Support in a Surprising Place

When you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other unpleasant feeling it’s not uncommon to feel alone.  I’m very lucky to have an incredible support system of loved ones and mental health professionals, but one of my favorite support systems came from an unexpected place: work.

During the first few months at my job I changed medications and the process was anything but pleasant.  I felt physically and mentally drained, and was having a hard time keeping it together at work. With the fear of being reprimanded or even fired, I decided to say something to my boss.  Not only was he completely accepting, he had been through a very similar experience himself. I felt more comfortable at work and mentioned that I had a mental illness to a coworker who told me about a mental health group at our company; an online support channel made up of employees.

In this group we share the highs and the lows and speak freely without fear of judgement.  We even started meeting in person in the New York office, which have such a loving, supportive energy.  This groups gives me a feeling that my company supports me and I have a support system within these walls.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what some of my amazing, brave coworkers have to say:

“I took a 4 months of medical leave from work to deal with a debilitating episode of depression. Managing my ongoing transition back to work (along with the continued depression symptoms, and the seemingly endless search for “the right meds” and “the right therapist”) has been difficult. But having a manager who I can be completely honest with during down and unproductive weeks, a team that proactively reaches out to offer their support, and a group of like-minded individuals in a public slack channel (!!) who are open and honest about sharing their own positive and negative experiences has motivated me to continue prioritizing my wellbeing and self-kindness. Without these compassionate work support networks, I imagine that I’d still be on leave, and I feel grateful to work at a company that really does let me “bring my whole self to work.””

“Having an inclusive and safe channel to discuss my mental health at work helps make me more productive. I’m less afraid and anxious to go to work in the morning when I know I have a place I can turn to for support from my peers that understand what I’m going through and can help me navigate my way through the tough times.”

I know most companies don’t have support groups like this, but there are hundreds and thousands of other online support groups out there.  Just having someone say “me too” or “that sounds really hard, I’m sorry to hear that” can have such a positive impact. Do a Google search for the type support your looking for and you will find endless resources.  Remember, there is no need to suffer alone; there are people just like you who will understand.

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The Game

It feels like the only time I can actually write is when I feel crummy.  Like now.  So I guess it’s good that I haven’t written in a while?

I don’t know the answer to that question and I’m not sure if I want to.

Anyway…

I’m in the midst of another round of “what’s the right combo of meds for Kate” and I wish I could tap out.  This is a game I’ve played with multiple doctors for almost 16 years.  Sometimes I think that it really is all a game, that it’s all bullshit and therapeutic meds just make everything worse.  But then I get on the right combination and I remember what it feels like to feel “normal” again.  Normal for me is being able to go to work, hold a conversation, take a shower, and leave my apartment without having a breakdown.  You forget how difficult the simplest things can be until you have a depressive episode.  Plus, meds tend to minimize these episodes, which is why I try to push out some of the hippie crap that’s always in my head about being “natural” and remember that meds are here to make me better.  If I had diabetes I would take insulin, so what’s the difference?

Another reason I go along with it and keep holding out that there is this “right combo” of meds for me is because I know it’s too risky to go without them.  I know what it’s like to actually feel crazy; to have a very skewed and limited sense of reality.  It can be both terrifying and exciting at the same time, until reality (the real one, the one you can’t see) starts to fall apart around you.  But you’re too delusional to care so you keep falling until you hit the bottom.  I’ve hit that bottom a few times in my life, and it’s not a place I ever dare to get near ever again.  

So I call my doctor when I feel crummy.

I trust him to make educated decisions about my mental health and he trusts me to tell him when something isn’t working.  I have to, I’m a human not a computer so no alert will go off if my mood destabilizes (unfortunately, that would make so much easier).  I have a similar agreement with my husband; as long I never give up on me, neither will he.  I can imagine being married to someone who has an illness that you can’t usually see can be quite frustrating and draining, but he makes it look easy.  

This gaming is getting harder to play because the stakes keep getting so much higher.  When I could withdraw from college, live at my parents house, and use their insurance things weren’t as complicated.  Now I have a (super amazing) marriage, a (legit) career, and a great life that I need to keep alive.  And some day I’ll (god willing) have a tiny human being to keep alive.  

So that’s why I keep playing this game.  

I don’t think bipolar disorder is a game I can ever “win”, but I think if I can keep the upper hand at least most of the time then I’m doing just fine.  And after 16 years of practice, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep me on top.

Grattitude

*Note: I am aware “Grattitude” is actually spelt “Gratitude” – there’s a sign near the city that has is spelt this way because gratitude is really about your attitude.  See what I did there?  Let’s move on…

As I’m sure you’re aware, this past week was Thanksgiving.  My fiancé, or ‘fiancebabe’ as we like to call each other and he shall hence be known as, spent Wednesday-Saturday (technically Sunday morning) with various combinations of our family members.

While I’m sure a lot of people might think “Jesus. You must have wanted to shoot yourself,” we were thinking “Jesus. We’re REALLY lucky.”

I have an unconventional family that we refer to as our “modern family” and I love every single one of them, no matter how we’re related.  I also have an incredible future family-in-law that I would seriously choose to spend time with.  Not many people can say that.

Instead of raging the town at some bar in the city, we spent pre-Thanksgiving doing what every good Italian family does; eating.  As we went around the table and shared what we’re thankful and grateful for, I reflected on the many blessings in my life.  I went for the sappy road and shared my gratitude for my beloved fiancebabe and my soon-to-be in-laws.  But here are some other things I am (and lot of us should be) grateful for…

  • I’m grateful for the $8.17 organic chicken bone broth (with added organic bone marrow) I bought for lunch because it means I have a stable job and salary that allows me to enjoy such extravagances (once in a while).
  • I’m grateful for the many empty whiskey and wine bottles in my apartment because it means I have good friends who helped us drink them.  And even better friends who brought them.
  • I’m grateful for my insanely sore thighs because it means I am healthy enough to use them, and that I was able to treat myself to a Soul Cycle class.
  • I’m grateful for the medication I take every day because it means I have health insurance, a good doctor, and a country that’s finally recognizing the importance of mental health.
  • I’m grateful for the hangover I had on Saturday because it means I had a great time and that my mom can still out drink me.  It also means my body has a checks and balances system in place that makes me say “I mean it this time – I’m only having one glass of wine tonight.”
  • I’m grateful when my phone blows up from a group text because it means I have friends who want to stay connected to each other.  Plus it means I have a phone and my phone is super helpful, and it entertains me on my way to work.
  • Most of all, I’m grateful for when I feel uncomfortably full, for when I’m so comfortable I don’t want to get out of bed, for when my face hurts from smiling, and when my stomach hurts from laughing because it means that I have a good and plentiful life.

I almost forgot to mention something else I’m grateful for, or should I say someone else – I’m so grateful for my fiancebabe. Because of him I get to share all of the good (and the bad) things with someone who loves me in such a unique and powerful way.  He’s also not too bad on the eyes (wink).

I hope everyone found something to be grateful for this year, and I hope you find even more to be grateful for next year.

Oh, one last thing – I am also grateful for Pumpkin Spice Lattes because they are amazing and they mean it’s fall and I am NOT SORRY ABOUT IT.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Every so often I like to take a moment to stop and take everything in.  Mentally, that is – I live in New York City and if you stop in the middle of the street you will get trampled by tourists and commuters.  Also you are an asshole.  And there’s a strong chance that where you’re standing smells like garbage or pee.

Anyway, yesterday I caught my reflection in the one of the Macy’s windows and I couldn’t help but laugh.  No I didn’t look like a homeless person (that’s only on the weekends…or after aggressive happy hours).  I looked…like an adult.  A NEW YORKER adult!

I looked at my non-ancient iPhone I was texting my FIANCÉ (ah!) with about planning our engagement party. I looked at the incredibly beautiful and thoughtful engagement ring on my finger.  I looked at the designer sunglasses on my face, the designer bag on my shoulder, and the pricey headphones on my head.  I’m not trying to sound like an asshole – I was just in awe of myself.  Not that long ago I could barely get out of bed, let alone get out the apartment and go to work.  I could barely pay rent, let alone buy myself a purse (my mom had to insist I throw out my old purse because it had too many holes in it), and I was convinced I would die alone surrounded by cats.

Designer clothes and expensive “adult toys” aren’t what matter to me; it’s the fact that I now have the ability and capability to get them.  I bought that purse after I got my start date at my new job because I got a huge raise.  My dad bought me those sunglasses for Christmas because he’s no longer swamped by my medical bills.  My amazing fiancé bought me those headphone because they’re noise canceling and he knows how sensitive I am to sound.

I’m able to have all of this because I fought to get my life back.  Mental illness was taking my life away from me and after a long, grueling battle I finally did.  For a while I let it win because it was too hard to fight back.  I didn’t realize how many resources I needed to fight and a lot of the time it didn’t seem worth it.  I didn’t know that I could have a life like this.  I didn’t know that I could have a successful career, a loving partner, and a comfortable lifestyle that I earned.  My mental illness told me that I couldn’t.  It told me that I was confined to my bed, wearing the same dirty sweatshirt for weeks, isolated and alone because that’s all I deserved.

But something inside me told me that wasn’t true.  Even when 99% of your mind is polluted by darkness there is still that 1%, maybe even 0.01% that holds on.  If you don’t think that you have it, trust me you do – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be sitting here reading this.

You can have the life you dream, in fact you can one that’s even better than you could ever imagine.  But you have to fight for it.  Even if you don’t have a mental illness holding you back, there’s plenty of other things that plague our minds and lives and convince us that we don’t deserve the lives that we want.  Don’t listen to that voice.  Believe that you’re worthy and capable of love and happiness and eventually it will find it’s way to you.

For many years I didn’t think I deserved love or happiness but here I am, sitting in my office writing this post with a diamond ring on my finger.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Anxiety – The Dinner Guest No One Invited

I, like millions of people, deal with anxiety on a fairly regular basis.  Whether you’ve been officially diagnosed with it by a doctor, or you’ve ever felt like your heart was going to explode out of your chest, I think we can all agree that anxiety is a very unwelcome visitor.

Whether anxiety is a frequent or seldom visitor, it has the power to leave you exhausted, scared, and paralyzed (figuratively speaking).

I’ve written before about how panic attacks feel like being stuck in a box that’s slowly filling with water, but it dawned on me that that’s not really a relatable analogy.  People aren’t often trapped in boxes and then drowned.  Or are they?  God I hope not.  Either way, I wanted to write something that people who have or don’t have “official” anxiety can relate to.  That way we can all commiserate because at best, anxiety is EXTREMELY inconvenient.  So let’s all get on the same page, shall we?

I think we’ve all been at a dinner party, as either a host or a guest, where someone who wasn’t invited shows up.  Suddenly, your mind starts to fill up with questions – who is this person?  Did I invite them?  They look weird.  That’s not fair, I shouldn’t be so judgmental.  But I thought we weren’t going to bring randoms anymore?  Whatever. Stop thinking so much.

You shake it off because when you really think about, does it really matter if there’s just one extra person?  Probably not.  But what if that person sucks…

Did he really just say he supports Trump? No one was even talking about the election? WHY WOULD YOU LEAD WITH THAT?

You feel your pulse increase, your temperature slowly, rise, and you breath get shorter.  You don’t say anything because you don’t want to be rude or you don’t even know how to respond.

What was that?  We need to get rid of WHOM?  You racist prick.  I’m going to lose it on this asshole.

You look around, but everyone else doesn’t seem phased.  They go about the dinner like everything is normal and there isn’t some giant asshole making people uncomfortable.

How is no one else freaking out?  People like this guy are dangerous.  Does anyone else see that??  WAKE UP PEOPLE!  Wait…if no one else is freaking out…does this mean I’m imagining it?  Am I overreacting?  Am I being too judgmental?  Am I being crazy?

The overwhelming thoughts keep pouring in, your pulse keeps increasing, your heart rate feels like you just ran up a flight of stairs.  Before you know it, you’re hyperventilating and people are staring at you asking if you’re alright.  You feel like your head it going to explode and your heart is going to burst out of your chest, so you abruptly get up from a table, embarrassed and scared, and seek shelter in the bathroom.

That’s what anxiety feels like.  At least for me – we all experience it differently.  Regardless, I think we can all agree that feeling anxious is uncomfortable, scary, and embarrassing.  Even if you’re alone, it can feel shameful and you think to yourself, “Other people don’t freak out about this kind of thing.   What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing.  You are not wrong for feeling anxious or having a panic attack.  You are not crazy for having racing thoughts or feeling like your heart is going to explode.  It happens to a lot of people, even people who don’t have anxiety disorder.

Instead of beating yourself up, try to think about what triggered your anxiety.  See if you can pinpoint the moment you started to feel off, and think about what you could do to sooth yourself next time.  Personally, I’m a fan of deep breathing.  So much that I got the word “Breathe” tattooed on my left wrist.  People often tease me about it and say, “Is that in case you forget?”  Ha ha.  Jokes on them, that’s exactly why I got it; it’s my personal reminder.

Breathing doesn’t always do the trick, though.  There are times when my anxiety is so bad that when I tell myself, “Calm down, remember to breath,” the part of me that’s panicking says, “FUCK YOU, YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE!”  Instead, I count.  I usually count backwards from 100 (or 50 or even 10) because I need to focus more since I’m terrible with numbers.

Once I’m able to calm down (or I fail to do so and wait for the panic attack to end – it’s a process), I try to thinking about what made me feel that way and I what I can do next time to try and prevent anxiety from taking control.  A former therapist and I made a list of things to do, which I carried around in my wallet.  They vary based on my environment, i.e., if I was home, at work, on the subway, lost in the middle of nowhere, etc.  Some things that work for me are:

  • Playing with Sasha (my furry companion)
  • Listening to music (usually show tunes) I know all the words to and singing along (either out loud or in my head)
  • Walking around the block/neighborhood/apartment
  • Going into a CVS/Duane Reade/Walgreens and reading the ingredients or instructions on different item.

That last one probably sounds weird, but all of these things have the same purpose – they redirect your mind away from whatever is causing your anxiety.  Once you’re calm you can figure out the cause because trying to do it mid-freak out usually just adds stress and unpleasantness.
When anxiety shows up unannounced, know that you’re not the only one who deals with it and there are things you can do to shoo it out the door.  After all, it’s just an unwelcome asshole – fight back and tell it to get the hell out of your dinner party.