Friday, July 24, 2015

Bear Attacks

Lately I've been doing a lot of posting about Mental Health Awareness and my desire to bring light to the dark subjects of Depression and PTSD, but I haven't explained why. I haven't opened up about my part in a journey that means so much to me. I haven't explained to you how I came about all this knowledge and experience with the subject. After a lengthy, encouraging conversation, we have decided together that now is the right time and this is the perfect way to tell this beautiful story. This story isn't mine. It belongs to my best friend. She is one of the most amazing people I have ever met and oh my goodness she has fought her way to get to who she is today. She has given me her blessing to tell her story, to recall her journey that I am so thankful I got to be a part of. I am going to tell it from my perspective, but this is very much her beautiful journey of strength.

It was kind of always an unwritten, unspoken fact that there were days she "shut down." It wasn't really discussed--it just existed. Sometimes the "bad days" were frequent. Sometimes they weren't, but they were a constant threat. Without warning--a word, phrase, song, or smell would send my beautifully vibrant best friend into a dark hole in her mind. Her mind had a way of turning anything into a negative. She would hear something totally different than the intention often. She would hear whatever she thought people meant with little thought or concern about what people really were trying to say. Her mind would insist that even the most amazing situation was negative. We called this "The Voice". We tried to ignore the voice. It just kept getting louder and more cruel with each passing day. The darkness was surrounding her--you could see it in her eyes. Constantly being belittled and berated by her own mind.

The thoughts would spiral out of control after one simple thought. For example, she fixed her 6 year old son's hair a little different that day per his request. After school, he mentions "Mom, so-and-so said that you did a bad job fixing my hair." That one singular thought created by a statement by a kindergarten student spun her world out of control because she began to believe the things her mind was telling her. The Voice kept telling her that this in fact made her a bad parent. The voice insisted to be heard--demanded it. No matter how much she tried it was winning. She was really believing many negative cruel and awful things about herself--especially about her parenting. Once something has been said to you over and over, you begin to believe it. She was beginning to feel like her kids would be better off without her. She is an incredible mother, I must say. This not even my biased best friend opinion. It is the truth. I have never in my whole life ever seen a mom love her kids the way she loves hers. She is able to put their needs before her own in the most amazing ways time after time. She lives for her kids. Listening to her speak to them blesses my heart every time. She is the type of mom that once stopped in the middle of the crowded fair and crouched down to her kids' level to explain to them some life lessons when they witnessed first hand a parent treating their child badly. This does not surprise me. She is that mom. The mom that will stop everything even in the crowd to get down on her kids' level and explain to them that sometimes life isn't fair or it's cruel, but they are blessed and will know right and wrong because of her life lessons.

Because of her childhood and the way she was raised, being a great mom is more important to her than anything else in life. She wants more for her kids than what she had. Her biggest fear was/is failing at being their mom. In those moments of darkness, her mind convinced her that she was failing. She was not able to see how great of a job she was doing. All she saw/heard was the negativity. She believed it was right because as I've said, once you hear something often enough, you begin to believe it. The voice got its' name because it sounded like the voice of her own mother. It was as if her mom's words were constantly haunting her--pointing out her flaws, constantly. I will not get into all of the details of that voice and its cruelty and why it was compared to her mother, but I will say it was real and vivid and battling it was not easy.

We were not sure what it was that was going on with her, but we knew it needed to be stopped. We didn't know how or where to start, but it needed to be shut up. We just weren't equipped with as much knowledge or experience on the subject to define the problem. We simply knew what happened and how it made her feel--hopeless, worthless and like a failure. She wanted it to stop. She reached out to a doctor who had previously told her he believed she was suffering from Depression. He prescribed her an anti-depressant as he had done a few years before. He gave her some options other than sitting down with a therapist for her to try to find ways to cope with her emotions and all that she had going on in her head. He was a great first stop in this journey and definitely started the ball rolling in the right direction.

After a couple attempts of seeking out the suggested outlets, I started to learn so much about mental health and that my own perceptions on the subject were not necessarily accurate to the truth. Before being a part of this journey, I hadn't thought much about what it was like to suffer from a silent battle; however, I am now painfully aware of the struggle, the pain, and the exhaustion that comes along with fighting that daily battle. I had never thought about how hard it is finding the perfect therapist. I never thought about how frustrating the process of getting into therapy can be. I never understood how "wanting to get help" was much simpler of a thought than the actual process of beginning to start therapy. I never thought about how just because you are now "getting help" doesn't mean that you are all of a sudden "better". People always say things like "She would do better if she got help". Which I totally agree with this and am supportive of turning to professionals for help in the journey, I just wasn't always aware of how much work is done after making the decision to get help is made. There is still so much more beyond that. The professionals do not "fix" people--instead they help find causes of problems while helping find solutions. It is very much an inward journey.

Eventually, she found a therapist that she really liked and seemed to be making progress. He was very understanding and reassuring of her journey. He was able to express to her the things he thought she was doing well while pointing out different ways of coping with/readjusting her thoughts. He helped her to be able to better understand how and why these thoughts were happening. A big turning point in her journey and therapy was when he gave her a diagnosis she could better understand. The day he explained to her that she is suffering from PTSD rather than depression it all seemed to "click". Although depression is a symptom of PTSD, the entire explanation of PTSD made much more sense and added up better in her situation than depression did. Most people associate PTSD with the military, which many soldiers do suffer from. Hers is caused by childhood trauma, but it reacts in the same way as a combat vet's version. No matter what caused it, its effects are real. The daily battle is real. The stigma that exists on the subject is not reality. Yes, it is jumping at the sound of fireworks because it reminds a vet of war, but it is also much much more.

Her therapist went on to compare PTSD to a bear attack. This vivid description he gave made everything in her head make sense. It all lined up. It was exactly what she had been experiencing for years without an answer as to why.

Here's the analogy:

Let's say you were once attacked by a bear. It sucked really bad. It was painful. It was traumatic. You healed and went on with your life. There were scars left behind but other than that you were physically fine. Now fast forward in time, let's say you see a bear coming out of the woods toward you. Fight or Flight kicks in and you are scared for your life. You are aware of the danger and potential pain. You want to never experience that again so you either shut down or run far away from where you see the bear--even if the bear was walking the other direction and was not a threat to you. Even if the bear was not even close to thinking about attacking you, that does not mean that the threat does not feel real to you. That does not mean that you are not terrified for your life in that moment--terrified of experiencing that pain again. Another example, let's say you are in a situation that brings back the same feelings or emotions that you had when you were attacked. Once again, you shut down, you are scared, you run all because you do not want to experience that pain or trauma again. This is exactly what happens with people who suffer from PTSD. They only have to sort of be reminded of some trauma in their life in some way and they are taken back to the exact moment it happened and they begin to relive it. They can physically feel what they felt in that moment as they did before.

There is no running away from PTSD. Memories, reminders, and potential threats are everywhere. They don't just "get over it". Instead, they must find ways to cope with these feelings and thoughts. They must learn how to remind themselves--this is not a bear attack. This is not the past. This is not a threat. They must reassure themselves that they will be okay and to point out to themselves how this is different than that. They fight a constant battle between the past that was real and the present that feels real.
(This diagram is an example of how the thoughts work for people suffering from PTSD.)

It took a lot of hard work and determination, but she has done it. She has come a long way. She is able to cope in ways I never even imagined were possible. I always told her that we would see sunshine again. I told her that the other side of this would be beautiful, and it is. It is much more beautiful than I ever imagined. There are days or situations that I halfway expect to go a certain way because I know how her mind wants to react, but rarely does she let things get to her like that. She has found the coping skills and the strength within herself to win these daily silent battles, and I couldn't be any more proud of her if I tried. I am so very thankful to her and the part I was able to play in her journey. I am so very blessed to get to be with her in the sunshine experiencing what life looks like now. Thanks to her and her beautiful journey I am able to share this story and hopefully make a positive impact on someone's life. Thanks to her, PTSD doesn't have to be such a silent battle.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Supporting Someone who is Struggling

We often consider ourselves to be good friends especially to those closest to us. We say nice things to them. We are not mean. We tell them if they have food in their teeth. We remind them they are pretty even on days they don't feel like they are. We support them through breakups or listen to all the juicy details about new relationships. We are a shoulder to cry on when a family member passes. We are a good friend to them, and no one can deny that fact. Now what if that friend starts showing signs that their hurt, pain, or struggle is beyond your normal scope of friendship duties? What do you do then? How do you help when you know you are not qualified to help them? What if you have a friend that gets a diagnosis from a professional that they are "depressed" or that they have "PTSD" or "anxiety"? Well, here are a few dos and don'ts and explanations as to what I have learned (some by trial and error and others by tons of online research) along the way:

  • Tell them you love them: Only if you truly mean it of course, but this simple reminder can be the difference between them feeling unlovable and feeling loved in that moment. They may "know" that you love them, but sometimes just hearing it can be enough reminder to stop the thoughts of worthlessness or being unlovable for at least that moment. 
  • Tell them you care: Once again, only if you mean it. These things can only be said if they are genuine. If you do not genuinely feel this way. Do not say it. You will cause more harm than good in the long run. Reminding someone suffering an internal battle that you care enough to hear what they have to say or not say can make a huge difference in their day. Just remember, this is a day by day and sometimes moment by moment process. You can't just be supportive one day and not the next if you truly want to help make a difference in this person's life. 
  • Remind them they they are not alone: If you plan to stay by their side and help them fight this battle, tell them that. Tell this person that you love and care about that they are not alone especially when they feel alone. They probably won't believe you the first few times you say it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't say it--more importantly show it. Eventually your actions will prove your words to be honest, and they will be able to see that you really are there and not leaving their side. Eventually they will feel a little less alone because of this. Another related tip is using the word "we". When a person already feels alone and worthless, it can be detrimental for them to hear "you need to do this to get better" or "I feel like this because of something you have said or done". Instead replace these phrases with "we will get through this" or "we won't always feel this way". It helps solidify what they are already hearing from you in the "you are not alone" statements. 
  • Apologize to them for their pain without showing pity: Many times a person suffering from an internal battle will already feel like they should be able to just "snap" out of it. If you tell that person something to make them feel like you pity them or look down on them in any way, even with the best of intentions, you are solidifying that fact to them that they should just do better, or it will cause them to shut you out even more because they don't want to feel like you see them in that way. Also, do not say the words "I  know how you feel because I got really sad once when...." Unless you have been through the journey of depression, please do not compare your sadness to theirs. No offense, but your sadness is not the same as clinical depression. Depression often looks like happiness on the outside while a war is going on on the inside filled with self hatred and negativity like you can't imagine. A person with depression can take virtually any statement and find a way for it to be negative in their mind. Please be cautious with your words. Please think about how they will be received just as much as your point you are trying to make. 
  • Help do something: Often times we ask "what can I do to help?" or we say "let me know what I can do to help you", and we mean these things from the bottom of our hearts. We want to help. We want them to tell us what to do that can help us. A person who already feels like they should be able to "snap out of" what they're feeling or should be able to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders without batting an eye is very unlikely to give you a list of ways you can help them. Instead try this. Tell them what you are going to do to help. Tell them "I will be at your house Monday night at 6pm to cook dinner for you and your kids. I am going to make spaghetti. Is that ok?" Give them things you are willing to do and then let them approve of you doing it. Often times, they know that they need help coping with everyday tasks, but they can't admit it. Find a way you can help and do it. Do not wait on them to tell you what you can do. They will never tell you. 
  • Encourage an activity outside: Sunshine and Vitamin D can do a lot of good for a person's mental state. Encourage them to get outside and have some fun, or even go for a walk. Make the plans yourself. Tell them when you will be there to pick them up or where to meet you and just make it happen. Exercise and/or sunshine is a great way to boost any person's mood.
  • Ask them to help you understand how they are feeling: Often times, we want to know how they feel. We want to help, but we don't know what they are experiencing so it is hard to help battle it if we do not know what we are battling. This will not come easily at first, but someday after these conversations and more openness, you will find yourself picking up on different subtle words that help you know that this is a "bad day" or that a certain thought is stuck on replay so that you can help combat it with positive words or you can debunk the whole thought by reminding them all the ways it is not true. For example, the thought is telling them "you are a bad mom because you woke up late today." We all know that just because on one day this mom woke up late that that does not make her a bad mom. Well, in her mind, she cannot see that. This is the thought stuck on repeat that day, so battle it. Remind her how she woke up early every other day of the school year and that one day of oversleeping does not make her a bad mom. Remind her of all the good things she has done that prove she is a good mom. Battle this thought until it cannot possibly be true. 
  • Hug them: This is something that I am possibly going to contradict myself on. Hug them when they need it. Hug them when they want it. Do not hug them if they are trying to hold themselves together in that moment. Hug them because so much energy can be exchanged in a hug. I think that hugs are one of the most genuine and real forms of showing another person your love. You can feel the weight being lifted during an embrace. Do not let go until they are ready. Always let them be the first one to let go. This may sound simple or something you've never thought of, but make sure you are giving them all of your love that they need. Do not stop before they are ready for you to. However, if you are around a person on a day they are trying their best to "hold it together" for whatever reason. Maybe you can see the pain in their eyes, but they're at work or in front of their kids or maybe they're just tired of crying--whatever the reason, please respect the fact that they are not willing to let go and let you hug them in that moment. They may be doing their best to not fall apart. Do not force anything upon them. Everything has to be what they feel comfortable with in that moment. 
  • Laugh with them: Thanks to the internet, sharing a joke with a friend on a bad day is one of the easiest things to do. Ecards are a great example. Blow up their phone with funny nonsense. You don't have to always have deep conversations or discuss the issues going on. Some days you can just focus on being silly and laughing. Even if they are shut down that day and do not have the energy to talk. They can smile because of something you have said or done or sent them. Give them a reason to smile or laugh--find your own way to do this. 
  • Reassure them that you can handle this with them: Often times, they are so busy beating themselves up internally that they think that there is no possible way anyone else could or would want to endure this with them. Reassure them that you are here. You are strong (and so are they). You can handle hearing how they feel. You can have tough enough skin to know that what they feel isn't personal to you--it is about their battle not about you. Let them know that you are willing and able to handle this with them (not for them). 
  • Remind them why you love them: Sometimes this can be a written list. Sometimes this can be a verbal recall to them of wonderful traits they have. Sometimes this can be a combination of the two. Say something like, "You are amazing because you have a beautiful way of putting my feelings first even when you are in pain. You are a great mom because your children always see your love even when you aren't able to love yourself right now. You are a strong person because you are able to fight everyday with a smile on your face. You have a beautiful smile that the world is lucky to get to see. You are loved by me because I can see how incredible you are. Someday I hope you can see the beautiful person I see when I look at you. Some day the rain will stop, and we will bask in the sunshine together. We've got this together."

  • Don't ask or expect them to "get over it": They are already feeling like they shouldn't feel this way and should be able to "snap out of it". Do not make them feel like they should just "get better" without going through a process within themselves of finding self-love. Do not say it, but more importantly do not show with your actions that you want them to just "get over it".
  • Don't say "I know how you feel": It is good to show empathy, but please do not assume you know or understand if you haven't already been there. Show them you want to know how they feel more than you already do. Do not assume. Let them show or tell you. 
  • Don't tell them to "cheer up" or "just smile": They are fighting a constant battle inside, and it is exhausting. They are tired sometimes and can't just put on a fake smile or "cheer up". Please don't expect them to. Let them know that it is okay if they don't feel like being cheery right now. It is okay if they don't want to fake it with you, in fact, consider yourself blessed to get to see this real side of their journey instead of the facade they put on for the world day in and day out. Instead, thank them for letting you seeing them like this. Please know that it means they feel safe with you if you see this side. If they are showing you this, please do not dismiss it by telling them they need to be acting a different way. 
  • Don't make them feel judged: Many times people do not seek help for their struggles because they feel like no one could possibly understand what they are going through. They believe that because they are fighting this battle alone that no one will understand or be willing to try to understand their battle. Help them see that you do want to understand. Help them see that you support them and do not judge them. They feel like everyone will look down on them and see them as weak. Remind them that they are not weak. By reminding them that they are stronger than most for fighting these battles daily, they will eventually start to believe it. Remind them that what they feel is okay. They are allowed to feel however they are feeling in that moment. Remind them that there is an end someday. Remind them that you will be by their side when skies are full of sunshine and rainbows someday. They are allowed to feel the way they feel. They just need your encouragement to not always feel that way. Help them focus on the positive without judging them or making them feel pressure to change the negative. It is a step by step exhausting process, but I promise the clarity found along the journey is a beautiful thing. 
  • Don't tell them "it's all in your head": They are fully aware of what is in their head. They do not need a reminder, and even if you do tell them this and they agree with you that does not change the fact that it is in their head, and they still can't snap out of it. This is counter productive and will end up hurting them or causing them to shut you out even more quickly. 
  • Don't tell them "There are people out there with it worse than you do": This is the biggest one for me. It breaks my heart that people say this to others--depressed or not. If someone is sad or upset or hurting, telling them that other people have it worse off does not in fact help them--at all. There are people richer than me, but that doesn't change the fact that I am paying my bills with the money I do have. It does not change their lives that they are still using their money to pay their bills. It is the same. No matter what anyone else is going through keep the focus on their personal journey and how they are doing, not comparing them to the world. 
There are many ways to help and these are just a few that I have picked up along the way. The most important piece of advice I could give is that you just need to open your ears and heart to listen to what this person is telling you with their words and actions. Be perceptive. Be aware. If a person tells you that something you said triggered a negative thought, do not dismiss that as "well that's not how I meant it". This journey is more about how they hear things than it is about what you meant. Keep in mind how things will be received more than how you mean them. A person with the best of intentions can end up doing more harm than good simply because they are not paying attention to how their words are being received. Open the lines of communication. Encourage this person. Let them know that you are here--genuinely, and then fight the battle along with them. Do not say any of these things unless you truly plan to be there for this person. It's okay if you aren't the right person to stand by their side during their journey--as long as you don't tell them you will be. It is better for them to fight alone than to fight without someone who said they'd help fight with them. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Those Semicolon Tattoos

My journey toward positivity this summer has helped me become more focused on what I have been trying to pinpoint for quite some time now. I have always said things like, "I want to make a difference." "I want to help people." "I want to be a voice to be heard or an ear to listen." Without having a clear picture of where I was headed with this or how I can help, I have come to the realize much while this journey toward positivity has helped me to be more mindful of the things around me. I have been looking for opportunities to help, ways I can feed my desire to make use of myself for the greater good.

Something I hold very dear to my heart is Mental Health Awareness. I believe that there are many silent pains that are being ignored or swept under the rug by society because they are just that--silent. Not a lot of people talk about the ugly truths of maintaining a stable mental state so it is not common to be openly discussed. Often times, people are ignorant to the truth of what it's like to live with these problems such as depression, PTSD, etc because they have never (thankfully) had to live it themselves. I think it is time we open our eyes and see those that are hurting, those that are in pain day in and day out, or even those that have "bad days" sometimes because of whatever is going on in their messy heads. I think my biggest thing I would like to get across is depression is not a choice. Depression is just one symptom of many mental health disorders as well as its own diagnosis in itself. Depression is a real battle everyday for many people. It is not just "being sad". It is a state of mind. A constant battle--an exhausting battle that is without an escape because, in fact, it is a battle within yourself. How do you fight that war? Many times when life gets stressful or chaotic we plan a vacation or a day trip to just "get away from it all". We clear our minds by clearing our schedules and just focusing on ourselves and those that mean the most to us--we re-center ourselves and come back as more whole people prepared to jump back into the stress with a clearer mind again.

Now imagine you are at that point, so stressed and chaotic and needing an escape, needing a way out away from all the things bringing you to that point--imagine not being able to get away from it because all of the stress, anxiety, etc is coming from within your own mind. It is your own mind bringing you down, beating you up, causing you to drown. Imagine sinking lower and lower and knowing what is happening but being unable to stop it because it is nearly impossible to win a battle with yourself. You are your own worst critic. You know your faults more than anyone else can even dream, and your mind is constantly on replay of those negative aspects of yourself. Constantly telling you over and over all the things you should've done differently, all the ways you are a failure, all of the ways you should be different. Your mind refuses to let you believe that you deserve peace or that you are worthy of love because of all these faults you have. So, in turn, your mind continues replaying these things, beating you down, and pushing you farther away from people you love because you don't believe you deserve their love. You feel worthless--as a constant state of mind, not an occasional passing thought. Now imagine never talking to anyone about this because you think they won't care or you think you should just be able to "snap out of it". So, you continue having this silent battle no one knows about. Eventually you get so tired you just want it to stop. You just want that voice inside your head to stop being so mean to you. You want to shut it up. The only way you can see yourself shutting it up, the only way you can see being less of a burden on those you love because you feel like such a failure--the only way out of the darkness is to end the pain. That is what leads people to suicide. Not the "selfish" reasons most people associate with it. It comes from selflessly wanting to be less of a burden on those around them because they believe they are not worthy of being loved or getting better. They think they deserve all the bad because that's what their mind has told them. That is what depression is like--not being sad on the couch crying because you went through a breakup--it is a constant state of numbness while feeling everything so deeply all at the same time. It is a constant dialogue within a person beating themselves up, feeling unworthy, and hopeless.

Because I have seen it first hand in those that I love, I know these facts to be true. I have, thankfully by the grace of God, never experienced it within myself, but that does not change the fact that I hold this very dear to my heart and have a passion to find all those people fighting that battle and showing them that they are not alone--they don't have to give up--they are worthy of love and acceptance--that there are ways to find light in the darkness. I want to be an advocate for those people stuck in that dark messy place in their minds. I want to be a life preserver to those that might be drowning. I want to bring a bit of hope in their hopelessness. I want to show them that a semicolon is an option for their lives.

Recently, all over the internet is The Semicolon Project (click the link for more information). The project dedicates their efforts to reminding people that your story doesn't have to end. Much like a semicolon is used when an author could end a sentence but chose not to, the same is true for those that have been in the depths of despair and could've ended their lives but didn't. Whether it was an unsuccessful suicide attempt or an active choice to not end their life even if their mind was screaming that it was the only way out, this project is to give a voice to those that for whatever reason did not end their lives, their stories, or their sentence. The semicolon is a perfect example of hope.

 This project has hit my heart very deeply, and I hope to soon be able to make a difference or help be a voice with this organization or another like it. I want to help shed light on this dark battle. If just one person better understands the battle of depression or chooses to seek help instead of ended their life because of my words someday, my efforts will be worth it. I want my voice heard, but not for myself. I want to be the voice for those unable to speak out for themselves because they are too busy having to fight that battle. I want to bring awareness to the ugly truth that is going on around us or within us every single day.