In Sickness and Mental Health

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It is a scary world out there for people living with mental health conditions. For example, changing medications can be scary. You never know what side effects are going to happen as your body chemistry changes, nor do you have an immediate way of controlling them when they start. The thought of being physically, mentally, or sexually abused or assaulted is also scary. Contrary to what many people may think, people living with a mental health condition are 2x more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than they are to be the perpetrator. So, there’s that. Additionally, seeing a new therapist can be terrifying. Telling your story over and over again is exhausting (especially if you’ve had to tell it multiple times already), and you never know what kind of therapy or treatment they might suggest without knowing your story and without knowing your personal preferences for treatment.

“…the minute it starts to mean something with someone, it scares me because there is that potential to fall hard for someone and lose myself in that.”
Regarding having feelings for someone. From my journal; November 4, 2011

However, the scariest thing when you have a mental health condition in my opinion is falling in love, and being in love in general. Giving your heart to someone, trusting them with it (scars, battle wounds, and all), and allowing them to see you vulnerable; to see you, mental health condition and all? That is absolutely terrifying. Even more terrifying is the idea of what falling in love DOES to someone who is living with a mental health condition like what I have.

Since the age of 10, I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and OCD. The OCD has made things particularly difficult for me. You see, the kind of OCD that I have lived with for the majority of my life always tended to rear its ugly head on my relationships in childhood/adolescence – both platonic and romantic. I lost friends over it and I lost people I loved because of it. Even though I was able to reconnect with most of those people later in life, it left scars on my heart that told me that people had left because I couldn’t control this part of me that I wanted so desperately to just disappear. Or at least, that is how it felt.

For a long time, I thought I was incapable of being in a relationship. I thought that it was impossible that anyone would ever be able to love me. I believed that one day, when someone would found out the truth about my mental health conditions, they would walk away and just like that, I’d be left to pick up the pieces. So, eventually I decided just not to tell anyone, and to just live my life. It was both a good decision, and a difficult one because I let my true emotions (depression, frustration) out in private.

However, my sophomore year of college, a man fell very, very hard for me. That person would be a very important part of my life for the next four years. I remember that from the moment he found out I liked him too, he began pursuing me. The man wouldn’t give up! Still, I was very hesitant to get into a relationship. I had previously been very hurt by someone else, and I knew how vulnerable telling someone about my mental health condition made me – why should I give someone this huge piece of me only to have them walk away? I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t know if I ever would be either.

In November 2011, I had my first date with them. I’d been talking to this individual for about a month and had been friends with him for a few months longer. It was a really nice first date too. Although I was hesitant at first, I was glad that I finally agreed. The poor guy must have been so nervous because he missed his exit to his hometown while we were on the freeway!

After the first date went so well, I told him that I wanted to go for a drive, so he drove us into the hills that surrounded his city. There, he asked me for what must have been the 3rd time, about where we stood in terms of us dating or making things official. He told me he really wanted to be with me, and I told him I just wasn’t ready. He kept asking why, and eventually, I decided I would just tell him so we could get it over with and he could just leave after I told him. At least at this point I would have less broken pieces to pick up. I told this person about my mental health conditions, my depression, my anxiety, medication, therapy, hospital trips… everything. I full expected that would be it – he’d be gone the next day, and never reach out to me again. Instead, he said he needed to pull over, and I thought I saw tears in his eyes. We sat down on the sidewalk of a middle school, and he started crying. He cried, and he held me, and he told me he was sorry I had to go through that. I was shocked. That is a moment I will never, ever forget.

Two months later I ended up giving this person a chance, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I stand by that statement, because even though the relationship has since ended, I learned so much about myself, the depths of the love that exists in my heart and my soul for people, and that even though I have been hurt not just once, not just twice… my heart is still determined to beat, and to try again, despite the risks.

It wasn’t always easy with that person, and I am sure that it won’t always be easy with whomever I love next. That is the very nature of love. Not ease of practice, but how worth it it is in the end.

I guarantee that you, whoever you are, knows someone who is living with a mental health condition.

SO, IF THAT IS THE CASE, HOW DO YOU LOVE SOMEONE WHO IS LIVING WITH A MENTAL HEALTH CONDITION, AND LOVE THEM WELL?

The first thing is that you have to try to understand. You have to know, understand, and accept that mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, etc. often come in waves, and carried in with those waves are often fear and shame. Fear that you’ll leave, fear that you won’t be able to “handle it”, and shame about the past, or about past experiences with feeling stigma from other people. The person’s depression or anxiety won’t always care that they are in a relationship with someone who loves them, tells them that they are beautiful/handsome, makes them laugh like crazy, cares for them deeply, and makes them feel safe. It just won’t, and it is important to understand that. With that understanding, comes the realization that the person you love may think to themself, “I can’t believe someone loves me.” I know I thought that. I knew how lucky I was to be loved, but I often feared that something I did would push him (or anyone else in my life who loves me) away and out of my life for good.

The second thing is that you must accept that that no relationship (or friendship) is going to be perfect. However, just like there isn’t always sunshine, there isn’t always rain either. Celebrate the good days with them, those are victories. When the bad days come in like the tide, ride it out with them, and just know that they will pass.

The third thing is to pay attention: to what they like, to what they don’t, and to what helps, and what doesn’t. On the days in which storms are surrounding that person, loving that person can take many different forms. It sure did for me. I was so grateful for the times that my previous partner made me my favorite tea when I was anxious or overwhelmed. I was grateful that he knew me enough to know when to leave me alone, and when to stay close. I knew he loved me, and he was able to fill me with hope, joy, and excitement for the future on the days when I didn’t have any. I loved that he knew how to make me fall asleep, and that he knew my favorite brands of creamer (in case he needed to pick something up at the store for me), and that he encouraged me to follow my dreams when I was about to give up. Even though he didn’t have a mental health condition himself, he tried so hard to understand and to be there for me.

The fourth thing is to know that we see you… and we try our hardest to be strong for you, even when we don’t have to. I knew that when I was depressed it upset my previous partner, even when it wasn’t his fault. That’s when I would try to reassure him through teary, blurred vision that I would be OK, even though I didn’t always believe it myself. I hated the idea that I may cause someone pain or make them upset. That is something that I guarantee if you love someone living with a mental health condition that they do think about, and are mindful of, even if it doesn’t seem like it. There were many nights in my previous relationship that ended in a tight hug and with me mumbling “I’m sorry for being ridiculous,” even if I knew deep down that the symptoms I was experiencing weren’t MY fault. There were also many times when I realized how much I learned about myself through the experience of loving someone else. For example, resisting my compulsions to seek reassurance just because I knew if I gave into them that it might make them feel like I didn’t pay attention when he said that he loved me.

The fifth thing, is to accept that this is their reality. Living with a mental health condition is no walk in the park, and it is a walk that many people walk for the rest of their lives. In my previous relationship, we had had a mutual understanding that there was a good chance that this was how it may always be, so considering what that meant for both of us (especially if we had decided to get married or have kids).

SO, WHAT IF YOU ARE THE PERSON LIVING WITH A MENTAL HEALTH CONDITION?

If you are like me and live with a mental health condition, don’t let anyone tell you that you are never going to be loved, or that you are incapable of it yourself. Don’t let someone tell you that your mental health condition is the reason why you are not in a relationship, because it isn’t. The right person will love you, the whole you, mental health conditions included. Never let anyone tell you that you should do anything other than how you are doing it now. Never let anyone make you feel bad about something that is out of your control. Above all, don’t ever believe that you need to love yourself before someone is going to love you because trust me, there were days when I definitely didn’t feel like I loved myself, nor did I even like myself. Yet I was loved through it anyway, in a romantic-love sense and by people who cared about me as friends.

Be with someone who is going to bring out the best in you. Be with someone who will love you even when they see the parts that aren’t “easy” or fantasy-like. Be with someone who will pray with you for peace and healing. Be with someone who will see your light, and yet still wants to seek out the darkest parts of you just to know all of who you are. Be with someone who will appreciate your highs because they know how far you’ve come and what you’ve had to do to get them; and yet be with someone who will stick by your side when you have your lows.

Don’t just be with the person who is going to love you when you’re having your best day, look your best, and have a lot of success. Be with the person who is going to love you when you’re having your best day, but loves you and shows you so even more when you’re struggling, can barely make it out of bed, and feel like you’re never going to make it out alive. Trust me, you will make it out alive… and if that person is still there, friend or lover… hold them tight, and hang onto them.

Coffee Date with OCD

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The second part of my three-part “Coffee date” series is focused on OCD. OCD, like other mental health conditions is highly individual. Thus, anything mentioned in this article as being helpful is purely based on my own personal experience with OCD.

What things trigger my OCD?
Is it an action? Is it a thought? Something on the news? A smell? Knowing your OCD and knowing it well is honestly a huge part of getting past an episode. I’ve lived with OCD since I was very young (before the age of 10). As a result, I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what my triggers are over time. One of them related to my fear of contamination (especially connected to the smell) is rubberbands. To this day, if I touch a rubberband, it feels like there are literal bugs crawling on my the skin where I touched it. When it comes to the main focus of my OCD (people), there is nothing that terrifies me more than someone asking for space. It automatically triggers a compulsive response to ask the person repeatedly for confirmation that it isn’t forever, that they still care about me, etc. When I get those urges, it is incredibly hard to control myself, but I do, because I know if I don’t that it can impact my relationships with other people (and it has in the past). When I was a kid, the form of OCD I have (relationship OCD, also known as ROCD) was not as widely recognized. As a result, I had a great deal of self-stigma thinking I was weird, strange, and every other synonym for those two in the book. However, now that there is more research around ROCD out there, I can say confidently that I am not alone in the struggle of OCD, and if you live with OCD I guarantee you aren’t either. Do you think the things that trigger your OCD are weird or strange? Check out the list of different kinds of obsessions/compulsions on almost any website, and you will soon come to the realization that what you’re experiencing is actually pretty normal. The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) is a fantastic resource that I highly recommend by the way.

What do I tend to focus on or think about (obsessions) most when I have an episode of OCD?
Knowing what your own thought patterns are is so incredibly important. Do you focus on a specific item? A specific texture? A specific feeling? When you know what it is you tend to negatively focus on, you can better utilize certain coping skills (such as positive self-talk). For example, I know that when I have an OCD episode that I am likely to doubt people around me, and to become suspicious of their actions and their intentions with me. By anticipating this, I know that when I am NOT going through an episode but yet I know I still have specific trigger(s) that I can find a way to remind myself that when I do go through an episode I have something to count on. For example, if there is a certain person that I tend to doubt, when I am in a good place with them I can write words of affirmation for myself and for my relationship with that person.

What behavioral changes (compulsions) occur when I have an episode of OCD?
This looks different for every individual, depending of course on what form of OCD they have. For me, my friends may describe me as acting a bit more “needy” or “needing reassurance” when I am having an episode. Honestly though, saying I get a little needy is kind of a compliment compared to how I used to be, asking the object of my OCD 25x or more per day, “Are you my friend?” “Do you love me?” “Are you still mad at me?” For others, this may look like taking showers more frequently than normal (I’m talking like 3+ times a day), checking the stove or locks more often, or seeking reassurance that you did.

What are some signs that I might be going through an OCD episode?
I am a huge advocate for providing education to those around you about your OCD (if you feel safe to do so). This can be a family member or friend, or really anyone you surround yourself with, just as long as you have someone who can act as a mirror, or be able to show you where your “blind spots” are. Personally, there have been times when I’ve struggled even recently, and it has been a friend who knows me well who is able to point out to me things that I don’t even notice yet. In my case, I am likely going through an episode or approaching an episode if I am isolating myself from people I normally spend time with (especially to spend time with one person in particular), if I seem particularly anxious or more forgetful than normal, or if I am placing too much mental energy on a particular person. For other people, it may be more or less obvious.

Am I willing and able to try to challenge my OCD-related fears?
If there is one thing I have learned about OCD, it is that the key to overcoming it is saying “no” to it. This is different from the other mental health conditions I live with. When I was younger, my therapist did Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) with me to try to lessen my anxiety around certain aspects of my OCD. I will talk more about ERP and my thoughts on it later, but for now, just know that I have adopted some of the techniques from that and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) modalities to help me challenge my OCD, the thoughts I’m having, and to try to stay more grounded in what I know to be reality. A friend of mine describes this process of challenging OCD to be like trying to get the monster back in the cage, or the worms back in the can, or however you want to look at it. I sometimes do this in a way that is similar to exposure therapy too by exposing myself to what it is that bothers me, and then slowly desensitizing myself to it over time. I can talk about this in a future post as well.

Do I have anyone I can talk to about this?
OCD is slightly less common than anxiety and depression, so in this case I find it particularly helpful to have a friend or family member who can support me through this, and remind me that I am not my OCD, and check-in. For example, I got my OCD from my dad, so I know if I want to relate to someone about it I can talk to him, or one of my other good friends.

How do I know when it is time to reach out for help?
I say it again, I know it is time to reach out when my OCD is interfering with my daily functioning. Is the checking getting in the way of my working, or am I being too open with coworkers about it? Is it getting in the way of my usual activities? Am I still going to church? Is it keeping me from doing things I love with people who love me? We are our own best judges when it comes to what is normal for us, so having an awareness is really the key here.

Be on the look-out for my final post in this series about depression!