Category : tools

Every Day Is Today

Today is World Mental Health Day. Since this blog is all about my journey and adventures in dealing with my mental health, I thought I’d write a short post to say:

Hi! My name is Josh. I’ve lived with mental illness since at least high school. I experienced my first panic attack (which I didn’t recognize as such at the time) when I was a senior in high school, but looking back, I was probably dealing with depression and anxiety for longer. But I wasn’t formally diagnosed until much later, in my 30s. I was first diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression and started on an anti-depressant. A few years later, I realized I needed someone to talk to and help me deal with my wonky brain. After seeing a couple of therapists who weren’t a good fit for me, I found a brilliant therapist, got diagnosed with cyclothymia, and was started on a mood stabilizer. I recently went off my anti-depressant, but have continued with my mood stabilizer, as well as an anti-anxiety med. I stopped seeing my therapist last year after we both decided I’d gotten from her what I wanted and needed. She gave me a hug and we’ve kept in touch since. I still use what she taught me, along with various things I’ve picked up from manuals, self help books, and friends.

What I really want to say is this: if you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s okay, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you’re not alone. If you need medication to help keep your brain chemistry from being a mean motherfucker, it’s not weak to admit that and it’s not weak to take them. It’s no different from a diabetic needing insulin or someone with high cholesterol needing to take a statin (this is also me). If you need to talk to someone who won’t judge you for your brain chemistry and the assorted psychological issues that we develop from trying to live with wonky brain chemistry, someone who will help you develop tools and techniques for living, it’s not weak to admit that and it’s not weak to see a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or other qualified counselor. Mental illness will often lie to you, telling you that you’re alone, that no one wants to help you, that you’re beyond help. These are lies. You are valued, useful, and deserving of love and care. There may even be aspects of your mental illness that are strengths, features not bugs. I’ve come to see aspects of my mental weirdness as superpowers, not weaknesses. Being different doesn’t have to mean being broken.

If you need help, get help. If you need a friend, I’m here for you. None of us can get through this life alone.

My Kingdom

Tuesday wasn’t a great day for me. The anxiety, depression, and loneliness I wrote about, combined with the stress of some adulty things I need to get done, hit me hard in the morning and I hate a wee freakout. I mood my swung around all day, feeling good about myself, feeling terrible about myself, feeling good about myself, feeling terrible about myself…I was a yo-yo man, always up and down.

And then, that evening, I put on my primary go-to song for bolstering my self-esteem, “The Game” by Echo & the Bunnymen. It’s not a fist-pumping rock anthem, more pop poetry, wide-eyed whimsy and dreamy determination. It’s not even from the Bunnymen’s best (or my favorite) album. (In fact, I’d go so far as saying it’s one of their worst, filled mostly with overproduced songs that aren’t the bands usual caliber. But even their worst album is better than most other bands’ work.) and “The Game” has always been magical to me, especially the lyrics of proud defiance. Listening to it again brought back feelings of confidence, hope, boldness, and a lack of concern for what naysayers tell me. (The biggest naysayer is, of course, my own low self-esteem, and the anxiety and depression that egg it on.) I felt more like the Josh I want to be. I felt like I’d…come home.

I moved a lot growing up. From grade school through high school, I went to eight different schools in six different states and two countries. I moved again to go to college and moved frequently after college. I’ve lived in Kansas City more than any other place, but that’s not all at one time, moving away and coming back a number of times. And even with all the time spent here, I still don’t feel like Kansas City is my home. I don’t feel like any place in the world is my home. There are places I feel particularly comfortable, places I feel drawn to, but there’s no one place I feel I have roots buried in. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but for me, home is a state of mind, a place within myself where I feel…not just comfortable, but centered, confident, so full of wonder, hope, enthusiasm, and magic I might burst. That’s where my roots are.

Lately I’ve been feeling so lost, overwhelmed by a lot of life stress, summer depression, social anxiety. I’ve looked at photographs of myself when I was younger and wondered what happened to that dream-eyed boy who was still dealing with loads of messy head stuff but still managed to stumble through life with a sense of “this is who I am and I’m good this way.” I miss living in that mental space and I’ve felt cut off from it. But there are songs and albums, movies and TV show episodes, comics and books that help bring me back to there, where I’m walking out in bluer skies. So there’s hope.

There’s always hope.

Fighting with Style

In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris offers many techniques (based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for dealing with depression- and anxiety-related thoughts that get in the way of you living your life to its fullest. I’ve found ACT to be quite helpful in dealing with the lying, sabotaging voices of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. One of Harris’ techniques in particular has been on my mind lately. He suggests that you take the unhelpful, self-destructive, negative thoughts that recur in your head (“Why try to make friends with that person? Nobody really likes you.” “Don’t bother applying for that job. You’d never get it anyway.” “Wow, you’re so fat and ugly! Could anyone actually find you attractive?”) and repeat the thoughts in your head over and over in a silly voice or as a goofy song. Take away the seriousness of the thoughts, turn them upside-down, and take away some of their power over you.

It recently occurred to me that this is a lot like Spider-Man.

One of Spider-Man’s signature traits is his wisecracking, mocking his opponents when they fight. He refuses to be completely serious or take his enemies too seriously. He does this in part to throw his opponents off, to keep them distracted and off-balance. He also does it to keep himself from getting too overwhelmed while fighting. Making fun of your enemy, refusing to give them the respect and seriousness they demand, is a good way of taking away at least some of their power over you. This is how I’ve dealt with bullies in the past, especially ones who were a lot bigger and more physically imposing than me. Instead of just giving myself over to anger and fear in the face of a strong, terrifying antagonist, I would play it cool and laugh at their attempts to intimidate and control me. Of course, even if I was playing it low-key and silly, inside I was furious, terrified, hurt. But not giving the bullies my fear and anger helped me feel better about myself, like I was internally stronger than them.

If I could do this with real people who were threatening me, why can’t I do this with the voices in my head that also try to intimidate, control, and undermine my best intentions? Aren’t one’s negative, self-sabotaging thoughts basically you trying to bully yourself? And aren’t bullies a lot like a hero’s rogues gallery, a collection of enemies that try to pull you down and keep you down? Aren’t I basically fighting Doctor Depression and The Fear-Master and The Insecurity Blanket? They’re strong and they’re sinister and they’ll do anything to get me to lose. They make me furious, terrified, hurt. But one thing I’ve got that they do? A sense of humor. Wit. Absurdity. The problem with taking these villains seriously is it gives them more power and can send me into a downward spiral. “I keep thinking shitty things about myself! Not only are the voices right, I do suck, but I suck even more because I can’t get these mean voices to shut up! I’m so weak!”

Well, maybe I’m not strong enough to silence the negative voices completely. Maybe shutting them down completely isn’t even the point. The point is, I’m strong enough to keep fighting, and I’m clever enough to fight with style, to dance around them, mock them, tease them, take them down a peg or two. “Hey, Doc Depresso! Why so glum, chum? Here, I’ll put a smile on your pretty ugly face!” “Yo, Fear-Master! You sure are good at baiting me! You’re like a…master baiter! BAM!”

Hey, whatever works, right? Excelsior!

Rewriting the Story, Part 1

As much of an optimist as I am, I still think the power of positive thinking is kind of bullshit. You can’t wish your brain chemistry to work better any more than you can wish arthritis or diabetes away. A lot of “power of positive thinking” writing is, frankly, obnoxiously vague pablum. Yes, sure, we create reality with our minds. But if your brain isn’t giving you the right chemicals at the right time, your reality is going to be at least a little warped.

At the same time, based on experience, I think positive thinking can be pretty powerful. Depression and anxiety are a combination (often a potent one, like a Long Island Iced Tea) of brain chemistry and psychological issues that have built up over your lifetime. Depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, these frequently need some kind of medication to help adjust wonky brain chemistry, but I truly don’t think you can deal with mental health through medication alone. So I embrace the paradox of positive thinking being both a powerful tool and a big bottle of snake oil. Bottom line: use whatever tools work.

For example:

Driving home from work the other day, I got distracted for a few seconds by something on the side of the road (that something being the “Amusing Breeze” sculpture) (it’s fun and cute, right?) and when my eyes went back to the road, I saw the cars in front of me had slowed to a near stop, while I was still heading towards them at around 40 m.p.h. I slammed on my brakes and screeched to a stop with an inch or two between me and the car in front of me. All of the books and CDs in the passenger seat at my side went flying onto the floor. Traffic started moving again, and as I continued my drive home, my anxiety dial was turned up to at least a 9. I mentally berated myself, cursing my easily distracted ADHD brain, “Stupid, Neff! Really, really stupid!”

But wait a minute! Stop the presses! Yes, I should keep my eyes on the road at all times. Yes, I should give my full attention to the cars around me, ignoring the whimsical art on the side of the road. And yet, was anyone hurt by my sudden stop? Nope. Did I actually hit anything or anyone? Nuh uh. I thought about it some more (while also paying attention to my driving, because I can multitask when I need to) and decided that instead of following a narrative that tells what a fuck-up I am, the story should be about how my ADHD brain gives me quick wits and reflexes, allowing me to respond instantly to my situation, keeping me from getting into an accident.

My anxiety and depression are so tied up with my life with ADHD, it can be easy to turn my perspective over to them, seeing myself as a bundle of all the negative traits myself and others have pinned on me. And while it’s true that I’m not always perfect, I rarely make the kinds of catastrophic mistakes that cause serious harm, that can’t be rectified, that undo the world around me. Depression and anxiety are lying motherfuckers, and even if I need the help of medication to fight their lies, that doesn’t make me more broken, more rotten, more of a loser than anyone else. This is exactly where positive thinking, reframing my reality, rewriting my story is helpful.

To be continued…

Self-Diagnostic 2

I’ve written about going off of my anti-depressant and how I tend to get summer seasonal depression, so I thought I’d do another self-check to see how I’m handling all of this opposite-of-thrills-and-pills, and then write about it because that’s what this blog is for.

Short answer: I’m doing okay.

Longer answer: I woke up last Friday feeling exhausted, groggy, cranky. I’d gone to bed at a decent hour the night before, and I slept well through the night, but I was having a hard time waking up and was feeling petulant about having to wake up at all. I’d been feeling that way all week, waking up feeling sleepy and grumpy (and probably dopey, too), wanting to go to sleep almost as soon as I got home from work. But on Friday morning, I felt this sudden out-of-body, looking-at-myself-from-the-outside experience and I thought, “Oh, duh! I’m depressed!” Then I wondered if I should call my doctor and ask to go back on the ol’ Celexa. But unlike in the past, I can recognize that this is depression, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as bad as it has in the past when I’ve been unmedicated, I’m still on my mood stabilizer, I have a psychological toolkit to deal with it, and I know it won’t last.

Seeing it, identifying it, and viewing it as a relatively small thing that I can handle made me feel strong, stronger than the depression itself. I’ve usually felt overwhelmed by it (and I still feel overwhelmed by my anxiety more often than not), so it’s pretty fucking great to feel…if not underwhelmed, at least, um, whelmed. Take that, depression!


In other self-care news: I still haven’t found regular exercise that I’ve been able to get myself to do, but seeing as how I’m dealing with a medication change and my least favorite season, I’m not beating myself up about it (too much). I installed the Google Fit app on my phone, set-up a daily goal of 30 minutes of walking exercise, and have hit that goal at least one day a week just by working a typical day at the library. I’m aiming to level up to hitting that 30 minute goal more often by walking around more during the day, but that probably won’t happen until the weather gets cooler.

But even a little progress is progress, and I’m happy with that.