I’m interrupting my normal blogging schedule to participate in the “Blogging From A to Z Challenge” for the month of April. While I've missed the official sign-up, I've decided to do it anyway. Each day (except for Sunday) I’ll be writing based on a different letter of the alphabet…starting with A, ending with Z, of course. Each post will continue on the theme of dealing with my own mental illness trials and tribulations, keeping with the theme of this blog. I just found out about this challenge yesterday, so I have some catching up to do. Not sure if this counts under the official “rules”, but here are my entries catching up to today’s current challenge (G). So, here it goes: A to G.
A is for Anxiety: an origin story
My earliest memory of having anxiety goes back to being in fourth grade. That was the time when I started getting grades on my homework instead of stickers and stars. That was the time when my class was divided into “advanced learners” who got to read special books, and everyone else. That was the time parent-teacher conferences started and I would get lectured from my teacher about how I didn’t finish a project (a freaking mobile about Stuart Little) in time. It was the first time I remember feeling less-than, behind, incompetent.
Before fourth grade I had always had my teachers’ affection and respect. Now, I had to earn it. There were kids that were (supposedly) smarter than me, that got to be “kindred spirits” with the teacher. They got the starring roles in our class plays. And I…I got to be the mother oyster (Alice in Wonderland). I wanted so badly to be better, to be smarter, to be as great as the other kids, to earn my teacher’s approval. And, when I couldn’t get it, that’s what started making me anxious. New “tapes” started playing in my head: “you’re not good enough,” “you’re not smart enough,” “you’re not as great as the other kids,” “you need to do better,” “you’re a failure”. And I’ve carried these tapes, and the anxiety around them, with me for 20+ years.
Yes, it’s possible my brain was predisposed to be anxious; perhaps it is just part of my brain chemistry. But, somewhere along the way, I also learned anxiety. I learned that I needed to be a people-pleaser. I learned that I needed to be a perfectionist. So, I started to get anxious about tests; about homework; about authority figures; and about even existing around my peers. I started feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb, that everyone could see how I felt short. Transparent. You know that nightmare you have where you go somewhere but you’ve forgotten to put your clothes on? That’s how it feels to walk around with anxiety. Naked. Exposed. Living that nightmare every day.
B is for Blogging about it
In September of last year, I started my blog. I thought I’d write about my struggles with mental illness for awhile and then maybe move on to other things like current events, feminism, and my other interests. But, when I started blogging about mental illness, I realized I had a lot to say. And I’m constantly thinking of new things to say about it, new facets, new struggles or personal gains. And I’m okay with that, because I’ve been living with mental illness for a long time, an I’ve realized I have a lifetime of topics to get off my chest.
Which leads me to my next point, there’s something freeing about blogging about my mental illnesses. Though my readership is small, I’m putting it out there in the world for all to see. You know that feeling of anxiety I just talked about? About feeling like you’re out in public without your clothes on? Well, I’ve discovered an antidote: to do it on purpose. (Not literally, of course) To be in charge of exposing my thoughts, my failures, my worries, my soul on my own terms has been so freeing. It makes me feel more capable, and less afraid. It helps undo all those “not good enough” feelings, because I’ve beat anyone else’s opinion to the punch.
Here I am, exposed with all my “flaws”, and I’m not going to stop blogging about it.
C is for Compassion or cookies (I’m not sure which)
When I’m depressed or anxious and people ask me what I need (when they bother to ask what I need), my answer is compassion. But also, cookies. (Only slightly kidding on that). When you’re dealing with someone with mental illness and they’re in a bad way, it’s really hard to see them in that place. I think the natural urge that most people have is to either a) ignore it because it makes them uncomfortable or b) want to fix it. But, when I’m feeling depressed or anxious, I know that it’s not something that can be fixed with any gesture or well-meaning advice. I just have to ride it out. And, what I need in the meantime is compassion.
I need to know that I’m loved, even if I feel like the worst person on earth. I need to know that I’m loved, even if I can’t bring myself to go grocery shopping. I need compassion. A simple, “I love you, and I’m thinking about you”. That’s it. I don’t need fixing. I don’t need advice (unless I ask for it). I just need to know that you’re there with me, that you love me, as best you can. But, I wouldn’t say no to cookies. ;)
D is for Depression: another origin story
While anxiety started for me around age nine, my first depressive period came a little later. The first time I remember feeling really depressed (not just pre-teen or teenage angst) was around 14 years old — the beginning of high school. By then, all those negative tapes in my head had created a nice solid foundation for a new feeling: worthlessness. I started believing that my failures were being counted against me, and that made me worthless.
By fourteen I had developed a severe test anxiety, which impacted my ability to do well on tests. And, in high school, there are oh-so-many tests. With each test that I didn’t do “well” on (whether I failed or not), I felt like a failure. At some point the bar for myself got set to “perfect”, and anything less than perfection was failure. Failure made me anxious, and the compounding of being anxious all the time exhausted me and made me depressed.
I remember feeling like I wanted to disappear a lot, instead of going back to face my fellow students and my teachers. I remember feeling sick a lot from the stress, and some days I was sick enough to where I got to stay home — what a relief that was. I once got so sick from stress that I got mono. In a backwards way, staying home and putting up with sharp, brutal pains in my spleen felt better than going to school.
With every sickness, I fell behind a little more. With every “bad” grade on an assignment, I fell behind a little more. Pretty soon I was buried under a pile of schoolwork I couldn’t dig my way out from under, and I started really failing.
In high school, the stakes are higher. I was at a school where everyone was expected to go to college after graduating…and, not just any college, a “good” college. So, failure meant being further away from that expectation. It meant disappointment. It meant consequences. And, for some reason, I internalized it all and started thinking that it made me a worthless person.
Depression is constantly carrying around the feeling that you’re worthless. You carry it like a weight on your back, and the weight pushes down on you, making it hard for you to concentrate on or do anything else. It also is a liar, and tells you that you’re feeling worthless because that’s the truth. Depression lies.
I wish I could time-travel back to my teenage years and lift that weight off of my teenage self. I wish I could tell her she’s not worthless. But, I’m not sure if she would believe me.
E is for Energy
I’ve described depression as a large weight on your back. My anxiety is another weight. My other mental illnesses are more weights. Think for a minute about carrying a backpack containing just a bit more weight than you think you could bear. Now think of walking around, going about your day with that backpack on. Try to do your normal tasks — brushing your teeth, making dinner, working. Doesn’t sound so fun, does it? That’s what living with mental illness is like: you’re carrying around a backpack full of weight that is just over what you think you can bear. And it zaps your energy real quick.
This means that, living with mental illness, I have a very limited amount of energy, so I need to be strategic about how I use it. I don’t have the luxury of doing whatever I feel like. I constantly have to be monitoring how much energy I have left, because I don’t have the luxury of just putting that backpack down. I can lighten the load a little by practicing good self-care but, remember, that in and of itself takes a bit of energy, too.
This is where we get into what has been called “spoon theory”. Please take a moment to go to the link and read about it. Are you back? Okay, good. So now you know that the basic idea behind spoon theory is that everyone is given a set of “spoons” which symbolize the energy or ability to do something in a day. A healthy person has can have an infinite amount of spoons (or, at least, a great number), whereas a person with an illness or disability has a finite or small amount. So, I spend my days being aware of and counting my spoons, since I only have a finite amount of them. I have to use them wisely. But, some days, I’m just out of spoons. (If you’re not understanding what I’m saying, that means you didn’t do the required reading and need to go back and read it, please).
So, if I decline an invitation to a gathering, neglect to take a shower, or skip that trip to the grocery store, know that it might be because my backpack is full, and I’m low on spoons.
F is for Failure
Have you noticed a theme yet? Failure. The fear of it has governed my life for so long now, and I don’t know why. Maybe because you’re not rewarded for failure. You’re not rewarded for trying but falling short. And, for some strange reason, I want so badly to be rewarded. I want those stickers and gold stars again. I want to feel like I’m doing well in life, that I’m not worthless but, in fact, just fine the way I am. And, before you rush to say those things, know that it’s not you I need to hear it from, it’s myself.
I’m the one who needs to believe that I’m not a failure. I’m the one that needs to believe that success shouldn’t be measured by such shallow things, but that each person is a success just for being alive. I’m the one who needs to realize how far I’ve come, and how proud of myself I should be for weathering the 20+ years of anxiety and depression, and staying alive. I change my mind. F isn’t for failure. It’s for “Freaking Success”.
G is for “Get over it”
Okay, are you still with me? We’re only to “G” and we still have a long ways to go until we hit “Z”. But, I wanted to pause for a minute, for those of you who have read thus far (gold star for you), and talk about the phrase, “get over it”.
I think sometimes, for whatever reason, when we’re dealing with someone with a mental illness we can easily jump to the feeling of, “well, just get over it already” or “snap out of it.” Of course, we don’t want to see that person in pain or despair, and we wish deep down that there’s something that they could do to turn the switch from “dealing with an illness” to “normal”. But, as I hope I’ve made the case by now, it’s just not that simple. People living with mental illnesses have backpacks and spoons to worry about. We’ve got our own inner turmoil to worry about. And, though the healing process is mostly up to us, it’s not something that happens overnight.
Me? I’ve had almost a lifetime of trying to “get over it”, and it’s still something I’m working on with the help of doctors, therapists, and a stringent self-care routine. So, just keep that in mind as we move forward through this blogging exercise. Mental illnesses are not something you can get over, just like you can’t just “get over” a disease. You’re either in remission, in treatment, or relapsing. So, please, practice compassion toward people with mental illnesses. And, also, bring cookies.
Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about another word that is thrown around haphazardly when dealing with mental illnesses. Can you guess what it is?