital, a flood gate was open.
In the psych hospital there’s a lot of down time. There’s a structure of therapy and treatment and activities, but between those you don’t go home, you just, sort of, exist together. About 80% of my down time was spent journaling, sometimes by myself in my room, but usually around other people. Here is a non-sequitur journal entry from my hospital journal (written in marker because that’s all we were allowed to have to write with):
I want to say he eventually got the hang of Uno, but I don’t specifically remember that happening.
Here’s an entry about how people noticed how much I journal through the day:
The woman walked up to me while I was sitting outside, asked me if I had seen a rabbit, then pulled a carrot out of her bra and threw it in a shrub. She said, “I bet we’ll see it soon!” and winked at me. The level of commitment involved in smuggling carrots from the cafeteria impressed me.
A few people in the hospital asked me how I journal so much because they wanted to start. The first step for me it to stop judging yourself. That’s easy to do, right? Just flip the switch from On to Off, and you’re done, right? No? Oh. It takes practice. Start with words on paper. Don’t judge yourself for your handwriting, your ability to spell, your sentences, your thoughts, whether or not it makes sense…it is all good. If your pen (or hospital sanctioned marker) is making marks on a piece of paper, congratulations! You’re journaling! Now do it again tomorrow. And the next day.
I started this way, a little at a time, often writing through it when I judged myself for something. Before long I was able to just let the thoughts translate to paper. I don’t read anything I’ve written either. Not for a very long time. And when I do I realize I knew more about my own situation than I gave myself credit for.
It’s difficult for me to talk about my most recent psych hospital visit because I’m still so close to it, but I intend to face it and write through it. Reading my hospital journal in pieces is helping me process the experience, and continuing to journal daily after my discharge day is making me a stronger person every day.
Journaling is powerful. I’ve heard more times than not someone saying they would love to journal but they don’t know what to say. And I tell them that’s a form of judging themselves. We all know what to say it’s just a matter of learning how to get it from our heads to paper. It looks different for everyone so the most important thing we can do is just practice. Do it for you. I do it for me, not anyone else…
…until I scan them onto my computer and post the contents online for the whole world to see*.
*Note: you are not required to do this when you journal.
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There is a new sticker available too for the days when talking takes too much energy. It is also good for days when your state of brain ensures that talking can only do harm. I have these days most frequently when I’m hypomanic.
Here is a preview of the new sticker! And if you make any purchase you get the black and white website sticker for free! Let’s go shopping!
It’s easier to write about fighting depression stigmas when you’re not in the middle of a depression episode. Today I’m writing to you from the middle. This week my depression has gotten a little worse each day. Functioning is difficult, but I make myself do what I can. A week or two ago I was in the middle of a hypomania episode, a different middle, where I had loads of manic energy. I had so much energy that I couldn’t feel any depression. I was exceedingly productive and never needed to sleep, but I wouldn’t get exhausted.
Then my brain hopped on the slide and lowered me into this depressed darkness where getting out of bed is almost too overwhelming for me to accomplish. I did get out of bed today, and I am forcing myself to check a few things off my to do list, anger at being stuck on this bipolar carnival ride fueling all of my energy.
The picture shown above illustrates what I’m feeling right now. I’m surrounded by mud that wants to suck me under, the muddy water holding me up is cold and inhospitable and you can see my discomfort on my face. There is wood and barbed wire above my head making sure that if I try to raise myself up too high and throw off the depression status quo, I will be rewarded with pain and pulled hair (it happened: a barb caught my pony tail and it was not pleasant).
Yet, I am resisting being sucked down into the mud. I’m fighting to keep one hand on solid ground and the other doing its best to keep myself above water, even if barely. My face is smeared with grit, my hair is snarled, I am freezing, but I’m still looking ahead to the other side of this dark time.
As long as I can do that, I will be okay.