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

Ripple Effects

Community is a pool, a lake, an ocean. Having people around me means that every little atom of what I think, feel, say and do has the power to touch all of the lives peripheral to mine. That is immense responsibility. Unspeakable power. I may feel small and even rather insignificant in the scheme of the greater universe, but I know from the way that little things thought, felt, said and done by others move and shape me, regardless of whether their sources are famous or not, well-known to me or not.Digital illustration: Ripple Effects

Now that I’ve sensed the probability of my slipping toward a new round of depression and anxiety, I know full well that it’s important to me to arrest the slide and reverse my direction in order to sustain my own health and well-being. But I know, further, that it matters for the good of others whose lives intersect with mine, and that is a set of challenges and needs that should matter to me at least as deeply as my own. Yes, it matters to me if it matters to you. I’m nowhere near perfect or heroic, but I’d like to be as decent as I can manage. Even a small stone, skipped across the surface of the water, can create quite the motion in the stillest pond.

Yet More Advice-to-Self

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digitally doctored photo

Were My Eyes Red!

I think I had a deer-in-the-headlights moment on a recent morning. When I went to wash my hands and looked up into the mirror, a bizarre monster was looking back at me and I froze. I stared uncomprehendingly, quite unable to make sense of the world for a moment, what glared back at me from the looking-glass was a creature with the strangest pair of burgundy wine-colored eyes I’d ever seen.

digital image from a photo

BOO! [artist’s rendition of conjunctival googly eye]

A quick assessment–possibly including a bit of arm-waving to see if the monster waved back at me in perfect sync or, rather, in reply to my advances–convinced me that I was looking at myself after all. An inexplicably unrecognizable self, but mine all the same.

I wasn’t in pain. There was no horrible itching, no creepy gunk running down my face. None of my limbs seemed to have detached themselves from my torso. I could feel no symptoms of anything untoward at all, and had awakened feeling perfectly dandy, with no sense of impending doom whatsoever.

As it transpired, the red-eyed madness was evidently a friendly reminder that I’d slept the night on a hotel pillow unlike mine. Perhaps the pillow’s stuffing or even, I suppose, the detergent with which the bed linens were laundered, bestowed upon my freakish new beauty by the agency of an allergic spasm of hyper-chromatic hilarity.

The really surprising thing about this whole episode is the series of alarms it set off in recognition that I often, well, don’t recognize the perfectly obvious in front of me until its moment has already passed. Ah yes, those many times when I’ve sat talking with a person and not realized until later just whose presence I’d taken for granted–whether an acquaintance I’d not recognized thanks to my prosopagnosia, a celebrity I’d not recognized by failing to connect name or title or other clues, or any other person I’d not fully appreciated in the moment. It’s a pity we are sometimes so blind to who or what is right in front of us that we don’t recognize how fantastic our lives really are, and how much richer for the company we keep.

If I need further periodic reminders, I hope the great people who are around me will kindly give me the needed nudge. So very much kinder and cheerier a nudge than, say, the appearance of an alien in the mirror. And lest I have failed to make it clear to you, this is also my time to say Thank You and express my appreciation to all of you good people who do give me the time of day, regardless of my thick-headedness or my bleary red eyes.

graphite drawing

Oh deer, what can the matter be?

The Sound of Inner Peace

 

photoSilence is both elusive and therefore, golden in this life. Even when we can escape the ambient clamor of our everyday existence it’s rather rare to achieve the sort of true silence that’s found in deep contemplation, deeper meditation or deepest sleep. Our own brains make an immense quantity of distracting and sometimes just plain disconcerting noise so much of the time that it’s rather remarkable we even know what silence is or can be.photoIt’s almost ironic, then, that what makes inner calm and silence possible for me is often music. The way that music can clear my mind of mess and detritus, allow me to empty myself of unproductive or unpleasant things and focus on things of grace and beauty until my mind opens up so wide that it can embrace genuine calm, peace, contentment and meaningful introspection, achieve a kind of silence that transcends nothingness and surpasses quietude. Music makes me whole.photo

A Bit of Illumination

photoAll it should take is a small glimpse of the undesirable alternatives to remind me, if I’m ever so forgetful, of how fortunate I am.

This morning I had many such reminders on the Sunday commute. It’s been very rainy, a generally fine thing given its kindly relief of and recovery from last year’s drought, but of course never quite so gentle to travelers on the road. As we leave fairly early Sunday mornings to head south, and last night was the semi-annual celebration of tiresome Spring clock-changing, it was utterly dark when we got underway. Unfortunately, and quite predictably really, the first substantial appearance of light before us was not dawn (a grey and undifferentiated one, to be sure) but a veritable wall of red taillights as we came upon the first roadblock. It turned out to be a literal one: a five-car smashup that closed the entire freeway for nearly twenty minutes yet after our arrival on the scene until we were all able to squeeze past it and all of its companion emergency vehicles on the shoulder of the road and restart our journey.

But as much as I dislike sitting still in traffic on the road, I spent the time not just watching the taillights ahead–at least, when engines were turned back on–for any sign of movement but also contemplating how much I appreciated not being just those few minutes earlier when we’d likely have been caught in the midst of the pileup, and all the more so when we saw those crumpled cars and trucks, the flashing emergency lights, the officials in their uniforms scurrying to aid and comfort those still on the scene, and the debris strewn across three lanes and more. It was no surprise to see remnants of at least two more accidents, these not blocking traffic on our side of the freeway but also evidently serious enough to require tow trucks, aid cars and police, before we got to our destination. At every point, a good chance to send up silent wishes for the welfare of all who suffered or served at those points of departure from the planned sojourn of the day.

My little forays for annual medical updates in the last couple of weeks were another fine mnemonic, if I needed one, for how blessed my life is. There I sit, potentially fidgety as I wait for an appointment that, like many, is delayed by overbooking and under-staffing, no matter how well the good folk at my doctor’s office generally try to plan, and look around at people who are obviously less well and far more needy than I am and think, my life is so easy. And I came out of all of it with pretty cheering news.

I was most acutely aware of this, as I said the other day, because while I was just getting a pretty basic exam and gentle inquisition updating my physician’s information about my habits, health and happiness, my mother was lying on an operating table with her spine sliced open for nearly seven hours while her surgeons worked to correct and stabilize her spine. I am incredibly glad to tell you that the preliminary reports following her surgery are good: her doctors are satisfied that they did all of the good things they could do for her (including returning yet a bit more of the five or so inches of height she’d lost over the last several years of her back’s deterioration), and despite the inevitably terrible post-surgical pain, she actually stood upright a mere twenty-four hours after the operation. At that, the second surgery in two weeks, which in my estimation is the equivalent of her being run over by the same freight train twice in a row. The road ahead to full recovery, whatever that will be, is bound to be long and arduous–but it appears to be an open road, and one she is alive and able to take, after some years of wondering whether anything good lay ahead.

Mom is a much tougher character than most people would ever guess.

And once more, I am humbled to look at all that she’s been through and think how glad I am that I have never suffered like that, and that I have a doctor who, when I told him that Mama was ‘under the knife’ for spine repairs at the moment of my simple wellness exam with him, had no hesitation in saying that yes, maybe at 51 and with a mother in that situation, I should get his referral for a bone density check now. To know that my own struggles, whatever they seem to be in the moment, are tiny and petty in the relative scheme of things and that I am very happy to live in such a brightly illuminated place of grace and good hope.photo

Thank you all for your kind thoughts and words about Mom’s health progress. I know she will appreciate it immensely when she’s well enough to sit up comfortably surfing a blog–or doing pretty much anything besides just working on healing. For now, it’s a comfort to the rest of us, and a perfect reminder that I have a great life.

The Doctor will Devour You Now

photoI’ve established a kind of détente with seeing the doctor. That makes me one unusually fortunate human being, as far as I can tell. Let’s face it, doctors are stuck in the same unloved House of Horrors where we go with cringing reluctance to visit lawyers, last-ditch tech support professionals, tax collectors and disliked distant relations: the Office of Last Resort, so to speak, because we don’t go there unless we absolutely have to go there. Anyone I see mostly when I’m at death’s door is not bound to be my first choice as fun-time playmate.

The dread I used to feel when the mere word “doctor” was mentioned in my hearing, let alone when I had to visit one, was undoubtedly exacerbated by my larger than life anxiety issues, but I know I was far from alone in the general pool of enmity and avoidance. Amazingly, the cure came to me before I got successful treatment for the extremity of my anxiety. It turned out to be ridiculously simple: get the right doctor.

It turns out that despite all of the docs I’d seen in my younger years having had all of the requisite starry credentials and, in many cases, references that glowed like halos, they simply weren’t the right fit for me. Sounds so obvious, but if you’ve never had that good fit, you can’t really conceive of such a thing, so the miserable one you got stuck with is the unwillingly accepted norm. It was such a shocking revelation to me to discover that my new physician was at the opposite end of the spectrum from all of my previous ones that I didn’t quite realize what had hit me at first. What?? No distance, no intimidation, no obfuscating or condescension or inappropriate levity or inflexibility?

She may have started at an advantage, this new doctor, having been my then-fiance’s respected physician for some years already and with my being in good health when I saw her for my new-patient checkup. But she was so no-nonsense, calm and attentive to detail from the start that when the inevitable episodes of viral attack or other pains did come, a trip to her office promised comfort and healing rather than fear and further pain. What a concept!photo

It’s not like I suddenly began craving any excuse for a visit to the doctor’s office, but I can’t overstate the immensity of going from a state of perpetual terror and revulsion at the mere thought of such a visit to one where I could go in for a wellness check at regular intervals and even–stunningly–make the appointment for one when prompted and then forget about it until the appointed date appeared on the day’s agenda rather than spending all of the intervening days or weeks actually making myself sick enough with fear and worry to need a doctor.

Now, I also understand those for whom the nuisance factor of giving up precious time to do this is tipped to oblivion by the dislike of the visit. And I truly empathize with those for whom the expense of medical care is impossible or too daunting: I am, after all, resident in a Two Artist Household and live in a country where if one or both of us hadn’t the luxury of Real Jobs as educators rather than always going freelance, the whole concept of regular physician visits might have easily been moot anyway. I am certainly grateful that my life has allowed me to choose to go to the doctor when I’m not unusually near death’s door. If nothing else, I guess I sort of feel karmically compelled to take that step since it’s available to me when it’s not there for everyone. And as an instant payoff, I discovered that being a generally very healthy person not only is its own reward but getting a good report, a Clean Bill of Health, from a wellness visit to the doctor even feels as cheering as crossing something off of my famous To Do list as DONE. That’s my favorite benefit of wellness, I admit–the smug, snug satisfaction, however temporary, of feeling just that little increment closer to invincible.

Why, you ask, is all of this on my mind just now? Well, I wrote the majority of this post while sitting (extra time, of course) in my doctor’s waiting room for my annual wellness physical. I did get generally pleasing news and no particular scoldings for any of my known bad habits, and no obvious findings of internal systems gone awry or organs gone missing or anything like that. Far more significantly, it’s very much on my mind because my mother is in an operating room two thousand miles away having a second spinal fusion surgery to attempt to correct some of her scoliosis and the effects of spinal stenosis, laminar deterioration, bone density deficiency, medication interaction, and a whole host of other physical trials that have had us all simultaneously marveling at and agonizing over her fortitude through years of debilitation and pain and sending up innumerable wishes for healing and hopes for relief in every way we know how to do so. I’ve never met her team of surgeons, physiotherapists and other caregivers (besides Dad and my sisters and our other family and friends), but let me tell you, my gratitude at being able to go, quite healthy, and sit talking with my physician about ways to keep my own body healthy as long and as well as I can–my gratitude at having a fine doctor and being able to see him just to make sure I don’t need to see him more–is immeasurable.

I hope that tomorrow I can tell you that Mom’s future visits with her doctor will become simpler and less dread-worthy rather soon too.photo