A surfer standing on his surfboard riding and ocean wave silhouetted by the light behind him.

Learning to Surf the Waves of Mental Illness

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I am autistic. While being on the spectrum comes with many challenges, my different way of thinking and being in our world has played a key part in my many successes. With a diagnosis came answers and an identity, which brought a sense of belonging, within which I have found friendship.

Mental illness is different. The challenges are many, the strengths and advantages are few. For me, there is no sense of pride in identity, and the self-stigma is huge. Anxiety has been a lifelong challenge, but more recently the appearance of “stupid,” the voice of a restrictive eating disorder, or anorexia, has plunged me into the experience of living with mental illness.

In the last couple of days I came across a quote on Facebook: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” I love the ocean and I think for this reason I drew meaning and strength from this quote. I described my analogy to a very special friend, who asked, “How did you get out there?” I’m not too sure yet of the answer, but this is my story.

For some time I had been paddling at the water’s edge and into the shallows. Friends, and people who care for me, came to the beach, calling me back when I had gone a little deep, but I was OK. I was in my depth. I was coping. Occasionally the wave that came was a little bigger. I wobbled, but regained my balance and carried on. I was OK with being there and told them I was fine. They would check on me occasionally but had no reason to be concerned.

Then, there was a much bigger wave. I fell and went under. I couldn’t breath. I came up and called out for help and they tried, but the current pulled me out into the ocean, far from shore.

Out there it was calm, it was still and for some time I floated, looking back. I was OK. I felt safe.

After a little while though, I realized I needed to get back to the beach, but I didn’t know how. I called out and asked for help. They answered, but I couldn’t hear what they said. I tried so hard to listen, but was too far out. The sea was no longer calm, the waves were small at first, but I no longer felt safe. I needed help, but I couldn’t reach it. A big wave pushed me under again. I came up beside a plank of wood. From the beach they told me to hold it. I wasn’t sure at first, but I trusted them, and was able to rest just a little.

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I wanted to get back to the beach but was tired, and put my head down. The waves continued, they weren’t big, but the calm was over. Though unsafe, each one pushed me just a little closer, and as they did the voices from the beach grew louder.

Now, I can hear them more clearly, but as I near shore the waves are bigger. They try to push me under, and the current tries to pull me back out. Sometimes the noise of the waves drowns out the voices, but they call out again, a little louder, until I hear. They are teaching me to surf — to ride the waves — and I know now how to make it to the beach.

There are more people there, encouraging and believing that I can do it. I’m exhausted but I’ll make it, and I know that when I reach the sand they will help me up.

I’m drawn to the ocean, and I’ll walk on the beach again, but if I go into the water, even just paddling in the shallows, I’ll call out for someone to come with me and hold my hand. And just in case, I’ll learn how to surf. If I do fall I’ll know how to make it back, and if I see someone else struggling, then maybe I’ll be able to help them.

To the people who have “come to the beach” and to Nicky particularly, who was there when I fell, has called out to others and hasn’t left, thank you. I will walk with you on the sand soon.

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. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Disquiet Disguises I Wear During an Anxiety Attack

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Having anxiety isn’t something to be ashamed of, but one doesn’t necessarily want people to witness an attack first hand. Sure, it’s important to talk about and inform people regarding the challenges, frustrations and solutions associated with it, but that is far different than having a panic attack in front of a group of strangers or even friends who may not know how to act or help with the situation other than to stare, thus, making things worse. 

Personally, I think letting people see my anxiety only makes me focus on the panic more while I’m trying to work away from it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who puts on a face to negate the attention of those surrounding when anxiety decides to suddenly place a firm grip on the mind. These disquiet disguises or masks for my anxiety are something I use to work through a situation as gracefully as possible without anyone noticing that behind my eyes, some serious stuff is going on. While I’m sure there are better answers for how to deal with anxiety attacks in public this is just one of the ways I found helpful in dealing with mine.

The Cool Disguise

This is probably my most used disguise because I found if I appear calm and collected my brain sometimes eventually follows suit. It’s a face of casual disinterest. I nod and smile and appear to be listening to the person speaking to me while inside my head I’m saying, “OK. Calm down and breathe. Perhaps we can order a glass of water. Everything is cool.” Sometimes everything is cool, and sometimes it isn’t, but the people around me won’t know the difference.

There is only one time this didn’t work for me, and it was when I was on a date with the man who later became my husband. I’ll never forget him sitting next to me and suddenly asking out of the blue if I was all right. I gave him a small smile and insisted everything was fine. Something in my eyes told him all was not well, and he called me out saying, “You’re having a panic attack aren’t you?” I don’t know how he cracked the code, but I guess this has something to do with why he’s the guy I’m married to.

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The “I’m having a fantastic time” Disguise

To everyone around me, I’m just another girl having an amazing time. Big smiles, laughing and shaking my head while inside I’m thinking “get me off this ride.” I liken it to getting a tattoo done. You’re smiling because “you’re really doing it!” but it doesn’t feel good, at all. The energy behind this face definitely assists in my focusing on what’s in front of me and less on what is going on inside, but really it’s just a disguise in hopes the feelings of panic pass without anyone ever knowing they were there. No one is really paying attention to me enough to know anything is wrong. I’m just another smiling face, and I feel safer knowing that.

The Phone(y) Disguise

When there isn’t a heck of a lot of energy on hand the old standby of seeming engrossed in the phone is another mask helpful in hiding episodes. This is when the anxiety has gotten to a point where I really don’t want to talk to anyone around me, yet I don’t really have the ability to up and leave. Perhaps there are too many people to say goodbye to or perhaps I know there is going to be that one person who gives the third degree about the early exit, but whatever the case, there is something important going on via text or email so please don’t bother me until I’m done addressing it. Sure, it seems rude, but I find people are reluctant to snoop and interrupt this phone play by asking who I’m conversing with or what I’m reading. In reality, I’m probably not reading. I’m probably scrolling through old photos or writing a grocery list in an effort to divert my anxious attention elsewhere.

The Exit Strategy Disguise

When all other disguises fail, I am just not feeling the surroundings and the room is starting to close in, it is sometimes necessary to remove myself from the situation.  I’m either tired with a busy day in the morning or I have a zillion things I need to do that I’ve ignored all day long and can’t possibly wait another minute. I need to grocery shop, vacuum my house, feed the cats, finish drying my laundry, etc. If I know I can get in my car and get home fast, this is the best way of doing it. Thankfully this only happened to me a handful
of times, and I’ve otherwise been able to wait things out until the feelings
subside.

I’m sure there are many others out there who use similar systems to help break through public situations. There are probably a whole slew of disguises I’ve seen but never recognized before. Having anxiety is tough, and for me, having someone in my face asking if I’m OK and staring with that look of “I have no idea what to do right now” has not proved helpful. Perhaps for others it’s different and the support of another person, even one unsure of how to help, is comforting. People mean well. I’ll admit dealing with a friend having a panic attack isn’t a simple thing to witness or to help with. I’ve been on both sides of the field, and there is no definitive easy way of working through it.

We can only do our best, and if that means hiding for a little bit behind a façade then so be it. This doesn’t mean I don’t share the experience with my friends after the moment has passed; it only means I needed a brief period to collect myself. The best thing to focus on is the episode will most certainly pass, taking the disguise along with it.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Coin a term to describe a symptom, characteristic, aspect, etc., of your diagnosis. Then, explain what that experience feels like for you. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When Falling Apart While My Son Was Sick Changed My Definition of Brave

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I used to think I knew what being brave was. I even used to naively and arrogantly think I was already brave. To me, bravery was all about grit and determination, taking on a challenge yourself without a safety net. It was about charging full steam ahead into the abyss of the great unknown with a ferocity nobody could deny. It was about pushing that fear down deeper, swallowing it whole and throwing another helping onto your plate unflinchingly. But that was before.

Be brave. Be brave. Be brave. I whispered it to myself as I quickly walked down the long white hallway. Be brave. Be brave. Be brave. I swallowed hard, stuffing the rising fear and hysteria down further. The nurse stopped at a door and motioned to my husband and me that this was the one. I took a deep breath and swung the door open and felt all my notions of bravery on the verge of being thrown up. There lay my 1-year-old son Emmett. He had been in surgery for seven hours and 26 minutes having his entire skull broken apart, removed and reassembled correctly in order to give his brain enough room to grow. There were wires, tubes and lines everywhere. His entire head was wrapped in a massive amount of white gauze but nothing could hide the deep red blood soaking through the back of it. His broken skull. Bleeding through everything, staining the sterile white pillowcase. I stood over his bedside and wept into his chest. My sweet, fragile, helpless little baby boy all torn apart in the middle of the ICU. I stood still. Time itself stood still.

Kathy looking at her son, who lays in a hospital bed. His head is covered with gauze.
Kathy and her son.
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To watch your child suffer so greatly, it does things to you. That was only the beginning and the very first surgery. There would be more. There would be hours upon hours spent watching my child suffer. There would be seizures, tests, scans, hospitalizations, ambulance rides, additional surgeries, medications,and therapies. Round and round we would go on this out of control ride we so desperately wanted off of.

And all along, I knew. I wasn’t brave no matter what people thought. I was still scared. I was just pretending. My first true admission of defeat set everything in motion. I had insomnia. I was having panic attacks. I was losing myself. I was falling apart so noticeably, I couldn’t ignore it any longer, so I went to see a therapist. Here I was this wild eyed woman with unbrushed hair, deep, dark circles under her eyes, nervously bouncing my leg up and down with tears streaming down my face and he called me brave. The therapist told me he could see how hard it was for me to ask for help and admit defeat. He thought I was brave. Me. Brave. The woman on the floor next to her son’s crib each night, not sleeping. The woman who throws vases, pictures, remotes and keys at the walls and breaks them in fits of sheer desperation and anger at these circumstances I can’t change. The woman who left her phone in the fridge, threw the clean clothes in the trash can and can’t remember what month it is no matter how many times someone tells me. He thought I was brave because I told the truth and because I asked for help. I pondered it for weeks. That sure wasn’t what I had thought bravery was. This was the opposite, I felt weak and like a failure for needing to be in this office in the first place. But he was a licensed professional, who was I to disagree?

Slowly, with the therapist’s encouragements, I began to take the walls down. To tell the truth more and more often, even when it was scary and unflattering. Even when I was worried people would judge me or laugh at me. And something amazing happened. The more I told the truth, the braver I began to feel. I was facing a completely different kind of fear head on and I felt stronger for it.

I still can’t say for sure if I’m actually brave. Sometimes, I’m so sure of my place in this life and sometimes I’m just that desperate, scared woman all over again. I suppose there is bravery in that admission. To truly be brave, first I had to admit how truly scared I was.  

Kathy and her husband pose with her two sons.
Kathy and her family

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about the first time you reached out to someone about your mental illness. Whether it was a friend or a professional, we want to hear about why you opened up, how it went, and why you’re glad (or maybe not glad) you did it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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16 Messages We Have for Our Anxiety

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Anxiety can be a healthy part of being human. It lets us know when we’re in danger and can motivate us to get things done when we need to. Most people have experienced this “healthy anxiety” — but for people with anxiety disorders, it’s different; the anxiety doesn’t alleviate when we need it to.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America. More than 18 million people live with some form of an anxiety disorder every day.

Everyone experiences an anxiety disorder differently. Some people see it as a part of their personalities, while others see it as a kind of separate “voice” that makes them anxious. Either way, learning to live with and taking control of your anxiety is the first step towards recovery. Addressing the fear of anxiety itself can make it much easier to live your life — so we asked our mental health community what they would say to their anxiety if they had the chance.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “I would say please go away. You freak me out to the point I’m scared to leave my house, visit friends or family, and I can hardly live my life.” — Cami L.

2. “What’s your trigger so I can avoid you? When you come out of nowhere, I spend valuable time trying to determine your cause, when I should be working on managing you.” — Sharon M.

3. “You’ve been with me for as long as I can remember and I would love to know a life without you. How about a compromise — I promise to pay attention to you when you do your job right, if you promise not to come running after me for every little thing.” — Katie D.

4. “I would say ‘thank you.’ Not for the panic attacks and days where I am scared to leave my room, nor for the paranoia and seeds of doubt you plant in my mind about the things in life I am surest about. I have accepted your presence but will never stop fighting you. I say thank you for making me a stronger person and allowing me to value the good times even more.” — Charley B.

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5. “When I have you, anxiety, I am scared and don’t know what to do, same as when you are gone. Sadly I’ve adapted and can’t relax whether you are here or not. I’m always on edge for the next appearance.” — Heather E.

6. “Listen, I am not in a life-or-death situation every minute of the day. So you can stand down. I’m just trying to walk down the street, not charge into battle. Please react accordingly.” — Monica M.

7. “You may take my breath away in apprehensive and always temporary ways, but I am still in control… I do not know defeat. You may try to take a moment or few… but you will not take my life. I will continue to move forward, with every step… and every breath… as long as I’m breathing, I’m living you, my nemesis cannot stop it. I prevail through the bad days, O still breathe.” — Dee D.

8. “You think you won, but I’m just starting the fight. Every time, even after hours on the floor, that I get back up, I remember I am a warrior and survivor. I have to win. I will win.” –Allison M.

9. “So what do you say, anxiety, do you think we could work together? Could we learn to communicate better? We have lots of people who will help us. You should be one of my closest friends, I’m tired of you hurting me. I’m tired of you being one of my biggest enemies.” –Jazz C.

10. “You are not a heart attack. You are not an elephant sitting on my chest. You have taken control of some of my automatic bodily functions; you have taken control of my thoughts and even my dreams. But guess what, bully, I am stronger than you. I’ve been here before and I know how to defeat you.” — Paige K.

11. “You’ve made me a stronger person as I learn how to battle you on my own. You’ve made me stronger against people who don’t understand how much you affect me. You’ll always walk with me, but I’m the woman who I am today because of you.” — Natasha T.

12. “I’d say shut up. You’re not right. No one hates me, and if they do, they’re not important. The people who love me will always love me. Stop making me think I’m doing everything wrong and I’ll never be loved. I will be and I am.” –Jessica C.

13. “You scream and yell at me then you whisper ‘I’ll keep you safe.’ And the worst thing is — I sometimes believe it when you say that. –Laney P.

14. “Just listen to me. Take a backseat. I can improve my life better then you can.” –John C.

15.I’m learning to accept you. Thank you for giving me a different perspective on life and challenges. Thank you for connecting me with so many beautiful people. I know you won’t go away… but I do know we can learn to live together.” –Adele M.

16. “You won’t win, not anymore. And stop coming during my damn neck massages! Like really?” –Trina G.

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To the Fellow Mom Who Judged Me in the Nike Outlet, From a Woman With Anxiety

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Thank you, fellow mom, for judging me.

Yes, you.

Thank you for judging me in my moment of weakness. It was just what I needed. I didn’t want my social anxiety to determine the outcome of that day.

We were on Day 2 of our getaway to New Hampshire for some winter fun. We were having a blast. Tubing, hiking, snowshoeing. It was wonderful. We decided to take a break from the frigid outdoors and go shopping that afternoon. New Hampshire has great shopping outlets. You know that. That’s where you found me.

We’re a sneaker family. We collect sneakers like a bee collects pollen. We have tons of sneakers. So, of course, we didn’t need any more, but we walked into Nike anyway. My husband went to his section, and I walked to my section. My son, Landon, came with me.

I fell in love with a pair of Nike Air Force 1s immediately. My favorite. My husband stopped by after he found a pair he loved. With our sneakers selected already, we helped Landon look at his section. We grabbed ones he couldn’t reach and showed him what was available in his size. And here’s when it happened. My moment of weakness. My social anxiety was starting to build brick by brick and was paralyzing me.

You were in the aisle next to us with your daughter. My son came over to us with a box and said, “Mommy, you will be so proud of me. I found sneakers in a size bigger for me to grow into, and they’re on sale, which you love.” I laughed. He knows me too well. I’ve trained him well. My anxiety was starting to dissipate. He then opened the box and there they were. The brightest hot pink sneakers that were ever created. With a speck of black.

My husband, bless his soul, didn’t bat an eye. He said they’re awesome and we should get them. My social anxiety was back. And then it came out like “word vomit.” I knew what I was saying was wrong. But you were staring at me. More like glaring. And I froze. I told Landon I didn’t think we should get those because kids would make fun of him.

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If you know me, you know that statement is not me. I buy my kid hot pink shirts to decorate himself from the craft store. Hot pink shoelaces to go with his Spider-Man sneakers. Hot pink party favors. Hot pink lunch boxes. My son’s favorite color is hot pink. I’ve known this for years. He even had a hot pink birthday cake for his eighth birthday. I immediately felt awful for what I said. Landon said, “Mom, it doesn’t matter. Let them make fun of me. I love pink, and that’s that.”

He walked away, and then I heard you and your daughter talking. Your daughter asked if my son was a boy or girl. You replied with, “I think he is a boy with long hair.” Your daughter then asked if he was a boy, why was he trying on hot pink sneakers. Your reply was priceless: “Of course it has to be a girl then. What mother would let their son wear hot pink sneakers?”

Thank you for that. I needed it. Sometimes — a lot of the times — my social anxiety gets the better of me and I say things I don’t mean. There have been times when I only say what I think people want to hear. Sometimes it’s for fear of rejection or acceptance. Other times, I can’t explain it. There are moments when I don’t say anything at all, even when directly asked. My lack of response is often misconstrued as being rude and unsocial. When I’m feeling anxious, the thoughts in my mind are on a rollercoaster, and I can’t grab an appropriate response. So instead of saying something I know I don’t mean, I don’t say anything at all.

I judged my boy that day because you brought out my own anxieties and fears. A mother should never judge their child. Thank you. I needed to be reminded we don’t judge in this family. I used to. I’m not going to stand here and lie. Who made up the rules anyway? Who says girls can’t play with trucks and boys can’t like dolls? Who says long flowy locks are only acceptable for girls? Who says the color blue is boys and pink is for girls?

Being different is often synonymous with being bad. Please stop teaching your children that. This is a more than just about hot pink sneakers. People are labeled every day for many reasons. My son has labels thrust upon him. He is labeled because of his sensory processing disorder. He is labeled because of his anxiety disorder. He is labeled because he loves the color pink. I am labeled because of my own mental health diagnosis. I know some labels aren’t meant to hurt, but they do. Labels are for jars. Not for my son. Not for anyone. Being different is being unique. Isn’t being unique what makes each of us beautiful? 

So thank you. Thank you for helping me find my way back and not succumbing to my own anxieties. Even though my anxiety is a part of my life, I don’t want to parent my child based off of my own fears. I will falter on some days, but I will come back fighting, and I thank you for igniting my strength to fight through my fears.

It was a lesson within a lesson that day. I’m thankful my son and I share the connection that is anxiety. In a world where people with anxiety often feel alone and misunderstood, I’m grateful my son never has to feel that way. At only 8 years old, he knew that Mommy was saying something that wasn’t quite her. I’m thankful for his unconditional love. I’m proud that he knows who he is. I’m honored to be his mother.

Without you judging me, I wouldn’t have been able to parent my child the way I truly feel in my heart, even when my head (and society) tells me otherwise.

Follow this journey on My Sensational Kid

Tell us about a stranger’s comment about your (or a loved one’s) disability, disease or mental illness that has stuck with you for one reason or another. Why has it remained significant to you?. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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The Two Sides of My Anxious, Depressive Soul

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Yesterday

Yesterday I woke up and couldn’t make it to the end of my block while I walked the dog before this overwhelming, out of the blue panic hit me. I immediately turned around and could see my house, but I felt like I could not get there fast enough. I began to run, trying to match my movement with my heart-rate. When I got home there was both a sense of relief and disappointment. My home is my comfort zone, and that is sometimes disappointing.

As the day went on I had bouts of crying. Five or six times I broke down as I watched my husband sit there not knowing what else to say other than, “You’re going to be OK, you’re just going through a bad time right now.” He held me in the bed as I cried again. He has known me for six years and he has not seen me go through this before. But I have, many times. I warned him about these times. I don’t think he believed me. I don’t think he ever thought the vibrant, happy and full of zest for life woman he married could be the same person sitting in front of him telling him, “I promise I won’t kill myself, but I just feel like I am dying.”

I cannot explain to him in a way he can understand why I feel the way I do right now. I feel these things because I have a mental illness and every so often, I become sick again. I have always had the lingering generalized anxiety I can manage daily, but this — the deep seated depression — I cannot keep at bay and it will stay for a while. And while I do my best not to let it control me and take me, it’s powerful and some days I am just too tired to fight. It makes my generalized anxiety worse. On those days I stay home and I cry. And sometimes I cry a lot. I will run laps in my large basement, I will shower and cook and try to ignore the noise in my head. It is exhausting to go against the grain of just wanting to lie down and go to sleep forever.

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Today

Today I felt pretty good. I had to work and I spent a lot of time out in the sun. I laughed a lot. I smiled many times. I didn’t cry. I felt like my anxiety was just a faint ache in my veins, barely noticeable and most tolerable. It didn’t stop me in my tracks and the fleeting moments were just that; fleeting moments. A few times I caught myself thinking about the fact I feel pretty good, and I breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude.

Why can’t every day feel like this? Temporary relief, even if not 100 percent.

At any given day my feelings, perception, opinion and thoughts might change depending on my illness. If you catch me on a good day, I will be full of optimism and hope. If you catch me on a rough day, I will be full of anxiety and tears and hopelessness. I do not know from one day to the next how I will feel. I start each day with great intentions, doing the positive things I hope help get me into a good head-space. I read, meditate, pray. I use positive affirmations and self-talk and my 12-step recovery program.

Some days I win. Some days I feel defeated.

I have never felt normal. I hate that.

Lately I have had some very rough days, weeks, months. I have been in this place before. I am sliding into the bottomless pit of despair with nothing tangible to grasp onto. I am holding on for dear life and hoping eventually I will find my way back out like the other times, but there is that little voice inside of me that whispers, “ What if you can’t this time?”

What if?

I think about all the times I have been in this dark place before and wanted to die, and the amazing days I had after because I chose to stay. So I hold on hoping the mental storm will pass again and I will have some peace again one day.

 My story has no ending, and that is OK. Because it means I am still here choosing life, even on days I feel like dying.

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.

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. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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