Amy Marlow

@amy-marlow | contributor
Amy Marlow is a survivor of suicide loss and lives with major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and C-PTSD. She is proud to be a peer facilitator of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) “Peer-to-Peer” recovery education program. Amy writes about mental health, falling apart and starting over at Blue Light Blue. You can find her on Twitter @_bluelightblue_.
Amy Marlow

Depression and Sex: How Depression Affects Sexual Desire

Yes, it’s true — having depression impacts your sex life. But it’s not just because of medication. Since 2004, I’ve dealt with the sexual side effects of taking antidepressants. Feelings of sluggishness. Lack of desire. Occasional discomfort during sex. It’s a trade-off I’ve been willing to make because being healthy and stable is my number one priority. And for the most part I’ve been able to cope with my muted libido and still have an active sex life. But since having a major episode of depression, anxiety and PTSD, my sex drive has all but completely stalled out. As I struggle to deal with this I have been thinking a lot about how mental illness has affected my sexuality as a whole, not just in terms of medication and side effects. For me, feeling sexy has a lot to do with confidence and vulnerability. In order to desire sex I need to feel desirable. In order to be vulnerable I need to feel safe. And going through two years of severe mental illness had a devastating impact on my sense of desirability, confidence and safety. As I watched my life fall apart, I felt like I was regressing away from adulthood. Unable to handle even the most basic daily tasks, I seemed to morph into a dysfunctional teenager trapped in an adult’s body. I relied on other people to get through each day. My mom prepared my meals. My husband handled our household responsibilities. I had to resign from my job. I withdrew from friends. For a while I couldn’t even drive. Since my dad’s suicide I prided myself on being strong and responsible, but when I got sick I watched my sense of responsibility slip through my fingers like sand. Sex felt like one more “adult” behavior that went by the wayside. My adult life shattered into a thousand pieces. I was in and out of a psychiatric hospital. In and out of a partial hospital program. I graduated from SSRI antidepressants and began taking benzodiazepines, mood stabilizers, atypical antipsychotics. Often all at the same time. These medications made the side effects of my previous drugs seem like a walk in the park. My body went through major turmoil as I struggled to find the right combination of meds. First I lost 30 pounds in one month due to anxiety. Then I gained almost 60 pounds due to Lithium. I lost clumps of hair and my skin broke out. I felt anything but desirable. In fact, I felt disgusting. I had absolutely no thoughts or feelings about sex. Every day was a struggle to stabilize and complete basic tasks like eating, taking showers and sleeping. Sex was secondary to surviving. But I fought my way back. It was slow and painful. Only now, two and a half years after admitting myself to the hospital, am I able to think more deeply about sex. And I have realized something important: it’s not just that my new medications are stronger and have much more powerful side effects. It’s also that on a deep down level, I have come to feel like I don’t deserve to be sexy anymore. Can people in mental hospitals feel sexy? Can people who have gained excessive weight due to medication feel physically desirable? Can people who have been abandoned and traumatized feel comfortable with intimacy? For me, answering “yes” to these questions takes a *lot* of work. It’s easy to flippantly say, “Yes, of course you should feel sexy,” but the reality is that I don’t. I avoid looking at my body in the mirror. I feel frustration at my weight gain. And I still feel some shame about my breakdown. Because it’s hard to feel intimacy when you are afraid of abandonment. It’s hard to feel confident when you are struggling with guilt and shame. And it’s hard to feel good about your body when it’s been through hell. But I’m not afraid of doing hard things. So I ask myself this question: Do you deserve to feel sexy again? And the answer is, yes. I deserve sex. I deserve intimacy. This part of me deserves to recover, too. My experience with recovery is that positive change happens slowly, as a result of deliberate choices made every day. So I am chipping away at the protective barrier that depression has built around my inner sexiness. As I have had to do many times before, I talk back to my depressed thinking. I look in the mirror and say, “Amy, your body is beautiful just the way it is.” I look into my husband’s eyes and say, “I want to be close to you.” And I look into myself and say, “I love you, Amy. You are safe.” Beautiful. Safe. Intimacy. Yes. I deserve to feel sexy again.

Amy Marlow

What to Say to Depression When It Comes Back

Dear Depression, Here you are again. Uninvited. Unwelcome. And, it seems, unavoidable. I knew you were coming back to see me. I felt it in my eyes, as I watched the brightness twinkle away. I felt it in my shoulders, as I started to droop and slouch. I felt it in my steps, as my feet became weighted. Depression, I knew. I found you in my thoughts, telling me what I can’t do and asking me what if. W hispering not good enough and focusing my attention on what could have been better, smarter, cleaner, prettier. I found you in my words. I heard myself saying always, never, nobody, everybody, should, enough, can’t. And worst of all, I found you in my feelings. I found your pit of sadness in my stomach. I felt your fingers of anxiety creep over me like frost on a window. You threw your heavy wet blanket over my heart and tried to suffocate my joy. Depression, you tried. I’ll be honest. You scare me. When I think you, speak you, feel you, I am scared. A prickly cold sense of panic washes over me and I think oh my God, no. Not again. I can’t do this again. The thought of getting sick almost takes my legs out from under me. Almost makes me feel helpless. Almost. But helpless is a lie you tell me. Hopeless is a road you lead me down. And this time I won’t go. I know you’re here but I won’t go there. Depression, can we make a shift? Choose a different path? This time I’ll talk back. I’ll answer your nobody ever with somebody does, your not good enough with doing my best. I will fight to stay in the present moment when I start to ruminate on the what ifs. It’s so hard to change but I’ll try to tell myself I did, I can, I will. I will speak your name out loud, depression. Because that takes away your power and makes me less alone. Because the truth is, depression, I’ve done this before and I can do it again. I will take a deep breath and accept my fear for what it is. I’ve seen you at your worst and it was dark and black and terrifying. I am scared of getting sick and I am stronger now than I was then. I’ll hold on tight to both of those truths – you can’t snatch my hope away. It’s mine. I earned it. Depression, you may come and go, but I won’t ever stop. I won’t ever stop trying and fighting and hoping. My will is strong and my spirit is alive. So let’s go. Let’s walk together if we must. But this time you won’t drag me behind you, choking me in your dust. This time we will walk side by side. Uncommon friends on an uncharted path. It’s just you and me, depression. Will you take my hand? Follow this journey on Blue Light Blue.

Amy Marlow

Advice for Children Who Have Lost Parents to Suicide

I was sitting in my algebra class, surrounded by 25 confused 16-year-olds working our way through an endless series of math problems. Stuck on one I couldn’t resolve, I went up to my teacher’s desk for help. “Excuse me,” I said, “I can’t figure this one out.” He showed me what I was missing and then asked if I knew where the school choir concert was going to be – he knew I was a member. I told him the name of the church, unaware our conversation was about to go drastically wrong. He squinted – thinking hard – then found what he was trying to remember. He smirked and asked, “That guy who killed himself – didn’t he go to church there?” I felt like I had been physically struck and a prickly cold feeling washed over my whole body. “Um, I’m sorry?” I said, wishing that he would somehow take it back or change the subject. No such luck. He went on, “You know, that guy who committed suicide a few years ago? I think he went to that church.” I felt like the entire class was staring at me, like the clock had stopped ticking, like the room was spinning around the two of us. The only thing I could think of to say was the truth. “That was my dad,” I said, looking at the floor, wishing it would open up and swallow me whole. “Oh – my God,” he stammered, “I didn’t know that was your father.” I looked him right in the eye and said, “Yes. Yes, sir it was.” I turned around and went back to my desk. My arms and legs were shaking and my face was on fire. What had just happened? How did my teacher possibly know about my dad’s suicide? How had he happened to bring it up to me, of all people? And why was he smirking? Why was he talking about it as if it were some dirty secret or a criminal act? Fighting back tears, I tried to focus on the numbers on the page in front of me. But the 2s and 4s and 9s swirled together in a black and white blur. When I got home from school that afternoon I told my mom, who told my guidance counselor, who called for the three of us to meet with my teacher. He apologized, saying he had heard about it from his wife who taught at the elementary school my sister attended when my dad died. The atmosphere was tense – my mom was furious, my teacher was sheepish and I was mortified. It was clear that he had been reprimanded. He said he was very sorry. That he didn’t mean to hurt me. But he did. He did hurt me. He hurt me and shamed me and made me feel like something was wrong with my dad and like something was wrong with me. Even at the time I knew his behavior was totally inappropriate – no teacher should talk to a student that way – especially about such a sensitive topic. It’s safe to say he had more than a few things to learn about creating a healthy educational environment. While my interaction with him was the most extreme, it certainly wasn’t the only uncomfortable conversation I’ve had about my father’s death. Suicide is hard to talk about and even harder to understand. When I was younger, I was often tempted to lie and pretend my dad didn’t kill himself just to avoid hearing insensitive and sometimes offensive remarks. I dreaded mentioning suicide in conversation and learned how to speed things up and change lanes when I did have to say the “s” word out loud. I was a traumatized kid surrounded by too many adults who didn’t know what to say or what to ask. I’ve never forgotten the lesson my math teacher taught me: that we need to learn how to talk about suicide. Here are a few numbers he probably didn’t know, but should: suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and claims more than 41,000 lives every year. I was not the only kid who lost a parent. My mom was not the only person who lost a spouse. And for each person who dies by suicide it is estimated that 25 more have made an attempt. Hundreds of thousands of children and teens and adults have lived through suicide attempts and suicide loss. One in five adults and one in five teens in the U.S. will experience a mental health issue in any given year. I would tell my teacher to do the math — you talk to people every day who have lived through depression or suicide or both. Stop shaming us and start understanding us. It’s time to become aware. Making it through hundreds of uncomfortable conversations about suicide and mental illness has transformed me from a frightened kid into an adult who is not afraid to talk about difficult things. Today, I can breathe through the awkward pause after saying the “s” word. I don’t take on the shame another’s remarks may imply. If something offends me, I gently point out a kinder way to talk about suicide – one that preserves the dignity and humanity of the person who has died. And I don’t feel the urge to cover up my story to make it less painful or more comfortable for somebody else. Because that isn’t fair to me. After all I have been through, I deserve to honor the pain I’ve lived by being as open and honest as I need to be. Talking about suicide helps me heal, and I believe it also educates others. Not about the statistics on mental illness, but on the reality that suicide loss and mental illness impact everyday people like you and like me. It challenges the age-old stigma that we unconsciously hold about “committing suicide.” Maybe my interaction with my teacher helped him to become more open and more sensitive. Maybe not. Although he hurt me, he helped me, too. Bit by bit those conversations made me open up. To stand where I am today – wide open in the truth about living through mental illness. And when I remember the burning shame I felt that day in math class, I recommit myself to never feeling that way again. I’ve taken back my power. He reminds me to hold my head high. To speak my truth. To talk out loud about suicide. And for that lesson, teacher, I thank you. If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Follow this journey on Blue Light Blue. The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Amy Marlow

To the Doctors Who've Treated My Mental Illness

Throughout 13 years of treatment for depression and anxiety, I’ve worked with many types of doctors. Some who listened, others who didn’t. Some who treated me like a real person with a real illness, and too many others whose insensitivity about mental health left marks on my life. My average appointment with a psychiatrist has been about 10 minutes long, leaving what seems like 0.2 seconds to say anything at all once the doctor is finished asking questions. To my doctors over the years: here are some things I’d like to say but never got the chance. To the doctor who told me to go off all of my medications in order to have a baby : I wish I had asked you more questions. I wish you had dug a little deeper and learned a little more. You could have referred me to a special practice that could have given me more nuanced and personalized guidance. But I didn’t know to ask, so I followed your advice. I followed it right down the rabbit hole into a psych hospital where my new doctor told me I could have stayed on my old meds while getting pregnant. Do you find that just a little bit ironic? To the doctor who told me to “just take an Advil” and picture how wonderful it would be to have a baby when I was going off my meds: Do you even have a medical degree? Because when a doctor gives me advice that’s worse than what I could think of on my own, something isn’t right. Mental illnesses can’t be treated with ibuprofen and daydreams. Next time someone seeks your help who is clearly heading into a psychiatric crisis, know the signs and take appropriate professional action. Tell them their own personal safety is important. I walked out of your office and sobbed in the bathroom across the hall because I didn’t know where to turn next for help. Picture that and see how it feels. And if it gets too bad, just take an Advil. To the doctor who told me to get back on meds and start taking my mental illness seriously : Thank you. You told me what I needed to hear, as painful as it was. When you compared my dad’s depression and suicide to having a relative with a heart condition, it made perfect sense. You helped me begin to understand that mental illnesses are physical illnesses, not personal flaws. And when you told me that kids who lose a parent to suicide are at a higher risk of suicide themselves, you opened my eyes about how important it was to treat my depression and keep myself safe. You took extra time and spoke with compassion, and though I didn’t know it at the time, you helped to set me down the path of acceptance. To the doctor who told me we were running out of treatment options : I looked to you for hope and support, and you shut the door in my face. Taking six months to stabilize after a severe depressive episode is just not too long. Why did you make me feel like it was? Couldn’t you have helped me see the bigger picture, rather than shaming me for taking so long to recover? And just because the first several medications you prescribed didn’t have a miraculous effect didn’t mean I was out of possibilities. At the time I was too sick and hopeless to disagree with you, but now I’m stronger and I know how you treated me wasn’t right. Acknowledging I was trying hard and making gains, however small, would have gone a long way. And that person who was out of options? She’s back on her feet. She’s living life. And with little help from you, she’s found her hope again. To the doctor who took time to talk and listen : You probably didn’t have the time, but you found it and it mattered to me. Treating mental illness isn’t just about medication, and although you’re a doctor, you reminded me of that over and over. You asked about my life. You encouraged me to keep working hard in therapy. And when I expressed fear or concern, you didn’t shut me down or dismiss me. You listened. You told me we were partners in my treatment and you empowered me to learn more about depression, anxiety and post-tramatic stress disorder. I left, and still leave, every appointment with you feeling more positive and hopeful than when I arrived. Finding a psychiatrist who makes me feel like a real person whose opinion matters is what makes recovery so much smoother. I’ve learned a lot from my doctors, whether I liked them or not. Each one had something to teach me. How to ask questions and push back. How to listen and take advice. How to do my own research and come prepared. How to become my own advocate and listen to my gut instinct. Most of all, I’ve learned how to keep trying. Nobody else can do that for me. I have to keep believing that my recovery is real and know, regardless of who my doctor is, that I’m worth it. Follow this journey on Blue Light Blue. Editor’s note: This story is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as professional advice. The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Write a thank you letter to someone you realize you don’t thank enough. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Amy Marlow

It's December and I Still Have Depression

It’s Christmas time again, and I still have depression. Every year a big part of me dreads the holidays. Not because I don’t want to celebrate. Not because I don’t like giving gifts. And not because I’m down on the magic of the season. Does having a mental illness mean I’m like the Grinch who stole Christmas? Not necessarily. I’m beginning to realize it’s hard to have depression and meet the many expectations that arrive with the holiday season. Take a look at this: It strikes me the most common symptoms of depression – feelings of sadness, fatigue, loss of pleasure – aren’t exactly conducive to celebrating the season. For those of us with a mental illness, the expectations to experience prolonged feelings of joy, go to party after party, decorate our homes and shop for gifts can be unrealistic. Being with (or without) family and friends can trigger a sense of hopelessness. I often feel like I’m starting a grueling marathon when December rolls around — I feel the need to meet these expectations not just for a day or two, but for an entire month. I want to enjoy the holidays, but I also want to take care of myself. The reality is I have depression whether it’s Christmas Eve or the Fourth of July. Depression doesn’t vanish during the month of December. So this year, I’m trying to celebrate the holidays in ways that are still authentic to who I am, which includes having major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is what I’ve come up with so far: 1. I’m giving myself permission to feel sad. It’s not realistic for me to feel jolly, merry or bright from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Because I’ve suffered some traumatic losses, the holidays bring back memories of loved ones who are no longer here. Seeing Christmas trees and hearing beautiful carols make me think of my dad and of how magical everything seemed when I was a child. In the past I’ve tried to push away feelings of sadness, but this year I’m allowing myself to feel them. Because it’s OK to feel sad on Christmas. It’s OK to cry. In fact, acknowledging our true feelings can help us create new and more authentic ways of celebrating the season. 2. I’m limiting my holiday schedule. I have a tendency to push myself and say yes to every invitation. Not this year. I know how important it is for me to have alone time to rest and recharge. Before accepting automatically, I’m thinking carefully about my time. I’m choosing to say no if I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. While this isn’t easy and may mean letting someone else down, I know how important it is to take care of myself first. 3. I’m giving experiences instead of traditional presents. I’ve had it with fighting my way through crowds at the mall. Hunting for gifts triggers my anxiety and I can get obsessively focused on finding the “perfect gift” (which doesn’t exist). I’ve spent hours (probably days) on the quest to find incredible gifts for everyone I know. So this year, I’m shifting my focus and giving experiences to the people I love, rather than a million more things they don’t actually need. Homemade gift certificates for day trips, tickets to museums, excursions or concerts will allow me to spend time with my family and friends. This will help us create positive memories together. It also gives me something to look forward to after the holidays are over. 4. I’m finding new Christmas music. For a long time, I would listen to the same several Christmas albums I heard as a child. While those songs are still special to me, they can bring on additional feelings of sadness and loss. I’m using stations like Pandora to find new music that lifts my spirits. For example, I love Irish and Scottish music, so I’m discovering some fun Celtic Christmas albums. I’m also giving myself breaks from listening to Christmas music – while it’s unavoidable in stores, I can choose to switch the channel in my car if I feel I’m getting triggered. 5. I’m doing things to help other people. To me, the meaning of Christmas is about connecting with people we care about. It’s about the possibility of hope in the darkest of winters. One way to honor the spirit of the holidays is to give something back to people who are suffering. I lead a peer-to-peer support group for adults with mental illness, and it runs right through the holiday season. This is a meaningful way to support others who share my own struggle, especially at this time of year. I also donate money (as I’m able) and clothing items to local shelters to assist people who are homeless. My mom has always told me one way to help yourself when you feel down is to do something nice for someone else, and I think she’s right on. My wish for this holiday season is to be more authentic in the ways I celebrate with my family and friends. I need to practice self-care, especially when the stress picks up. For Christmas, I’m giving myself the gift of self-compassion and the permission to be myself, even if that means feeling sad. While it may not be the most wonderful time of the year, it doesn’t have to be the most miserable either. I’m working on finding that middle ground between sadness and hope. Between light and dark. On my holiday cards this year, I wanted to share something that resonated with my journey to find a more authentic Christmas. This is what I found: “May you be blessed with the spirit of the season, which is peace; the gladness of the season, which is hope; and the heart of the season, which is love.” Follow this journey on Blue Light Blue. The Mighty is asking the following: As someone who lives with — or has a loved one with — a mental illness, what’s one thing that’s particularly challenging around the holidays? Why? What advice would give someone going through similar challenges? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to mentalhealth@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.