Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ten Things I Learned about Myself Last Week

It’s been quite a week, one way or another. At times I’ve been as low and despairing as I have in months; at others I’ve felt grounded and whole.

Here are ten things I’ve learned about myself in the process. Maybe some of them will resonate with you too.

1. Things Are Shitty Sometimes

It’s rare for me to feel so low, stressed, or overwhelmed that it interferes with my day-to-day life. Mostly I move through upsets and difficulties fairly smoothly. But sometimes even my tried and tested strategies for making it through bad days fail me.

The best thing I can do then is accept I’m struggling. That’s not easy, because my life is generally stable and secure. I have a home, a family, a job, financial security, amazing friends, and decent health. What is there for me to feel overwhelmed by, anxious or low about? I’m aware of the danger such thinking presents, however. “I’ve no right to be struggling” stops people seeking the help they might need. So yes, my life gets shitty too sometimes.

2. Things Will Shift If You Allow Them To

When you’re in the middle of a bad situation it can seem like you’re stuck there permanently. The lost friendship or relationship is gone for good. The period of difficulty or illness or whatever it might be is never going to end or improve. There”s no hope. What’s the point of even trying to move forward?

When I get to feeling that way it helps to recall times in the past when I felt similarly stuck and remind myself that no situation, good or bad, is permanent. Do whatever you need to hang in there. Change will come all the easier if you’re not holding too tightly to the present situation. As American big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton puts it: “If you just get out of your own way... It is amazing what will come to you.”

3. Sometimes I Need to Put Me First

Friends sometimes ask me if they’re ever a burden. With complete honesty I can say that is NEVER the case. However, there are times when I get triggered or overwhelmed by whatever is going on my life. It’s vital I recognise when that is happening, pay attention to my boundaries, and take whatever steps are necessary to bring myself back to a more secure and stable place. The Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) workshop I took last year helped me understand this and I turn to my own plan when I start to struggle. I have done in recent months and did so again last week.

4. It’s OK to Ask for Help

Reaching out for help is a crucial step on the road back to stability. What that looks like will depend on your needs and the support network you have in place. I’m blessed in having friends I can be honest and open with, but even so it’s hard for me to “fess up” and ask for help. It gets easier with practice though, which is why that first step — which can feel like a huge leap of faith — is so important. I’m proud that I asked for the support I needed, and grateful to those who were there for me.

5. I Can’t Help Everyone All the Time

Sometimes I have to accept that I’m not the right person to help someone I care about, no matter how much I want to. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me or our relationship, it’s just that I can’t offer what they most need. It’s harder when it’s someone I’ve helped in the past, but needs change and on a different occasion they might need support I’m unable to provide.

Maybe I don’t have the relevant skills, knowledge, or experience. Or maybe I’m unavailable or struggling myself so that I need to put all my energy and focus into self-care for a while. And of course this applies to others too. Their ability to help me depends on my needs at that moment and their personal situation.

All this might seem a sad state of affairs, as though we can’t rely on anyone to be there for us all the time, or rely on ourselves to be there for others. This is true (to pretend otherwise is unrealistic and unhealthy) but if we can face it with compassion the realisation can be deeply empowering. That’s why it’s important to have more than one person in your support network. There are four or five people I trust to be there for me. At any given time some may be unavailable or unable to offer the support I need, but I trust them to tell me if that’s the case.

6. Paying Attention Pays Dividends

There is a line in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

This hit home hard recently when I failed to pay attention to what one of my friends needed. Instead of listening to what she asked me to do I took it upon myself to decide what was best. At another time it might have been no more than a minor annoyance to my friend. On this occasion, however, it was deeply unhelpful and hurtful.

And that’s the point. We can’t know when paying attention really matters, so make it your default approach. My friend and I have repaired the damage. We’ve talked it over and are closer for the experience. I’ve already used what I learned to help someone else who was struggling with a similar situation. I’m sad, though, that my friend had to pay the price of my learning something I ought to have known already.

7. Trust Is the Antidote to Fear

Some people wear worry as a badge of honour or as a sign of their commitment — “I’ve been so worried about you!” — but I know how toxic it can be. I learned this with Fran years ago. Don’t worry about me, care about me is the central message of our book High Tide, Low Tide and the foundation of our relationship. The key distinction is that worry is based on fear whereas caring is based on trust. I sometimes lose sight of this, however, as I wrote to a friend recently:

You’ve been so poorly lately and had so much going on for you that at times I have slipped into worry. The stressy, unhealthy worry energy that’s hard to avoid even though I know it doesn’t help anyone. Not you. Not me.

The antidote to fear is trust, and I’ve relearned that this week. I acknowledged what had happened and let go of my need to control things I had no business imagining I could control. I trusted that my friend is doing everything she can to be as well and safe as possible, and that the rest of her support team are there for her. And I renewed my trust in myself, to be the friend she needs me to be. No less, no more.

8. My Mood Is Dependent on My Relationships

A friend recently sent me an article by Angela Theresa titled Six Things Your Borderline Friend Wants You to Know. I was surprised how much of the piece rang true for me; especially the fear of abandonment, the need for validation, and the emotional intensity:

If you are my friend, I am loyal to you. You are beautiful to me. Your accomplishments are poetry. I think you’re fucking amazing. And you’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

My intensity has caused me issues in the past. I’m usually too much for people (or not enough, if I have been overcompensating for my tendency to excess). The downside is that I hurt deeply too, but I’m working with that. I still get it wrong more often than I like to admit but I have a small group of close friends with whom I feel safe and able to be myself. I am more grateful to — and for — them than I can ever say.

9. I’m (Still) Not Perfect

At work and outside it, I strive to improve myself. I read. I take courses and attend workshops. I talk with people. I listen. I’ve certainly learned a lot in the past week or so. And yet, I am still not perfect. (Sorry to disillusion you, Fran!) I make mistakes. Only last night a friend pointed out that I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. Rather than listening I was leaping in with suggestions and potential “fixes.” She was right to call me out on it and I am grateful to her for doing so.

10. Honesty Can Be Breathtakingly Beautiful

I write a lot about “honesty and openness.” To me these are essential components of any friendship or relationship. I’m not 100% full-on, in-your-face, open with everyone all the time, of course. That would be overwhelming and is what Brené Brown calls floodlighting.

I do, however, aim to be honest with everyone. As I wrote on social media precisely one year ago, “If you can be honest about what you need, that’s a real relationship right there.”

The past week has been characterised by honesty. I was honest with myself and others about the fact I was struggling and needed support. Friends were honest about how they were feeling, including letting me know when I’d contributed to their distress. (Thank you — how else am I to learn?) I was able to hear what was being said and take responsibility for my mistakes and my share of any misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Best of all, I’ve been honest with friends about how important they are to me, and heard how important I am to them. It’s not a sign of insecurity to value such moments. They can be breathtakingly beautiful. As I told one friend the other day, “I’m glad we can be honest with each other like this. It doesn’t happen with everyone and it’s lovely.”

 

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Black Garbage Bags

By Julie A. Fast

I lived in Japan for years in the early 90s. I remember being so down that I would go out on the roof of the gaijin (foreigner) house where I lived just to be in the sun and the fresh air. My friend Maggie would come sit with me and try to help — but how could she help when I had NO idea what was happening to me? I knew she experienced depression and anxiety, but the other side of the story was missing when I talked to her.

  • The wildness that would come before my super down mood swings.
  • Sex with strangers that ALWAYS ended badly in big hotel rooms where I would black out after a night of partying.
  • Enormous creative surges and work ability followed by a body that could hardly get out of bed.

I felt possessed by my out of control behavior and swore I would stop it each time, but then it would happen again and again.

I was also seeing and hearing things that were not there, but didn’t know this was not part of the regular human experience.

I do remember asking What is wrong with me? over and over again. I never had answers.

When I first moved to the house, I rented a tatami mat room that included a futon, book shelves and a closet. I heard from the other women that the former renter was picked up by her parents and taken back to Australia the week before I showed up. When I walked into her room I saw that the windows were covered with black garbage bags. The room was incredibly warm and there were books all over the place. It felt crazy to me. We talked about her as though she was a ghost. I never met her but I knew that something must have been wrong in her life to lead to the black garbage bags and her parents having to take her away. Was she keeping something out or trying to keep something inside? It all felt really crazy to me and a bit scary and spooky!

The black garbage bags represented being out of control to me, and yet I also had a story about black garbage bags that was equally bizarre. I didn’t make the connection because as often happens with mental illness I could see it in others but lacked insight into seeing it in myself.

When in college the year before I moved to Japan, I parked my car quite far from campus and had to walk on a Seattle trail in the woods to get to my classes. I have very clear memories of being freaked out on rainy or dark days on that trail. One day I looked to my right and saw a black garbage bag and could just tell there was a body in the bag.

I could SEE the body.
I could feel the body.
I heard a voice that said, ‘You need to call the police! You have witnessed a murder!’

I experienced this with all of my being. It freaked me out and I turned away. When I looked back, it was perfectly obvious that it was a bag of leaves. On other days, I would see a leaf that looked like a severed hand and when I looked away in fear and looked back it was once again obvious it was just a leaf. I didn’t tell anyone about this, not even my therapist. I assumed it happened to everyone.

It’s incredible to me now that the story of the young woman who put garbage bags on her windows and my own black garbage bag experiences didn’t lead to any kind of self-awareness. She was crazy. I was depressed. It wasn’t the same thing.

For the next four years in Japan I would be high on the world and then so down I couldn’t function. I had a fabulous job in Tokyo that allowed me to really use my brain — and then the brain that could be so amazing would just SHUT DOWN. And I would end up back on my futon crying or going out on the roof to lay in the sun. It made no sense, but not for one minute did I think of myself as mentally ill. After out of control behavior that led to deep shame I kept asking for help from very uneducated therapists who would try to get me to figure out why I made such poor decisions.

I once told a therapist about waking up with a strange man in a hotel room. I explained that this was SO out of character and shocking to me that I needed help. She said, “Maybe you need to address the lack of Christian values in your life.”

Oh yes, that is an exact quote. How could I know what was going on with me if the ‘professionals’ who were supposedly trained to help people with depression were this ignorant? This level of ignorance of serious mental illness is still present today. We don’t know what’s happening with us and when we finally do tell a therapist or general doctor what happened we need them to have answers. Often they don’t.

I often wonder what would have happened if I told the therapists in Japan, “I see dead bodies in garbage bags and leaves that look like severed hands.” When I finally did tell this to a psychiatrist in 1995, along with all of my out of control sexual behavior, work problems and deep, suicidal depression, I was told, “You have bipolar disorder with a lot of psychosis.” My official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder. (This means I have bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder.)

The garbage bag with the body and the leaves/severed hands were visual hallucinations. The voice that said I had to call the cops as I witnessed a murder was an auditory hallucination. The paranoia I felt all through college and often during my time in Japan was a delusion. The out of control sexual behavior was mania and the sadness that led me to sit in the sun was simply depression.

Between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one I saw at least twenty health care professionals and asked for help. Not one asked me the right questions. I hope that the woman from Australia got the help she needed once her parents got her home.

We are the sisters of the black garbage bags.

I’m sharing this story to shine a light on how and why people with serious mental illness like me can see mental illness in others and not for a minute recognize the same behavior in ourselves. The woman with the garbage bags was obviously sick. I didn’t feel sick in the way I observed her being sick. I was just confused about my behavior. And yet our symptoms were the same.

Everything — and I do mean everything — was explained by a correct mental health diagnosis. This diagnosis gave me insight. Insight is something we can grow in ourselves once a diagnosis gives us a direction for care.

I still have hallucinations and delusions. I have an illness! But I live with it now and I am no longer scared. We can learn to manage symptoms. Now if I see a black garbage bag and a body that isn’t there I know I am sick and I get help. The fear is gone.

About the Author

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder and Get it Done When You’re Depressed. She lived with a partner for ten years who has bipolar one. They met in a Tokyo bar and neither knew they had bipolar. You can find more about her work at www.JulieFast.com and www.BipolarHappens.com.

 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Ten Ways to Turn a Bad Day Around

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a bad day. It’s natural, I would even say healthy, for our mood to fluctuate in response to whatever is going on around us. On the other hand, no one wants to stay stuck in a rut.

Here are ten techniques I use when I’m having a rough day. Several of them feature in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

It’s worth saying these are not fixes or solutions for anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions although they might form part of a person’s wellness toolbox. They help me weather the ups and downs of life and I offer them on that basis.

1. Go for a Walk

I’ve written elsewhere about how important walking is to my wellbeing. It’s my go-to strategy when things are getting me down. Walking allows me to acknowledge whatever feelings are present for me, experience them, and then let them go. I sometimes use the “hot coals” technique I learned from Fran. I close my hand at my chest, taking hold of whatever feeling I wish to release. I extend my hand to the side and open it, palm down as I walk on. As silly as it might sound, it works. Try it next time you are feeling stuck.

2. Talk with a Friend

I’m fortunate to have a small number of friends I can turn to if I need to share what’s going on for me. I don’t find it easy to be vulnerable but with these few people I feel safe enough to be myself, knowing they will listen without judgement. There are few personal skills more important and healthy than the art of listening.

3. Write It Out

Writing features prominently in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). Apart from our two books and my blogging I’ve kept a daily journal since I was fourteen years old. For most of that time I wrote my diary each evening for the previous day. More recently I’ve started capturing my thoughts in the morning and at various times throughout the day. This means my diary is more of an in-the-moment account of how I’m feeling than an historic account of “how I felt yesterday.” Although journaling is an important part of my wellness regime I occasionally find myself trapped in an unhealthy cycle of introspection. To break the pattern I might challenge myself not to write any more about a certain person or situation until something specific changes.

4. Distract Yourself

Distraction is a core strategy of Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT); others are self-soothing, improving the moment, and pros and cons. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson has written extensively about distraction in a DBT context on her blog I’m NOT Disordered. According to Aimee,

Distraction can include writing and other creative activities, reading, beauty treatments, really anything that can take your attention away from what is bothering you. It is important not to overuse this or it can become avoidance.

I find distraction techniques help when I’m feeling stuck or overwhelmed, especially if other approaches aren’t working. Recently I’ve distracted myself by listening to the BBC News channel when I’m at work or at home in the evening. I can understand that for many people the barrage of world affairs might be upsetting or triggering but it stops me obsessing about things that are troubling me. Music can have a similar effect although I’m careful what I choose to listen to in case it exacerbates how I’m feeling rather than providing relief.

5. Escape for a Bit

Escape is similar to distraction except that the intention is to consciously set the difficult situation aside and find comfort and solace elsewhere for a while. Movies and television shows work well for me, especially when Fran and I watch DVDs or Netflix together online. For an hour or two we can put everything on hold and immerse ourselves in whatever we are watching. This doesn’t fix things but it allows time for my emotions and thoughts to settle and for fresh ideas to emerge. Taking a break from social media can have the same effect.

6. Reward Yourself

I’ve written elsewhere how important it is to recognise and celebrate our successes. That said, when I’m low or upset it’s hard to believe I’m worthy of reward because my default is to blame myself for whatever’s gone wrong. My friend Jen reminded me that no matter what’s happening I can take responsibility and reward myself for that.

What about playdates, Marty? Do you have playdates with yourself? Take yourself to a movie, or to dinner, or to a good bookstore?

This doesn’t work too well if my underlying mood is very low; rather than celebrate I’m likely to spend the time brooding. But if I’ve begun to shift things using some of the other techniques, treating myself can help move me forward.

7. Find Solid Ground

When I’m overwhelmed it can be hard to find a stable point of reference. Paying attention to my day-to-day routine helps but it’s not always enough to get me to a place where I feel grounded and secure. When other techniques fail I sometimes attempt to “jolt myself” back to a time or place when I felt more stable. Music from a particular period in my life can work, as can looking through old photographs or reading my journal from years ago. The aim is to get my feet under me again and then return to the present to face whatever is going on from that place of stability and safety.

8. Change Something

Changing even one small aspect of your situation can affect how you feel. When I’m low or stressed I take less interest in my appearance. Sorting out a nice shirt and my favourite tweed jacket in the morning can be all it takes to shift my mood in a positive direction. Get out of the house if you’ve been stuck inside. Try a different café or even a different table at your regular place. Drive or walk an alternate route to work or to the store. Talk to someone other than the people you usually turn to.

9. Accept How It Is

Despite having all the techniques at your fingertips, sometimes nothing can turn the day around. Processing, talking, escaping, distracting, rewarding — they all take time, energy, and focus and sometimes you just can’t. All you can do is accept you’re having a rubbish day and handle it as safely as you can. Cry, scream, grumble, isolate — whatever it takes to get you through. The very act of “giving up” can help shift your mood. It may not, but it’s worth a try.

10. Go to Bed!

If you’ve made it to the evening — or even the middle of the afternoon — and things are still looking grim, sometimes the best option is to turn your back on the rest of the day and turn in. Tomorrow is a new day and maybe things will look different in the morning.

I’ve shared some of the techniques I use to turn the day around. What works for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas!

 

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

My Journey Through Mental Illness, Addiction, and Recovery

By Kailey Fitzgerald

Growing up, I always felt like I didn’t fit in; I felt like I was a little off when compared to my peers. I had this terrible and seemingly constant feeling in the pit of my stomach when I would try to talk to other kids, and a ringing voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough. When I would accomplish something, I would find the reasons that it didn’t amount to anything and head down on a path of self-destruction.

Everything appeared perfect from the outside, but from the inside, I was absolutely falling apart. I managed to maintain until I was around twelve years old. I started to have violent emotional outbursts that I couldn’t seem to control, and it began to affect my relationship with my mom. She noticed that I wasn’t behaving normally and decided to send me to a psychiatrist. At first, when I was diagnosed with Intermittent explosive disorder and social anxiety I thought my whole life was over. I was only twelve years old and society had led me to believe that having any sort of mental disorder meant I was clinically insane; I was ashamed.

The medication my psychiatrist had prescribed me seemed to only make me worse, I began having suicidal thoughts and had socially withdrawn completely. My relationship with my mother was almost nonexistent and she was distraught. My explosive episodes were even more frequent, tearing apart any friendship or relationship I had left. I felt helpless because I didn’t want to respond to people in such anger, but I literally had no tools to control myself. My hopelessness led me to drugs. I began hanging out with an older crowd and attending highschool parties in order to find any substance available to calm the voices in my head.

For a while, the drugs helped me — or so I thought. To my friends and family, I seemed to be doing well. No one had any idea that I was drinking, smoking weed, and taking Xanax in order to attempt to quiet my anxiety and control my violent emotional outbursts. What I didn’t realize was that every time I took in a substance I was just covering up my issues and letting them fester over time, and as if that wasn’t enough, I was developing a drug addiction.

My addiction led me down an even darker path; abusive men, withdrawals, violence, and incomprehensible demoralization all became my new normal. I watched myself become a shell of a person and all the while, I couldn’t care enough to save myself. Eventually, I grew such a tolerance to the drugs I was using that they weren’t getting me high anymore. When I wasn’t high, I wasn’t numb, and all of my emotions came back with a vengeance. I spiraled so far out of control that I finally couldn’t take it anymore, and I FINALLY asked my mom for help.

Considering half of my family were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, they knew exactly what I needed. My mom enrolled me into a dual-diagnosis treatment center, which helped me learn to cope with the mental disorders I was suffering from and allowed me to overcome my addiction safely. I have found a life that allows me to not feel ashamed of my mental illnesses or my history of drug addiction. Going to treatment gave me the tools I needed to live my life peacefully, provided me with a group of friends who have gone through similar things as me, and has given me the strength to continue fighting when my mental illness may creep back up.

About the Author

Kailey Fitzgerald is a writer in recovery from PTSD, Anxiety, IED, and drug addiction. She is passionate about spreading the word and breaking stigmas regarding mental illness and addiction. She writes for The Discovery House, a treatment center in California.