happy

Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage.

Confession: When I’m happy, I freak out.

A blog-reader-turned-bestie (yes, sometimes I befriend y’all in real life because you are lovely human beings) and I were recently talking about this over milkshakes. Being happy is terrifying when you aren’t quite used to it.

You know, that dreaded sense that the other shoe will fall? Yeah. That. It’s the worst.

The pressure of trying to sustain something that we’re not used to can create a lot of stress for us. And we might feel the impulse to self-sabotage, especially when we don’t have the support we need to cope.

Sometimes I even have suicidal thoughts when I’m happy. Do you?

The idea that I’ve peaked, and that I might as well die now while things are still good. It seems like the perfect time. Then I fall down the rabbit hole of, “Am I actually happy if I’m having thoughts like these?” (Save yourself the time: Yes. Suicidal thoughts aren’t exclusively the domain of depression.)

And of course, I don’t know how to explain this to the folks I love – that joy is triggering, because I am so used to that joy being taken away from me.

Mental illness has taught me that happiness is inherently unstable and temporary, that I shouldn’t trust it. That mistrust is the product of repeated trauma. It can make me impulsive, hypersensitive, and fearful. It makes it difficult to be grounded.

And worst of all? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I start to act out because of that fear, which reinforces the fear itself.

I thought it was just me, until I started talking about it. I actually found that lots of people with mental illness or experiences of trauma have this same mistrust of joy. It can lead us to making some lousy choices – in an attempt to regain control and cope with the fear, we make some misguided decisions and push away the very happiness we’ve so desperately wanted for ourselves.

Sound familiar?

Being happy makes me a little crazy. And if you’ve ever thought you were the only one, I assure you – it’s actually a really common thing.

When you’ve spent years associating happiness with the calm before the storm, it’s no surprise that you might associate joy with a lack of safety. In fact, maybe you find depression or anxiety to be a little safer – because it’s more predictable, something more known to you.

I’m here to tell you, friend, that this is totally understandable. Brains are very malleable things – and trauma can lead us to develop some pretty maladaptive impulses, including the impulse to self-sabotage.

I am the Prince of Self-Sabotage. Happiness absolutely terrifies me. It terrifies me because  it feels like it’s only ever betrayed me. Just when I think that I’ve gotten into a good rhythm, life throws me a curveball and I’m not only depressed again, but also grieving the loss of the stability I thought I’d finally had.

Has happiness betrayed you? If so, it’s no surprise that your first instinct is to push it away.

Recently, I’ve gotten to a good place again. Courtesy of Wellbutrin (quickly becoming a favorite of mine), the most sarcastic/excellent psychiatrist on the planet, the love and support of community, new job prospects that leave me totally ecstatic about what’s to come, and personal growth that surprises and delights me every day.

And of course, cue the terrible thoughts like, “Okay, what gives? When does the other shoe drop?” and even, “I kind of feel like taking a chainsaw and splitting myself in half” (to which my psychiatrist asks me, “Um, do you have access to a chainsaw?” Fear not, Doc. No, I do not).

What’s a kid to do? Well, in my opinion, it starts with just acknowledging that happiness is scary, and that’s 100% okay.

Sounds deceptively simple. But you and I both know this is easier said than done. I have to remind myself of this fifty times a day – that there isn’t a disaster waiting for me around every corner. I have to remind myself that I’ve been conditioned overtime to believe that happiness isn’t safe, but that doesn’t make it true.

It’s also good to check in with myself about how I’m dealing with that stress. Am I reaching out for support from a therapist and/or friend? Am I talking about my fears or ignoring them? Am I staying busy? Am I taking care of myself?

I’m a big fan lately of guided meditation when I’m not feeling so grounded. More specifically, there’s this app that I can’t shut up about called Stop, Breathe & Think, which recommends a few meditations (and even yoga videos!) based on your emotions (imagine, like, a self-care mood ring).

You tell it how you’re feeling, and it makes custom recommendations for you. When I find myself freaking out – like my skin is crawling or I’m claustrophobic in my own body – it’s the perfect thing. (Nope, they didn’t ask for the plug – I just love and appreciate them that much.)

A lot of people believe that self-care is only crucial when you’re in a bad place. But I’ve found that self-care is absolutely critical when I’m happy – because the moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m actually most vulnerable.

Let me repeat that, because it’s super important: The moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m most vulnerable.

Got it?

I know it might seem counterintuitive to reach out for help when you’re happy, of all things, but it can be very necessary if your happiness is a stressor.

And this is a process, of course, one that I know will be ongoing throughout my life. But it helps to know that I’m not alone. And I hope that this reminder can be helpful to you, too.

When we start seeing happiness as a completely understandable trigger and learn to be gentle with ourselves, instead of letting trauma dictate how we should respond, we can start to do the really important work of recovery and healing – which is absolutely something each and every one of us deserves. Yourself included.

brunch

Please Keep Inviting Me To Brunch

I don’t know, in actuality, what it’s like to be set on fire.

The closest thing I have – which I am convinced must be similar to burning alive – is my most recent bout of depression, in which I was in such agonizing and relentless pain that I became the emotional equivalent of a rotisserie chicken.

I felt certain that this would be the episode that pushed me to end my life. And then before I knew it, I was in the emergency room (again).

I had spent the weeks leading up to my hospitalization confined to my bed, promising my friends that tomorrow would be the day I found the strength to stand up – responding to Facebook invitations with a “maybe” and the determination that, yes, I would be at that brunch, I would bring orange juice, I would get better.

But I couldn’t.

Movie nights and picnics and parties flew by without me, the photos popping up on my news feed as a reminder that being mentally ill sometimes meant being trapped, no matter how desperately I wanted to see people, to make connections. Each passing day became a struggle to remember what it felt like to have fun, much less to be seen.

I sent the same message in various permutations: “I’m sorry I can’t make it – I’m just too depressed.” “I’m sorry to bail at the last second, I just don’t have it in me.” “I’m sorry I’m such a flake, my anxiety is just bananas right now.”

I always hoped they could read between the lines, knowing that what I was really saying was, “Please don’t give up on me.”

Every invitation I rejected came with a silent, desperate plea of, “Please don’t let this be the last time you invite me.”

Because the truth is, even though I’d missed ten brunches and six birthday parties and countless invitations for drinks, I didn’t want them to stop inviting me. Their invitation meant that they knew I was still alive, that they still cared about me, that they wanted me to be there, that they were thinking of me.

And what depressed person – or any person, really – doesn’t want to be thought of? Especially in their darkest, most frightening place.

“Maybe” to some is an annoyance or a cop-out when you don’t want to say “no,” but for me, when I RSVP’d with “maybe,” it was my way of saying, “I still have hope that things could get better.”

On the other side of all this, I needed to know there was a life filled with friends and laughter and waffles, and that everyone was just waiting for me, for whenever I was finally ready.

When I left the hospital, those invites were the only thing that reminded me that I could have a “normal” life again.

Those invites said to me that my mental illness didn’t make me less valuable as a friend, less wanted as a companion, and less worthy of support, love, and delicious breakfast foods. I was wanted – not in spite of my illnesses, but exactly as I was. No matter what my struggles looked like, I was still wanted.

I wasn’t damaged goods. I was still… me.

This past Sunday, I got out of bed, took a shower, got on the bus, and finally showed up for brunch. It took countless doctors, a complete overhaul of medication and hormones, and of course, the sweet encouragement of good friends (new and old) to get me there.

But I made it.

It was my first taste of the outside world in a long, long time – and I didn’t realize how much I needed it. The donuts, the video games, the orange juice, and the fluttery feeling in my heart when someone would say that they were glad that I was there, and I could feel how much they meant it.

Because while it’s true that psychiatric interventions have, more or less, put out the fire and tamed my depression, it was being surrounded by good friends that made me finally believe that I could heal.

And with every new invitation, I’m reminded that there are things (and people) worth showing up for.

As it turns out, there’s been no better combination for me than Zoloft and brunch.

2017

20 Mental Health Resolutions for 2017 (Because We Sure As Hell Need Them)

This time last year I wrote out some of my mental health resolutions for 2016. And I enjoyed – so much – the process of thinking through my resolutions, reflecting on the kind of precedent I wanted to set for my sanity, and then all the conversations we had together about what kind of year we wanted 2016 to be (this is a good time to mention our online Facebook community is a stellar place for dialogue).

And then, you know, 2016 actually happened.

For those following along at home, I kicked off 2016 with a psychiatric hospitalization and wrapped up 2016 with a relapse and a field trip to rehab. As far as mental health goes, it’s not been my finest year.

This doesn’t even touch on the fact that we’ve lost numerous pop culture icons – most recently mental health and addiction advocate/badass Carrie Fisher – and we elected an orange Voldemort to the highest office of the land after a grueling and painful election season.

I’m sure we can objectively say that this is not what we had in mind for a mentally healthy year. I’m also not going to be foolish enough this time around to suggest that 2017 will be your year or my year – it’s probably no one’s year, frankly, if a nuclear arms race breaks out, although, weird, Russia seems pretty stoked.

Do I sound bitter? Maybe I’m a little bitter.

Listen, it’s been a rough year. And my resolutions from last year by no means prevented the apocalypse from happening. They did remind me to focus on what’s important (i.e. keeping it together).

I believe if we’re going to survive this next year (and, y’know, the next four… or the next – ugh, I can’t say it), renewing our commitment to our self-care and sanity is never a bad idea.

I’m a fan of going into any transition in life with a lot of intention and mindfulness, so I’m bringing some of that intention into the new year.

That’s why, despite the catastrophe that was 2016, I’m going to once again share twenty resolutions I have for 2017.

Your mental health is more important than ever, and if there were ever a time to be vigilant about keeping all your marbles in the jar, it’s when apocalyptic headlines and subsequent panic attacks are always in abundance.

If resolutions are your thing, I hope that these inspire you to come up with your own (or steal mine, it’s all good!).

Sam’s 20 Magical Resolutions For 2017 To Be A Little Less Shitty

1. I want to go to more support groups. I know that what I need right now is community support. I have a tendency to isolate myself in my apartment and watch a lot of Law & Order, and while decompressing this way can be good, it can’t be the only way I deal with my shit.

2. I’m going to try opening up to someone that I don’t usually. I’ve already started on this a little early. I tend to unload on the same three or four friends when I’m struggling. Meanwhile, there are other new friends in my life who keep telling me that I can always count on them – yet I never do. Maybe it’s time to give other people a chance to support me, too, even if being vulnerable with a new friend is scary.

3. I want to find a new hobby. Someone told me that boredom is the enemy of sobriety. I’d expand that to say it’s the enemy of mental wellness sometimes, too. I want to find a hobby that makes me happy.

4. I’ll reconnect with an old hobby, too. There are so many things that I used to do that gave me a sense of fulfillment that I’ve lost over the years. Like music. I recently bought myself a keyboard and sheet music to try relearning piano. I tend to play the same chords and sing the same songs repeatedly. I’m terrible at it but you know what? I like it anyway.

5. I want to sober up, for real. If you’re wondering about sobriety or if you might have a lousy relationship to substances, please read this thing I wrote. Alcohol and I have a rough relationship and I think it’s time to break things off. I don’t think it will be easy, but I’ll try my best.

6. I’ll try to start going new places by myself. My agoraphobia has made leaving my apartment extraordinarily difficult. But I also know that the only way I can live a functional life is if I don’t give up. I think many of us with mental illness can withdraw in unhealthy ways. It’s time to step out of our comfort zone, little by little.

7. I’m going to unplug from bad news as often as I need to. Being informed about the state of the world is valuable, but not if it comes as the expense of your sanity. I’m going to take a break when I need to. Delete the Facebook app, turn off the television, and go the fuck outside.

8. No more counterproductive arguments. Period. If I’m arguing online when I know it’s accomplishing nothing, I’m going to hand my phone to my partner and go take a shower. It’s one thing to educate, engage, or intervene as a marginalized person or ally. But I need to try harder to see the difference between a teachable moment and a troll.

9. I’m going to (consensually) hug, kiss, and cuddle my friends more. Lord knows we need more of that in the apocalypse.

10. I’m working on accepting my limitations in 2017. I recently had to step down from my full-time job for my recovery, and I’ll be returning in a smaller capacity more akin to what I can handle right now. 2017 is going to be the year where I’m realistic about what I can do, and I’m not going to beat myself up because it’s not where I would like to be.

11. I’ll demand better of my clinicians, always. If I don’t feel like I’m getting the care I deserve, I’ll say so. If I don’t like the solutions I’m being given, I’ll ask for better ones. If I don’t like my clinician, I’ll get a new clinician. Therapists, psychiatrists, case workers beware.

12. I’ll stop using my friends to avoid being proactive. Sometimes I rely on other people to catch me when I fall, instead of making sure I don’t fall in the first place. If they’re going to do their part as friends, I need to do my part and take care of myself. Am I using all the resources at my disposal? Keeping in touch with my clinicians? Taking all my medications? My friends are responsible to me, but they aren’t responsible for me.

13. I’ll go to the hospital or rehab when I need to – even if I don’t want to. Sometimes a crisis calls for a response I may not like or enjoy. No one likes hospitals and no one likes rehab. But it may also be exactly what I need to get better.

14. I’ll be more communicative when I’m struggling. I tend to only convey how bad things are when it’s already blown up in my face. I did this at my job, I do this with my loved ones. But so much could’ve been avoided if I had been honest about where I was at, and done so sooner. There’s nothing wrong with being honest.

15. I’m going to start dealing with my actual feelings, rather than how I think I “should” feel. My boss (who is brilliant) emphasizes this often. An example of this in my life was when I felt like I should be happy because I had everything I thought I wanted, without acknowledging that, even so, I was falling apart. Sometimes we miss the red flags with our mental health because we’re not giving ourselves permission to feel how we really feel. For me, this begins with understanding that you don’t need permission or justification to feel depression.

16. I’ll treat my relationship with myself as a priority. Do you ever go through a period of really low self-esteem, and you kind of let it fade to the background because it doesn’t seem important? I do that all the time. And yet in real life, if I had a rough patch with my partner or friend, fixing it would be my priority. If I don’t feel good about myself, I’ll commit to self-care and support until I can start to feel more positively about myself again. Because caring about myself IS urgent.

17. I’ll practice healthy boundaries. This means inviting my friends to support me rather than imposing my crisis on them. This means asking for what I need rather than expecting it. And above all, this means checking in and making sure my needs aren’t exceeding someone’s emotional capacity. Not because I’m a burden, but because we’re only human, and I would want someone to do the same for me!

18. I’m going to be proud each day that I survive. Being mentally ill is difficult as fuck. Any day that I manage to hang in there is a terrific accomplishment, and in 2017, I want to make sure I keep that in mind.

19. Self-care. More self-care. And even more self-care. Never apologizing for taking care of myself – lighting new candles, taking long showers, writing to my heart’s content, and getting cozy with a heating pad and a good book. These things will always be necessary, especially in the coming year.

20. I will stop basing my value off of what I do instead of who I am. So much of what I thought made me valuable had to do with my job at Everyday Feminism, the success of my blog, the lectures I’ve given, and what I had managed to accomplish. In 2017, I want to look in the mirror and say, “You are valuable because of your empathy, your humor, your tenderness, your strength, and your determination.” Who I am. Not what I do. And I think all of us could afford to take a minute or two to reflect on the difference.

These are my mental health resolutions for the year. A lot of hopes, a lot of feelings. But that’s what this holiday is for, right?

I sincerely hope that in taking some time to reflect on what’s important to you and what you need this coming year, you’ll be as ready as you can be to take on all the challenges ahead, even the ones you don’t expect – because if 2016 is any indication, 2017 will probably have a lot of those.

wine

5 Signs It Was Time For Rehab (Regardless of How Much I Was Drinking)

In seven days, I went from being sober for eight months to sitting in a chemical dependency center after a relapse, being evaluated for a potential outpatient rehab program.

I remember the bitterness and resentment that I felt as I exhaled into a breathalyzer until it clicked, sitting motionless as the nurse asked me what I meant by a glass of wine – big glasses? Small glasses?

I remember saying repeatedly – to anyone that would listen – that I couldn’t be an alcoholic because comparatively, I didn’t drink as excessively as an alcoholic should (whatever that means).

And no matter how many times I was diagnosed with a substance use disorder or gently told I needed help, I’d stamp my foot and insist that getting drunk with some regularity didn’t make it a problem.

And maybe it doesn’t. But there were a hell of a lot of other red flags that did make it a problem.

Substance abuse exists on a wide spectrum, and I’m a big believer that no two people struggling with it will look exactly alike.

But some narratives perpetuate the idea that substance abuse is simply using excessively and using often – and while these can be indicators of a problem, they are by no means the be-all and end-all of substance abuse.

I certainly got drunk and maybe more often than I should have, but that’s not why I made the decision to enter rehab. Here are five signs that helped me realize I needed support – regardless of how many drinks I had in a night.

1. My Drinking Became More Important Than The Consequences

In a single week of relapsing, I’d managed to jeopardize my employment, my relationships, my health and my sanity (including stopping my psychiatric medications because they didn’t mix well with booze).

And at the end of a night, sobering up, I was absolutely ready to do it the next day – even as I watched my job crumble, grieved as the people I loved distanced themselves from me, risked legal troubles (drinking in public, FYI, is a terrible idea), and lost my mind as my bipolar disorder started to seize hold of me again.

I had rapidly gotten to a point with my drinking where the potential consequences didn’t matter, even if it might kill me. Somehow, drinking had become more important – and I started to wonder why this substance had so much control over me.

When I talked about this with a therapist specializing in substance use, she simply looked at me and said, “I see what you’ve lost. What else are you willing to lose?”

2. I Repeatedly Compromised My Values

I’m not a liar. At least, when I’m sober I’m not a liar. When I’m not sober, I’m willing to lie straight to my partner’s face as I’m walking out of the door to the liquor store.

I try to be fair, caring, considerate. I love my friends to pieces and would never want to hurt them. But like a tornado, I willingly create chaos and fear for my loved ones when I binge. Everyone in my path has to endure a lot of pain as they try to protect me or push me away.

I put them in an impossible position again, and again, and again.

I love my job. At least, sober Sam does. But drinking Sam will miss entire days of work and blow past deadlines with complete and total numbness, leaving others to clean up the mess.

I think about who I am when I’m sober, and I think about who I am when I’m drinking, and I see all the ways my values don’t line up. The ways in which I can be selfish, hurtful, and deceptive.

And even knowing all this, I desperately still want to drink.

That sounds like a problem to me.

3. I Dehumanized Other Addicts (Because I Wasn’t ‘Like Them’)

The stigma around addiction is so real, and I found that even as someone with social justice values and ideals, I treated other addicts like shit.

I may not have the healthiest relationship with alcohol, but I’m not like them.

I don’t belong in rehab, I won’t be able to relate to these people.

This place is for addicts, not for someone like me.

I continually employed an “us versus them” mentality, othering people who struggle with substance abuse in an attempt to elevate myself as being better than, above, or more enlightened.

In my denial, I treated addicts as categorically subhuman – people I could never relate to, understand, or have empathy for. The further I distanced myself from them, the more secure I felt in my substance use.

Ever heard the phrase “thou doth protest too much”? I spent so much time and energy defending myself as a “not addict” – and no time cultivating any kind of empathy for those who were.

Why did I feel the need to do that?

4. I Wasn’t A Social Drinker – I Was An Emotional Drinker

I remember going to my first AA meeting and explaining to someone that I didn’t really think I was an alcoholic. She asked me casually, “Do you ever have just one drink?” To which I blurted out, “What’s the point of that?”

“You tell me what the point is,” she replied. And then I realized I’d never really asked myself why I was drinking in the first place.

I drink for a lot of reasons, some of which I’m still working on understanding. I use it to cope with my mental illnesses. To self-sabotage when I can’t handle the pressures or stress of my life. To put me in another headspace when I don’t want to be in my own. To slow down time when I’m dreading something.

I drink to take the immense avalanche of emotions I deal with on any given day and subdue it so that I might survive it all.

Notice nowhere on my list does it say “to have fun with my friends” or “to get a good buzz.”

Alcoholic or not, addict or not – I don’t think these terms are necessarily useful for everyone – nothing screams red flag like “I use alcohol to deal with my emotional problems.”

5. Everyone Around Me Could See It But Me

This. Is. So. Common.

And it is no exaggeration when I say that I felt like I was losing my mind. Here I thought I didn’t have a problem, and an abundance of therapists, psychiatrists, friends, and loved ones told me numerous times that I did.

For my short time in AA, I refused to call myself an alcoholic and sat bitterly in the back row, murmuring about how none of this resonated with me because I wasn’t like them.

Instead of being open to recovery and community, I left AA, and tried to do sobriety alone, much to the dismay of everyone around me. It worked, until it didn’t work at all. And here we are.

I believe that only you can ultimately decide to take on a label like “alcoholic” or “addict,” but I also believe that when there’s writing on the wall – and on literally every inch of that wall – it might be time for a conversation.

About nine or so months ago, when people were trying to tell me I needed help, I wish I would’ve taken the initiative to find a therapist and talk through it. It didn’t mean I had to go to rehab, or AA, or commit to any kind of substance abuse support group or program.

It meant I would’ve gotten some support from a professional as I decided, for myself, what my substance use meant in the scheme of my life – and what I might want it to mean moving forward.

It can be hard to hear folks when they’re trying to impose a terrifying and life-changing label. Take it from someone who knows. The word “alcoholic” still makes me cringe (forever unpacking that stigma, even now). But these days I’m willing to accept that if everyone sees something except me, it might mean that I have something I need to work through.

***

It can be hard to see your own substance abuse when you’re in the midst of it, especially when the narratives around it can be confusing and limited.

I by no means drink heavily. And for varying reasons, I don’t drink every day. And I’m still working to admit to myself that I can be an alcoholic despite that.

When I took the time to honestly evaluate how drinking operates in my life, I finally started to see the red flags I had been missing while I was too busy counting the number of drinks I had.

It doesn’t always matter how much or how often. It never did. For me, so much of it was about the kind of person drinking made me, and the consequences waiting on the other side.

And that’s a good enough reason for rehab as any.

recoveryphoto

6 Things Mental Health Recovery Has Taught Me

When I say that I’m in recovery, I mean it. It’s basically my part-time job.

My recent psychiatric hospitalization flipped my entire world upside-down. When I saw the aftermath of my breakdown, I knew it was time to confront my bipolar disorder and make a real commitment to my wellness.

So I went all in, taking advantage of every resource available to me (which I recognize is not the same for everyone).

Three days of the week, I am in intensive outpatient, which consists of mindfulness exercises, meetings with psychiatrists and social workers, group therapy, and skill-building.

Additional hours are spent in support groups around mental illness and sobriety, workshops on triggers and crisis management, reading every book on bipolar disorder that has ever existed, journaling to reflect on what I’ve been learning, and meeting with other folks in crisis to do some co-supporting and processing.

I couldn’t guarantee that I would never have another episode. But I could do everything in my power to make sure that I was ready for whatever this disorder threw at me.

Recovery has taught me more than I could possibly compile in a single list. But I did want to share just a handful of the things I’ve been reflecting upon lately as I start to emerge from the other side of this crisis.

Here are six things I’ve learned as I navigated my recovery:

 

1. Ignoring your illness doesn’t make it go away.

I can’t restate this enough. I spent the last two years evading the reality of my illness, which ultimately meant that I missed all the red flags as a major episode approached.

You can pretend that your mental illness doesn’t exist, and you can put it on the back burner if you’d like. But you can’t outrun it – it will always catch back up to you.

 

2. You are not helpless in the face of mental illness.

This can seem completely counter to everything our illnesses are telling us, especially if we’re feeling particularly hopeless.

But it is absolutely untrue that there’s nothing we can do to manage our illnesses. There are countless forms of therapy (both in human form and in the form of very accessible workbooks), coping strategies, self-care, and mindfulness practices that can help.

We can track our moods and sleep patterns, we can find communities of support, we can become aware of and minimize our triggers.

This is not to say that we control our illnesses. But we can certainly mitigate the kind of control that our illnesses have over us, and become aware of the warning signs that we need to prevent acute episodes as they approach.

 

3. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, in the here and now.

You can run on the hamster wheel of the past, overanalyzing what you could and should have done. You can ruminate on the future, and how seemingly impossible and overwhelming it really is.

Or, as they often tell us in recovery, you can take it one day at a time.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was in a support group, when I was rambling about how much remorse I felt about the way I had handled my breakdown, and everything I should have done differently.

Suddenly, someone interrupted and said to me, “Sam, is this helpful?”

I paused, taken aback. It wasn’t helpful at all.

And I highly recommend, when you find yourself ruminating on the past or panicking about the future, that you ask yourself who it serves. If it’s not helpful, opt for some good ol’ self-care instead.

 

4. Grief is an absolutely valid (and expected!) part of recovery.

I remember telling a social worker that I was worried that I was getting depressed again. I was having frequent spells of sadness and rumination, and I thought it might be an indication that things were taking a turn.

She asked if it was possible that I was experiencing grief instead, gently suggesting that instead of trying to push my sadness away, I should let it be.

“You’re used to fighting sadness,” she said to me. “With bipolar disorder, sadness always meant an impending crisis. But you seem perfectly stable to me. Maybe it’s time to get acquainted with sadness, with grief, instead of pushing it away.”

Grief is an expected part of recovery, especially if you’re coming off of a crisis. There’s so much to grieve – the loss of trust in yourself or your reality, a deep sense of vulnerability or even mortality, the shattering of your own security or feelings of normalcy, and any trauma that was endured.

When you’re mentally ill, you may be conditioned to fear sadness and grief – but it’s okay to sit with those feelings instead of resisting them, knowing they are simply a part of the recovery process, and that they are, in fact, transient.

 

5. Returning to your “normal life” is overrated. Build something better instead.

For the first two weeks of recovery, all I wanted was my “old life” back. I wanted to go back to work, I wanted to finish outpatient and go on my big East Coast trip, I wanted everyone to act as if it hadn’t happened.

I was reading a book on bipolar disorder – it had an entire chapter on lifestyle changes – when I realized two things.

The first was that my “normal life” would never be the same, and that it wasn’t something I could return to.

But the second more important realization was that it wasn’t something I wanted to return to.

My recovery was now an opportunity to build a life that was better than the one I had before – with more mindfulness, more resilience, better coping strategies, a real commitment to sobriety, and better boundaries.

Instead of seeing recovery as the road back to “normal life,” I saw it as a chance to create something better for myself.

I think that has been an incredibly important realization for me.

 

6. You have never been in a better position to change your life.

When did I get so disgustingly optimistic? (Y’all, they put me on some really great medications…)

I know, I know. But listen, it’s true – there has never existed another moment in your life where you’ve had the same awareness, knowledge, and lived experience that you do now.

So really, in this moment, there has never been a better time for you to make a commitment to your own wellness and recovery.

Dive in. Read everything you can get your hands on. Watch as many videos on self-care and coping strategies as you possibly can. Get yourself a good shrink if you’re able to. Give yourself 90 days of sobriety. Seek out a support group, online or offline, and pour your heart out.

Check out your local community college and see what classes they offer; get in touch with your local NAMI chapter and see what resources are available to you. Study yourself, study your illness, delve into your history with complete conviction – study like it’s the last class before graduation and you need to ace the exam.

Recovery is not about going back to the way things were. Recovery is about shaping your life to resemble the way you want things to be.

And there’s never been a better moment to do that than the one we’re in, right now.

ashamed

Sometimes I’m Ashamed Of My Mental Illness

Someone asked me recently what the most difficult part of my psychiatric hospitalization was. While the uncomfortable bed, tedious group therapies, and general lack of freedom were all stressful, it was life after hospitalization that was the toughest.

More specifically, the urge to hide from the people in my life, to self-isolate.

They saw me when I was losing my mind. I let them see me in my most vulnerable state, when my grip on reality was tenuous at best.

And all I could feel about that was shame.

When I say that I’m ashamed of my mental illness, it surprises people. I write about my struggles for a living. My history with mental illness is plastered all over the internet, easily uncovered with a single Google search of my name.

I have unapologetically owned my trauma around mental illness and, further, used that trauma to affirm and validate others who share those struggles.

So why would I be ashamed?

Well, that’s easy enough. The same reasons as everybody else.

Because underneath my “social justice warrior” armor, there’s just a scared little kid. One who spent years trying to hide his illness from everyone, fearful that he couldn’t be both mentally ill and lovable. Scared that if people saw how deep his struggles ran, they might leave.

I could tell the world that I was crazy, to an extent; it was empowering because I presented myself as the protagonist of my own story.

But what happens when everyone sees that you’re really broken, broken in ways they never imagined?

What happens when they look into your eyes and realize, fully, that you are the kind of crazy they’ve been warned about?

Because truthfully, my kind of crazy doesn’t inspire. At its core, it terrifies.

Every day I am biting my tongue until it bleeds, because I haven’t been able to admit that I’m scared.

I’m scared that this breakdown has rendered me less valuable, less likable, less worthy.

Every day I am pretending that my recovery is pleasant and easy and simple — I swallow what hurts when they ask if I’m okay — because maybe if I prove that I can be normal again, they’ll forget that I was ever psychotic, that I was ever paranoid, that I was ever delusional.

Maybe they’ll forget that I’m mentally ill.

Maybe they’ll forget what I looked like in a hospital gown, an IV stuck in my arm, trapped in a room on suicide watch.

I was so small then.

In that moment, waiting to be transferred to the psych ward, no one cared about my articles or my speaking gigs or the ways that I changed the world. In that moment, none of it mattered.

In that moment, I was revealed as the one thing I really was — crazy. And I had nothing to hide behind.

I find myself wondering, on the other side of this, if my breakdown will eclipse everything that I am.

Because none of us — not even a mental health blogger like me — is exempt from the feeling that our illnesses make us less than, make us unworthy.

The hardest part of being hospitalized wasn’t being in a hospital. The hardest part was letting the people in my life see that I am not, in fact, a success story, someone who overcame his struggles.

I am still fractured, still fragmented, still grieving, still human. 

And now, I’m exposed.

stillwanted

I Had Everything I Wanted – And I Still Wanted To Die

I’ve spent an hour, give or take, furiously pacing the floor of my apartment. They call this “psychomotor agitation,” though I don’t know it yet.

I feel like I can’t stand to be in my skin another second, like I’m completely wired and simultaneously the most depressed I’ve ever been. They call this a “mixed episode,” though I haven’t realized that yet.

My apartment is my sanctuary. I remember when I moved into the place – the joy I felt to be downtown, to be in the heart of things. It was full of 1920s charm. It felt surreal to be in a place so nice. I put a lot of thought into how I decorated the place, down to the candles and the twinkle lights and the succulents.

It was my safe place – was, up until that moment, when suddenly the train was coming off the rails.

I abruptly stop pacing. I know what I need to do.

I grab a pad of paper and a pen, and begin to write.

I’m sorry…

/

“But nothing was actually wrong,” I say quietly. “I wouldn’t have changed anything about my life – just how I felt.”

I’m in group therapy for the second time that day. We all sit in a circle, wearing pajamas and hospital gowns.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t give a shit about my ‘perfect’ life,” I continue. “I had everything I wanted and I still wanted to die.”

My body trembles ever so slightly.

“It can be hard to accept that these illnesses are not always within our control,” the group facilitator says. “We can feel very vulnerable when we realize this.”

Vulnerable. Vulnerable doesn’t even begin to describe the fears that have overtaken me since my breakdown.

Was it really possible that, no matter how I arranged my life – no matter what the circumstances were and how meticulously I controlled them – I could lose my mind anyway?

I could have a career that I loved, a community of friends and partners that brought me joy, and yes, the charming little apartment, but as soon as the chemicals in my brain turned on me, all of these things were irrelevant at best.

“I thought building my perfect life could keep my illness away, could keep me safe,” I tell the group. I look down at my hospital band around my wrist, a painful reminder.

I was sorely mistaken.

/

I’ve gotten too drunk. Again.

This is a new habit of mine. I’ve taken to drinking in the middle of the day, drinking alone, which everyone tells me is a bad sign.

They all tell me to sober up, and I don’t listen. I don’t listen because it’s better to be drunk than to be restless, the kind of restlessness that feels like thousands of insects crawling underneath your skin.

I glance at my phone.

“We found your note, Sam,” a message reads.

The panic begins to settle in. No one was supposed to find it until after I jumped in front of the train.

“Just tell us where you are,” another message reads. “Please.”

“Almost everyone who has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived said they regretted it immediately,” someone else says.

I already know what that regret feels like.

Seven years ago, the closest I’ve ever come to death, I felt that regret after the seizure and before I blacked out.

And in that moment, the memory of that regret scares me.

/

The answer is horrifyingly simple: Lithium.

The answer is not an apartment, or a relationship, or my job – the answer is lithium, and three days into my hospitalization, the chaos in my mind begins to subside.

“How are you feeling?” the psychiatrist asks me.

“I’m getting better.”

“That’s good news,” he says. “What about the voices? Are you hearing any?”

“No,” I reply. “My head is a lot clearer now.”

I should be overjoyed that the tides are turning. But I am in shock – was this really all that it took? Was it really just brain chemicals?

I don’t know whether to be glad that the answer was so simple or fearful that it was beyond my control.

Or both.

/

In outpatient, I sit in a support group and listen to people talking about what led to their crisis.

“I lost my job.”
“I had a terrible accident and the recovery was difficult.”
“I lost my brother and mother within six months.”
“I was in a coma.”

It’s my turn.

“I was in denial about my mental illness.”

Denial, like when you ignore all the warning signs because you don’t believe you’re sick. Denial, like when you think that if you control every element of your life, it won’t affect you. Denial, like when you’re convinced that if you take your pills every day, you’re cured.

Or when you believe that if you have everything, you won’t break down.

But the truth is, you can have everything and still want to die.

Because mental illness doesn’t care about the life you’ve built. It’s only interested in what it can take away.