Lesson 5: Take up space, part 1.

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What a fucking year it’s been.

My whole life has changed since my last post. J and I got engaged. I dumped my psychiatrist for a psychiatric NP, and I stopped feeling suicidal for the first time in two years. While there’s almost an end in sight to my PhD, I’ve become the only person in my cohort left to defend her dissertation. And most recently, an old friend died.

Pause. Breath.

I could never do M justice with a description. He was the most liked person I have ever known. Unlike many of the “popular” kids in school who simply played the right sports or looked the right way or knew the right people, M was popular because everyone genuinely liked him. He was funny and kind, and he was the same friend to everyone regardless of social standing (which I say as not the nerdiest nerd in all the land, but definitely not a cool kid).

I’ll just get this out of the way now: Yes, I used to have a crush on him. Show me a girl who didn’t have a crush on him back then, and I’ll show you a damn liar. I’m seventeen years post-crush, though, so I think you can take me at my word.

My favorite thing about M was that he taught me not to be ashamed to take up space. Coincidentally, I had already written 90% of a post about taking up space with your mental health when M went into hospice care. Now it feels more appropriate to talk about how he taught me this lesson and how I regret that I haven’t learned it better. Stay tuned for a mental health lesson in a couple weeks (or another year, who knows).

Heads up: more swearing, less sarcasm and organization than usual. I’ve been in a fog. Give me a break.

Lesson 5: Take up space, part 1.

As a woman and as someone prone to depression and anxiety, I often try to be as invisible as possible. If I physically take up space, people might notice that I have a body and find something to hate about it. If I let my words take up space, people might call me bitchy or hysterical. If I dare let my mental illness take up space, people might think I am weak or that I’m trying to get attention for being miserable. It always feels safer to go unnoticed.

M was a friend who made me feel seen at so many pivotal points in my life when I thought I just wanted to be invisible. He was the only other witness to the first time I was ever sexually harassed – at recess in the beginning of sixth grade. As eleven-year-olds, we didn’t know what to make of the situation, but the eye contact and awkward smile reassured me “Yes, this did actually happen.” I still think of that kernel of acknowledgement any time I wonder whether it’s worth calling out behavior that makes me uncomfortable. And you know what? It’s always worth it because I always deserve respect from the people around me.

When I started opening up about my stalker, M revealed that he had been paying attention from a distance. (Meanwhile, many people at a closer distance didn’t notice, thought having a stalker was funny, or tried to feel me up during National Treasure at the movie theater. I will never stop making fun of the guy who groped me during National Fucking Treasure.) While most other people’s responses to my saga were laced with blame (“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Why didn’t you do anything sooner?” “Are you sure you’re not a lesbian?”), M listened without an ounce of judgment and said all that I really needed to hear: “Wow, that’s really fucked up.” All I wanted was for someone to say “I hear you, and you were too young to go through that horrible thing that you went through.” M’s nonjudgmental response showed me that it wasn’t worth the mental energy to try to hide what I had been through because it was not my fault. Now, when I want to curl up into a ball, I try to remind myself that I don’t deserve any judgment that people might send my way just because I have certain thoughts or feelings.

Throughout high school, M and I talked about things that most of our other friends were too polite to talk about. We discussed family, dating, God (or not-God), mental health, and whatever was keeping us up so damn late at night. I learned that just because people weren’t talking about something didn’t mean that they weren’t thinking about it. I wasn’t alone. I probably had something in common with every single person around me. So why try to keep everything hidden?

M was one of the few people who helped me stay alive through high school. And I mean that literally and 100% seriously.

M encouraged me to take up space by recognizing the space that I already took up. He made me realize that my experiences and emotions were valid and that I had no reason to be ashamed of them. But I had mixed results in applying what he taught me to my own life.

Case in point: Our friendship was almost exclusively an online friendship.

M never implied that we couldn’t be friends in person, but I assumed that we had to be relatively secretive about our friendship because he was Popular and I was Not. (Yes, I’m sure that the number of teen rom-coms that I watched had something to do with this.) M would have welcomed my friendship. Most of his friends probably would have done the same or, at the very worst, said “Who?” Yet, I was too afraid of rejection and embarrassment from them. I made myself invisible before anyone else could try to make me invisible.

This fear of rejection caused me to fall out of touch with M after we graduated from high school. Every time I considered sending him a message, my irrational self-consciousness kept me from reaching out. I was acutely aware of how absurd it was, but I still couldn’t type a simple “Hey” and hit Enter. In 2015, while trying to talk myself into reaching out for the hundredth time, I wrote in my journal “My life could have been extremely different had I not been afraid of what other people thought.” Yet, I was never able to take the plunge – until I found out that he was sick.

I wish I had been willing to take up enough space to dare to be his friend in person while I had the time.

I know that there’s nothing I can do now. And I know that, all things considered, the last few months of our friendship turned out as well as they probably could have. M and I got to reconnect. I even got to say goodbye. But now I see everyone’s tributes on Facebook accompanied by glowingly happy photos, and I’m kicking myself for not having anything I can look back on to remind myself that our friendship wasn’t just in my head. I have to hold onto every bit of laughter and every LYLAS and pretend that it’s good enough because that’s all I have and all I will ever have.

This was one of the most painful lessons I’ve had to learn in my life. I will never again let the fear of rejection or embarrassment or judgment get in the way of relationships that are important to me.

M was one of the best people I have ever known. I was proud that he thought of me as a friend. He wasn’t a part of my everyday life, but I will miss him always.

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Lesson 4: One treatment does not fit all.

Today is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day. Since PTSD is a major part of who I am (no use denying it), I figured there was no better reason to drag myself away from crunching data to write.

In the past few months since I last posted, my mental health has been through a whirlwind. I spent weeks (months?) barely able to drag myself out of bed to go do the bare minimum at work. The simplest things – interacting with coworkers, cooking a meal, taking a shower – were so exhausting that even the thought of them was draining. Thoughts of suicide were at least as prevalent as when I was hospitalized in high school, and therapy didn’t seem to be helping.

Then we made a change to my treatment plan. My therapist and I found a style that really works (more on that later). I’ve been putting in a lot of hard work. Like unbelievably hard work. I cannot stress enough how hard it has been. But things started getting better. I still feel pretty far from being a “normal” person, but I’m able to get up and go to work – and that’s a start.

Having dealt with mental illness for most of my life, I’ve tried countless therapists, styles of therapy, psychiatrists, and types of psychiatric medication. So many things didn’t work – but some things did. It can be crushing to find that some treatment doesn’t work and that you have to start over with something new, but it’s worth the patience to give it another try.

Lesson 4: In the world of mental illness, one treatment does not fit all.

For people who are living with mental illness, hopefully this post will make it clear that you are not alone in struggling to find a treatment that works. And, for those of you on the outside of the world of mental illness, hopefully you’ll recognize that you shouldn’t judge someone for the treatment they need.

Pills aren’t evil, but they aren’t magic.

There’s such a stigma surrounding psychoactive medication. So many people believe that antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are the easy way to solving your problems. Even a therapist once told me that it was admirable that I was trying to work on my depression without medication. And the other members of the Psych Meds R Evil club are the conspiracy theorists. These drugs turn us into zombies. They make us suicidal. Some mass shooters have been on antidepressants, and therefore antidepressants will make us all murderers. The stigma that has surrounded psych meds prevents many people from seeking out that sort of treatment, and the results of untreated depression, bipolar, etc., can be devastating.

First of all, what do you expect? A healthy brain maintains a delicate balance of brain chemistry, and that balance is off-kilter in people with mental illness. Each imbalance is unique, and each imbalance will respond differently to external influences – like medicine. Antidepressants (and mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, any neuroactive medicine) need to be tested and titrated carefully to restore a healthy chemical balance without making it even worse.

When I was seventeen, I told my pediatrician that I thought I had depression. She prescribed me a small dose of Prozac to see if that helped. Not only did it not treat my depression; it gave me vivid, morbid daydreams that only intensified my suicidal ideation. I told my doctor that I was scared of what I was experiencing, and that was when I was hospitalized for the first time.

Prozac is a good first guess when prescribing an antidepressant, but an even better first guess is to refer the patient to a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are trained in prescribing medication and monitoring the effects, both good and bad. Had I been referred to a psychiatrist, we may have caught my daymares and changed my treatment plan before I needed to be hospitalized. So I never made that mistake again, and I only worked with medical professionals who were trained in mental illness.

Over the next couple years, a number of doctors prescribed different combinations of medications to weigh their efficacy in treating my depression against the severity of their side effects. An inability to eat grapefruit? Yes, I guess I can live with that. A complete flattening of my affect, a tremor, an inability to wake up to fire alarms? Not so much. (The fire alarm thing actually happened to me in high school. I was staying at a hotel for the All-State orchestra, and my friend and the two strangers I was sharing the room with couldn’t wake me. Embarrassing doesn’t come close.)

I think part of the reason for psych meds’ bad rap is that people expect too much of them. In the vast, vast majority of us, medication doesn’t work alone. Therapy is necessary to help us build skills to handle symptoms and triggers of our mental illnesses; however, for many of us, medication is necessary in order to make us able to work with a therapist. Which brings me to my second point…

There are endless types of therapy, and no one style works for everyone.

Most of the therapy that I’ve done could be classified as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). We focused on the cycle of how my behavior affected my thoughts, affecting my feelings, affecting my behavior, affecting my thoughts, affecting my feelings… ad nauseam. It mostly worked, and my aversion to CBT probably stems more from my dislike for a particular therapist I had (pro tip: don’t call your teenage depression patient frumpy when helping her find the desire to stay alive is more pressing than her appearance). My relationships improved, but I felt like I was just trying to outrun my depression without dealing with the causes of it.

A lot of people I know have had success with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which is why I was particularly disappointed to find that it didn’t work for me. While it was designed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT has been effective with many people who struggle with substance abuse and self-harm. The mindfulness aspect of it did relieve my anxiety, but my therapist and I decided it wasn’t working before we got too far into the other stages. Again, it felt like I was working to ignore my trouble rather than addressing the underlying issues.

Enter eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). The science behind it is unclear and it seems a little like witchcraft, but I don’t care because this controversial witchcraft works for me. EMDR is used most commonly in people with PTSD and it involves the patient making rapid eye movements from side to side (or alternately tapping hands on the knees) while remembering distressing images. It’s believed that the bilateral stimulation works like REM sleep to encode distressing memories in a less emotionally charged manner, and it has worked better than anything else to help me move on with my life.

In my life, I’ve had one trauma that has been life-altering to my core. (For those of you just tuning in: I had a stalker starting in eighth grade which my school handled abominably. “You’re just teenagers so it isn’t serious. Also, she’s a girl so it isn’t sexually driven and girls can’t be dangerous. And she probably won’t try to kill you at school with the knives that we refuse to expel her for.” – Oak Middle School, probably.) But I’ve also had a series of micro-traumas that I’d never completely processed. EMDR helped me identify and address them one by one.

Before you run to your therapist and demand to try it, let me warn you: EMDR is intense. First, my therapist would have me describe an image in my life that I found troubling. She would say “Think about that for a while and see what comes up.” While I sat with my thoughts, my eyes would track her right index and middle fingers as she moved them from side to side. Every minute or so, she would stop and ask me what I was thinking, seeing, or feeling physiologically. Then she’d tell me to sit with that, and the process would continue.

It sounds simple, but it is hardcore. The process gets worse and worse until you feel like you can’t possibly feel any more pain. The first day legitimately made me want to die. I cried so many tears of guilt and helplessness that afterward I felt like I would never cry again. And every appointment was basically like that. I’d relive horrible memories and feel nearly unbearable pain – but then, somehow, the discomfort associated with the memories became more tolerable. It’s as if I have to relive a memory with all the pain that I’d been pushing down, and then the requisite pain has been felt and I can move on.

Since the relative lack of conversation in EMDR takes away the typical structure of therapy, I have also made several connections between my unhealthy habits and their causes. I discovered that much of my neuroticism can be linked back to some of my micro-traumas, such as middle school sexual harassment, a speech impediment that I’ve hardly thought about since I mastered my Rs at age ten, and many well-meaning but misguided attempts at support and love from friends and family members. Having these lessons in my toolbox enables me to recognize my harmful behavior and change it. No other therapy has empowered me to help myself like this, which is exhausting but so, so rewarding.

So, where’s the lesson in this rant?

Sometimes you have to try several combinations of medication and therapy in order to find what works with your mental illness. It’s a little cruel because you need the most patience when your illness renders you the least capable of patience, but it’s worth it.

If you aren’t living with mental illness, don’t be judgmental of someone who needs a certain medication or therapy because no one thing works for everyone. And if our meds make us sleep through a fire alarm, please evacuate us.

Lesson 3: Mental illness will teach you who your real friends are.

Oh, is this a cliché?

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Before I jump in, I want to address the elephant in the cyber room: Where have I been? It’s been three months since my last post. Will the ten lessons be written before the next ten years pass? Was I planning on jumping ship 20% of the way into the list, never to be heard from again?

A lot has happened in the past three months. I passed the ten year anniversary of my first hospitalization (and wrote 80% of a blog post about it). Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day have passed. My sister got married. I turned 10,000 days old. And all the while, my work has moved at a barely forward pace and I’ve had trouble getting out of bed because my depression is back and better than ever.

Depression looks a million different ways in different people. For me, aside from the general depressed mood, my depression manifests primarily as exhaustion. When my depression is well managed, I pride myself on being an advocate for myself and others with mental illness. When my depression is less well managed, it doesn’t seem worth my time and limited energy to stand up for myself or anyone else. I reflect on how much energy I have spent on trying to stand up for mental illness awareness, and I realize that it has gotten me next to nowhere. Yet, even when I try to conserve energy by not fighting back, it’s still draining to hear people – even those whom I consider to be close family and friends – disregard all the energy I’ve spent in the past.

It exhausts me to hear friends and family joke about killing themselves whenever they encounter the smallest inconvenience. It exhausts me to hear people joke about mental illnesses when their ignorance somehow outweighs their insensitivity. (Oh, no, you don’t mean schizophrenia. You mean to be making fun of dissociative identity disorder, a different highly stigmatized mental illness. But keep on being you; you’re doing great.) More than anything, I am So Damn Tired of people telling me that this is just what grad school is like when I know for a fact that it is not.

So, just stop whining, right? I’m working on it. In the meantime, I’m in full self-preservation mode, and I’m here to write about that. The way that I deal with my depression-induced exhaustion is to know who to open up to and who not to take too seriously. I’m mostly talking about my hospitalizations and my high school friends, but I’ve seen similar patterns with my more recent mental health struggles. So I think (and hope) this will resonate with some of you.

The Good

First, I want to celebrate the friends who were unequivocally there for me. In high school, I had a few very close friends who were as supportive as they knew how to be. There were two friends in particular who went above and beyond.

One friend was the only one who called to chat while I was in the hospital. She filled me in about the ongoing prom drama (Who was asking whom? It was so important) and entertained me with theories about gay dinosaurs. She gave me a sense of normalcy as I was living surrounded by strangers in a mental hospital.

Another friend listened to me tell my story about my stalker, one English class at a time. She helped me work out my narrative, which empowered me to take ownership of my story and my life. Before telling my story out loud, I had a series of emotions, physiological reactions, exact quotes, and snapshots strung together in a tangled net. Rather than try to untangle that net, I had unsuccessfully tried to pretend that it didn’t exist. By listening patiently and without judgment, my friend helped me distill the copious details down to the main facts, painting myself as a protagonist rather than just a victim.

When you are dealing with a mental illness (even when you aren’t), having personal relationships is an exercise in trust. I have to trust that my friends, my partner, and my colleagues have all developed a concept of me that is organized, thoughtful, and hard-working. I have to trust that they’ll hold onto that image while I work to come back to full strength. Fingers crossed.

The Bad

Some friends chose to stay friends with my stalker. They either didn’t believe what I told them about her, or they didn’t think it was all that bad (I guess we all respond to death threats differently). My stalker even manipulated a few of our shared friends into trying to get me to talk to her or forgive her. From then on, our friendships were strained at best until we drifted apart.

Some of the hurt came from people I considered to be even closer. Shortly after my second hospitalization, I was on shaky ground but very hopeful. I was learning how to manage my unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. I was learning how to have healthy relationships and even how to disagree or argue in healthy ways. At this point, I realized just how many people in my life would benefit from some sort of therapy. One was my then-boyfriend Cameron, whom you may remember as the borderline abusive gaslighter from Lesson 1. He showed many of the hallmark behaviors associated with depression, so I suggested that maybe he would benefit from seeing a therapist – especially after seeing how much therapy had helped me. His response: “No, I’m not nuts.” I’d say that it was the beginning of the end of our relationship, but I’m pretty sure we were in a tailspin for the last four months of our five-month relationship. Just one sign of many that he wasn’t a vital part of my support system.

The Grey area

It’s easy to talk about the people who were nothing but helpful and the people who were nothing but hurtful, but there are several levels of support/non-support that people can offer. And that grey area is where most of my friends were (and currently are).

When I was hospitalized, some friends became more distant. They would say “Get well soon” and then give me radio silence. “Get well soon” felt like a kiss of death on the friendship. (I was a teenager; let me be dramatic.) One normally says it to a friend when the friend has a cold, meaning something along the lines of “I hope you feel better, but I’ll leave you alone to heal until then.” Because managing mental illness can be a lifelong battle, to me it felt like my friends were saying “See you when your depression is cured, maybe never.” And several of these friends did disappear until my depression was managed well enough that I didn’t “look depressed,” if they didn’t disappear permanently.

These friends and I never talked about the growing distance, so I can only guess why they drifted. Maybe they wanted to be supportive but didn’t want to say the wrong thing? Maybe they were uncomfortable? Maybe they thought of suicide as selfish so how dare anyone ever mention its name? I had a list of dozens of reasons, and I could only assume the worst as a dramatic teenager with low self-esteem.

Now, I have a number of close friends and family members who might fall into a grey area between supportive and hurtful, and I’m okay with that. These people want the best for me, but I know not to talk about my mental health with them. They might not be the best at listening (definitely received a “No one wants to hear/read that” once or twice), and they might make mild jokes at the expense of the mentally ill. Unlike my drifting friends from high school (perhaps because I’m more mature ten years later), I assume the best about these people, but I don’t let them in 100%. And it’s okay to have friends like these. I definitely get more positivity than negativity from these people, and I enjoy having them in my life. All friendships have boundaries, and it’s perfectly fine to set that boundary at whether you are willing to discuss your mental health with them.

The Guy who tried to use my depression as a pickup line

Yes, this could easily fall under “The Bad” but it definitely deserves its own section because of its absurdity. Here’s a bonus lesson within a lesson: Never try to use someone’s mental illness as a tool to get them to have sex with you. If you think your situation is an exception, it is not. There are no exceptions.

In high school, I had a friend whose friendship was laced with sexual harassment. We stayed friends because I thought I deserved nothing better at the time. When he found out that I had been hospitalized for depression (from his mother, no less… long story of nosy mom meets unprepared teenage girl), I can only guess that he thought he could cure my mental illness by offering his body to me.

He said (AND I QUOTE), “You have to get that D word out of your life… and maybe get another D word in your life.”

I’ll pause while you throw up in your mouth a little.

For those of you who are curious, I did not take the advice of Dr. Over-Sexual-Under-Sexed-Teenager, MD.

So, where’s the lesson in this rant?

Surround yourself with good friends who support you, and cut out the ones who are actively bad for your mental health. The majority of your friends will probably fall into a grey area between good and bad, and that’s okay. If you only allow yourself to have perfectly supportive friends, you may miss out on friendships that bring you fun experiences and laughter – key components to feeling like a human while dealing with mental illness. You may find one of those grey area friends becoming part of your mental health inner circle. But even if they don’t, enjoy the happiness that they bring you – it can be hard to come by.

Lesson 2: A lesson for our support systems: It’s about consent.

This is a lesson for families and friends of those suffering with mental illness. I understand that mental illness can be challenging for people who are close to those struggling. You are our support systems, and sometimes we put you through a lot. Support systems are full of everyday heroes, so I don’t want to disparage you all. But I do want to give some tips on how to provide support.

It’s impossible to write a hard and fast list of rules that families and friends should follow, because all people with mental illness are different and all relationships are different. Obviously I can’t know what questions you should ask your friend with depression, or what advice you should give them. So, while allowing each person and each relationship to keep its individuality, I can give this one piece of advice: It all boils down to consent.

Maybe it’s just that I have the notion of consent on the brain. The news has been flooded with allegations of sexual assault, denials, apologies, nonpologies, what have you. And, because I am a masochist, I read the comments on news stories. And I am horrified. “She just wants her fifteen minutes of fame.” “Why would she wait so long if this really happened?” “She was a model who posed in suggestive poses one time, so I don’t see her as someone who wouldn’t consent.” Seriously, What The What? In addition to the ridiculous victim blaming, I have been floored by some people’s inability to understand consent.

Over the past several years, there has been an amazing evolution in the conversation about what consent means in terms of sexual relationships. The same rules can be applied to several other topics, including nonsexual physical contact and topics of conversation. Unfortunately (though less destructively than with sexual assault), people seem to disregard these rules as they apply to other topics.

Regarding mental health, I see two halves to this lesson. First, don’t assume consent when asking someone to open up about their mental health. Second, don’t assume consent to insert yourself into their situation by offering unsolicited advice.

Part 1: People with mental illness do not owe you anything.

If someone with a mental illness confides in you, that person doesn’t owe you anything. You are not entitled to their attention, their time, or the details of their private lives. This sounds obvious, but people often assume they have consent to these things. So, before moving forward, these are the rules as I see them.

  1. You can’t ever expect a friend or family member with mental illness to confide in you.
  2. Just because someone has confided in you before does not mean that they owe it to you to confide all the time.
  3. Just because they have confided in other people or told their story in a public setting does not mean that they owe it to you to tell their secrets.

Most people understand these rules on a surface level, but I’d still encourage everyone to look at their behavior and make sure they’re not assuming consent. At least once or twice a month, I find myself in a (relatively innocuous) conversation in which the person I’m speaking with assumes that they are in my mental health inner circle just because they’ve witnessed me talking about mental health in a public forum. Although I’ve never discussed my mental health with them one-on-one, they ask “How… are you?” as they slyly raise their eyebrows, wink, nudge, HEY GET IT? (Yes, I get it. Subtle.) They say they’re asking “just to check in.”

This sounds nice, but let’s think about this for a sec. How often do you ask your friends and acquaintances how their asthma, heart disease, endometriosis is – “just to check in” – if they’ve never opened up about it to you? Most people realize that asking about these personal details may make someone uncomfortable. Why would you assume that mental illness is any different from these other diseases? Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness being “all in your head,” I’d imagine that many people with mental illness would be even more uncomfortable opening up to any person who asked.

I get that pretty much no one asks “how’s your mental health?” with malicious intent. Maybe you just want to be a good friend. Maybe you recently lost someone to suicide and you’re feeling guilty that you didn’t see the signs. Asking people about their mental health out of the blue isn’t the way to be a supportive friend, though. Asking someone about their mental health when they’ve never confided in you will make you feel like a good friend, but it puts your friend in an uncomfortable situation. We know that most people want to hear that we’re doing well, and we know that most people are unprepared to hear “feeling like dying,” so 9 times out of 10 we will say “I’m fine” and pray for the conversation to end there.

So what are you supposed to do? First, is your friend showing any signs or risk factors for suicide? If so, ignore everything I said and talk to them. Tell them you’re concerned about their safety. Ask if you can help set up an appointment with the doctor or drive them to the ER. Ask if there’s someone else they would like to help them out.

If your friend isn’t showing any signs for risk of suicide, be honest with yourself. Are you in your friend’s mental health inner circle? If not, you are not an appropriate person to ask “How… are you?” Many people are willing to answer some questions about their experiences (but you should always be prepared to hear “no”). But you are assuming an inappropriate level of intimacy when you ask about someone’s current mental health, especially if you aren’t prepared for an honest answer. Just make it clear that you’re available if they need support, and they will open up if and when they want to.

Part 2: It is not your job to heal your friends/family with mental illness.

This may be a harsh way of saying it, as very few people actively try to make a project out of healing someone with mental illness (and if you do, find a new hobby). Most people who do this do it out of love. However, it’s important to remember that you are not a mental health professional (and if you are, you are not their mental health professional (and if you are, that sounds like a conflict of interest)).

It has been nearly ten years since I’ve taken a Spanish class, but I’ll never forget the adage I learned in high school: Consejo no pedido, consejo mal oído. Advice not asked for is not heard. Of course, unwanted advice can just be ignored, but your advice is also a statement about how you perceive their mental illness. I can’t tell you how many times I received unwelcome advice that made me feel like my friends thought my debilitating depression could be healed by something as simple as doing yoga or going for a walk.

When I was in therapy post-hospital as a teenager, I clashed a lot with my mother. I know she wanted to do everything she could to help me, and I believe that she took a lot of my pain and anger personally. My therapist sympathized with her situation, saying “Sometimes you just want to shake them out of it and say ‘Get better!’ But that’s not how it works.” When you love someone with mental illness, seeing that person reject your advice can hurt you too.

And I won’t pretend I’m blameless in this. I understand how natural it can feel to jump to help a loved one because I tried to do it myself when someone close to me was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school. I just wanted to put his pieces back together while I didn’t have any of the tools to do so. I have since learned to take a step back and be supportive in a way I am wanted and qualified for.

So what are you supposed to do? If your friend confides in you about their mental illness, that’s great. That means your friend trusts you a lot. They are letting their guard down regarding something for which they may have received judgment before. Don’t assume that it gives you the key to the details of their private life, and don’t assume that they’re open to your advice. If they ask for advice or perspective, feel free to give it. Or, if you feel like your advice is so golden that you must give it, ask first if they’re looking for advice.

However, if you are concerned about their safety (for example, if they show any signs of risk for suicide), definitely ask them. Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk about it with you. Try to talk to someone who might be closer to them, someone who might get through. But, unfortunately, you can’t force someone to get help.

TL;DR

Support systems, we love you and need you. We know that it can be frustrating to see us struggle. Please stick with us, but please keep the simple rules of consent in mind. If you don’t know where you stand, ask. Say you’re willing to listen, but don’t demand to listen. Try to keep your advice to yourself unless we ask for it.

Of course, a minor mistake here and there is nothing compared to the love and support you have given us. Please keep being your amazing selves.

Feeling like a mental health impostor

So why haven’t I posted lesson 2 yet? I was planning on posting a lesson every week, and it’s been more than a month since lesson 1. What’s the deal?

Being treated like a mental health golden child – even though I’m an impostor

As a grad student, I’m no stranger to impostor syndrome. For those of you lucky/self-respecting enough to have pursued a different path, impostor syndrome is the inability to acknowledge one’s own accomplishments (either diminishing them or writing them off as luck), accompanied by the fear of being found out as an impostor or fraud. I’ve felt some degree of impostor syndrome as a grad student pretty much since day one.

impostor

A newer feeling for me is impostor syndrome regarding my mental health. Sometimes I’ve felt like people hold my mental health journey up on a pedestal. It’s a simple story with a happy ending: I had depression, I was hospitalized, I received treatment, and now I’m permanently healed. I feel like I’ve had to work harder than people realize to keep up the illusion of being “healed.” This has been more difficult than usual lately, and while there are many factors at play, these are some of the thoughts floating around in my head lately.

“Me too”

If you’re a human on Facebook and you have more than zero friends, you’ve probably had your newsfeed inundated with friends saying “Me too” lately. They are showing solidarity with a community of women and men who have been sexually harassed and assaulted. I didn’t post anything on my page, but yes, me too. Me too so hard.

Yes, I’ve been assaulted. Yes, I’ve been harassed more times than I can count. The harassment dates back to sixth grade, when I was 11. At recess, a boy was walking with his friends and shouted out to me “Now that’s a grade A ass!” It was the first of literally hundreds of comments about my ass that I would receive and still continue to receive – from friends, my stalker, strangers driving by, kiosk guys at the mall (true story). (Regarding the guy who made the first comment, I harbor no resentment. I’m aware that his comment alone didn’t spark the onslaught over the years. I wish him the best as a white suburban rapper.)

The “me too” movement got me thinking but not talking. I’ve already told most of my stories to my friends and they elicited laughter. Was it how I told the story? (I hear that I’m sarcastic sometimes.) Was it the fact that rape culture was ingrained in all of us? Regardless, my stories didn’t feel worthy of the movement. I didn’t think I was adding anything substantial. And while I’ve admired the people who have opened up with their stories, my blood has been at a low boil all the while. The “me too” movement, like any movement, has brought out people with a variety of standpoints that range from eye-roll-inducing to infuriating. There are the victim blamers, the flat-out deniers, the Not All Men activists. I saw a former coworker get very self-righteous about how disgraceful sexual harassment is – even though I quit the job because he was sexually harassing me. But I guess nothing fired me up enough to put myself out there and fight back. So I let it fester, as unhealthy as that may be.

Surprisingly, I finally heard a story that resonated enough to make me write about what’s going on in my mental health. Last night, I read that Anthony Rapp opened up about being sexually assaulted by Kevin Spacey. In his responses, Spacey first said that he didn’t remember the event, but he half apologized “if he did it.” He then tried to distract the public by coming out of the closet in the same statement – as if being gay excuses him from assaulting a fourteen-year-old when he was twenty-six. His half apology worked on some people and many media outlets, and this is what finally infuriated me enough to put my words together.

This all rings very familiar to me. My stalker made my life a living hell for over a year, but if you ask my middle school guidance counselor or any of the school administrators about it, she was “struggling” with her sexuality. With her family life. With whatever nonsense that could apparently excuse her bringing weapons to school, following me around, making threats toward me and my family. This rationalization delegitimized my trauma and gave my stalker a free pass, despite her behavior being neither normal nor excusable.

Birthday

My birthday was a couple weeks ago. People asked what I did on my birthday and I joked “as little work as possible.” While this was true, it was an incomplete picture. I spent much of the day struggling to get out of bed. (Full disclosure, I had a lovely weekend beforehand with my partner, a wonderful man who is sometimes more thoughtful than I deserve. I had a great time as long as I forgot it was my birthday. But the day of was rough.)

Why was my birthday so miserable if I’d just had a great weekend beforehand? Simply put, my fourteenth birthday was one of the worst and most haunting days of my life.

I’ve put it off, but now comes the time to give my stalker a name. It feels a little like she’s Voldemort now that I’ve brought her up in more than one entry and not given her a name. So, I’ll call her Stella (note how many letters are in common with “stalker” – super creative). Stella wasn’t my stalker yet at my birthday but our friendship was far from healthy.

If we start at midnight (carried over from the day before my birthday), I’m on the phone with Stella, trying to talk her out of a threat she made toward a mutual friend earlier that night. On the night of my birthday, I went bowling with friends. My friends thoughtfully had “Baby Got Back” dedicated to me in front of my mother. I learned every word to that song from how many times over the years it was dedicated to me by my friends. Really sweet, guys. Thanks for thinking of me (as an underage piece of meat). Stella was the one who started my friends’ fixation on my ass.

After bowling, the girls slept over at my house. While everyone else was asleep, I was on the computer when I felt Stella hold the flat of a switchblade against the back of my arm. “What’s that you feel?” she asked dramatically before answering, “That’s your protection.” In the morning, Stella handed me a three-page letter about how she would always protect me even though I was growing up and growing away from her. My birthday set the stage for many of the horrifying experiences I’d have over the next year.

So anyway, that’s why I don’t love my birthday. I’m normally fine if I’m with other people on my birthday, but I really haven’t felt connected to my community lately for a variety of reasons. How can I be any sort of success story if something like my birthday throws me into a tailspin from memories that are thirteen years old?

What’s a mental health golden child supposed to do?

Before you tell me to get professional help (duh), allow me to paint a picture of how difficult that has been. In August, I called my university’s health services to get a referral to a therapist outside of the university because that is the only way my insurance will cover any part of my appointments. First, I had to wait weeks before I could have two mandatory intake appointments with a graduate student before being told that my history is too “complicated” and that I should see a real professional. (It’s almost like I should have sought a referral in the first place or something.) I called and left messages with every person who had the background I wanted. Days later, I heard back from most of them saying that they were completely booked. Only one therapist had any openings in the future and so, in September, we made an appointment for November. So I took the initiative months ago and am still waiting.

So, is life supposed to pause for over two months? I see the emails pile up, and I curse myself for not being able to answer any of them. I meet with my advisor every week and I try to construe what little work I’ve done as something substantial. I’m trying to take part in self-care, but despite all the herbal tea, reading, dancing, and keyboard playing, every effort takes such a toll.

I am trying to keep my head up, but sometimes it feels like getting out of bed and taking a shower use all the energy and initiative I have for the day. It doesn’t feel appropriate to be giving lessons in mental health (even though lesson 2 has been 90% done for almost a month). I know that my impostor syndrome is normally irrational, but it’s hard to feel like it isn’t well founded right about now.

Hopefully I’ll be back soon with lesson 2.

Lesson 1: If you have a mental illness, you don’t have to be a damsel in distress.

The damsel in distress is a tired trope that is amazingly still used in films today. An innocent woman is placed into a dire situation by a monster or mustachioed villain, and it is up to a big strong male hero to save her. Of course, upon having her life saved, the damsel falls madly in love with her savior and they have a healthy relationship totally not based on some twisted power dynamic. (See also: Sleeping Beauty, James Bond, any movie based on a comic book series.)

Hollywood had conditioned me to believe that if someone gave me attention, I owed them my time. This is a mistake that I’ve embarrassingly made a number of times. I don’t know if it’s that I felt the need to find a hero or that I wanted to be nice to a person who wanted to treat me like a damsel in distress (more on this in lesson 2). It’s amazing what many women put themselves through because they’re afraid of being rude, unfair, a bitch, a tease, blah blah blah. It takes a lot of effort to suppress that desire to be nice, but sometimes you just have to for the sake of your mental health.

This is absolutely the most important lesson I have learned on my mental health journey. Here are the embarrassing stories that taught me the lesson:

In eighth grade (2004), the wounds of my stalking-related PTSD were just starting to form, and I was spending many of my nights online instead of sleeping (definitely not good for my recovery, but it beat having nightmares). I had a classmate, Brian (fake name, obviously), who would also be online late at night, and he would listen to me complain about my stress and depression. I knew that Brian was attracted to me, and I had made it very clear that I did not reciprocate his feelings. Nonetheless, I thought it was only fair to agree to go to the movies with him “as friends.” And, when he started to get handsy during the movie, I didn’t push him away as forcefully as I wished I had — because I thought it was “only fair” after he had let me confide in him. I felt disgusted with myself for weeks, believing that my mistake was in confiding in someone without any intentions of dating him, not in believing that I had no right to say “hey, I didn’t ask for this, get your idiot hands off of me.”

Of course, because my mental illness reduced my ability to get anything through my thick teenage skull, I made the same mistake a few years later. Around the time of my hospitalizations (2007), I confided in a boy, Cameron, because I thought he was empathetic and sensitive. (He was also always online late at night, go figure — old habits die hard.) Although I wasn’t attracted to Cameron, I agreed to date him because he was so kind to me and I thought I owed him my time. (In retrospect, I may have done this because I felt so disgusting after what happened with Brian. At least I would be consenting to any advances.) Over time, Cameron became possessive, mildly abusive, and a master at gaslighting. It took far too long to realize that I didn’t deserve that treatment. And all that time I spent convincing myself that I was supposed to date him could have been spent on working to fight my depression.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m blaming my own poor choices on Brian and Cameron. We were all teenage idiots who didn’t know what we were doing. And I understand that these anecdotes sound like mild versions of “teenage boys suck,” but these issues can escalate over time as self-worth decreases.

So, where’s the lesson in this rant? No one deserves your time and attention — romantic or otherwise — just because they let you confide in them. Don’t worry about what is “fair,” especially if you’re busy fighting mental illness. Friendship isn’t about keeping score and who owes whom what. Put yourself and your healing first, and spend your leftover time and attention on the people you want. Anyone who thinks they “deserve” more of your attention will fade into the background when you refuse to oblige. You’re too good for them anyway.

10 Years, 10 Lessons: A Journey to Fight the Stigma Associated with Mental Illness

As I have this text edit box open, I’m feeling some serious nostalgia. I’m thrown back to the days of Xanga (2002-2008? Man, I’m starting to feel old), when my friends and I would post vague song lyrics to send our angst out into the void of the World Wide Web. We were convinced that no one truly knew or understood us, because clearly no one had ever been a teenager before. And so we spoke in vagueness and metaphors. And we skirted around the real things that were bothering us.

This medium was perfect for me. I was dealing with so many demons that I didn’t want to face. I could write my angsty, uninformative posts without ever admitting the truth: I am depressed. I think about suicide all the time.

I felt uncomfortable saying these thoughts out loud because I was certain that I was supposed to be ashamed of them. Because no one around me talked about mental illness, I figured I must have been the only one facing these issues. [I’ll concede here that we had a small unit on depression in high school health class, where we watched a video featuring mental health experts Third Eye Blind talking about their song “Jumper.” But I don’t remember discussing how people with mental illness, when treated properly, can live fulfilling lives. So why would anyone want to admit to struggling with mental illness?]

Of course, keeping it inside didn’t work for me. During middle school and high school, my life was a cyclical comic tragedy of something ridiculous happening to me and me responding poorly. And so life got harder and harder until I hit a breaking point (or two or three) and realized that I needed help. In retrospect, I’d like to believe that I would have gotten help sooner had I heard anyone talking about mental illness with any sort of nuance. And so now I’m trying to add nuance to the conversation.

2017 marks ten years since the first time that I was hospitalized for depression and suicidal ideation. It truly feels like a lifetime ago (though that may be true for everyone re: high school). In the hospital and the years afterward, I’ve learned so much about myself, mental health, and how other people perceive mental illness. Recently, as an exercise in self-reflection, I’ve started writing 10 Years, 10 Lessons. In each post, I’ll share way too much information about myself in hope of resonating with someone else. Hopefully if you’ve experienced something similar, you’ll chime in, either as a comment or a direct message.

Here’s a list of background information about me that may be helpful to know before moving forward:

  1. There is a long history of depression in my family.
  2. I grew up with tendencies toward depression and neuroses that only revealed themselves as potentially damaging in retrospect.
  3. Starting in 2004, I was stalked by a classmate, which resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  4. In high school, I was hospitalized twice when my undertreated PTSD combined with my worsening depression (once in 2007, once in 2008).
  5. In 2014, I experienced a resurgence of my PTSD when my stalker harassed me for the first time in years.

Each of these things was once difficult for me to confess. Each item was once emotionally charged, and I felt ashamed to admit that my mental health was less than stellar. The more I talk about it, though, the more neutral and less shameful this list feels. Now it’s a list of things I just assume people know about me and, as far as I can tell, no one thinks any less of me for it. Hopefully, as more people talk about their experiences, we will paint a more complete, less stigmatized picture of mental illness. Less stigma means properly treated mental illness, which hopefully means fewer lives lost to suicide. No one should be stuck feeling like they want to die and that there’s nothing they can do.

I know I’m not great at writing (except for scientific writing — I’m awesome at that — offer me a job when I finish grad school, please), so please bear with me as I try to find my voice.

I’ll see you soon for lesson #1!