I Am Not Alone (Part 3 of a 3-part series)

Disclaimer: I’m no doctor, therapist, counselor, or genius. If this post about hope in the midst of depression and anxiety and related mental-health experiences is in any way true for you, know that it might be uncomfortable to read in the first place, but much more importantly, that reading it will not, cannot save you from your troubles. What you need is not a word of empathetic support from a fellow mortal with related experiences but genuine professional help, just as it’s what I needed first. Come back and visit me if and when you’re ready. If you don’t have any such problems, hurray for you! And read on anyway, because you might be able to help another person if you know better how she or he is living. Everyone’s truth matters, even when we don’t agree with or share it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll shout it again and again from the rooftops: ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥     ASK FOR THE HELP YOU NEED!     ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

When you’re feeling strong enough to do it, fellow struggler, I want you to ask for, and find, the help you need. A friend wrote me after reading the previous two parts of this post series, quite rightly asking: “As someone foreign to what you describe here, I’m wondering whether you’ve ever found it beneficial for two people who are both despondent to work together. Can the shared despondency do some good, like two negatives making a positive?” My short answer (strictly my opinion, of course) is, Yes and No. Feeling alone in sorrow is, ironically, almost universal, but the feeling ignores the reality. Being reminded we’re ‘all in it together’ can help. Mutuality of support and dependence can be useful, but only if genuinely committed on both sides to the wellness and well-being of self and other, and only in partnership with those qualified to help. Wallowing and giving up hope together is no better than doing so alone. Find the counseling, student resources center or person at your school, workplace, or community services center, and get in contact. Do a little research to find out what’s affordable or free, and accredited, in your area. Make an appointment, and be sure to tell the person with whom you make the appointment that your need is anxiety and depression related and therefore time sensitive.

Stand up for yourself enough to insist on getting the help you need. I was really, really lucky that the counseling center my doctor sent me to visit had trained ‘triage’ telephone operators who could determine how urgent it was that we patients get in and guaranteed an appointment within a week or even 24 hours, depending on the situation. We all know that for anyone who is suicidal, only genuine emergency care will do: a suicide prevention hotline, phoning 911 [the American universal emergency phone number], or heading to the hospital is essential. But knowing that the assessing operators at my local mental health center were trained to spot the differences gave me a little needed comfort and the strength to wait 24 hours more.

Meeting with this counselor won’t be an instant solution for you, though, honestly, getting through the first step of making the contact was for me by far the hardest, bravest thing I ever did, so everything after that seemed progressively easier! I cried and sniffled and howled through the phone call, through the days (weeks) leading up to the appointment, through the drive to the appointment—wondering if I could go through with it, though I’m delighted, if that’s the right word, that I was too afraid and embarrassed to cancel and inconvenience the stranger I was going to see—and I wept through the majority of the first appointment, too, even though I had little that I believed was so urgently, impressively scary or important-seeming to say or do. That’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it. I think it’s useful, when you decide you’re in need of help, regardless of feeling ready or courageous enough to seek it, to have a few little strategies for taking the starting steps. A checklist, if you will, can make the attempt at something so large ever so slightly less daunting. From my own perspective I can offer some possible options.

Think of others. The world shrinks incredibly when one is depressed and anxious. It’s all I can do, in the midst of it, to consider that I’m not the lone creature in the entire miserable universe. But realizing that my misery spreads invisibly to others, like any kind of infection, helped me, albeit incrementally, to decide I had to make a change somehow. I could at least drag myself to strive toward health for others’ sake when I couldn’t muster it for my own sake. The one ‘trick’ that still helps me the most often is one I suggest you try even before you manage to go out and get professional help: Focus your energy, however infinitesimal it may seem, on doing whatever itty-bitty-teensy-weensy thing you can do to help someone else through a struggle. I wrote about this technique that my mom taught me in a previous blog post, and it still regularly saves my shaky hold on sanity in stressful situations where I’m not actually alone, especially at social events, which are big stressors for me. Give it a shot a couple of times, and give yourself permission to ‘play the part’ of somebody cool and confident (at least cool enough to admit to a stranger that you totally lack confidence) and you’ll be amazed, almost invariably, how much it can help you. I’ve managed to get through events crowded with intimidatingly high-powered, celebrated politicians, artists, and social giants, in countries where I spoke little or none of the local language, by doing this. I’ve also learned along the way that many of the aforementioned intimidatingly powerful persons turn out to be just as needy and insecure as I am, merely better disguised!

Build a DIY support network. It’s a network only if you think of it going out as well as flowing in: you’re not only asking for help but offering it, and though you don’t believe you have enough resources for your own puny self, working to give some to others will show you better what you can do. It’ll be a hard slog, since so many depressives, like me, also fight social anxiety, and either (let alone both) can make it mighty hard to openly discuss deeply personal things like our mental health. Doesn’t even sound possible, does it? But it is. Dare to test the theory; you already know that you’ve got nothing to lose.

Commit to wellness. Sit down with at least one supportive person, preferably a loved and trusted one if you have any such thing. A fellow struggler, a professional, even a total stranger whom you deem trustworthy, might offer support, and that can be useful, too. Find one, or make one. Say to your supporters how much it means to have them on your side and that you will do whatever you’re capable of doing to help each other go through this process, knowing that you’ll all fall down on the job but you will not quit trying, because you owe it to each other as much as to yourself. You might not believe that fully yet, but I promise you it’s true. Even those who think themselves insignificant and invisible aren’t; what affects them for worse or better affects all of the lives around them similarly. If you can’t seek health and happiness for your own sake, try to do it with the idea that you can aim to improve the lives of those around you by being happier, healthier, and better able to assist them through their own difficulties. Imagine your improved health and well-being first as a fantastic, romantic ideal, then as a remote possibility, and then as a goal, and you’ll have a better shot at accomplishing this amazing thing than you might guess.

Take a first step. Make the first appointment you need, even if you don’t yet know how deeply you do, with the mental health counselor or resource person. GO. If this is someone who can see you and your supportive companion together, it might make it easier for you to approach at least the first meeting if you’re there to encourage each other. The first session or two will likely be little more than figuring out your current state of being and understanding your “baseline” in any case. Be bold, and assume that you will be helped by this process, even though it might not seem so at all times, and persist doggedly. Fight for your life. Ask your professional helpers straightaway: Please tell me about all of the FREE resources you can share with me [us], refer or recommend for my needs, so I won’t have the added anxiety and depression of finding something that helps, only to be denied it for financial reasons thereafter.

Commit to continuity. Follow up, whether it’s with this same person/center, or someone/where else that’s recommended. Do your homework. A counselor should be teaching you how to assess your own situation and what you can do to have a positive effect on it, whether it’s through making lists, keeping a simple journal (your blog or diary will certainly qualify, in many instances), doing some reading, learning to meditate, doing a small amount of exercise, adjusting your diet, listening to music, or something else entirely. Do the work. It might be laborious or even painful, but every bit you get through will be something you can cross off your list of struggles.

Reward yourself with your healthiest and most affordable pleasures every single time you feel you’ve made one atom’s-worth of progress. Don’t worry about falling down on the job again tomorrow, because you will. Know that when you’ve rewarded yourself with an honest “hey, I didn’t think I could manage that until now, but I DID IT!!!!” followed, perhaps, by doing the Snoopy Dance or wallowing in an hour of reading from that really trashy, sappy book that always makes you feel like hugging the universe a little, you will be more inclined to get back up and do the work again as soon as you’re able. Keep hunting for your Happy Place among your matrix of matrices. [Have I just coined a phrase?]

If all else fails, take the time to look at your reflection in a window or mirror on occasion and practice smiling ever more genuinely and convincingly, while saying to yourself in your silliest Stuart Smalley impression: “Kathryn Sparks thinks I’m cool. And she’s really amazing, so who am I to argue with her?” Because I really do know how tough it is to be one’s best self and I truly admire all who manage to do the hard work it can take to move in that direction in difficult times.

You do matter. Your well-being matters. Your relationships with fine people (me, for example) matter. Peace and joy to all of us.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Photo: I'm Only Human

I’m in the Support Group for “I Can’t Help being Human” (Part 2 of a 3-part series)

Disclaimer: I’m no doctor, therapist, counselor, or genius. If this post about hope in the midst of depression and anxiety and related mental-health experiences is in any way true for you, know that it might be uncomfortable to read in the first place, but much more importantly, that reading it will not, cannot save you from your troubles. What you need is not a word of empathetic support from a fellow mortal with related experiences but genuine professional help, just as its what I needed first. Come back and visit me if and when you’re ready. If you don’t have any such problems, hurray for you! And read on anyway, because you might be able to help another person if you know better how she or he is living. Everyone’s truth matters, even when we don’t agree with or share it.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Digital illo from a photo: Depression & Anxiety Cloaked the GardenI’ve recently met a new friend who is dealing with levels of anxiety and depression that sound like where I stood about a decade ago. It makes me both sorry for her struggles and incredibly glad I don’t have that same weight to carry consistently anymore myself. Depression and anxiety, especially the kind of chronic or recurring stuff, both work differently for everybody I know who deals with them, but one characteristic that I see pretty universally is that they can’t be cured or solved purely by smart practices. Real anxiety and clinical depression are inherently opposed to logic. They flatly refuse to listen to reason, and that is what makes us feel afraid, angry, useless, and without options.

It doesn’t help that some people who have never dealt with similar things can be ignorantly dismissive and believe that if we just shut up, pull up our socks, and get over ourselves all will be right in the world. I may know a perfect solution to my mental health problems, or a whole slew of solutions, and be able to imagine myself accomplishing the rescue flawlessly in my mind, but even if the means to that end is sitting less than an arm’s length from me I don’t have the clarity, will, or energy to make like a Nike commercial and Just Do It, not even if I sit staring at the conveniently available means all week long. Another classic and frustrating aspect of deep depression is that it saps us of energy, strength, and will to such a degree that we’re robbed of both clarity and the drive to do what we long most to do, even for the sake of those we love most dearly. It’s no wonder depressed people feel useless—they have been robbed of all of their power and hope, and worst of all, the culprit lurks right inside and can’t seem to be evicted.

When one’s brain or biochemistry can’t process the facts of the situation in sensible ways, the natural instinct is to curl up in a fetal position and hide from everything/one, including oneself. For me, when I’m in the middle of an acute anxiety attack or even a period of general anxiety, my rational brain can still assess the present situation quite neatly and spell out all of the logical explanations—what I could do to solve what’s making me anxious, and why I would be perfectly safe to just let go all of that discomfort—but I’m immobilized by anxiety instead and only feel more afraid, sick, confused, and as a bonus, tremendously guilty for “not taking my own good advice.”

It sounds, frankly, ridiculous to anyone who’s never experienced it, and even to me when I’m not stuck in an attack. But it’s the reality, and it’s awful. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether your life is good, with whether you’re smart, lovable, or desirable, or are surrounded by supportive people or wealth or any other grand resource you can imagine; you can have all of those things in abundance and still fight depression and anxiety. I have had a great life, with very few major causes for even normal kinds of sadness (you know, those well-known major stressors like the death of a loved one, changing jobs, moving to a new home, and so forth), yet when I finally ‘crashed’ with clinical depression in my 40s, I learned that I had probably had not only previous periods of severe depression in my life but also chronic anxiety all of my life. The lack of obvious causes or catalysts for the existing state in an otherwise pretty charmed life only further confirmed my doctor and therapist’s diagnoses—in my case, of an inherent chemical imbalance that various “triggers” simply helped bring to the surface periodically and that, over time, became harder to manage without both counseling and medication.

This may all be TMI for a non-sufferer or casual passerby, but I think it helps explain a few rather useful things. Again, these are my own thoughts and experiences, not yours. Only you can find your way through them.

Those who do experience various forms of mental illness are far from alone. I happen to believe that mental health, along with all sorts of other aspects of personal health and identity, is not merely a ‘spectrum’ of states or conditions, but a cloud of them, a thick and rich matrix in which each of us is created. That in any one person, his, her, or my place in all of the matrices of physical and mental health, skills and interests, sex identification, attitudes and beliefs, and the many other aspects of humanity that make us our individual selves shifts gradually but constantly, however the pace may vary from one time or characteristic to another. If I multiply all of the changes within one such self-identity matrix by how many different matrices of personality can make up the whole and how much they are likely to shift their Me point of intersection over a lifespan, it seems entirely probable that everybody hits the occasional crossroads of whatever for them qualifies as less than prime mental health and well-being.

I’m a firm believer in daring to ask for help, whenever/wherever you possibly can, starting with your counselor and/or doctor; find better suited ones, if the ones you have aren’t helpful! I know as well as anybody how near-to-impossible it is to ask for help, and it doesn’t matter if the reason is insecurity or lack of self-worth or sheer tiredness. It’s just that I also know that my life and sanity have been saved more than once by those little moments of supreme effort it took for me to humble myself and crawl toward help. I could sit around singing infinite maudlin verses of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen‘ or, as I always tended to do, wear a mask of pretension that everything was just spiffy, but no matter how much anybody else loved or cared about me, they couldn’t read my mind—how I expected them to when I couldn’t read it myself, I don’t know—so nothing would have happened if I hadn’t just let go of all my ‘should’ ideas and asked.

Treatments vary just as much as bodies’ and minds’ uniqueness differentiates us. It’s hard work to find strategies that help us individually, but it’s the only path I’ve seen whose light at the end of the tunnel isn’t that of an oncoming train. Somebody else’s quick fix or longterm “cure” isn’t necessarily what will serve my needs. I love life in a whole different way nowadays than in my earlier years, thanks to stumbling into and muddling through the process of finding what was best for my situation.

It is a lifelong process, make no mistake. For me, it means I will probably always be on medications in addition to checking in with my doctors occasionally. One of my doctors opened my eyes about this, first overcoming my resistance to medicinal intervention by explaining to me how much the current varieties differ from earlier forms of antidepressants and their ilk in terms of long-term safety and efficacy, and then keeping close watch to insure a good ‘fit’ for me.

On one visit, I asked the doctor whether, feeling so much healthier and better, I should start weaning myself from the medication. “How do you feel?” she asked. “Great!” “Do you want to feel different from ‘great’?” [Me, grinning and shaking my head NO.] “Then why would you stop taking your medication?” Duh. “Come and see me if things change for the worse.” Ten years later, I noticed I was slipping and feeling the old, familiarly dark fears and discomforts creeping in on me and suffusing my sense of self. My current doctor—we’d moved to another state, meanwhile—agreed I could add incrementally to my current dose. Barely ten days later, back to my New Normal. My sense is that depression and anxiety, like alcoholism, are states of imbalance that aren’t curable but can and may be managed over time with consistent care.

I understand very well the resistance to meds that comes from feeling like one has lost a certain amount of emotional depth or dulled some personal distinction when medicated. Yes, I have experienced deep, and superb, lasting joys from my earliest years when not in the abyss, and sometimes I do think that my emotions since ‘entering recovery’ might be slightly duller in general than before, but I would not trade a single second of what I have now as a healthier person for that tiny, shiny bit of edge, if it really is gone. Once the right meds kicked in for me, and it wasn’t instantaneous, I knew that I was my REAL self in ways that I had never, ever experienced before: able to feel normal pain, fear, sadness, or worry without the absolutely constant sense that they would never pass or that each one meant sure disaster.

I could ride in a car without the conviction that every other car approaching mine was aimed directly for me. I’d always known, objectively, that they weren’t, but I couldn’t stop that irrational inner sense from warning me endlessly that they were. I could now plan to meet a new person and not have to spend a number of days before it feeling physically ill and crying and being sulky and short-tempered because I was so terrified of meeting her. If I tried to learn or do a new thing and didn’t get it perfectly on the first try, it wasn’t an indictment of me as a human but a teachable moment of setback.

Now, when I shed tears, they’re not in the uncontrollable flow of incurable grief but born of a sadness that even in its midst I know will abate in time. Or, thank goodness, they’re sometimes tears of joy. Because not only is my life still good, now I can genuinely feel it. I wish the same for all people. It’s why, as an avowed non-expert, I still feel responsible, compelled, to answer when asked out of the darkness, ‘Is there anyone who knows me?

More tomorrow, friends…

Is There Anyone Who Knows Me?

This is the first post of a three-part series on depression and anxiety, so if that’s an off-limits topic for you, I’ll see you again on the weekend! But it’s really intended as a series on hope from someone who has been-there-done-that and loves life in all of its complicated craziness as I know it now, on the other, generally sunnier, end of the tunnel. Today, for your contemplation, a meditation based on a true story of fear and loneliness and the possibility of triumph through one faint but persistent call for help.Photo + text: Under Sea, Under Stone 1

Photo + text: Under Sea, Under Stone 2

Maybe They *Don’t* Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

Happy Birthday, Dad!Photo: Classic Models

Today is my father-in-law’s natal anniversary. Though I’ve no doubt he sometimes feels his age and then some, as all of us do, he remains marvelously youthful in his wit and charm in general, and like a certain favorite toy car of a somewhat similar production date (one passed around by kids in our family for many happy years), has all the more appeal, truth be told, because of all the stories behind the few dents and scratches.

Not only am I most fortunate among persons in having found life partnership with a best friend who suits me in ways I could never even have imagined, I got a fantastic package deal, his parents being from the beginning the best sort possible. I knew before I met them that they must be rather extraordinary to have produced such a dandy son who really liked, loved, and respected them, so I wasn’t all that nervous about the meeting, a fact all the more remarkable when you consider that I still struggled with a fairly extreme level of persistent anxiety at the time. I was more afraid of meeting my beloved’s then part-time housekeeper, an old-school German lady who clearly thought anyone hanging around with her adopted charge had better meet her rigorous standards. Maybe Irma paved the way to make Mom and Dad Sparks seem that much less intimidating. In any event, from that first time I met them I was quickly falling in love with them, too. In any case, it turned out that I had attached my heart not only to a great life partner but to a great life partner with great parents, who immediately became my parents along with the ones who gave me my birth.Photo: Elegance on Wheels

Our Dad S is a thoughtful, gentle, good-humored, positive person who served honorably in the Army, who with Mom S raised a pair of superb sons, who worked with computers from those early days when a single one still filled a massive, refrigerated room to when they became ever so much smaller yet far more powerful, and even trained for and had a post-“retirement” career as a Myotherapist. He continues to be curious and dedicated enough to keep taking classes, traveling, and beginning new adventures as a seasoned but lively octogenarian. He is indeed a man of a ‘certain vintage’ by now, having had many adventures and being the repository of myriad stories as a result, but never fails to have new tales to add to the inventory because his spirit is so lively.

Most of all, he has as loving and generous a heart as he always did, and makes me hope that he will have not only a lovely and fulfilling birthday celebration (or ten) for his birthday but as many more as possible. He is, after all, a classic.Photo: Classic Good Looks

How Will I Know?

Photo: The Long Road AheadIt makes me more than a little crazy when I’m faced with the unknown. That says a lot about me, admittedly, since life is a perpetual ocean of uncertainties and the impossible to predict. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature, the vacuum of uncertainty, with a special antipathy. My inclination is always to fill that void with speculation and guesswork, and when I’ve gone a few too many rounds with the same assumptions and fears doing their little hamster-wheel tumble through my brain, to pick them apart into a heap of worst-case scenarios.

I never know what’s truly in the moment ahead, let alone six months, years, or decades from now, but uncertainty still feels like something that comes in great cycles or waves in life. For a time, quotidian cares appearing to roll on in their expected way keep me distracted from unknowns; their seeming to pass at an almost stately pace in relative agreement with the calendar and my notion of order in the universe lulls me with its lapping, the ebb and flow of familiarity.

Then the next cycle begins.

When the time is most palpably uncertain and my path through it the most obscure, how will I—how can I—know the best response? Which way shall I go? What is the right way for me now; what will put me in the place where I can do and be my best self? I long for obvious Signs.

At my most lucid, I remember that every time I’ve landed in such privileged places of clarity, I was there before I’d ever quite wrestled out a reasoned decision. At its best, my life chooses me and puts me where I belong, ready or not, conscious of it or no. If that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is. I’m just not clever enough to recognize the rightness of it except in retrospect.

But goodness is good, whether it comes and announces itself in a blaze of light when I open the front door or it sneaks up onto the back porch and makes itself at home in my life. Patience is a virtue that is mighty scarce in my itchy little soul, but I’ll give it a go as best I can. Meanwhile, I’m hanging out the Welcome sign on both entrances to my existence, just to be on the safe side.

Photo: Beware of Bad Dog

Yeah, I’ll need to paint this baby up right away! And the WELCOME, HAPPINESS, COME ON IN sign will neatly cover up the old scaredy-pants sign.

My Misfit Brain

Digital illustration: My Brain is an Alien

A Holistic Journey

One sunny afternoon I went to a family and friends’ celebration, and I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I’d that very week been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; nobody there knew. Those at the gathering were celebrating religious and political beliefs that were virtually opposite to my markedly less conservative views. I was invited as a relative, and never knew if they really thought I shared their views or if it just didn’t matter. There was a lot of Bible reading, text interpreted to support favorite right-wing politicians. Many emotional speeches on the rightness and beauty of the group’s beliefs also implied that divergent views were stupid, evil or both. I wished I could disappear.

Mental health problems are inconvenient, messy, embarrassing. Incompatible philosophies and tastes, maybe even political or religious views, are sometimes socially acceptable as matters of personal leanings. But being exceedingly depressed or anxious?…

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Tough as Nails

Photo: A Little Rusty, Maybe

I may be getting a little rusty and weathered, but I’m just happy to be aging.

I’m managing to age. I’m glad. Though I’ve never had such a deep fall into my depressive and anxious episodes as to become suicidal, I’ve had times when I feared it might be hard to keep living, instead retreating into agoraphobic hiding in perpetuity. Those times, I am so very thankful, have been rare. They’re long past, too.

A couple of months ago, though, I had the first of some subtle indications that my longtime sense of shining wellness might have some tiny cracks forming in its foundations. A creeping unease entered into my confident good cheer. When I was first diagnosed and treated back then for my anxiety and depression, I had the strange sensation of learning what it felt like for my symptoms to recede, one by one, and as they did, I realized that the way I’d felt and the whole way I’d understood myself for all of my life before then, was in large part a collection of symptoms. Underneath it all was a different, happier and healthier self I have relished getting to know as I was unmasked by this progress.

I won’t lose that self again readily. I made tracks for the doctor’s office to talk about my options, because I don’t ever want to be held prisoner in that not-me state again. We’re checking my general health, the doctor and I, and plotting a course for reinforcement of the new-and-improved me while combating those things that threaten in any small way.

My greatest reassurance comes from living with the life partner who never ceases to love and support me for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Backing him up in the task are the many relatives and friends upon whom I also depend. But I’ve come to realize that I have another resource on which I’ll be depending in this adventure. Surprisingly, that defender is me.

See, I understand now what I didn’t and couldn’t back in the day: I could never have made it to my first depressive crash and subsequent healing if I weren’t pretty tough inside. I have always thought of myself as shy, timid and easily cowed, but the truth is that if everything that seems ordinary and normal to other people in the everyday scheme of things—meeting a new person, answering the phone, taking a class—seems infinitely harder to a person with anxiety disorder or the chemical imbalance that causes chronic depression, then I must be stronger than I thought.

I’m planning to win. I don’t expect it’ll happen overnight, let alone permanently, but with my personal army at my back and the right attitude and resources of my own, I think I have a good shot at it.

Photo: Tough as Nails

For a marshmallow, I’m actually tough as nails.