May is Mental Health Awareness Month

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I Googled Mental Health Awareness images, to find a new Facebook Profile picture to represent this month. There are lots of posters out there!

Imagine different colors and shades of green, different fonts and different pictures.

Here’s what some of them say:

 

 

 

Wear green!

Break the stigma. Break the silence.

1 in 5 people will suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year.

1 in 4.

Not all pain is physical and not all wounds are visible.

You wouldn’t be ashamed to tell your friends you have the flu, so why do we stay quiet about mental health?

Inspired – Informed – Involved.

Be aware!

Keep talking about mental health.

About 900,000 people commit suicide every year…and mental disorders are one of the most prominent and treatable causes of suicide. (That number is now actually closer to a million per year worldwide.)

No Health without Mental Health.

Stand up against stigma.

You’re not alone.

Depression. Anxiety. Phobia. Panic. OCD. Schizophrenia. Eating Disorder. Self-harm. Post-traumatic stress. Bipolar Disorder.

Take care of your stress.

Let’s talk about it.

Silent no more.

Behind the mask.

Be the change.

You are safe here.

And one of my favorites, from Consolidated Agencies of Human Services in Hawthorne, NV (cahsnv.org):

[Encourage others to seek help. Raise awareness of mental illness and where to get help. Teach respect for the daily challenges of poor mental health. Advocate to expand availability of effective treatments and supports. Nurture understanding among all.]

 

I urge you to find out what’s happening in your community this month to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Learn about mental health. Attend a lecture. Participate in a walk. Reach out to a hurting friend. Seek help if you think you have a mental illness.

Let’s talk about this!

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It’s Easy

The thing about depression is – it’s easy.

No, depression itself is not easy – it’s actually a very hard journey. But descending into depression is a cinch. Easy-peasy.

All it takes is several days of feeling alone, using first-person depression language or beating myself up, poor diet and/or sleep, ongoing physical pain. A few negative components, and depression is within reach.

Of course, wellness should be reaching toward the positive, toward mental health, not illness. But sometimes, mental illness feels closer to my grasp.

This should make me fearful, or at least cautious. The problem is, it all feels so familiar. So it’s not scary; it’s almost comforting.

Which makes me scared. And that’s healthy.

I’m realizing that I’m often so close to the edge of the cliff – to the precipice of depression’s chasm.

That means I need to fight really hard for mental health. For mental wellness.

I need to initiate my ladder – the steps my therapist told me to put into place to help me when I find myself in this darker place. Step one – sit with the tears. Well, I don’t have any of those right now. Just a familiar sadness.

Step two – Tell my husband and best friend. My husband will be home shortly, after having been out-of-town for a few days – I hate to admit that this probably contributed to my current emotions. I’m okay with him being gone until about day five – then it gets hard for me. So that piece will improve soon!

Ok, time to be really honest here. Let’s back up a few minutes. Drinking wine does not help depression. I suspect that if I hadn’t had a couple of glasses of wine – which is a depressant! – I wouldn’t be feeling so negative right now.

I’ll write more about my ladder of self-care another time. The steps really don’t matter for this particular post. What matters is to illustrate that depression can be only a few choices away.

So I need to make wise choices. Initiate my ladder of self-care. Get good sleep. Eat a healthy snack, healthy meals. (Too bad I had to throw away that salad mix due to the recall – that was my healthy meal!) Get regular exercise. Be careful with alcohol.

Ultimately, I must remind myself of God’s truth about me, because that’s what really matters. He loves me no matter what. I am a new creation, because of Jesus’ grace. Depression is not who I am; I am a precious daughter of the king of the universe, the king of all creation.

Reminding myself of these truths are keys to fighting the familiarity of depression. Keys to fighting the lies of the enemy. Keys to my mental health.

Thinking about the Past Can Cause Anxiety

I met with my therapist last Thursday. Overall, it was a good appointment. We talked about some tasks I had tackled over the previous week – investigating book clubs, knitting clubs, volunteering at a local Adult Care Center. It felt good to be proactive, and it was nice to share that confidence I felt with her.

We discussed my previous experience in participating and then facilitating peer-led support groups for folks suffering with depression. I told her how I would love to do that again, and we brainstormed some ideas on who to talk to about such a group. I’m excited to be thinking about such an opportunity. It’s been such a long time (3+ years) and I’ve really missed it.

We also talked about my darkest times – including the first time I told Chris I was suicidal.  She asked what I remembered about that moment, and I recalled it vividly – could picture myself at the counter in my pajamas and robe. I had just turned around from making a cup of coffee as he was walking towards me. I told him to come closer and hug me. I began to cry, and told him that I was thinking of hurting myself. Chris pulled back from me, his hands still on my arms, and I watched his eyes fill with tears as he told me he couldn’t bear it if anything happened to me. I felt his arms go back around me as he hugged me and I told him I needed help. He whispered, “We’ll get through this.”

Funny, I don’t really remember what happened next. I know my first trip to the hospital emergency room was soon after that (same day? same week?), when I experienced a sudden weakness in my whole body. But I don’t remember the rest of that day’s detail.

I shared with her, too, about the other time I told my husband that I needed help. I recalled the ensuing trip to emergency, waiting in a small room with a couch and examination bed – just me and my husband and the nurse who came and went, turned on the tv, brought water, checked on me. I remember the social worker coming in and telling us there were no beds available in the psych wards in town, and we told her we couldn’t go 2 1/2 hours away to the nearest hospital. She came back in the room and helped me write “a safety plan.” I told my therapist about my doctor friend, Jim, who came on call as I was getting ready to leave the emergency room, and how he assured me that he would take care of us if we needed to come back.

Anyway, after I shared those two stories with my therapist, we went on to talk about how hard it is to say those three words, “I need help.” And our appointment continued from there.

I haven’t thought about those two scenarios in a long time, and as I walked to my car at the end of our session, I suddenly felt anxious. That deep in the gut hollowness of anxiety.

I know that thoughts of the past can be positive or negative, pleasant or difficult. I was just surprised by my physical response to thinking back. It took the rest of the day to shake off that nervousness in the pit of my stomach. But now I know – memory is a very powerful thing.

5 a.m. Musings

I woke at 4 a.m., laid in bed for an hour. These were the things going through my head:

  • Jack Johnson’s Banana Pancakes song (just the words I know)
  • Does Starbucks have pumpkin bread or muffins? I have to take the car in this morning for a front end alignment; maybe I’ll stop first and treat myself to a mocha and pumpkin bread.
  • What should I take to S’s on Saturday? Brownies? Something pumpkin? (back to thinking about Starbucks)

Then I decided to focus my thoughts on times during depression when I felt relief:

  • Taking a nap at B’s house – I remember laying down on her couch, a throw pillow under my head, her blue chenille-weave blanket over me. I felt so safe and sleepy.  I must have made her whole family, including her two teenage boys, tiptoe around, because I didn’t wake for over an hour. I remember B doing dishes at the sink as I sat up. Her smile at me – just the best thing a weary friend could see. Do you remember that, B?
  • My husband’s arms wrapped around me. Standing in the kitchen with my back up against the counter, and he pulled me towards him. I tucked my arms next to my sides, so he was completely around me, and I put my head down on his chest, under his chin. I felt safe, supported, enclosed. I knew he was with me through this thing called depression – his hug, and holding me, proved I wasn’t alone. I still like that position of a hug, with me wrapped completely up in his strong arms. I feel so safe there.
  • Walking into Ted‘s office (my therapist) – the stillness of the room; the sensation of taking off the invisible heavy backpack with the weight and cares of the world, and laying it beside my purse; sinking into the cushions, usually clasping a throw pillow to my chest (part comfort, part protection of my vulnerabilities that I will be sharing). He sits across from me. He smiles and I can feel the tension of the world leave my shoulders. For a few times, I sat in the rocking chair with the cream-colored fluffy blanket – the rocking motion is still soothing to me. But I prefer the couch, where I can sink down into the cushions, put my head against the back, and slouch behind my pillow. Soft glow from the lamps. A candy dish on the table. Kleenex within reach. I look up to the windows at the top of the wall – stare out at the clouds and branches. The quiet is almost tangible, like the room is doubly insulated against the terrors and pressures of the outside world, where my depression has me in its grip. But this is a safe place, and I can talk about my fears and sadness here.
  • Later, walking into Elizabeth‘s office (my therapist when I moved to FL) – the beauty of the room, the cheerful patterns.  Though my need wasn’t as strong, she had throw pillows for me to clasp, to hide behind. Her gentle voice. Her soft words of encouragement and prayer.

Now, it’s almost 4:45 a.m., and I start thinking about my previous post on Scripture, particularly Philippians 4:6-7, NIV:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I think more on this verse, and how it has helped me, just not when I was in my deepest depression.  In my “lighter” versions of illness, I can quote these verses and feel some relief. But I’ve also come to realize that the second part of this – the promise of God’s peace – isn’t necessarily an immediate response to the first part – the praying and petitioning. The peace comes eventually, but not necessarily immediately. This in itself is comforting to me, since I felt like I was failing somehow, when I didn’t sense God’s peace after begging Him to help me not be anxious, even after thanking Him for depression and all it was teaching me. To realize that I didn’t immediately feel peace, the peace promised in verse 7, I felt like I was failing at trusting God for my relief and His peace. But now, to realize that the peace of God, which is beyond my understanding, will come and take its place in my heart eventually, is great relief.

Now it’s 5 a.m. I think I’ll get up and write this all down.

A Hard Truth about Scripture and Depression

In my previous post, I included some practical things that were said to and done for me in the midst of a depressive episode that helped me. Here’s more: A friend let me come over and take a nap on her couch so I wouldn’t be alone. Another called me daily to check in. One took me shopping at Walgreens for Christmas stocking stuffers. One gave me a ride to work when I was unable to drive because of medication. Another brought dinner for the family. Good friends even saw me when I was in the psych unit – not an easy place to visit. One sent – and continues to send – encouraging cards and notes.

These folks were Jesus to me – “Jesus with skin on.” And that was the point of the post – practical things you can say to or do for someone in the midst of depression that they might find comforting or helpful.

You’ll notice, if you’ve read many of my posts, that I didn’t include helpful Scripture. Part of that, to be honest, is that quoting the Bible to a person who is in the depths of depression is not necessarily helpful. At least, it wasn’t for me. This is a hard truth – just throwing God’s Word at me wasn’t helpful when it was spoken without “stepping into” my suffering.

Now don’t get me wrong. Many friends shared God’s Word with me, and I found the verses encouraging and comforting – to be reminded that God is always with me, that He desires hope for my life, that He hears every cry from heaven – every prayer – called out to Him. But I only felt this way because these friends first made an effort to understand my suffering.

For me, reading God’s Word in the midst of a depressive episode, at the depths of despair, wasn’t practical. For one thing, I couldn’t read, couldn’t actually focus my eyes to make out the words on the page. For another, I felt so guilty about my depression and the accompanying negative thoughts, that often Scripture felt condemning, not comforting. The comfort came in being reminded that Jesus was with me, not in particular verses from the Bible.

Some verses left me feeling completely inadequate, and unable to call on Jesus for His saving strength. I had to be reminded to do these things – hearing Bible verses didn’t inspire me to do so. And others doing this for me – standing in the gap, so to speak – was invaluable. I couldn’t do it, so others did it for me.  They prayed for me when I couldn’t even form the words to a prayer.

In my better moments, I was able to write God’s Word into my journal, to write out prayers to God for strength and healing. My journal is full of these. I also used a little book, God’s Promises for Every Day, by W Publishing Group. It’s full of verses for particular struggles – verses to read when suffering from depression or anxiety, or when wondering where God is. It’s got verses about peace, God’s love, doubt, eternal life, God’s faithfulness, confusion, Jesus as your friend or Savior or Lord. And the Holy Spirit brought memorized verses to my mind to help me. since reading the Bible was so difficult to do.

I guess what I’m saying is that simply quoting Scripture to a person struggling with depression is not necessarily helpful. Telling me to practice Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t just make the anxiety go away – I was already trying to live those verses, but wasn’t feeling peaceful. Quoting I Peter 5:7 doesn’t necessarily relieve the burden – it’s hard to cast anxiety on Jesus when I’m drowning in depression and its companion, anxiety. It’s hard to cast anything. That required energy I didn’t have.

Please don’t misunderstand. God’s Word never returns empty – it will accomplish what God intends (Isaiah 55:11). But shared outside of the context of the suffering I was experiencing felt cruel. It left me feeling less than, unlovable, abandoned, misunderstood.

It was better to be told the verses that folks were praying for me. It was more helpful to be gently reminded of the truths of Scripture than having them shoved at me.

So please, in reaching out to a friend in depression, don’t simply quote a Bible verse and expect that to help. You need to show them that verse, living out Jesus’ love to them. Don’t hurt them with God’s Word – apply it as a salve in the context of their suffering.