Stigma Fighters: Jenn Rian

I have depression. I have had it for nearly 25 years. Depression is not just a feeling of worthlessness or hopelessness. It’s about completely losing your identity to an illness that wants to destroy every last piece of you. It overtakes you. It is enveloping, engulfing, smothering, suffocating, and destructive. I can physically feel a thick gloomy feeling that washes over me from head to toe. Almost as if something invisible attaches itself to me. It eats away every positive thought, every happy feeling. Then it wraps itself around my lungs and begins to squeeze. I begin to feel stressed, anxious, and claustrophobic. I feel as though someone is holding a heavy wet blanket over my face so that I can’t breathe. And sometimes I don’t even want to breathe.

I was 11 years old when the depression started. I felt an inexplicable sadness, a hollowness, and a longing for something that I couldn’t put my finger on. I didn’t know what it was and I never talked to anyone about it. In high school the internal stuff got heavier. I was either paralyzed by an overwhelming sadness or entirely ramped up with uncontrollable vigor. I was constantly fighting some great internal battle. In my inner world I felt too emotional to handle: unpredictable, wild, untamable, and out of control. When I looked in the mirror it’s almost as if I could visibly see my reflection split. I felt like there was another person living in my body, as if I had some sort of dark side that was trying to surface. I felt like if I opened my mouth wide enough and screamed loud enough that I’d cough her right up and she’d be standing right next to me physical and tangible and dark and twisted. I felt like no one could possibly understand me. I started having panic attacks. Part of me thought that I was just making it up to get attention, so I never told anyone. I suppose I should’ve asked for help way back then. Now I regret that I didn’t.

I was 15 the first time I felt a strong urge to end my life. I had been privately ridiculed by a “well-meaning” classmate in a very public place. Later that day I was peering over a railing and staring down into a deep manmade pond. I couldn’t quite see my reflection in the water. I could see everything surrounding me, but not myself. It seemed almost metaphorical. I was often the center of attention in a group due to my love affair with making people laugh, yet no one could see my internal struggle and my pain and my sadness. Even when all eyes were on me I felt completely invisible. Now I was staring into a pond that was reflecting all of the things around me…but not me. I was removed from the world. I thought about what my classmate had said about me not even an hour earlier. In that moment I had felt so small and disgusting and humiliated and ashamed. Combined with the persistent feelings of loneliness, sadness, unhappiness, and discontentment that I’d been experiencing for years it was overwhelming and unbearable. I began to push up on my toes to get a better look at the pond and I thought, “What if I keep pushing? What if I push myself right over the edge? What if I put my physical body where it’s missing in that reflection? What if…I drown myself?” Something in my peripheral caught my eye. It was a dear friend who had come to stand silently next to me. I wasn’t invisible anymore. At least not in that moment. I guess I won’t drown myself today.

After graduating high school I consumed myself with work in an attempt to avoid connecting with my depressive feelings. It kind of worked for awhile. Working nearly 50 hours a week, I was constantly tired and lacking energy. I could barely notice the sadness amidst the exhaustion. Two years post-graduation an unexpected life change sent me into an emotional breakdown. I was pacing between the bedroom and bathroom while screaming and crying so much that I couldn’t breathe. During one of those trips through the bathroom a little voice said, “See what’s in the medicine cabinet and take it all. Whatever’s in there swallow it all.” I went to the medicine cabinet and I saw my reflection in the mirror. I saw my face covered in tears. I didn’t look like myself. My face was swollen and distorted in anguish, my eyes were red and puffy and devoid of light. I thought about opening up that cabinet. I thought about swallowing it all. I thought about how unhappy and discontent I was even though I was so blessed. I felt exhausted by the very thought of having to live another day. I felt incredible guilt and shame over my sadness. Suddenly I started screaming, “NO! NONONONONONONONONO! I WON’T I WON’T!” And I sat down in a ball and I wailed. The most horrible sound I’ve ever heard in my life came ripping out of me, stinging my throat. It was terrifying. And still I told no one.

After getting married my depression was focused 100% on my struggle with unexplained infertility. I was certain once I had a baby I would be happy…even joyful. When I finally did get pregnant 5 years later it looked as though I might be right. I was the happiest I had ever been. I smiled as I vomited through the first half of the pregnancy. I was thrilled with every full, round curve of my new body. I delighted in every tiny baby wiggle. I indeed, glowed. When my daughter was born two months before my 30th birthday and they placed her in my arms I felt…nothing. No joy. No elation. No bond. In fact I felt incredibly sad. And tired. And burdened. And inadequate. By the third week the post partum depression was full force and I would swing from staring blankly at the wall to screaming at the top of my lungs and throwing things. Two and half years later I would experience the same thing after giving birth to my son. Though I bonded to him instantly the post-partum depression came anyway and I found myself often having to lay him in his crib screaming while I hid at the other side of the house and cried for fear I may harm him. I never tried to get professional help.

I’m now 35 and the depression persists. It’s worse now than ever. Every single day of parenting has been a challenge and a struggle. Navigating my emotions is overwhelming. I’m often in no condition to take care of myself. I have to rely heavily on others which makes me feel guilty and ashamed. I struggle with anxiety. I struggle with anger. I struggle with fear. I struggle with regret. I struggle with guilt. I constantly feel like I’m failing my children, or worse yet, completely screwing them up. Every day suicide weighs heavily on my mind. Every day. And it’s time. It’s time to tell someone. It’s time to get help.
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Jenn Rian is a bored and sarcastic stay-at-home-mom of two who blogs and vlogs because the voices in her head tell her to. She blogs about as often as she showers, which isn’t very often. You can find her blogging at JennRian.com where she’s mildly amusing and Coolest Family on the Block where she pretends to be a Pinterest mom.

Stigma Fighters: Lisa M. Gott

Most people who meet me would never believe that not all that long ago I stood on chair with a rope tied around my neck. That not all that long ago I tilted my head back and downed a few bottles worth of pills. That I begged for death on a daily basis and tried to make that wish come true not once, not twice, but three times. Most people who meet me would never know that in my mind exists a dark and crowded battlefield. I was first diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and body image issues in my early twenties when I saw my very first psychiatrist. But my struggle with these problems began early in my youth. I just thought I was weird. And so I never shared the feelings which threatened to consume me on a daily basis. I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone.

All my friends went to parties, had sleepovers, and hung out with friends. And I broke down and was crippled at the mere thought of being surrounded by lots of people, especially ones I didn’t really know. While I loved cozy intimate chats with my closest friends and family, I detested small talk. I hated “getting to know people.” And even more than all that, I hated the fear of walking into a room and being noticed. And I always was. My personality was like honey to flies. I didn’t want to be noticed, I wanted to stay invisible in my safe, cozy, corner. But, no, people had to see me. Had to want to talk to me. It. Was. Too. Much. For. Me. To. Handle. So for most of my life, I made excuses as to why I couldn’t go places and do things. Because I let the fear win.

And then there was the way I looked. God, I was so ugly and so fat. I would stand in front of the mirror for hours, naked, and fixate on every flaw I saw. There were so many. I hated myself. And even though my ribs and hip bones were visible, still, I was so fat. So ugly. How in the world anyone could even share space with me was a mystery in my mind. I used to refer to myself as the hideous beast. And so I would fake eating, giving all my food to the dog, or hiding it in bags in my room to throw away later. I would find peace and comfort in the control I had when I felt the acid burn in my empty stomach. That burn. It made me feel alive.

All of these struggles led me to make poor decisions in my life. I married someone I shouldn’t have. I endured things in my marriage I shouldn’t have. I slowly became a person I no longer recognized. Said and did things I shouldn’t have. Which made me hate myself even more. I was beyond depressed.

It was after my third and failed attempt at suicide when I had to make a change. A big one. I was about to be institutionalized for an undetermined amount of time, but my psychiatrist felt like I had it in me to fight it. And so, for some reason, he gave me one last chance. And something, finally, shifted inside of me. The burn I now felt wasn’t acid, it was the urge to fight. The fight to live.

I got divorced and cut all the toxic people and experiences out of my life. I went to therapy every single day. I posed nude at local art classes to teach myself that my body was beautiful, that my body – all bodies – are a work of art. I slowly began to reintroduce myself to the real Lisa. I began to write again. I began to dream again. I began to smile again. I began to live again.

But for as much work as I have done. The struggle is always there. My demons are always right behind me waiting for me to trip, so they can tug me back into that deep, dark hole. But I refuse to stop walking, to stop moving forward. And when I struggle, and I trip, I don’t stay down long, I do the work I need to and hop back up again. Stand up taller than I have before.

I continue to suffer, because I always will. And that’s okay. I’ve come to peace with my struggles. In many ways, I am eternally grateful for the darkness which plagues me. It makes me savor the good and the wonderful in my life all the more.

I continue to surround myself with people who love me. An incredible husband who cares for me and gives me reason enough to live each and every day. Friends who make me feel good and make me laugh. And when I’m having a bad day, I share it. I let it out. I’m not afraid of who I am anymore. I engage in activities that make me feel better. That distract me from the evil voices inside my head. I open up my gratitude journal which I write in each and every day and I read all the things I’m thankful for. And I constantly remind myself to never stop fighting. To never stop smiling. And to never take any moment of this precious life for granted.

No longer do I let my struggles stop me. I make myself go out into the world and live. On most days, all goes well. On some days, I struggle horribly. But I never let myself feel like a failure because of it. Because at least I’m out there trying. At least I continue to stand back up.

There are good days and there are bad ones. And that’s just the way life is. It doesn’t mean I’m weird. Or crazy. Or unworthy of being loved. So, yes, I struggle and suffer. Maybe more than others do. But I’m a daughter. A friend. A writer. A wife. And just like everyone else…I’m human.

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Lisa M. Gott is a contemporary literary fiction author. Her stories tell of the human spirit – sometimes sad, sometimes not – most can relate to them on some level or another. Gott began her writing career under the nom de plume L.M. Stull. Her new name represented not only a new chapter in her personal life, but in her literary one as well. When she’s not feverishly weaving words, you can find her enjoying nature, spending time with her incredible husband, and, sometimes, sipping a latte. Okay, maybe more than sometimes.

Stigma Fighters: Lauren Kocher

On any given evening around 4:30pm, you will find me standing in front of the stove cooking some wondrous creation. Or most likely meatballs and spaghetti. I dress in my finest plaid fleece lounge pants paired with one of my 800 hoodies. My hair may or may not be clean, but most definitely not brushed. Same with my teeth. Unless it is Tuesday orSunday, then I may be in some combination of tank top, booty shorts, fishnets, and knee high socks. Those are roller derby practice nights. You will most likely be greeted by two screaming toddlers chasing a lab and a golden retriever. One probably completely naked, the other half naked. Though unless you are Daddy coming home, you won’t get any real excitement from them.

I am a recent housewife convert. Going from working full-time since I was 16 to a stay-at-home mom was quite the transition. I now fill my time with roller derby practice twice a week. I volunteer on Tuesday afternoons at our local café whose profits fund promoting art in the community. Every other Friday, I help co-coordinate local MOPs meetings from September- May. Hopefully in January, I will start teaching some fitness classes twice a week. I write for my blog Mondays, sometimes more than that. I also attempt to run a business from home while raising two rambunctious boys. I am sure that on paper my life makes me look like an average American Supermom.

Unfortunately, the light doesn’t always shine brightly over Camelot. I mean every castle has its dungeon. And mine is full of skeletons and dark tales. Most people don’t know that at 16 I had planned to kill myself. After years of feeling like I was broken and defective, I gave up on my will to live.

This ended in my hospitalization. After a week of being in what locals referred to as “The Green Roof Inn”. I was diagnosed with Major Depression and Borderline Personality disorder. And on the wrong damn medication with the wrong diagnosis. They put me on Zoloft. Honestly, I moved around like some junkie looking for her next fix. I could stop twitching or moving at all for that matter. My words ran together because my mind was on a bullet train. Most enjoyable was any little thing sent me into a rage. I was later re-diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

Turns out I wasn’t the attention-seeking apathetic teen my mother pegged me out to be. Though in all fairness, my heroes at the time were Daria and Happy Bunny. (If you are reading this and are saying “Who?”, do yourself  a favor and look them up.) The saddest part of that whole adventure was I faced stigma my first day back to school from my own “friends”. I was accused of faking it. I wasn’t really mentally ill.  If I had I not been so desperate to fit in, I should have to told them to ,”Fuck Off.” Honestly, they were more upset because A) My mother refused to tell anyone who wasn’t family why I was in the hospital. She said that was my choice. B) It was hospitalized instead of them. Yep, my friends were basically the beta version of emo.

Strangely, the kind of stigma I had to fight with is people believing me. No one ever did.

“But Lauren, You seem so normal.”

“Lauren, you seem so happy all the time.”

“Are you sure you are Bipolar?”

Most of these people had known me for a while without knowing I was bipolar or going to therapy. I mean there is really no organic way to bring it up in a conversation. Unless I start introducing myself like this:

“Hi, my name is Lauren. I am here, I am bipolar, Get over it.”

I mean, that seems pretty reasonable. Maybe I should start doing it. But it goes against everything I have fought for. I want people to question their idea of what mental illness.  9 times out of 10, I tell people I am bipolar because they make a blanket statement about it.

Person 1 “Oh so-so is so bipolar she could never hold a job.”

Me: “No! Wrong! I have had a job since I was diagnosed at 16.”

Person 1: ***Blank stare** “You are bipolar?”

This is how it usually goes. Every time.  I will be honest, it gets annoying. People have such a solid idea of what mental illness in their head. It is a concept that Society and the Media continually reinforces. So it makes me look like the liar.  However, with some time and encouragement, I usually can change that person’s perception. If I can change one person’s view than I feel like I am accomplishing something. Because that one person will change the view of another person and so on and so forth. I like to fight stigma through the ripple effect.

Now I am not saying that I am perfect. Bipolar disorder has affected my life. I have started college and quit 3 times. I emptied out my bank account on useless items instead of bills on numerous occasions. I am a compulsive stress spender. I have gone days without sleep. And I have slept for days. I have been accused of being flaky and unreliable. I have been the center of the party. I have locked myself away from the world.  I cheated on a semi-crummy relationship with what turned into an abusive relationship. I have lied. I have stolen things and money. But I have also learned.

I have learned that if I think I am nothing more than my disorder, it will take over. Everyday is a struggle, but I always keep fighting. I keep fighting for my husband. (Note: He was after the semi-crummy and abusive relationships.) I keep fighting for my children. They have a pretty good genetic chance of having bipolar. I don’t want them to have to fight stigma too. I fight for all of those afraid to have a voice. Most of all I fight for myself. Because I am not my disorder.

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Lauren is wife and mother of two rambunctious boys. When she is not fighting stigma, she is kicking-ass on the rink for the Northern Allegheny Roller Derby.  On Tuesdays, she slings lattes for the local non-profit that supports arts in the community. Other days you can find her comfiest sweatpants behind her laptop writing for her blog and contributing to Stigmama.com You can always find her at one of the following:

Blog: http://thebipolarmama.com

Facebook: http://facebook.com/thbipolarmama

Twitter: @thebipolarmama

Stigma Fighters: Celeste Noelani

On Choosing Life

When my mom made an appointment for me to talk to a therapist after my boyfriend and my father died within four months of each other, it instigated yet another explosive argument.

“I’m not crazy,” I shrieked at her. I did a lot of shrieking back then.

I was so terrified of the word therapist. The idea of therapy; of talking to someone whose job it was to get inside the mess of my brain. I imagined a stranger uncovering each damaged thought and using my words against me.

I remembered a made-for-television movie my mother had let me stay up to watch a year or two earlier. A woman suffering through bulimia was a dangerous, out of control thing. There was evidence used to force a confession and the movie wrapped up with her moving towards healing. But honestly, I didn’t think of the ending; I didn’t even remember it. What I remembered was the capture, the a-ha moment when she was cornered into admitting her illness.

I was terrified of being found out in the same way. Terrified my therapist would see the scars etched into my wrists, shallow cuts that were more remembrance of life than intent to kill. That I would have to stand trial of sorts, evidence of self harm and self loathing convicting me of mental illness.

Once convicted, I would be sentenced to a lifetime in and out of dirty, desperate institutions. I’d be sent to Kahi Mohala where I would be one of “those” patients my friends and I ridiculed. I would spend days in a straitjacket. At night the angry chatter of my brain would be amplified by the yells of the patients around me.

I could not let that happen.

Two days before my first therapy appointment, I made my first suicide attempt. Fortunately I didn’t have anything stronger than headache medicine, but the intent was there. For the very first time, I actually wanted to die. I didn’t even get sick enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, which made me feel like a ridiculous failure. I cleaned up after myself, endured acute shame and nausea in the elevator to my new therapist’s office, and never spoke a word of it to my mother.

I didn’t speak a word of it to my therapist either, though I answered her questions as she went down the intake form my mother had filled out.

“Your father died recently?” she asked sympathetically.
I nodded, and told her that my father’s death had come after a long illness so it wasn’t a shock. The real shock was my boyfriend’s unexplained death four months earlier.
“Oh,” she said, looking back at the form. “Your mother didn’t mention anything about that.”
“Typical,” I told her, bowing my head.

She sized me up for a moment. Looked back at the form. She put her clipboard on the table and didn’t look at it again for the rest of the session. She did look at me, though, asking questions in ways that made me realize just how much I wanted to answer them. How much I wanted to talk about this. Wanted someone to listen.

Still, I was convinced that opening up too much was impossible. Perilous. I had in my mind everything I’d ever seen in movies or on television about crazy people. Books I had read about girls being taken against their will to languish in mental wards that were more like prisons.

knew that would happen to me if I let anyone in.
And so, for the most part, I didn’t.

I never shared with my therapist the self harm, the suicide ideation. The longing to be rid of everything and everyone, beginning with me. I told myself that I wasn’t like the girls in books and in movies; awful girls I hated with a kind of externalized self loathing. It wasn’t like that, you know. Didn’t deserve lock-down they way they did. I wasn’t, you know, crazy.

So when the dark thoughts came again and again, pushing me to carve angry wounds into my skin, to drink until I felt nothing but sickness, I did the opposite of what I needed: I stopped seeing my therapist. For the next eighteen years, I struggled to contain my darkness. I did not succeed.

When I was hit full force by stillbirth in 2009, the trauma spiraled me immediately into new depths of mental illness. I began hallucinating, suffering through terrifyingly graphic intrusive thoughts. I thought about self harm constantly, and dreamed of it when I was asleep. There was no respite in my abyss. I knew I was courting suicide.

Desperate to stay alive, I made an appointment with my doctor. Her kindness had guided me through the medical trauma of pregnancy loss, and I trusted her. I left that appointment with a scrap of hope disguised as the phone number of a therapist, and the determination to actually call it.

I have been seeing that therapist ever since.

Having an advocate, someone whose sole responsibility it was to talk to me through all of the vile, repetitive awful I had come to expect from my angry brain, was a revelation. Difficult, of course, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t still harbor a sense of impulsive self-protection that keeps me from spilling all of my secrets. Of course I do. I carry a strong sense of shame, of internalized stigma, with me to each and every one of our exhausting sessions. It makes our work that much more difficult.

For years I harbored an erroneous perception of mental illness, one that I used to judge myself and others. That perception took years to create, and will take years to fully dismantle. Realizing it was stigma preventing me from seeking the help I needed when I was fifteen, I cried for the girl who so desperately needed protection. I also realized that unless I wanted to look back on my thirties with the same kind of tears, I needed to do the work of combating stigma now. I could choose to hold on to my sense of poisonous judgment, or I could choose to save my life. It was just that simple.

I chose life. Every word I speak about mental illness is a continuation of that choice. Every raw, brutal word I write is a lifeline; a weapon in the fight against the injustice and dishonesty of mental illness stigma.

And I will never, ever stop fighting.

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Celeste Noelani is the woman behind RunningNekkid.com, where she explores the intersection of grief, mental health, and her Pacific Islander ancestry. She left her home in paradise over twenty years ago and has been trying to figure out how to get back ever since.

Stigma Fighters: Autumn Empress

Grace and Guts

I have a recurring dream—a nightmare, really—about being locked inside a glass house. The house has no curtains or furniture, and any dividing walls inside are also made of glass. All the lights are on in the house; it’s midnight. I can’t see out into the world, but the world can see me. The only thing I can see with any clarity is my own reflection, but she’s no comfort. She stares at me with wide-eyed uncertainty, and I stare back at her, disgusted.

I curl up into a ball, in the middle of the room, choking on hot tears, “go away, go away, go away”, I sob, rocking back and forth. But in this dream, midnight lasts into the unforeseeable future, and the dark night has no end.

This dream is symbolic—this is how it feels to have social anxiety.

I don’t like to be seen, because to be seen really means to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is dangerous. I close my eyes and remember the repeated sexual abuse, and shudder. Remembering hurts. A lifetime of hurting, hurts. I get up to lock the deadbolt, clean up the bread crumbs on the counter, and then make a fresh pot of coffee. I’m trying to write my Self onto paper, and in order to do that, I have to remember.

Unlike this dream, however, social anxiety isn’t something that solely exists at 4:00 in the morning. It’s also a Tuesday afternoon, sitting back row, in the middle of a European Literature lecture, paralyzed from the amygdala down. It’s failing the fall semester of university (and the winter semester, and then the spring and summer semester), self-medicating yourself dizzy, and getting knotted in relationships as dysfunctional as you feel.

It’s sitting at a corner table at Starbucks, trying to stay focused on your laptop screen (and wondering why in the world you forced yourself to go in the first place). It’s the twitch at the back of your neck, from trying so hard to sit still, the averted gaze, and the tsunami of coffee spilling over the edge of your mug, because your hands are shaking so violently. It’s the impossibility of crossing the street at a red light, the uncomfortable pause during a conversation, and the s-s-stammer, mid-sentence in the clutches of a panic attack—sweaty palms, heart pounding against your chest like a bongo-drum, your sympathetic nervous system on the alert.

*

I’m told that social anxiety typically develops in youth, and then goes away as one gets older. This was the reverse for me. I was 20 when I developed social anxiety, and it wedged itself between me and any sense of normalcy I felt I should have in my life. Whenever I was around anyone, it felt like I was in that glass house—like there was a spotlight that followed me around whenever I went out into the world. Going anywhere became a painful experience that I would do anything to avoid. I hated feeling awkward around people—trying to look calm despite the sweaty palms, nervousness, and inability to think at all (let alone be a part of the conversation).

When I was 23, I remember sitting over my table, gasping for breath, and wondering if I was dying. A heart attack, a punctured lung, black mold in the wooden trusses of the old house I was living—all of these possibilities raced through my mind while I reached for my cell phone to call my mom. I would later find out that what I experienced was a panic attack, and that I had anxiety. 

This is textbook anxiety”, my doctor said, before I’d even told him my theory on black mold.

He prescribed me medication, and suggested that I enroll in a CBT program with mental health. I didn’t take the medication then, and refused to seek any external help until I’d reached my breaking point at 26. I was humiliated. Who would love me, let alone like me if anyone knew? I was terrified to face myself, and like any person in my shoes, I tied my laces tight and ran as far and fast as I could from myself. I became an emotional wandress, split at the roots, and never feeling at home in my body.

During the 6 years of folding myself to fit inside the tiny drawer of social anxiety, I began to have the same recurring dream. Clutching my knees inside that glass house, I’d thrust awake in my bed somewhere between dusk and dawn, and wonder if there was any place I could escape my anxiety—any place I could run to; any place far enough away. My life had become the recurring dream, and it didn’t matter where (or how fast) I ran; my reflection always found me. Out of a desire to make sense of this dream, I began to reflect on it, and really try to get underneath it. I began to realize how much of a recluse I’d become in my life, and how many opportunities that were lost as a result. I know I’m more than my mental illness; and, at the end of the day, I need to give myself more credit.

I’m learning to live alongside my mental illness, rather than fighting it with white-knuckles and clenched fists. It’s a daily challenge, because the stigma of mental illness permeates society. There was a long time where I wanted to be someone else, because I was terrified of who I was. Now, my attention is directed to the small groups of people, who like myself, do understand what it’s like to have a mental illness—who want to live in a world bigger than catch phrases like “she’s crazy”and “it’s always the quiet ones” (et al.). And maybe, through those connections, we’ll realize how many people truly suffer in silence.

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Social anxiety is a part of who I am. It’s a piece, not the whole. Just like my bone-straight black hair, my brown eyes, my small breasts, my curvy hips, my olive skin, and my size 8 feet. It’s a part of me, like my insatiability for good writing, my distaste for tomatoes, and my yearning to travel to Galway—my contradictions, my tenderness, my fiery temper, the way I laugh. I’m slowly beginning to view myself as someone more intricate than simply, “a woman with social anxiety”. I don’t look at my social anxiety and see the whole of me, anymore—at least, not to the extent that I did earlier my life. And rather than pushing it deeper into a hidden drawer, I’m letting it sit out in the sunlight. In loving the “less desirable” parts of my Self I’m learning to love the whole of me. It’s raw, and has its moments, but like any worthy relationship, it’s worth fighting for.

I’m still breathing—with grace and guts, I’m breathing.

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Autumn Empress is a writer and mental health advocate. She’d love to connect with you on Twitter: @autumnempress

Stigma Fighters: Lauren Osborn

My Life As An Obsessive
by Lauren Osborn

I hated my psychiatrist, his smug, clean-shaven face like a map that hadn’t been colored in. Photos of his immaculate wife and his pristine children glared at me from inside their well-polished frames.

  “Tell me about these thoughts,” he said.

  But where could I begin? How do you go from being a seemingly normal person to one who admits to fearing for her mortal soul on a momentary basis?

  “I’m afraid if I don’t do things in a particular way, the devil will have my soul.”

  “That’s normal,” he said.

  Normal? I don’t fucking think so.

  There was  a time in my life I would later refer to as my desert days. If you’ve ever been really depressed or anxious, you know how painfully isolating it can be. You feel shipwrecked, waiting for a  rescue that may never come.  For me, it was a desert. I wandered alone, exhausted, in a place where no one would reach me — my twisted mind.

 I was terrified to leave my desert because I was unable to cope with the actual world. Holding a conversation was virtually impossible because the record in my head would not stop turning. With every breath came the overwhelming weight of impending doom. My journal tells the story best, riddled with cross-outs, unnecessary punctuation, rewrites of the same words and nonsense phrases, my handwriting alien. Was this me?

     To clarify, obsessive-compulsive disorder is different from depression and anxiety, yet encompasses both. “If you don’t swallow at least 16 times in sets of 4 right now I’m selling your soul to Satan for all eternity,” my mind drones as I stare blankly at my dinner, breath held as I finish my compulsion before eating. If I mess up the counting or swallow “incorrectly”, the whole process must be repeated. And here’s the thing: I know these fears are irrational. It’s highly frustrating to be a logical person who has no control over her tumultuous mind. I feel hopeless.

  Early on, the compulsions became time-consuming. Most of my day was ruled by my rituals. The worst was that my symptoms appeared early. As a child, neither my parents nor I knew of OCD. My irrational fears, constant crying, extreme perfectionism, and repetitive patterns were treated as eccentric behaviors of a highly intelligent child. While my parents turned a blind eye to it, I suffered, oscillating between thinking I was schizophrenic and thinking I was possessed. To say I could not relate to my peers was an understatement. By the time I was 12, I had attempted suicide.

  I can distinctly remember the day I cracked. The gorgeous day only mocked me as I looked myself in the mirror. Lovely eyes. Eyes like my grandmother, this towering relic I never even met. Like her looks, her legacy lived through me. Unfortunately that legacy was one of mental illness. I didn’t inherit her sapphires or diamonds but her unconquerable sadness, a penchant for odd behavior, empty eyes green like sea-glass. Once they glowed and now they reflected an unending, hollow depth. Was I just like her? Would I too take my life because it was humane?

  One thing about OCD that people do not understand: it never goes away. There are periods of improvement, but it is a chronic illness. It is not psychosomatic and it cannot be controlled with “enough willpower”. This is a highly nuanced disorder with biochemical and genetic components. There is no screening process for OCD, no cure. And I’m not alone. About 1 in 100 adults suffers from OCD, and 1 in 200 children. This means someone you know is probably dealing with this psychologically ravaging disease, carrying shame and embarrassment like a sack of bricks.

  If what we don’t understand we tend to fear, then the societal fear of mental illness must be due to lack of understanding. For years my OCD went undiagnosed, never taken seriously because no one really knew about it. With more research, attention could finally be brought to the science of the disorder and help lessen the stigma.  While I know that few could ever truly understand what my life with obsessive-compulsive disorder is like, I hope that some can gain respect for this terrorizing illness through knowledge of just how real it really is.

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Lauren Osborn is a 27-year-old freelance writer and photographer in Austin, Tx. Lauren was officially diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder at age 18, and still struggles to remember to take her pills. Her writing focuses on feminism, mental health and the Great American Dream – and the intersection of the three. Much of her work surrounds creating an open dialogue about mental illness in order to humanize it. First published at age 10, her work has been featured in countless literary magazines and two books, under both her real name and pen names. She has a soft spot for redwood trees, her zealous cat, Sir Henrich, 60′s counterculture, and her urban family. Her ramblings can be found at:  http://laurencosborn.blogspot.com/

Stigma Fighters: Liam Kennedy

Hello my name is Liam Kennedy and I have suffered with mental health problems for seven years but I am currently into eighteen months of recovery.

Through my period of recovery I have become so much stronger and have got my confidence back and then some.

I don’t see myself as being stronger than any other mental health sufferer in the world, I just believe I am very lucky to have accessed this inner strength and have managed to fight back.

Don’t get me wrong I have worked tirelessly since the first day of my recovery and my relentless desire to survive will continue to gather momentum but I am also lucky to be in this position as so many people don’t find this inner strength.

I have acquired a skill I did not know I had in creative writing and also poetry which has a powerful message in each piece directed to my fellow mental health sufferers who are going through tough times and I believe I can motivate and inspire the individual who manage to read them.

I’m in a very privileged position to be able to do this and feel I am a voice that can make a difference to a lot of people’s lives by representing every mental health sufferer.

There are a lot of ignorant people out there who look down at mental health sufferers and perceive us in an extremely stereotypical way which is disrespectful and hurtful.

This also makes it even more increasingly difficult for mental health sufferers to open up and speak about their problems and instead hide away and suffer in silence because they believe it is wrong to have mental health problems and to also admit it.

I know this from experience as I was once in this position and it is an horrendous feeling of worthlessness and confusion, i understand what I have managed to do in terms of recovery and what I am doing now with my writing and being so open and telling the whole world my story and the problems I have faced is very brave but I was confident enough to take on this decision and it was the correct one, I’ve never had any doubt about this.

I want to be able to speak about my problems and educate not just mental health sufferers with wisdom and guidance and giving each individual hope and light at the end of the tunnel but also the people who dismiss us as “mad people”, they make these horrendous comments without even knowing anything about mental health and the problems we as sufferers go through each day.

I want to be a voice that’s heard and represent mental health sufferers and fight the stigma because if I didn’t do this then it would be the biggest regret of my life.

By being able to do this I can hopefully infect my fellow mental health sufferers and give them the confidence they used to have or have never had.

We are all just normal people who have unfortunately gone through a really tough period and then require professional help through possibly medication and support.

There are so many people suffering in the world through denial and the thought of being labelled different by the public is a frightening prospect, once again I speak from experience.

I’m passionate about this subject and I want to be heard and I want to fight for the cause, I live for this and it’s the reason I wake up every single day not just to help my fellow mental health sufferers but also to fight the stigma attached to mental health.

I will be heard and I will be effective with this, all you people out there who are not educated with mental health issues but are quick enough to judge, you will either “see the light” and change your views or you will be silenced by my words.

NEVER GIVE UP!!!

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My name is Liam Kennedy and I am 27 years of age, I have suffered with mental health problems for nearly 8 years.

I have had countless tests thrown at me and have come out on top on each occasion, I am battle hardened and I am now 19 months into a period of recovery were I have blossomed into an extremely POSITIVE man and I have made it my mission to help as many mental health sufferers as possible with my motivational writing, poetry and videos i make.

I love playing football, lifting weights, playing rugby and I love mixed martial arts, any exercise really as it helps me combat my depression and schizophrenia.

I am a member of 2 poetry groups and I have made a few short films with spoken word poetry.

I have my own feature in a couple of articles in the Everton in the Community and Blackburn creative support Social Inclusion newsletters.

My Motto in Life is NEVER GIVE UP!!!

Stigma Fighters: Katy N. Part 2 – Anniversary Story

I shared my story here before, about 7 months ago – back in May, but things have changed since then.

This is kind of an anniversary post, and a pretty substantial change from them. Today I am two years clean of any kind of self-harm.

I cannot say that I never want to anymore. The urge does still surface sometimes, but I have ways of dealing with it. I’ll turn on music or read a book or watch Netflix. Occasionally, I will pull out sharpies and draw on myself if it’s really bad. Fortunately that doesn’t happen too often now though.

I wish I could say that I’m doing better; however, that wouldn’t be the truth because I’ve fallen back into depression.

It took a while for me to admit that I couldn’t handle it on my own and go see my doctor. When I did, she put me on anti-depressants and told me to come back in a month. I went back and things hadn’t improved like we’d hoped, so the dosage was adjusted and I’m going back soon. I’m afraid that the medication still isn’t working.

Insomnia is becoming a huge issue for me. I’ll often spend hours tossing and turning in bed at night trying to fall asleep. If that was my only issue, then I’d be ok. But it’s not. I also wake up multiple times throughout the night. Sometimes I’ll be asleep again within five to ten minutes, and other times I’ll be awake for an hour or more. I can’t figure out what’s causing it, or how to resolve it. Hopefully a change in medication will make a difference.

I just do not feel like myself. And my sleep is absolutely horrible. I have trouble falling asleep, and then I wake up four and five times in a night. At first I’d be asleep again within fifteen minutes, but now it is almost an hour or more before I’m back asleep. All that does is make me want to stay in bed longer when it comes time to get up in the morning.

My emotions are all over the place. I try to stay calm about things like math homework, but I get so frustrated that I start crying. The material just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Then again, nothing makes much sense anymore. I want things to be simpler, easier, but that isn’t going to happen right now.

Honestly, I am kind of counting on medication to help me, because I don’t want to go to therapy again. I had a bad experience with my last therapist and I just do not really want to go back to another one. I know I probably should talk to one, but I just can’t make myself because of what’s happened before. It burned me.

I have not been as open with people about being on medication as I could be. Only a select few people know. It’s difficult because even though I’m a huge supporter of Stigma Fighters, I’m still extremely hesitant to be quite that vulnerably open about my emotional difficulties. I have this overwhelming fear that once I tell people about it, they will never see me the same and won’t trust me with things and our friendship will be forever changed because of what I said to them.

School has become more of a struggle recently. I know that I need to keep on top of my schoolwork, but it’s just been so difficult. I fell behind in most of my classes this past semester, and it was a challenge to catch up. There was so much I had to do to get everything done that it was a bit ridiculous. I know I should’ve told my doctor before I did, but I hate phone calls and by the time that I realized that things were really a problem it was nearly time for my next appointment so I figured there wasn’t much point. I just toughed it out and pushed forward.

Then I started wondering what would happen if I crashed into a tree or drifted into oncoming traffic when I was driving. That’s probably considered “suicidal tendencies” and I don’t want to be ‘labeled’ as suicidal, but I can’t seem to make the thoughts stop. Now, I would never act on these thoughts because the thought of actually crashing the car absolutely terrifies me. One way I can kind of appease these thoughts is to play a racing video game and crash that car into a wall. I can see the car damage and nothing has gotten hurt. It feels a little weird, but if it works then I’m not going to question it.

Knowing that I am not along in this battle, and having a reliable support system really does make a difference. Even if I do not reach out to the people I have, just knowing that they are there makes it a little easier to trudge through on my own.

I know I am a fighter, so I have not given up on this yet. Nor will I give up until I have this straightened out and maintained. Even if medication is something I was afraid of, I know that it is what I need to do in order to manage this depression.

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Katy is a college student studying American Sign Language Interpreting. She’s addicted to coffee and is always dreaming of more tattoos she wants to get. She’s the middle sibling of three. Blogging and journaling have becoming forms of self-therapy for her over the years. She would love to write her own book someday, but she’s not quite sure what to write about. You can find her online:

Blog: http://coffeetattoos.wordpress.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/coffeetattoos
Instagram: http://instagram.com/coffeetattoos

Stigma Fighters: Joy Interrupted

I was 35 the day everything changed. I had a happy marriage, two perfect little girls, an education and respectable career, good friends and a good church that I was plugged into. I was a glass-half-full kinda girl living a pretty darn good life.

And then the flood happened. Everything in my life now seems to be defined as pre-flood or post-flood. A relentless rain that last two days left the water with no where to go. So at 6 a.m. on March 18, 2008 the water started filling our house. We had to carry our little pajama-clad girls out through 3 feet of water in the front yard. My car floated away. The news showed up. Our house was even on the Weather Channel.

When we arrived at my inlaw’s house later that day I realized I had lost all my shoes. The shoe thing maybe doesn’t sound like a panic-worthy event. Until you realize you don’t have even one pair of shoes to wear to Walmart so you can buy a pair of shoes.

But this story isn’t actually about the shoes. It’s about the panic attack. My mother-in-law and I were at Walmart replacing some necessities and stocking up on enough groceries to feed my crew at her house (our new temporary residence). Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I dropped to the floor right there in the shampoo aisle. I would have cried if I had enough oxygen. But I didn’t, so I just sort of hyperventilated and panicked until I thought I could get up again. Incidentally, no one around me asked if I was ok or if I needed anything. Maybe shoeless women hyperventilating on the floor at Walmart is just an every day thing?

That was my first, but certainly not last, panic attack. They became a regular thing. My PCP put me on Xanax. I took it like candy for over a year. What that God-awful Xanax did to me is a subject for another story (but I don’t recommend it for long-term use.)

As my family and I spent the next couple of years putting the pieces of our lives back together, depression joined my ever-present anxiety. The flood wasn’t really the traumatic part of the whole ordeal. It was the aftermath. Replacing possessions, finding a new place to live, fighting with FEMA for help since we now had a rent payment and a mortgage on a ruined house to carry. We were looking at foreclosure, bankruptcy, rebuilding the old house and taking our chances during the next torrential rain.

In the two years it took to sort it all out, there was a lot of tension as we didn’t always agree on the next step forward. We also had an unexpected pregnancy that ended in miscarriage at 11 weeks. My grandmother died. And a dark family secret involving the childhood sexual abuse of myself and my aunt finally came to light (her father; my grandfather), ripping the scab on a deep wound that had never received care. At this stage the anxiety and depression often manifested as rage, and I became a very difficult person to live with. The chronic stress of those two years had changed me in so many ways. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time in therapy and tried dozens of med combos to try to get stabilized.

The good news is that with help from a pretty great therapist and psychiatrist, along with an incredibly supportive family, I got better. The panic attacks went away, the depression dissipated, and my husband and I were much happier. We even decided to have another baby. I was in “remission” (do anxiety and depression have remission?) for a couple of years.

The depression made a very ugly comeback last spring. I was in despair, completely hopeless. I went so far as to get in my car and drive away with the intention of never coming back. I chickened out and came back home, but I refused to leave the house. Wouldn’t go to work, church, social activities that I once enjoyed. And i cried, oh how i cried at every ridiculous little thing. I just completely shut down. After eight weeks of FMLA, twice-weekly therapy sessions and more medication adjustments, I eventually got back on track. Things were “normal” for six months (Although I continued my weekly therapy sessions and probably always will).

But as I write this I have hit a new low. This time it was the anxiety that came roaring back. It’s been bad. Like psych-ward bad (you’ll have to read the blog for that story). I’m out of FMLA at work. I have to go back in a few days. I’m terrified. And I’m certain my coworkers have had enough of this. I’m sure they wonder why I can’t just get my act together. I wouldn’t be afraid of that if I’d had a hysterectomy or cancer treatments. But this stigma of mental illness follows us and makes it that much harder to integrate successfully into society. I want to work to change that, and that’s why I agreed to write this post.

Though I’m not in a very healthy place now, I will work hard to get there … again. And again. And again. Whatever it takes. Because I’m still me — the me from my opening paragraph. Just older and wiser and with a chronic illness I’ll always have to battle.

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Joy Interrupted lives in the Midwest with her husband and three children. She works as a writer and editor. The “flood house” was eventually demolished and they were blessed with a beautiful new home two years later.  Read more of her story on her blog; www.seekingjoyagain.com 

Stigma Fighters: Ashley Fuchs

I was eight years old when I realized that something was wrong with me. Things that came so easily to other people (raising my hand in class, climbing stairs, brushing hair, running) were suddenly the hardest part of my day. “Doesn’t this hurt you?” I would say to my friends, as we stood at the bottom of the staircase, their faces impatiently waiting for me to continue on. “No…” they would say, looking at me like I was nuts. And that’s when I first felt it: the beginning of a 30 year journey into feeling “crazy” for being in pain.

I don’t remember it all. My brain has thankfully blocked out a lot of it. But I have snapshots. As my symptoms worsened, and my mother started bringing me to appointments, the test results would all come back “normal.” Each one represented another misfire. Some of them were quite painful. I remember being put through a pulmonary function test, where I had to breathe as hard as I could through a tube. The test barely registered. My mother and the nurse yelled at me, calling me a stubborn teenager (Note: 25 years later, it was discovered that 10 out of 12 ribs were out of place, and all of my intercostal muscles were stuck together. I have probably never taken a deep breath, and I have never forgotten the sting of that injustice.) By the time I was 18, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Good, I thought. Something explains me. The very next specialist I saw scoffed at this label: “Fibromyalgia is a ‘wastebasket’ diagnosis. If you want to be taken seriously, I would not advertise this to anyone.” WTF? (please note, this was 1992. We have come a long way in our understanding of FM, and I am not here to debate its merit.)

The word psychosomatic reared its ugly head around this time. Not only was I in pain all of the time, but now I was causing it with my own brain. The better practitioners tried to spin it in a more positive way: “It’s not that this is a bad thing,” they would reassure me. “It’s just that the source of your pain is not necessarily physical. And therefore an effective solution needs to address the mental nature of the problem.” Okay…

In spite of this rocky start, I chose to embrace my diagnosis, even though it never really fit. Nothing about my diagnosis told me what was wrong with me. In my gut I knew there was something. For the next 20 years, I went to therapists, psychologists, acupuncturists, specialists, chiropractors – you name it, I tried it. I ate clean, exercised, did Yoga, got more sleep, meditated. In short: I embraced the notion that everyone had been pounding into my head for years: my pain was my responsibility to fix with a better Lifestyle. And for a while, I actually got away with it. I felt healthy and strong, and I didn’t choose to label myself as “chronically ill.” I got married, finished Nursing school (barely. I almost failed out, had to take a year off, and had to go back a second time.) I tried to ignore the mounting diagnoses that I was accumulating in other systems of my body, and then had two beautiful babies…

I am holding the hand of my eight year old daughter. We are on a family trip, and we have just come out of the subway. We stand at the bottom of the stairwell. “Mama?” She looks up frowning. “Yes, babe?”

“It hurts when I go up stairs.”

Sadly, with this magical sentence, my daughter unlocked a 30 year mystery. Over the next two years, both of my children and I would be diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder caused by a lack of collagen which causes, among many things, hypermobility of the ligaments and tendons, system-wide pain and problems, and explained everything about what had been wrong with me my entire Life.

I was right. It was something (cue the music, do the end zone dance.)

So, what now? How do I process years of feeling isolated and alone. Feeling like the crazy whiner who elicited eyeball rolls wherever she went? When do I get my payback? The big apology? My moment under the sun where everyone in my family says: “You were totally right, and we were wrong, and we weren’t there for you like we should have been.”

I don’t. And I’ve stopped expecting it.

My family did the best they could with what they knew. We are all doing the best we can, every day. I am exactly who I am today, because of exactly how I was raised. If I was raised differently, I would be different. And I love myself. My success in my Life has always come, because I have chosen to see obstacles as an opportunity for growth. And now as a parent, I realize we can teach our kids to face obstacles, or we can be the obstacle: they will learn either way. If I had to choose between them toughening me up or enabling me to feel like a victim to my circumstances, I would choose tough any day of the week. Of course, I would have liked more understanding throughout my childhood. My physical health is the way it is today, because I am a product of years of damage and ignorance. But my mental health is strong because I believed in myself and my gut instinct, even when all of the people and evidence surrounding me said otherwise. I never lost faith or hope that I would find my answer.

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Ashley is a hyper-flexible mother of two bouncing (literally) kids. A lack of collagen has left them the world’s worst super heroes (but don’t tell them that). She writes about the wacky things that their syndrome has taught her family, and tries to keep everyone chuckling. You can read more at The Incredible Adventures of Malleable Mom.