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2014 Blog for Mental Health Project

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  
A Canvas of the Minds

Sometimes we make the most important decisions in our lives without consciously knowing why we made them at the time.I knew that I wanted to become a psychologist since I was in high school. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of being depressed in the clinical sense. Being anxious was so much a part of my personality that I didn’t think I had an anxiety disorder. And I definitely wasn’t aware of any mental illness in my family. I had no idea at the time that depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety would impact every aspect of my life–in both positive and negative ways.

It’s probably not surprising that I have been negatively affected by mental illness. But as I write this post, I realize that there have been positive things about it, too. I have learned the most important lessons in life through suffering and loss.

Even as a therapist, when I heard clients make comments about how they had a bad week, it didn’t fully register how horrible that week was for them. In part because clients don’t elaborate unless you ask them to. Unless they are certain that you really want to know. And because they are embarrassed about it. Ashamed, even. But after going through my worst depression 5 years ago, I have much more compassion when clients make these offhanded comments.

I admit, during that period there were times when suicide would cross my mind. But there were two things that kept me from seriously entertaining it. One is that my dad would be devastated, and I feared he would never recover if I went through with it.

The other reason is that if I took my own life, it would undermine everything I ever said to my clients about how pain passes. That one day when they look back they will realize how strong they were at the time. That they will learn lessons from their suffering that it takes some people a lifetime to learn. How can you believe anything your therapist said if she committed suicide? That would be the ultimate betrayal.

So I spent months willing myself to get better. I went back to therapy, started meds again, meditated and prayed, and forced myself to play tennis and spend time with friends. And I did get better. And everything I said about realizing my strength, becoming more compassionate, and acquiring wisdom were all true. I would have never chosen depression, but we usually don’t choose the experiences that teach us the most about life.

People often ask me how I can listen to client’s problems all day long. In all honesty, I can’t imagine what else I would do for a living. It feels more like psychology chose me. And when I hear a client’s story, I always have hope that together we can change the plot for the better. After all, I always root for the underdog. I am the eternal optimist. And I never back down from a challenge.

There was a time when I would never have told this story about my struggles with depression and anxiety to my students or clients. Or even friends and family. But now I want to share it with the world, because every act of courage benefits someone else. My blog is proof of that.

Let it Go

I love Disney movies. And Disney’s latest, Frozen, is one of my favorites, not only because the music is awesome, but also because it is a story about self-acceptance and love between two sisters.

Elsa is the heir to the throne in the kingdom of Arendale. She has spent her life locked in her room, afraid of her power to create ice and snow, because she accidentally injured her sister Anna when they were children. At her coronation, Elsa’s powers are revealed when she sets off an eternal winter. When she sings the theme song, she is exhilarated that she no longer has to hide her secret. She creates her own palace of ice and snow on an isolated mountain top.

Although Elsa is free from her secret, she still doesn’t want to let her sister into her life. And ironically, in her effort to protect her sister, she accidentally freezes Anna’s heart, which almost kills her. But even then, she still tries to push Anna away, for fear that her powers will do even more damage.

It is not until the end of the movie, when Anna sacrifices her life to save her sister, that Elsa understands that surrendering to love is the answer to controlling her power. She is then able to unfreeze the kingdom and open the doors to the palace.

Tonight my brother called me because he has been depressed and struggling to make it to work. For the first time I shared with him how I had gone through the same thing 5 years ago in an effort to convince him to get on meds and to reassure him that this is not a sign of weakness. He was surprised that I had suffered as he had and that he had not known about it. But it wasn’t his fault, because I didn’t tell any of my brothers about it.

Although I had been on and off meds for several years, this episode forced me to accept that they would have to be a permanent part of my life. As humbling as this was to acknowledge, it was also freeing. But even after I felt better, I still remained in my kingdom of isolation, afraid to let people know.

Writing this blog is the first time I have been completely honest about how dark my depression was. And perhaps sharing my story will save someone else. But in this moment, the most important thing to me is that it saves my brother’s life.

We all have the power to create barriers to keep our loved ones away from the darkness inside us. Yet the real answer is to let go and to bring that darkness into the light.

Meds

The first time I started anti-depressants I was 30. By this time I had been depressed for at least 15 years on and off and anxious non-stop for about 30 years.

Obviously, it would have made more sense to start them sooner, and people told me that, but I was anti-meds up until this time. I was in a research program that strongly favored psychological interventions. Meds were just a product of the money-making pharmaceutical industry and were over-prescribed. People were more likely to relapse when they stopped taking meds. Blah blah blah.

Most of my resistance was really because I was stubborn. No one could have talked me into taking them any sooner.

I finally decided to try them after my husband and I had moved again after a year. Before we finished unpacking, he was already obsessing about buying a house. I knew at some level that we weren’t going to make it, which triggered a depressive episode.

I started on Paxil and sure enough, I felt better immediately. So much better that I wondered why I had allowed myself to suffer for decades when I could have just put myself out of my misery by taking the freaking pill.

Still, after being on them for a year and a half, I stopped taking them–with my doctor’s approval. And I was OK for awhile. But then we bought a house and my husband wanted to find another one a year later. My marriage was moving closer to its sad conclusion.

This time I took Lexapro and stayed on it for much longer. When my life finally seemed stable, I tried going off them again. As soon as the meds were completely out of my system, I felt the depression slowly creeping back. I was a little more irritable. It was a little harder to tolerate stress. My thoughts were a little more negative. Occasionally I was emotionally explosive. And finally, I was barely able to get out of bed.

It turned out to be the most severe episode I had ever experienced. It seemed out of the blue at the time, but now I know that it was because my dad was also experiencing his most severe depressive episode. Even though I didn’t talk to him much, I felt it. That whole super-empath thing. Damn empathy. So annoying sometimes.

I can honestly say that this time the meds saved my life. The depression and anxiety were so debilitating that I spent most of my time lying on the couch, willing myself to keep living, counting the days until the drugs kicked in.  And when they did, I was immensely grateful for the pharmaceutical companies that came up with drugs that allowed me to be myself again.

All clients want to try therapy without drugs, and we always do.  And sometimes that’s enough.  But sometimes it’s not.  And the process of going on and staying on meds for as long as necessary–which might not be for life–is long and arduous.  But when they finally take them, they are thankful that they did and wonder why it took them so long.

But they still want to go off them.

I don’t criticize them for this, because my path to acceptance was longer than theirs.  I used to beat myself up over my stubbornness, but the reality is, you can’t be ready until you’re ready.

It takes a long time before we are willing to give up suffering.

 

No Good Reason

Most people who come to therapy for depression berate themselves for not having an excuse for their feelings.  Even when they can identify the stressors that led to their depression, they claim that these aren’t good enough reasons to be depressed.

Sometimes people try to make them feel better with the “count your blessings” approach.  This usually makes them feel worse, because now they don’t deserve to be depressed since they have so much going for them.

In cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), therapists challenge irrational beliefs as a way to help clients see that their depression isn’t logical.  Sometimes this works.  But sometimes they know their depression isn’t logical, and pointing this out makes them feel even more ashamed for not being able to control their feelings.

For clients with the “no good reason” problem, I have found that the most useful strategy is to debunk their myths about feelings.  Since you probably believe these myths, too, I thought I would go through my whole therapy spiel.

1.  Feelings don’t have to be rational.  That’s why philosophers make such a big deal about distinguishing reason from emotion.  Sometimes they coincide, and it feels better when they do.  It feels better when we can say I’m sad because I’m sick of winter versus I’m sad and I have no idea why.  But we don’t have to know the reason why for our feelings to be valid.

2.  There is no right or wrong way to feel.  We have a lot of implicit rules for what we should be feeling in a given situation.  Take my Ph.D. example in my post on self-worth.  I thought I would feel ecstatic after defending my dissertation.  Instead I got depressed.  Positive events don’t always lead to positive feelings.

3.  We can experience positive and negative feelings at once.  Researchers say that we can’t do this, but I think they’re wrong for reasons that are too complex to explain in this blog.  But I’ll give you an example to prove that I’m right.  People cry at weddings because they are both happy and sad at the same time.

4.  Your feelings aren’t your fault.  We like to believe that we have more control over our feelings than we actually do because…well, because it makes us feel more in control.  But this illusion comes at a cost.  Which is why I wrote the posts on blame and free will.  You didn’t choose to be depressed, and it’s not your fault that you can’t stop the depression.

5.  If you try to make yourself stop feeling, you’ll just make things worse.  Because this will involve some level of deception, like denying or suppressing or minimizing your feelings.  And at some point, this will blow up in your face when you least expect it.  Plus it will make you less empathic when other people tell you how they feel, which will lead to relationship problems.

Although I can write logically about these myths, I still fall prey to them, because feelings aren’t always logical.  Knowing isn’t enough to solve the problem; you still have to practice.  Which is why I practice mindfulness and self-acceptance.  And I encourage you to do the same.

So the next time you catch yourself saying that you have no good reason for your feelings, remind yourself that you don’t need one.


Fear of Sadness

Most people find it difficult to tolerate negative feelings like sadness.  This task is even more difficult when you suffer from depression, because any time your sadness feels too intense or lasts too long, you worry that the depression is coming back.  And if you’ve ever been depressed, you know how terrifying the prospect is of going back to that dark place.

Your loved ones also become hypersensitive to your sadness, which just exacerbates your fears.  If you’re feeling down, they ask you if you’re taking your meds, or if maybe your meds need to be adjusted.  Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for meds.  I’ve tried to go off them several times, and each time I got depressed again.  But it’s unfortunate that once you’ve been depressed, every feeling has to be scrutinized for potential pathology.

There’s also this added sense of failure associated with relapse.  Like you should have been able to prevent it this time, since you’ve been there before.  And even though you recovered before, you fear that if it happens again, you won’t be so lucky the next time.

And even if you do recover, you fear that the wait will be agony.  I fear depression much more than anxiety because when I’m anxious I can take an Ativan and I feel better immediately.  But antidepressants don’t work that way, so there’s not much I can do to feel better right away when I’m depressed.

Whenever I am afraid I’m becoming depressed, I journal about my fears, my sense of failure, and my pain.  And when I look back at these entries, I realize how strong I am.  There are a lot of things that suck about depression, but I have no doubt that it has made me a stronger person, even while it tries to convince me that I’m weak.

But how do I know when I’m sad versus depressed?  To be honest, I don’t always know.  Sometimes I feel depressed for a day.  Sometimes I feel sad for what feels like an eternity.  The line is not as clear-cut as we’d like to think.  But regardless of whether it’s sadness or depression, the best I can do is to control what I can control.  This includes therapy, meds, stress management, and self-care.

And most importantly, for me, it means practicing self-acceptance–of my sadness, my depression, and everything else that makes me who I am, for better or worse.

How to Save a Life

A few years ago a client told me that I saved his life. Well, he didn’t tell me directly.  He told my colleague when he was drunk at a gala. But he told her to tell me. Although I’m not sure he remembers doing so. Still, I was humbled by this. I knew therapy was important to him, but I didn’t think his life was in danger. But then again, even when clients are in therapy, they don’t always tell you the full story.

Once I had to cancel a session with this client and he stopped coming in for about a month. Apparently he got depressed because he felt like I had abandoned him. A professor contacted him because he had also stopped going to class. When he came back to therapy, he told me that his professor saved his life. That was the first time I really understood how much therapy means to some clients, even when they say they’re not sure they want to be there.

Last week I went to a threat assessment training, and the first case that the presenter discussed was a student who had to go to the police department because she told her roommate she was suicidal. While she was there, she asked for a piece of paper and a pen. She drew what appeared to be a bunch of random doodles. But later when they looked at the drawing, they saw that she had embedded the word help three times.

This, too, reminded me that people may say they don’t want help but their actions tell you otherwise.

Before I started blogging, I thought blogs were just another example of our narcissistic culture in that journaling, which is supposed to be a private experience, was turned into something that you shared with the world and everyone was free to comment. But now I realize that blogs can be a way for people who have never had a voice to connect with people like themselves.

My favorite blog is by Nelly N. She writes passionately and honestly about her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other things. She shares her most painful experiences so that other people who suffer in silence will realize that they are not alone. And it works.

A few days ago the student group that I advise had their annual eating disorder panel. It consists of students in recovery who are brave enough to share their story. On our campus, people with eating disorders are blamed and judged more harshly than any other disorder. Not surprisingly, no one wants to admit to having one publicly.

Every year, at least one student seeks treatment after attending the panel. And the next year, those students volunteer to speak on the panel so that they can help someone else who is alone with their eating disorder. Sometimes they use the opportunity to speak as motivation to get better.

We don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings to save someone’s life. Sometimes heroes are ordinary people who take action when someone needs help.

                    

Free Will

When I was in college, one of my fellow psychology majors asked me if learning about psychological theories made me question whether we had free will.  It did not.  Although his question did make me read through the theories again, just to make sure I understood them correctly.  But I was still convinced of my free will.

In my last post I used the example of an alcoholic father to illustrate how difficult it is to sort out blame and responsibility.  If alcoholism is genetic, and his parents were alcoholics, and all of his friends drink, what chance does he have of living a sober life?  How much of his behavior is in his control?

What if you have someone who is depressed with no family history of depression and no apparent cause, and she can’t get out of bed to make it to class.  Is her depression real?  Does she deserve to fail?  What about if she refused to go to therapy and start meds?

I mentioned in my last post that these problems require forgiveness.  We have to forgive ourselves for having the disorder.  We may have to ask for forgiveness from people whom we have harmed.  And we may have to forgive people who have added to our suffering.

When I’m depressed, I think everything is my fault.  In the midst of an episode, I am angry at myself for not being able to function.  I don’t think I have an excuse to be depressed.  In those moments, it’s hard to forgive myself for not being able to control everything.

I also mentioned that there is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  It may not be the alcoholic dad’s fault that he is prone to addiction, but he can join AA.  He can stay away from friends who pressure him to drink.  He can see a therapist.

I believe that knowing our limitations allows us to have more freedom.  In my work, clients often try to convince other people that their suffering is real.  I tell them that they have limited control over what other people think about their disorder.  However, they don’t have to blame themselves.  They can take control of what they can control.

Some people think that going to therapy is a sign of weakness.  In reality, therapy increases your degrees of freedom.  And I want to make sure I capitalize on all the freedom I can get.