Let’s Call This What It Is

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I was meeting with two coworkers this week to explain what I would need from them in order to do something they were asking of me.

For context, I explained that I have had to put a lot of boundaries in place lately in order to continue functioning. I said that last week I was so depressed that on Friday morning I couldn’t get out of bed to go to work.

It was a simple statement, and they took it as it was and we moved on with the conversation.

But as we were leaving the meeting, one of the guys said, “Hey – I’m really sorry about your…” (long pause) “…situation. I’ll be praying about…” (another long pause)

I smiled and offered the words he was missing: “My mental illness?”

There was immediate and visible panic on his face.

“No, no!” He said. “That’s not what I’m saying!”

“Well,” I said, hopefully gently, “that’s what it is. But thank you.”

And I walked away.

Now, because I know this coworker and trust and respect him, I completely understand that he was trying to be kind and avoid making me feel judged or shamed.

But I also know that reserving the term “mental illness” for the certifiably insane is how we end up with stigmas and shame surrounding things like depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.

To some of you, this feels incredibly obvious. To others, not so much. And I get that – not judging. Let’s just talk about it.

ThinkstockPhotos-535911123When I say, “mental illness,” what do you picture?

If you picture straightjackets and padded walls, you might want to revisit your definition. According to the Mayo clinic, “Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior.”

This includes, but is not limited to, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and addictive behavior. Which means that mental illness is everything from needing Xanax to needing a straightjacket.

And if you don’t call it an illness, if you call it a “situation,” or really anything other than an illness, you place the source of the situation back in the hands of the affected person.

ThinkstockPhotos-621146764Let’s say I come into work with a cold. I’m sneezing, blowing my nose, my throat is sore, and my head hurts.

You say, “I’m sorry about your…situation.”

To clarify, I say, “My being sick?”

And you don’t want me to feel ashamed of being sick, so you say, “No, no! You’re not sick! Sick is cancer or tuberculosis. You’re not sick!”

Absurd, right?

Because why would you be afraid that I would be ashamed of being kind of sick? The natural leap, even if you didn’t mean this, is that you believe there is something inherently shameful about being sick.

ThinkstockPhotos-627349976But if you think about it, you know that the fact that I am depressed is not inherently shameful. I’m not doing anything wrong. In fact, I am actively dealing with my depression, through multiple doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, and medications.

But I’m still ill. There is something wrong with me, despite my best efforts. And I’m not ashamed of that or even all that angry about it. It’s simply my reality, and I’m dealing with it.

I’m mentally ill. And I’m fine with saying that.

Will you join me in calling it what it is?

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Disordered Thinking

 

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You see, I’d like to think I know myself pretty well. I majored in psychology, so I know how humans work, and I have a basic knowledge of mental health. I’ve taken many online personality tests, and I invest a lot of money to learn more about myself and then process what I learn. At this point, I’m rarely surprised by something I learn about myself.

So when I was sitting in my counselor’s office, complaining, I wasn’t expecting to be surprised. I was talking about how I’m incredibly, almost unbearably, tired despite the fact that I’m doing everything right. I’m not eating sugar, I’m exercising, I’m taking lots of emotional and mental space, and I’m saying no to things that will cost more than I have to give.

My counselor nodded as my whining spun down to a stop.

“Well, Ashleyne,” she said casually, crossing one leg over the other, “since you have Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder, it makes sense that…”

I have no idea what she said after that.

See, for almost two years now, I’ve been telling everyone and their pet gerbil that I’m depressed. I took the whole “speak the truth and the truth will set you free” thing to heart. I know I’m depressed. But in this whole process, no one (not my doctor, not either of my counselors, not my psychiatrist, not my masters-degree-holding roommates, not my stuffed orangutan) has said the word “Disorder” out loud while looking at me.

Huh.

Longterm, it doesn’t really change anything. I’m not ashamed, or afraid, and I don’t think I’m crazy. I will continue to deal with my depression the same ways I have been.

But it did surprise me. This is a thing. I have a disorder. It’s not just that I don’t know how to handle my shit, which is what I’ve been thinking for quite a while now.

There’s actually something broken. Out of order. Misplaced. A recurring problem that doesn’t have a simple solution. And it has a name.

I tuned back in as my counselor said, “…which tells us that it really is a chemical problem and we can work with that.”

Huh. Okay. We can work with that.

I have a label. Alright. I can work with that.

So it’s still true: Speak the truth, for the truth can set you free.

I know myself a little better now. Serves me right for thinking I was done learning.

The Worst Ninjas

This is not the worst ninja. This is an awesome ninja.
This is not the worst ninja. This is an awesome ninja.

I wake up late on Wednesday, but still make it to a meeting on time. I feel pretty good about myself for getting out of the house so quickly.

Then, leaving that meeting, I get into a car accident. (Yes, Mom, I’m fine.) My car takes a pretty bad hit. But it’s just a car. And I handle the whole situation with patience and kindness, even though the other driver basically just forgot how to drive.

Once I get to the office, I successfully fix my coworker’s computer problem, but then discover that by fixing one problem, I broke something bigger. Google saves me, though, and with barely a sigh, I push through.

Then, eating a mid-morning snack, I bite the inside of my lip, hard enough to draw blood. It’s fine. Drink some water, walk it off.

I go to clean off my desk and find an old medical bill that I thought had been paid. For a substantial amount of money. Roll the shoulders back, whip out the credit card. It’s just money.

In a meeting, I spill coffee down the shirt my sister gave me for Christmas, which I happen to be wearing for the first time ever. “Pass me some tissues, please.” I’ll soak it when I get home. She’ll think it’s funny when I tell her, anyway.

After I mop up, I absent-mindedly scratch my face, and discover that I just scratched a ginormous zit (where did that come from??) and my face is now bleeding. A lot. “Can I just have the box of tissues? Please?” Acne. At age 28. What can ya do? I raise an eyebrow at my coworker, and move on.

I head back to my desk after the meeting, and peer down my to-do list. “Check Insurance Bills.” I check my insurance bills.

Uh-oh. They’re not right. I freeze for a moment. I need to call the doctor’s office. I can physically feel my pulse start to slow, the blood start to drain from my face.

Trying not to think or feel, I head into a side room to call the doctor’s office. I take a few deep breaths, and dial.

The woman is annoyed with me. She gives me little information, and tells me to call two other people. “Okay, thank you for your time,” I say. She hangs up.

By now, I’m starting to shake.

It’s another five minutes of breathing and talking myself down before I can dial again. Voicemail. I leave a message, my voice squeaky.

I’m starting to have trouble keeping my eyes open; my body is shutting down. My brain is telling me that this is too hard. That I can’t. That this is not okay. That I am no longer safe.

I put my head in my hands. I am not okay. I need to go home.

Suddenly, life feels too hard. I can’t even string sentences together. I drive home and crawl into bed, unable to function.

Because I had to make phone calls.

After all that the day threw at me, it was the phone calls that took me down.

And the funny thing is, if I’d had the greatest Wednesday ever, getting so much done, causing a ruckus with my friends, drinking great coffee, the phone calls still would have taken me down. Because they are the worst ninjas for me.

Anytime I face an obstacle in life, it feels like a ninja attack. Sudden, ferocious, out of nowhere, and devilishly good with a sword. I can fight a lot of ninjas and win. Car accidents, coffee spills, technology problems, swish swish clang, done. A terrible day was laughable because those ninjas couldn’t beat me.

But mental illnesses create the very worst ninjas. Regular ninjas strike in darkness, in your weakest moments. But mental illness ninjas can strike in daylight, when you’re surrounded by friends and have your weapons in your hands. You’re ready for them. They shouldn’t be able to take you down. They’re usually little. They’re basically nothing. But they can take you down. And they do.

And all you can do is lie there and wait to fight another day. Breathe. List all the ninjas you already beat.

And then get up, sharpen your sword, and try again.

 

Here’s to a ninja-free weekend, my friends. Hang in there.