Chronic Illness Challenge – Day 17 & 18

How do you feel about the future? Is your life limited in any sense?

To be honest, I am somewhat afraid of a future with my mental illness. 4 years ago, I would’ve thought I would forever be going on as I did by taking just that one antidepressant and it would be no big deal. Fast forward to now… So many new symptoms developed and with the relapses I got much worse every time. I went from ‘just depression’ to severe depression and anxiety, an eating disorder, borderline personality disorder and more suicide attempts to the point of taking a cocktail of meds. It’s scary to see that you’ve just gotten worse over the years and you need to take more and more precautions to stay healthy, and so, you wonder… How will I be ten years from now? Will I kill myself eventually in one moment of utter, reckless hopelessness? If I somehow manage to get ahead and stay as I am now on the same meds (which I believe I will,) will I ever be accepted and willing to have a romantic relationship? Have children? Because I wonder, what if I decide to have children and they inherit my genes giving them a predisposition to depression. There are many scary possibilities that could happen when you live in such a vulnerable state. So I wouldn’t know what the future looks like. But one also has to be realistic and look at the context of your illness. I got worse for reasons being medication discontinuation, severe prolonged stress with med school and my mom’s death, my anxiety getting out of control making me starve myself and live immensely underweight for 2 years and all these events would’ve obviously had a negative effect on anyone’s mental health if they already had depression in the first place and resulted in further deterioration. Right now, life is not the same. I have learned incredibly much in the management and ability to survive through trial and error and all that happened. I no longer have such incredible anxiety which means I cope with stress much better. I am also on the right combo of medication which has made the world’s difference and it took time for that. I am done with studying Medicine in 8 months and even though it is the toughest part of it, all uphill right now, I’ve come so far that it’s almost certain I will complete it and have a clear career direction fall in place. I have dealt with much trauma that happened over the past 15 years and emotionally and mentally in therapy and I am no longer so profoundly affected by it. Lastly, I also take way better care of my physical health. So basically, I don’t have the same risk factors I had. The future will without doubt have its downs, I am sure. I’m not always going to be one amazing, budding and blooming rose garden. I live with depression which is chronic and which may have its hills and valleys. I know there will be times the monster shows its head, but I have learned more how to control that monster which means my future isn’t dependent on it at all. I have been told by my Doctor of patients who were just as sick as I was, who eventually after 5 years of weaning off meds got off them and was still doing great. So the point is, it’s not a death sentence. I will always be more vulnerable but I am still very much capable. So no, my life isn’t limited in any sense. 

Have you met anyone with mental illness? Did it help?

Yes, many! During my admissions to hospital over the years I’ve met quite a few. Since you’re placed in a room with other people it’s kind of hard to not start talking to each other. The thing that I’ve realised about them all is their own unique strength. They each had such a story of how they got to where they were and where they wanted to go in life and even though they were all just as sick, they still held onto hope and of course that inspired me. I am still in contact with a few of them and none of their lives suddenly got easy. Some had relapses again and some struggled so much with medication. Some are mothers and some were just starting out in life. What I love is how we stay in contact and still check in on each other from time to time and never stop caring. Others I have met online and I am just as inspired by them and how they kept going in their battle. I remember one specific woman about my age from Hungary who had started reading my previous blog and emailed me. I think our emails to and fro were an outlet and source of support for both of us and we got to know each other more and became friends. There are also a few others I have met through blogging who shared their stories or just started showing me so much support and still do. Also, reading blogs of other people who also deal with mental illness and seeing how they’ve progressed and following their posts of self-expression, motivation or how they cope has also been of great comfort. I think what makes us sufferers feel so close is that understanding of an unfathomable pain we share and the ability to be completely open when we talk, knowing we won’t be judged and we can let our guard down. I have felt much less alone since I got to know so many such people. 


Sidenote:

The heart project to promote mental illness awareness commenced today. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s all at the end of yesterday’s post. So, I joined in and drew my hearts today. 

And then my dog joined in too…

Chronic Illness Challenge: Day 3 & 4

How have your friends and family reacted to this and how did you get a diagnosis?

The diagnosis was one clinically made by a Psychiatrist after my mom decided to take me to one at age 15. I had stopped speaking at all at school and was constantly crying and for the first time, self-harmed. I don’t remember much about the first appointments but I was asked a series of questions regarding my mood, behaviour, sleeping patterns, interest in daily activities, thought pattern and any suicidal ideation. I pretty much at that time filled all the criteria in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual) for major depressive disorder. In general, how it works now is the same. Diagnoses are made clinically, which can be problematic as one’s symptoms may fall into other conditions too, and later on in life other symptoms may manifest. I think what matters most is to not be put into a box. One need not be defined by a specific illness because you meet a specific set of criteria. What I think matters most is symptomatic management and unfortunately, that takes trial and error on medications. We all react differently. There’s no blood test or scan one can do to make a definitive diagnosis as in other diseases because mental illness is such a complex illness that involves many neurological events science still cannot fully piece together. There are newer developments like MRI scans that have shown strong evidence in structural abnormalities in the brain but it isn’t a standard procedure performed in diagnosis and also, these aren’t necessarily permanent structural changes. Medications have been shown to build new neurons and shrinking of the hippocampus reverses over time. There has been much development in understanding but specific targeted therapy is yet to be reached.

My friends and family didn’t react very positively initially as they had no understanding of it. Mainly, one gets told to build on your character yet it isn’t a character flaw we have. My mom was incredibly supportive although she didn’t understand and felt helpless, she loved me back to life in a sense by helping me with things that felt like mountains to me. She helped me resume daily life. I would lay in bed all day and cry and she’d take me by the hand and force me to go for a walk around the block with her or ordered my dad to take me out for cake. She took me to each of my psychologist appointments and was patient with me. The problem was, she expected a permanent fix and wanted it to be a once off event and when it wasn’t, she started reacting with disappointment and left me more to myself. The second time it happened it was to be kept quiet from people as I had to take time off from school, and so, instead, she told them I had a brain tumour, which was a coincidental finding and a benign lesion more likely from physical trauma at some point in my life, like falling when I was a baby, and had nothing to do with my depression. My dad wasn’t emotionally supportive and still isn’t. He had the view of, “suck it up.” You need to be more tough and just pull yourself together. Right now, I am on my own. I don’t have any family support with regards to my mental illness and it isn’t ever talked about. I schedule my own appointments, drive myself to and from hospital and take medications they know nothing about. I may lie in bed and cry and my dad would walk right past me as if not even acknowledging me. I cannot tell you how much more difficult it has made battling through this. Family support is such an incredibly important and necessary thing one needs in mental illness. 

As for my friends, I have 3 close friends, 2 of which I grew up with. They never judged me or told me to be stronger or blamed me in any way. As one of them told me, she may not ever understand it but she’ll never love me any less or turn me away. She hasn’t. When I am admitted, they come to visit and check in on me from time to time. The 3rd friend I met in 1st year of medicine and she knows everything about the hell I’ve been through. There have been times she literally picked me up from the floor. We had times where we fought as she would get frustrated because she too, didn’t understand why it just wouldn’t go away and why I didn’t do more. Later on, she learned much more about it and has always been there. I am thankful for the support and acceptance and patience from them. We hardly ever see each other nowadays but whenever I fall, they never run away. 

As for more distant friends at university, it has been much harder. Outsiders tend to have a very limited view of what you’re going through and so, it’s easy to make assumptions. I’ve had many things said to me that just showed this stigma. When I got admitted one guy asked me if it was because of a boyfriend leaving me. Little did he know the boyfriend left me after admission because of my illness which he “emotionally couldn’t cope with.” I’ve also had people “Bible bash” me with claims of the effects of “generational sins” being responsible and that they would rather not visit me at home because of influences from a spiritual realm. I’ve been told it is a flaw in my character and that I simply need to change my attitude. It’s incredibly easy for people who have had no exposure to the concept and effects of mental illness to make assumptions and say stupid things they don’t realise is hurtful to you. But luckily, it hasn’t affected me much because I know the truth and struggles and causes of this. I easily brush it off because a limited perception is to blame. What matters most to me, are the people in my inner circle in life.

Where Life Has Taken Me

I’ve written, but not published, three posts in the last three weeks thinking, “No, this is too intense. I can’t post this.” And, “This isn’t especially helpful or motivational.” So I didn’t publish them. But sitting here I was thinking, I can only write from my heart and my heart might not always be in the most helpful of places or harmonic of places, but it will always be in the most real and raw of places which serves some purpose too. So this post is exactly that. 

The last three weeks have been tough. Being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a depressive relapse lead up to many things. Firstly, about 2 days post admission my boyfriend left me as he felt he wasn’t ’emotionally ready’ for it. I had no reason to be surprised. Most people say they are always there for you regardless of anything. That they accept you and want to stand by you. But then pain becomes a reality and they run. It hurt to be rejected that way because of the space I was in. Because I have depression and needed treatment. It hurts to have to fight it all alone. To feel your heart crack into a million pieces and your chest constricting with pain as you face another overwhelming moment of depressive crying and realising in that moment you not only feel alone, you are alone. No one even notices you might not make it through one more day. I drove myself to and from hospital. I came home and in my vulnerability sat by myself night and day, hurting in a way that made me beg God to come and take me. During my last week in hospital I needed to prepare for my Surgery exam which was the following week. Being dosed up on meds and having side effects that made me feel ill made it so hard. Through all the tears and feeling like an utter and complete wreck I nonetheless dragged myself along. I could barely manage 3 hours without sobbing but I was determined to do it, regardless of the outcome. Well, that Monday morning as I tried to talk through my 3 oral and clinical exams I felt like hell froze over. I had moments of the world tilting before me thinking I was about to hit the ground and moments of stopping mid-sentence, anxiety ridden and saying, “I’m sorry” as I then paused for 30 seconds and looked at my hands in my lap, taking a couple of deep breaths before I resumed. It was an experience I never wish to relive. I walked out of there asking myself two questions; “What the hell have I become?” and “What made me want to keep going and even show up for this exam?” 

I didn’t want to live. Honestly, not at all. Everything hurt and I couldn’t take the pain anymore. But why do I always keep going then? What is that one thing holding me back from no longer breathing? This is not the first time I’ve felt this pain or been down this rabbit hole. In the past 9 years, it’s the fifth. I’ve been asking myself all week why I then bother fighting for a life because I am not really sure. Maybe there are several parts to that answer. For one, I know I feel that way because of an illness and that it isn’t who I am. I also believe in a God which makes me not want to give up on him. Then there’s that fleeting moment of hope. Hope because I’ve survived up until now. I’ve survived many times like these and many near-death moments and I survived. Also, there are parts of me that come out at times that are me and I think she is worth the fight and maybe I am not ready to fail myself, to give up on myself because I do not want to exit this story defeated. I want to know I raised hell trying and giving everything I’ve got within me. Even if it is doing it alone. Even if it is doing it hurt.

As for the “What the hell have I become?” Well, when I look at how I was ten years ago versus who and how I am now, I feel like a shard of a person. I went from being an over-achiever and excelling to someone who barely gets by. My mind is exhausted, my body is exhausted, all of me is just trying to survive and knows that thriving isn’t in the cards right now. I don’t have my normal dramatic, happy moments of exuberance around friends, my words fail me and silence seems more appropriate. I’ve started putting up an armour around myself to strangers who dare come close. I dismiss their greetings and urge to talk, I barely make eye contact with people anymore and coccooned myself in to feel safe. I need to find my sense of independence again, because when you’re rejected, you are all you’ve got. My current goal is to submerge myself in work until I have completed my internship and maybe then I would be strong enough to trust someone again. Maybe then I would feel like enough again. Maybe then I could trust myself again. But as for now, I have to accomplish my goals and I have to heal and overcome my demons of depression and for now, that is enough.

Getting to the person and place you’ve envisioned is not an easy journey and I’ve come to understand that my journey is one which many will never understand and which many will criticise and so I must walk it alone right now. I must keep my eyes fixed on where I am heading and while I walk, learn to trust my own instincts and follow the desires of my own heart. I must learn to love parts of my journey and create parts to love and in order to do that, maybe everything else has to be white noise for a while. That challenge, in itself, is like asking one to climb Mount Everest. Creating parts to love? Learning to love yourself? Trying to fabricate happiness? It seems like the impossible and yet another cliché and here I am saying I have to do it alone whilst we all know that humans crave and need interaction. Being alone worsens depression. I am aware of all these things. I know what’s good for me and I know what’s bad for me. I know what I ought to do and what I should not do. So why don’t I just do them? Right now, I can just but handle working on the main priorities and cannot build Rome in one day. I have long considered what would ultimately get me to where I need to be. One’s environment plays a big part and one’s life goals play another. I am a final year medical student facing three difficult years of internship and I need to focus on that, and that, will take just about all of me. My other priority is to work on treating depression. To go to therapy, to take my medications, to exercise 20 minutes a day, to attempt to get enough sleep and to eat healthily. These are my main priorities right now and I somehow feel the urge to protect myself from anything else that may divert my attention or derail me. 

People may derail me. Yet they are risks I somehow have to take at some point in my life. Truth be told, the hardest of trials amidst everything else I would say is doing it alone. I believe we can get through just about anything in life if we feel loved and supported and if we can love in return. It’s how we humans are wired. But being disappointed by everyone who has ever truly mattered to you? That makes it very hard to love again and trust again and try again. Friendships… Relationships… Family bonds… All of it. So what is one to do? I believe one is to heal, and then one is to try again. You will be disappointed again in all likelihood. It’s how life works. Most people will run from a woman who has had severe depression and been admitted to a mental hospital. Several times. It is so very rare for someone to be fully committed to the greatness in another and to love that greatness enough to see through all the pain and madness. My therapist asked me, what do I want from someone in a relationship. My answer? I want them to care. I want them to love me enough, the good parts of me, that they can see through the bad. The bad which is really just pain. I don’t want a saviour because we all know at the end of the day the only person who can save you is yourself. I want support and in return, do the same for another until we both can smile again. I don’t want them to have to understand. I just want them to try too. Most of all, I never want to have to try to convince someone to stay and that I am worth it because if they have that doubt, they doubt my worth and I don’t need a half honored commitment. I believe all these things are valid to want and maybe someday, I will find them. Maybe I won’t. But I have learned one thing in life about myself that wouldn’t make me, me if I didn’t honor it; never will I live through the dulling pain of a mediocre heart that forgets what it feels like to fly, even if it is always just falling.

We all have moments. Moments of wanting to give up and let go and sometimes, many do. I pray that none of us will ever reach that point. I’ve stood on the very edge of that precipice with rocks starting to crumble at my feet far too many times. I know the depths of a pain that makes your heart want to quit beating. I know what it’s like to have nothing left and have not a single soul on your side. Believe me, I know. So if you feel the same or you battle through depression with no will left to live every single day of your life, every hour and every minute, just know, I know too. Saying you are not alone in what you feel doesn’t lessen your pain. It hasn’t for me either. Knowing there’s someone else who’s suicidal out there doesn’t console you. I mean, how could it? Each of us use what little energy we have left to fight our own battle and physically, I’m not there with you. I cannot tell you it’s going to be okay, but I also can’t tell you that it’s going to not be okay. It just might be. Just know, it is valid to feel what you feel and some day, maybe tomorrow or maybe ten years from now, who knows? Someday, you’ll want to try again because that was wired into you too and maybe, just maybe, you’d be glad you did.

Lastly, I want to ask you to forgive yourself. In the past three weeks I have, countless times, called myself “irreparably damaged,” “fucked up beyond repair,” “a write off,” “a tragedy,” “mentally unstable” and “too weak to survive.” I’ve even said those words aloud several times to my Doctor and therapist. It’s ironic because what pisses us off is when people reject us using exactly those terms yet we go and use them as poison against ourselves. Maybe they’ve convinced us those words are true or maybe long before anyone else did, we already doubted ourselves. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you’ve come to judge yourself and having the limited perspective on life right now you don’t own that kind of power. You don’t have to forgive yourself for having depression, but you should forgive yourself for believing and reciting the lies around it.

Some days you wake with a heavy heart. So much loss held. So many unknowns. So many missteps and so fucking much flawed humanity. And yet, there is a lightness too, in some moments. Fleeting and yet filled with grace. Or if not a lightness then just  surrender, a kind of sinking in and liquid release. A knowing that there’s nothing to do but breathe and hope and love your way through. Maybe even cry through. And so, return to the hardest practice of all; being gentle with your bleeding heart.