What Can I Do When Physical Illness Affects My Mental Illness? Plenty, I Hope.

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Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. Last fall was the first time ever that I got to experience life mostly anxiety-free. I started medication, I wrote about my anxiety here on the Mighty, I did a lot of yoga, and I was feelin’ so fine.

Unfortunately, 2017 had others things in mind for me. The day before New Year’s Eve I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst heartburn of my entire life. I have had heartburn issues on and off since I got pregnant seven years ago, but this was something different. Not only could I not lie down, I couldn’t really even recline in any way. I was up for hours, miserable with the feeling that the contents of my stomach were now residing somewhere just behind my sternum.

These episodes turned into a weekly occurrence. Long story short, I got myself to a doctor, had an endoscopy, and was diagnosed with gastritis. This is a condition where the lining of my stomach is inflamed. I was put on medication, which took away that imminent barfing feeling but left me nauseous and still waking up a lot at night. And the lovely part was the endoscopy detected no real reason for me having this, which means I have no way to treat the underlying cause.

So what does that have to do with my anxiety? Plenty. First, as many others like me with mental illness will know, a lack of sleep has a direct affect on my mental state. Second, feeling nauseous most of the time really saps my motivation to do pretty much anything. Therefore I don’t, and that builds up stress.

I can’t find a way to be OK with my lack of a clear diagnosis. I end up looking for information on gastritis at least once a day, hoping to find some answer and trying to not read the paragraphs that talk about associated cancer risks.

So yeah, a recipe for an anxiety souffle. A perfect mix of fluffy, free-floating fear mixed with a creamy base of physical misery. I find my anxiety has returned in a number of familiar ways, from general misery to feeling on the verge of tears for no immediate reason, to wanting to hide in my bed.

But this article isn’t just meant to be an “Oh poor me” exercise, although I like that part of it, too. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I’m trying to see this as a situation I can cope with and not let myself fall back into the dark places I spent a good portion of my life inhabiting.

With those goals in mind, I’m working on an action plan:

1. Eat all the healthy foods. Up those leafy greens, whole grains, and omega-3 rich fish.Instead of considering it a restrictive diet, consider it fortifying my body with the equipment it needs to get me well and keep me there.

2. Serious stress reduction efforts. Yoga, classical music, aromatherapy, but also cutting myself a break. I had set some intense exercise goals at the start of the year, but now I need to admit I can’t reach all of them because I’m just not well enough to work at a high intensity on a lot of days.

3. Never, never, never give up. Yes, I want to lay down all the time, but I’m not going to. I still need to do the things. I need to play with my son and get my deadlifts in. But I can modify. I can do lighter weight and I can suggest we play a board game instead of wrestling on the floor.

4. Admit I’m not OK right now. Say it to my husband, say it to my mom, tell it to my son. I tried to be superwoman after my son was born and I was struggling with postpartum anxiety. I’m not going to make that mistake again with this battle. I can’t fight it alone, and I’m not even going to try.

5. Buy myself flowers. This last one may seem out of place, but it’s in there for a reason. I have spent over a decade wanting to buy flowers every time I walked into a grocery store. I never did; it seemed like a waste of money. But just last month a bunch of roses was too gorgeous to resist and I bought it. And then the next week I did it again. And you know what? Those flowers on my counter make me smile every day. So I’m putting it in the plan.

That’s what I’ve got so far. I don’t know how well it will work. I don’t know how long this condition will last. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on that from what I have read. Maybe it will only be another month, maybe it will be another year, maybe it won’t go away at all. My anxiety brain hates that uncertainty. But I’m working on it.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has had to battle both mental and physical illness at the same time. Please feel free to post in comments your experiences and impart your wisdom. Let’s lift each other up and hold tight to the hope that we can create happiness for ourselves no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

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How Horror Films Help Me Cope With My Anxiety

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My passion for the horror genre has been around for as long ago as I can remember. An early memory revolves around a season two episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in which Buffy is admitted to a hospital where a frightening demon is hunting down sick children. There was something about the vulnerability of a sick child and the menace of a creature that would feed on them that resonated with me heavily at the time.

Since that fateful evening in 1998, my love for the macabre and all things horror began to snowball. I became obsessed with classic horror franchises — “A Nightmare On Elm Street” and “Halloween” in particular really piqued my ghoulish interests. My mother was never supportive of my fascination with horror, and understandably so, but this made it difficult to rent what I wanted. And so, I would convince my well-meaning father into renting what I wanted on our weekends together. And it was together with my dad that I began falling in love with a genre so many reviled. There was just something about horror that sparked my creative engines in a way no other genre of content could.

Cut to the eleventh grade — a time where I finally began to understand what really set me apart from my peers, my passion in life: creative writing. Thanks to a handful of supportive teachers at the arts high school I attended, I began to understand my love for horror was not just a morbid fascination, but a true indicator of what I was passionate about — what I was good at. My creative work — while not always strictly horror — is and was always in some way inspired by the tropes of the macabre that fascinated me so heavily in my youth.

My creative work began to act as my strongest weapon against the true horrors of my anxiety disorder, a struggle I had perceived as a plague until around this time. This is when I realized my anxiety, just like horror, could be used as a creative tool.

Since I was a child I’ve coped with anxiety and phobia, so it’s no wonder my mother and so many other of the adults in my life tried to keep me away from a genre they perhaps perceived as triggering. It’s why I felt somewhat ashamed of my passion until adulthood when I began to realize horror was not my trigger, but instead my creative muse. The horror genre and my anxiety disorder would both become invaluable creative tools.

Horror allowed me to step out of the shadows and switch tables with the dark, menacing thoughts, which kept me so nervous during my childhood. I could reverse the effect and take on any role I chose: from the viewpoint of the monster in the “Friday the 13th” series to the feminine heroines of my favorite 90s slasher flicks, which empowered me as a young homosexual in a world which so often looked down on queer themes and effeminate values.

Now I’m an adult I have a stronger sense of what anxiety means to me. And I can look back fondly and understand that just because a genre of content was frightening, it didn’t mean it was having a negative impact on my mental health. Many of my peers who also have a shared passion for horror are also exceptionally creative people who have coped with anxiety and depression their whole lives. What we all agree upon is that the catharsis of horror holds a meaning to us, which is almost impossible to describe but it’s something we wouldn’t give up for the world.

Horror has the ability to lift the veil between the known and the unknown. And what we find on the other side is often gruesome, terrible and frightening – engaging with it is a whole lot less unsettling than just ignoring it all together.

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Why I Accept My Anxiety

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The other day, I was thinking how perfect my life would personally be without my anxiety. I get good grades, I have two parents who love each other and I have everything I could ever want. I also have one thing that I don’t want: Anxiety.

With anxiety, it dulls everything I have. It affects my grades. My parents are so frustrated it strains our relationship. It’s hard to leave the house some days.

But I do leave the house on those hard days, and that’s where my anxiety showed me what strength is.

It taught me that I actually have to work hard for straight As.

Personally, I believe it showed me that not everyone will understand — sometimes not even your family.

So today I pictured my life if I had never walked into that church and had that very first panic attack. It was probably inevitable, but if it wasn’t and I never had that panic attack I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had.

I wouldn’t be as understanding of others as I am now. I wouldn’t give a second thought to mental health. I would still think to be strong meant the amount of weight you could lift.

Anxiety taught me that strength is so much more than that.

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Why I'm Giving My 'Anxiety Brain' Two Days Off

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Labor laws are in place to protect workers from abuse. They are meant to regulate the time a person can spend on-duty to ensure quality of life. The anxious mind however, is not aware of, nor cares about, labor laws.

The anxious brain works overtime, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This leaves us, the owners of these over-enthusiastic minds, physically and emotionally spent. Every little bump in the road is equivalent of a crisis. As a result, our shoulders are slumped, our skin is sallow and the call of a warm bed in a dark room is too much to ignore. When my computer goes on the fritz, the first thing I do is to try turning it off and on. Reboot the sucker. Maybe the human brain works the same way.  

The good folks at my hospital’s therapy clinic are teaching me how to maintain control over my thoughts. Racing, catastrophizing thoughts are the byproducts of anxiety and is the direct cause of the unpleasant physical side effects of panic. So, in an effort to improve my quality of life, I’m forcing my brain to take two days off. From Friday night until Sunday night, I will not allow intrusive, catastrophizing thoughts to take over. For two days:

1. I promise to eliminate all expectations of others. It is fruitless to base my happiness on what I expect people to do or to say.

2. I promise to be thankful for the home I have instead of finding fault with its flaws.

3. I promise to not overthink every interaction I had with people this week. I will remind myself I was always kind and considerate and that is good enough. What other people think of me is none of my business.

4. I promise, for two days, to accept life is uncertain and stop mentally wringing my hands over everything out of my control.

5. I promise to busy my hands with a puzzle or a craft and busy my mind with music and books.

6. I promise to halt the negative thoughts that creep into my conscious. It may be useless to try to stop them, so I’ll just put them off until Monday.

7. I promise to remind myself I deserve this break from constant worry and anguish, because all the worrying in the world will not change the outcome of anything.

Come Monday, I’ll see how I feel. Hopefully that little almond-shaped part of the brain (called the amygdala) which, in all of us with panic disorders, is way too active, will send out warning shots only in the face of real danger. Being kind to ourselves in this way will make it infinitely easier to be kind to others.

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To My College Roommate Who 'Jumped in the Fire' of Mental Illness With Me

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

To My Beautiful Roommate,

We met last summer and texted periodically through the end of our senior year up until move-in day. I felt like we would get along well and you seemed like a really cool person. Yet, somewhere in the pit of my stomach, I felt like I was lying to you. How do you tell someone you’ve had social anxiety since you were a kid? How do you tell someone that you spent so many nights shaking, crying yourself to sleep? How do you tell someone you’ve wanted to die and have come so close to doing so by your own hand? How do you tell someone about the scars on your wrist? How in the world do you do that?

But I knew I had to tell you. It wouldn’t have been fair to you not to. I knew this meant I would potentially have to find a different roommate, but you seemed like a super accepting person and I knew honesty was key. So, one night I texted you and gave you the basic rundown. I didn’t share specifics, but I told you how depression and anxiety are things I’ve been struggling with for a long time and while I know how to manage them better now than I did five years ago, there are still bad days. I told you I understood if you didn’t want to room with me because of it and there would be no hard feelings.

You responded beautifully. You told me jokingly that I couldn’t get rid of you that easily and if I ever wanted to talk, you were there. I exhaled in relief.

Then, school started. Well, “welcome week” started. We were at an info session for something, but my anxiety began to skyrocket. I needed to leave. So, after what felt like hours of contemplating this, I quietly left the room to “go to the bathroom.” I walked outside and calmed myself down. After realizing I left my water bottle there, I texted you asking you if you could bring it back to the room. You said of course and asked if I was OK or if I needed you. I don’t remember the excuse I gave, but I remember being overwhelmed with gratitude for you.

When you came back, I thanked you and we both made a cup of coffee and began to talk. I have no idea how the subject came up, but we started talking about mental illness. You told me how you didn’t always know how to respond and when your friends in high school first experienced it, you didn’t respond in the best way. But, you learned from it. I don’t know how much I shared with you, but I told you I had left that session because of anxiety and you said you had suspected that, but didn’t want to push anything. You told me you were there for me and if I needed anything to just let you know. My heart was overflowing with the compassion you showed me. To this day, those few hours of just drinking coffee and talking is one of my favorite and most comforting memories.

My transition to college was much more difficult than I anticipated. I quickly was surrounded by self-harm urges and the depression was overbearing. I frequently left the room to go on walks in the middle of the night to clear my head. Through our first semester, you were so kind to me. You were so helpful. You did so much more for me than you will ever know. You took away sharp things I had so I wouldn’t be tempted. You talked me through my moments of weakness. You were just there. And you were great.

Over winter break, I felt like we were growing apart, anxiety plagued my mind and I thought you didn’t want to live with me anymore. I made a New Year’s resolution to be a better roommate to you. I told myself I would keep all the mental health stuff separate from you. Well, unfortunately my plan didn’t work out too well when on the first day back, I had probably the worst anxiety attack of my life and had to call a friend to come up to our room. I didn’t want you to have to see that. I didn’t want you to feel like you had to do this again. I felt awful.

Later in the semester, you heard me purge. The shower had been on and I didn’t think you heard me — you hadn’t when I had done it in the past. But, I came out and you texted me saying “hi.” I responded “hi.” And you asked how I was. I said I was fine and asked how you were. You told me you heard me make myself sick and didn’t know what to do or say, but you wanted to help.

I explained to you I didn’t mean for it to happen and I was trying to stop. I told you I was OK and I thanked you for caring. Over the next couple months, you were there when I struggled with my self-image issues. And you stood by me through it all.

Slowly over the semester, I realized there was no use trying to completely separate this from you. I was significantly better than I had been first semester and I didn’t need to rely on you as much, but when I did, I knew I could.

So to my dear, dear college roommate, thank you. Thank you for hugging me when I cried. Thank you for kicking people out of the room when my anxiety was at a high. Thank you for asking me if I’m OK every time I leave the room to go on a walk. Thank you for being there for me through it all when you have no obligation to do anything. Thank you for laughing with me over the dumbest stuff. Thank you for binging Netflix, drinking coffee and obsessing over snow. Though you had little experience with mental illness, thank you for jumping into that fire with me. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being the best.

I love you,
Your Roommate

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Why My Recovery Has Encouraged Me to Stop Looking So Hard for Love

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Moments of self-doubt. Hours of being unsure about my feelings. Days of not feeling like talking. Weeks of being unable to keep calm. Months of wanting to make everything be perfect.

This is just a taste of some of the things you can expect from me. I have my phases, which come in waves most of the time. Anyone who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression will probably tell you the same. But love is something I struggle with. It’s not that I don’t want love. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. I crave it, long for it, look for it from everyone. It’s something I need. As someone who struggles with the darkness in my brain, I often feel like I need more love than other people do.

But loving me can be hard sometimes. I’m often unpredictable. There are days when getting out of bed is easy and some when it’s barely possible. Some days, I just need to lay in bed and sleep, but some days I want to go on spontaneous adventures. There are nights when I just want to read a book and drink tea, but there are also nights when I want to go to every bar or club and dance all night. I like to keep my significant other on their toes. I’ll often bottle emotions or thoughts up, sometimes for weeks. This often hurts not only myself, but the person I’m in a relationship with. I’m getting much better at this, though.

There are good things about dating me, though. I often give all my heart to others. I’m often very forgiving, because I know at some point, my mental illness is liable to cause me to do something stupid. I like to think I’m a very caring and kind partner. I can sympathize easily with others, because I understand what it’s like to struggle with things. I love helping others. I want to help others. Having someone to walk through life with is something I need.

I guess what it all boils down to is this: I need love and I need to love people. And so do you. People need other people. Don’t forget that. Let love do its thing. I’ve stopped looking so hard for love. That’s become my goal for 2017. Let love find me. Love those around you and first, yourself. That may be the hardest part of all of this, loving yourself. But you can do it. I know you can, because I’m learning to love myself more every day.

“There is never a time or place for true love. It happens accidentally, in a heartbeat, in a single flashing, throbbing moment.” ― Sarah Dessen

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