It’s a blah day, not a relapse.

For many mornings in a row, when the alarm goes off I think, “Why bother?” I get up because that’s what I do, not because I want to. I have nothing to get up for. And then I remember that I intentionally planned something into my day so that I will get up. Otherwise, I think I’d stay in bed all morning.

I’ve had several days of feeling “in a funk” – not really happy but not really sad either. A blah mood.

A year ago, I would have blamed all of this on the weather – the gray clouds of the upper Midwest that cover the sun for days and often bring snow and cold. But I’m in Florida now, and while it’s been unseasonably rainy, there was sunshine and even warmer temperatures today. So what’s my problem?

I think it’s because it is February. And traditionally, February has been a tough month for me. According to my old psych doc, even though it’s the shortest month of the year, it’s often the hardest emotionally. Not sure why. But perhaps I’m feeling the way I do because I’ve felt this way for the past nine Februarys. Emotional muscle memory.

It took me a few hours today to figure this out – this thing about February. I should have seen it sooner – I knew I was feeling less than good. I kept arguing with myself that the mood would simply go away, and I suspect it will, now that I’ve identified it and called it by name.

A blah day, or even a blah week, doesn’t mean relapse. It doesn’t mean depression again. It means I’m in a blah mood, and I’ll be in a blah mood for a few days, and then it will get better. To keep it from descending into depression, I’ll keep doing what I know to do – eat well, get enough sleep, exercise some, take my meds, reach out. Get up and do the day.

And if I need to take a day to stay in bed all morning, that’s ok too.

 

Being Motivated to Stay Motivated

I’ve recently written about steps I can take to keep myself emotionally healthy, and my goals for doing what is necessary. But I’m finding it hard to be self-disciplined, hard to do the things I’m supposed to be doing for good mental health. When I’m not accountable to anyone but myself, where is the motivation to do what I should? In keeping with recent posts, am I putting the pieces in place to stay healthy, the tools that will keep depression away? If I’m not, why not?

I’m thinking about this because I had a blood draw today, and a followup appointment to discuss results next Friday. I’m nervous about the results – the numbers were headed in the right direction last time, but it’s important that motion has continued, and I have no idea what to expect. I need better cholesterol numbers, while keeping my blood pressure and sugars where they were 3 months ago, or even improved. My weight has gone up and down during the time passed, and I believe that changes in my medication may have had an impact – I’ll know next week.

But I can’t blame my meds when I’m not being as proactive as I should. I have reduced my sugar intake, but it’s only recently that I’m really paying attention to food labels. I’m still not exercising, hardly even a little. This is ridiculous, since I live in a beautiful paradise where I can take a walk in the sunshine nearly every day. I could walk to the workout room or pool, or drive to the beach and take a long walk in the waves.

My writing would benefit from some self-discipline. Perhaps a schedule – for daily practice, for blogging, even for my personal journaling. Certainly some discipline of regular writing if I want to be working on a book!

My efforts to reach out to others is good but could improve.  I’ve wondered if I should have said “yes” to that job all those months ago. The answer of “no” was still the right decision, but at least a job would have put me in other people’s lives regularly. Instead, I can stay at home if I want to – don’t have to leave the house if I don’t feel like it. So I’m trying to build in regular commitments:  lunch dates with friends, a Tuesday Bible Study group, a weekly school prayer group that I rarely miss. The neighborhood friendship and prayer group restarted – I’ve attended two out of three times.

And I’m contributing at home, which is easy to do since we’ve become empty nesters and only have one pet. This was much more difficult with two kids, two cats and a dog! I keep house, take care of errands and make the space a respite for my husband and me at the end of his work days.

I’m building my own personal growth by reading about writing and knitting a blanket for the living room (the largest yarn project I’ve ever undertaken). I’m finding both of these things fun and fulfilling, and they stretch me a little.

But some days, on days I chose to not go anywhere, I wonder if I’m doing enough. I know women who do way more than I do in a day, certainly in a week. Working moms especially! It’s easy to write blogs about what I should be doing, harder to follow through in real life. Am I just lazy? I don’t like to think so – I think it’s part of my mental health need to keep “space” in my life, to not do too much. Still I judge myself.

God’s Word says that Jesus has given us everything we need to live a life that pleases God by getting to know Jesus in increasing measure (2 Peter 1:3). Am I living in a way that pleases God? When I have my daily quiet time, when I start by focusing on who He is and when I commit my day to Him, I can trust that I am doing what He has called me to, and perhaps I don’t need to question these things.

It’s always about priorities and obedience – letting God put order to my hours and then doing what He wants me to each day. He wants me to take good care of my body, to get exercise, to reach out to others and share Him, to care for my family. I can remember to ask Him for motivation and self-discipline, and then obey Him when I see He’s given me the time to do it.

Reaching From Mental Illness to Mental Health

Many weeks ago, in commenting back and forth with fellow blogger Dawn Liz Jones, she challenged me with:

I would be interested to know why or in what ways it is hard to reach from mental illness to mental health. I know for me, it was definitely hard work, with God’s help and grace. Only if you’re ever willing to share. Would make a very helpful and insightful post. – dawnlizjones

Be sure to check out her blog – great Bible insights and personal stories – Inspiration with an Attitude!

How can I reach from mental illness to mental health? Why is it hard?

A major part of my struggle in reaching toward mental health is that health feels gradual, and my descent into mental illness – particularly Major Depressive Disorder with some anxiety – felt very sudden. Looking back on it, it wasn’t sudden; it was a slow decline over many months. But it was life changing for me. It’s easy to spot the negative, to see the low points – my hospitalization was a huge “defining moment” – and to focus on the illness part of my diagnosis. In many ways, I’ve allowed depression to define me, to become part of my identity. I have life before depression, the diagnosis and later hospitalization, and then the “ever since.”

My therapist Ted always wanted me to speak of depression as a different entity, not a part of me but separate, and name the friends depression brought with it (ie, anxiety, loneliness, negative self-talk). He wanted me to see that this was not me, not part of who I am, but instead an unwanted outsider who desired to take over my thoughts and emotions.

That’s great to say, and much harder to put into practice. My depressive episodes – for over 8 years now – are part of my lifetime experiences, and they help shape me. Whether I should or not, I define myself by them. I identify myself as a Christ follower who struggles with depression, may have it all of my life, and so am learning to live with it. That means recognizing my symptoms, my markers, and my triggers and responding appropriately to keep depression away as much as possible.

My mental health is not easy to define except as the absence of mental illness. Illness is much easier to name – depression and anxiety. So health must mean something different, or I will never again be mentally healthy, since I see myself as one who struggles with mental illness.

For me, then, mental health is more about learning how to live in the better moments of my illness or when symptoms have subsided and when I’m in remission, like now. Health also means learning to recognize those steps I can take that help with it – eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, following my treatment plan. Finally, health means recognizing signs that show something might be awry, that depression is fighting for a way in again. Recognizing those markers and triggers can help me take other steps needed to keep it away – giving myself permission to do less and rest more, bumping up my exercise, being more forgiving of myself and more gentle with myself in my own thoughts.

There’s another piece too, and that’s reminding myself to see me the way God sees me. He doesn’t define me as mentally ill. He defines me as His adopted daughter, His precious child, wholly and dearly loved, forgiven. Walking in this world with its troubles, but walking with His Holy Spirit as my Guide. Not alone. Not a mess. But beautiful in His eyes.

The awareness ribbon color for mental health is lime green, for depression it is green, and for mental illness it’s gray. Into the first few years of my depression diagnosis, I had my good friend Carol make a bracelet for me, a mixture of green and lime green stones – it is beautiful. I wore it proudly, as a reminder and hopefully a conversation starter about mental health and depression awareness. But then a few years later I read someone’s comment about the need to bring attention to mental illness, not specifically mental health, because mental illness is the taboo topic. I thought on that a long time, and it makes a lot of sense to me. We can talk about mental health, but that isn’t the issue – mental illness is. So I asked Carol to make another beautiful bracelet – this one is gray for mental illness awareness. I wear it a lot.

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And they look good together, too.

My Plans for 2016

Thanks to Dawn for asking the question that prompts this blog post! You can check out her writings at INSPIRATION with an ATTITUDE – great thoughts and ponderings as she draws lessons from daily life and God’s Word.

Anyway, she asked me at the end of my last post if I had any plans – not resolutions, but plans, for 2016. I appreciated that she phrased it that way – I gave up resolutions a long time ago. I’m not sure when that happened – probably when the word began to mean failure for me. Or maybe not failure, but “goals set unrealistically high.” Or “too lofty,” or “not well-defined.” Whenever it was, I stopped setting resolutions because I knew that my life wouldn’t change from December 31 to January 1, and so why bother.

That’s not to say that I don’t have plans. I do, almost always – by personality, I’m a planner. I have plans for the future – like before I moved across the country – I had great pictures of when and what that would look like. Plans for the week – when is that chiropractic appointment? Plans for the day – gotta get the laundry done. But again, not plans that I’d really consider life-changing. Not plans to introduce new habits into my days or weeks or year.

I think this means that I react, but am not always proactive. And when I’m depressed (which I am not right now – yay!), I’m too tired to be proactive. I don’t have the energy to do more than respond to my circumstances. It’s too hard to make changes. Which makes getting well really difficult, because my thought patterns during depression have to change to bring about healing.

It’s at times like now, when I’m mentally healthy – this is when I need to put new habits into practice. This is when I need to think about steps I can take to bring healing, or to stay healthy. So when my mood shifts to the negative, I already have good things in place to combat the depression that wants to take over.

That’s why eating well and exercising and taking my medication and meeting with my therapist regularly and having daily time in prayer and God’s Word are critical – I’ll need all of these to be part of my routine when I get to the point that I can only function within my routine – when I can only react.

And times like now, mentally healthy times, are a great time for me to try something new – add something from my wish list. What would I like to do when I am mentally healthy that I might not be able to do otherwise?

Beginning in 2013, I have 1.5 years of my timing, my plans, that didn’t line up with God’s plans and so didn’t happen according to my timetable. I became so frustrated, aggravated, and I became further depressed when things didn’t happen when I thought they should. From that, I learned that my plans can’t be written in stone. I must plan with my palms open, not gripping too tightly, because God’s plans are always better, but often don’t match mine. So plans are good as long as I keep them in perspective and am willing to let them go when God leads me into better plans, His plans. And His plans are always for my good.

I plan to keep that in mind for 2016!

Other plans, ideas for my future year:

  • Continue blogging. My last post of 2015 was my 100th one!  I’m pleased with that for my first year as a blogger. I’d love to develop a consistent blogging calendar, but am afraid to commit for fear I’ll miss a deadline! Maybe I should have a plan for publishing, but not tell my readers, so then no one is disappointed. But then where’s the accountability in that?
  • I’ve decided to write a memoir of my depression years and the lessons I learned of God’s faithfulness through it all. I’ve read a couple of books on writing memoirs – now I need to discipline myself with daily writing assignments toward this goal. I sure hope it doesn’t cause conflict with my blogging efforts.
  • I want to volunteer a couple of hours per week in a memory care or assisted living facility. This is a great tool for fighting depression – investing in someone else. It takes my focus off myself and allows me to reach out to others.
  • I plan to find a Bible Study where I can meet other women who love Jesus. I think this is important in my effort of making friends, which has been slow to develop in the 10 months since we relocated here. And I’m tired of being lonely, so I plan to do something about it!

So, those are my plans. But like I said, only if they line up with God’s plans for me.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Jeremiah 29:11, NIV 

What are your plans for 2016?

How am I doing with what I’m supposed to be doing? part two

As I mentioned before, there are things that I can do, even with depression, to help ease its symptoms. If I’m in remission, those tasks are much easier to carry out. Here are some more thoughts on the steps, and how I do (or don’t do) them with depression in remission versus when it’s full-blown.

  1. It’s important not to isolate myself – to keep up social interaction and positive supportive relationships. This is near to impossible when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, since all I want to do is be alone, preferably in the dark with the covers pulled over my head. I’ve learned to lean on the folks who know about my struggles, and admit to these friends that I’m having a tough time. They know what to say and when, and how to gently push me to reach out or when to leave me alone.
  2. If I’ve learned anything in my years in and out of depression, I’ve learned the importance of making space in my day, and not pushing myself too hard. It’s critical that I reduce my stress, make my to-do list shorter, and pace myself. I am already my harshest critic (that comes naturally to me, and is amplified with depression) and it’s easy to beat myself up about the things I should do that I don’t get done. But I’m learning to cut myself some slack, practice some relaxation techniques, and even nap if I need to.
  3. A piece that is very important to fighting depression is adopting an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s been proven in studies that folks who practice daily gratitude, perhaps writing things to be thankful for in a journal, have reduced depression and anxiety. It’s impossible to thank God for blessings and be anxious at the same time! Gratefulness also combats negative thinking, which is a huge issue for me when I’m depressed. I ruminate, mull, dwell and judge myself very harshly, and the negative thinking spirals quickly downward. But if I can stop myself, take the negative thoughts captive to Christ (from 2 Corinthians 10:5), and focus on His blessings right now, living in the moment with gratitude, I can slow the negative thinking and self-condemning thoughts before they get too far gone.
  4. I’m told repeatedly by my therapists and doctors to do the things that I used to enjoy, even though depression means that I don’t want to do anything. This is actually a diagnosing symptom of depression – not wanting to do things that used to be enjoyable. Other ways to combat this inertia are to reach out to others – recognize someone else’s need and offer help, maybe even volunteer in a serving capacity. I’ve found it true – thinking about someone else takes my mind off myself, and I can be distracted from depressive thoughts as I try to meet someone else’s needs.
  5. Maintaining an active faith life is critical in my fight against depression. I have to regularly remind myself that Jesus knows and understands how I feel, and He loves me completely, unconditionally, anyway. I’m not always able to concentrate well enough to read my Bible, so I have several other tools that help. I have a couple of books that are simply Bible verses to read “when you feel … (sad, anxious, depressed, lonely, etc.).” I listen to a lot of praise and worship music, and even have made some playlists appropriate for my moods. Lastly, the Holy Spirit will bring Bible verses to mind that I have read or memorized over the years. I may not be able to find and read them from the Bible, though, so this is a reminder to me to hide God’s Word in my heart (Psalm 119:11) – I never know when I might need it!
  6. It’s important to continue to take my medications as prescribed, and to avoid alcohol (a depressant). There’s really only been one time when I really wanted to quit taking my medicine – I think I felt like it was all useless (that’s the depression talking). It’s important, too, to follow my treatment plan and meet with my doctor and therapist – they will encourage me to keep taking these steps. It’s important to have their help to stay on track.
  7. Finally, I need to really listen to myself, and have those closest to me help me identify if I need immediate help. If I feel like hurting myself, if my mood worsens quickly, if I descend and can’t get back up, I need to get professional help. My therapist has been great to be available when I need help quickly – I am grateful for her!

So, that’s a lot to do to keep healthy – a total of 10 steps to take when including the top three from my earlier post (sleep, healthy diet, exercise). And it’s a lot to be intentional about, so it is helpful to form these habits when I’m in good mental health, so they aren’t completely impossible when I’m fighting a depressive episode.

What are some steps that you take to fight depression? What advice do you have to others who struggle?