mental health

Brain Food

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.

~Muhammad Ali

Even if you (like me) subscribe to streaming services so you can avoid the annoyance of commercials, you don’t get away from subliminal messages in your life. Advertisements are EVERYWHERE. Introverts still have to venture out of the house to seek sustenance now and then, and that means seeing billboards, ads on the sides of bus stops, and all of the sandwich boards and glaring posters in, on, and around stores. Produce and cereal get taglines these days. Everything’s designed to provoke a feeling, a message, and emotion. And people devote their careers to getting that reaction from you.

Meanwhile, all you wanted was a doughtnut.

Unwittingly or not, you DO take in those words. They leave an impression on your brain that you carry with you throughout the day. (Nothing better than a dose of guilt with your morning coffee, am I right?) Running errands with a blindfold on isn’t the best advice out there, though. That means you’re going to find yourself confronted by potentially negative words and images when you step out of the house. And – depending on your working environment – you could face the same problem in your office. So is it any wonder you walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders? You’re subconsciously feeding your depression the food it CRAVES!

Think about it: What do you have around your home and work space? What are the words you see as you walk around? Are they affirmations of the fantastic job you did on your last project? Or are you surrounded by calendars with red ink – shrieking that you have five seconds to complete twelve more deadlines? Which one provokes your anxiety, do you think? We can do all of the work in the world to prod our thinking in a positive direction. But if we’re not “feeding” our thoughts a decent meal, it’s going to fall flat every time.

We have to get the “diet” right.

I know it sounds silly and corny and – okay, it sounds like some self-help nonsense. But you want to find affirmations that work for YOU and put them EVERYWHERE. Remember how you used to stick those sayings in your locker so you could drag yourself through class every day in school? Yeah, same principle at work here. You’re counteracting all of the negative that bombards your brain in the world. Even if you don’t stop and READ the words, your mind absorbs them as you catch them out of the corner of your eye. And those affirmations start to beat back the doom-and-gloom monster that is the depression lurking in the shadows. You sit up straighter. Your shoulders roll back and feel lighter. And you stop wanting to beat your head into the desk.

If you happen to follow my writer website, you know that I’m a sticker fiend. When I started adding those cute little images to my computer, I noticed my spirit lifting every time I sat down to work. Yes, they express my personality (and turn otherwise boring boxes into a colorful workspaces), but there’s more to it than that. Two, in particular have messages that hit me whenever I sit back:

“You are BRAVER than you believe, STRONGER than you seem, and SMARTER than you think.”

That one is nothing more than a simple circle. My husband got it for me when I started my writing business – and spent most of my time feeling worthless. Too much time wandering around, letting myself absorb the negative ads that pop up all over. Stopping and looking at the words have gotten me through SO many difficult days.

“Never Never Quit”

This one? It’s an original illustration from Karen Hallion. Three little words that goad me along when I feel sunk. If I sit and stare at my screen, struggling to find words, my eye hits that sticker, and my body relaxes. A simple affirmation that means EVERYTHING.

You can do the same thing. Maybe stickers aren’t your thing. Post-It notes cost nothing. Find quotes or words that strike you and put the Post-It where your eye will hit them. Your mirror, beside your bed, next to your computer, on your cubicle wall. Add a decorative border, or leave it plain. Whatever works to get your attention. Put them up at home AND at work. Because you need those affirmations EVERYWHERE. And then let those words sink into your brain when you feel your mood sinking. Give them the chance to feed your thoughts.

You’ll notice a change. You’ll feel the lift starting to happen. And it’ll fend off the misery you usually battle throughout the day. You don’t need to justify the presence of those affirmations to anyone else, either. If they ask, you can explain what the quote means to you. Maybe they need some affirmations in their life, too. Or you can just smile. (Everyone gets weirded out by the quiet smile – it’s awesome) As long as you’re protecting YOUR mind, that’s what’s important.

mental health

Last Tile

Fallen tower of blocks
Photo by Samantha Hurley from Burst

As I’m sure everyone is already aware, September is National Suicide Prevention Month. A month in which people organize walks, share and copy suicide prevention phone numbers, and loudly proclaim their willingness to listen to anyone who might need to talk. It’s one of the months I cringe at having to endure, and I avoid participating in those events at all costs, manufacturing excuses if anyone succeeds in cornering me.

And not for reasons people like to guess.

I don’t promote suicide as an answer to any situation. Speaking as a person who attempted suicide on five separate occasions, I can certify that it doesn’t accomplish anything. (Yes, this would be the first time I publicly acknowledge that fact – lucky you) The desperation and rock bottom level of depression you reach to determine suicide as your only option is something that defies description. It’s something that the people who organize these events have ZERO concept of. And as much as they insist they’ll sit with you through such quagmire, they won’t. Because depression isn’t pretty.

Depression LOOKS pretty on television and in the movies. It’s crying, eating disorders, and closed curtains. It’s skipped social obligations and broken marriages. No one has yet captured the reality, though. Nothing captures the true depths of crushing misery a person undergoes when their mind twists in on itself and pummels every part of themselves. It’s a suffocating tar pit that sucks you down, pulling you tighter with every tiny movement. You’re fighting a person who actually knows everything about you – YOURSELF.

And you LOSE.

Friends claim they’ll sit with you while you abuse your image. They say they’ll support you as you brutalize yourself. But they get tired. They can’t endure the days, weeks, and even months as you struggle against the image in the mirror. It gets OLD for them. They don’t want to put up with it. “Can’t you just be happy already?” It’s tiring, and it saps their energy. So they drift away. They find excuses (sound familiar?) to skip being in your presence. Your depression infects them, and they escape to preserve themselves.

Good news: the guilt from that knowledge buries you deeper.

Suddenly, saving everyone from the monster you are sounds like a good idea. Ending the burden you’ve become feels like an answer. You’ve proven that sickening voice correct: no one wants to be around you. No one wants anything to do with you, and they’ll be better off without you. It feeds into the dark loop playing in your mind. Instead of helping, their failure to understand the twisted logic of depression has created the very problem they said they’d solve.

The world doesn’t like depression. They roll their eyes at anything that isn’t bright and cheerful. You’ll even get called out for pessimism. “Why can’t you just be positive?” I faced cold reality at my previous job when I was informed my subtle cries for help “made people uncomfortable.” I was told I needed to stop.

No concern, no sympathy – I was clearly the problem, upsetting others.

Yet there’s all this shock when someone succeeds. People wonder how they “never noticed” or “never knew anything was wrong.” As if the world hasn’t created a place where asking for help, showing we need help isn’t strictly forbidden. Rose-colored glasses encourage you to see NOTHING. And you thrust them at us as if it will make that soul-sucking pit go away. Newsflash: a rose-colored pit full of spikes and slime is still a pit of spikes and slime.

It’s taken me 25 years to reach the point I’m at now. That’s 25 years of being thrown to psychologists that wanted to know why I hated my parents so much (clearly, attempting to end my life was about them and not me). A full 25 years of weighing whether or not to tell friends, boyfriends I had depression, and watching many turn their backs on me. I endured horrific medications that destroyed my body, and then suffered through cold withdrawal when I realized they weren’t worth it. I learned to drag myself back from the edge on my own, facing and fighting those demons every moment of every day. When I failed, I learned to keep my head above the muck, breathing until I could find a way to climb out of the pit again. I finally found someone I could talk to – someone who WOULD sit with me through pure hell, regardless of how long it took. Someone who gently deflected every incorrect phrase that came out of my mouth (not contradicting them, just turning them aside – something that monster hasn’t figured a way around yet).

25 years, in which I wanted to die 5 times.

Even I know those aren’t the best odds. I’ve hidden my struggles. I’ve put on the positive face people want to see while falling apart inside. Despite the cutting remarks people made, I’ve held my head up high. It’s what we do. So you can stand up and look shocked and say, “I had no idea” down the road.

The walks? The events? The fundraisers? I’m not trying to burst bubbles, but they’re not going to fix the problem. You fix the problem by opening your eyes. By not getting fatigued with us. By MEANING it when you say you’ll be there. By doing your homework and learning what depression means in the first place. By picking up on subtle cues and derailing our thought processes before we end up in the sludge. You help us more by earning our trust (and KEEPING it) than walking a thousand miles. By being friends and stepping in when we need you than telling us to go outside and get sunshine. (I could be in the fucking tropics, and it ain’t going to do shit, people – STOP making that suggestion!)

You help by opening your eyes and your ears. Not by opening your wallet.

mental health

Talk

“I usually know almost exactly how I feel. The problem is, I just can’t tell anyone.”

~Meg Cabot, Princess in Love

So here’s the thing: mental illness carries a stigma. We’re supposed to be enlightened and advanced in this day and age. (Pardon me while I pause to laugh hysterically) If you dare to stand up and admit to having a mental illness – any kind of mental illness – people look at you sideways. I’m not really sure what they picture, but you can visualize the box they shuffle you into.

“Uh-oh, crazy person right there.”

Imagine the shock when the majority of people opt out of standing, speaking up, or bringing any kind of attention to themselves. Why would you? Why would you voluntarily welcome getting tarred and feathered? Why would you step onto a stage and wait to get doused in a bucket of misconception and hatred from an uninformed public?

Odds are, you wouldn’t.

Here’s the catch-22. Mental illness and mental health demand conversation. Not just for people to understand they’re being morons (that’s a big part, though). No, we need to stand up and talk because that’s how we HEAL.

Oh, yeah – HEALING? Remember that?

Not a single person with mental illness is happy with their diagnosis. Not a single person battling with anxiety or depression or manic-depression or ADHD or any number of other illnesses is HAPPY. They don’t wake up, cheerily greeting the imbalance in their brain. We confront our reflections every day cursing our biochemistry to the ends of the universe and beyond. We run through checklists to even GET OUT OF BED! You think we want to exist like this every day?!

We want to heal. Which means admitting a need to talk about the things going on in our screwed-up brains. It means sitting down and discussing the thoughts rattling around in ours heads. We know they aren’t always logical (somewhere), but until we get them out in the open, we can’t deal with them.

Want an example? My anxiety amps up beyond my limit to control it. Worries stack up and stack up and stack up. If you think I haven’t thought of something to worry about, you are in for a surprise – I’ve got EVERYTHING mapped out with every possible scenario. And I know I can’t control 90% of those things. But I CAN control a lot of things. Like the way the towels in the kitchen and bathroom are folded. Like the way the dishes are stacked in the cabinet. Like the way the books and movies are organized. That order is my way of staying calm and organized and in control in a world that is literally planning to fall apart around me.

So when my fiance’ decides to ignore that order, my world comes apart. And I break down. It took me a long time to finally open up and explain why the towel folding was so important. That it keeps my tiny part of the world SANE. I had to TALK to him, to sit down and TALK through my insane logic. Is it his logic? Of course not. But when I finally talked to him, he understood. He laughs, but the towels are always in place now. He understands he’s keeping my world safe.

If you don’t talk, people don’t know. They don’t understand what you need. They don’t know what you’re feeling, what you’re going through. And so they can’t help. People out there DO want to help, they really do. They just need to understand. Which means opening your mouth.

No, not everyone.

But we fix that by talking, too. Mental health is repaired by making discussion open. By not shuttling it into the shadows. By not stigmatizing it as “crazy,” or “disturbed,” or any other number of fucked up labels. The world has done those of us battling these diseases a disservice. And we fix that by standing up and speaking up. It’s the only way things are ever going to get better.