December LinkUp Party – Holidays and Chronic Illness

It’s a new(ish) month, and that means it’s time for a new Linkup Party from A Chronic Voice.  This month’s linkup is all about the holidays and chronic illness, a topic near and dear to my heart. This month’s prompts are:          (Note: some of these are spelled the way that everyone but the U.S. spells them. I kept them that way – it’s how they were originally posted, and also it makes me feel fancy).

De-StressingD

Holiday stress is different for everyone. For some, it’s family dynamics.  For others, it’s the intense socializing and people-ing, which can be incredibly exhausting both mentally and physically, especially when you battle chronic illness. For others, it’s the expectation – it’s a season for joy and happiness and merriness, and those who are ill, especially those living with depression, often don’t feel this way. It can feel incredibly lonely and isolating, especially when you feel this way in a room full of people. For me, it’s a combination of all of these. 

This year, I’m lucky that because of some… ahem… simplifying in my life (at least in my external commitments), I have fewer networking events, party obligations, etc. That’s helping considerably. There’s significantly less “Go to this party/event and feel super socially anxious and awkward and alone and depressed but smile and pretend everything’s fine because who wants to be the downer at the holiday party.” Additionally, I’ve been spending a lot of my previously free time in yoga teacher training and yoga classes (as part of teacher training), so while my schedule isn’t really any less busy, it’s filled with activities that, while intense, focus a lot on mindfulness, reconnecting to oneself, focusing on the present, and lowering stress levels. It’s also letting me surround myself with others who want to focus on these things, which can be a huge help. I feel emotions – mine and others’ – strongly and tend to absorb a lot of what’s around me. I find more and more, the company I keep and the atmosphere I’m in greatly affects me, and I have to keep this in mind, especially during super stress-induced, emotionally charged times like the holidays.

Savouring

I’m somehow both an old soul, and a kid at heart, and the kid at heart comes out big time during the holidays. Christmas is literally my favorite day of the year. Growing up, holidays were a big deal in my family. We’d have Christmas morning at our house, but usually the next day or so we would drive up to my Grandma’s in Buffalo, NY and that entire side of the family would spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day together. Three generations of family, all celebrating, enjoying the same yearly traditions, laughing, and joking and singing (my grandma loved to sing), doing Chistmasy things, ringing in the New Year together.  I remember walking with my grandma to get hot chocolate on the main street that ran through town. I remember all of the Italian Christmas cookies (some that we later found out were fruit cake made to look like cookies.. that was disappointing!).  I remember making ridiculous family videos for New Year’s eve and doing family “talent shows” at the insistence of my Grandma. There was so much love and fun and silliness – LOTS of silliness – and togetherness. We didn’t have lots of money and it wasn’t some big formal affair. We just got together and enjoyed each other and the season. And even though my grandma passed away ten years ago, and only one great-aunt from that generation is still alive, and even though we haven’t gone up to Buffalo for the holiday in years, that all still stays with me. I savour all of those traditions. The cookie baking, the Christmas carols, the lights, the tree-decorating, the laughing, the singing, the togetherness.

Simplifying

Simplifying is a huge goal for me for 2019. A lot has changed for me in the past couple of years. I got married. I went from running a business full time to running it part time and working at a regular job part time, to running it on the side and working at a regular job full time. I increased my advocacy efforts and founded Spread Hope Project. I started yoga teacher training, which I’m still currently undertaking. I went back to church and am slowly beginning to understand my own spirituality more. A lot has been going on, and it’s left me feeling a little all over the place – like I’m constantly in numerous transitions and trying to navigate them all simultaneously.

So in terms of simplifying, I’m focusing on two aspects:

1.) Looking at what in my life still serves me, and what has run its course. Everything from clothes to organizations to that friend that you continually try desperately to hang on to only to realize that it’s been one-sided for a while, and really, they haven’t really been in your life for quite some time. (Note, I didn’t say that with anyone specific in mind, and I don’t plan on friend-dumping anyone, but I don’t need to chase ghosts either). It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the organizations or the clothes or the friend. But not everything that served you at one point will continue to for eternity. And when you try to make it so, you often get stuck.

2. I’m looking to simplify my inner life. Yoga teacher training and getting back in touch with my spirituality have been a big help. I’m focusing on trying to be more present, to focus on the small moments, to focus on joy and life and hope, and being a good, loving, giving, kind human being in the day to day, instead of feeling insignificant or inferior because the grand scheme of my life isn’t where I hoped it would be. This of course doesn’t eliminate my anxiety and depression because they’re illnesses with no cure, but it helps me feel less overwhelmed at times, and that’s a good start. 

Resting

Resting is huge for me. If I don’t get enough sleep and rest, my moods cycle more, and I become more ill. It affects my IBS and migraines as well.  I’ve been working on trying to schedule things more in advance if possible, so that I can also schedule rest time. Whether it’s getting to bed early or an afternoon/evening of walking Hallmark movies and letting my brain relax, I aim to actively plan rest time. And I try as much as I can to stick to these boundaries. I’m no good to anyone if I haven’t slept, am depressed and anxious, if I’m in pain from IBS and am having trouble seeing straight from a migraine.

Finalising

This prompt is an interesting one, because it’s one I’m actually backing off on a little bit. In part because some of my main focuses are not the type of things that are finalized in the calendar year. For example, my yoga teacher training continues right on through the spring. The end of the calendar year only means we get a couple of weekends off to celebrate the holidays. But apart from that, the training continues on just like it would when transitioning between any other months of the year. 

It doesn’t mean I don’t have goals for 2019, and I’m especially going to work on some goals for Spread Hope Project. I have ideas that I’d like to put into place, or at least work towards, and want to start to plan those steps out.  But mostly, what I’m trying to “finalize” is to get myself into a better place personally, meaning internally, to start the new year, and I’m doing so by focusing on the above – the simplifying, the resting, the savouring, the de-stressing. I’m trying to take some of the self-imposed pressure off of myself, reset a bit, and be ready to start with a bit of a fresh perspective in 2019.

As always, thanks to Sheryl of  A Chronic Voice for hosting the LinkUp Party! Check out her site, as well as the December posts for other chronic illness bloggers here!

Advertisements

How Do You Work With Fear?

It’s natural, as we grow older, to have a bit more fear (at least, I feel it is). As a child, we  didn’t know all the ramifications – we could fall and get hurt if we did this or that, we could get emotionally hurt from xyz, we could be rejected or fail if we went after such and such goal. As we get older, and we learn more about how things work, how life happens, as we experience more struggles and challenges, there’s more to fear. As a toddler, you didn’t (hopefully) have to fear that if you went after your career dreams and failed, you may not be able to pay your rent or mortgage, or feed your family. Fewer responsibilities often meant fewer fears of what would go wrong.

As adults, we’ve been through a lot of life experiences, ups and downs, successes and failures, achievements and disappointments. We know what can go well, but we also know what can go not so well. And often times, especially when you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, it’s that “what can go wrong” that gets magnified. And often, that can lead to fear. Furthermore, because depression and anxiety often like to lie to us, clinging on to those fears and reiterating that we’ll fail or be rejected or some other concerning outcome, that fear begins to sound a lot more like fact to our brain. It slowly morphs from “but what if I fail” to simply, “I fail”. To clarify, I’m not blaming us for this. It’s our illness, doing what it does so well, grabbing hold of the most vulnerable pieces, and clamping down on them, and makes it feel impossible to see any other outcome. Furthermore, it often feels impossible that if this “worst case scenario” happens – we fail, we get rejected, we mess something up big time – that (at least in time) it’ll be OK. That maybe, in even trying and failing, we’ll move closer to where we want to be.

This is a challenge I’m actively working on with myself right now.  While I am not trampling over my fears thoroughly, I am learning a few tricks along the way that I thought I’d share.  Sometimes, in these situations, it helps me to approach things a bit backwards – look at all the awesome possibilities first, and then bring it back down slowly to “ground level”, so that maybe I can begin to work on the fear of other, less awesome, outcomes. In order to do this, I’ve been asking myself a few key questions.

So here goes a big first question. I’ll share some of my own responses to it, in case that helps you to record your own.

What would you do or be if fear wasn't holding you back_

What would you do/be/go for if fear was not holding you back?

To clarify, this isn’t a “perfect world” scenario. It’s simply, “if you are who you are, where you are, with all that is you, but without xyz fear(s) holding you back.”  As promised, here are a few of mine – they range from the mundane to the big, because we (or at least I) have all kinds of fears, and big or small, they can hold us back.

  • I’d submit writing to more sites/sources
  • I’d cook/bake/try more culinary stuff without worry that they’d be awful (told you some were smaller than others)
  • I’d try my hand at growing my own herbs and veggies (I make half-hearted attempts, but I know I’m afraid I’ll fail, and haven’t pushed myself).
  • I’d work on publishing my novel
  • I’d work for myself again – I’d dig in, and figure out what I had to do to make it happen, instead of hemming & hawing & “I don’t know”ing.
  • I’d expand my advocacy to things like videos, or maybe podcasts.
  • I’d reach out and try to get more involved in advocacy panels or speaking or something along those lines.
  • I’d reach out to friends more, and try to get consistent get-togethers planned (like “we play board games every Tuesday” or whatever). Yes, this is a fear thing. Friend rejection is a serious issue for me me.
  • I’d learn how to do more around the house – fix more stuff, etc. My husband is awesome at this, but I’d like to learn too.

As you can see, there are some big items, and some seemingly silly items. “If you weren’t afraid, you’d cook?” you might ask. Yes.  I’m so afraid I’ll mess it up, do it “wrong”, embarrass myself (I don’t even know what this means in relation to cooking but it’s a fear), set off the smoke detectors because I’m burning something, etc. And it may not seem like something that’s holding me back, but I hate feeling like I can’t do simple things, and it wreaks havoc on my self-confidence and self-esteem. So whatever your list entails, don’t cross it off because it seems silly or unimportant or like it can’t possibly be holding you back. If it came to your mind, it’s important. Plus, these “silly” fears play an important role in getting us “over the fear hump”, which I’ll discuss later on.

 

Question number two:

If your fears came true, what's the worst that's likely to happen_

If you try and your fear comes true, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen?

Two clarifications here:

1.) I’m not talking about fears of serious life events – like fear of losing a loved one, or of serious illness or injury.  Obviously, when it comes to serious impacts on our lives and health like this, we have to consider these serious possibilities. I’m talking about “What if I do try to cook that dish or to grow those plants or to make those plans with friends, and it doesn’t work out as I hope – i.e. I fail, mess up, get rejected.”

2.) Note that I say “is likely to happen”. Yes, there’s always technically the chance of the absolute worst case scenario. I could try to cook something and end up burning down my kitchen. That does happen. But the worst that’s likely to happen is I burn it, have to throw it out, and order pizza for dinner. And in the process, I’ve perhaps learned what not to do when cooking that particular item, so I have more knowledge for next time I try.

So, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen? Of course, the bigger ticket items are more risky. If I try to work for myself and it fails, then that’s a bigger problem than if I try to garden and it fails. But knowing these, even the more serious concerns, is a first step, because it helps us get a plan in place.

 

Question number three:

Are past failures or rejections actually what you think they are_

If you’re basing your fear on past experience, is the past failure/rejection/etc actually what you think it is?

Confused? Let me explain. Real life example: The first time I cooked for my now-husband (then boyfriend) in our house, I decided to make breakfast for dinner. I knew I could make omelettes so I felt pretty solid, despite my cooking fears. And I burnt them. Horribly. Like, smoke detectors going off and scaring the dog, horribly. We had to dump them and order pizza. My brain, in those moments, turned on me faster than a sworn enemy would: See you can’t even cook the most basic things! You’re incapable. How can you be almost 40 years old and not even be able to make eggs? How pathetic!  Except what I never considered, and my (now) husband then pointed out, is that it was the first time we’d used the oven in the new house, it was a very old electric oven (I was used to gas ovens), the coils weren’t even so it wasn’t cooking proportionally, and it looked like it hadn’t been used in probably months, if not longer, so the oven itself was metaphorically rusty. In short, maybe the issue was the oven, and not me (at least here – admittedly, with some cooking, it is me). So, are the failures/rejections, mess ups, etc actually that? Or could there be another reason they’re occurring. Note: Answer this honestly. This isn’t to push away all responsibility. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum. But it could be that your fear is based off a failing or rejection or mess up that actually… isn’t. This can help dissect that.

 

Question number four:

What small steps can you take to build up to your bigger fears_

What are some small steps that you can take to work up to your bigger fears?

Another real life example: I’ve been wanting to attempt publishing my novel since I finished writing it over a year and a half ago. But I’m afraid of rejection, that it’s not good enough, and all these other things. So, this past September, my dad came up with an option: He produces Wordgathering Journal (an online journal), and suggested publishing a draft of the first chapter in the journal. Despite the fact that it’s my dad, and I trust his judgement on what’s good enough to go into the journal, it was nerve wracking – this was the first time any fiction work of mine was being put out for public consumption. But the fact that it was one chapter, and my dad was publishing it, made it less scary. Now, I’m looking into eventually self-publishing the full thing. That one small step gave me confidence to go further. It also gave me the insight to look at other options for getting my work out there – it didn’t have to be “big publisher or bust”.

So look at your fears, and see how you can break them down. It probably won’t dissipate the fears all together, but they may break down into manageable fears, as mine did above.

 
And finally, a tip/thought:

Practice doesn't make perfect, but it helps.

This is where to address those seemingly “silly” fears first. It’s way easier to think, “Tonight, I’m going to try to cook a simple dinner” than it is to say “I’m going to go for it and try to get my novel published”. These smaller things, when we start to move with the fear (note: not past it, but with it, meaning, we’re not unafraid, but we’re not frozen with fear), can help us build up to those bigger ticket items.

The bottom line is, the more we practice (thoughtfully) doing things we’re afraid of, the less frightening it becomes. I say thoughtfully here because I’m not saying “throw all caution to the wind and hope it all works out OK!” But the point is, often, one of the most frightening things is the unknown: What will happen? What if this? What if that? What if, what if, what if… But the more we practice moving forward with our fear, the more we get used to it. That’s not to say that we should just all be used to rejection and failure. Those hurt, sometimes terribly, and if we were all completely ok with every rejection we ever got, that might be just as concerning, especially when it’s on a personal level (friends, relationships).  But the more we work with our fear, the more we understand that sometimes, rejection and failure and messing up happen, and that when they do, we can get through it. And sometimes, they don’t happen. And that’s even better.

 

What Are You Really Afraid Of?

This week’s topic is fear – a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. To clarify, not because I love fear. Not by any means. But because I have fear, or should I say fears, and plenty of them.  While I do deal with some more external fears, like claustrophobia, heights, flying (ironic, for a travel planner I know), and a particularly strange fear of getting locked in a bathroom (there’s actually history to this one), my biggest fears are internal:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of loss of control (of life, of my mind, of anything)
  • Of never being truly happy
  • Of never finding my path in life

So if you, too, battle these, know that you’re not alone. Often, fear of failure and rejection, and even fear of loss of control, can show up as behaviors such as self-sabotage (whole week’s focus coming up on this), procrastination, talking ourselves out of going for something we really want, giving up on our dreams and goals even if they’re attainable or in reach. And frequently, because of these, our fears become a “self-fulling prophecy” and form a vicious loop.  If you struggle with depression or anxiety, this loop is often even trickier. To clarify, I am NOT saying that these things are our faults, that we’re to blame for feeling depressed or for having low self-esteem or confidence or self-worth. I’m not saying that at all. Here’s what I’m saying:

Depression and anxiety make it difficult for us to fully trust ourselves. They lie to us, telling us that we’re worthless, hopeless, not good enough. They tell us we’ll never be successful, or catalogue a list a mile long of all the things that will go wrong, to the point that we may be overcome with anxiety. When you’re consistently being told you’re worthless and hopeless and not enough, that you’ll never succeed, that nobody cares about what you do, or whatever other lies our illnesses tell us, the results are often low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and low self-worth. Afterall, being told this enough, even by ourselves, has a lasting impact. And if you’ve ever been told this by others too, that only compounds it further (note, we’ll go into stigma and dealing with other people’s B.S. later in this topics series). Speaking from personal experience, convincing yourself that you’re going to succeed, that you don’t need to be afraid of failure or rejection or anything like this,  can be incredibly difficult when you’re really struggling with feelings of worthlessness.

This is something I’m working with actively at this moment, and it’s something that I think a lot of us experience, at least on some level. Over this week, I’m hoping to offer some thoughts to help maybe break down the fears a bit, to make them seem more manageable, and also offer some tools to try to work through them.

To start with, here are a few questions to think on:

1. What do you truly fear? This could take a little digging, but it helps to get to the bottom of the fear. A few tools that might help dig deeper here.

  •  Note that the true fear may be hiding behind another fear. For example, you may be saying, “I want to start my own business, but I’m afraid I’ll make less money, and I won’t be able to pay my bills.” And maybe money is where the fear ends – maybe you are making six figures now and your business plan you’ve created for your own business doesn’t account for that kind of salary. But often, it’s not this cut and dry and we have to dig deeper and ask ourselves, “Is a this really what I’m afraid of?”  Or to put it another way, in this example, “If you started your own business and you were successful, would you have less money and not be able to pay your bills?”  See if this assumption of success changes the inner dialogue. If so, the real fear not be simply be the salary to bills ratio, but that you’ll fail in your business venture. When examining your fears, look for what’s being left unspoken, and that might help you get to the heart of the issue. Often our fears are layered, and we need to address each aspect of them to fully work with them.
  • Also note that sometimes, fear disguises itself as anger. For instance, say you’re a writer and have a dream of getting published. And someone says to you, “You’ll never be published. You’re not all that good. Why don’t you go after a more realistic dream?” Sure, most people would get hurt. Because it’s a hurtful statement. But if you get really angry, and (internally or actually) start screaming at them, “How dare you say that. You’re an a$$hole! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You wouldn’t know good writing if it hit you in the face!”, make note. Make further note if you’re still mumbling to yourself about how wrong they are days or weeks later. It is true that it’s a pretty rude (and unless they’re your editor, probably unnecessary) thing to say. But often, we get most angry at something because deep down, there’s a tiny voice that says, “what if they’re right?” It doesn’t mean it’s a justified voice, but it’s often there all the same. People putting a voice to our deepest fears can make us feel exposed and vulnerable, and that’s often not a comfortable place to be.Often, to protect ourselves (think fight or flight), our body goes into anger mode, to mask feeling exposed. So take note of those moments. They can often be the most telling.

2. Do you feel this fear is holding you back? I ask this because it’s not always the case. Three reasons: First, some fear can healthy. It can keep us from situations that are actually potentially dangerous. Second: Fear can make us think things through more. For instance, if you think starting your business will result in a lower salary, you probably should address the “how will I pay the bills” question, even if it’s not your deepest rooted fear.  Third, some people use fear as a motivator. They are determined to get past their fear, and it fuels them to push themselves when they otherwise might stop. Sometimes, pushing past the fear in itself is a goal, and it can be a good one. But if this does not sound like you (I know it often doesn’t sound like me), here are some ways to figure out if fear is holding you back.

  • Do you notice you often get stuck at the same point in tasks/projects/activities?  I, for instance, am gung-ho in the idea and brainstorming stage. I am great at the planning, I make content calendars and marketing plans, I have business plans bulleted down to the tiniest detail. And then, when it’s time for implementation, I freeze. Or I make one small effort, and if it doesn’t seem to immediately return a positive result, I get discouraged and often back off. It’s easier to find reasons why it’s a bad idea or it won’t work or I’m too busy, or I just can’t do it right, now than to face potential failure.
  • Do you procrastinate consistently when it comes to certain tasks or goals (by which I mean tasks or goals that you want to do, at least in theory – not like taking out the trash or cleaning the toilet)? To clarify, procrastinating doesn’t have to be scrolling through Facebook for hours (though it can be). But if you find that every time you have to do xyz, you suddenly realize that you’ve been meaning to organize your sock drawer, or rearrange the kitchen pots and pans, or clean the tub again, note it. Or, if like me, you constantly think you’ll just make one more list or read one more applicable article just to make sure every tiny detail is perfect, instead of actually starting on the next steps, you may well be procrastinating. Procrastination can be sneaky, so look for it in non-obvious places – like working around every other item that could possibly ever be on your to-do list, instead of starting on the one task you said you were going to do today.
  • Do you deal with all or nothing thinking when it comes to your goals? For instance, for the writer above that wants to be published, if they say something like, “It’s not like it’s going to be a best-seller, so what’s the point?”, fear is probably holding them back. This falls under the “I’ll never succeed so why try” category.  When you deal with a mental illness, gray areas can be especially tricky. Speaking from personal experience, when I struggle to trust my own brain, it can often feel like I need “solid” thoughts to hold onto – something is good/bad, right/wrong, this way/that way, success/failure. And having that anchor can be really important, because there are times that the whole world can feel gray, fuzzy, wobbly. But it can also feed fears of failure or rejection, because we may see the only possible outcomes as success or failure, not a sliding scale. This is something I am especially working on right now, and there will be a whole theme on “gray areas” later on.

If you’re working on determining your fears, I hope these help. My next post will be on what we can do once we have determined what are fears are, and how (if) they’re holding us back.

And to close, a final reminder: fear is a natural part of life. It’s ok to feel afraid. I’d venture to say nobody lives without some fear – even if it’s a small, less-obvious fear that they may not even be aware of. Having fear is part of the human experience.  We don’t have to be fearless. We just need to work on identifying those fears, and how we can best work with them to move towards our goals and dreams.

 

It's perfectly OK to be afraid.

 

 

Depression, Anxiety, and Trusting Yourself

When you live with mental illness, it can be difficult to trust yourself. Not in the “I don’t trust that I’m going to do the right thing” sense (though there’s plenty of that for me too!), but in the sense that often, it’s difficult to tell if you’re assessing a situation as it is, or as it is through the lens of our illness. Now of course, everyone looks at life with some sort of lens. None of us are completely objective about every single situation. But when you live with a condition like depression, anxiety, or a mood cycling disorder that includes mania or hypomania, it often feels (at least after the fact), like our brain might be lying to us. Depression, for example, often makes us feel that we’re hopeless, worthless, that our lives and what we do is pointless. It can make us feel unlikeable and unlovable. More than that, it can make us tell ourselves these things, repeatedly. When depression hits, a small setback may feel like a massive failure. It may throw us completely off course, not because “we’re over-reacting”, as we may be accused of, but because our brain actually sees it this way. Anxiety can act in a similar way, running away with worst case scenarios without our permission or cooperation – it isn’t conscious thought, it just happens. Mania, or hypomania, on the other hand, can make us overly energetic, sometimes to the point that the energy feels almost uncontrollable. On these days, distinguishing the (hypo)mania from just feeling really positive and good about ourselves and capable, can be tricky (at least for some).

 

trust yourself

 

All of this makes it difficult to trust yourself. Because when you have difficulty determining a good day from hypomania, and depressive lies from the realities about yourself or your situation, it makes it difficult to trust anything. This feels especially true these days, when we’re constantly reading phrases like, “You can’t control what happens in life, but you can control how you react to it.”  A nice sentiment in theory, but it can make you feel like you should be able to control every thought in your brain. You should be able to just tell yourself not to be so anxious, not to feel so hopeless or worthless. And when you can’t, it may feel like “If I can’t even trust my own brain, what can I trust? Certainly not myself.”

 

If you’ve been here, or you are here, know that you’re not alone. So many of us go through this feeling. And I wish I had all the answers, but quite simply, I don’t. But I’m hoping, through this series of weekly topics that I’m starting, we’ll cover topics that will help you (and me!) learn to trust ourselves more. By digging deep into some of our fears, patterns, and struggles, especially those that often make us feel stuck, that we can learn how to trust ourselves better. I do, though, have one piece of advice that I have to remind myself of time and again, and it’s this:

 

When in doubt, go back to your core values. When it’s all said and done, what really, really matters to you deep down at the core?  If you took away all the external factors, people’s thoughts and judgements, even some of those critical self-judgements and lies our brain tells us in a bad flare up, what would be most important to you?  If you aren’t sure how this ties back to trusting ourselves, think of it this way: Our core values, the ones we’ve held since we can remember, that are so near and dear to our heart, that make us feel like something’s off when we aren’t holding true to them, don’t tend to change drastically without some sort of major life change (i.e. having children may zoom “keeping my children safe” right to the top of your list, and alter your perspective on other, previously high ranking items). But for the most part, without major life changes, these stay consistent.  Therefore these core values be can generally be relied upon to guide us. For example, one of my core values is putting people first. My loved ones especially are the most treasured piece of my life. Money, on the other hand, is not (don’t get me wrong, I like money, but it’s not a “treasured piece of my life”). So no matter how stressed I get about money – and I get highly stressed about it at times – when it comes down to it, if I have to make a decision that puts the choice between my loved ones and money, I can always look back to my core values, and know that putting my loved ones first is the right decision. I can trust myself, when I look at my core values, to make the choice that I feel is best, even when I’m severely depressed.

 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about topics that I hope will help those who may struggle like me, especially during bouts of depression and anxiety, to trust ourselves. Often this requires us to dig deep, and examine those things that are really tough to examine. I’ll be doing this right along side my readers, so please know that you’re not alone in this.

 

And of course, thoughts and inspiration are always welcome, so if you have something that helps you trust yourself, even when you are struggling to trust your brain, I’d love to hear them!

And remember….
You Are Amazing

I’m Going Live!

Hi friends! So, if you know me at all, you may know I tend to be more a behind the scenes (or behind the screen)  person. But, I was recently given the the opportunity to be featured on Crazy Talk, hosted by the amazing Lee Thomas. Crazy Talk is a podcast that’s broadcast live on Facebook that features open conversation about mental health.  I rarely pass up an opportunity to talk honestly about mental health and my life with rapid cycling cylclothymia, so I’m foraying into the realm of podcast participation!   I’ll be sharing my story/experiences/whatever else we decide to talk about – you’ll have to tune in I guess!

I’m being featured TONIGHT, Wednesday, Oct 10th, at 8PM EST, 6PM Mountain Time. The face that it’s World Mental Health Day makes participating today of all days feel that much more special. So  if you have the chance, tune in – and while you’re at it, give Lee’s page a like!

 

Philadelphia: Living With Chronic Illness (Invisible Cities LinkUp)

I recently participated in my first LinkUp for A Chronic Voice, and I loved the writing prompts and getting to meet fellow advocates through it. I also love talking about my home city of Philadelphia, so when she posted an Invisible Cities Linkup, focusing on what it’s like to have Chronic Illness in our home cities, I couldn’t resist. Without further adieu…

Best thing about your city for living with chronic illness?

Philly is a pretty tight-knit city – we like to say it’s the biggest small town in the country – and we are a pretty passionate, socially active, and entrepreneurial bunch. Which means that people are not shy about advocating what they stand for, and it’s pretty likely that you’ll be able to find a group that focuses on supporting your illness. And if you cannot, it’s pretty likely that you’d be able to start something and find others who are interested. We love entrepreneurs in Philly, so we’re big on supporting people’s causes, organizations, startups, and the like. For someone looking for resources, support, and/or opportunities to make their voice heard, Philly is a pretty good place to do that.

 

Worst thing about your city for living with chronic illness?

It’s a big, old city, which means crowds, close quarters, smog/pollution, and noise, none of which are far away because of the narrowness of the streets. So if you have sensory issues, like myself, respiratory issues, or crowds make it difficult for you, these could cause you some difficulty. Also, see number three!

 

How accessible do you think your city is in general?

I’ll be honest:  because we were built in the days of horse and carriage transportation, many of our streets are narrow and we have a lot of cobblestoned streets/areas. Also, because we’re so old, we have a lot of historic buildings that are “grandfathered in” when it comes to accessibility guidelines.  So if a building is “historic enough” and elevators weren’t around or prevalent when it was built, it may not be required to add one, even if it technically meets the requirements for having to do so. In other cases, certain doorways may not be large enough for larger wheelchairs or accessibility devices, because quite frankly these things weren’t considered when the buildings were built. These are just a few basic examples, but I’d say that Philly has a ways to go in terms of accessibility across the board. I think we like the idea of being more accessible, we want to be, we just aren’t really sure how to go about it, especially in terms of the historic guidelines.

 

How educated is the public on chronic illnesses there?

I can’t speak for all illnesses certainly, but I can speak from my point of view as someone with a mental health condition. Because of our hospital and university system, there is a lot of public outreach about health and chronic illness, and several of our area universities have student networks that are particularly active in chronic illness and mental health awareness.  Being a large city, a lot of major illness-focused organizations have local chapters in the area, and just about every weekend I see numerous walks, awareness events, and the like for all types of chronic illness.  So I think this helps with the education, or at least the awareness aspect.

From the mental health standpoint, the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is very active – we’ve hosted the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk here in Philly twice in the last five years (it’s only held in two cities across the country each year, so hosting it is a pretty big deal). The local chapter also hosts events throughout the year, and they even helped paint a large mural related to suicide prevention in the city  (murals are a HUGE thing in Philly).  NAMI also has numerous chapters in the area, and their chapters frequently are involved in outreach and awareness campaigns, plus they offer a wide variety of resources.  In addition, having a large number of universities in the area, we there’s a large student voice, and I’ve noticed an increasing number of university-related/student group programs, awareness campaigns, events, and so forth.  So I think the public is becoming more educated, and I think people are wanting to be more involved and active in these causes, or at least more knowledgeable about them.  That said, there’s going to be ignorance about chronic and mental illness anywhere, but at least from my own point of view, I usually find that more on an individual level (i.e. a person here or there) as opposed to a pervasive attitude in the city.

 

mile9

Mile 9 of this past year’s Overnight Walk.

 

philly overnight

The finish of this year’s Overnight Walk in Philadelphia, on the steps of our Art Museum.

If you could pass one new law in your country, what would that be?

Not sure about a law, but I would certainly make affordable, quality healthcare and medication more accessible. Nobody should have to choose between going un/under-treated and going into debt.

 

Which is your favourite city or country (other than your own) and why?

For Chronic Illness, or in general? I haven’t lived outside of the US since being diagnosed (I studied in Australia in college and wasn’t diagnosed until age 29), so I can’t speak to it from a chronic illness standpoint. But my favorite city to visit is Paris. I just love everything about it. That said, it’s tough to find a major European city I don’t love!

 

montnarpasse

On top of Montnarpasse Tower in Paris

 

paris restaurant

I mean, how can you argue with that? The owners also eat here!

 

paris street

Paris street.

 

Where in the world would you visit, if disability, illness or level of fitness weren’t an issue?

I’m kind of cheating on this one because in addition to advocacy, I run a travel planning company, so I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over, and I actually often feel more at home when traveling than in daily life – I’m an incredibly restless spirit and a wandering soul. My absolute favorite places to visit have been in Southern and Eastern Africa (Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania), with the caveat that we went the very luxurious route. So probably, I’d go back there, on a similar type of trip. The advantage of my travel there was that all of my travel was private (i.e. no big groups for social anxiety), there were more animals than people (basically my dream environment as a socially anxious introvert), everything felt incredibly open and spacious (physical openness and space helps me feel more mentally/emotionally open and free), and I had everything pre-arranged, so it took the “thinking” out of it once there, so to speak.  I didn’t have to come up with plans for each day, worry how to get from here to there, etc. It was all done in advance, and I had local experts to help us navigate. That was a huge mental freedom for me.

 

mara tent

You can see we really roughed it at the Sarova Mara Camp in the Masai Mara… 🙂

What sort of alternative treatments or therapies wouldn’t raise any eyebrows there? (Perhaps it’s ingrained in the culture, totally legal, etc).

Nothing outside of the norm that I can think of, but we are a pretty culturally diverse city, so I’d say that probably, you’re less likely to encounter raised eyebrows here than some places.

 

Which are the most and least affordable therapies there? How much do they cost in general?

In terms of alternative therapies, I’m not really sure. But I will say that we have a lot of studios that are starting to combine various mind/body activities and treatments – i.e. yoga studios with flotation therapy, access to massages, tissue work, and the like. Often, these studios/companies offer discounts for people who are new, package deals, and other discounts that help the cost.

 

How expensive is it to live with a chronic illness there? Any stats you’d like to share to give a clearer picture?

I’d say that like anywhere in the U.S, it’s expensive to live with a chronic illness, and it all depends on your insurance. I’m lucky that my husband works in healthcare and has fantastic insurance, but before we were married, I paid about $440 a month for basic insurance, and that covered very little, so I ended up paying out of pocket for a ton. I also could only be on generics, because otherwise I’d pay 50% of all medication costs, which would have probably been about $1000 a month. I have no issue with generics, but thre were times I had to not take a medication because it was only name brand and I could no longer afford it. And honestly, none of this considered particularly expensive or unusual for the self-insured around here. I know people paying a lot more. I think this is a U.S. issue in general.

 

What are the hospitals like in terms of service, quality of care, emergency room protocols, etc?

We’re lucky here in Philly, as we have some of the best hospitals in the country. Plus because many of them are connected to Universities, there’s a big focus on research, which also means we tend to be in the forefront with new trials, treatments, procedures, etc.   Honestly, if I had to move away from the Philly area, losing the hospital system would be a huge negative. It’s one of the city’s biggest benefits, in my opinion, for those living with chronic illness.

 

What should foreigners be aware of in regards to healthcare, if they want to visit or work in your city?

I think that for anyone coming from a country where healthcare is free/universal, there would be  a good amount of “sticker shock” in the U.S.  On two occasions, I’ve had to take relatives to the emergency room (albeit for accidents/incidents, not illness) while on vacation in another country, and we’ve paid less for the whole ER visit than I would for a nice dinner out in Philadelphia. Here in the U.S., bills could easily add up to thousands. That said, I’m not sure how this works in terms of those who are visiting and not part of the healthcare system here, but I’d imagine it could be even worse. To me, one of the most startling aspects is that they often can’t tell you even remotely how much your hospital visit/test/procedure/specialist/etc is going to cost. You go in and pay your copay, and then sometimes, often months later, you get a bill for whatever your insurance didn’t cover. This could be $100, $5000, or anything in between, and you often have no idea until you get the bill.

 

Where are you from? What is living with Chronic Illness like in your city? I’d love to hear!

 

A Note to Those Experiencing Thoughts of Suicide

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.  Suicide Prevention is a cause near and dear to my heart. A family member (my mom’s cousin, who was my second cousin) died by suicide approximately eight years ago. I have friends who have struggled with suicidal thoughts and have attempted. A family friend died by suicide this past year. I have struggled with suicidal thoughts myself, and have battled a rapid mood cycling disorder my entire life. Being a suicide prevention and mental health advocate is, for me, one of the absolute most important task I have undertaken in my life.  It can literally save lives.

I’ve previously addressed the myths about mental illness suicide, the ones that create such a stigma and make the topic still so taboo to many. And addressing those myths is extremely important. But today, I would like to “speak’ directly to those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, or bad depression, or are struggling in some other way.  Here’s what I want to say:

I know you feel alone. Having a mental health condition can feel incredibly isolating.  Depression often makes it feel like nobody will ever understand you. I know it’s dark. That right now, it’s impossible to see any light, any hope. I know you may even at times blame yourself for how you feel.  Feeling guilty about your illness, the way it affects your life, and others in it. I’ve been there. Being ill, and then taking the burden of that illness on yourself, blaming yourself, can make the pain feel inescapable. I’ve felt that. I know.

But I am here to tell you that it is not your fault. You have an illness, and  you are not alone. One in five people in the U.S. has a mental health condition. Twenty percent of our population is with you. Not perhaps experiencing exactly what you’re experiencing – we are all unique, as are our situations and illnesses. But we, too, struggle. We too, know the lies that depression can tell us, and how convincing those lies can be. We too know what it’s like to feel utterly alone in this world. To feel like you don’t matter, to feel like you aren’t enough.

And I bet you could look at so many of us and think, “Look, they still manage to ‘have it together’. They aren’t alone. They matter.” Or maybe you look at us and think, “They don’t have it all together, but they’re still doing so much better than I am. They’re strong, and capable and getting through this.”  Well I’ll tell you something:  we’re looking at you and thinking the same thing. We’re thinking how strong you must be to go through everything you do.  We’re thinking how much you inspire us, motivate us, experiencing all you do and still fighting each and every day.  Because you’ve made it through every day so far, and that’s incredible. Or maybe we’re looking at you and thinking how much you matter. How “enough” you are.

So please, if you are this person, sitting there in the dark, not feeling like there’s anyone who understands, who you can reach out to, reach out to me. Because I’ve sat there in the dark feeling that same way, possibly by your side, in reality or virtually, near you and so many others, but feeling so hopeless and isolated.  And I’m here for you. Because you do matter. You are enough. And you are not alone. 

 

You are not alone.

 

Self-Care Isn’t Silly, But I Am

Did you know that we’re swiftly approaching National Self-Care month? That’s right – it’s September (which is also Suicide Prevention Month, more on that in another post). Self-care is incredibly important when you have a chronic illness or mental health condition, and I love that there’s a month to specifically hone in on it.

 

National Self-Care Month

 

To honor this, I’m going to be doing a #30DaysofSelfCare campaign throughout the month of September. Each day, I’ll be IGing, tweeting, posting, otherwise sharing a different form of self-care. My goals of this campaign are three-fold:

1.  Illustrate the importance of self-care, and that it’s perfectly OK, even vital at times, to take a little time self-care every day.

2.  Offer ideas, and get suggestions, for ways that you can self care – both conventional and less so. I am hoping that my “less traditional” methods may help to show that self-care doesn’t have to be daunting – you don’t need to meditate for an hour or run 5 miles. It can be quick, simple, and even goofy/fun (more on that in a minute).

3. Kick my own butt (figuratively) into gear, and make sure I hold myself accountable for my own self care. I know this is something that I need to focus on more, and this is a perfect opportunity.

So what do I mean by self-care can be silly or goofy? First off, I let me state that I don’t mean the idea of self-care. I mean the actual actions. Sometimes, especially if we’ve been feeling particularly depressed or anxious, a good laugh, getting in touch with our inner child can greatly help. Often, it helps to take a break from focusing on “real life” concerns for a minute – like work/career, school, household chores/tasks, finances, etc – and bring ourselves back to a time when we didn’t have to worry about those issues as much. Or maybe it helps us to take a break from all the bings and beeps and stimulation of our electronics, and get outside, or in nature, or spend time “playing” (I mean this in a PC way, for the record – like actually playing games or building pillow forts or whatever silly, fun thing you want to do). Perhaps it’s putting our most ridiculously comfy, oversized PJs and snuggling up, when we don’t have the energy to do anything else.

I find that, for as much as I worry about… everything… I’m really a kid at heart. I love returning to my inner child, and to just letting go and being innately me. Depression and anxiety make me often feel so old , so to speak – it can be tough to have fun when you’re constantly anxious and fearful, or when your brain is continually telling you how awful you are. So I intend to take full advantage of self care month, and of my #30daysofselfcare campaign, to encourage my natural (when depression and anxiety aren’t forefront) youthful curiosity and free-spiritedness.

 

30daysofselfcare

 

What about you? What fun, silly things do you do for self-care? I’m always looking for more ideas, so I’d love to hear yours (warning: I might use these ideas in my campaign, and I’m happy to give you credit if I can tag you!) And of course, you’re all invited to take part in the #30DaysofSelfCare challenge! I’ll be posting updates on this blog, but to follow along or join in the challenge, follow Spread Hope Project on Instagram.

 

Here’s My Story. What’s Yours?

When I was two years old, I began having “episodes”. I’m quite sure now they were hypomanic episodes, but that wasn’t really talked about as much back then. And it especially wasn’t diagnosed in two year olds living on dirt roads in rural Georgia in the early 1980s. I was told I was allergic to red food dye and that it made me hyper. I am not sure why they thought this, other than I’d had some cereal with marshmallows that were red as a treat (a rare occurrence, my parents made a lot of our food from scratch), shortly before the symptoms began.

 

Throughout my youth, I experienced what my gymnastics team affectionately called “Maya Moments” – situations in which I’d get so upset, anxious, worked up that I’d have to leave practice (or whatever situation I was in). It wasn’t a tantrum, or simply being frustrated, it was a feeling that welled up deep inside of me, making me feel like I was about to emotionally burst. Letting it out was the only way to quel that. But there was no explanation. Since there was no red food dye consumed at gymnastics practice, I had to assume it was “just me.” That I was just temperamental and got upset easily, that I was “dramatic” and over-reacted. A lot.

 

Beginning my freshman year of college, other feelings crept in. Self-criticism and doubt, lack of confidence, feelings of being extremely low or anxious. I tried to control these by controlling my food intake. It seemed one of the only things in my life  I felt total control over. It resulted, eventually, in disordered eating. By my sophomore year of college, I began seeing a counselor. She was a grad student in Psychology, and she helped. I wasn’t diagnosed, but I felt comfortable with her, and it offered me an outlet to discuss feelings I couldn’t understand.

 

By the time I was 29, I had been to at least four or five counselors. During my first marriage, there were points at which I used to actually instruct my then-husband to pick me up from behind and hold me up so that I could punch and kick my arms in the air (away from him, to clarify), to release the overwhelming anxious energy that felt like it was going to explode from me if I didn’t get it out. Despite this, I was given every “reason” for the way I was feeling, except for a diagnosis. I was told it was pre-wedding jitters, then “newlywed jitters”, then stress from then my mother-in-law and I not being best friends. I was given the old Freudian “mommy and daddy issues” routine, despite my clearly explaining over and over that I had a happy childhood, and that my family was where I felt happiest and safest. No matter how often I insisted it was something inside of me, I got push back.

 

Finally, just before my 30th birthday, I went to the ER with what I thought were non-stop panic attacks. Long story short, but I ended up being voluntarily committed for several days. To clarify, it wasn’t really voluntary. I was in the ER and they asked me, in the middle of horrendous attack,  if I wanted to stay overnight. I said yes. They did not mention that overnight meant being transferred to a psychiatric inpatient hospital, where I wasn’t allowed to leave for 48 hours, couldn’t have my phone or my purse with me, and that my loved ones would only be able to see me at visiting hours. When I objected, they told me I could go back to the ER and have an assessment, but then I chanced getting committed involuntarily, in which I would have no say over when I left.  I chose not to risk it, which was the right decision. I found out later that I had been labeled a suicide risk because of how I answered a particular question. I was not suicidal, but their assumption that I was would surely have resulted in an involuntary commital.

 

Because I had been labeled as such, they insisted on increasing the mild dose of antidepressants that my primary care had put me on a couple of months back. I insisted that this was a bad idea. I felt the opposite of depressed – anxious, jittery, brain running a mile a minute. I felt worse with the increase. I told them so. I wasn’t listened to.

 

I’d like to add an insert here: I don’t want to discourage people from getting help. I was at a not ideal hospital and did not really understand what was going on.  As I was admitted at 11PM, I clearly got the short-staffed overnight team. I learned a lot at the hospital. Almost everyone there was “just like me”. I.E. they were functioning adults with jobs and families and talents, who held interesting conversations and seemed to be genuinely nice people. It wasn’t the “mental hospital’ image shown in Hollywood.  It was a place for healing and understanding, not a place people were filed away. We did group work, which I felt beneficial. I met a nurse who was wonderful and helpful and truly cared about the people there. It was the process I did not like, and some of the individuals I dealt with. But ultimately, it led to me getting the help I needed (read on).

 

I called the therapist that I’d seen after my divorce, and during some other relationship issues. I explained my situation. She told me to hold tight, get through the two days after which they had to let me leave, and then come make an appointment with her. I followed her instructions. That appointment with her proved to literally be a lifesaver. She diagnosed me with rapid cycling cyclothymia, a mood disorder similar to, but not as “intense” as, bipolar disorder. She explained that the panic attacks were actually hypomania, and that the antidepressants had made it worse. She weaned me down off of them and started me on a mood stabilizer, which made me horrendously ill (physically), until it didn’t, and I started to finally feel ok again, mentally and physically. We started discussing my treatment plan. I began to learn as much as I could about my illness. I felt that finally someone was listening to me. I had been telling doctors and therapists for years that something was happening inside of my head, that I wasn’t just down or stressed, but that something was really going on. I was finally being heard.

 

Eventually, I decided that I had to make the best of the diagnosis. I started blogging, openly, about mental health and my experiences. I started a closed Facebook group for people with mood disorders. I began actively advocating via other social media outlets. I learned I was very far from alone. While cyclothymia is rare, there are so many others who struggle with mental health. I learned that just by sharing my stories, I could help others. I could show them that they, too, are not alone. I could help inspire people to speak up about their illnesses, whether in the form of social media or a blog, or simply to talk to me about it if they needed.

 

Eventually, I decided that I wanted to take my efforts to the next level. I started Spread Hope Project, to attempt to formalize what I do. I am still weeding through it. I haven’t quite pinpointed the exact trajectory of what I plan to do, but I’m working on it. Hope can still be difficult some days. My illness is still, as one would imagine, full of ups and downs, and therefore so is my life. But I know at my core that I can make a difference. More than my blogging and social media, but on a larger level. I have the passion for it, the personal experience, the longing to do so. I just need to figure out how.

 

This is my story of mental illness. My story of how it has changed my life, and how I got to the point where I am today. I hope that in it, you can find some hope, or at least some solace in knowing that you are far from alone.

 

What’s your story?

Tiny Hopes Every Day

I’ve not blogged in awhile. I’ve been going through a particularly rough patch, and quite frankly, been struggling with my own hope. It happens to all of us, it seems. So I’ve been focusing on trying to get myself healthy and hopeful, because if I’m not, I’m unable to truly help others.

Sometimes, in the bleakest moments, hope seems dim indeed. In these moments, I’m forced to look for hopes in the tiniest things. The way my dog greets me when I arrive home. Every day. Like it’s the best moment she’s ever experienced.  She has infallible hope, and I think, “Man, I wish I could be like her. She’s literally always convinced something great is about to happen.  I can’t unfortunately. I say can’t, because I really mean I can’t. I battle depression, and when it flares badly, I physically, mentally cannot think life is roses, no matter how badly I want to.

So lately, I’ve had to get back to basics. I’ve had to focus on those tiny moments in life that bring some brightness – the smell of rain, a colorful sunrise, a much needed hug, an unexpected moment of laughter, spending time in the fresh air. These brief moments of brightness tell me that I can, after all, be hopeful. It might not be earth shattering hope, but there is a brightness. The world, and I, am not full of darkness.

So I resolve to live these moments more completely. To enjoy the fresh air more. To see more sunrises (morning insomnia makes this pretty easy). To hug more, when my physical closeness meters allow it. To spend more time, in person or virtually, with people who make me laugh. To focus more on living, and less on the “have to”s. And somewhere in there, I aim to offer hope, to myself and to others. Because sometimes, it’s in offering to others that we find the greatest hope in ourselves.

 

gracie-e1509537822349.jpg

My dog Grace finding complete delight in a paper towel roll.