When I Learned Addiction Does Not Discriminate

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It’s about 7 a.m. on Friday, February 26, 2016. I haven’t shed tears over him in a really long time; until today. It’s sad not because a high school relationship didn’t work out — plenty of those are over before they began.

It’s sad because addiction doesn’t discriminate.

Mental health issues are stigmatized. Warning signs fall through the cracks. It’s hard to help in the right way when you don’t fully understand. It’s hard to help when you’re a kid yourself. Addiction can change people. It can make them do things they would never even think of doing normally — make them say things that are ugly, hurtful and completely untrue. At times and for a very long time, it seemed I was the only one who truly knew and understood Stephen’s struggles, insecurities, dreams and eventually demons.

He was captain of the high school soccer team. Popular. Well-liked. Fairly good grades. Eventually a college soccer player. From the outside looking in, he had it all. On the inside he was fighting a constant battle of self-acceptance that eventually manifested itself in a heroin addiction.

A year or so into our relationship, his behavior was off. Our relationship wasn’t what it once was. He was angry, irritable and his moods were constantly up and down. Sitting in his car one day, I begged him to tell me what was wrong; to tell me what had changed. He broke down in tears and confessed he had made a mistake. He tried something with his “friends” and he was trying to stop. He was withdrawing from heroin.

This has been something I chose to not fully address for years. I’m not sure if it’s because it was too painful, taboo, too much hurt had happened to both of our families or because I thought maybe I was “over it,” that I moved on, I was stronger, I overcame. I think I hadn’t fully processed what happened until today. Until I read a post that his younger cousin wrote today, on the 6th anniversary of his passing. Truth is, I haven’t been to a wake or funeral since. Not when a good friend from college took his own life, not when my step-grandfather passed, not when close family friends passed from muscular dystrophy related complications. I’ve avoided dealing with death ever since; I’ve ignored it. I’ve only let myself be upset for a day or two over loss of life. I haven’t allowed myself to drag out the mourning process ever since.

When he passed, I don’t think I ate for two weeks. I was in my second semester of sophomore year in college. Luckily, the people who cared about me weren’t going to let me dwell in my sadness in my dorm room. Our romantic relationship was long over as I had decided to cut ties a few years prior. Constantly worrying about someone else’s drug use, safety and erratic mood shifts was far too much for me to handle as a teenager. I didn’t know enough, I was so young and that cross was far too heavy to bear. I tried to help him for years. My family tried to help him for years. That fight was taking my life away.

Now, I see posts from the people he used to hang around with. His best friends and teammates that he drifted away from as the drugs took over. The “friends” that he used with that seem to be living normal lives now (except for the ones who also fatally overdosed). I’m not sure if they’re clean, sober or still using. Some of them were my friends too before they used drugs.

I spoke to him just two or three weeks before he had passed. An out of the blue, very unexpected phone call came from him. He had recently gotten out a rehab. He was off the drugs. He was so proud of himself. He felt good. He was gaining the weight heroin had taken away. He wanted me to be proud of him; he said I would be proud of him and he wanted me to see that he was turning his life around. He was letting me know that my efforts to help him in the past weren’t useless and that he was going to finally be OK. He wanted a friend to congratulate him.

He wanted me to know he was sorry for the things he had done and for the pain he had caused for everyone that loved him. He kept me updated on his progress after that. Suddenly, the updates were less often and eventually he stopped updating me. I figured that he was using again. I wasn’t allowing myself to be emotionally invested at this point; so I didn’t think much of it. Within two weeks of no contact, a mutual friend had asked me if I had heard what happened to him. I said, “No, what happened?” He had overdosed and this time he was gone forever.

I’m sharing this to shine light on addiction and mental illness. To demonstrate that bad things can happen to good people. I used to think addiction was a choice. That he chose to do drugs and continue doing drugs. That he chose to cause hurt. I’ve never used heroin. I never had the slightest urge or interest. I hated the thought of it. I’ve never been addicted to anything; I couldn’t fully understand and I’ll never be able to say I know how an addict feels. I had immense trouble accepting that addiction is a disease; but it is a disease. It doesn’t discriminate. Yes, it was most likely a choice to try a drug in the first place. A choice and a mistake. When someone is fighting an inner battle, sometimes the clearest solutions are clouded. Their judgement is clouded. They make a decision they wouldn’t typically make. They fall into the wrong crowd to feel cool, accepted or to have some fun. They decide on the most convenient and readily available escape.

If you’re reading this, I want you to do some simple things. 
Talk to your kids.
Talk to your friends and family. Ask them if they’re OK. If you’re causing someone you love hurt; try your absolute hardest to make a positive change in that relationship. Don’t let the people you love feel alone.

As human beings we can only do so much, but the least we can do is try to help someone before it is too late or before their story begins to veer down the wrong path. You can’t save everyone, but some people can be saved. Some people can change.

I have two very close people in my life that made a change; made the change. One specifically, who I called and still call my best friend. Someone that came into my life by a series of random chances as she became my roommate and best bud. Different drugs; same demon.

I learned that addiction is not a death sentence. Some people change. I loved someone with all of my heart and we lost him to his addiction. I loved my college best friend as if she was my sister and by some miracle I can still barely grasp, that love saved her. Her will to live a better life saved her. Her determination during her recovery saved her. Someone with an addiction has to find that desire to change. If you love someone with an addiction, show your love and support, and unfortunately — sometimes tough love, very tough love. In many cases, you may even have to walk away, which we all know is much easier said than done. Some people succumb to their demons, but not all people who struggle with addiction will lose their battle. Love can win. Family can win. Friendship can win. Life can win.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, there are people and places that can help. You can call the Addiction Treatment Helpline at 888-987-8875.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Pulse.

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Living With Depression in the 'Happiest Place on Earth'

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A close up of Natalie's name tag, and a ribbon that means "earning my ears"
Natalie’s name tag.

I’ve officially “earned my ears” at Disney. That means I no longer have a red ribbon on my name tag that reads “earning my ears.” The training wheels are off. I feel much more at peace now that I’m working and know for at least 30 hours a week, I’ll be occupied and helping people.

As I have met new people, I’ve brought up my affinity for Sadness from “Inside Out.” It sounds odd… maybe it is, but since I work at Disney it isn’t that unusual to discuss favorite Disney characters, restaurants, parks and memories with coworkers. I also have a Sadness phone case so she was bound to come into my conversations at some point. What I’ve gotten from a lot of my coworkers, and what I really get from people in general, is that I am a mixture of two character/emotions: Joy and Sadness. Do I agree, yes. But it’s complicated. And Sadness is my soul sister.

The late Robin Williams once said: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” I could not agree more. I know all too well what it’s like to feel alone in a world filled with billions of people. I know what it is like to be stuck inside my own head. I know what it’s like to feel unimportant. I know what it’s like to wallow in sadness.

So, I try to be that shoulder for people to cry on or the person to bring a smile to someone’s face. I send cards because I want people to check their mailbox, read my card and smile for a minute or two. I want to help bring a smile to people’s faces.

Why did I write a note that said: “Hello! Have a beautiful day!” and leave it on the computer screen at the end of my shift? Because I want the cast member that begins working at 6 a.m. to see it, smile and maybe start the day in a slightly better mood than before he saw the note. To me, it really is the little things that mean the most. While I was writing these notes someone said to me: “You really are the antithesis of Sadness. I love the dichotomy.” I seem to be the opposite of Sadness. I convey a personality of happiness and joy. I know I do. I don’t need people to tell me I do. And sometimes I truly feel those emotions, but most of the time I’m just floating along on the waves of emotions. I get caught in my head and worry about unnecessary things and those are moments I want other people to avoid. Therefore, I try to be happy so that other people feel happy, too.

I know that bad things happen. I know that mental illness, cancer, lost pets, natural disasters, delayed flights, car accidents, divorces and misplaced car keys are real. I try to accept these things instead of getting mad or ignoring them. We have to accept things before we can heal.

Now, I will say that there is one part of “Inside Out” where I identify with Sadness and Joy equally and that’s when the two first find themselves in longterm memory. Sadness plops onto the floor and says: “I’m too sad to walk” so Joy grabs Sadness’ foot and drags her around. Like Joy, there are days I’m the one helping a friend through a hard time. But, there are also days when I simply don’t have the energy to do much more than brush my teeth, eat some snacks and lay in bed on my phone. There have also been a couple times where I have been crying too much that I couldn’t walk to my destination without the help of friends.

So, if you think I am actually more Joy than Sadness, think again. I’m joyous so others don’t ever feel as sad as I have felt.

Natalie meeting Sadness from "Inside Out"
Natalie meeting Sadness from “Inside Out”
Natalie meets Sadness from Inside Out
Natalie meeting Sadness from “Inside Out”

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a scene or line from a movie that’s stuck with you through your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Cause of Death Is Never Simply 'Suicide'

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I’ve been on this journey of mental health self-awareness for about 18 months now. In that time, I’ve learned a great deal about myself and the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with. I’ve been a little slow to learn about things like my disease and suicide, however.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew the numbers and statistics. I know where to find the depressing data on youth and veteran suicides.

But my most recent epiphany? Nobody commits suicide. We may die by our own hands, but we do not kill ourselves. Something pushes us to do it. If a cancer patient denies treatment, their cause of death is not listed as self-inflicted. It’s listed as cancer. It is no different with mental illness or bullying.

I have friends who have attempted to end their lives. I stand by the assertion it wasn’t a desire to end life that drove them to it. It was their disease, the voices in their head that pushed them to end their suffering, to see no other way out.

“He committed suicide” creates the false narrative that the victim was actively engaged in the decision. Often, the reality is the complete opposite. We are barely engaged in life, let alone our actions and behaviors. Trapped in the prison of our minds, the disease that locks us away takes over many of our day-to-day operations.

Imagine going through every day expending all of your effort to appear functional and coherent during shallow exercises. Business meetings, water cooler talk with coworkers and customers, grocery shopping and the morning commute are all things we manage in a barely conscious state. We have become actors portraying a life while not actively living it.

None of those scenarios require feelings or true engagement. Fast forward a few hours to family time and we may seem coarse, disengaged, angry or distant. We’ve simply no energy left to maintain a facade that requires us to behave in a deeper and more meaningful way. Breaking out of our minds prison, even for those you love, isn’t an option. The disease does the talking and acting for us.

What about the kids, bullied for weeks, months or years on end? Do we blame them for having a hand in their own deaths? We shouldn’t. The failure wasn’t on them for not being strong enough to stand up against a daily torture.

Sitting here, drinking my tea and watching through the window at the birds coming and going from the new feeder on my deck, I am unable to think of an instance where the blame of suicide should fall to the victim.

No, suicide does not exist in my mind, and I will do my best to end the use of the term and how we use it. In an era when we are working to end victim blaming, it’s time to stop it in these instances as well. We can do better than we have, and I will take a stand, finally, for what I believe.

None of us exist in a bubble that keeps us from interacting with the outside world. Everything we do is the result of an interaction of factors, and assigning a death as simply a “suicide” implies a blame that doesn’t belong. We need to start talking about what really caused the death — it wasn’t me who wanted to pull the trigger that night a few years ago, it was the voice in my head created by my depression.

Until we find a way to reach out to more people and show them that ending one’s own life isn’t the selfish choice of a healthy mind, we’ll never make any headway. We need  a call to action, a group of us to stand up and say, “No more.”

Where does that leave us now? We live in a time unlike any other in history. Technology has us advancing as a species quickly and unpredictably. With that, words become common vernacular quickly while others fade into memory. If a few of us stand up and speak out, we can change the conversation. We can, over time, stop the use of a word that often means the opposite of what it intends, and reframe the conversation so it is clear that those who are victim to mental illness or bullying are not to blame. 

I will fight until the cause of death is never just “suicide,” and we look further.

Follow this journey at Shawn Henfling.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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When Depression and Anxiety Are Like a Highlight Reel of Your Worst Moments

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Living with depression and anxiety is hard. I hear a lot of people who tell me and others just get over it. If it were that simple, I would have been cured a long time ago. I know some people think they’re helping by trying to motivate or drive those suffering, but I want to take a moment to describe what it’s really like.

Randomly during the day you have the crushing weight of all your failures hit you all at once. It’s like having a personal highlight reel of your worst moments set up in a compilation video playing through your brain over and over. Because of my great memory, my flaws and failures are branded and seared into my brain for me to remember. I still remember the time when I was 7 and I burnt my thumb on a hot iron right after my mother told me not to touch it. I was so scared I would be in trouble, I hid my pain and went to my friend’s house. Soon upon arrival my friend’s mother noticed my tears of pain and looked at my thumb. She was surprised my mother would send me down there without doing something about my thumb. She called my mother. It was no surprised that I was promptly sent home to both be healed and to be in trouble.

I tell this story because I’m still embarrassed about trying to hid it. I still have it in the back of my mind. I still remember the pain of my thumb on fire. It pops in my head about every other week to remind me of how I have failed. I live with that memory and every other mistake and failure I have done in my life. I wish I could stop those memories from drowning me and some days I do great.

Other days not so much.

And it’s not just your mistakes.

When something goes wrong with someone else, you react two ways. You question if you messed something up, even if you had nothing to do with it. You cannot stop wondering if you could have done something to help. The second way you react is you overreact by being overly sorry for what happened, even if you had nothing to with what happened. You try to comfort and help that person in such a way that you end up doing too much.

It makes for a hard time trying to deal with other people’s failures while your own failures play constantly in your mind.

It also makes you paranoid. You question everyone’s jokes and teasing. You’re observing everything and analyzing it. You wonder how much is true and what is a joke. You live in constant fear of what you say and how it could be taken wrong.

And this makes you tired.

You carry the weight of that around with you. The reason it’s hard to get out of bed for a person with depression is two-fold. First, you’re tired from carrying yours and everyone else’s burdens (even if they didn’t ask for it). Second, you know the only relief is sleep. Sleep because it is when you finally get a break.

It is hard to be depressed. It is hard living with anxiety.

I saw a post on social media that inspired this post and I want to share it now.

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Fear. You live in constant fear.

“What if?”

The next time you see a person with depression or know someone who is depressed, take two seconds and think on these things. It could save a life.

#hugapony my friends.

Follow this journey on My Stuffed Little Therapy.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What Happens When We Hide Our Anxiety

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Anxiety. At some stage in your life you will face it. A first date, a public speech or the first day at your new job. For the lucky ones, you’ll get nervous, do whatever it is that is making you nervous and then go back to your usual self. And that makes me incredibly envious.

For the unlucky ones like me, anxiety controls us. It manipulates our thoughts and pushes us further and further into solitude, until it’s hard to see the light.

You feel weak because you can’t do something that others think is a piece of cake. You begin to feel like a burden to everyone, friends, family and partners.

Your keep bailing on plans with friends because of your anxiety (I did this constantly) and they begin to pull away and stop asking. For some reason this makes you happy — briefly, but it does. You don’t have to panic about doing something wrong or embarrassing yourself, and that gives you relief — but believe me, it’s only temporary.

The stigma around having a mental health issue causes a lot of people to hide it. We mask our pain and are very good at doing so, that’s why a lot of the time when you find out someone has anxiety or depression it comes as a surprise.

I hid my problems from everyone. My parents were the only ones who knew, and I’m lucky they were so supportive. All throughout high school I never told any of my friends, and they never asked. There were times when I considered telling some of my close friends but I thought they would never understand. They never seemed to be going through any of these problems themselves, so I went through high school pretending. Hiding until it would be over.

Suicide is something a lot of people with mental health problems have contemplated. Dying seems easy when you’re in that mindset, and living seems hard. Sometimes we think the easiest solution is to make it all end. Permanently. If I didn’t have such a beautiful family supporting me, I could easily see myself going down that same path many others unfortunately have. Just trying to survive was difficult, but my support system helped me realize something that ended up helping me the most:

The more you hide your disease the more the disease wins.

You didn’t ask for it and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, but it’s there. It’s going to be there for a while and that really sucks. I know this because I have both anxiety and depression disorders. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked “Why me? Did I do something wrong? Is this karma?” I can’t tell you why it happens to the people it does. But we, the ones that survive, you won’t find anyone tougher.

We are all unique human beings. Not one the exact same as another. Our joys are different, our happiness differs from others and our grief takes different forms, just as our anxieties and fears are different from one another.

So if I can end this post with one thing it’s just to remember that. Don’t judge people based on their anxieties. Help them, support them, and you will get to know the person they are without fear.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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We Need to Start Talking About Suicide Without Shame

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Suicide. A single word, which invokes fear, shame, misunderstanding, anger, confusion and a stigma equaling the weight of the Titanic. It will make those you think are your closest allies go running so fast, it’s as if they are being chased by the burning flames of a rapidly spreading bush fire. The word is associated with selfishness, with weakness and with a lack of willpower. The reactions to the word run the gamut from “that’s ridiculous, who thinks about that” and “what is so wrong in your life,” to “how self-centered you are” and finally “I can’t deal with this.”

Suicide. The action generates feelings of grief, terror and trauma. It carries the misconception of irrationality, instability and egocentrism. It will cause your relations to judge you, hate you, love you and mourn you. It will leave them with questions that will remain unanswered for perpetuity, for the only true motivation for your action perished when your life flame extinguished.

What makes this word materialize from an assemblage of letters, to a culmination of ideations, to an objective, to a precise action of irreversible finality? Stigma. The topic of suicide is still taboo, disapproved and in some places, forbidden. One may be strong enough to disclose their diagnosed mental illnesses — borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, bipolar, just to name a few — however, when one reaches the absolute darkness of self-extermination, it is as if their tongues have been cut out, eliminating the capacity to  even verbalize the word. The fear in sharing the darkness of the ideas and emotions that run through the self-destructive mind is so immeasurable, that letting go of the rope that has kept you from falling seems effortless. The angst of judgment, the trepidation of rejection and the fear of hospitalization often making the ability to ask for help an insurmountable chore.

The stigmatization of the word itself has to end, in order to see any reduction in the number of actual actions. Very few wake up one morning and spontaneously choose to end their lives. Suicide is the complete and utter loss of hope, strength and desire to exist. The survivors you leave behind questioning why you left them, why you did not reach out for help or speak the words “I’m feeling suicidal,” yet the answers, for you, come as easily as flicking on a light switch. Fear and stigma. No one climbs a ladder from the first step to the top without the rungs in between. The same could be said for suicide. It starts at the bottom and slowly creeps up until it not only reaches the top; it jumps off and drags you with it.

What if the thoughts of suicide could be as openly discussed and accepted as the myriad of mental illnesses? What if someone could safely and honestly express those ideas and emotions with no fear of condemnation or repercussions, while still on the ladder’s lower rungs? Would it help decline the speed of the ascent or perhaps eliminate the need to reach the peril that lies atop at all. Could becoming educated, understanding and less judgmental of one single word effectively make a difference in a single life, or even in societal views? Is it possibly as straightforward and uncomplicated as that?

As a suicide survivor, I will answer the above questions from my perspective. Yes, it can be as simple as that. In some instances, the people on the top rung will jump off before you even notice they started to climb. Their ascent so rapid it leaves not even an indication of a footprint. They are silent, focused and prepared, their actions usually a success. The others climb at a slower pace, leaving behind traces of their emotions and intentions while screaming ever so quietly for help. They wish for someone to hear them and provide a sanctuary for that one deadly word. These are the people that could be helped if we reduced the outside noise in our lives and took a moment to focus on the silence. Listen carefully. Pay close attention as the cries for help are there, and truly hearing and finding them could not only be a preventative measure but actually save a life.

So if you are at the top and at risk of immediate of danger, hospitalization or intervention is a must. If you are at the bottom and feel yourself gradually and uncontrollably making that ascent, stop. Reach out. Scream it, shout it and write it. Express it without shame or fear of repercussions from the ignorant. Know that someone, somewhere is not only listening, but hears you. Know that as much as you feel it, you are never alone. Know that by reaching out, your voice can start a momentum so powerful it instills the same fearlessness in the masses.

Destigmatizing begins with you, right here, right now. After all, it is only a word.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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