“Fine” is a 4-Letter Word

Is fine an illusion?
Fine is a 4 letter word
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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – The Princess Bride

“I’m fine.” What does that mean, really? I mean, at least for me, when I’m actually doing alright, I’ll say so. Or, maybe I’ll even say I’m OK, or I’m good. What does “fine” even mean?

There are memes galore on the internet of what “fine” means. Sometimes, they take a jab at how “fine” from a woman is usually a bad thing, because it really means she’s upset, and is saying it in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Many of the memes, though, show some sort of horrible thing happening, a room on fire, or a pained face, with a caption along the lines of: “I’m fine” or “This is fine.” Of course, it’s obvious that things are not, in fact, fine.

This is fine meme
Image Credit: KC Green

I think, most of the time, a person says fine when they really aren’t, but out of politeness, or in an attempt to abide by social norms, they don’t want to bring up anything negative. Especially in this world of social media, when most people only publish the good of their lives (often with added filters and good camera angles to make it look even better), when we communicate via text and snapchat, when it seems more common to see people interacting with screens than other people, the idea of “burdening” someone else by saying that things aren’t fine probably doesn’t even come to mind. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t even realize they aren’t fine. We are a social species. Even people who don’t want to follow mainstream norms usually end up in some other community, some other nonconformist group, and frequently they try to “conform” to the mores of that group.

To be fair, when someone asks how I am, it’s not always appropriate to really open up. The co-worker whose name I don’t know, who asks how my day is going in the elevator is just making small talk (besides, no matter how slow the elevator is, there isn’t a lot of time for a detailed conversation). When someone asks how you are at the start of a one-on-one meeting, it’s not necessarily the appropriate time or place to say that it feels like the world is falling down around you, and you haven’t gotten more than 5 hours of sleep a night for over 3 weeks. It’s a pre-scripted interaction, and we all know our roles, and something brief, like “I’m fine, and you?” is the appropriate and most common response.

fine or not fine
Image by Maklay62 on pixabay.com

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t necessarily want to say something that isn’t true, though, so I don’t always feel comfortable saying “I’m fine,” especially since I’m in the middle of a process, a transition where I’m healing a lot of emotional scar tissue, and things can be rough from time to time. At the same time, I don’t want to open up to strangers. What’s a somewhat socially awkward, depressed, stressed, occasionally anxious girl to do?

Well, I’ve started answering by not really answering. “How’s it going?” “It’s going. How about you?” It’s sufficiently vague, socially acceptable, and not untrue. Time is going. My day is going. Sometimes, I’m not sure how well it’s going, but it’s going.

The more I hear people say that they’re fine, especially outside of the context of a polite exchange in passing, the less I believe it. If you’re really “fine,” you’d probably use a different word, in my opinion, and in my experience. “Fine,” to me means either: “I’m not fine, but I don’t want to let you in any further,” or “I’ve been suppressing my real feelings so long, I’m not sure if I am fine or not.” Sometimes, it means “I’m not fine, but I’m not ready to do anything about it, or even acknowledge that I’m not fine.” Being in any of these places is an OK place to be. My prayer for everyone who is using “fine” when they aren’t is that they find someone to talk things through with, so they can stop saying they’re “fine” and work towards being “OK,” or maybe even “great.” Some great places to turn are therapists, pastors/priests, or trusted friends & family. If things are really rough, though, I’d say a therapist or pastor/priest would be a great starting point.

Is fine an illusion?
Sometimes, “fine” feels like an illusion.
Image by Randy Jacob on Unsplash.com

As someone who is half a year into her therapy journey (and I feel simultaneously like I’ve just begun yet come so far and like I’ve been going for a long time but not made any progress; the reality is likely somewhere in the middle), I definitely advocate for it. Even if you have to tell yourself that the best benefit is the therapist is being paid to listen, start going. The benefits are plentiful. And they listen not just because it’s their job, but because they care (and it’s their job because they care). Add in the coping tools you can get, the personal growth, and the time to talk and know you’re being heard, and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself (in my humble opinion). Not to mention, it’s a place you can go, not be “fine” and not be judged for it.

I am not “fine.” In fact, after writing this entry, I’m pretty tired of the word. In one of my poetry classes in college, the instructor had us all add a page to the end of our writing journals, where we actively drafted things and jotted down inspiration. He told us to write “Word Graveyard” at the top, and then take any cliche words, or words we noticed we overused, and put it in the word graveyard. For me, “fine” is now in my word graveyard, at least as far as it refers to my emotional/mental state. It is another 4 letter word, another F-word that I will work on actively avoiding in my vocabulary.

What do you think when someone says they’re “fine”?

Noisy Thoughts

“A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.”
– Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

All tangled up
Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash.com

Sometimes, I “should” all over myself, and it leads to a noisy mess in my head.

Let me explain. I am a naturally curious person, and I have a pretty good memory (if I do say so myself). I’ve had variants of therapy a couple of times in my life, and have done a lot of research in how to handle depression. This leads to a couple of things. First of all, I overanalyze a LOT of things, and this is where, I suspect, some of the anxiety comes into play. I’m always thinking about how what I said is being received, worried about being judged, and thinking of how I could have said or done things better. I also rehearse conversations in my head. A lot. My mind doesn’t like to be quiet.

On top of all that, as I’ve focused on externalizing my depression and overcome the ideation I’ve struggled with in the past, I frequently end up with a battle in my mind. I’ll have a thought, and immediately recognize it as unhealthy or distorted, and try to stop the thought mid-thought. Then I wonder if I’m being too hard on myself, and if I should let myself feel my feeling, even if it is tied to a distortion, and it just cycles around for awhile.

For example, at a recent session with my therapist, I was reacting to something as I was working through something, and ended up saying something along these lines: “The first response that came to mind was that I feel stupid about (whatever we were talking about), but I know I shouldn’t say my feelings are stupid, because they’re just feelings. But I don’t want to not allow myself to react however I’m going to react, but I also know that I shouldn’t call myself stupid…” It continued along this vein for probably 5 minutes as I talked through this whole ordeal until I came to a resolution. Because I expect to be judged, even by my therapist (which is another whole category of distorted thinking that I’m still working on), I expected her to be looking at me like I had two heads, or suggesting that I have bigger issues than just depression and anxiety. Instead, she looked at me and smiled. She said it was great to see me work through that whole ordeal on my own, and talk my way through and out of the distorted thought.

It's OK to not feel OK sometimes
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Now, just because, in a way, she praised my noisy thoughts, my mental runaround every time I realize I’m about to have a distorted thought/reaction doesn’t mean I magically am OK with it. I’m not. My mind is a frustrating place to be sometimes, because part of me, the inner child, I guess, wants to just react, wants to have space to learn how to feel her feelings and react appropriately. Then, the mental academic wants to constantly apply everything she’s learned in every situation, and frequently tries to override whenever she suspects something unhealthy or distorted is about to bubble up in conversation (whether actual or mental).

Am I anxious and nervous about publishing a post called “Noisy Thoughts”? Am I thinking that readers might think I’m nuts? Absolutely. But I’m publishing it anyway, because this is a process, because I know, logically, my concerns are being blown out of proportion, and because I hope that, in publishing this, I can help someone who is having a hard time finding their way out of the storm. Because the mind can be a noisy place, especially when you’re battling a mental illness, and it’s OK. It’s OK for things to be rough as you work through the transition to a new normal. Some days don’t feel OK, and that’s OK, too. My story is not over.

Does your head feel too noisy sometimes? How are you working on quieting or accepting your mental noise?

Celebrating Victories #2

pexels-photo-796606.jpeg

Today, I’d like to celebrate the fact that I am working on the whole self-value, self-care thing.  I also have some visible victories to celebrate, and they aren’t so small.  Without further ado, this episode’s list!

  1. I ordered some clothes for myself from ThreadUp!  As someone who is always looking for the best deal and is disgusted by some of the retail prices out there, being able to get myself 3 tops, 2 tanks, and jeans (plus a couple of shirts for the kiddo) and spend less than $70 was a win in so very many ways.
  2. Speaking up for my needs.  In a couple of ways, just this week, I’ve stood up for what I need as I journey through this process.  Specifically, around making time for myself during the week if I need it (even if it means reducing some of my physical activity by skipping a hula class).
  3. On a related note, proposing to my husband that we keep our Disney passes instead of letting them expire as planned.  Annual passes aren’t cheap, but the mental and emotional benefits for me of having that place to just exhale and feel like a kid are priceless.

    happy place
    Seeing this sign will never not lift my mood.
  4. Getting back to my BuJo.  Having it really helps minimize my frantic thoughts, because I can keep my to-do’s and schedule all in one place.  Every time something else pops up in my mind as a need-to-do, I write it down, since my BuJo is always with me.

    bujo to mental health
    The start of last week’s weekly spread.
  5. I was trying to find a fancy way to say it, but, let’s keep it simple.  We bought me a new laptop!  My last one was purchased at another rough point in my life, but that point in my life was 8 ½ years ago.  My inner frugal self assumed that the old laptop would live forever, and was disappointed when the eject button for the optical drive stopped working, but I worked around it with an unbent paper clip until it stopped recognizing the battery.  Then I just used my work laptop.  With starting the blog, and wanting to write more, I finally bit the bullet and bought a laptop.  The actual ordering and getting of the laptop was its own ordeal (and may become its own post), but I have the laptop, and it feels great.  I’ve even downloaded the first of what may become several games for decompression time (SimCity 4, if you were wondering).
  6. Last, but not least.  In fact, this is the biggest victory (in my mind) over the past month:  making some space for myself.  Up until a week and a half ago, I was using a very small writing desk as a space to do my makeup, nails and theoretically to write in my journal.  It was tiny.  It was always cluttered.  Because of the size, I inevitably ended up trying to write in my journal and do my computer work at the dining table (and inevitably ended up distracted by Netflix on the TV).  So, after a trip to Ikea, I now have a larger desk in the same place in our room as the tiny writing desk had been, with enough space to store and do makeup or pull out a journal and/or my laptop to get some writing (or decompression) done.  Not just that, but I bought some cute paper lantern-style lights, matching magnets and a calming bubbling timer thing from Daiso to help make the corner my own.  I’ve also put up some handouts from my therapist on the magnetic whiteboard that is built into the desk (and added some inspiration, and a semicolon), and my sweet hubby installed some LED lights over the main work area to make the lighting more conducive to both makeup and working in general.
making space for me
My new desk, with its decor, my reminders on the whiteboard, and my pretty, new, blue laptop.

While speaking up for my needs in certain arenas is not new to me, realizing that I am worth new things, acknowledging that I am important enough to have space, important enough to have a new desk and new computer was a really big step.  I’ve gotten used to putting others ahead of myself, but I also need to take care of myself.  There’s still so very far to go, but, today, I’m celebrating the wins.

What victories have you had recently?  Have you made steps in your own self-care, or in realizing your own worthiness of self-care?

Not Just Sad: What I Feel (or Don’t)

“Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
– William Goldman
The Princess Bride

 

Not Just Sad: What I Feel... or Don't
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One of the things I have noticed as my meds started to take effect, and even more so as I’ve started working through a lifetime of issues, is that I am crying more now than I have in a very long time.  At first glance, it seems strange that I’m crying more now that I’m treating my depression than I was when I was in the deepest depths, but it’s the truth.  It’s not just sadness, either.  I’m feeling more in general, more of all the feelings.  When I’m depressed, when I’m deep in the storm, I feel numb.  I go through the motions, but my heart feels like it’s enclosed in a pile of raw, freshly shorn wool.  There is some pain, irritation, even anger, which can be represented in this metaphor by the twigs and various vegetative bits that gets stuck in the sheep’s coat.  But the others… they are severely dulled.  Even the pain, to some degree, is often dulled.

Raw wool, numb emotions.
Raw wool isn’t always as clean as you’d think. Close up of a picture of raw wool. Original photo by Lohmi on Pixabay.com

In some ways, it feels like the emotional equivalent of drinking a glass of ice water after dental work, when your mouth is still numb.  You can feel the sensation of moisture, but your mouth doesn’t feel the cold that your hand throat feel.  Logically, you know that the water is cold.  You know that drinking it too fast would normally result in an “ice cream headache.”  But what you feel is fuzzy.  Dulled.  When I’m depressed, when the emotional novocaine of depression is actively and acutely at work in my life, I am not the stereotype of depression.  I don’t look sad.  I don’t outwardly obsess about death.  I don’t necessarily listen to depressing music.  Depression, for me, less a state of “being,” more a state of “not.”  Something good may happen, and, in the logical part of my brain, I know I should be happy.  So, I act happy. Inside, though, I might, at most, feel a vaguely pleasant feeling.  I then start worrying if my reaction is appropriate (thanks mild anxiety).  If you’ve never read Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, she does an amazing job of not just describing some of the symptoms and experiences she’s had (which I can relate to as well), but of illustrating them in a simple yet effective way.  As I was working on this topic, I kept returning to her post, Depression, Part Two.

Since I often feel like I’m wearing a mask in an attempt to hide the symptoms of my depression, I often prefer to withdraw from others, especially when I get deeper into the spiral, because hiding the numbness is exhausting.  The stereotype of perpetual weepy sadness couldn’t be farther from the truth of my experiences.  Rather, imagine the feeling of trying to walk on legs that have fallen asleep.  You know you’re moving things, but your legs don’t feel like your own.  Your feet feel rounded, or alien to you.  You start feeling sharp pains off and on, but always punctuated in a not so pleasant, fuzzy numbness.  Now, imagine the emotional version of that, but without the fairly quick relief of the increased blood flow from walking.  

Today, getting weepy at a sad scene in a movie, or choking up when (spoiler alert) Michael dies on Jane the Virgin, often feels strange, and a part of me thinks I’m stupid for crying at a piece of fiction (thanks, cognitive distortion).  Another part of me, the part of me that is pretty self-aware and hungry for emotional health, rejoices at every intense emotion.  It’s refreshing to feel emotions, big or small.  I’m truly enjoying feeling many of the good feelings that were dampened by depression, especially when my heart is bursting with love for my family, or with the pride I feel when I watch my young son grow and show compassion for others.

Feeling the feelings
My boys. Being able to feel my heart burst with love for these two is a very welcome feeling and side effect of treating my depression.

The bigger challenge is feeling the painful feelings, especially when it comes to something that is not fiction.  There’s still a lot to work out, still a lot of delving, understanding, accepting, and resolving that needs to happen.  Because there is a lot of pain yet to understand, yet to work through and heal from, I am distinctly wary of allowing myself to feel the painful feelings.  Who really, actively wants to feel painful emotions?  I mean, I can acknowledge that without my past, the good and the bad, the pain and the happiness, I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I can acknowledge, logically, that without a balance, it is really hard to appreciate the good.  There’s a reason why salty sweet makes such a good combination; the sweet tastes even sweeter in contrast to the salt.  And yet…

Emotions are morally neutral
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The fact that there are painful emotions and memories there to be worked through, the fact that they hurt, and the fact that I can feel the hope of healing from them helps.  So do the good emotions.  When things get hard, I try to remind myself why I’m doing this.  I try to realize that feeling my feelings isn’t bad, and that feelings don’t have any moral value.  Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; how I act and react based on my feelings is where appropriateness and right vs. wrong can come into play.  I never thought that allowing myself to feel would be such a challenge, but, in order to heal past wounds that were buried rather than dealt with, I need to carefully re-open them, address the pain, and find a way to move forward.  The slow pace is maddening sometimes, but, as I look at my son, I know I want better emotional health for him.  I want to be healthier for him, and I want to teach him some of the skills I’m learning now, so he is better equipped to feel and act on his feelings appropriately.

There is hope on the horizon.  Now it’s time for me to feel the feelings.

What do you do when feeling the feelings is hard?

A Reflective Review of William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

The Friday before Mother’s Day, after the luncheon at my son’s preschool, I found myself with an entire afternoon open to do as I wanted.  The blog had launched, and I had no particular plans for my free time.  Since it was nearby, I found myself renewing my library card at the neighborhood library.  I started browsing in the hopes of renewing the habit of using the library.  As I was browsing, aisle by aisle, I spotted a thin volume among the larger volumes defining and hoping to provide relief from various mental and neurological disorders.  Just steps from copies of the DSM, and visibly different from most of its shelf-mates, was a small book called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.  I hadn’t expected a memoir in the medicine and diseases section, but, as a suffer of depression, I was interested in seeing if there were any resources that might help me as I journey through therapy, and the title captured my eye.  I glanced at the summary in the front flap of the dust jacket, and added it to my small pile of books to take home and explore.  

library shelves
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Since it was a smaller volume, I decided to start reading it that afternoon, during my pedicure (hooray for self-care).  From the first page, an Author’s Note about the origins of this memoir, I was struck by his eloquence.  His writing style took me back to my college days, when my reading list was more literary, far meatier and cerebral than my more recent reading list, which is dominated by young adult fiction, where the most complex writing that frequents my reading is either scripture, occasional apologetics articles, or Stephen King.  Continuing into the meat of the memoir, the familiarity of the struggles and symptoms he described made his already engaging words all the more compelling.  Though my darkest episodes of depression did not directly resemble those that Styron describes from his battle, there are familiar notes, echoes of a similar journey, shadows of a relatable experience.  Styron’s descriptions of depression are captivating.  He recalls the “dank joylessness” of his depressive days, the “rare torture” of insomnia, and the weather and storms of depression’s effect on the mind and soul.

In a mere 84 pages, Styron expresses frustration at society’s general lack of empathy around the pains and struggles of depression, delves into his own darkest days, recalls the battles lost by others, and laments the lack of reliable clinical data around the disease (due to the fact that each case can present uniquely, and treatment that works for one person may only aggravate the symptoms for someone else).  Despite the vast ground covered in such a narrow volume, the transitions felt smooth, and the style, while more eloquent than my recent standard fare, didn’t feel pompous or grandiose.

The weather of depression
Background photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash.com, layout for final image created by Canva.com

Sitting in the pedicure chair, and only 11 pages into the book, I read something that made me stop, eyes wide.  Styron was describing some observations he made in comparing his own struggles to his research of typical depression symptoms, and states:

Most people who begin to suffer from the illness are laid low in the morning, with such malefic effect that they are unable to get out of bed.  They feel better only as the day wears on.  But my situation was just the reverse.  While I was able to rise and function almost normally during the earlier part of the day, I began to sense the onset of the symptoms at midafternoon or a little later  …

It was like the shock of an unexpectedly strong wave as you wade in the ocean.  I could still feel the roll of the massage chair behind my back, and still hear the coffee-shop covers of pop music over the speakers through the general din of a busy nail salon on a Friday evening, but only vaguely.  In that moment, reading and re-reading his words, I felt seen.  I felt understood.  I could relate to this.  

This wasn’t the only time that his descriptions of the ebb and flow of symptoms through the day rang true.  Later, he reveals that, though he was afflicted more in the afternoon, he would have a period of time in the evening when things felt normal, followed by insomnia.  As he described his battle for sleep, his words again stopped me as I read: “Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture.”  It truly is, and, at least for me, it creates the perfect conditions to take the storms of a mild depressive episode and escalate it rapidly to a veritable hurricane.

Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture.
Background photo by Nate Rayfield on Unsplash.com, layout for final image created by Canva.com

In my latest round with depression, it has been hard for most people to realize my struggle.  I would be able to get up, get dressed, go to work, and masquerade as a person living a relatively normal life.  The challenge would come in the afternoon and evening hours.  My energy would wane.  A sense of dread would overcome me at the merest thought of engaging with others, especially those outside of my immediate family.  The thought of exerting energy to do more, like vacuuming, laundry, cooking, or other “adulting” tasks would overwhelm me, and I would, for lack of a better word, shut down.  I would distract myself with mindless games on my phone, or scroll endlessly through Facebook or Pinterest.  I would want to go to bed at 5, 6 or even 7 in the evening, but I would keep myself up, with the goal of going to bed at a reasonable hour.  Unfortunately, by the time this “reasonable hour” came around, I would feel wide awake again, mindlessly finding new and not so exciting ways to distract myself: more games, binge watching Netflix, picking, snacking.  Sometimes I would do all of the above, simultaneously.  When I would try to sleep, regardless of the desire to do so, my eyes would pop open, my mind and body restless.

I truly enjoy reading, and, at any given time, I have a list nearly a mile long (or so it seems) of books I want to read, or re-read.  This brief memoir was never on my radar.  I had never heard of it before, and, honestly, as a sufferer of depression I never felt a deep desire to read about other people’s struggles.  My curiosity has always been about experiences I haven’t had.  I’ve battled, and am battling depression, so it is an experience that is intimately familiar to me.  However, after swiftly reading Styron’s memoir, I am wanting to continue finding books about others’ struggles.  Not only that, I’m thinking of trying to find my own copy, to add to my humble library of books I feel passionate enough to own a physical copy of (rather than reading only on Kindle, or borrowing from others or the library).

If you are in a place where you can read about a man’s battle with a severe depressive episode, including references to others who lost the battle, I would definitely recommend this book.  I know, for me, when I was in the darkest valleys of my walk with recurring depression, though, that this would not have been a good recommendation, so please, tread carefully and be aware of your own limits.  In my opinion, and based on my own journey, it is definitely a book for someone who has at least gained some perspective and some balance in their journey with depression.
What is a book that has helped you in your journey towards mental health?  Are there any that you would recommend others to read (or avoid), and why?

When Sleep is a Problem

“I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink
      I’m so tired, my mind is on the blink”
                                                          –John Lennon/Paul McCartney

Insomnaic woman
Sleeplessness can be a problem.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.com

I’m tired.  Two simple words, but they can mean so many different things.  Sometimes, it seems like I’m always tired, and have been for years.  One might assume that it’s because I’m a mom, and I’ve gone from pregnancy insomnia to the endless nights with a newborn to the teething months, to adjusting to life with a preschooler, which isn’t untrue.  In fact, insufficient sleep is not an unusual problem in our society.  According to the CDC, about 35% of American adults average less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  Between having a preschooler and being a night owl who finds it hard to settle in before 11 each night, it isn’t surprising that the snooze button is my best friend.

That said, mom life and night owl status are not the main enemies of a good night sleep for me.  No, one of my first (and worst) depression symptoms is insomnia, which means that sleep is another venue where depression and I go toe to toe.  I’ve been working on finding and keeping to a bedtime routine, to get “enough sleep” (based on the suggestions from my therapist for basic self care), but it is a constant struggle, and one that I have a much harder time with than going for a walk.

When my depression starts creeping back in, it gets harder and harder to quiet my mind and fall asleep each night.  I’ll be exhausted from, say, 5-8 every evening, but, once I lay down, my eyes pop open, or my mind will just keep going.  I struggle to find a comfortable position.  No matter how good of an environment I create for sleep, how peaceful the music is that I play softly in the room (to distract from the freeway sounds coming in through the window), no matter how many pages I read on my Kindle, I just can’t settle.  Before I know it, my 60 minute music timer has worn out, and I’ve read multiple chapters, my husband is snoring beside me, and my eyes are still open.  Everything seems to get in the way, from my hair to my bladder, from his snoring to the position of my pillow.  Nothing seems perfect, and anything becomes a barrier to sleep.  Eventually, I’ll find the right position, nod off, and get some rest.  At this point, I’m usually averaging 6-ish hours of sleep a night.

empty bed
Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash.com

As this continues, day after day, sleepiness crawls farther into my day and evolves into fatigue.  Basic self care tasks, like my walks, and even brushing my teeth twice a day, start falling off the radar.  It gets harder and harder to make healthy food decisions.  Depression no longer needs to sneak in; sleeplessness and fatigue have blasted a hole in the wall of my defenses, and depression starts grabbing the reins of my life.  With depression at the helm, I stop caring about, well, a lot of things really.  Every day feels like another day of just existing, just another series of hours to get through in a gray fog.

At this point of the downward spiral, my sleeplessness isn’t just from a mind that won’t wind down.  After enough months of depression chipping away at my defenses and my sleep, things get worse until I hit the point where most nights I start dealing with my mind replaying images from a time in my life when I battled with suicidal ideation.  On these worst nights, every time I close my eyes, my mind imagines things like guns, nooses, other instruments of death.  Because I haven’t battled actual ideation in several years, I refuse to entertain any of these thoughts, but, since these unbidden images persist, I enter a phase where I start forcing myself to stay awake until I am so exhausted that the only thing that greets my closed eyes is a dreamless sleep.  On nights like this, I’m lucky to get 4 hours of sleep.

Lavender sprigs on sheets
Sometimes, you have to make every attempt to find sleep.
Photo by Jacalyn Beales on Unsplash.com

Once I realize that I’m averaging less than 5 ½ hours of sleep each night, I try to make a change.  I try to build a healthy pre-bedtime routine in an attempt to prevent another round of the worst nights.  I avoid TV, computer, and phone screens right before bed. I find even more soothing music to sleep to.  I put lavender linen spray on my sheets and pillow.  I brush my teeth and lay down earlier than usual, to try and wind down and go to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Even when it does, until I take other steps to control my depression, inevitably I’ll end up back at an average of 4-6 hours of sleep each night.

When depression has stolen my sleep, when I’m having a lot of “worst nights,” I live in a fog.  It’s hard to focus.  It’s hard to control my emotions.  It’s hard to make healthier decisions.  All I want to do is hide in my bedroom and not deal with anyone.  My self esteem takes a hit.  I have no interest in doing anything that would make me feel better.  Not just that, I convince myself that not doing things, not seeing people is self care, because I can take the time to rest and try something else, even if the thought of trying something else never realizes.  I stop wanting to go anywhere.  My days become the most basic of routine: I get to work, survive the day, and go home.  That’s about all I can manage when things devolve to the pits of depression.  All I want, the one thing I want all day, every day, is to do is to sleep for weeks on end, which is to say, all I want is the one thing that seems physically impossible.

Feeling like something's missing
Without enough sleep, I don’t feel like I’m really “there” anymore.
Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash.com

I’ve ridden this roller coaster several times over the past 20-ish years.  This last time, the downward spiral was very slow, and the fatigue and sleep loss was masked by the realities of being a working new mom with an infant, and then with a toddler.  Other “new moms” in my life also complained about lack of sleep and exhaustion, so I thought that everything I was experiencing was normal.  I realized shortly before Christmas this past year, though, that my depression was back, with a vengeance, and that something needed to be done.  One of the things that really brought this to the forefront was a number of really bad nights, nights like the “worst nights” over a period of a couple of weeks.  In addition to getting in touch with my doctor to go back on antidepressants, and asking for a therapist’s contact information, I really prioritized getting enough sleep, or at least more sleep.

Even before I went back on my meds, thanks to some time off, I got some rest, which helped a bit.  Then, once the antidepressants were in my system long enough to start affecting my symptoms, sleep got a bit easier.  This happened to coincide with my first couple of sessions with my therapist, when I started focusing even more on some basic and specific self-care behaviors.

Sleep is still not an easy thing for me.  Between work, family, dance, hobbies, and now blogging, it feels like there’s always something else I could be doing.  Like my daily walks, getting to bed on time often feels like something that is optional, something that I can forego in favor of something that seems or feels more important.  It becomes an exercise in reframing how I think about these basic self-care tasks, though, because as “unproductive” as walking or sleeping can seem, in the context of a to-do list, without maintaining my physical and mental health, the more visibly productive tasks only get harder and harder to work through.

Feeling hopeful about sleep
Since my nights are slowly getting better, I’m feeling hopeful about sleep again.
Photo by Toa Hefitba on Unsplash.com

I don’t have it all figured out, and I’m not sure I ever will, but, on average, things are getting better, and my sleep average is generally moving in the right direction.  Most nights, I’m now averaging between 6 and 7 ½ hours of sleep each night.  I’ve even had weeks where I’ve averaged 7 or 7 ½ hours of sleep each night, which feels pretty close to what is “enough” sleep for me, because, when I average that much, I’ve had great focus, I’ve been able to be more physically active, and I’ve taken better care of myself.

Occasionally, though, sleep still eludes me.  Right now, it’s usually due more to an overactive mind than anything else.  Just like my refocused efforts to get out and walk daily, I’m constantly looking into ways to get enough sleep.  I’ve set a reminder on my Alexa speaker suggesting that devices get turned off at 9:15 pm.  This doesn’t always happen (in fact, I’m working on this after 10 pm), but it’s a reminder, and it helps with being mindful of how late it is.

In spite of all of my best efforts, as I work through some of my past pains, some of my depression symptoms keep popping back up here and there.  I was warned, at the start of my journey with my therapist, that things can get worse before they get better.  Since we’re re-opening some of my old wounds, in order to let them heal in a more healthy manner, my body and mind will be re-living some of the rougher patches of my life in various ways.  Because of this, I am using a number of tools to try and maintain as many healthy habits as I can.  I wear an activity monitor, which helps me make sure I’m getting enough physical activity each day.  I track my feelings and symptoms in my bullet journal each night, including whether or not I’ve been struggling with insomnia.  And I try my best to do what is best for myself.  I try to be gentle with myself if I fail at one or more of my healthy habits on any given day.  And I hope and pray for restful, peaceful sleep.

Walking Is Medicine

“We ought to take outdoor walks, to refresh and raise our spirits by deep breathing in the open air.” — Seneca

Walking sign - green means go

At my first appointment with my therapist, she ended the session by giving me a few basic self-care practices to start working on. I had just started back on my antidepressants, after realizing that my depression had been gradually growing over the past few years. They all made sense, and were all things I knew were good for me, but there’s something to be said for hearing it from someone else. The suggestions were to eat nutritious meals and snacks, spend some time outside more days than not (at least 30 minutes), get however much sleep is “enough” for me each night, and try to walk 20-30 minutes a day more days than not each week.

The food, well that’s its own topic. So is the sleep, to be honest. But, getting outside for a walk every day, or most days, as easy as it sounds, it has proven to be one of the hardest self care practices for me to prioritize. Not to say that I don’t enjoy going for a walk outside, because I do. Especially when San Diego’s weather feels more like the central coast or the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures below 75°F, I really enjoy a brisk walk, or even a gentle stroll. Occasionally, I like walking with friends and chatting. Some days, I like listening to music, or to a podcast of the rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet, and lose myself in prayer. Frequently, though, I enjoy walking in silence, letting my mind wander. It was, in fact, on a walk, thinking about how I really needed to start prioritizing my walks when I came up with the idea for this post, and used the voice-to-text on my phone to make some initial notes.

beautiful green hills, buildings and a train track
I took this picture on one of my mid-afternoon walks. The view can be very calming.

I enjoy my walks. They clear my head, re-energize me during the afternoon slump, and generally improve my mood, at least in the short term. I know (academically) that they can also help with my depression in a larger way over the long term. Part of the challenges of recurring clinical depression, though, is it likes to shoot you in the foot at every turn. I know what’s good for me, but if I leave the slightest crevice open for depression to worm its way back in, my depression will convince me otherwise.
On days when I’m stressed or depressed, when depression is loud in my ear, my daily walk is one of the first things that will drop off my radar. It’s easy to find an excuse to not go outside when I’m busy at work, easy to listen to depression say that I can always go later, even if I know, in the back of my mind, that later will probably not happen. I’ll procrastinate each day until I either forget or run out of time to get outside and walk. Eventually, after enough days, the habit will be broken, and the thought of going for a walk won’t even occur to me anymore. Once the habit is broken, depression has more than a crevice to sneak back in. There is now an open door to start back down the spiral, as other types of self care fall off my radar one by one.

Beautiful branches and sky
Another picture taken on a recent afternoon, mood-lifting stroll.

It’s been studied, and exercise, even something as simple as walking, can help with depression management. Some of the elements that are suggested to help are the increase in endorphins (which are natural mood-lifters), the opportunity to clear your mind, and even exposure to vitamin D from the sun’s rays (when walking outside). From my own, anecdotal experience, I know that when I am more active, when I get my daily walks in, and when I’m able to get regular exercise in, like dancing, my depression symptoms are greatly reduced. There was a time when I had to wean myself off of my antidepressants, because they were causing insomnia from working too much in combination with my physical activity level at the time.

In life, though, especially life with clinical depression, there’s always a “but.” In the story of maintaining through exercise, for me, what happened was a twisted knee, then a pulled muscle. I gained some weight. I was able to maintain some level of activity, though, and through that activity, I was able to keep my depression at bay, though it was a little more difficult to get back to the groove I was once in. Then, I got pregnant with my son. I had some early term concerns that led to needing to keep things low impact only, which essentially eliminated my main activities at the time (using the elliptical at the gym and going to Zumba classes). Between the inability to do higher-impact activity and the fatigue that plagued the better part of my pregnancy, and the overall nausea I had in the first trimester, my activity level dropped to minimal levels. And, so, the downward spiral returned, and depression slowly became a larger part of my life, so slowly, though, that I didn’t even realize I was sliding back to the depths of depression until it was too late.

Depressed
The downward spiral of depression often leaves me wanting to hide from everyone and everything.

I know that walking is effective medicine. I’ve known this for years. When it comes to managing my depression, my walks are as critical to my treatment as my morning pills. Taking my morning pills is a habit I had to build, and is a treatment I had to realize was necessary to return to some semblance of emotional and mental health, which, in turn, affects my overall health. My morning pills are a critical step to wellness for me. In the same way, self care, especially in the form of daily (or near-daily) activity is critical to long-term stability. So, I made the decision to mentally categorize my daily walks with my morning medicine. It is a thing I have to do in order to keep myself healthy. In fact, I track both my meds and my walks in my bullet journal, as recurring tasks that should be completed daily. I also set up an outlook reminder to go for a walk every afternoon, and have added co-workers to this reminder, both for those days when I’d like company, and for added accountability.
Walking is medicine. It is something I have to do, whether I like it or not, whether I want to or not. It is something that needs to fit into my schedule more days than not. Especially if I want to get to the point where I can maintain balance without medication. If I want to get back to that point, I need to walk. As many days as I can. And, when walking is easier, it will be time to add in more exercises, maybe even the gym or exercise classes. Someday, between healing old emotional wounds through talk therapy and building a strong habit of physical activity, I hope to be able to keep my depression at bay without medication. But for now, I think I’ll go for a walk.

Celebrating Victories

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I have two modes: procrastinate all the things or do all the things. Which means it took months to decide to go to therapy, weeks to make the first appointment, but, now that I’m going, I want to finish working through all the issues as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for me, therapy doesn’t work that way.

Heal all the wounds
Original image copyright by the ever so awesome Hyperbole and a Half. I used memebetter.com to add my own words.

When I mentioned to my therapist that I was struggling with the slow progress, because I want to “fix all the issues,” she reiterated the need to build skills and take my time, to make sure I’m really healing and really building new skills. To help put things in perspective, she suggested I journal on some of the victories and small wins I’ve had so far.

As I thought through this suggestion over the next few days, I realized it was something I wanted to do on a recurring basis, and something I want to share here. So, this is the first in what I’m hoping will be a regular recurring series of posts, wherein I celebrate my wins.

Celebrating Wins

  1. Staying on my meds. I dislike taking meds on a regular basis, but I voluntarily went back on them, and they have been helping.
  2. Going to therapy on a regular basis. It took a long time to decide to go, and a long time to get up the nerve to make an appointment this past January. 4 months later, I’m still going.
  3. This blog. Journaling is such a helpful thing for me, and I truly enjoy writing, but without an end goal or deadline, it’s hard for me to dedicate time for it.
  4. Walking, more days than not. I don’t hit my goal of 10k steps most days, and that’s OK, but I am building a habit of walking.
  5. I found some great band-aids to help keep from picking scabs as much. These waterproof Nexcare bandages stay in place wonderfully, and the edge is very thin, so it blends well with the skin, which I love, because it means the edges don’t peel up or catch on anything.

    Nexcare Waterproof Bandages
    My new favorite band-aids
  6. On a related note, finding different fidgets to keep my hands busy. Whether I need to find something to keep focused and calm during a session, or I need something to keep from picking when I’m feeling awkward or stressed, these have become a wonderful tool to keep around. I’m including here my “calm down” bottle, which I made last year, and which has been a great tool when I need to re-focus and breathe.

    My fidgets and sensory toys
    Clockwise from top left: Calm down bottle, fidget dodecahedron and edamame keychain (dodecahedron has a lot of things to keep my hands busy, and the edamame was recommended on a list of fidget toys to prevent picking), Large squishies, small “mochi” (silicone) cat squishy.
  7. Finally, on a more serious note, I’m able to externalize my depression. I can recognize what thoughts are mine, and which are being fed to me by the depression. I think of my depression as a separate character in my story, rather than the entirety of who I am.

That’s about it for my list this time.  I’m hoping to do one of these celebrating victories and small wins every month-ish, so keep your eyes open.

Have you had any victories or small wins lately?

The Beginning

Coronado Bay Bridge at sunset

I could tell you that the beginning of this journey was a stormy night, March 2, 1981 at Kaiser Zion hospital, San Diego.  It wouldn’t be a lie; that is when I was born, and there’s a good chance I was genetically predisposed to clinical depression from day one.  But, even if the seeds of this battle were planted before my birth, that’s likely not when I started living with depression.  In fact, my early childhood was, well, as normal as a Catholic child with divorced parents in the early 80’s could be, I guess, and, as we journey through the storms, and as I work through things, maybe we’ll return to these early days.

Me, smiling as a child, before I knew what depression was.
Me, around 3 years old, at Halloween.

Did my depression, and its symptoms, start to emerge in my elementary school years?  One might think so, since I was always trying to look like everyone else, worried that the blood stains from picking my scabs (a habit that started as a child’s curiosity, but was never broken) and the general dinginess of my clothes would be noticed by the other kids at my Catholic school.  These, too, were the days when I realized I didn’t have as much as my classmates, that they had school uniforms and play clothes and church clothes.  That didn’t seem to bother me too much at the time, though.  In fact, aside from worrying that someone would notice that my rolled-down tube socks had colored stripes at the top (and, therefore, violated dress code), most of my childhood seemed OK.

Junior high was when I really started to notice a change, especially as I look back at my life so far.  The picking continued, and it seemed mom gave up on trying to get the blood stains out of the sleeves of my white blouses.  There were always brownish ghosts of blood stains on my blouses, and my socks, from the oddly satisfying picking, that momentary relief from both itching and from the rough patch of a scab.  The picking wasn’t the whole story anymore, though.  Around 7th or 8th grade, I started daydreaming about dying.  Don’t get me wrong, there was no suicidal ideation at this point.  Looking back, though, I doubt it was normal to daydream about some tragedy befalling me, and ending up on my deathbed.  Frequently, a crush would be holding my hand, maybe even giving me my first (and last) kiss.  This was also when I started to write, especially poetry.  Of course, it was pretty underdeveloped and overwhelmingly cliche, but I realize now that my writing and my mental health have been in a long term dance throughout most of my life.

Smiling through my depression.
Depression doesn’t always steal my smile.

Since then, depression has been the antagonist to my protagonist, the constant companion that no one would ever ask for.  There have been times when my depression falls nearly silent, when I am winning the battle.  There are also times when it seems depression is gaining the upper hand.  There were times in my past when I couldn’t externalize my depression.  In these times, the screaming whispers of depression in my ear seemed to be my own thoughts and feelings.  Over the years, depression has colored my world view, and been ankle weights on the already challenging walk we call life.

It has been a long walk, and I would like to share stories of my walk with you.  I would also like to invite you to walk with me as I work towards even greater, and deeper, healing.  Perhaps you, like me, are endlessly curious, and would just like a view from the inside.  Maybe you struggle or have struggled with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders, and find peace in knowing you’re not alone.  Or, you may be interested in a writer’s journey, because this will be a project of healing, and of reawakening the passion for writing that led me to studying it in college.  Whatever your interest, welcome, and I hope you decide to join me as I work on writing out my storms, and finding my calm seas.

Prologue

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Welcome to the storm, and the calm. I will start posting to this blog on May 11, 2018. Please subscribe to be notified of each upcoming post, check out the About page, and thanks for stopping by!

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

– John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”