I experience sensory overload really easily. In other words, things that trigger my senses trigger them so intensely it causes crippling anxiety and immense discomfort. I’ll give you an example: repetitive noises make me have a meltdown. Even as an adult, and especially if the sounds are loud and high-pitched. Oven timers, the seat belt sensor in my car, even the beats of some songs; all potential triggers. I literally cannot listen to the radio because the rushed, monotone cadence of radio ads can push me over the edge.
Now consider this example in the context of all my other senses. Strong smells, bright lights, pinching or itchy clothing, when the flavor of food is just a little bit “off,” all trigger my anxiety. I experience physical discomfort as all my muscles lock. My breath gets shallow, sometimes shallow enough to hyperventilate if I can’t remove the trigger quickly enough. I get frantic and start immediately trying to escape. My ability to listen to or communicate with others shuts down and the overwhelming need to get away from whatever the fuck is triggering me so hard takes over my entire nervous system.
The meanest I ever am to my partner is when he leaves the oven timer beeping just a little too long. I don’t snap at him intentionally, he just doesn’t really notice noises like that. Meanwhile, I’m sitting 15 feet away feeling like I’m about to die. I know it isn’t rational. There is no excuse, or way to make sense of it. But these sensory experiences literally make my brain think I’m going to die. Coming home after a day of teaching, bursting into tears, and ripping my dress pants off before I made it two feet in the door was never me just being dramatic. I was literally having a panic attack. I haven’t worn a bra in almost a decade, and honestly, when I’m in the privacy of my own home I barely wear clothes at all.
I have been sensitive in these ways my entire life. You can imagine the consequences of an intelligent, capable child having uncontrollable meltdowns over things most people don’t even notice. Learning to hide my sensory meltdowns so I wouldn’t get “in trouble” was the first training I ever had in denying my own needs in order to gain and maintain the approval of others. You can imagine the ways this “skill” manifested in my inability to talk about and validate my own needs and emotions in general.
But hiding those needs doesn’t make them go away. It actually increases my anxiety. And my habit of denying my sensory discomfort rather than developing coping skills meant I lived my life with at least a low level of anxiety at all times. I’m not exaggerating, those who know me best can attest to how high strung I was most of my life, and to how much I’ve chilled out since I started creating space for my own emotional needs.
Since surviving suicide, my mental health journey has become a process of acknowledging the needs I’ve denied myself in the service of others. Acknowledging those needs, validating those needs, and fulfilling those needs for the first time in my life. Those needs include learning how to cope with my sensory sensitivities. Learning how to dress for comfort and fashion. Learning how to breathe deep and convince my brain the teapot whistling isn’t going to kill me. Learning how to ask nicely for my partner to take out the smelly garbage because I’m annoyed that I always do it but oh my god I’m going to pass out if we don’t get that shit out of here.
A big part of acknowledging and validating my needs includes talking about them. An important contributor to the stigma around mental illness are the behaviors mental illness sufferers engage in as a result of unchecked symptoms. Adults often punish children who throw tantrums like I used to because people who lack the ability to understand why someone would behave in such a way easily judge or criticize the behaviors of mental illness sufferers. Unfortunately, mental illness sufferers grappling with their symptoms, rarely have the ability to rationally communicate what is happening inside their brain. Especially if they are children.
The silence and stigma around mental illness leaves mental illness sufferers, like myself, alone to battle the demons in their head while trying their best fit in. I felt like I was somehow different, or bad. Like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t control my reactions to things how others could. This lifelong feeling of alienation was a direct contributor to my suicidal ideation. However, had the adults in my life had the education to identify the symptoms of mental illness, had my peers understood what I was going through from my perspective, had someone stepped in and taught me about my own brain sooner, had any of us had the language to even talk about mental illness in the first place, I can’t help but think my path may have looked different.
A practice in getting myself out of bed in the morning
I struggle with feeling overwhelmed. I have ADHD, so my brain moves really fast. Often faster than my body can move or my mouth can create words. I also have anxiety. Anxiety causes me to fixate on events in the past I can no longer change, or events in the future that I won’t be able to control at the moment. This all means that I sometimes wake up in the morning and it feels like the world is burning, and there’s more than I could possibly do to stop it. Sometimes some tiny failure triggers a landslide that pulls the ground out from under me.
When I feel like this, my brain does something I call “short circuiting.” Essentially, there’s so many things I feel compelled to do at once, my brain shuts down. I can’t do any of these things, and usually just end up going to sleep. When I was a teacher, I would have phases where, for days in a row, as soon as the bell dismissed students for lunch I would sit down at my desk and go to sleep. Light on, door open, projector projecting, keys and lanyard around my neck, sleep. All the way through lunch, and then my prep hour which was during the class period directly after lunch. I would wake up as the bell releasing the next round of students for my next class rang; as if that one was somehow louder than the previous four I just slept through.
During these periods, I would also go home at the final bell, and fall asleep immediately on the couch until my partner would get home from work and feed me dinner. I was on autopilot. I would have allowed my neurotic to-do-listing, obsessive productivity, and martyring perfectionism to build up so much I could only function just enough to fly under the radar so no one knew I was struggling (a survival technique I have relied on my entire life, and largely why none of my teachers ever identified I was struggling). All while silently slipping to the very edges of my mind. The very edges of existence.
Essentially, I was locked in a lifelong cycle where my anxiety and ADHD was triggering my depression. My depression left me hollow. And my societal “girl” training left me keeping up the charade of productivity; as if a marionette to the patriarchy. As if continuing to do the dance would keep my momentum up just enough to get me over the hump until the clouds had a chance to clear on their own.
And honestly it worked. Eventually the clouds would clear on their own. I would get my fire back. My actual productivity would return. I’d shoot right back up to the “exceed expectations” category in everyone’s brain before they even had a chance to realize I was slipping.
But here’s the thing, I wasn’t living. I was dying. I almost died. I almost killed myself.
So I’ve decided 2021 will be different. Managing ADHD, anxiety, and depression like this takes practicing mindfulness. The more mindful, or “in the moment,” someone can be, the less likely they will dwell on the past or future. The less likely they will dwell on things they can’t control. Mindfulness allows you to focus on what’s going on in your body and right in front of you in the moment.
Practicing mindfulness is also really difficult. It takes a lot of practice. Constant practice. In the time I’ve taken off work in the last year, I’ve become really good at practicing mindfulness. At the same time, I was fortunate enough to be on mental-health leave from work for most of the year. Quarantine, for better or worse, also provided me a lot of alone time. In this alone time I made the practice of mindfulness my full time job. It has been incredibly healing for my trauma, for my mind, for my soul. It is also a completely unsustainable lifestyle.
My teaching contract has officially ended. I’ve started working and will eventually need to work more in order to keep my family afloat. Our socio-political landscape is a fucking mess. Life is hard. The pressures are starting to creep back in. The voices are starting to pile up. The overwhelmed feeling is triggering unhealthy thought patterns. I can feel the cycle threatening to start all over again.
Instead of letting it happen this time, I decided to build myself tools to keep the cycle dormant. I created a series of questions to ask myself every morning, and taped them to my mirror. The following questions help me ground myself in mindfulness in the morning by taking my brain through the exercise of prioritizing my energy:
Are all my basic physical needs being met?
This is a really important question for me to ask myself. Anxiety and ADHD often keep my mind off my physical well being. I am notorious for forgetting to eat because I don’t stop long enough to feel my hunger. The thing is, since 1943 we’ve known it is impossible for humans to learn, grow, and thrive when our physical needs aren’t met. So before I expect myself to do anything else successfully, I have to stop and ask myself if I’m hungry or thirsty. Am I exhausted? Sore? Cold? Itchy? Do I need to stretch?
Give it a try. Unless you are intentional about your water intake, I can almost guarantee you’re dehydrated. Make meeting your physical needs your priority in the morning and you’ll set yourself up to be mindful all day.
Are all my basic emotional needs being met?
See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943, ref’d in the last section). Feelings of safety, belonging, and intimacy are right behind physical needs in level of importance to that same ability to learn, grow, and thrive.
How do you feel today? Your feelings are sending you messages. They come from somewhere. Stop and ask yourself how you feel, then trace that feeling back to its source. This practice will allow you to hone in on the next steps to take in order to get your emotional needs met.
The hardest part is listening to yourself. Getting your emotional needs met often takes choices that are not the “easy” choices. (Read Untamed by Glennon Doyle for more on this idea).
Are all my bills paid up? Is there anything I need to do in order to make sure that continues to be the case?
We all have to work. The most important part to me is this one’s placement on the list. My first instinct was to put this first. But that’s not what I want my priority to be anymore. Making work my first priority was part of the cycle. I don’t want to slip back into that cycle.
Is there anyone I love who needs to hear from me at the moment?
I love my family. I love my friends. It is a priority of mine to be there for them through the ups and downs. But also notice where this one is on the list. I can’t martyr myself to others anymore. As much as I do love them. If I’m not running at full capacity, I can’t possibly support my loved ones in the way they need.
Have I breathed deeply today?
Practice taking deep breaths. Whenever you think about it. It’s good for your brain, it’s good for your circulation, it’s good for you. Try box breathing.
Have I been actively antiracist today?
If you don’t understand the importance of being actively antiracist every day, you have some self-educating to do.
I created this list instead of making a New Year’s resolution this year. I go back and forth on the resolution thing. I like the idea of setting goals and refocusing your energy at the beginning of the year. But the practice of making New Year’s resolutions often ends up being a way to remind ourselves who we wish we could be, and then beat ourselves up for not being able to attain that vision. It’s not a very healthy way to approach goal setting.
As I get older, I realize more and more that achieving my goals is actually a practice in building healthy habits. It’s about the journey and all that. So I’m starting my 2021 with this little mindfulness checklist instead. Once I run through this list in the morning, and satisfy all that the questions require, I am free to use my energy however I want for the rest of the time I have available to me that day. This serves the dual purpose of mindfully prioritizing my energy, while allowing me free time to explore my passions and interests without my internal voice of shame ringing in my head. My hope is that I build a healthy habit out of grounding myself mindfully in the morning so I never have to get caught in old cycles again.
There is so much I could say about 2020, but honestly I don’t know if there’s anything left that hasn’t been said. It was a weird year. In order to survive, and as a collective, humanity had to make proverbial lemonade out of iron-clad lemons. Life during an international pandemic is difficult at best, with the pandemic’s unequally distributed consequences adding stress to already deep societal divisions. I can’t think of anyone who isn’t ready for 2020 to be over.
And it finally is! I love New Years. I love the opportunity to reflect, set goals, reset. Just like everything else, New Years feels differently this year. First, there’s the obvious fact that most of us spent New Years Eve differently than we usually would. Secondly, I feel more motivated than ever to reflect on, and learn from, the many lessons of the last year.
Because 2020 held many lessons. Both for me as an individual, and humanity as a whole. The failure to reflect and act on lessons learned leaves us stuck in old patterns. Ignoring opportunities for growth, like those presented in 2020, causes stagnation and decay. And if there’s anything we all need as 2020 comes to a close, it is growth. If humanity is to survive for much longer we need to evolve. We need to break out of old patterns and create new ones that work for more people. I’m not exaggerating, I know you can feel it too. We’re going through something important right now. How we move forward from it will be even more important.
In the spirit of growth, I decided to use my 2020 reflections this year to focus on the lessons I’ve learned, and what they mean for me for the next year:
Lesson 1: Resilience is a tool for survival
Almost everything changed this year. Many bad things got worse, and/or more apparent to more people. We had to unlearn human habits like hugging our loved ones and touching our faces. Things that used to be ordinary and mundane became anxiety-inducing. For many of us, our lifestyles turned completely upside down.
How you react to change impacts your mental health. The ability to cope with change is called resilience. Building resilience allows you to process the grief that comes with change without completely shutting down. When you are resilient, you accept that change can cause discomfort rather than trying to avoid it by remaining stoic and “pushing through.” Resilience allows you to recognize the positive aspects of change because you don’t spend as much energy on the things you can’t control. Building resilience helps you identify when your anxiety is lying to you, and therefore helps you calm down when it does. All of this impacts your mental health. If you are not resilient, if you struggle with change, your mental health will be poor.
I think it’s safe to say we all struggled with our mental health at some point in 2020. But if you never got a break from the struggle, if you spent the entire year on one uphill incline, if you spent most of your energy desperately wishing for things to “Go back to normal,” you likely need to work on your resilience. Building resilience is not easy because we don’t build resilience by living easy lives. Resilience comes with mindfulness about the opportunity of every moment rather than succumbing to anxiety about the past or future. To be resilient you often must confront past failures in order to learn from them. Resilience means leaning on others for support. It means working through your problems instead of ignoring them. These are not easy things to do and I’m not going to pretend they are. But intentionally taking on opportunities to push through discomfort in order to grow is always worth it. At least it always has been for me. Working on my resilience helped me survive 2020. And as we step cautiously into the possibility of 2021, resilience will help me take control of my survival so I can thrive.
Lesson 2: Community matters
The structure of our economy and the western culture that has grown around it does not promote community. Our society’s history of colonialism and patriarchy does not promote community. Rugged individualism, competition, and domination — the very opposite of community — are inherent parts of how we socialize children in the American education system. They are qualities we glorify through characters in movies and on TV. Capitalism rewards workers for exhibiting these qualities.
These qualities degrade our sense of community and breed mistrust and coldness between people. But we definitely learned this year that people need each other. Humans are social animals. Establishing connections with others as part of a community gives us a sense of purpose. It alleviates our anxiety and makes us feel happy and entertained. We learned this first-hand this year as most of us were denied access to many of the people who sustain us. We experienced the true importance of community as the virus deprived us of it.
Let’s think about what this experience means for us moving forward. What would it look like if we resisted the cultural current and lived our lives as if community matters? How might our behavior or choices change if we considered more people as part of our community? Because that’s the beautiful thing about community; it’s something we actually have control over. We get to decide who we value and feel obligated to care for. Each individual has agency over how they support members of their community, or whether or not they do. We have the choice to either extend community to others, or deprive them of it. We play out these choices every day in our actions, our votes, our words. What if, in 2021, we made a better effort to recognize the humanity in others by expanding our ideas and values around community?
Lesson 3: Rest is good for us and we all need to do it more
I have been thinking a lot lately about the lessons I can take from nature in the way I live my life. Capitalism asks us to use nature, manipulate it, bend it to our will. In prioritizing money over everything else, people in capitalist societies often act counter to nature in order to remain competitive. I’ll give you an example:
Capitalism asks us to never rest. We live in an economic system that expects the labor force to act as if it runs on batteries, or risk being replaced by something that does. We conduct our lives as if every waking moment is an opportunity to make money, and therefore must be spent working on achieving that goal. “The hustle, “the grind,” this notion that we should never stop working, is toxic to our mental and physical health.
We know this. The health consequences of living in this state of chronic stress are widely known and felt by many. Americans are stressed out. They were stressed out before 2020, before Covid-19, before the Trump presidency. In 2007 (which, for context, was written during the second Bush presidency and before the Great Recession of 2008) the American Psychological Association found that one-third of Americans reported feeling extreme stress, with money and work being the most common cause.
Then, it would be an understatement to say the stress levels of people around the world have been off the charts in 2020. This was a year that amplified divisions and robbed people of their dignity, their livelihood, and their lives. But for the purpose of this conversation it is most notable to think about the ways people’s stress levels increased when they were forced to do less this year. Many people experienced severe mental health consequences when they were forced to stop working, stop filling their schedules, stop networking, just stop.
There are several reasons for this whiplash effect, and our institutional, socio-cultural, and political contexts matter. First of all, since capitalism doesn’t value rest we don’t have institutions in place to support the humanity and survival of all the members of our community in the event that we are forced to stop. Programs like welfare, unemployment, universal healthcare, etc are designed to literally help people survive when stuff like this happens. The thing is, the classism and individualism inherent in our society has allowed politicians to convince people these programs aren’t worth funding. Receiving support from the government is vilified as lazy, a sign of personal failure, evidence of a desire to live off of someone else’s hard work. This rhetoric is incredibly effective in convincing people to vote against these programs. So effective that our healthcare and welfare systems literally couldn’t support the amount of people who needed it this year.
And people died. Hundreds of thousands of them in the U.S alone. And that’s stressful (especially for the disabled, elderly, and houseless populations who are both at the most risk for dying from Covid-19 and the populations who lose the most when we cut funding to welfare, healthcare, and unemployment programs). In 2020, many people learned the stress of figuring out how to survive as Covid-19 took job security away from groups of Americans who do not typically face the risk of literally losing the ability to work.
A second reason it became stressful when we ground to halt in 2020 is: since capitalism doesn’t value rest, we don’t know how to rest. As a culture, we are so obsessed with the hustle, we actually manifest feelings of guilt, shame, and uselessness when we can’t work. When we can’t fulfill everyone’s expectations and win every competition. When we can’t keep grinding. These feelings impact our self esteem. They increase our anxiety and make us depressed. They probably affected your opinion of others who can’t work in the past, and give you complicated feelings about yourself if you are now in that situation.
This is what 2020 did to us. It forced us to rest. It forced us to not do, to not go, to not be productive. And that’s really difficult for a society of people who value work and money over everything else. But rest is an important part of many natural cycles. Species in ecosystems all over the earth hibernate when there is no food available, and therefore no work to be done. They literally rest. What if we rested more? What if, as a society, we didn’t see rest as lazy? What if we valued it as an important part of being human?
Rest allows your brain and body to restore. It heals. It rejuvenates. This December, as a second wave of quarantine hit, I decided to take my cue from my natural surroundings and allow myself to rest. I took breaks from social media. I forgave myself for falling asleep on the couch at 7pm once it started getting dark at 4. I prioritized activities that felt restful. I gave myself time and space to reflect. I embraced healthy solitude and focused on getting my basic needs met. I took the pressure off. It wasn’t necessarily easy. Like I said above, humans are social creatures and I hated being away from my loved ones over the holidays.
And, I really, really needed to rest.
As 2020 drew to a close, I realized more than anything 2021 is going to be a challenge. Hopes are high for 2021. Expectations that “Everything will go back to normal” are swirling through conversations, tap dancing across our brains. That’s a lot of pressure on one year. The New York Times morning briefings and my friends who are nurses have tempered my optimism for 2021. We still have a long way to go, and honestly I don’t know if there is, or should be, any “going back to normal.” New Years gives us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over. But here’s the thing y’all, there is no wiping the slate clean right now. There is work to do. I’m sure we would all love to forget the trauma from 2020 and move on, but this year I would like to caution you against it. For, we can find the blueprint for the work to be done in 2021 within the lessons we learned in 2020. I implore you, remember the lessons from 2020. Use them to fuel your action, your choices, your movements. Work on building your resilience, love each other a little more, and give yourself permission to rest. If we can keep all these things in mind then I feel fully confident saying, 2021: Challenge Accepted.
I had another one of those dreams last night. The one where I wake up and my limbs suddenly weigh thousands of pounds, but no one else seems to notice. And for the whole dream my limbs weigh me down, taking away my control over what happens to me and my ability to fulfill other people’s expectations. And I struggle in my sleep: to move, to protect myself, to communicate. But I can’t. I’m just too heavy.
And I wake up feeling just as heavy. Certain in my doubt. Certain that no matter what “it” is today, I will fail. I can feel everyone’s disappointment in me before I even get out of bed.
I stop wanting to be me.
I don’t feel like me.
I feel like an imposter. An imposter who can’t possibly keep up the charade today, and convince everyone I am me.
And the weight of myself — the self I can’t be but can’t get away from — holds me frozen.
I cannot remember a single day of my life that I’ve lived without anxiety.
This may seem dramatic but, as far as I can remember, it’s true. I’m sure it has to do with the way our brain stores memories associated with trauma v. happy memories, but I’m not exaggerating how ever-present my anxiety has been.
The reason this was my reality? I simply had no resources, education, or support system able to help me understand what was going on in my brain. So, every lie my brain told me, I believed was true. Because that’s what anxiety is; your brain lying to you. Tricking you into believing your life and safety are being threatened when they are not.
Every human being has anxiety to a certain extent. Anxiety really is just fear. Humans are capable of fear because it helps us stay alive. Fear (when functioning correctly) is what stops us from approaching bear cubs in the wild. It stops us from touching a hot stove. It stops us from driving too fast, eating spoiled food, and jumping between hotel room balconies. But many of us live daily lives devoid of life-risking endeavors or circumstances. So we start fearing all the things we can’t control, even if they’re not life-threatening.
This can translate into chronic anxiety. Especially if you lack an understanding of what’s going on and how to manage it (as I did for many years). Also, some people (like me) are genetically more prone to anxiety than others. And chronic anxiety can make your day-to-day life unbearable.
This post was inspired by one of my best friends. After a lifetime free of mental health issues, my friend developed chronic anxiety over night a while back, and his life has changed drastically. We were talking the other day about the ways the symptoms of our individual anxieties present themselves, and I realized certain truths that can only come with conversations like this:
Anxiety is hard to control. Your brain is lying to you. Your brain, in whom you put so much faith, on whom you rely for so much. When your brain is sending you irrational messages, it is just plain difficult to unravel the truth.
Anxiety impacts you physically. When you are anxious, your body is entering a fight or flight response, and staying there. Your body and brain start producing hormones that increase your blood pressure, make your brain speed up, and your breathing shallow. All of that is great when you have to make quick decisions and movements to get out of a life-threatening situation. But what happens when nothing is actually threatening your life? What if there is nothing to fight or flee from? Your body will react to these stress hormones in a variety of ways. The physical ailments that come with anxiety are diverse and vary from human to human, but they are real.
Talking about anxiety makes it easier to cope with. Chronic anxiety likes to convince you you’re alone. You’re the only person on Earth this is happening to. There is something inherently wrong with you that sets you apart from others, and therefore they’ll think you are crazy if you bring it up. All of these thoughts are just more lies. These are ways your anxiety keeps you alienated from your support system so it can continue its free rein over your life. Every human being is capable of anxiety. More people than you think battle with chronic anxiety. Since I’ve started going public with my mental health journey, I’ve become everyone’s neighborhood anxiety expert. In other words, I’ve had so many people, from close friends to strangers on the internet, open up to me about their anxiety once they realize it’s something we have in common. My friend I mentioned before is one of them. While we were on the phone the other day he apologized several times for asking me to carry the weight of his anxiety on top of mine. But, honestly, that’s not how it felt at all. The more people who open up to me about their anxiety, the more opportunities I get to talk about my own. I have found these somewhat objective conversations with people who are going through similar things to be essential to my healing.
In the spirit of these conclusions and the conversation I had with my friend the other day, I decided to chart my anxiety. Over the course of 4 days I took notes about my anxiety. In moments of elevated anxiety I wrote down the lies my brain was telling me and the way that anxiety felt in my body at the time. Keep in mind I did this over what I consider to be “low anxiety” days for me (until Sunday). The purpose of this exercise was to provide a small snapshot of the way my chronic anxiety affects my every-day life. I’m hoping that you, dear reader, will either gain insight into a perspective different from your own or feel connected to someone going through a similar experience. Keep in mind, this is raw data. I haven’t even fully analyzed the patterns or drawn conclusions about it yet. If this strikes a chord with you, I’d love to process it through. And, as always, thank you for reading!
Chronic Anxiety Charted:
Thursday 10/15/2020, 8:30 am:
Lie my brain is telling me: I’m already a failure as a writer, I don’t have the skills necessary for the new job I just got and will inevitably embarrass myself.
My anxiety feels like: my body aches all over as if I just tumbled around in a dryer for the last 3 hours I’ve been asleep. I have a headache from clenching and grinding my jaw. My breathing is shallow, I’m having cold sweats
Saturday 10/17/2020, 3:00 pm
lie my brain is telling me: Everyone’s going to be mad I’m late
My anxiety feels like: I am lethargic, it doesn’t feel like I actually slept at all last night. There is a lump of tension in my lower back that feels like a knife is stuck between my vertebrae. My body aches all over, feels heavy but I can’t sit still.
Sunday 10/18/202, 2;36 pm: still experiencing a state of elevated anxiety and general feeling of being unsafe. I know they were just nightmares, I know I’m safe now. I just cannot shake the emotional fragility and physical aches. I keep pacing circles around the house because I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve obsessively picked my acne until it’s bled. I have muscle twitches in my legs when I try to sit still. My hands are shaking, my heart rate is elevated.
Now that I write it out I realize I’m having a panic attack. Sometimes my panic attacks feel like this: a moderate level of symptoms that never really go away… until they finally do. Sometimes it takes hours, sometimes days.
Sunday 10/18/2020, 5:40 pm: still panicking. My wrists and ankles are aching and I keep randomly bursting into tears.
Sunday 10/18/2020, 8:31 pm: still panicking. Numbness and tingling in my limbs. Too nauseous to eat. Too agitated to sleep.
Monday 10/19/2020, 9:40 am: After a whole lot of crying and negotiating, my partner finally convinced me to take sleeping meds and get a full night’s sleep last night. I knew actual sleep would be the reset button I needed. It is difficult to go to sleep though, when sleep leaves me vulnerable to being attacked by PTSD nightmares. But I did it! I took trazodone, slept a nightmare-less 11 hours, and woke up with my breath and body restored to their baseline.
I recently read a tweet that said, “So excited for my quarantine depression and my regular depression to meet my seasonal depression.” I don’t know if I’ve ever related so much to a tweet. SAD, or seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression many get during winter. I live in Michigan, a state where winters are perpetually grey and cold. SAD gets me every year, but this winter is particularly Game of Thrones-y as its inevitable arrival feels a little dooming. This year has already been tough mental health-wise, winter isn’t bound to help much. I’ve decided to share some of the ways I am preparing to survive winter 2020/21 with my mental health in tact:
Strategy 1: Write all your strategies down
When I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, it’s almost impossible for me to remember the strategies I’ve learned to help me cope. My mind gets caught in the quicksand of my self-loathing and everything else leaves my brain. Therefore, whenever I come up with strategies or skills I can use to help me when I’m depressed, I write them down. This creates a tool I can use in the future when all I can think about is darkness.
This year I’ve decided to make what I’m calling an “Emergency Jar.” I have a jar and a bunch of popsicle sticks. On each stick I’m writing one strategy to help me cope with SAD. The sticks may have questions on them for challenging my negative thoughts such as, “Is there evidence to support your thought?” Or “If your best friend felt the same way, what would you say to them?” The sticks may have instructions on them for things I know help me cope like, “Call your best friend,” “have a dance party,” or “watch Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.” Or the sticks may have affirmations (positive thoughts I know to be true) on them such as, “You are safe,” or “you have a nice ass.”
The sticks will live in the jar all winter. In moments when my depression congeals over my brain and I feel powerless to stop it, all I have to do is grab a stick from the jar. The best part about it is there are no rules. If whatever the first stick says doesn’t work, use another one. Put them all back in the jar when you’re done and use them again next time.
I like to do arts and crafts, so making an Emergency Jar is some shit I would do. If you aren’t like me, you can get the same outcome by journaling or typing a note in your phone. The idea is to create a physical reminder of all the strategies you know work for your depression. Therefore, when your brain is cloudy and winter is unrelenting, you just have to find your Emergency Jar.
Strategy 2: Organize and prepare your support system
In winter we tend to get really antisocial. It’s cold, it gets dark early, maybe there’s snow; none of these things make leaving the house very attractive. However, going into hibernation mode can get pretty lonely, and loneliness makes depression worse. This loneliness doubles down on the regular loneliness that comes with depression. Depression makes you isolate. People with depression are often hyper conscious of being a burden to their loved ones. No one wants to add extra stress onto the already-full plates of anyone they love.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my depression journey is that my support system wants to support me. That’s literally why they’re in my life. Sometimes I need a reminder of this fact. So during periods when I’m feeling good, I have conversations with my loved ones to prepare them for my next depressive episode. This is a pattern I’m repeating now, as I prepare for winter. Those conversations will typically cover the signs and symptoms of my depression, and some actions my friend or family member can take to help. I will explain to them how to know when I’m starting to get depressed. We will create code words I can text them when I need help. We will schedule dates ahead of time to check in with each other just in case.
This year those conversations will look a little bit different because of Covid-19. Many places still have quarantine laws in place, or are ready to go back into place in case of a spike in the virus. My suggestion here is to find a small group of people to create a pod with. Creating a pandemic pod is essentially deciding ahead of time who you trust enough to expose yourself to during quarantine. Once you decide to form a pod, you can design boundaries and expectations around keeping each other healthy physically and mentally.
Strategy 3: Consider light therapy
The lack of sunlight during winter is the cause of seasonal affective disorder. Going to work in January in Michigan typically means arriving before the sun rises, and leaving after the sun sets. Lack of access to sunlight lowers your serotonin levels in your body, and therefore lowers your mood. You become lethargic. You become depressed. Light therapy boxes help with the symptoms of SAD because they mimic natural sunlight. Consult your doctor first, but spending time under a light therapy box daily can raise your serotonin levels and ease seasonal affective disorder. You can buy several different types of light therapy boxes at a range of prices.
Look y’all, 2020 has been a rollercoaster. You don’t need me to remind you of the mental health impacts of the events of this year. Knowing we can’t avoid our seasonal affective disorder on top of it all is a little intimidating. I’m confident, however, that if we prepare ourselves ahead of time we’ll get through it together. Writing down some strategies, making yourself an emergency contact list, and experimenting with different types of therapy are all ways you can prepare yourself for the inevitable winter that is to come.
A stream of consciousness ride on my interior rollercoaster
I’ve been restless lately
On one hand, the clouds have recently parted in my brain. I am more content than I’ve been in my life, my energy has returned.
But I’ve been restless.
There seems to be nothing in my head but buzzing bees and sawdust.
I’m full of energy but feel stuck.
Where did my creativity go?
Is my mental health inversely proportional with my creativity?
I’m terrified being healthy is sapping me of my creativity and talent. So much of my inspiration for writing comes from my angst. In the absence of angst, what is there?
Wait. Stop. This sounds eerily like the voice of self doubt.
I’m calling bullshit.
I think I’ve been restless because I’m putting pressure on myself. Pressure to create, to make money, to “do.” I just quit my job, you see. And I quit my job in order to devote myself to my mental health. In order to take a big risk on a career in writing. In order to take a risk like I’ve never allowed myself to take before.
My interior voice of self doubt never allows me to take risks. I’m such a perfectionist, if I’m not automatically good at something the first time I try it, I will never do it again. I start building evidence in my head about why I shouldn’t take risks. I keep myself safely within my comfort zone.
And over time, that voice of self doubt starts to sound like the voice of reason as my conclusions appear to be based on evidence. And that self doubt turns into a trap. And I start feeling stuck. Like I feel right now.
Because here I am, putting pressure on myself. And putting pressure on myself to be automatically perfect in the midst of a mental breakdown is raising my stress level and squashing my creativity.
That’s all that’s been happening here.
I’ve slipped back into old habits of anxious loops about money, putting pressure on myself to maintain an unfair standard. I forgot about the mental breakdown thing. I forgot about easing into working again, taking it slow. I forgot.
It is striking me as I write this how easy it is to slip into old habits. This is what I mean when I say my life is a rollercoaster right now. Like flicking a switch, certain triggers can make my brain revert back into old thought habits without even realizing I’m doing it.
It’s not until my anxiety has me strung out, pacing circles around my house at 4am like a ghost with unfinished business, that I realize how far gone I am.
So here we are, hitting the reset button again.
I need to go back, and look at my priorities.
I need to rationally remind myself of the care and thought that went into each of my recent decisions.
I need to take a bath, do a tarot reading, and take some deep breaths.
I need to rub my eyes clear of the self doubt that has recently gathered there.
Saturday August 29, 2020 marked 10 months since I almost killed myself. That’s not exactly a significant time marker, I know. Realizing that however, made me start to reflect on all the ways I’ve changed over the last 10 months.
In short, my life looks nothing like it did 10 months ago (considering we’re in the midst of an international pandemic and a social revolution, I’m sure I’m not the only person who can say that). I have healed a lot, learned a lot, and changed a lot. Where I stand currently, I am in a cycle of healing that both: inches me daily towards full remission, and spirals me through such an intense range of emotions I sometimes question if this is healing at all.
I’ve decided to make my healing process public through this post. Suicide is such a weird topic in our media. We publicly grieve suicides of famous people like Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain. Suicide will take over news and social media cycles for a couple days. There will be some cries for more attention for mental health issues, and then everyone pretty much moves on. But unsuccessful suicide attempts? How often do we publicly grieve those? How often do we give voice to suicide survivors, and ask them what support they need to make sure next time they’re not successful? Since I’ve started being vocal about my suicide attempt, I’ve noticed the hashtag #suicidesurvivor largely brings up content about the surviving family members of successful suicide victims. But what about all those, like me, who struggle with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts? If we can grieve successful suicides and lament the lack of mental health support that produced them, why do those with unsuccessful suicide attempts in their past hide in silence and shame?
I don’t know if there really are answers to these questions. I do know that before October 29, 2019 I believed suicide was inevitable for me. I had been in therapy for 3 years by that point and tried several different psych meds, but still truly believed my loved ones would be better off without me. I had thought about suicide for decades before attempting it. Through my teenage years, undergrad, my marriage, years of love, moments of laughter, and professional successes, suicide stalked me. It surged up the back of my throat like bile, every time something triggered my social anxiety. It danced across the hemispheres of my mind every time I fell short of being perfect. And, it sat like harsh medicine on my tongue after being sexually assaulted a second time; daring me to swallow it.
And I finally almost did.
But I survived. And here I am refusing to hide it, refusing to be ashamed. Reflecting on my process of healing reminds me of how far I’ve come. I’m not in full remission yet, but I no longer feel as though suicide is inevitable. I know I can beat it now, which is a paradigm I’ve worked steadfastly to grow and maintain for the last 10 months. Below you will find other important paradigm shifts I’ve experienced throughout this process, and how each continues to fuel my cycle of healing.
I used to think healing was linear, now I know it’s a cycle
Like many, my only frame of reference for healing was physical ailments. When you are sick or injured you go to the doctor, follow the instructions, take the pills, get better, move on with your life. I grew up in a context where mental illness didn’t exist. I didn’t learn what anxiety and depression really were until I was diagnosed with them in my mid-20s. So when I realized I had an illness I did the things. I went to a psychiatrist, I went on meds, I followed the instructions, I tried to kill myself 3 years later.
That’s because mental and emotional healing is not linear, which I have learned through personal experience over the last 10 months. Starting the healing process takes self awareness. You have to understand that your brain is lying to you and identify that a trigger is responsible. Once you identify the trigger, you can start working on the reasons you have triggers in the first place, and start to do the work to make your triggers less powerful.
The thing is, the work you do to make triggers less powerful can often be triggering. Uncovering why certain things trigger me meant uncovering trauma and mental illness that I had no idea were even inside me. Confronting and processing through trauma makes you fragile, sensitive. It can produce new triggers that were never there before. Which starts the cycle over as you confront these new triggers and attempt to heal from them.
This can be exhausting. Some days I have anxiety all day long and I don’t understand why until reflecting before bed that night. Sometimes I get triggered during really inconvenient times and have to abruptly remove myself from situations, often without saying anything. There are still days I can’t get out of bed. Some days I feel amazing, back to normal, ready to get back to work, take on too much, trigger myself, and have to give up responsibilities all over again.
Learning about and embracing this cycle though, has been key to my journey. Once I let go of my expectation of linear healing, I became aware of all my victories. I stopped putting pressure on myself to be “better,” and started celebrating small wins. For example, the ability to notice I’ve taken on too much work, and voluntarily give up responsibilities is brand new. Which leads me to my next paradigm shift since October 2019:
I used to be a perfectionist, now I embrace who I am
I believed for most of my life that anything short of perfect was a failure. This belief came from a fundamental lack of confidence in my own self worth. I really thought that if I let anyone down, or fell short of perfect, everyone would realize they didn’t really need me and I would have no reason to live.
That’s fucking dark, I know. But it kept me working and exceeding expectations. My perfectionism won me several awards, scholarships, and admission into two international honors societies. On paper, I was perfect, so on paper I had worth.
This didn’t stop me from trying to kill myself. I realized that, no matter how perfect I looked, I would never heal unless I started believing I had worth outside of my productivity. This was one of the most difficult paradigm shifts I had to make. It meant giving up everything I knew to be “right” about myself, and embracing everything about me I used to hide from view.
It also meant growing the self awareness necessary to say “no” to people. Perfectionism is the close cousin of people-pleasing. In order to make everyone think I was perfect, I had to change myself to make everyone else happy all the time. In order to change this paradigm, I had to accept that I may sometimes make others unhappy by choosing myself. And that sometimes making others unhappy, does not detract from my worth.
This is one of the most difficult parts for me. The courage to choose myself has enabled me to build more self love than I thought possible. Yet, others’ reactions to choosing myself is triggering as hell. People have a hard time understanding why I would go from bending over backwards to make them happy, to saying no and asserting my needs. I’ve lost people along the way which has been absolutely devastating, and sends me into a spiral of self loathing every time. But I’ve also gained people, and solidified relationships with existing people who have proved they are ride or die on this journey with me.
I have also lost parts of myself that I used to treasure. I’ve had to grieve these losses in order to make way for new growth. That grief unexpectedly became an almost constant fixture in my life.
I used to think we only grieve when someone dies, I now understand grief comes with any loss
The grief I’ve experienced through this process has taken my breath away, hit me like a train, and turned everything upside down. One of the reasons I believe my mental health support wasn’t effective enough to keep me from attempting suicide was because I wasn’t willing to give anything up. I wasn’t willing to give up my high-achieving perfect record and sway with the people in my life who I thought “mattered.”
Once I found myself in a psychiatric hospital, I realized giving these parts of myself up was essential if I was planning to survive. I didn’t realize I would grieve these parts of myself as if they were loved ones who had passed.
Grief accompanies every loss. Humans in general need to cycle through many emotions in order to cope with giving something up. This has been true for every part of myself I’ve had to give up in order to survive. Some days I’m so angry I can’t sit still. Others days I cry a lot. Sometimes I am in such denial, I convince myself every choice I’ve made in the last 10 months was a mistake and desperately want my old life back.
In attempting suicide, I didn’t successfully kill myself, but there were parts of me that died. I’ve had to lean into this grief in order to cope with it. Acknowledging my grief and honoring my emotions allows me the time I need to process through them, and then move on when I’m ready. Some days are harder than others. Most of the time I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster. But each moment spent honoring my grief has pushed me one step further towards acceptance. And that’s what I’m holding onto.
I am only one person who has attempted suicide. I can’t speak for others and their own experiences with their healing cycle. In writing this article I am merely hoping to give voice to a topic we don’t talk about very often. Healing is a difficult journey. My cycle of healing has been surprising, unexpected, difficult, empowering, and luckily steeped in love. I am grateful every day for my support system and the (however small) platform I’ve built to feel seen and heard. And I want that for every survivor, and sincerely hope that sharing my story gives voice to others who may not be ready to share their own.
If you struggle with suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, please know I see you, I love you, I honor you. You are strong, you are worthy, and you are not alone.
The initial trigger is usually a miscommunication or something unexpected that makes me question a relationship.
Then I start over analyzing everything that has happened. I start building walls to “protect” myself.
These walls make me intensely fragile to any and all (even the tiniest of) triggers. And therefore the triggers start to pile up. And I start to get overwhelmed.
I start to question things that I’ve already figured out. I start to take everything personally. I make a career out of over analyzing every interaction to build evidence against myself. I obsessively try to read people’s minds and find all the places I’ve slipped up. I fall into all of the traps I’ve laid out for myself. I second guess all of the steps I’ve taken to guard myself against those traps.
The next step is acting in ways I regret. I lash out at people when I’m really just projecting my own insecurities. I rehash every moment of my life where I’ve failed, or embarrassed myself. I make self destructive choices. I engage in self harm in several ways.
These behaviors, and the realization that I’ve once again lost control, catalyze the synthesis of all my various anxieties into a viscous depression.
Lethargic, apathetic, exhausted. Depression will become my partner, my lover, my identity. I won’t be able to keep my eyes open for very long. I’ll need breaks from social interactions; leaving places early, going silent, wandering off to pet a dog midway through a conversation I lost track of minutes ago. Effort becomes physically taxing, sometimes even painful. Especially if I’ve successfully resisted the temptation to self harm, as the withdrawal gives me body aches.
At which point it takes full time effort and some sincere grit to pull myself out of the hole I’ve dug. The difficult truth is: I do this to myself. This is my brain, and a combination of my genetics, and my trauma. This is me, reacting to triggers that are specific to my experience.
But here’s another truth I’ve learned:
Reacting to those triggers is not a measure of my “success” or “failure” as a good friend, a good partner, a good person.
I’m going to repeat that because I don’t entirely believe it yet.
Reacting to triggers is not a measure of success or failure.
Accepting that means accepting that I am responsible for my own mental health. That the reactions and feelings of others aren’t within my control, and often aren’t a reflection of how they feel about me.
How I’m working towards radical self-acceptance:
First and foremost, in order to accept these important truths about myself, and my mental health, and my strength, and my worth, I have to learn how to love myself. Without self love I’m never going to be able to accept anyone else’s love. Over the previous few months I’ve been slowly unearthing a fathoms deep sinkhole inside me I never knew existed. Each realization has triggered a grieving process that has not made coping with my social anxiety any easier. Each realization has simultaneously helped me recognize when my brain is lying to me because of my trauma. This is a good thing. This means every day I get better at recognizing when I’m projecting my own insecurities onto others. Which helps me catch myself like 80% of the time before I act on my anxious thoughts and become the burden I never want to be on all of my loved ones.
So I guess I need to give myself more credit. Yes, I am a fragile shell of my former self. And at the same time I’m practicing the skills I need to build the good kind of armor back around my soul. The thought patterns I need to trust my loved ones when they say they love me. To trust that their words and actions always come with the best intentions, and rarely reflect their feelings about me.
I think my point, more than anything, is that gratitude is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found in this whole process. I didn’t realize that was the message of this post, until I arrived here myself. But, without the people in my life who are willing to hold me down regardless, I wouldn’t be alive right now.
I’m not exaggerating for once. Suicide is always going to be present for me. A hard reality I’ve had to face is that I’ve traumatized my loved ones. I know that’s where their mind will go when I go off the rails like this. I can sense it in my partner as he starts to hover around me. He’ll become insistent on making plans for what I will do while he’s not home. I’ll get a few more random “I love you” texts than usual throughout the day. I’ll catch him staring at me, trying to hide the anxious look on his face.
And regardless of my guilt, he stays. And so do so many others. Not all of them, but quite a few. That’s what I mean by gratitude. Regardless of my fragility, my neediness, my constant rollercoaster, I have people who stay. Who have stayed. And continue to stay. My inability to fully understand why is part of the problem to begin with, but it doesn’t mean I’m not completely, entirely, utterly grateful for those in my life who continue to carry my heavy-ass-self nevertheless.