Emotions

Talking about mental health is so much harder than I sometimes realize. It’s easier to write about it because it’s more anonymous, in a sense. I don’t have to see the person’s reaction to my words. Recently I have been talking more. This morning I talked with my best friend’s mum, and the other night with a family member who I hadn’t really told anything up until now. I have to admit, it is a good release and it’s also such a relief to feel accepted despite any struggles I might be experiencing.

Another thing I realized is that I never feel justified to feel the way I do. When I was in my appointment this week, I realized that every time I told her a feeling I had experienced, I would end it with “which is stupid” or ridiculous, silly, etc. I would explain some scenario, then say “and I got really upset and anxious, which is stupid and makes no sense”. She said, “well when would it be okay to feel upset?” Because I guess whatever is happening never feels like a big enough deal to warrant my intense reactions.

This is going to sound really crazy, but even when I think about losing my sister I sometimes think “well other people have it so much worse, they have lost their entire families” and once again I discount or invalidate my emotions. It’s actually becoming a bit of a problem, or maybe it’s been a problem all along. It causes me more emotional discomfort because I’ll feel something, then for the next 20 minutes afterwards I beat myself up for feeling normal human emotions. It creates this awful tension inside of me because I’m constantly fighting against whatever I’m feeling. A friend of mine once told me “you feel how you feel, good or bad, and that’s just how it is”. He’s absolutely right. He used to tell me to stop apologizing for talking about how I felt.

So let me try that. Right now I’m feeling extremely anxious. I do feel like it’s ridiculous and not justified, because my anxiety is about getting another job. This seems silly to me because everyone works, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I’ve never been fired from a job, and I’ve never had anything really bad happen to me at work (with the exception of my one super mean boss, but that was years ago). I guess in a way the anxiety IS irrational, but that doesn’t really make it any less real. But I do know that I need to face my fears because hiding from things won’t make the anxiety go away. While working does make me anxious, not working makes me even more anxious because it just means having financial problems and a lack of purpose.

I never used to have such bad anxiety, and I’m afraid that I will feel like this for the rest of my life. CBT may or may not help, and I can’t really afford to continue with it anyways, but I’m hoping that acupuncture will help because it’s helped A LOT with my mood. Generally, my life and mood feels pretty stable right now. But of course there’s that fear that it’ll all fall apart again and I won’t be able to help myself this time. There’s always that fear.

The mind is a strange place. It really seems to interfere with things more than it helps things. I would love it if I could just let go of my worries and fears for a while but it’s not that simple. I desperately want to get a job and maybe once I do I’ll feel okay about it and it won’t be as bad as I’m imagining it to be. Thinking about it sends me into a bit of a tailspin but I guess I won’t know until I try, and if I end up with something that I absolutely hate, there is always the option of quitting and finding something else. Depression is bad, but I’m actually starting to feel like anxiety is even worse.

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Perfectionism

How can I help other people when I can’t even help myself?

This morning I woke up and wanted to stay in bed forever. I felt too depressed to move. All I could feel was emptiness and bleakness permeating my mind and my surroundings. Instead, I got up and went for a run. But even this doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. I could run a marathon today and I would still feel like a failure.

Because I am a perfectionist. This is a topic I have wanted to write about for a few days now, but can’t seem to put any words to. Everything I do is tainted by this need to do something perfectly. Except the catch is that there is no such thing as “perfect” in my world, because no matter what I do, it isn’t good enough. Maybe some of you can relate to this.

When I was young, I was a perfectionist with some things, especially dance. I think the repercussions of this were that I did not enjoy dance as much as I could have. I loved dance with every fibre of my being, and yet there were times when some of this love was sacrificed in the name of harsh self-critique. If I wasn’t able to do something perfectly, I felt like a failure. A lot of times I danced from the body, not the heart, because I wanted each step to be just right. When I did dance “from the heart” so to speak, and with more emotion, it probably turned out a lot better, and it certainly felt a million times better. But I couldn’t always do this, especially in competition settings. If I got a gold medal for something, I would brush it off so easily by saying “I was the only one in my category” or “it was just a fluke”. If I got a silver medal I would call myself a failure. So I could never win.

Now, I experience this on a more regular basis. I find it gets in the way of my daily activities. I find I don’t want to do something, even just a hobby, unless I feel I can excel at it. It definitely occurs at school, where anything less than a B is just awful and a reason to give up. In math, I’m getting 100 percent and yet I tell myself it’s because the teacher is an easy marker, or the class is really easy. It even sneaks its way into my therapy appointments, where I constantly have this feeling that I’m “bad” at therapy, even though my psychologist has assured me that that’s not really possible.

It’s such a horrible feeling, because I know that the nature of the problem means that nothing I do will EVER be good enough. I could discover the cure for cancer and it wouldn’t be enough. I can’t ever stay at home doing nothing without feeling severely guilty about it. I can’t relax because I feel like I’m being lazy. It leaves me feeling extremely frustrated and often it feels pointless to attempt something simply because I might not succeed, and even if I do succeed, I probably won’t be the best at it. It’s not that I’m a competitive person with others, it’s more like I’m constantly competing against myself. It’s exhausting.

I would love to be able to do things without this feeling. Without the voice in my head constantly repeating to me “you’re not good enough, you will never be good enough”. I just want to try things fearlessly and without worrying about the end result. Sometimes I think this is why I loved skydiving. Because once I fell out of the plane, I was forced to let go of all control. It was extremely liberating and freeing. Whatever happened next was completely out of my hands. It was almost like a metaphor for my life, except that in this case, I couldn’t even try to change the outcome, which meant not having to experience all of the emotions that go along with being in control of a situation, such as fear that something might go wrong, and guilt if something does go wrong and it’s my fault.

My goal is to worry less about the outcome, and to spend less time judging myself for how something turns out. I want to feel more at peace with myself, and focus on what I am doing well. For example, today I could have stayed in bed all day, like I wanted to. But instead I got up, went for a run, took a shower, got dressed, filled out my therapy homework sheets, took my dog for a walk, booked an acupuncture appointment, wrote this blog post, and shortly will be going to math class. My mind is so tempted to say “So what? That’s what everyone does, that’s no accomplishment. You’re really going to try to tell yourself that you have something to be proud of?” But I’m trying to change this. If it was someone else, I would say they had a lot to be proud of, because doing anything while feeling so depressed is almost impossible.

I’m so tired of being a perfectionist. I want to work hard, but I want to feel a sense of achievement when I meet with success, rather than more self-hatred and critique. It is wearing me down. These patterns of negative thinking can be so difficult to get out of, no matter how hard we try. I don’t know yet the best way to go about changing this, but I’ll let you all know if I come across something that works particularly well. And if you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments!

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As I go

I feel flat.
I feel uninspired.
I feel emotionless.
I have nothing left inside of me.
I feel hollow.
I feel empty. Concave.
I feel weary.
I feel stultified.
I feel meaningless.
I feel nameless.
I feel personality-less, lesser.
Lacking in substance, colour.
I am a void.
I am small.
I am shrinking.
I am smaller.
Watch me shiver.
Watch my edges blur.
I am stilted motion turned
to cold winter, bare.
I am naked.
I am vulnerable.
You are looking at me.
You are seeing through me.
I have nothing left.

I am ghost.

I am disappearing.
I am faded writing on
blank parchment.
I am words once written,
now erased.
I am erasure, surely you
can see that. You must know
I am fading before your
wide eyes.
You will do nothing to
save me.
You will watch,
tepidly. You will
watch, nervously,
as I go.

 

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Mindfulness

“mind·ful·ness
ˈmīndfəlnəs/
noun
  1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

A few weeks ago I began learning some mindfulness techniques in therapy. Some of these I had already heard about before, and some were new to me. C told me that I can do these to help with anxiety, and they are also useful for low mood, intense emotion, and dissociation (and probably other issues as well). Basically, the idea of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment as it is, without judging it. This also means accepting any thoughts we might be having in the moment, and viewing them in a more objective manner, rather than having critical thoughts about our thoughts. It’s tricky to do.

The first thing she taught me was a simple exercise where I close my eyes and focus my attention on my hands. Just my hands: how they feel sitting on my lap, or how they feel against each other. It doesn’t involve moving them at all, just directing all of my focus on them mentally. Then I move on to include my breathing. So now I am focusing on both my hands and my breath. Finally, I focus on the sounds in the room, as well as my hands and my breath. I like this because it allows me the freedom to switch or rotate my focus between the three things, rather than an exercise where I have to keep all of my attention on one thing, such as my breathing.

As well, throughout this exercise I am supposed to just notice my thoughts as they come, then let them pass. This part is harder. My thoughts don’t come so simply or clearly into the forefront of my mind, instead they seem to weave through other thoughts. Some thoughts are words, some are images, some take the form of a feeling. I seem to have many groups of thoughts that parallel each other, so I may not always be aware of what I’m thinking about. Thoughts come so quickly, and sometimes I can think about something so intensely that once I come back into the present, I actually forget entirely what it was I was thinking about. I can think and not be aware that I’m thinking, and I seem to always miss things, so I feel like a very poor gatekeeper as I do this exercise. But she did say it gets easier with practice.

Another exercise is to visualize any negative thoughts as clouds passing, as water going downstream, or as balloons drifting upwards. This one can sometimes be helpful at night when I’m trying to fall asleep. I find the imagery useful as it gives my visual mind a place to go as well as my thoughts. And there was another one that C taught me, but I unfortunately can’t remember it right now.

The last one is one that I made up. It really helps me to relax at night, or anytime really, and I like it because it incorporates my breath, colour/image, and my body. It’s really important for me to feel connected to my body, because when I don’t, it leads to dissociating or DP/DR (depersonalization/derealization). So with this exercise, what I do is imagine that I am breathing a colour into a specific part of my body. I breathe in green to my feet, blue to my knees, yellow to my hips, orange to my stomach, pink to my ribcage, red to my heart, purple to my hands, light purple to my elbows, indigo to my shoulders, dark green to my neck, and black to my head. I know it sounds strange, and maybe a bit complicated, but it helps.

I think the reason it’s so helpful is because it’s repetitive, and this repetition allows me to relax at the same time as have something to focus on and remember. This is especially important for falling asleep, because my mind wants to think about a million other things that are distressing and upsetting, and I need to have a simple but effective way to stimulate or distract my mind until I fall asleep. I also think that making up your own mindfulness exercise is a good idea because it means that it’s personalized to you and your own likes or needs.

I will be posting more regularly now that school is finished for the semester (except math), so yay for that! But this is probably the last post I will be sharing on facebook and twitter. So for anybody who is reading this because they saw it on facebook, make sure to follow, or write down my blog name if you plan on coming back. If not, adios!

And here is a picture of my colour-body-breath mindfulness exercise (the colours turned out kind of drab in the pic, and it kind of looks like it was done by a 10 year old, but anyways):

Click to enlarge.

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Dealing with anxiety

The past couple of days I have been experiencing really bad anxiety. Sometimes when I’m anxious it hits me out of nowhere, for no identifiable reason, and sometimes something triggers it, but both times I am given no warning. With depression, it usually creeps in much more slowly, eventually progressing to unbearable, but there is usually enough time that I can try to do things to prevent it from getting really bad. With anxiety, there is no slow progression.

Yesterday, there was a trigger. Sometimes I think that knowing the trigger will be helpful, but this isn’t really the case. Knowing the trigger can just make me feel more guilt for reacting so strongly to something so seemingly small. So yesterday, it was because I had seen my new psychologist who I have only seen two times. The goal with her is to learn coping tools and skills, all based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is something that has been recommended to me before, but when I began a course of CBT and DBT with another psychologist in the summer, I felt myself shut down each time and couldn’t retain the information I was being taught. I think this was the style of the therapy, because I didn’t talk at all, the therapist did all of the talking, so I felt like she didn’t understand me and my issues enough to know whether the tools would even be helpful to me. Eventually I told her this, and she referred me elsewhere.

So with this new CBT psychologist, I already feel that it is a much better fit. She has experience with almost all of my issues: depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, PTSD and trauma work, and most importantly, depersonalization. That last one is the biggie for me because so few mental health professionals seem to have experience with this, and yet it is so common, especially in relation to trauma. The other reason it is so important that she has experience with this is because it means I’m very prone to spacing out while in session, and missing large chunks of what she has said. Because she is aware of this, she has told me that it’s perfectly okay for me to ask her to go over things and repeat things as many times as necessary. Just knowing this, and knowing she gets it, makes me feel better.

But all of that being said, yesterday I was experiencing high levels of depersonalization/derealization, and couldn’t keep myself in my body. I spent the session trying desperately to process her every word, and I think I did okay in that regard, but otherwise I was completely out of my body. So this was fine, but I left feeling even more detached than I was going in. Then when I got home, I was looking over a grounding techniques worksheet that she gave me, and it said “no talking about negative feelings”. I was really confused, and it triggered me in a strange way because the thought of not being allowed to talk about anything negative threw me into a bit of a panic. I got worried because all I do with my other psychologist (student at SFU, let’s call her C) is talk about negative feelings, and she says that talking about positive things is a bit pointless. So there was a bit of a conflict there, and it made me extremely anxious thinking “which way is the better way to deal with things?” and realizing I have no way of knowing this unless I try each method. Then I experienced more doubt about therapy in general, and whether it will help at all, since it seems to leave me feeling panicked and overwhelmed so often. I started thinking therapy will never help me, and I will never get better.

In the end, I called my new psychologist (let’s call her N), and she told me that it doesn’t mean never talking about negative feelings, it just means that when a person is already experiencing high levels of distress, talking about negative feelings would likely lead to dissociating or disconnecting. So that was a huge relief. I always feel silly when I freak out about something so inconsequential, and then I feel like I have to justify 500 times after. I guess it was a fair reason to feel worried, because it would sort of mean a taking away of one of my main support systems and methods. Luckily, I misunderstood the handout, and equally luckily, N was able to call me back the same day to clear things up.

And because I want to make these posts somewhat useful, here are some ideas for dealing with anxiety or panic that I sometimes try to use. They may or may not work for you.

  • draw, paint or colour
  • yoga stretches (these can be done anywhere. If you don’t have a mat, use a towel)
  • mindfulness and breathing exercises (I will talk more about these in my next post)
  • listen to music
  • call a friend or relative
  • get out and socialize
  • go to a coffee shop or other public place
  • play with your pets
  • go for a walk (preferably in a very natural setting, such as a park)
  • play with play-doh! I started doing this because my mum bought play-doh for her physio exercises, and I picked it up one day while studying and realized it helped me relax because it allowed me to fidget.
  • cook something yummy
  • take a bath
  • write lists
  • do sudoku or crossword puzzles
  • read a magazine (books don’t usually work when I’m really anxious because I can’t focus)
  • watch a movie (I only do this if I really feel I can’t do anything else but sit and stare at a screen. Also, choose an uplifting or funny movie if possible, because I tend to watch dramas and it can leave me feeling worse)
  • if you’re really tired, nap! Sometimes my anxiety is worse when I’m sleep deprived.

Most importantly, I think it’s good to do something. When I feel anxious, and I just go in my room and lie in bed with the blinds closed, I feel worse (maybe that’s obvious, but not always). I think with anxiety it’s good to do something because the nature of anxiety leaves us feeling fidgety, jumpy and restless. Also, doing something creative or healthy (ie. exercise) helps prevent me from coping in a way that is harmful to myself or detrimental to my health (ie. smoking, cutting, only focusing on negative thoughts about myself and my situation).

Hope some of these suggestions are helpful! Play around with different ideas, and maybe rate your anxiety levels before and after each activity you try, to notice the effects and see which tools or activities help the most.

Also, be kind to yourself! Don’t beat yourself up for feeling anxious, because it isn’t something you can control, and feeling guilty will only make it worse. Try to talk positively to yourself, and remind yourself that even though you feel anxious now, the feeling will pass.

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 And this next comic cracked me up! Click to enlarge.

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My struggles & more on diagnoses

I’m not going to make any more promises about posting regularly. Sometimes it will happen, sometimes it won’t. The bottom line is that writing these posts can feel overwhelming at times, and I’ve been trying to make this blog informative and useful to others and not purely about my own experiences, but when the two are so interrelated it’s impossible not to discuss my own mental health issues. I guess I felt that I could make my blog more objectively about mental illness – a broader overview that could help people – but I’m realizing I can’t. It feels dishonest to write “it gets better” when I myself am struggling so intensely and might not always agree with what I’m saying.

Besides, there are plenty of websites with information about mental illness and helpful tools and coping techniques that can be used (I’ll list some at the bottom for reference). My aim can no longer be to replicate one of those sites, but instead to share with you my own experiences: things that worked or didn’t work, my struggles, and how I’m coping. In the end, this will be harder to share, potentially harder to read, but more honest and possibly even more useful, albeit in a very different way.

With that being said, I will say that these past few weeks have been impossibly hard. Difficult to the point where I wasn’t sure I would make it through. It’s been a bit of everything, with my mood really going up and down, flashbacks, nightmares and sleeping poorly some nights, anxiety, and the depersonalization and derealization symptoms persisting throughout all of this. I have stopped focusing so much on the diagnosis aspect of my concerns, and instead I’ve turned my attention to the symptoms. Mainly because I was becoming so preoccupied with labelling my concerns that I wasn’t really dealing with the symptoms at all, which is obviously counterproductive. It’s been really hard to find somebody who can help with my concerns.

The biggest annoyance about the labels or names that exist in the world of mental health, for me, is that it can leave out people who are struggling, but who might not fit the characteristic description of a certain illness. For example, I have been told that I have symptoms of PTSD, but I don’t fit the textbook description of it, so I feel that in many situations my issues that are related to trauma are ignored, and instead the focus is put entirely on depression and anxiety, when there is clearly more to it than that.

My psychologist says that she is still trying to figure me out. At first I thought, what on earth? It shouldn’t be that complicated. I started to worry she didn’t really know what she was doing, but then I realized it’s actually a good thing, because when I was in the hospital I was barely given a proper assessment (and when I was assessed, it was while I was on medications that really messed me up), before the doctors decided it was depression and anxiety. While these were accurate, I also knew that there was more going on, stuff related to trauma, grief, etc. So the fact that this new psychologist of mine is willing to work out and attempt to understand the bigger picture is probably a good sign. I want to figure things out – whether I end up with a different set of diagnoses or not. I want to know and understand what’s going on so I can work towards healing.

Healing-doesnt-mean app-stigma-mental-illness

 

And here are some helpful websites, as promised!

www.comh.ca/antidepressant-skills/adult (antidepressant skills workbook)
www.anxietybc.com
www.heretohelp.bc.ca
http://keltymentalhealth.ca/mental-health
https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome (free online CBT program)

 

Aside

Dissociation and Trauma

I know it has been so long since I posted, and in the beginning I had said I was going to post a couple of times a week. Clearly, that hasn’t happened. But every time I have sat down to post something in the past while I’ve felt completely stumped. It’s not that I don’t have ideas or thoughts, but I’ve had a hard time putting these thoughts to the page.

Right now I would like to write about a very strange experience that I have had many times throughout the past 5 years, but mostly in the past year. It is often referred to as depersonalization or derealization, and also as dissociation. I still haven’t quite figured out which label applies to my experiences.

The experience is multi-faceted so there are many separate parts to it, and they all occur in varying degrees. Here are some of the feelings:

  • being in a dream-like state, feeling like life is a dream
  • feeling like nothing around me is real
  • feeling as though I am watching myself in any given situation
  • feeling as though my body doesn’t align with my “self”
  • feeling detached from myself or my surroundings
  • feeling like I am not real

Of course, it sounds completely bizarre. It sounds kind of nuts. But these are a few of the sensations that I experience on a daily basis. I have been told that dissociation can occur as a result of a traumatic experience, and I do feel that this is the case in my situation. Ever since my sister’s death, I have experienced many of these, but it wasn’t until a little over a year ago that the sensations became extremely heightened to the point of questioning whether I was really just going crazy.

This was the same time that I began counselling, and as it turned out, these experiences are actually incredibly common. I often think that my sensations must be a slightly varied version of the “common” experience, but I cannot say for sure.

So in terms of something like dissociation, it can be thought of as a defence mechanism. It is the body’s way of detaching from reality because reality is too much. It becomes shut off. It can also be a matter of not feeling any sort of connection to my emotions, leading to a “flat affect” kind of appearance, or just a neutral feeling. Although this is a nice break from other intensely negative emotions, the “neutral” feeling has always been the most disconcerting to me. Just an emptiness that can’t be explained.

Of all the problems I have dealt with and experienced in the past year, this sense of detachment scares me the most. It is also the experience that has been least talked about, even among doctors. Nobody seems to think much of it, and nobody seems to understand just how frightening it is. So I was told I have depression and anxiety, but it was never explained to me that these other sensations are a result of trauma, until I attended a therapy group whose primary focus was on trauma and PTSD. It was interesting too, because everyone I spoke to in that group said the same thing: that this group was such a good fit, and explained things for them that no one else had ever explained, even mental health professionals.

So I guess the big question is, why is there so little focus or research being done about trauma? There are the usual types of trauma therapy: EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and prolonged exposure. Among these two types, there is still much controversy because it is said by many that EMDR is not a true solution but instead just a “quick fix” that was created for people who do not want to put the work into true therapy. But aside from these types of therapy, it seems that there is less information out there with regards to trauma, and way more about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders.

For me, this was frustrating, because when I was being helped by doctors I knew something else was amiss. I knew it wasn’t as simple as depression (not to say that depression is simple, far from it) but that something else must have precipitated this. I felt there were other symptoms that didn’t fit into the structure of depression, which leads me to believe that mental health is much too focused on the “boxes”. There is a “box” for depression, and a “box” for anxiety, and if you don’t fit entirely into this box, or that box, they will put you in it anyways because they don’t know where else to put you.

I tried to explain the other sensations but it seemed that it was never a huge concern, until one psychologist finally listened and referred me to somebody else for extra help.

So on top of all of these freaky experiences, it is also difficult to find somebody experienced enough in this particular area who is able to help. I’m still a little unsure about all of this, and whether anybody truly understands why these sensations occur, but I’m glad that I have now taken matters into my own hands and done my own research as well. When no one else gives you any answers, it’s the time to find them yourself.

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