Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Second Unapology

During the past year I have had some incredibly "interesting" responses to my public thoughts on having depression and anxiety. Most of the responses are positive--and I'll be brave and say that most of the people who respond believe their response is positive.

People really, really, really enjoy giving unsolicited advice. Have I talked about this before? I mean, I thought I had. Except, after doing a little research, I know I haven't, because the world also responds SO TERRIBLY when I say it out loud. I have written at least three posts about advice and never published them simply because the backlash would be ridiculous.

I did, in fact, go back to one of those posts and try to edit it to be tactful and gracious, but I am seriously no longer feeling tactful or gracious about this. 

And.... I'm not apologizing anymore. ;) Y'all are grown ups now, you can handle it.

So I'll start by saying a few important things to remember:

There is a lot of information floating around about mental illness, and how it affects different people, and how you can best support them. In spite of this veritable library of informative articles, books, etc. on the subject, people (and by people I mean you, and me, and everyone in between) still have some misconceptions about mental illness and how to approach it. What I'm going to write today will address both of these issues in addition to how you can properly/appropriately offer love and support to your friends with any sort of mental illness.

You might find reading this tedious, but that's only because most of what you read about this issue is objective and non-specific. It deals with the general idea of mental illness and doesn't pertain to anyone you actually know. There's nothing wrong with general information, but in order to really be supportive you have to understand that everyone needs something different--additionally, you also have to overcome your own misconceptions about mental illness in your own special way.

The most common misconception I encounter is that any mental illness is voluntary. Uneducated individuals often believe that if a mentally ill person would only do "_________" or stop doing "______" they would surely be healed from their ailment(s.) The phrases "happiness is a choice" and "you're just making yourself anxious/depressed" are frequently heard, and are about as helpful as giving a baby a wristwatch to aid in the potty training process.

But to really hit the nail on the head I'm going to tell you exactly what people have told ME, specifically, in response to my mental illness.

"Have you tried losing weight?"
"You probably just don't drink enough water."
"You don't exercise enough."
"You need to read your Bible more."
"I have this great health product you should try!"
"Well, it could always be worse. Count your blessings."

And here is my response to that load of crap.

I have struggled with depression for more than half of my life, and with anxiety for probably my entire life without being aware of it. It has been an ongoing issue, regardless of my body size, regardless of the money in my bank account, regardless of how many hours of exercise I get each week, regardless of the amount of Bible verses I read or gallons of water I consume.  I am an avid lover of vegetables and fruits. I grew up eating homemade food and home-grown produce. I have taken a daily multivitamin (or 2, or 5) most of my adult life. I have a membership to a gym and both of my jobs require a great deal of prayer AND physical activity. I'm have an extremely active church life and my spiritual health is quite stable. I have done all these things, I DO all these things, and anxiety and depression are still something I have, they are still something I deal with. It is present in good times and bad.

So, no. I would not like to try your expensive and unnecessary health product.

No, I do not want to read the article you sent to me about becoming a raw foodist.

No, going to an extra prayer meeting is not the answer.

Getting a different translation of my Bible is not the answer.

Going on a mission trip to a third-world country is not the answer.

Eating more kale, doing a juice cleanse, or practicing yoga is not the answer.

But most importantly, taking your unsolicited advice is not the answer.*

I'm not sure when it started, but at some point we decided, culturally, that offering advice to someone is the best way to help them, no matter what the circumstances. If they don't ask for advice, it doesn't matter--give it to them anyways! I could go into all the different reasons it's harmful to give unsolicited advice, but I'll let ya'll google it. People hate unsolicited advice. I promise.

Personally, I hate it for a lot of reasons, but I'll give you the most important one.

I must learn how to ask for help when I need it.

I must, at all costs, try something myself. I must fail, and try again, and fail, and try again. It's how I learn. (I'll tell you a secret--it's how we all learn.) It's what I need. I need to figure things out for myself, but I also need to know when enough is enough, to know when to let go of my pride and say, "Help!" I need you to let me ask you for help, instead of allowing you to force it upon me before I'm ready for it.

And I know it's hard not to give people advice. Like I said, it's part of our culture. If we see someone struggling, we want to tell them how to fix it. But that's not your responsibility. Your answer is not their answer. Your solution is not their solution. What helps you will not help me.

And what helps me will not necessarily help you.

So let other people fail, if you can. Help them, if they accept. And instead of forcing your advice on them, offer them this phrase: "What kind of support do you need from me?"

The answers may surprise you.

*****A Brief Disclaimer*****

1.When I say "advice" I mean verbal advice about an idea/concept/situation. I am not talking about immediate, life-saving advice, such as: "Don't walk over there, it's full of poison ivy!" or "You should go to the hospital because you have a temperature of 105." So don't get ideas about playing devil's advocate and claiming that I don't want help ever in my life because I said "no advice."

2. I'm not saying that all advice is bad. The Bible tells us to "seek wise counsel" and I agree. However, not every situation merits the "seeking" of counsel and, in turn, not every situation merits the "giving" of counsel.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

No More Apologies

I have tried.

Over and over, with and without coffee, in the sunshine or the nighttime, I have tried.

Come, lord Jesus,
I have tried.

And the feelings come out but the words stay put, like there's nothing I could possibly say that would be considered an honest expression, or that would do justice to what I'm trying to convey. But I'll give it my best shot.

A year ago I was the most depressed I have been in many years. It is something I've dealt with for fifteen years this September, the worst of which was 2007-2008, with last winter in a close second. I've been considering that time in my life frequently because I'm approaching an interesting milestone: an entire year of being on antidepressant medication. 

Things have been going well. I will spare you the details of an entire year, for the sake of clarity and to save time, but believe me when I say that things have been going well.

I started listening to Christmas music on December 1st, but in the heat of the moment I forgot about that one song. And of course I was driving, over that exact same bridge, and in a flood of cold air and warbling voices I remembered last year.

Last year. Now my heart is / Returned to sister winter / Now my heart is / As cold as ice. Those lyrics washed over me and through me for an entire week, an entire year ago, and I drove over that bridge day after day and fought the urge with every breath not to drive off the bridge. A year ago, listening to the same angsty lyrics on repeat somehow helped me not careen into oncoming traffic, while also reminding me how badly I wanted to do just that.

Sure, it all sounds so dramatic now. But I said it then, and I'll say it now. As a teenager, I knew I could be overreacting simply because I was young and my emotions were often overwhelming. As an adult, with every imaginable support available, those feelings cannot be dismissed so easily.

And last year, in the midst of all that, I apologized. I said I was sorry for my behavior, although not for my feelings, because I didn't know how to handle myself. I spent so many years fighting these neurotic impulses, charging against my heart's desires to seek revenge or manipulate people or feign politeness just to be liked. I fought, and I lost, over and over. I was a sorry loser.

But now I'm done apologizing.

You see, before, I was fighting myself. I was fighting my dark side, the part of me that is vindictive and bitter and false. This is a part of all of us, it's human nature, but it is not always so loud.

I am no longer fighting myself. The darkest part of me still exists but it does not drown out all the other voices. Rather than a fight between my dark desires or good intentions, I am simply fighting for the truth. I am capable of sitting still and asking myself if my feelings are based on reality or fiction. I am capable of praying calmly at any time of day instead of screaming and crying to God because every moment is one of desperation.

So I can apologize for myself beforehand. I was not trying my best to be my best, was not trying to honor God with my life, because I spent all of my energy simply trying to be. 

In the aftermath, in my medicated life, I don't apologize--at least, I don't apologize for trying.

Some days I wake up and everything is fine. I am motivated. I don't have a headache. I go to work or go to the store and buy groceries, and I wake up after the first alarm and leaving the house doesn't require any mental exertion.

Other days it's more difficult. My medication often causes horrific nightmares, insomnia, or can make it nearly impossible for me to wake up. Sometimes I experience all three of those in one day. The nightmares can be especially difficult to shake off because they are very realistic, and thus waking up becomes work. I have to force myself out of bed, I have to pray for a forgetful mind in order to move on with my day, and at that point I have already lost time and must prepare for the potential anxiety of being late for events and the mental sluggishness I'll have later and of course... my favorite thing... trying to figure out how I'll explain my behavior to people.

How does an adult woman explain that she's late for church because she had a nightmare?

This is often the hardest part. Some people already know. Some friends understand my code words, the phrases that indicate I have recently struggled and need time to recuperate. However, there are still many who apparently don't get it --people who are insensitive to depression, don't understand it, and would respond badly if I said I was struggling.

And the truth is, I shouldn't even feel like I need to explain it to everyone. If I'm late for something, I shouldn't have to explain last night's terrible nightmare just so you won't think I'm lazy. If I bail on a responsibility (a decision that I do not make without a lot of thought), I shouldn't be afraid someone will chastise me publicly, or compare me to others.

When you dismiss my fears, when you call my trials "inconveniences," when you tell me other people are capable and they "have it worse," you are dismissing my entire journey. You are dismissing an entire year of trying to be the best of myself and managing the symptoms and side effects and using all my coping mechanisms. You are saying my attempts don't matter.

But even when I fail, because I fail often, my attempts do matter. For all of the fights I have fought, it matters most now that I try and keep trying and that I don't give up.

I communicate my efforts so that you don't assume I am ignoring my responsibilities entirely. I ask for help when I need it (another milestone.) I try to be honest, so you'll know what's going on, so that despite my failure others still feel respected and appreciated. I control my impulses and try not to be reactionary, and I think long and hard about decisions that affect other people.

For instance, when I brought another Christmas album into the car, I wanted to throw out that other CD. I wanted to take the Sufjan Stevens mix and toss it out into the icy air. I wanted to drive over it and hear it crackle. I wanted to smash it on the bridge that tormented me.

However, I cannot give it that much power. I will not be satisfied by simply destroying the thing that kept my depression in perpetual motion. "Trying" means more than just attempting to ignore the places I have been, the person I have been. I have to replace the bad with good.

So... I'm done apologizing for trying.

I might say, "Sorry I'm late!" but I won't say, "Sorry, I had a bad morning," unless I feel like you're going to show me some compassion and listen to my story.

If I'm struggling, I may tell you, "I'm sorry, I can't meet tonight," but won't say, "I'm sorry for bailing tonight, I'm the worst friend ever." I will not be self-deprecating when I'm really just practicing good self-care.

And in the next few days I'll make a new Christmas CD and throw out the old one, because I've thought about it for a handful of days, and I won't apologize. I won't be sorry.

Not even a little bit.