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The Panic of Small Talk When You Have a Mental Illness

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“And what do you do?”

I freeze. My stomach flopped at “Nice to meet you,” bracing with panic for the dreaded question which too frequently tags along.

We’ve all been here. We’ve all experienced meeting new people and coinciding social banter. You know the usual: Where are you from? What’s the weather like? Where did you study? What do you do? But for someone with chronic life-threatening mental illness this is the type of conversation I like to avoid at all costs. This is the type of conversation which deflates self-esteem, inviting self-inflicted insults such
as You’re pathetic. What a loser. Why can’t you just be normal like this person?

Normal. What does this even mean?

On my journey I’ve come to understand it as a fantasy word, a word thrown about so casually and so frequently that it couldn’t possibly have any true value left to it. To me, it simply doesn’t. I used to waste time with regret and wishing I could be normal, “like everyone else,” only to discover “everyone else” has personal problems to deal with and life challenges to face.

So I’ve tossed the word from my vocabulary and chosen a more fitting term: Socially Acceptable Life. By this I refer to typical societal standards which seem to pervade our sub-conscious from an early age. As we grow up, clear themes emerge, pressuring us into the socially acceptable box: close-knit family life, graduate high school and leave for college, follow closely with a Masters degree or corporate job, marriage and family.

The image of success.

This is not my story, and I can tell you from experience, to not fit into this box standard makes for feelings of isolation and unworthiness. Despite growing awareness and partial de-stigmatization, it is still not socially acceptable to have mental illness. Furthermore, it is not exactly a prime conversation-starter. To respond to the question “What do you do?” with the honest truth of “I try not to die” is not considered socially acceptable.

Hence why small talk makes me so uneasy. The majority of the past 13 years, dating back to my early teens, has been spent in a variety of hospitals on medical and psychiatry floors trying to survive the potentially fatal complications of anorexia nervosa and mood disorders, including suicide attempts. This has stunted my education and career development, among other “normalcies” of daily life: dating, friendships, travel experiences, and plain ordinary 20-something-year-old shenanigans. I have, in essence, been robbed of a lot of life. Listing why I cannot keep a job or finish a college course is not exactly meet-and-greet-conversation-worthy. Moreover, knowing this much leads to great amounts of social anxiety and heavy
blows to self-esteem.

The truth is, while education and career statuses may be great conversation to some, it simply is none of your business: I don’t need to prove anything. Unfortunately, society places a lot of emphasis on such ideals as success. Sometimes my biggest success is staying out of hospital for X months. Some days success looks like self-care or making it to all my appointments. And there are still times when a successful day is found inside a hospital, where perhaps I asked for or simply accepted help; or perhaps I took steps toward wellness which I was unwilling to take the day before. These are not typical bragging points, but to many of us, this success is found nestled
among the seemingly mundane tasks that keep mental illness at bay.

I may not live a socially acceptable life, but I certainly have accomplished a lot in my lifetime thus far. My life is definitely nothing like I imagined it would be as an ambitious youngster, and although maybe not my favorite topic of conversation, it’s given me experiences no amount of tuition money could buy.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Digital Vision.

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People Are Protesting an Unaired Episode of Dr. Phil Saying It Exploits Actress Shelley Duvall

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People on social media are calling out Dr. Phil, saying his show exploits mental illness, for an episode airing Nov. 18 featuring actress Shelly Duvall.

Duvall, 67, known for her roles in “Popeye” and “The Shining,” sat down with Dr. Phil to discuss her undisclosed mental illness after decades out of the media spotlight. In a clip shared by the television show, Duvall mentions she is concerned there is a disc implanted in her leg; she has seen the late Robin William, who she says is now a shapeshifter, and believes she is being threatened by the fictional sheriff from “Robin Hood.” Duvall also told Dr. Phil, “I’m very sick. I need help.”

Ahead of the episode’s airdate, people are speaking out on social media, asking Dr. Phil and those involved with his show not to air the episode.

Among those speaking out is Vivian Kubrick, the daughter of “The Shining” director Stanley Kubrick. In a letter shared on Twitter, Kubrick wrote, “You are putting Shelly Duvall ‘on show’ while she is suffering from a pitiable state of ill health. Unquestionably, this is purely a form of lurid and exploitative entertainment — it’s appallingly cruel.”

 

 

 

Kubrick closes the letter asking others to join her in boycotting the show, “I recoil in complete disgust. I hope others will join me in boycotting your utterly heartless form of entertainment, because it has nothing to do with compassionate healing.”

Is Dr. Phil exploiting Shelley Duvall and her mental illness? Let us know in the comments below. 

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To My Younger Self Who's Full of Self-Doubt

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Dear past Shelby,

Girl, I wish I could hug you so tight. I wish I could squeeze all that self-doubt you have festering inside you out. I wish you could see all the things I see now looking back and all the things mom told you all along.

Listen to mom. She is always right. Except on the perm thing. That was whack.

I hate to tell you this, but you’re wrong about everything, but it’s OK. You’re supposed to be.

A few things I want to tell you:

1. I’m proud of you.

You’ll never regret choosing the right thing over the cool thing. Even if you spend your whole senior year at a lunch table alone, choose the right thing, again and again. You’re cool. I promise. You just don’t know it yet.

2. Stop filling your voids with stuff.

Boys. Shopping. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Fake friendships. None of it will help. In fact, most of it will make it worse.

3. Be nicer to yourself.

Weighing 10 pounds less does not make you a better or more interesting person. Weighing 10 or 20 pounds more does not make you unlovable. For every day or every moment you criticize yourself, you are cheating yourself out of your fullest joy.

4. Be thankful for what you have.

Dwelling on what you don’t have will only keep bringing you nothing. Gratitude is powerful. It’s changing my life every day as I write this. It improves your health and relationships. Besides, life is a gift, and you should be most thankful for that.

5. You’re going to have unimaginable losses in the years to come. Don’t be afraid to face them head on.

Go to the funeral. You’ll regret it every day if you don’t. You’re going to walk through a valley of grief, but you’re going to come through the other side a stronger, braver woman. You’ll need these experiences to hold up the others when life knocks them down.

6. Nothing will go as you planned.

None of it. Don’t freak out. All the forks in the road and life-altering stuff that happens? It makes you one bad ass woman.

7. You won’t believe this now, but you are not going to be lonely.

There are loads of unbelievably wonderful people in your future, and you will be overwhelmed with gratitude for the goodness and love in your life.

You’re going to discover some things about yourself that will surprise and delight you, and this world will be a better place for having had you in it. So hang in there, kid. Remember, we’re all just winging it in life, and none of us is here long. The journey is the reward, and it’s a wonderful journey.

Sincerely,
Your older, wiser, cooler and unpermed self

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When You're Seesawing Through Mental Illness Recovery

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“You look beautiful.”

“You are strong.”

“You are a wonderful writer.”

“You have come so far.”

In the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing this from a lot of the people around me. Why? For the most part, it’s because I’ve been honest, open, feeling extremely vulnerable and doubting everything. I would never allow anyone to talk about themselves, and I would never talk about anyone else, the way I let my internal dialogue keep going.

It’s ugly. It’s mean. Unfortunately, it isn’t going away. The bully inside has only taken short vacations recently.

I would love to see myself the way others do. I would love to not need the external validation. I would love to believe that validation when it comes my way. I would love to absorb it in and begin to create my own confidence and acceptance.

I am grateful to be fighting this internal war in 2016. Seeing the number of articles written, the memes on Pinterest and Facebook and connecting with others allows me to know I am not the only one who fights these battles. Not being alone is helpful. Talking to others or reading about their struggles and successes gives me hope and a sense of camaraderie.

As I am continuing to seesaw through my recovery, I can honestly admit I feel like I am bouncing up and down. Sometimes, I feel strong and ready to tackle this. Then, with no warning, I drop to a dark, hopeless place. Up and down. Up and down. I often feel like I am going losing it.

I can at least appreciate that the stigma of mental illness is beginning to lessen, and I am talking, sharing and both getting the support I need and giving support to others (both those who battle and those who love them). Even 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible on this level. Thank you to everyone writing, reading, teaching and talking about mental illness.

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Image via Thinkstock.

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When I Was Told I Wasn't 'Getting Any Better' After Completing Mental Health Treatment

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“You aren’t getting any better.”

I’m not better. I haven’t gotten any better. How could that be?

You see, I have been struggling with mental illness for quite some time. I have been diagnosed with anxiety, major depression, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the past year and a half, I have attempted suicide seven times, spent four days in the ICU, been hospitalized 12 times, been in residential treatment twice, tried almost every single antidepressant and mood stabilizer available, saw half a dozen therapists and tried CBT and DBT therapy.

Phew. I still feel like I left something out.

I thought August was the turning point for me. I attempted suicide for the seventh time, my most serious attempt, and I came incredibly close to losing my life. Once I was released from the ICU and completed my 10-day stint at the psychiatric hospital, I was referred to a residential facility eight hours from where I live. My psychiatrist specifically told me if I did not go, “I would not be alive much longer.” So I went, and I spent a little over two months there, until I was told I was not getting any better. I wasn’t progressing. The treatment wasn’t working.

So I went home. I left feeling so defeated and discouraged. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting better, why nothing was working for me. And considering this was just yesterday, I still don’t. I often wonder if I am simply “one of those people” who never recover. Who succumb to mental illness. Because God, what a tormenter it is.

However, I know there is still hope for me, just as there is hope for you.

There has to be more to my life, to this life, than my illness. There is a big, beautiful world out there, and I want to see it. I want to experience it. I want to really, truly experience it. Going through life in a deep fog, feeling more dead than alive is not a way to live, and it is not something I would ever wish on anyone. As hopeless as I felt leaving treatment today, I know there is a warrior in me, a warrior who is not going to stop fighting and who is not going to give up. I will take what I learned these past two months in treatment and apply it to the rest of my life.

Have hope always.

Image via Thinkstock.

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

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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What Nobody Told Me About Taking Medication to Manage a Mental Illness

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When I was 15 I started counting pills. I had a bottle of them in my bedside drawer. I’d shake them out and lay them in rows on my bed; roll their smooth oblong shapes between my fingers, feel their weightlessness in my palm, wonder how such small things could do such great damage. Counting them several times a day for confidence, company, possibility.

The access has always been there. I’ve been on medication — antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-anxieties, mood stabilizers, sleepers  — since the beginning. Eight a.m., 8 p.m., 2 o’clocks, 10 o’clock’s, p.r.n., at some point in the day, every day, I’m swallowing little round pills with the begging hope that they might take this all away.

Sometimes, however, they haven’t. There isn’t a little white cure-all pill that gives you bounds of energy and gets you up in the morning. Most of them do help, they ease your ruminating brain, quieten the racing of your heart, lift the apathy cloud, quiet the voices that beg you to do it, let you sleep at night… They help and you function and gradually you learn how to cope.

Some of them, though, they make it worse. They squeeze your brain into a ball, wringing out all the hope and possibility you can muster. They tangle up the threads of thought until all paths lead to point zero. A dead end. A one-way rail track headed straight off the edge of a cliff. The first antidepressant medication I was prescribed did exactly that; it fair near chucked me in the deep end and left me there to drown. That, combined with a contraceptive pill, and I broke through the veil of psychosis — deluded, volatile and an extreme risk to myself.

You see, nobody ever told me that some medications don’t work for some people. It’s not like a painkiller, there isn’t some standard remedy that keys into all the right chemicals and brain receivers, you and your clinician have to almost experiment with different things to find what type of medication, and what dosage suits you best.

When things started to go down hill for me, I finally looked my doctor in the eye and said: “these don’t work.” So, she upped the dose. Sometimes, occasionally, for some people, this works. In this instance, it just made things so much worse. Eventually, I refused to take them. It took hospitalization and seeing a psychiatrist to finally put me back on the right path, and start “popping pills’” that did help what I was going through.

Across these five to six years, I’ve been on multiple different meds. The more severe the situation the higher the dose or the more types. A different situation, a different set of circumstances in my life, sometimes changes the choice of medication we use. And of course, as I continue to grow and change and live my life, the likelihood is that what I use to help me function will change again.

I guess the message to take away from me here, is that medication helps. It doesn’t change your personality, it brings you back to the neutral stable ground where you can resume being who you are. But, there are some risks outside the standard pamphlet of side effects: This drug might not work, this drug might make things worse. It is therefore so so so important you get onto the medication that helps you best, that you don’t suddenly stop taking it, that you discuss any side effects you experience however small, that you take it as prescribed and that if you are concerned, and that if you feel worse or no better, you speak up about it.

This daily ritual of mine could be something I go on to do for the rest of my life, but with medications that work, that make me, me, I’m willing to do that — if it makes this illness even one percent easier to deal with.

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

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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