floral pattern sneakers standing on old wooden floor

I can smile. I can laugh. I can be happy.

Now, I do this without having to fake it, without wearing a perfected mask to disguise the truth of my illness from those around me. I do it because it is finally true, and I don’t want to let it fade away.

I had been letting my mental illness suppress my capacity to enjoy things. I was looking through fear-filled glasses, and they would not break. I knew no matter how much I tried to deny it, the fault was in my perspective — a perspective that over the last few years had been shaped into something that meant I saw danger in everything. By changing my view of anything I deemed slightly scary, I opened the door to so much more.

Little by little, I have branched out and I have become myself: a girl who doesn’t always need to worry or live in fear of danger, a girl who knows how to be happy.

The process has taken months of self-help and therapy; I have tried everything. Mindfulness, reflexology, hypnotherapy, writing — anything I could do to diminish the pain I was going through. I had been living in fear of my own fear – of my panic attacks, and the symptoms coinciding with them. I was terrified of what could happen if I wasn’t kept busy enough to shut out the thoughts echoing inside my head. My head became a noisy place, battling with me on my path to my revival. I set myself small goals and took each day as it was. Pressure hurt me. I knew I couldn’t rush this, but I never stopped trying. I knew I wanted and needed change; it was just going to take time.

I learned communication is the biggest help; distance is the worst.

Positivity, patience and praise became the instruments to my recovery, as the weight of my illness no longer fell on just my shoulders. I didn’t need to run away and hide, fighting my panic attacks by myself because someone was always there. They knew my anxiety was not a personal attack on them. I was picked up, supported and brought on a journey — a journey of health, happiness and comfort I never got from being alone.

After realizing recovery isn’t an overnight process, I knew I could fight my anxiety. Everyone takes a different route, which is never going to be easy. I no longer have consistent panic attacks, I sleep better at night and I don’t constantly worry. I try to see things in a more positive light – I won’t let myself believe any intrusive thoughts I have.

I didn’t control my mental illness, but I certified it couldn’t control me. My anxiety will always be a part of me, but that’s OK. If there are setbacks, I know I am strong enough to get back to how I am. Whatever I go through, I will be OK. I am happy again, and that’s the most important thing.

It was always going to take little steps, but little steps make the biggest changes.

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Thinkstock photo via LeszekCzerwonka.


Once in a while, my husband, Lee, and I will sit down and do a relationship check-up. Just a couple of questions like “how are you doing?” and “anything you want to do differently?” Kind of like Festivus but without the pole.

Lee brought up that he’d like to entertain more. Like, people in our house entertain. Sounded doable at the time. Yes, let’s entertain more. Great idea. I’ve always loved magazine spreads showing reclaimed wood tables dressed with linens and adorned with flowers and candles. Cheese trays displayed with grapes, artisnal crackers and those fancy curved cheese knives (I have one and use it for my scratch-off tickets).

Then reality hit. He invited a neighbourhood family over.

Immediately I started making to-do lists. Grocery lists. Lists of lists. As the day approached I became consumed with how my house looked:

The kitchen needs painting…too many toys on the main floor…god I hate these chairs…

And as I looked around, I felt nothing was good enough. How could we have people over with so many scruffy baseboards?

The benefit of being treated at a mental-health facility, though, is that they teach you to think differently. What if my house was just fine the way it is? What if I didn’t exhaust myself on the Saturday of the dinner party? Could the evening be less than perfect and still be fun?

Off to Google to search “don’t want to entertain too stressful,” and like a beacon, the top link shone out: “The Crappy Dinner Party.”

Here’s the link. In my opinion, it’s brilliant.

So I decided not to stress.

I didn’t stress out about this:

Photo of deck in backyard with dirt on it

We dumped the X-mas tree out there. Mess, mess everywhere.

Or the piles of paper here and there:

Counter in home topped with plant, papers, crossword puzzle, and SodaStream bottle

What is a four-letter word for constant mess? Kids! Oooh! A crossword.

But I did use this:

Bottle of Febreeze spray on counter at home

Make the place smell nice.

Lit a bunch of these:

Lit candle

You, you light up my life.

And spent seven dollars on these beauties.

Vase filled with fresh tulips

Tulips on your piano.

The menu was also easy. Recipes I tried out the week before: Crockpot pulled pork on fresh buns, coleslaw and potato salad. Chips as appetizers. Apple pie for dessert.

The only things that are non-negotiable in my world are 1) a clean kitchen and 2) clean bathrooms.

So I got up on the Saturday, read the newspaper, took the dog for a walk, cleaned the kitchen and bathrooms and then had a nap. I had to stop myself many, many times throughout the course of the day when I could feel the anxiety rising. I silently yelled STOP when my panicked mind wanted to take over and cancel the evening. I breathed deeply when my stomach started twisting at the thought of entertaining all night. I certainly did not ask myself “what’s the worst that can happen?” because my mind is capable of catastrophizing even a casual dinner party. So I walked, I breathed and reminded myself that I was in control, not my thoughts. By the time the doorbell rang, I was relaxed and ready to go. The evening was a huge success, and I was able to keep my eyes open past 9 p.m.

I think a few things contributed to success of the evening: our guests were greeted warmly upon their arrival. I actually said “I’m so glad you’re here” because I was; I didn’t need 15 more minutes to make the beds. The food was good; not great, but good. Their drinks were refreshed promptly and there was lots to laugh about.

Plus, when you face your fears and anxieties head on with a successful outcome, it gives you confidence. I discovered that perfection is often the enemy of excellence, and that I need to remind myself of that on a regular basis. I realized that kindness sometimes involves extending yourself outside your comfort zone. Our neighbours had a great time, and I didn’t have the usual fitful night of sleep following a dinner party – wondering if everything was OK. I didn’t have to worry. Our “crappy” dinner party was really, really OK and I’m OK with that.

Follow this journey on Kindism.

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There’s such a blessing and a curse involved in living your life with your heart out on display. It’s the biggest blessing when you give love to those around you — friends, family, strangers on the internet. I would be lying if I said my heart didn’t bust at the seams with joy at all the beautiful and amazing souls in my life.

I know I am very fortunate in so many ways. But although most days I feel strong and brave and steadfast in who I am, sometimes my heart breaks.

The danger of walking around with your guts and heart out to give is, it also makes you a target. People can chip away and tug at you more than ever before. Sometimes giving love and of myself to others is ultimately rewarding and keeps me sane. But on nights like tonight, it can crush my soul.

Living life with anxiety can feel like I’m walking on a tight rope, dangerously balancing so I don’t fall off. I sweat and force a smile while I feel watched. Judged. Observed under the lights. Each time someone gives me a compliment or shares their praise, the rope shrinks. Frays. Making my trip across — my act of balancing it all — even more daunting. All while everyone is watching and waiting to see what happens. Most are rooting for me. Others hang on every second, waiting to watch me fall.

I don’t tell you this for any other reason than to show you it’s really fucking hard to be strong all the time. I see so many women trying to do it all and be it all for everyone. We seek solace and comfort in seeing other strong women do what we can not. We feel less than and unworthy when we don’t feel strong and brave.

But sometimes the strongest fall the hardest. Hurt the deepest. Love the boldest. We see triumphs and bravery and success in others and desperately seek it in ourselves. But we have that brokenness, messiness. We hurt. Our hearts break. You often don’t see that, the clean up of the results of a passionate person’s breakdowns.

Because we take that hurt and use it to give more. Love more. Do more. Be more. We break down. Then we show up. Loving harder than before. The passion you see? It’s fueled by the wreckage. The build up from the breakdown. The work of art they piece back together. Because that’s what we do. And we do it all with a smile.

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Thinkstock photo via GPitman.

For most people, going to the doctor is a simple interruption in their work day or day off. It’s a simple, “I’m here for a checkup.” It’s a boring two-hour period of waiting for a doctor to speak to you for 15 minutes before sending you on your way. For someone with a mental illness like me, it can be absolutely terrifying.

I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. For me, going to the doctor means an unavoidable panic attack and my entire day is ruined. Before I got married and got insurance, I hadn’t been to a doctor for over six years. I finally got to see a doctor about two weeks ago. I was so excited for this appointment because there are so many symptoms I’ve been experiencing that hadn’t been addressed. I was ready to tell my doctor about my mental illness and I was ready for treatment. That was, until the morning of my appointment.

When I woke up, I immediately remembered my appointment being in about three hours. For those three hours, I couldn’t sit still. I was going from the living room to the kitchen, aimlessly wandering the house, until it came time to get ready. My head started pounding and my chest felt light, as though all my organs had teleported outside my body. I got in the car and drove to my doctor and on the way, listened to music to cool me down. Unfortunately, this did not work.

My doctor is on a military base, so when I gave my ID to the man at the gate, my hands were shaking and I was sweating profusely. I walked into the facility and was so absent-minded I circled the building several times before finally finding the stairs. When I found the location of my doctor’s office, I gave my name to the woman at the desk and sat down. They called my name: “Cranston. Cranston. Mrs. Cranston?” I zoned out before finally answering “Here!”

The next 30 minutes were torture. Every question the nurse asked me went over my head. I felt stupid. The nurse seemed not to notice, however and left to get the doctor. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, carefully rehearsing what I was to tell the doctor. I sat on that table fidgeting, shaking, sweating. I attempted to do the breathing exercises that had been pounded in my head by previous therapists, but nothing was working. I was starting to have a panic attack and needed to stop it before someone came in and saw it. I took a few more deep breaths and reminded myself this was just a primary care physician and she wasn’t going to do anything or say anything to me I couldn’t handle. My experience with doctors is not a good one, so my nervousness was warranted in my head.

Finally, I relaxed enough to take a deep breath right as the doctor walked in. She seemed rushed in her examination, but I promised myself not to mention mental health until the end of the appointment. In my experience, when I’ve mentioned having a mental illness early on in the appointment, everything else I say was written off as a symptom of my mental illness and excused as a false symptom. This is the most frustrating experience for an ill person.

She asked, “What types of symptoms are you having today?” I responded with, “I….I…..I have….” before tears began to run down my cheeks. I gasped at my own emotional display and looked to the doctor to check her reaction. She reassured me this was a simple check up and I shouldn’t be nervous. She handed me a tissue, told me to take a deep breath and asked again. This time I answered completely, but forgot half of what I had rehearsed and had to randomly blurt out symptoms throughout her exam. When I mentioned mental illness, she immediately referred me to a behavioral health physician that could help me. Success!

Going to the doctor is not a simple task and it takes a lot of willpower for someone like me. I can’t count how many doctors appointments I’ve cancelled because my anxiety was too overwhelming.

For the rest of the day, I felt defeated, weak and depressed. I try to get my doctor’s appointments as late in the day as possible so I don’t spend all day depressed. It’s difficult to feel achievement or happiness after an appointment, even one that goes very well.

Hopefully one day I will become more comfortable with doctors and will have an experience that proves to me they are not there to judge, ridicule or expect the worst from those with mental illnesses, but as of today, my feelings stand strong. I have another doctor’s appointment next week and I guarantee I will feel the same, but I will survive. Because I am strong and I have all of you to tell me so.

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Thinkstock photo via utah778.

Thank you for staying up on those late nights talking to me about all of my anxious feelings.

You always tried to help out and make me feel better even though you struggled to find words to say. And honestly? You’ve always helped me.

You understood there wasn’t a cure and sat by me to help me cope with it and get through it.

There’s just so much to say, but you always help me through everything.

Now I feel like you’re distant, like I am pushing you away with my anxiety, but you say you will always be there. I feel like you’re sick of me, even though you aren’t. I feel guilt for venting to you, like if I vent too much you will be gone. I cannot imagine my life without you being there. I just can’t. I need you to be there and support me through it all. My anxiety makes me feel like I’m pushing you away, when really we’re closer than ever.

I love you to death and truly appreciate you putting up with me when times are rough for you also. There are those nights I stay up super late venting to you and then get afraid I’ve said too much or overwhelmed you.

You tell me to stop apologizing, but I can’t. I get anxious and can say nothing except, “I’m sorry.”

I always feel like my anxiety is pushing you away.

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Thinkstock photo by Nina Hilitukha

I don’t know how to casually like something. Whether it’s a book, TV show, musical artist or a creative activity, I will hyperfixate for a while and then usually drop it after a week or so. Sometimes, I’ll refocus my attention on it in a few months, or it will take a few years.

Recently, I binge-watched about three seasons of BBC’s “Merlin.” I also sped through the first half of the 853 page book “Anna Karenina.” I exclusively listened to the music of Coeur de Pirate for three weeks. I briefly resumed my obsession with “Hamilton” for a few days. I’m watching “Friends” for the millionth time. I’ve rejuvenated my love for All Time Low. This has only been in 2017 so far. It hasn’t happened yet, but about once a year, I take up knitting again.

So why do I hyperfixate? Why can’t I just like something without becoming completely immersed in it?

My theory is because I’m typically overwhelmed by bad mental health days (depression and anxiety), I tend to resort to outside distractions. I don’t know how to cope with my undesirable thoughts without total immersion.

If I’m not binging on a show, the thoughts are more likely to make an appearance. If I don’t listen to a specific artist or album on repeat, my mind is filled with self-loathing thoughts rather than lyrics.

In a way, I’m protecting myself. I would much rather think about how Phoebe and Joey would have made a great couple than about how I feel alone. I would love to read a book with depth instead of think about how I haven’t been productive for a week and a half. I’d rather practice singing along to the tongue-twisting lyrics of “My Shot” than berate myself for doing something inadequately – on that note, I just love when I nail singing these lines:

Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not.

A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists?
Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!

In any case, it’s a coping mechanism. It may not be the most practical or convenient, but it works.

My hyperfixation isn’t a bad thing. It’s just an aspect of my mental illnesses I have to accept. I may get teased for it or told my hyperfixation is annoying, but it’s what works for me. Allowing myself to surrender to my passions keeps me from spiraling into a vortex of depression, and that’s OK with me.

So maybe your coping mechanism isn’t hyperfixation. Maybe it’s something else entirely, but as long as it’s not putting you or someone else at risk of harm, then I say you do you. If it works, then there is no reason why you should feel ashamed of whatever it is that you do.

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Thinkstock photo by Ryan McVay

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