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You undoubtedly have seen or read a lot of articles on New Year’s resolutions. Goals can sometimes be good things for people with depression and anxiety to focus on, as long as they are within reach. Otherwise, from my experience, unattainable goals can cause even more depression and anxiety.

I fondly remember a comedy movie from my late teen years, “What About Bob,” starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus. The movie was about a psychiatric patient who follows his psychiatrist on a family vacation. In the movie, Dreyfus advises Murray to take “baby steps,” which were small, attainable steps as a way for Murray to start to conquer his fears.

In late 2015 and early 2016, my anxiety attacks and major depressive disorder brought upon a re-evaluation of a lot of things for me. My conditions led to a leave of absence from work, partial hospitalizations, changes in therapists and medications. Ultimately, in late December, I began transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy.

Along the way, there were some resolutions, or “baby steps,” I found I could implement relatively easily. Yet, there were other steps, or breakthroughs, that came in their own time.

Some of the steps I could implement right away included:

1. Journaling.

Keeping a log or even just writing down my feelings was a necessary part of the partial hospitalization experiences I had. It’s a tool I continued to use on a pretty regular basis throughout the year. At first, I was afraid that by writing out my feelings, I would ruminate even more than I already did. However, by writing out my emotions, I felt like I was able to relay information better to different caregivers. I could also look back on the journal entries and see patterns, as well as fluctuations in my thought processes.

2. Mindfulness.

This is the concept and practice of being present in the here and now. This is another concept I gained an appreciation of in a partial hospitalization setting. There were (and sometimes are) times in my life where, for example, I would worry about work when I was at home and home when I was at work. Leading up to my leave of absence, I struggled with anxiety attacks in part as a result of worrying about “what if/worst case” scenarios. A few somewhat simple exercises assigned to me while in a partial hospitalization were mindfully eating a piece of chocolate and mindfully driving from home to a day program. These gave me a sense of peace if only for a few minutes. They were like mini-vacations, just existing in the present moment.

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3. Simple positive self-reinforcement.

I spoke with my therapist about how I often put myself down. Negative self-talk, anxiety and depression have gone hand-in-hand for me. My therapist recommended that when I see myself in a mirror I tell myself something positive about myself. She emphasized the comments can be something basic, such as, “I got up and went to work today.” When I began doing this, and even some days still, my positive comments were basic. Yet, the simple positive self-reinforcement does help settle my nerves and reinforce that I can accomplish things.

4. Meditation.

A simple meditation practice I learned in partial hospitalization helped ease some level of anxiety. I often experienced severe heartburn and chest pain as a result of anxiety attacks. A social worker in a day program I attended gave us an exercise that stuck with me: Whenever you feel tightness/burning in your chest due to anxiety, hold your hand over that area of your chest. Keep reciting to yourself positive affirmations such as everything’s going to be OK, and breathe slowly in and out. This exercise helped get me through anxious moments when I returned to work from my leave of absence.

Those steps helped me begin to think of and deal with my anxiety in different ways. Yet, there were other steps I took throughout the year that had to come in their own time when I was ready. These included:

1. Downsize responsibilities.

My anxiety attacks and depression make me feel like I am overwhelmed with life. Four kids, a spouse, house, job, coach and appointments. The list seems like it goes on and on. Things I used to have a passion for brought on anxiety themselves. While talking to a friend and therapist, they advised me to simplify things as much as I could. I swallowed my pride in some cases and for the betterment of my mental health, I took a step back from a few commitments to simplify life a little bit.

2. Confide in family and friends.

As I entered my leave of absence and began a partial hospitalization, something inside of me told me to reach out. I felt like I needed to be authentic with select family and friends to begin the healing process. Most people I reached out to were kind and understanding. I felt like I could be myself (or my new self) to release some feelings. By reaching out, I found out I have a family history of mental health issues and that I wasn’t alone.

3. Social media, knowledge and stigma.

This was also inspired by my therapist. Based on my interests, she suggested I use social media to educate myself on mental health and be a proponent for mental health. This could be as simple as “liking”/”following” and sharing certain people/organizations on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets.

4. Listen to music.

At the peak of my anxiety, I found any type of music, as well as loud sounds, unsettling. From the beginning to middle of 2016, I became aware that the only thing I liked to listen to was monotone sports talk radio in my car. I became keenly aware of this during a music therapy session at my second partial hospitalization. The music therapy didn’t provide any relief. In fact, I had no interest in even listening to my favorite musical artists whatsoever. It wasn’t until my birthday, in late August, driving around in my car, that I had a sudden urge to listen to a favorite artist who I hadn’t heard in awhile. I took it as a sign of some sort, a step forward if only for the moment.

5. Group outings with kids.

With four kids, full of boundless energy, I often feel in over my head with my symptoms. In a group therapy session in early 2016, a fellow patient suggested a good goal for me would be to take all four kids out, by myself, for an outing somewhere. At the time, with my anxiety attacks, that goal seemed so out of reach. It wasn’t until after Christmas that I took all four kids out on my own for lunch and shopping. We somehow survived and had a little fun along the way.

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For many of us who have a mental illness, the New Year’s holiday is a painful time. New Year’s Eve serves to remind us of our failed resolutions, treatment goals that weren’t met and all the reasons our past year was a black hole of misfortune and despair. The year 2016 was no exception. News and politics alone left us reeling, and for many it seems as if we now live in a country without hope, faith or love. This year was rough.

Flash forward to New Year’s Day and everyone around you is bursting with the excitement and joy of what is to come. Promises are made. Goals are set. Resolutions are cast. The populace as a whole erupts with the possibility of the unknown and you are left feeling the cynic.

Weren’t we just moping about time passed? I’m still mourning yesterday, how can I celebrate what is today? How can I be hopeful that the future will turn out different? And of course, we all have those friends who vomit positivity about what is to come, Instagramming their “nine best” of the past year when just last week they were posting to Facebook, beside themselves about the state of affairs.

The New Year’s holiday can feel dishonest and contradictory. What’s worse is the fact that social media has only inflated the façade. Broadcast as a time to look inwards and reinvigorate our efforts for tomorrow, in the world of Facebook and Instagram we can’t help but get caught in the death trap that is comparing our lives with that of our friends on social media. Who had a good year? Who failed? And how will we compare in the future? “My year was a shit-storm and now I have to wade through the onslaught of celebratory posts that is my newsfeed?”

To those of you who relate, I get it. I really do understand your frustration with a holiday born to celebrate self-improvement and growth. For people like us those things are difficult to achieve and often times they seem so out of reach. However, at the risk of warranting a punch to the face, I would like to let you all know that New Year’s is in fact my favorite holiday of the year. If you approach it with the right mindset, it can be a powerful tool in reclaiming your life and mental health.

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On New Year’s Day I went to my favorite breakfast restaurant and wrote down my goals for the New Year in my journal. I brought my stress ball with me to help reflect on the past year. It’s funny. At this time last year I carried this stress ball everywhere I went. I never left home without it. I’d even squeeze it during activities like eating and driving. You can see the ball has become deformed over time from use.

I started carrying a stress ball around shortly after I had my great fall. In the past, during my darkest hours, I had become so anxious and afraid of what might happen to me if I were to “let go” of my fears, that my body quite literally forgot how to let go. A body can only take so much tension like that for so long. And after a lifetime of holding onto a fear that I couldn’t articulate into words, my body decided it needed me to let go even though I couldn’t.

As a result I experienced immense pain. At the young age of 23 I couldn’t walk up a flight of steps. My wrists and forearms became so inflamed I couldn’t fold a shirt at my part-time retail job without feeling excruciating pain. My anxiety left me physically disabled.

I started using the ball at the suggestion of a friend and found it relieved some of that pain. It made the muscles in my forearm stronger and it became a tutor for me in the art of “letting go.” By squeezing the ball and releasing it, I was able to retrain my body to “let go” of the tension I once carried inside me.

Over the past, year in addition to these things, my stress ball served as a gentle reminder for my brain of the importance of learning to “let go” and embrace the fear. With every squeeze my body practiced the art of “letting go” and my brain took note.

The ball came with me to my psychiatrist’s office and to the pharmacy. I held onto it when I went to psychotherapy at The Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment, an intensive outpatient rehabilitation center; it came with me to group therapy.

When treatment was hard and the challenges of life as a mentally ill person bogged me down, the stress ball was there to remind me how easy the equation of letting go of my fears could be. “Squeeze, release and the tension is gone. Squeeze, release and the fear dissipates. Squeeze, release and let go.”

As the year progressed, my health improved. All the while I continued to squeeze and release the stress ball, practicing the important lesson it taught me. With every squeeze I began to see the dominos in my life fall into place. Goals were achieved, treatment was successful and for the first time in my life the way of the world began to work for me, not against me. The moment was mine for the taking.

Today I no longer need the stress ball to function. I have learned how to let go and embrace the fear. Now I know that within my bones stirs the strength of 10 men and no amount of pain, physical or psychological, will hinder me the way it once did.

As I plan for the New Year, the stress ball now serves as a tool of self-reflection. When I hold the stress ball I’m able to look back and see how far I have come. The stress ball reminds me of a world that I will never go back to, a world in which I was afraid to let go of the fear.

This past year was hard. I will be the first to admit it. There were moments when I felt alone, hopeless and unable to move forward. I faced challenges I didn’t think I could overcome; I experienced profound loss and failure. But because I never lost sight of what I wanted, because I held onto my stress ball through the difficult times, life started to move in the direction I wanted it to. Now, I truly feel like anything is possible this year, and all the goals I have are within reach. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and I am sprinting towards it like the madman that I am.

I want that for all of you. I want you to feel the power and freedom I feel. I want you to experience the joy I know you are capable of achieving. So my advice to you is to take control of this holiday and use it wisely: Treat yourself to a nice breakfast alone, take your journal with you and recalibrate. Use this moment to reflect inward and begin anew. Scheme, dream and plan for a future where you are in control of your life. And as you write your destiny remember the lesson I have shared. “Squeeze, release and let go of the fear.” Remember that and you cannot fail.

This holiday belongs to people like us. So as I close my journal and begin tackling the new year, I will give my stress ball one last squeeze for good luck and wish you all a Happy New Year!

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Recently, due to a series of small mistakes, I have been without my medicine for five days now. And counting…

I had been on Zoloft for six months or so, and I was starting to think I was OK. That maybe I was completely fine, maybe even ready to go off the meds. When I ran out of medicine, I was immediately freaked out. I calmed down, and then after a few days, I felt the meds wearing off. I could feel my grasp on reality slipping; I feel like I am slipping back into my old ways. I am having mood swings and outbursts. I feel overwhelmed and out of control. I can feel the anxiety in my body — like it is churning through my veins; thick like molasses, I feel it tingling through my body. The anxiety also somehow feels like it is electricity at the same time. I am slowed down and on hyper drive.

I am not OK. I know this was my old “normal” before I started to take medication. I knew this was something I dealt with and I felt like I was maybe getting better. Getting a firmer grasp on things. Like I was handling life, which I was. It just seems that the Zoloft is responsible for this change. I know that, right now, I need my medicine. I know I cannot function properly without it, right now. I know I cannot do this by myself, right now. I need my medicine and I need my therapist, right now. This doesn’t mean I will need these forever. I am working towards being a better me. I am doing so much better. I know my medicine is a step in the right direction for me. I know it is OK. I am doing OK.

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Anxiety is so much more than fear. Anxiety is overwhelming fear that can still happen when it seems like there’s nothing to be scared of. Anxiety is unpredictable. Even if I have fought anxiety in a situation in the past, if I’m in the same situation again, it doesn’t mean I will be able to deal with it the same way.

The best way I can explain how my anxiety can manifest is to imagine a beach. Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, having a lovely time. There is warm sand between your toes and you are happy. You have a surfboard full of coping mechanisms and strategies. You’ve been to this beach dozens of times before; it’s a safe space. Sometimes you go, and the tide is out, and you can sit and appreciate the space and the laughter and the memories you create. Sometimes you paddle, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the seas are a little rough, but that’s OK, you can cope with that. On the occasions you venture out a little further, you may hit a wave. Sometimes you see it coming. Other times it’s sudden. Imagine this wave is anxiety. It might knock you off your feet. It might wash over you, if you keep yourself grounded. And if you’re feeling brave, you might try to ride that wave. If you hit it just at the right time, you can ride with it, even if it builds and you don’t know how high it may go. Other times you may catch it right at the top, and when that happens, no matter how strong a surfer you are, how much you fight to keep yourself upright on that surfboard, once you’ve lost the flow of the wave, you might struggle to balance yourself, to stop yourself falling in and letting the waves pull you out to sea. And then you’re going to have to swim back to the shore of safety.

Imagine if you don’t make it back to the water’s edge, if you slip and fall and the waves take you, everything goes dark. No matter what is going on around you, all you can focus on is the fact you’re falling and you’re drowning and you can’t breathe and you can’t see. There’s water in your ears and everything is overwhelming. Imagine all the sounds around you are building up and getting louder and more distorted. You can hear people calling you, trying to help. But until you reach the surface again, nothing is clear, you can’t quite make out what people are saying, you can’t answer anyone. Until you’re above the water and gasp those first few breaths of air, it feels like you’re stuck, you’re drowning, and you’re never going to float again.

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Next time you go back to the beach, you may be a bit unsure. It may take you a while to go back, and you might not want to venture into the water again. You may never go back. You may have been surfing before and been fine, you may not. You can give in and never go back to the beach again, or you can keep going back and make the most of the sand and the shells and the safety. But no matter how many times you go, every time will be different. The tide will be different. It may be further in, further out. Stronger or not strong enough.

That’s how anxiety feels to me. Just because we’ve dealt with a situation once, doesn’t mean we’ll be OK to do it again and have it never be a problem. Every time we approach it, it’s going to be different, and that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with something you’ve previously been OK with. You’ve fought it before, and you have the strength to do it again. And for those of you who can relate to this, I’m proud of you for every step toward the water you take.

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As an introvert with anxiety, going out to social gatherings can be a challenge. If it’s a low-key affair and predictable, then I can generally manage. If it’s with a small group of close friends, then I can convince myself it will be OK. When New Year’s invitations start to come, however, it’s enough to bring me to a cold sweat.

Here are five things that usually go through my mind as New Year’s Eve celebrations loom:

1. Limited down time.

Right now, I feel I’ve only just crawled out of the social nightmare that is December and Christmas. I survived in one piece (only just), but with a few days to recuperate, the thought of New Year’s Eve seems incredibly daunting.

2. The constant question, “What are you doing?”

There is not a night in the year when more people ask you this than New Year’s Eve. People don’t seem to understand why you’d prefer not to go out, and unfortunately, this has led to many lies told on my part. If you admit to doing nothing, then you quickly feel judged and shamed for it. Yes, I could just tell people I have anxiety, but that’s a topic for another day.

3. The pressure to have the best night.

Going out to New Year’s Eve events brings with it the pressure to have a good time (when secretly you just want to be home crafting and watching “New Girl.”) For someone who finds the simplest social encounters challenging, you feel defeated before you’ve even begun with the knowledge that it definitely won’t live up to such expectations. You also feel more pressure to keep your anxiety in check because you don’t want to put a damper on the evening for others. You can see the vicious circle begin.

4. The expectation that you should stay out until midnight.

The only thing that normally gets me to social outings is the thought that I can leave when I’ve had enough or when things go pear-shaped. On New Year’s Eve, everyone expects you to stay out until midnight. If you don’t, then you can expect 101 questions and comments about your choice. I don’t often wish I had young children at home, but when I see new mothers sneak off at 10 p.m., I can’t help but feel jealous!

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5. To be with or not to be with, that is the question.

New Year’s Eve brings with it tough decisions. For me, it’s not just deciding if I go out or not. The hardest part is making the decision to be with or without my partner. Of course, I want to be with him, but I’d never expect him to stay home with me. So the choice becomes whether to go out and struggle through my anxiety to be with him or stay in the comfort of my home alone. Of course, there is no right answer. I know whichever I choose, there will be an element of regret regarding my decision.

As I write this, I am aware of the generalizations I make. I know not everyone goes out. I know not everyone stays out until midnight. I know not everyone enjoys the celebrations. It’s just when it comes to New Year’s Eve, with the publicity, the hype and the flurry of people’s excitement, it’s easy to forget the reality. I think sometimes all you need to know is other people are right there in the same boat as you.

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to make friends with someone who feels similarly anxious about social gatherings. I’m looking forward to spending the evening with her. In my 30-odd years, this is the first time I’ve felt excited about my plans and felt OK about doing something different than most people. After all, starting the year on the right foot is what it’s all about, and my right foot just happens to be crafting with a friend who understands.

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As if the challenges you have to face living with and trying to battle mental illness (in my case, recurring severe anxiety and depression) aren’t enough, there’s also the feeling of shame that goes with it. That’s my experience anyway, and I would guess that of most others who are living with any type of ongoing or recurring mental health condition.

During my latest/ongoing episode of depression and anxiety, I have on many occasion likened the shame I experience to how I assume one must feel when they have committed a serious crime.

The big difference is, I haven’t done anything wrong.

I experience this feeling of shame and embarrassment on a daily basis, often many times during a day. At the moment, I routinely find myself in situations where it is impossible to avoid the subject — you bump into someone (it can happen anywhere – school drop off/pick up, football, supermarket to name but a few), and they ask why I’m not working, when will I be going back to work, why my wife had to go back to full-time instead of part-time given we still have young children. Most of the time, I find it extremely difficult being honest, despite many years of experience of this retched illness. And when I do tell people, I very often only tell them part of the story. And even then, after the conversation has ended, I get paranoid about whether I have said too much, what will they think of me, etc. I completely overanalyze most conversations for that very reason. And that puts you off getting into conversations.

I long for the day I can be completely honest about who I am, and remove myself from these shackles. In the past I’ve been able to get by without having to be too open about my condition, being honest on a need to know basis only! But the latest episode has had such a major impact on the lives of myself and my family, it’s almost impossible not to be honest with people.

Even small talk with a completely innocent and friendly individual can be awkward. Cashiers in the shops often ask things like, “So, you’ve got a day off work today?” Such a simple everyday situation shouldn’t be difficult. I usually find myself just going along with it and say “Yeah,” to avoid that topic going any further. And then I try to change the subject. So even the most seemingly straightforward of encounters can be uncomfortable. I assume many others will relate to this.

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And then there are the questions from family members — I would like to stress in my situation these are well-meaning family members who themselves are at a loss as to what to do and what to say to their friends. Questions along the lines of, “What should we tell xyz if they ask how you’re getting on at work?” “Is xyz allowed to know you’re not well?” And as someone who has chronic migraines, a frequent and at times convenient cover used by myself and my family – “Shall we just say that you’ve been having a bad spell with your migraines?” Having also experienced first hand the stigma surrounding migraines, using that as a more acceptable line to tell people says it all really. There are also the comments such as, “We don’t know who we’re supposed to say what to!” — going back to my earlier comment about crime. That is how comments and questions such as those make you feel, like you’ve done something wrong that shouldn’t really be spoken about, and if so only to a very select few.

I had to deal with those conversations regularly when I was at my lowest point in April. When getting through each day is a huge struggle and a major achievement in itself, the absolute last thing you need is to be faced with making decisions about who is allowed to know what about your condition.

Having been forced to leave more than one job in my chosen (now ex-) career because of mental health issues, I constantly live with the fear and the shame of bumping into former colleagues. Again, I feel as if I have done something wrong. I left because I have anxiety and depression, not because I had my hand in the till embezzling money. But shame doesn’t seem to differentiate.

I still feel awkward bumping into people I worked with almost 15 years ago. What do they think of me, I still wonder. Do they think I’m crazy? In reality I’m sure they don’t give it any thought whatsoever — they have their own lives and issues to deal with. In an attempt to help, my wife often says to me: “What makes you think you’re so important that these people are giving you any further thought?” And that is so true. But it doesn’t seem to make it any easier. I frequently avoid social occasions or find myself crossing the road to avoid such encounters.

 

Even now, when starting this new blog, I feel unable to be honest and attach my name to this blog, for fear of my posts being seen by someone who knows me. And of people I know then talking about me.

In the 20-plus years since I first became aware of having mental health issues, it is a subject which is definitely more widely spoken about. And it is more acceptable to admit to struggling than it was back then. But despite the progress, anyone who has experienced mental health problems will I’m sure agree it does remain very much a taboo subject. And none more so than in the workplace.

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