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This Summer, Depression Won't Win Again

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Everyone is usually so excited for summer. Warm days, pool parties and the occasional adventure. But these are the things I fear most while struggling with depression in the summer.

Summer means warmer weather, which realistically means less clothing. I hate showing my body. I am not the tiniest girl, but I have gained weight and now I hate showing myself outside my home. I fear judgement, not of others, but myself. I hate looking in the mirror and wanting to look like anything but myself. Depression wins again.

In the summer, girls typically wear tank tops and shorts, but I wear leggings and baggy t-shirts to hide my thighs and my stomach. I don’t dare go swimming for the simply because I would have to wear a bathing suit. I am so uncomfortable with my body. I can’t remember the last time I tried on a bathing suit and smiled back at the person in the mirror. Depression wins again.

I fear adventures and not knowing where I will end up or who I will meet along the way. Long walks make me cringe because I get nervous about crossing paths with a really “fit” girl that will unconsciously make me hate myself. Depression wins again.

Summer may be warm and school free, but for me, it means just another day I have to fight my mental health all over again, only this time around, I can’t hide myself behind my clothes.

 But this summer, depression will not win again.

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Thinkstock photo via adra_savasciogullari

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The Frustration of Slowly Recovering From Depression

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I still have to remind myself that only a few months ago I was spending my days in bed, miserable.

So much has changed since then, since keeping steadfast with therapy and changing my medication. I’ve even started venturing more seriously into The Outside World, with classes and volunteering.

But I find the need for energy in The Outside World is much greater than the amount I have now — what was enough when I was in my bed certainly isn’t enough now that I must interact with others, engage, work. Interacting, mostly, has been difficult. It leaves me anxious and drained very easily, and so I often feel very isolated because I’m not interacting as much as I need to, for lack of energy. It was different when I was accustomed, even comfortable, in lonesomeness. Now I have enough energy to (sorely) miss my friends but not enough energy to keep in regular touch with them, as I’d like. I just feel too depleted.

That’s the thing, though — as soon as I reached this intermediate state of healing, I began to yearn for a whole, full life, lived in full capacity, when just months ago I was practically in hibernation. I’m finding The Outside World very taxing, and I don’t want to. I want to feel as if I’ve been participating in it forever. But… I haven’t. And it shows in how much I’m struggling to adjust to Real Life, even if it feels ridiculous I still have to take so many steps at baby pace, for my own sake, since emotionally I feel so much better. But mentally, energetically, motivationally, I’m still fairly the same.

A big part of me already wants to go live life at full throttle and is disappointed and immensely frustrated when I can’t — when I feel literally unable, when I see baby steps is still what’s needed and required. But I want to be proud of my life already. I’m extremely impatient for things to start getting good — and they are, but slowly. And a big part of me wants good now, fast, abundantly, and it hurts when I don’t get to have it. That I have to wait, and take the proper steps to everything, and can’t be on the other side of healing just yet — that I still have to pace myself and not take a “step bigger than my leg.”

Basically, at the merest sight of some improvement, I wanted to be completely OK again, and I’m not — I can’t yet be — and that frustrates me. I want to be completely OK again, and I’m still not. I’ve got an engine roaring to go inside me, but the car is still missing parts — it can’t go at full speed yet. I want to race already, I want to race now, but I can’t.

I’ve gotta wait — for the car fixing to be complete. (If it’ll ever be “complete.”) But I can’t be racing just yet… and that’s really frustrating to a (seemingly) healthy engine.

Follow this journey on The Self Express.

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Photo by Eddy Lackmann, via Unsplash

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How a David Bowie Journal Helped Me Cope With Anxiety and Depression

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On Christmas morning 2016, I opened one of my gifts and revealed the David Bowie journal I had been coveting. A simple black cover with white text proclaimed a famous Bowie quote: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” Originally, I had thought it was just a cool item to pay homage to one of my favorite musicians. Little did I know that journal would become instrumental in helping me through a low period.

I’ve never been a consistent journaler, so I worried about figuring out how best to use it. Could I use it to gather various lists? Scribble meeting notes? It wasn’t until I went back to that quote standing defiantly on the cover that I realized what I needed that journal for. It would be a journal to document transitions and stepping into the unknown. I already knew at that point that I would be resigning from my job in a few months, and possibly leaving my profession altogether. With that knowledge came a flood of emotions: excitement, fear, doubt, certainty, pride, relief. Like Bowie said, I had no idea where I was going next, but the roller coaster of emotions was anything but boring.

I decided to make that simple notebook my inspiration journal. I would fill it with pictures, quotes, passages, stickers, lists, gratitude and ideas — anything that spoke to me and helped me remain courageous in the face of such a big change. I would write in it as much or as little as I needed. With no rigid journaling protocol to adhere to, I excitedly illustrated the first page with my word of the year: peace. I filled the next few pages with new strategies and big ideas that I was trying out as a way to shift my mindset. Everything was coming together. Then, a particularly difficult bout with anxiety and depression hit.

I turned to that journal and began using the pages to write through the millions of self-defeating thoughts that consumed my mind on a daily basis. I immediately found great comfort in the process. It was as if the swirling tornado inside my head finally had a place to go instead of getting stuck and wreaking havoc. What was most (pleasantly) surprising, though, was the fact that I always came back to an entry later in the day to add a positive ending. This wasn’t something I had intentionally set out to do. But through releasing my thoughts on paper, I became free to take in the positive things all around me. It only made sense to record the shift that I experienced each day — a reminder that the lows were not permanent.

My inspiration journal was the space I created for myself to release the things that were weighing me down. And the more I used it to work through the low times, the less I started to need it. Now it serves as a collection and reminder of the ways I empowered myself to overcome.

I wish I could say that the work is over, but I know that is not the case. It never really ends. But now I have a place to go. Inside the pages of my journal, I can work through the highs and lows of every challenge and change I face. And I often find myself going back to that quote on the cover and thinking of the pioneering musician who carved out his own unique path. What an empowering reminder that I have a chance to do the same on every blank page.

This article was previously published on Besomebody.

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What to Say and What Not to Say to Help Your Loved One With a Mental Illness

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I’ve come to realize my honesty seems to provide comfort to people who may be living with mental illness and its associated complications. Up to this point, however, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of those living with mental illness. If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who struggles with mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully, I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.

Maybe Not So Helpful:

“Get well soon!”

This is said with undoubtedly the best intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “get well” or “feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it” that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. This is certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.

Maybe try: “Take care of yourself.”

“I know exactly how you feel.”

A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know exactly how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.

Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”

“Have you tried…?”

Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help; however, it could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried… yoga? Meditation? Have I tried not being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet — and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say you shouldn’t share your success stories — just keep in mind that your loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.

Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”

Definitely Helpful:

Do something.

When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favorite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized I was frozen by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.

Be a generous listener.

Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.

“I will be with you.”

There are times where I am fearful the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me I’m not fighting this alone.

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Unsplash photo via Kelly Sikkema

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These Are the 'Perks' of My Depression

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Generally speaking, mental illness is not something people are thrilled to identify with or experience. I can’t say I’m often jazzed about chronic fatigue, self-doubt and the emotional imbalance that accompany my illness. Things I could live without, am I right? However, a life without depression would not be life as I know it. Despite my struggles, I am grateful for the life I have built, and part of that includes an understanding of an evolving identity that includes mental illness.

For the purposes of discussion, I say “perks” mostly with tongue-in-cheek; however, along my journey I’ve noted several ways my depression has enhanced my life rather than detracted from it.

1. Better insight into moods and feelings:

Being vulnerable to unpredictable changes in mood and well-being, I’ve become adept at identifying my feelings quickly and accurately. Most times, I can sense the signs of an oncoming depressive low; for example, when I find myself derailed by a seemingly unimportant event, such as a routine blunder in my dating life. When I’m healthy, something like this wouldn’t faze me (I’m basically Mary J. Blige) but a disproportionate emotional reaction is often indicative I’m spiraling. I’ve had to learn to stop, evaluate and put a label on my feelings (shame, embarrassment, anger, etc) so I can do something productive about them – share with a friend, discuss with my therapist, or sit with them and allow them to run their course.

2. Grateful for contentment:

In my late teens and early 20s, I was always chasing the next source of excitement in my life. More often than not, I overdid it in pursuit of bigger and better thrills – too much drinking, partying, unhealthy lifestyle choices, blowing my budget. All of the excess would leave me with an emotional hangover that could last for days. I realize now it was the depressive lows I was trying to outrun. Maturity helped – I eventually lost the stamina for thrill-seeking, but I also came to value the stability of contentment and happiness over whirlwind excitement. As someone who is always pursuing emotional equilibrium, being content is the new goal.

3. Empathy and understanding of others:

The obvious one: having a lived experience with mental illness personally and within my family, I’m well equipped to be compassionate with people sharing similar experiences. While I would never suggest I know exactly how someone feels, as everyone experiences their feelings within their personal context, I can certainly relate to how frustrating and exhausting mental illness can be. This understanding makes me a better friend and family member and gives me a strong skill set to support my clients in my line of work.

4. Quality relationships:

Friends who love you even when you’re feeling about as fun as a bag of bugs are treasures to your life. I’ve been absolutely #blessed to have friends who not only tolerate my illness but wade around in the muck of it with me when I need them to. These are the friends who notice small changes in my behaviors and regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with me. These are the people who love me and see my value. I have had to let go of people along the way when I sensed I could only be one version of myself – the happy, positive, over-the-top energetic version – and I wasn’t confident my depression would be accepted or understood. If mental illness gives you anything, it tells you who your people are.

5. Permission to be honest:

Being honest about mental illness can be very freeing. There is an unmistakeable sense of relief in verbalizing, “Sometimes I’m not OK.” I hid behind a convincing semblance of “being OK” for a long time, and it was ultimately detrimental to my well-being because — surprise! Depression eventually surfaced to greet me anyway in spectacular fashion. Now, I can talk about it without fear of being discovered because I’m no longer pretending I’m OK when I’m not. In being honest about the problem, I now have a better sense of what I need to take care of myself and I’m always pursuing avenues to improve my well-being through research, therapy, medication, self-care and reaching out to my people. So, sure. Mental illness has a pull on me that can cause difficulties in my day-to-day. And there are certainly symptoms I’d be pleased to live without. As a result of my challenges, however, I have gained insight, self-awareness, empathy and gratitude, and these are qualities I can’t imagine living without.

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Unsplash photo via Veronika Balasyuk

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Can Writing Down 3 Things You Did Well Help With Depression?

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You know what’s a pain in the ass? When you’re depressed, believe something could help you feel better, but don’t have the energy to do it.

It’s… well, depressing.

When I was in treatment, I picked up the habit of doing a nightly inventory. The spiritual director of the treatment center suggested it. He said to write down:

1. Things you’re grateful for.
2. Things you did well that day.
3. Things you could have done better.
4. Things you’ll improve tomorrow.

I found it valuable. But, over time, I fell out of practice. It became yet another thing I should be doing but didn’t have the energy or give-a-damn to do.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s new book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” suggests a smaller form of the practice. Instead of doing the full inventory, simply write down three things you did well every day.

Sheryl doubted the suggestion at first, writing, “I was barely functioning; what moments of success could I find? Got dressed today. Trophy please!”

But really — in depression, there were some days where I wasn’t able to get dressed, where I couldn’t get out of bed or brush my teeth or shower or function. Days where I would have deserved a trophy for doing those things.

Maybe it’s the same for you.

Over time, Sheryl came to trust the process. Focusing on “small wins” (and writing them down) can reduce stress levels and decrease mental and physical health complaints.

Some days, your small wins might not include getting dressed. Some days, your small wins might be:

1. I drank a glass of water.
2. I continued breathing.
3. I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else.

Some days your small wins might be even smaller, and that’s OK. Depression is hard. You’re a badass just for surviving.

The point of the practice is to focus on your contributions and eventually build confidence.

I think doing it right before bed is useful. How many of us go to bed beating ourselves up over all the things we’ve done wrong, instead of focusing on a few things we’ve done well?

A lot of times, your depression will try to tell you that you haven’t done anything well — that you’re a loser and a failure and a waste of oxygen.

Fuck depression.

You’re a survivor and a warrior and worthy of every drop of oxygen. Now let’s see if you can convince yourself of that…

My suggestion: try it for a month. Every night before bed, write down three things you did well that day, no matter how small. Keep a notebook by your bed or write it down on your phone. You might feel better.

Follow this journey on Depression Free.

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Thinkstock photo via Stockbyte

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