Laura Coward

@laura-coward | contributor
Laura is a writer and non-profit fundraiser who lives in Dallas. She has a journalism degree from Texas A&M University, and is active in The Writer’s Path at Southern Methodist University. Laura loves music and travel, and tries to combine the two whenever possible. She’s also mildly obsessed with her 2-year-old Corgi mix, Corbin. If Aaron Sorkin wrote it, she’s probably quoted it. Never met a pun she didn’t like. Read more from Laura at https://betweengriefandhighdelight.com
Laura Coward

How I Realized I Was Depressed — Not Just ‘Introverted’

I’ve spent the past few years convinced I’d morphed from extrovert into an introvert. I had traded crowds for solitude. Bars for books. I imagined the younger version of me rolling her eyes that my new “dream Friday” was a quiet night at home and an early bed time. “You’re not an introvert,” a friend said. “We’re just getting older.” True, I definitely didn’t feel as young as I used to. Still, I insisted that my personality had shifted 180 degrees. Why else would I crave so much time alone? In high school and college, I was happiest when my social calendar was full. There weren’t enough hours to devote to all the clubs I wanted to join and all the friends I wanted to see. Even once I graduated and lived by myself, I loved staying busy and surrounded by people. But four years ago, I fell into a deep depression. It wasn’t my first battle, but it was my most significant, and life never quite returned to normal. I craved solitude. All the time. Or at the very least, for someone to share the most boring of moments with me, without feeling like I had to entertain them. Crowds didn’t just irritate me. They overwhelmed me. So did noise. A full social calendar left me silently screaming, plotting my escape. I would stay close to the exits, sneaking off for several fake bathroom breaks. I was no longer a “joiner.” Didn’t have the energy to volunteer. Didn’t have the energy for people to need anything from me. No more concerts, happy hours or parties. I’d go weekends without any human interaction. I looked back at the girl I used to be just a few short years ago, and I was a shell of myself. Exhausted, worn down and foggy. And lonely. It took just one visit to a new therapist to realize what was driving my quest for isolation. “You’re not an introvert,” she said. “You’re depressed.” I’d misinterpreted my behaviors. Introverts typically use solitude to recharge, create or expand their knowledge. I used solitude to isolate, consume and avoid. Introverts might choose to go for a solo run rather than working out with a group. I didn’t have the energy or self-love to exercise. Introverts often prefer interactions with small groups so they can have deep conversations. Regardless of the group size, I mostly kept silent, feeling worthless and alone. Introverts can often be brilliant public speakers and performers. I was suddenly so uncomfortable in my own skin, I avoided situations where I’d feel “on display,” instead preferring to blend into the background. I’m not sure how many of my extroverted tendencies were authentic and how many were me trying to escape my feelings. But I do know that I never felt recharged after a weekend alone. I never felt productive. I never felt connected. I just felt lonely, boring and less adventurous. It’s a slippery slope. The more depressed I feel, the more I isolate myself. And the more isolated I am, the more depressed I feel. But through therapy and months of “baby steps” back into the world of the living, I’m beginning to recognize myself. I’m trying to live by my values instead of simply numbing and escaping my fears. At first the goal was to initiate just one social interaction each week. (A seemingly small request for the girl who used to love hosting parties for every holiday, but an almost insurmountable goal when you add depression to the mix). Then the goal was to plan several self-care activities each week to help me recharge. The new goal is to focus on connection. I still crave a quiet Friday night, but I no longer feel so alone. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo via amoklv

Laura Coward

Sharing About My Depression Has Decreased My Shame

A year ago as I lay in bed, cheeks still tear-stained from crying myself to sleep, I typed a short Facebook post about my battle with depression. I’d made vague mentions of it before, but mostly just to those in my inner circle. I didn’t usually share some of the darker specifics – like how sometimes I thought it might be easier if I just weren’t here. I felt damaged and ashamed. I’m an optimist who paints with shades of melancholy, and the contrast confused me. So I kept them separate. My in-person persona was deep and transparent, to a point. My online persona was intentionally surface level – light and fun. But on that morning last year, leading up to Mental Health Awareness month, I was tired of the shame. I felt a pull to share my story. So, I did. I cringed and crawled back under the covers as I clicked “post.” Throughout the course of that day, something surprising happened. People started sharing my post. First friends and family. Then strangers. And finally, online sites. When friends and family shared my words, I felt supported. When strangers shared, I felt confused. Dumbfounded. But they don’t know me? Why would they share my story? My thoughts turned to some of my favorite writers who frequently shared their struggles. Authenticity was their currency. I was hooked on their transparency because I felt less alone. I realized these strangers weren’t sharing my story to offer me support. They were sharing to say: “me, too.” When I realized my battle with depression was about to become very public, I panicked. I called and emailed my bosses to let them know, worried about what my clients might think if they ran across my article. You see, even though I was talking a big game about authenticity and transparency, I still bought into the stigma that my depression somehow made me “less than” professionally. Their responses were nothing short of remarkable, and I realized the biggest battle before me was simply addressing my own shame. Those 10 minutes of darkness spent writing my story have changed the course of my life. I started to feel less alone. That doesn’t mean I automatically felt less lonely, though. But it does mean I took comfort knowing I wasn’t the only one struggling. From a creative standpoint, I found an outlet for my pain. And from an advocacy standpoint, I found a purpose for my pain. For so many years, shame had kept me from sharing my story. But once I was honest – with myself and those around me – the shame began to disappear. Shame loves isolation. It thrives in secrecy. It would prefer you keep the room dark, the blinds drawn, so it can have you all to itself. Brené Brown says this about shame: “When we are in shame, we don’t see the big picture; we don’t accurately think about our strengths and limitations. We just feel alone, exposed and deeply flawed.” Alone. Exposed. Deeply Flawed. That’s exactly how I felt when I kept my depression to myself. There’s never been a better time to speak out about depression. Movements like Okay to Say in the US and Heads Together in the UK raise mental health awareness and fight the stigma. Ending the stigma lessens the shame. Sharing is scary. Sharing you have a mental illness can be scary. Sharing you have a mental illness and sometimes aren’t sure if you want to stay alive can be really scary. But seeing others share their stories on those sites – and this one – has helped me remember I’m not alone. A year later, I’m openly sharing my struggles with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and grief. Sharing my story slowly takes away the power of my illnesses. While the struggles are still there, the shame isn’t. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. ” — Bréne Brown Sharing your story doesn’t have to mean blasting your condition all over social media. It can mean that, if that’s what’s right for you. But it can also be as simple as sharing with a friend or loved one saying something like, “Hey, something’s felt off for a while and I think I need to talk to someone.” We’re not meant to battle this alone. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741 . We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo via Kudryashka.

Laura Coward

The Most Important Things I've Learned in My Eating Disorder Recovery

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. A few months ago, I sought treatment for binge eating disorder (BED). My problem, I thought, was about willpower. I didn’t think I had a “disorder.” Yes, I had binged and purged in high school and college. And occasionally after that. But it had been years since my last purge, so I thought my eating disorder was just a phase. I’d also gone through bouts of restricting and overexercising, but I’d always had a curvy frame, so I didn’t think I “looked like someone who had an eating disorder.” All I knew was I’d worked hard for almost a decade to lose a substantial amount of weight. But after a knee injury made running impossible, I stopped exercising and counting calories and started mindlessly eating everything in sight. I’d gone from someone who logged every bite and mile into apps on her phone, to someone who isolated at home on the couch, opting for drive-thru meals or delivery most nights. That didn’t sound like a disorder to me. To me, it just sounded like laziness and apathy. And maybe depression. Wrong. My eating disorder had taken over my life and I was too uninformed and embarrassed to realize it or ask for help. After a particularly difficult night , I reached out for professional help. Over the course of eight weeks, I went through 80 hours of therapy. I’d go to work and then head off to my sessions at a recovery center. Along with my recovery group, we met with nutritionists, psychologists, group therapists and art therapists, and we shared meals together. Some of us were there because we ate too little, some because we ate too much (regardless of whether or not we purged later). Most of us alternated between restricting and bingeing. All of us were battling much more than just food. Here are ten things I’ve learned — and am continuing to learn — since beginning recovery: 1. No one chooses to have an eating disorder. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t choose this. For a myriad of reasons, my disorder chose me. This was a revelation to learn at age 37. I believe I choose my behaviors, but I no longer blame myself for having an eating disorder. If you battle an eating disorder, please know it’s not your fault. 2. There’s no hierarchy. Restricting is not better or worse than bingeing or purging. Each carries a life-threatening risk. Each can control your life until you seek help. 3. You can’t tell by appearance whether someone has an eating disorder. My weight has fluctuated wildly throughout my life, and I have plenty of “before” and “after” weight loss photos. But really, every photo taken before I entered recovery is a “before” picture of me battling an eating disorder, no matter the size. 4. Eating disorders are a type of mental illness . Eating disorders have physical and mental implications, along with a high comorbidity with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and suicidal ideation. As such, recovery is highly tailored to each individual and multifaceted. A recovery team typically includes a doctor, therapist and nutritionist. To recover, you must treat the body and the mind. 5. Eating disorders crave secrecy. “Ed” (what many like to call eating disorders) thrives on secrecy. Ed loves it. Ed wants you to isolate, wants you to lie, wants you to stay hidden. Ed is the liar. Personifying the beast helps me distinguish between what’s true and what’s disordered thinking. And this distinction usually takes months — if not years — to master. 6. Foods are not “good” or “bad. ” Man, society loves placing positive or negative values on food. I’m just going to have a salad – trying to be good today! Should we be bad and order some fries? For those of us in recovery, this messaging is extremely triggering. Our brains work differently when it comes to food and body image. We hear a comment about food and assign the value to ourselves. Thoughts can go a little something like this: I ate a donut and donuts are bad and now I’m a bad, worthless, out-of-control failure. The reality? Food is just food. Some foods may make your body feel better or worse, but eating them does not make you a good or bad person. 7. Exercise doesn’t have to be about calories burned. Like many who battle this disorder, I engage in a lot of black and white thinking when it comes to myself. For example, when I was injured, I could have switched from running to swimming. But my all-or-nothing mindset told me it was pointless, that I’d only lose weight by running and I might as well just give up and stop working out entirely. I knew exactly how many calories were burned for every mile I ran, and if the workout didn’t require a sports bra, then I believed it wasn’t worth doing. That was my thought process. The most liberating thing since beginning recovery has been exercising for the sake of being kind to my body. Taking my dog for long walks by the lake, without focusing on our pace or distance. I’d forgotten what it felt like to exercise without an agenda. And without punishment. 8. It’s common to swap behaviors. One of the biggest misconceptions might be the idea there are only two types of disordered behaviors: struggling with anorexia or bulimia. Many of us have used more than one behavior — restricting, bingeing or purging — and often when we stop one behavior, another tries to fight its way to the surface. For this reason, alcohol can become a new danger — even if it wasn’t an issue before — and people in recovery are often advised to limit or abstain from drinking . 9. Scales and apps are slippery slopes. Toward the middle of recovery, I donated my scale and deleted every food and fitness tracking app from my phone. That was hard. I felt a surge of panic knowing I’d no longer have “proof” of my fitness and weight loss “accomplishments.” I remember asking my therapist, “How will I know if I’m good or bad if I don’t have something to measure myself against?” We sat silently as I processed what I’d just asked her, and then I said, “Oh. I hear it. OK, I understand why these apps aren’t good for me.” There might be a time, years down the road, when I can use them again. But right now, my brain is not able to separate my value from a number on the scale or a calorie burned. I now use one recovery-focused app that tracks my moods and thoughts as I interact with food and my therapist and nutritionist each have access. Together, we create a weekly nutrition/fitness plan. The name of the game right now is mindfulness and grace, not a number on the scale. 10. It may get worse as it gets better. Recovery isn’t linear (oh, if wishing made it so). No matter how maladaptive they were as coping skills, my disordered behaviors served a purpose. They numbed me. When I started recovery, there was slight lift in my mood. I knew I was taking a positive step and I felt hopeful I could conquer this beast of an illness. Then, I crashed. As I stop using my disordered behaviors and actually feel my feelings, my anxiety and depression resurface with a vengeance for a bit. Nothing is numb. Everything is raw. And it hurts. It hurts so much sometimes I want to give up and go back to my numbing behaviors. That’s my new fight. But with the help of my team, I’m no longer fighting it alone. 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. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo via AAGGraphics.

Laura Coward

When a Small Comment Made Me Want to Binge in Bulimia Recovery

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 “START” to 741-741. It’s been years since my last bulimic episode, but I spent last night trying not to binge and purge. The evening actually started off well. I was still patting myself on the back for making good food choices for me during the day, and I’d run to the drugstore to pick up a few things. The cashier smiled as I approached the register and complimented me. I felt pretty! Clerk: “I love your dress!” Me: “Thank you!” Clerk (leans forward, whispering): “Where did you get it?” Me: “GAP!” Clerk (looking shocked): “Really? I didn’t think they sold large sizes.” Didn’t think they sold large sizes. My face flushed and I felt that familiar churn of acid in the pit of my stomach. I took a beat, registering the discomfort of the people behind me in line. Then I left the items on the counter and walked out of the store. I began sobbing as soon as I hit the parking lot. Rationally, I know that her words were a throwaway line, not meant to offend. She might know my appearance, but there’s a lot she doesn’t know about me. She doesn’t know that my simple GAP dress was one of two dresses in my closet that actually fit right now. She doesn’t know I’ve struggled with my weight for 37 years and I began to binge and purge in high school. She doesn’t know I could hardly breathe as I choked back sobs in my car and that I drove straight to McDonald’s, ready to order a meal I intended to throw up. And she doesn’t know when I heard her words, one of my first thoughts was, “I want to die.” I want to die. The next thoughts were: you’re not enough, you’re disgusting, you should stay hidden, you’ll never be loved. All because a stranger complimented my dress. This is the mental loop I, and so many others, battle. Eating disorders are not driven by vanity. They’re driven by a deep-rooted pain. By shame. I didn’t order anything at McDonald’s. I turned the car around and drove home. I cursed myself for cleaning out the refrigerator a few days before. I had nothing in my house to binge. And I knew the numbing a binge provided would be temporary compared to the shame that would follow. So I did what I really, really didn’t want to do. I made myself sit with and work through the pain. And that was the most painful thing of all. “Not throwing up” does not normally qualify as an extraordinary night. But when it’s what preoccupies your mind for hours, it’s a huge win. What I wanted to do was bury the shame. What I needed to do was reach out to a friend and put voice to my feelings. To lessen their power. It didn’t help right away, but it did help. And this morning, I went for a walk, ate breakfast and braced myself for the day. 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. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741 . We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Image via Thinkstock.

Laura Coward

Undoing the Damage of a Depressive Episode

One of the most frustrating aspects of depression is dealing with the aftermath of a depressive episode. Long after the episode ends and my joy returns, I find myself undoing the damage I’ve caused as a result of days, weeks or months of pain. Whatever happiness I feel gives way to shame and panic, so the cycle continues. My new goal is to practice the actions below so the habits are ingrained before an episode hits, instead of spending the year doing damage control. 1. Physical Challenge: I’m an emotional eater and when I’m depressed I can go to town on a bag of chips like it’s my job. I lose the energy and motivation to work out. I don’t make as much of an effort with my appearance. Result? I wake up one day, feeling heavier, sore and with more gray hairs than I realized and I begin to shame myself. Action: End every meal with a walk. That way, I’m guaranteed a least a little exercise throughout the day, even when I’m feeling my worst. Best case scenario – the confidence boost from those walks helps me devote more time to strength training and cardio. A coworker also taught me about online grocery orders and my life will never be the same. I might not always have the energy to go shopping, but I can certainly log on to choose healthy groceries and pay online and then drive to the store where they’ll deliver them to my car. Easy breezy! 2. Social Challenge: The more depressed I feel, the more I isolate myself. But the more isolated I am, the more depressed I feel. Action: During those bad bouts of depression when I hardly have the energy to leave the house, I call a friend and ask if they’ll come spend a low-key evening at my house. Takeout food and a movie or Netflix binge. When I’m feeling better, I’ll schedule two to three activities each week to look forward to. Often, I need an activity that allows for some time just observing. So movies, concerts, plays and sporting events are my social lifesavers. 3. Environmental Challenge: When I’m depressed, the only things I really care about in my house are my bed, couch, TV and refrigerator. I ignore everything else. Dishes pile up in the sink. A stack of mail remains unopened. Bed goes unmade. Light bulbs burn out. I feel like a mess, in every sense of the word. Action: If I do nothing else that day, I tell myself to at least make the bed. A sense of accomplishment, no matter how small, sets the tone for the morning. To help combat a deluge of mail, I’ve signed up for paperless billing. (Bonus: My mailbox no longer triggers as much anxiety.) I’ll also set a 10-minute timer, turn on music and do a lighting round of tidying before I leave the house or go to bed. (Bonus: dance party!) 4. Financial Challenge: At my worst, I lose track of days and forget to pay bills. I impulse-buy to make myself feel better. The high is short lived. Action: I’ve set every bill to auto-pay so I never have to worry about late fees or, worse, a ringing phone when a collector calls. I’ve also created a weekly splurge (Macaroon Monday!) so I don’t feel deprived, but also don’t search for item after item to fill an emptiness money can’t fill. 5. Emotional Challenge: This is probably the area that gets hit hardest during a depressive episode, even if the impact isn’t tangible. In the depths of depression, I’m the most selfish version of myself. When I’m able to flood some light, I often feel embarrassed that I’ve not been a better friend, daughter, sister or coworker during my darker days. All I can see is life passing me by. Action: Practicing self-compassion. My mind wants to become a calculator tallying my time deficits. If you spend three months depressed and take another two months to recover, then you’ve lost almost half of the year. My job is to tell myself the dark episodes are not just time wasted. They’re horrible, to be sure, but they’re also opportunities to practice compassion, vulnerability and authenticity. They’re times to be resilient and ask for help. They’re times to grow, move forward and live to fight another day. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Image via Thinkstock

Laura Coward

Grief and Depression During the Holiday Season

Ten years ago, while grieving the sudden loss of my father, I decided to actively avoid the build-up leading to Christmas. Thanksgiving had nearly done me in, and I couldn’t handle an entire month of cheer accompanying another grief milestone. My plan? Avoid the mall. Or any store that might play Christmas music. Only buy presents for my immediately family. No wrapping — just gift bags. Don’t open any mail that looked like a Christmas card. Don’t decorate. Definitely don’t watch any Christmas movies. And for the love, avoid any and all versions of “The Christmas Shoes” at all costs. My plan worked for about a day. But then my coworkers started listening to Christmas music at their desks. I started receiving e-mails about holiday parties. The stores below my loft were decked out with tinsel and lights. Everyone else was leaning way in to the magic of the season, and I could hardly breathe. What was once my favorite time of year slowly but surely threatened to destroy me. My grief and depression didn’t manifest itself as sadness. At least, not all the time. It mostly manifested itself as a blackout rage. The month of December made me furious. For the first time in my life, it was not “the most wonderful time of the year.” It was a mirror, reflecting everything I’d lost. Every gift from my secret Santa was a reminder that I had one less person to shop for. Every Christmas card a reminder that my family had a gaping hole that would never be filled. Every party was hours of torture for me, trying to appear festive and light while swimming in darkness. I hated it. Every minute of it. For many of our friends and family, the holiday season will be the final highlight of a year that included unimaginable joy: a wedding, a birth, a promotion, an exciting new chapter in life. And for just as many, the new chapters might be painful: an illness, a divorce, depression, grief or death. There are times when “leaning in” to the holidays really can help change your mindset. You fake holiday cheer long enough and eventually you experience the real thing. If that has worked for you, wonderful! I’ve done that, too, and I’ll honestly do quite a bit of that this year. But for some of us, December might be the most painful month we’ve experienced in an already painful year. It might feel as if there’s nothing worth celebrating, and we’ll feel guilty, feeling like we’re dragging others down. The contrast of joy around us and despair within us will be too confusing. Too bittersweet. Too devastating. For some of us, this might be the one holiday season in our lives we simply can’t handle. If that’s true for you or someone you love, my message is this: it’s OK to “lean out” this year. You don’t have to decorate your house or put up a tree. You don’t have to send holiday cards. You don’t have to accept any holiday party invitations. You don’t have to buy presents. You don’t have to honor family traditions. You don’t have to be festive and cheerful. You don’t have to succumb to the pressure to make the season magical for everyone else. Your one job this year is to make it through the season. Maybe that means December just looks like any other month. Maybe that means you only accept a few holiday invites instead of over-scheduling yourself. Maybe you forgo gift giving and instead volunteer your time. Maybe you reach out to someone else who is hurting, and you quietly acknowledge the season together. Maybe you schedule a vacation and spend the holidays in a new city. If you are religious, maybe this is the year you strip the season down to its origin. It’s OK to simplify. It’s often crucial to simplify. This holiday season might just be one painful struggle after another. And it’s OK to acknowledge that and operate accordingly. It might not be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but you will get through it. And there will be the promise of a new year. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Laura Coward

How Battling Depression Is Like Training to Run a Marathon

A few years ago, I ran my first and only marathon. During six months of training, we ran 4-5 days per week. Friday nights meant early bedtimes so we could wake up at 4:30 Saturday morning for long runs around the lake. I kept the training schedule on my refrigerator, and the first thing I’d do after returning from a run was check off that day’s mileage. It was daunting to see how many miles were left to run, but it was such a feeling of accomplishment to track how far we’d come. For someone as Type B as I am, it was the most in control I’d ever felt in my life. And I was addicted to that feeling. Still, it was a taxing schedule, and I counted the days to the final three weeks of training season… the taper weeks. During taper weeks, you intentionally cut back on your mileage. You suddenly have more free time than you know what to do with. And you slowly begin to carbo load. Finally, a reward! Taper weeks sounded glorious! Nope. They don’t call it “taper madness” for nothing. I’d always heard that running a marathon was as much a mental challenge as it was a physical one, but I never knew that also applied to the training. Those taper weeks terrified me, turning me into a shell of myself. I could no longer outrun my worries and anxieties about the race before me. I was forced to take time and rest. Be still. Where were the endorphins I’d grown so accustomed/addicted to? How would I make it through a day without them? I’d been eating to fuel my body, but now I was just stress eating for sport. My biggest fear was that I was losing ground during the most crucial week before the race and that all the work we’d done to that point would be wasted. In my mind, there was no way I could succeed if every step wasn’t one that was moving me forward, increasing my mileage. As someone who’s battled depression for half her life, I was surprised how similar those taper weeks were to my own depressive episodes. What marathon training taught me about battling depression : • Nothing new on race day Race day is not the time to try new things. No new shoes, socks, clothes, or foods. Your body is about to be put to the test. Let that be enough – do not add another challenge! Likewise, be kind on your body during depressive episodes. Your job is to simply survive that season. No need for big life changes. (Big hair changes? Sure. Get bangs if you want! You do you!) • Your coaches and fellow runners are your lifeline Running a marathon is a solo sport, but the training doesn’t have to be. We ran in a group with people who were willing to keep the same pace, and we’d chat about our weeks and lives. Some Saturday mornings, you could just tell that a fellow runner was struggling physically or emotionally to complete the mileage. So we’d just run silently beside them, letting them know we were there. Nothing has helped me through my depression more than those friends who run beside me, ready to either listen or just silently let me know they’re there. • The training is the reward I cherish my finish line picture, face red from crying and exhaustion. But more than that I miss the months of training. Our coaches taught us how to honor our schedules, waking up at horrendous hours, as long as our bodies would allow. But when we were sick or injured, they taught us to listen to our bodies and take time to heal ourselves. When I’m depressed, getting out of bed at the first alarm (or at all) is a victory. The daily habits and routines become more and more comforting and important to my self-esteem. • Run your own race At mile 22, I was in a world of hurt and more or less in a blackout rage. I was running as fast as I could when a runner nearby starting chatting with me, trying to encourage me. It took me a few minutes to realize she was smiling and walking at a normal pace next to me as I was “running.” It was all I could do not to compare my speed (or lack thereof) to hers. I had to remember that while we were participating in the same marathon, we were each running our own race. • It’s really &%#&ing hard There’s really no way to sugarcoat it. Marathons are an out-of-body experience, while at the same time being very aware of the pain your body is in. Hands down the hardest thing I’ve physically accomplished. But truly, nothing compares to the accomplishment of battling half a lifetime of depressive episodes and staying around to fight another day. My biggest fears during those taper weeks were, “ What if I can’t finish this race? What if I start running and I just can’t do it anymore.” My biggest fears during a depressive episode are the same.  “ What if I can’t finish this race? ” “ What if I start running and I just can’t do it anymore? ” That’s when I think back to the coaches and fellow runners who had been there before, sharing their own stories and letting us know we were strong enough to make it through the worst of it. We wouldn’t celebrate at the finish line in spite of the pain, but because of it. We’d run through our pain and fears and doubts, and we’d be victorious because of them. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock illustration by Purestock

Laura Coward

When Co-Workers Witnessed My Panic Attack

Last week my anxiety nightmare came true: I had a panic attack in front of my co-workers. I experienced my first massive panic attack when I was 27, driving home from my father’s burial. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t tell anyone because my father had just died from one. I felt embarrassed and dramatic, so I decided to keep it hidden to avoid drawing attention to myself. My grief opened a padlocked door that’s now permanently propped open, and I never know when the next panic attack will strike. The story I keep telling myself is that I’m not someone who has panic attacks at work. I’m simply not allowed. At home? Sure. At airports, on airplanes, in other public places while surrounded by strangers? Yes. But somehow I’ve managed to keep this part of my anxiety hidden from my professional world. Why keep it hidden? Shame. I play the role of a high-functioning “anxiety survivor,” which means I might sit in my car for 20 minutes before I walk into the office, but at least I’m not brining my anxiety with me. My anxiety will just have to wait for me until I get back to my car for my lunch break or when I leave work. I felt having panic attacks at the office — which for me means hyperventilating, uncontrollable sobbing and a general certainty that I will, in fact, die within minutes — meant I’ll never gain or keep the trust of my co-workers. I’ll never get promoted. My direct reports won’t respect me. The men in my office will think I’ve come completely unhinged, and I’ll be the “hormonal, crying lady who can’t handle the pressures of agency life.” The women will think so, too. And if my clients know that once panic hits any new email or phone call starts the cycle all over again, they’ll pull their business. Or they’ll ask to have me replaced. This is the story I tell myself. But fiction has been replaced with fact, and I no longer have to wonder how my co-workers will react. Because now I know. My panic attack started at 9:13 a.m. I know this because I documented the start time on a Post-it note at my desk. It had been a few years since my last attack, but I remembered the worst of it usually lasted only 10 to 15 minutes. I was allowing myself until 9:30 to break down, because I needed to hop on a conference call. I shut my office door and turned on some music, thinking I could outsmart the adrenaline that was about to betray my professional image and turn me into a sobbing mess. My anxiety refused to adhere to my 15-minute timeline, and my panic attack lasted for two hours, off and on. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can only imagine what it might look like to witness an adult hyperventilating and crying because they read an email that caused them stress. Or because someone asked them a question they didn’t know the answer to. Or because they were sitting silently, minding their own business, and their brain decided to play a game of “ Everything is horrible and we’re all going to die! ” If you’re part of the club that has experienced this nightmare, you know it can feel like your body is under attack, held hostage by some outside force that’s manning the controls. The force has locked you in a room and has made the walls close in on you so fast you’re sure you’ll be crushed. With one hand, the force is choking you, making it impossible to breath. Then it spins you around until you’re dizzy, nauseous and can’t see straight. And in the biggest jerk move of all, it’s filled the room with chopped onions so you can never stop crying. My panic attacks were spaced out in five to 10 minute intervals. I’d finally catch my breath, walk down the hall to grab a drink of water, and then burst into tears at the sight of the first concerned colleague who glanced my way. On this particular day, we were in crisis mode, and it wasn’t an option to leave and work from home. (At least, again, that’s the story I told myself.) In the middle of an agency crisis, I was deep in my own emotional/physical one. And a dozen colleagues had front-row seats to watch my breakdown. I shut my office door and once again sobbed, this time out of embarrassment and shame. I’m a 36-year-old account supervisor at an agency, and now my career is finished. (When I tell myself stories, I lean way, way toward the dramatic.) But something incredible happened. A male colleague who’s been with my company for 20 years entered my office, shut the door and asked if he could say a prayer for me. He told me about his own anxiety struggles. Another colleague brought me Kleenex and water, and she started telling me about her anxiety battles. Then my wonderful direct report stopped by to let me know she’d handled the work crisis — and to tell me how grateful she was to work for a company where people care about each other. One by one, co-workers came out of the woodwork to share their struggles and stories. They weren’t whispering “Look at her,” they were opening up and saying, “Me, too.” These co-workers were my lifeline, because we were able to speak in shorthand. All I had to say was, “I’m in the middle of a panic attack,” and they rallied around me because they’ve been there. But there are still so many who don’t have a frame of reference for what it means to experience these kinds of attacks, and this week I can see they’re treating me with kid gloves. I’m fairly certain they feel embarrassed for me. I absolutely know they love me and are concerned for me. They want to help me manage my stress, lighten my workload and come to my rescue. And I love them so much for that, so I need to help them understand I don’t need special treatment. I need to be understood. Even though I’m deeply embarrassed, I’m glad they witnessed my panic attack — if only so I can help start a conversation about anxiety. Battling anxiety while in a professional setting does not mean that you are unhinged, un-hirable, unreliable, or un-promotable. It just means you’re one of the 40 million people battling the most common mental illness in America. Battling panic attacks does not mean you are overreacting to life’s everyday stressors. It means your body has perceived a threat, launched you into fight-or-flight mode, and is doing everything it can to flee the danger it senses. Are these triggers “irrational”? Perhaps, to an outside observer. Are the perceived threats real to the person experiencing the attack? Absolutely. Do I wish I could have made it to the safety of my car before emotionally breaking down? Um, yes . Of course, I do. Crying in front of my co-workers was mortifying. Am I going to feel embarrassment or shame? Last week, my answer was, “Um, yes. Of course, I am.” But that’s the sneaky thing about shame. It wants us to hide our anxiety, depression and fear, putting on a façade when we walk out the front door — making us think we’re only worthy if we bottle everything up and never let anyone see us struggle. Today, I’m wearing my anxiety like a badge of honor. I’m raising my hand and asking for help. I’m trying to model for my colleagues that they don’t have to fear for their jobs if their brains and bodies some days get the best of them. And I’m trying to use this as an opportunity to continue fighting the stigma around anxiety and depression, showing others just how strong we are that every day we get out of bed, armor up and show up for the fight. Image via Thinkstock. Follow this journey on Between Grief and High Delight. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Laura Coward

Woman Recovering From Bulimia Responds to Trump's Fat-Shaming

I broke one of my own rules: I read the comments. Like many watching last Monday’s presidential debate, I was bewildered to hear a presidential nominee insinuate that our cyber security could be put at risk by “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Then, at a commercial break, I listened as Alicia Machado describe this same presidential nominee’s fat-shaming of her during her reign as Miss Universe. According to Machado, she’d gained 18 pounds after being crowned, prompting Donald Trump to ridicule her in the press, calling her “Miss Piggy” and sending reporters to film her working out. The pressures to remain beautiful in the eyes of the world sent this 19-year-old woman into a rabbit hole of anorexia and bulimia. A blurb from The Guardian put it best: But when she put on weight soon after winning, Trump turned what should have been a golden year into the most traumatizing one of her life. It wasn’t just that Trump shamed her about gaining weight, calling her things like “Miss Piggy” and “an eating machine.” It wasn’t even that he did so publicly. It was that he did it with the biggest audience he could find, in an attempt to sear her weight fluctuation into the public consciousness, forever changing how she would be remembered. I read the articles about Machado, and then I read the comments. Never, never, ever read the comments. Listening to Trump’s words and reading the fat-shaming filth took me to a dark place. I was no longer a 36-year-old, self-actualized woman. I was a self-conscious teenager, trying to remain invisible in the hopes that I’d make it through a day without being made fun of for my size 14/16 frame. As I read the comments criticizing Ms. Machado’s numbers, I reviewed my own: 5 – my age when I first remember being teased for my weight, while wearing a swimsuit. 13 – my age when I was chosen to be an eighth grade cheerleader. 3 – the number of hours before I began fielding prank calls congratulating “the chubby girl” on making the squad. 17 – my age when, after three tries, I finally made my high school drill team. 1-2 – the number of dress sizes I was told to lose if I wanted to be allowed to perform during half time. 45 – the number of calories in an orange, my preferred lunch senior year of high school. 18 – my age when I began to binge and purge. 0 – the number of people I told. One offhand comment when I’d been on this earth for five years was enough to implant a permanent fun-house mirror in my brain for the next 31. One offhand comment from this presidential nominee is enough to begin picking at the scabs I allowed to form over my childhood wounds. One year of campaigning later, the scabs are gone and the blood is gushing. I’ve never met Donald Trump, but I know him. He’s the guy who used to prank call me. The woman who made me order uniforms a size too small and told me to spend the summer finding a way to fit into them. He’s the frat guy at a crowded bar who would ask for my phone number as his buddies howled with laughter behind him. And he’s one reason why my self-esteem dropped so low that for years I thought my only source of control was to throw up or over-exercise to prove my worth. His words matter because a new generation is listening to a presidential nominee tell them they are not enough. That they should be hidden. That they are lazy, dangerous, undesirable, a joke, and that their value is conditional. And if they are by chance enough right now, they better hope to God something doesn’t happen to change that. When you’re looking to November 9, assuming the worst and ugliest is behind us once the election is over, remember that words have a long-lasting impact. Even when they’re past tense. It will take a while for the scabs to form again.

Laura Coward

When Depression Makes Me Disappear

I know my depression has returned full-force when I start to triage my life. The simplest tasks overwhelm me, so I begin to make silent, irrational deals with myself. “If you can get out of bed and make it to work on time, you don’t have to check the mail. (And obviously you never have to make the bed.)” “If you show up for your friend’s birthday dinner, you don’t have to go to the work happy hour.” “If you shower Monday through Friday, you can stay in bed all weekend.” My mind goes into fight or flight mode, and any outside stimulus seems to be a threat. That text from a friend? They might need energy from me. The call from Mom? She might have bad news. The email from someone I haven’t seen in months? They might be able to tell I’m not doing well. The meeting with a client? Fine, of course I’ll go to that — but that’s all I’m doing today. When my depression returns, I live by a spoon theory of effort, keeping most of them locked away. Just in case. I’ll do what’s required to stay employed, but once I leave the office, my energy leaves, too. At that point, I make no promises that I’ll be responsive to the outside world. I search for tasks I can postpone or eliminate to conserve energy and simply make it through the day. I don’t share my plan with my loved ones, making life harder on myself. And them. When they follow up after the third, fourth, fifth unanswered text or email, I get upset that they need anything from me. But really, I’m mad at myself because I know their frustration and hurt is my own doing. I want to let them in, but I need to stay closed off to make it through the week. Avoidance becomes my preferred method of communication. I disappear into a world of my own making that’s safe, contained and predictable. New information is overwhelming, so I turn to what I know. I re-watch episodes of “The West Wing” that inspire me. I listen to my favorite albums. I crave one-on-one interactions and avoid overwhelming crowds. Glennon Doyle Melton tells the story of the canary in the mine, sent ahead of the miners because canaries are delicate enough to detect the poisons humans don’t even notice. The canaries save the miners, but they pay the price. They are the first to absorb the poisons of this world. What I want my friends and family to know when I’m in triage: I love you with a depth that’s hard for me to even process, much less explain. I feel in extremes, so when I disappoint you, I devastate myself, too. I’m not sitting at home crying and ignoring you. I’m at home healing, trying to regain the energy to interact with the world again with compassion and authenticity. And light. To me, the world is a toxic mine, and I’m a canary who’s afraid she’ll be poisoned. I’ve read all the articles suggesting we should forgive people with depression for disappearing for a while, excusing the flakiness that accompanies minds at war. I ask for grace when I’m at my worst, but I also demand you feel your feelings. I ask you to hold me accountable. Tell me when I’ve hurt you. Tell me how my non-responsiveness made you feel. I’m locked in a chamber of torment inside my mind, and the worse and darker it gets, the more selfish I feel I become, for self-preservation. Help me remember who I used to be, and please remind me that you need my time, too. Help me remember I’m not a canary on a dangerous mission. I’m a canary who was put here to fly free. Image via Thinkstock. Follow this journey on Between Grief and High Delight.