I grew up in an evangelical Christian household in rural Indiana in the ‘90s. Needless to say, we were not at the forefront of mental health treatment. And most of the messages I received about good mental health had religious sentiment: Bible verses, prayer, turn to god for answers.
At the time, despite attempts to use these methods to help with my depression and anxiety, I didn’t find any permanent solace. Instead, I experienced much guilt wondering what I was doing wrong to not find healing of my depression. Therapy was never brought up as an option. It wasn’t that the evangelical community I belonged to didn’t believe in it, it was more a matter of ignorance.
By the ‘90s I’m sure a quarter of people in New York and Los Angeles were in therapy. But in rural Indiana it was still considered okay to joke about the mental health facility in town. The people that went there were “nuts” and “crazy,” terms that were always said with a sense of derision. There wasn’t any compassion in regards to those who were mentally ill.
I also saw those attitudes played out in our church. Are you depressed? Turn to these Bible verses. Pray about it. If those things didn’t work then obviously you were doing something wrong and not connecting with god. Perhaps you had some issue you should be working on which would connect you more with him? That way you might receive proper guidance on your depression. Besides, weren’t Christian supposed to have great joy for having found the gift of salvation?
These suggestions did nothing but make me feel more like a failure. And when already suffering from low self-esteem, that wasn’t something I needed any more of.
After hitting severe lows with my mental health in my early twenties, I became more receptive to therapy and medications. I also began to see that just as I didn’t need so-called friends or acquaintances whose lack of support brought me down, mentally, I didn’t want to belong to something like evangelical Christianity that wasn’t supportive of my recovery.
It's likely some evangelical churches have come to accept therapy and medication as positives that can supplement one’s faith in handling mental illness. Yet I wouldn’t know. Along with many other reasons (many of which are more important than the church’s take on mental wellness), I left the faith many years ago.
There are still many Christians that push platitudes that are unhelpful toward feeling mentally fit. “Just pray about it.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “Turn to god’s word to find answers for your illness.” And it’s unfortunate that is still the case. My struggles have shown me a detrimental side of Christianity.
I have no regrets about leaving my faith. Yet, my hope is that for those who are in the Church and have mental illness they could find themselves not hindered by clichés. Instead I hope they seek out the things they need to feel better.
I’ve been going to therapy for close to twenty years now. Thanks to moving around as well as my own therapists moving away, I’ve had at least eight in that time. If you count the ones I saw once or twice before deciding they weren’t a good fit, the number is more than a dozen. It’s over these years I’ve learned what to look for in a therapist and what helps me click and find support from them. Based on these experiences I’ve written some tips below. Keep in mind that this is about my encounters and what you find important may differ.
1. Find a therapist who focuses on your specific concerns
When I’ve needed a counselor I’ve often gone to the Find a Therapist part of Psychology Today’s website. There I’ve been able to narrow down what I desire in a therapist to meet my concerns. Counselors specialize in all sorts of problems; there’s no reason for me to go to a therapist who focuses on LGBT issues if I’m not any of those things. My particular issues deal with suicidal ideation, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Thus I’m able to check boxes on those individuals whose focus matches that.
2. Learn what style of therapy works for you
There are numerous types of therapy out there: cognitive-behavioral (CBT), Jungian, EMDR, and many more. Do some research and find out which works for you. I learned that CBT is quite helpful for what I need. It taught me coping skills to deal with when I am overwhelmed with the anxieties that life provides. At many websites you can narrow down the type of therapy that you might find useful.
3. Don’t hesitate to stand up to your therapist
Therapists aren’t perfect. They make mistakes and can miscommunicate. I’ve had therapists try and suggest things for me to do that they think might help. I wasn’t always capable of doing so, but on some occasions I’ve had to tell them things such as, “That won’t work because that’s not who I am. I don’t think my social anxiety would go away by joining a sports team. I’m not into sports.” Because a therapist is pushing an idea doesn’t mean they’re always right. If they continue to not get you or push you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, you may need to do the next step.
4. Don’t hesitate to leave your therapist
It can be tough to break-up with your therapist. It’s an intimate relationship in which you’ve shared some of your innermost thoughts. But if you don’t find their style of therapy helpful or if their personality doesn’t click with yours, it’s fine to leave them. When I meet with a therapist I can usually tell within about two or three sessions if they’re a good fit. It’s kind of like dating in that aspect. But any therapist who is good at their job won’t have a problem if you tell them that things aren’t working with them. If a therapist gets upset at you (which I’ve never had happen, but have heard stories) when you tell them this, by all means ditch them.
I’ve also had to leave therapists because they didn’t have their shit together. They were late to sessions, didn’t do their billing correctly, or weren’t paying attention to what I was saying. Therapy is about you and not anyone else. It’s about you getting better. If anyone stands in the way of that, you don’t want them as part of your journey to wellness. Don’t hesitate to ditch them so that you can come to a place of good mental health.
I recently had a student approach me after speaking to a mental health group on his college campus. He was a friendly, thoughtful guy who wanted to know how I dealt with my anxiety. I had a few thoughts to share with him—methods that worked for me. He was seeing a therapist and working on cognitive behavioral therapy. It was good to hear that—he wanted to put his mental health first, which is important if one wishes to improve it.
Our conversation reminded me that I haven’t written much about my anxiety, which is ironic since it’s the first mental health issue I dealt with. Going back to my time as a small child, I often got nervous or worried in new situations. I didn’t like being away from my mom or my house. Being in new places on my own scared me.
Over the years, my anxiety morphed as I became nervous about getting good grades and finding friends. Some of the old fears still remained but I began to have a hard time being in social situations. I would often shut people out instead of joining in their gatherings or activities. It wasn’t easy for me to tell others that while I liked them, I worried about finding acceptance in their social setting.
Looking back, I've come up with four things I wish I knew about anxiety. It's possible if someone told these things to me it would have given me a leg up on tackling my fears.
1. You might need meds
This is the biggest one. Without anti-anxiety medication, it was impossible for me to calm down to the point where my mind could address ideas in a rational manner. I knew that certain processes might work to handle anxiety. Yet my mind was racing all the time in those anxiety provoking situations. It did so such that I never got the opportunity to use those methods that might have helped with tackling my anxiety. Once my mind drew back to a more calm level thanks to the meds, I found it was easier to focus on the lessons I was learning in therapy and self-help workbooks.
I know medications aren’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine functioning without one.
2. Panic attacks are ok
I’ve had a few panic attacks in my life. They’re not fun. And they’re always the result of fears running full-steam out of control. In the past I used to think panic attacks were the end of the world and meant there was something damaged in me—maybe even beyond repair. After I had the first one, I felt like a horrible person. But that’s far from the case. They're a part of having anxiety but they don't make me worthless. As we say in the mental health field: it’s okay to not be okay.
3. There are ways to control it
I found cognitive behavioral therapy to do wonders for putting my thoughts in context and understand why I thought what I did. The workbook Mind Over Mood was especially helpful.
4. Everything will be okay – look at past experiences
If nothing else, remind yourself of this simple idea: you’ve had periods when you felt anxious and as though you might not make it through that experience. But you survived. And you can continue to remind yourself of your strength any time you have anxiety.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II when I was 21 years old. I went through a rough patch in college and once I got my diagnosis my life made more sense. However, there are some things I wish I had been told which no one ever shared with me at that time. So here they are.
1. Those manic times when you think you’re productive aren’t always as good as you think
There was a time in my early twenties when my manic phases were in full effect. At first it was scary because I was getting three or four hours of sleep a night and felt fine. I wondered when my brain was going to stop functioning due to lack of sleep. But it never happened. So I then realized I could be quite productive. And I enjoyed that. But as comedian Chris Gethard told me (and I agree): “With the manic phases where you’re really productive you say, ‘Oh I just stayed up for twelve straight hours and I wrote fifty pages of shit!’ And then you go to sleep for a few days, you come out of it, you read those fifty pages, and there’s like, maybe three paragraphs that actually make sense.” And he’s right. It’s not worth it. While I could do a great deal of things, my creative work wasn't of good quality. Other work I would do, such as chores on a list, I find I can still do and don't need the other side effects that come with the manic phases.
2. You will get irritable
My stereotypical view of bipolar before I had it was that you are a sex-crazed, drug-addicted party animal for a while and then a crying mess that can’t get out of bed for the other part of your life. First, I didn’t know there was bipolar II, thus, a different spectrum of experiences that were also identified as bipolar. Second, I didn’t realize the amount of irritability that went into my manic phases. And it’s often about things that are small and unimportant. Let's say I’m running a few minutes late—what does that matter in the big scheme of things? But if I’m not paying attention to it I allow it to ruin my day by making me cranky toward everyone around me. Often times I have pre-arranged notions of how I want things to be and if that doesn’t happen I can be a jerk. I’ve gotten better at becoming aware of it but it’s still not always in check.
3. There are medications out there that can help (but it may take a while to find the right mix)
I received my diagnosis when I was 21. It took what seemed like decades to find drugs that worked for me. In reality it was less than a decade. But during that time I was on more medications than I can remember. I felt as though the moment might never come where I could experience some stability. But through experience and trial and error it worked. When I first started down that road I was so impatient. I know medications don’t always work for everyone but when you have diagnosed bipolar disorder they’re often pretty key to getting well. I’m glad I stuck through the process.
It’s that time of year again: holiday season. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are all within six weeks of one another. While for many it’s a joyous occasion, for others it can be a very lonely time.
Here are a list of some things you can do to fight off the loneliness during this time (and especially on the actual days).
1. Reach out to family
Not everyone has a good relationship with their family. But if you do and can’t be with them in person, try and connect with them. I’ve spent a few Thanksgivings and Christmases on my own. I made sure to call family on those days and let them know I was thinking of them. I checked in to see how things were going and what they were up to—not only about that specific holidays, but generally in their lives. A phone call for half an hour or an hour is a good way to feel connected with others, even if we’re not there with them.
2. Reach out to friends
Chances are you may not be the only person amongst your friends who doesn’t have anyone to connect with on a particular holiday. For a few years I lived far away from my family on the other side of the country and couldn’t make it home for Christmas. So I spent it with friends—eating at a Chinese restaurant or a diner. Even if it was for an hour or two, it was nice to be out of my apartment and with others. Sometimes I didn’t even know the people too well. But I put myself out there and realized that I would feel better if I could be around others and out of my own head.
3. Come up with plans on your own
Chinese food and a movie. I’ve done it before and it’s always a good time. When you’re at the Chinese restaurant, take a book with you or do some journaling. Afterward, go see a fun film or some big, dumb blockbuster movie. Something to take your mind off any loneliness you may feel. Or, spend the day and binge watch a TV show while working on a project. I often feel bad if I binge watch an entire season of a show but if I’m also spending the time working on a project, it can feel useful.
4. Work on goals for the next year
If you’re alone for a holiday, spend it working on goals for the next year. What do you want to do in the first three months of the year? The first six months? Ask yourself why you want to achieve these goals and what roadblocks may come up in trying to do them. Develop steps to complete your goals. Then put these steps in your calendar for the next few months and keep yourself on track.
These are a few ideas of things to do when you’re alone (and if you're lonely) on a holiday. I’ve celebrated my fair shares of New Year’s Eves, Christmases, and Thanksgivings on my own. I’ve found these ideas to work for me. But what about you? What’s worked for you? Leave me some comments below—I’d love to hear from you!
I’ve learned a lot about depression in the past twenty years. There are many lessons it has taught me, but here are a few things that I wish someone had told me about this particular mental health issue.
1. Depression won’t ever go away but you can manage it
There was a time in high school I thought there would be a cure to my depression. Or it would, at some point, go away. Later, after college, I received a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. Yet even then I didn’t comprehend that depression would be staying with me for the rest of my life. I fought against that notion and didn’t want to think it was true, but over time came to accept it as fact. Through medication, therapy, and self-care I’ve learned that it is manageable and I can lead a healthy, productive life.
2. Depression takes many different forms
From when I first began to experience depression in my early teens I thought it meant sadness. It was a sadness that wasn’t always rational, but a sadness nonetheless. Over the years, though, my depression still exists in that form on occasion but more often than not it’s about existential depression. It’s the feeling of loss of direction that occurred because of giving up my faith in god many years ago. That aimlessness kept me frustrated and discouraged for a long time. It’s only recently that I’ve found encouragement in speaking to others about my mental health struggles.
3. There are things you can learn about yourself through your experiences with depression
I’m surprised with how well I’ve managed my depression over the years. Sure, there have been times I’ve been suicidal or been in the hospital, but those are blips on the radar. I’ve far more often had times which have found me more stable. I’ve seen and been through a lot of shit and am still here. To me that shows some great mental and emotional strength. I’ve discovered a sense of empathy for others who experience mental health issues. Finally, through writing and speaking on mental health I’ve learned that there’s a creative side of myself I didn’t always think I possessed. And it’s one of which I can be proud.
4. Because you’re depressed it doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish things
Depression doesn’t mean you can’t do great things with your life. Sure, you may have to adjust at times. But even people with some of the most severe depression—as long as they’re treating it—can lead successful lives they can be proud of. I’ve seen people in the throes of sadness create wonderful art or write beautiful stories or even be excellent parents to their children. Depression doesn’t have to relegate you to a world of nothingness. It can be hard but depression doesn’t equal not accomplishing goals.
More than anything, my concern about money has driven me to extreme levels of anxiety in my life. It’s strange to write that because I come from a well-off, upper middle-class white family. I’ve never lacked for anything and my parents are still well to-do.
Anxiety was the first mental illness I recognized in my life. From early childhood I experienced the concern and worry of being away from my mom, especially. Most days in first grade I imagined leaving school and going home to her, even though I wasn’t a mamma’s boy. I wanted to be someplace I thought was secure and safe.
As I grew up my anxieties expanded as well. I worried about the apocalypse and finding myself left behind (I grew up in an evangelical Christian household). I had concerns about going to friends’ houses to spend the night. I was afraid of being away from home for what seemed like a very long time. When I got my first job at 15 I was anxious about doing good work, even after the first few days showed me I was fine.
I know a lot of this comes through genetics, as I see it in relatives. Still, there was something more. Why the specific concern with money?
This is, after all, an absurd fear. I would never be out on the street if I lost my job. I live in an affordable apartment and have a partner to help pay rent. I have savings. I’m sure my parents would support me. I have to remind myself of these things when I get scared about my financial future.
Much of this goes back to two things: 1) My parents grew up without a lot of money and 2) my dad lost his job when I was in elementary school.
When parents become successful they often remind their children how difficult life was in their own youth. Most kids believe their parents about everything, so even though mine meant no ill will, I took to heart their statements of the difficulty of a poor upbringing. I feared we were always one step away from being out on the streets, my comfortable life gone.
Thus when my dad lost his job when I was around 10 years old, it scared me. Would we lose our house? Would we have to get a small apartment and I have to share a bedroom with my sister? Might I have to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor in a roach-infested hotel room? I’d still be alive but could I get lice from staying there? My mind spiraled into worse case scenarios.
Of course things were fine: my dad found a new job, we didn’t lose our house, I didn’t get lice. But since then I’ve been cautious with my money. I rarely buy any extravagances short of traveling here and there (which I realize I am quite fortunate to do). I save and save and save for purposes I don’t even know what for. I’m a minimalist with a sparse amount of possessions I can move at a moment’s notice.
These fears make no sense to me. Still, as I get older they’ve calmed somewhat. I have a better grasp of finances and can put into context what happened in my youth.
Anxieties are so often irrational and mine is especially so given the privileges I have in this life. Yet, it’s taken me a few decades to get comfortable with this irrational thought and take on a correct perspective of it.
My fear about money will on occasion rear its head. But as I get older my past has shown me I am safe. I've learned to be smart with my money and have a great privilege—both with my financial and mental states. I’m doing my best to not take these for granted.
Over the past few months I’ve been on a journey to narrow down my focus of speaking about loneliness. It's a big topic and while there are those who speak about the subject at large, I prefer to speak to college students.
College was when I first experienced full-blown bipolar disorder as well as the first time I felt severe loneliness. Part of the reason was because I went to a college where I didn’t fit in, but also my mental health issues kept me from feeling connected with others.
Reasons for loneliness among college-aged students can vary. Some are from overseas and going to school in another country may not be easy. For others, their mental health issue may keep them from finding connections. Or it's possible the school they’re at is among people they don’t feel comfortable: they’re a city person and they’re in a school in a small town, or vice versa.
Whatever the reason for the loneliness, it exists. And it’s prevalent among college students. So what are we to do about it?
The first thing we can do is have people speak up. And I’m not only referring to professional speakers on college campuses. I’m also including students. It’s may be easy for some students to hear a tale from someone like myself who is out of the realm of college age and dismiss what I say.
But, having a fellow student come out and proclaim their difficulties can have a much more powerful impact. Whenever we know the person dealing with a problematic experience, it can make us accepting to what they’re going through.
The second thing is to have more education about the agency that we, as individuals, have to combat and defeat loneliness. I’ve often believed that early in a student’s college career (or even before it), there should be education on mental health issues at school. Students should be aware that college can be a time of great transition with their mental wellness. And they may feel emotions and undergo new experiences in their mental health.
That said, loneliness should also be a part of that conversation. This is especially important for students who spend time overseas or who, for one reason or another, are going to be away from their peers. Yet, learning about how to find belonging should be something that colleges teach students.
College can be a tremendous time of change. Even if you’re not in school, the transition from high school to the full-time working world is a jolt. Thus, more awareness, by both peers and educators, is key to letting those in their late teens and early twenties know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we also should pass along means by which those in college can know that there are ways they can find belonging.
I've written about how I got into speaking on mental health, but never so much why. So why did I decide to put myself out there for others to get to know something that many consider a deep, dark secret?
I've always been somewhat of a confessional writer. In the early 2000s I published my horrible poetry and free-ranging rants on my music website, Action Attack Helicopter. I knew I wanted to share thoughts and ideas with others--I thought it might help someone although I'm not sure why. I suppose at some point I got some encouragement here or there from a friend and a few positive words of feedback. That was enough to keep me going.
Over the years I've had some zines and blogs and they also received very limited but honest praise. And I also didn't know what else to do--I felt there was a need to express myself. It's part of being a writer; that idea implanted in one's mind that one must share their thoughts.
It didn't seem too awkward, then, to transition into being more direct and honest about my mental health issues. No longer did I need to mask it in poorly written poetry or adequate prose. I wrote not only of my struggles but also of answers. I spent hours of time online and researched solutions to issues related to loneliness, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
It's not only about writing, though. It's easy to do that behind a computer, tucked away in my apartment. Yet, I want to speak about loneliness and depression. There are a few reasons why I actually get in front of crowds and speak.
1) I like the immediate reactions. It's wonderful to see people smile or laugh at what you say. Or it's an acknowledgment through a nod that they understand what you're saying. The ability to try and connect with others--and to know you're connecting--is a rewarding feeling.
2) It's a rush. Speaking makes me nervous and I imagine it always will. Yet when you know your topic and can channel it into energy when you speak, it's quite a high.
3) I can see the direct effect of lives changed. It's encouraging and rewarding to have that immediate validation afterward. It's awesome when someone tells you that what you said spoke to them and they can identify with it. That confirmation of what you did and that it had a positive impact on others signals to me that it was a job well done.
I'm not going to lie: it's validating to know I'm changing lives and affecting people. It makes me feel good. But that's something we all seek in our lives. We want to be happy about our existence. So yes, some of this is about what I get out of it. But if I'm going to feel good, I can't think of any better reason than because I'm helping others with my words and speaking.
How does one go from feeling nervous about public speaking to presenting a 35 minute talk on loneliness? Should you accept the challenge of becoming a public speaker your experience will vary, but here are the steps I took.
In high school I was in a couple of plays but always had small roles—just a few lines. I sang for my friends’ hardcore punk band on occasion, too. It was a real rush to feel so many people with their eyes on me. After that my performing life went dormant for a long while.
In graduate school in 2009 and 2010 I began to present at academic conferences on my masters thesis subject—1970s Christian scare films. Despite small audiences (as is the case at almost all such events), I discovered I enjoyed being in front of others. I liked sharing information about a subject in which I had an interest.
In 2014 I decided to break myself out of a depressive spell by taking a stand-up comedy class. I have always enjoyed watching stand-up and thought that I could do it. I performed at about 15-20 open mics and did a showcase for my class, too. While I didn't take to the comedy scene, I did know I liked being on stage with people watching me. In such a situation, I found it created a nervous ball of energy and anxiety that pushed me to perform with great passion.
The next year, 2015, I looked into giving historical tours. I took a class through a non-profit that offers such tours and learned a bit more about the history of Boston. After six weeks I graduated a docent and began practicing. And practicing. And practicing. I walked my tour route in Boston's North End many times. I practiced out loud in my room. I followed nine different guides on their tours so I could see what they did. I gave three practice tours to friends. When my time finally came I did all right. It wasn't the best thing ever but I enjoyed it. As long as I felt comfortable with the material, it went okay.
After doing that tour for three years I started working for another company giving a different tour. I learned to handle horrible situations: down-pouring rain, bratty children, fist fights, and drug addicts around me as I tried to tell tales. These situations built character and resilience.
I started going to Toastmasters about this time, learning the fundamentals of giving speeches. I realized I already had most things down well. I used Toastmasters to try out some ideas, though, including my first speech on loneliness. After about a year I left, knowing that I had gotten what I could out of it.
During this same time I made a goal to enter one storytelling event. I practiced my story to my cat and my mirror a dozen times or more. And when it came to my first story slam, I won the audience choice award. For the second event, I entered I won the entire story slam! It's taken me years to work on my self-esteem but I can finally say that this is something at which I excel.
When it came to learning how to understand the speaking business and find gigs, I listened to The Speaker Lab. It's a podcast for speakers and those who want to speak. I also read a lot of articles. I took a copious amount of notes.
I've learned that moving in a stair-step approach—taking on things one at a time—is also helpful. I can't imagine going from no public speaking to giving a 35-minute presentation. But adding one challenge and then another enabled me to build confidence. I may not be the best public speaker but I'm doing what I can to share ideas and help some people along the way. It didn't happen over night but the journey has been well worth it.
Being depressed sucks all around, but there is one aspect of it that I despise more than any other: irritability. With all other aspects of depression I am the only one who feels bad. Yes, it can affect others when they see me feeling sad or withdrawn, but it’s not a feeling of being under attack. It’s a passive feeling.
Yet my irritability affects not only me but also the individuals around me because I often lash out at them over minor things. I grow frustrated when things don’t go my way or aren’t how I planned them to be. For example, on a recent Sunday I wanted to do my laundry and then go to the public library and work on some writing. But my partner and a family member asked me to come to brunch with them. We discussed this idea earlier in the week but I hadn’t heard anything so I assumed the plan wasn’t happening. Based on that assumption I came up with another idea of what I was to do with my day. I knew I had agreed earlier to do the brunch but the change in plans left me irritable.
As I rode the bus to meet my partner and her family member, I grew annoyed and frustrated. Beneath that, though, was a level of concern: would I have the opportunity to do my laundry? I wanted to work on my writing because I set a deadline for myself for edits on a book I’m working on. But these were both self-imposed deadlines. There was nothing wrong if I did these things in the time schedule I had given myself. The world would not end, no one would find themselves disappointed.
I tried to walk myself through this line of thought to calm myself down. I wanted to get to the point where I wouldn’t find myself annoyed at my girlfriend or her family member. This time I was able to do so, although it did leave me depressed. While I exchanged one emotion for another, I was able to get my laundry done and I still have time to finish the writing. My irritability didn’t help anything—it didn’t allow me to be more productive or make anyone happy.
Irritability is still something I struggle with, more than anything else with my depression. It’s a side effect rarely discussed in mental health circles. But it’s something I want to focus on more as I move along in my mental health journey. I wish to do so both for myself and the family, co-workers, and friends who are on the end of my occasional foul mood.
It’s so easy for me to stay in a rut. For weeks on end my life may consist of work, the gym, grocery shopping, watching dumb videos online, sleeping, eating, and then repeating that sequence. I often don’t realize I was in that repetitive place until I’m out of it.
What can often snap me out of that funk is travel. It doesn’t matter where I go: it could be a day trip visiting friends in the suburbs, or a vacation to a foreign country. Experiencing different things and seeing new, or even familiar, things in a place that’s not my usual routine is transformative.
Often times, though, the ability of travel to readjust my mind can do more than get me out of repetitive daily actions. Travel can help with my mental health. When I get away from home I go outside of myself. I’m forced to interact with others and look at new things and people. I observe what’s happening around me as it’s different than what I’m used to.
Even the times when I go to places I’ve often been, such as my hometown, it’s not the paths I trod on a regular basis and that’s important. When I go places I have a connection with in the past, it gives me perspective in that I can see how much that place and the people I know there have changed. That, in turn, causes me to realize how much I’ve changed as well.
Traveling to new places has been important to me as it provides a means by which to see how others live. In doing so, I am forced out of my brain and into realizing that there are others who deal with the same issues as I do, as well as many different ones. I can place my anxieties and problems in perspective. They’re not as fierce as what many people are going through. Or, I’m dealing with things many others are also dealing with. This can help build empathy in my life.
I do find that my return home provides me with a new perspective and renewed energy to see situations that may have been problematic. It’s like a reboot of my emotional and mental state and one I welcome each time. It’s also something I recommend to do as often as you can.
I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the United States (but not as much overseas as I would like) and meet some great people and see some beautiful sights. In doing so, I’ve found incredible benefits for my mental health. It’s important to attempt to make travel a priority to get that reboot one can use with their own mental health.
So, if you have the opportunity to get out of your regular routine, go! Challenge yourself with new people and situations. You may be surprised how it can help with your mood and mental state. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it certainly can put them in perspective and create new ways of me to look at them. In doing so, it can often lead to solutions to both momentary problems and those I’ve been working on for some time.
Over the past few years I've engaged in mental health advocacy. During that time I’ve noticed there are two avenues by which to tackle issues associated with mental illness.
First, there are steps involving awareness. This includes using our experiences with mental health issues to let others know they’re not alone and that life can get better. Also, awareness can include a discussion of how to deal with making mental health a priority in the community and in our lives. This is primarily what I’ve done and continue to do.
The second way to spread the word of issues with mental illness is in regards to making changes in our society to better assist those in need. This may include working on passage of legislation to provide better coverage of the mentally ill. It may also mean being a therapist and working in the field. Or it could be that you start a foundation or organization to develop better mental health.
I’ve seen a few organizations that focus on the entire package (National Alliance on Mental Illness). But it seems many groups and individuals take on one or the other. It’s difficult to combine both in a way that is coherent and effective. For most people and groups, it’s far too large to both spread awareness of an issue and fight for economic and legislative concerns related to it.
I have done my share of speaking out for good mental health. It’s important to spread the awareness of hope for those in dire straits. When lives are on the line, we need to move.
Yet the lack of affordable insurance coverage, the price of medications, and the need for greater mental health services in many areas are all representative of foundational issues that need attention. The handling of these struggles are best done at a larger societal and governmental level. It’s this lack of change on these issues that amounts to placing a band aid over a much larger wound.
While I’m aware of the need to save lives, it takes individuals with knowledge of this system to fight for the rights of the mentally ill at governmental levels. At this point in my life as a mental health advocate, these skills are something I haven’t attained or spoken up about much. Yet they’re key if we want to move forward and stop with temporary means to grand problems.
There are simple ways we can, as a society and as individuals, act to make systematic changes. We can start by challenging our legislators. We can ask them where they stand on issues related to mental health, and more importantly, what they’re going to do about it. We can ask them to support and propose legislation that will fight for the mentally ill.
We also need to not hesitate to elect legislators who are open about their mental illness or have close connections with the mentally ill. Unfortunately, for many politicians, it’s only when they have personal experiences with an issue that they are prone to act.
It’s a tough fight for the mentally ill, but it’s only through this combined effort of awareness and action that we will see gains made for our community.
After any incident of suicide in our society, a common refrain is, “Get help.” But beyond calling a mental health hotline (800-273-TALK), what’s one to do?
It isn’t easy to find resources to help with mental health. Therapy is expensive and it’s become more frequent that therapists don’t take any insurance. That’s not always the case but it is alarming. Even when therapists work with sliding scale, it’s rare they will go down to levels that are affordable for many clients.
This is distressing in light of the many cases of mental illness playing out amongst celebrities and in crime statistics. Too, there is a great deal of reporting about how rates of depression and suicide are rising in the United States and many other parts of the world.
So say you can’t afford therapy and are in need of mental health help. What are some good resources to turn to?
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) – There are lots of groups out there working on mental health, but NAMI is the most well-known in the United States. Their website has all kinds of resources to guide you to find help and understand issues related to mental illness.
Mind Over Mood – This workbook helped me out a great deal during my beginning years of my depression. It teaches cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). At its’ root this form of therapy is about changing the way your mind works when confronted with unpleasant situations. If you’re dedicated to practicing CBT, this book can help.
Feeling Good – If Mind Over Mood doesn’t work for you, you may want to try this book by David Burns. It also deals with CBT, but is considered the classic on the subject.
The Mindful Way Through Depression – This book taught me a lot about mindfulness. Being aware of what’s going on around us (and in our head) can make a big difference on how we approach life and the struggles we face. For so long I tried to snap out of my depression and then felt guilt when I couldn’t. This book showed me there was another way to handle these situations.
Also, doing a search for the words “depression self-help books” (not as a quote) can yield some positive results. It may seem there are prohibitions that money may cause in our journey to better address our mental health. But, there are still options out there if we’re dedicated to finding them.
When your thoughts are out of control or you feel very harsh toward yourself, it’s easy to let fears run amuck in your brain. But these often don’t come to fruition. Yet, it’s still hard to let things go and think positive. Still, given the time to stop and reflect I admit that my worst fears about my mental health didn’t come about.
Before my hospitalizations in 2011, I feared placement in a hospital was amongst the worst thing that could happen to me. I worried that I would get put in there and never let out. After being in the hospital twice I’ve come to understand that this isn’t the case. In fact, my second time in the hospital was a positive, helpful experience. The idea of finding myself locked in a psychiatric facility and never let out is a throwback to times past, when such fears may have been possible. If this happens today, it’s a minute percentage. In a world of insurance and too few beds for too many people, you’ll be lucky if you spend a week in a psychiatric facility.
My point is that this fear—the worst I could imagine—didn’t come to fruition. And that is true for so many of my fears: being stuck in a job I hate, failing a test, or not reaching a goal I’ve set for myself. The fact of the matter is, we’re adaptive creatures. Even if our fears do come true (and they rarely do), there are positive ways to cope with these occurrences. Depending on the situation, it may even turn out that our worst fears coming to fruition can actually end up being a good thing. For example, I felt scared to go to the hospital and what that would mean for me, but it turned out to be quite helpful and positive.
Through confronting my fears I’ve learned that it’s good to take a step back, put things in perspective, and educate myself on the reality of a situation. More often than not, these mental health fears don’t come about how we expect. And on occasion they end up placing us in a position far better than we imagine.
Battling depression and clawing your way up from the deepest points doesn't always come with one breakthrough moment. One might think after my suicide attempt when I was 21 I would've had a clarifying thought. But I didn't. I was still stuck in the doldrums for over a decade after that.
While there wasn't one thing that happened after my second suicide attempt in 2011, the change came sometime after that. And it wasn't a skull-crushing one. Instead it was a number of things occurring over the course of years. The change in my life included a healthy dating relationship and financial stability. Also, a comfortable living situation, and direction on what I wanted to do with my life were helpful. And, in a basic way, general maturity and understanding of who I was. That said, I don't know everything but I do know enough to get me by.
If there's anything that has been a breakthrough, it's the thought that for the most part, I want to live. I can see the point in living and more days than not, life is pretty good and it's worth being here. This thought didn't occur overnight but instead took a few years. And then the thought came to mind: “Hey, this isn't so bad. I have some good things going on here. Perhaps it's worth sticking around.”
Speaking out about mental health has been influential in regards to finding clarity of thought and what my goals are. It took me a long time but recognizing what I enjoy, how I want to make a difference in this world, and what to do to keep me alive have been so helpful.
In the end, it doesn't matter when or how a breakthrough came, what's important is that it happened. If you're looking for a breakthrough with regards to your mental health, the best advice I can give is to find the tools that best help you to survive and then give life time until that breakthrough comes.
There has been a great deal written on loneliness in the workplace. According to some business experts, it is a plague affecting the American worker. Much of this has to do with the increase in telecommuting.
My problem with loneliness at work is feeling disconnected from my co-workers. One reason is because I work solitary jobs (tour guide, writer, solo librarian at a reference desk). Too, I have little in common with my peers: they are parents with long commutes or much older than myself.
At only one job since graduating college did I have a connection with others and that was when I worked at a record label. We all shared a passion for similar music and getting others interested in it. Yet, even then things seemed strained as I dealt with my depression and anxiety. Mental illness can easily cause one to feel lonely.
Still, the majority of the places I’ve worked I dealt with casual relationships. We joke with one another, talk about our families, share our thoughts on social and political issues, and at the end of the day we go our separate ways. I’ve always wished for closer connections yet they don’t develop. Without moving around to different jobs, it has caused me to not make as many friends as I’d like to.
So, how do we deal with these situations? How do we make friends when that all-too-often avenue of work doesn’t make itself available to adding new relationships where we find connection? There are other means available.
I haven’t felt the acute solitude in my career described in some of the articles about work and loneliness. A big reason is because I don’t telecommute and I have co-workers in my office. Yet the loneliness I feel is much more subdued and it’s possible I’ve internalized it by this point. I’ve accepted that I will only have superficial contact with others at my jobs.
As I recently started a new job I hope to change this, though. It’s through being open and expecting the best that I will try to make this happen. I hope you can do the same should you find yourself feeling lonely at your job.
I've rarely had a job I enjoy. Sad to say, but my favorite job was the one I had when I was 17 and 18. I worked in a record store by myself, got to do whatever I wanted (usually my homework), and listen to whatever music I cared to. This was in the golden age of CDs in the mid-'90s and business wasn't bad. My friends came by and spoke with me and I met some cool people, too. Yet the things I liked about that job then wouldn't be what I want today.
I find that my mental health often suffers at a job. For most of my life, I've had a difficult time with work. I've found it makes me depressed to have a job I don't enjoy. It weighs upon me to do mindless work. I'm most productive and successful when I'm on my own. I also work best when I do something that gives me meaning. It's taken me a long time (much longer than I would have preferred) to realize what I desire to do is to help others dealing with mental health issues. I want to do this through writing and speaking on my issues with mental health.
It's important that we do things that make us happy in our lives. I know it's not always possible that our work is in our dream field. Life has complications: health issues, family concerns, or geographical impediments. (If you want to be an actor but are stuck living in Alaska, it's hard to achieve that dream of the silver screen).
Yet, if I've learned much of anything from suicide attempts and mental illness, it's that life is short. Far too short. So I've been willing to set aside what may have been a "traditional" life to achieve my goals as they come to me. Attempting to find happiness and meaning is such an important desire. So much so that I was happy to forego a typical career, stability, and a regular relationship in the hopes I could find them.
It's hard for me to rest if it means that I am not close to my career goals. It means that every minute I'm at a job that doesn't bring me satisfaction is another moment I'm away from something that provides me with some meaning.
It's not always easy to find the energy to take up the struggle to meet my goals. Some days I would rather watch Netflix and sleep. But I keep pushing on because I yearn for something where I come away from my work day feeling happy and upbeat about what I've done. Which, in my case, means making a difference in the lives of others.
My hope is that if you are not doing work you enjoy, you will find ways to get to a place where you can. Sacrifices, moves, and time spent trying out a myriad of possibilities are worth it when you find the thing that makes your heart beat a little faster. They're worth it when you find happiness knowing that you're doing work that brings you meaning.
1. No one is going to save you from your loneliness; you're going to have to put the work in
In 2005 and 2006, during my first bout of extreme loneliness, I wallowed in it. I wished for interactions with others but didn't make any effort to establish them. I made a lot of excuses due to my schedule (I worked evenings) but did very little to try and connect with others. Making these connections was more difficult for me given where I lived. (At that time I lived in South Bend, Indiana, which didn't have a lot to offer) I was often depressed, too. Still, there were options for me but I didn't advocate for myself to pursue them.
2. When you do reach out to find connections, you may have to try a long time and a lot of places
I've tried many ways to meet people: volunteer at organizations, connect with co-workers, meet friends of friends and join their circle. You name it, there's a good chance I've done it. I did pick up friends along the way, though. It doesn't always happen in one fell swoop. You may find a connection from a friend of a friend and another relationship through a job. There's rarely one moment where you find your best friends and that's it. It can take a while and require tackling your loneliness from many angles.
3. Loneliness can teach you things that are beneficial, i.e. it can be good for you (for a time)
For more on that you can see my post here or my video here. But suffice it to say, there are lessons of strength, resilience, and confidence that one can take away from extended periods of loneliness. That doesn't mean it's something we should strive for. Yet considering it will likely happen to us at some point in our lives, we may as well find some things to appreciate about it.
4. You will make it through your loneliness
For every time I've spent feeling lonely, I have come out the other side. When I lived in South Bend and was lonely, I found alleviation when I moved to Seattle and had a bunch of friends. When I was lonely upon moving to Boston, it lessened by finding a good partner who provides me with most of the companionship I need. The times when one is lonely can seem to last forever. Life can stagger and pass in deep pauses, but those periods of loneliness can be overcome. Those pauses will once again give rise to a murmur of connection with other human beings. It's a type of connection that brings some reassurance and meaning. While you're in those time devoid of connection, use them to your advantage to better yourself and make those attempts to reach out. You will make it through.
I have one last resort when things go wrong. When I am suicidal or incapable of doing anything, and want to give up, I turn to this document that I keep on a shelf by my bed.
Thankfully, I don’t have to turn to it very often, but it’s become my lifeline for when I feel horrible. I tend to work my way down the left side of the page and have found that, for the most part, by the time I get to the fifth or sixth question I’m feeling better. Your experience may vary and there’s nothing wrong with jumping around with the questions or doing some and not others.
This document isn’t a rulebook, but if you feel at the end of your rope, if you do enough of these, chances are you’ll feel better after a while. Your problems won't stop, but this document pulled me through a handful of dark times.
Last winter there was a snow day from work and I had a difficult time feeling motivated to do anything. I was disliking my job at the time quite a bit and was feeling hopeless and unmotivated with my life in general. Thoughts of suicide entered my mind. I had eaten and drank water. I had even showered. But I realized I hadn't been out of my apartment all day. So, once the snow eased up some I put on my boots and coat and trudged around my neighborhood. The lack of sound in the city made things quite eerie. Yet I found it very peaceful to see the snow lightly falling. I could tell the exercise and a change in environment were helpful. Things didn't change dramatically, but it was enough to pull me out of my severe doldrums.
I’m not exaggerating when I say if you deal with problems of suicidality, print this list out and put it by your bed. These items aren’t relegated to only the times you feel horrible—they’re good activities for general daily living. But they’re especially helpful if you find yourself at the end of your wits.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
In the past two entries I’ve explored things we can’t change: the way life works (illness, age, death) and other people and things. So where does that leave us? The last remembrance tells us that all we can control are our own actions.
Our response to life is the only thing we own. It’s the only thing we take with us everywhere we go at all times. Furthermore, our actions speak for us. How we act is what we fall back upon. It says who we are and what’s important to us.
What this remembrance means to me is that I have control over my actions. I can make that decision on how to respond to the things that happen to me. I wish I had control over more things, especially when life doesn’t seem fair.
There are often arrayed against us a plethora of cultural and personal barriers: racism, sexism, homophobia, mental illness, physical disability, etc. And they’re not fair. Yet, our response to them is all we can control. Part of that means we can choose to act by fighting against the systems and people that hold us back.
Our attitude can go a long way to determining how we view life and in turn our mental health. I acknowledge that even though we control our actions, it’s not always easy to be positive and optimistic. Life can suck and it’s up to us to get to the point with our mental health where it’s possible to see this remembrance as do-able.
It hasn’t always been simple for me to acknowledge that I have any control over my life. Often I have to fight against feeling helpless and hopeless. This happens especially when there are decisions to be made by others and I’m left waiting on their actions. But if I can confront and work on my mental illness, I find the remembrance that I only have control over my behavior to be a reasonable one to address.
Attempting to take on my own mental health and deal with it is an action in itself. It’s an action that says I’m trying and shows what I’m made of. This is a consequence that I’m willing to accept.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change.
There is no way to keep from being separated from them.
The remembrances of the Buddha shift with the fourth statement. They’re not facts of human existence (aging, illness, death), but rather an acknowledgement of the outward changes in our environment. With this statement we move away from the self and to speak of others.
I’m pretty good with accepting getting older, sicker, and dying. But it’s change with others and my situation that has often caused me the most trouble. Sudden, dramatic changes can throw me for a loop. The end of a relationship can especially do this. When my girlfriend dumped me in 2011 it hit me hard, especially considering we had only been going out for five months. So much so that I tried to kill myself. Looking back now I find it amazing this was my reaction, but I’ve learned that losing close connections to others is a triggering experience for me.
Nowadays I remind myself that when change occurs, it’s a matter of how the world works. I don’t always like it, but what can I do to stop it? Others’ actions caused change in my life that has disappointed and scared me. Just the same, I’m sure I’ve caused change in their lives that has made them uncomfortable.
But if I take a step back and look at the full scope of my life, I see that disruption and change are the nature of my existence. People move, you get laid off from a job, pets die. I’ve learned now that the fact of the matter is that most of your relationships will end, until there’s one that doesn’t. The closeness we have with our family and friends may change as we move and grow in our lives. These are inevitable. Look at not only your life, but the lives of others you know. No doubt major changes have occurred with all them.
It’s a daily struggle to accept that things don’t stay the same. With each new thought of frustration about things out of our control, we have to take up that struggle once again to come to some tolerance of our situation. Life isn’t always out of our hands, though. We do have a way to handle these frustrating experiences when they occur. The final remembrance of the Buddha has helped me a great deal and I’ll explore that in the next post.
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
The first three remembrances of the Buddha come off as pretty big bummers. You get old, you get sick, and you die. I brought up the remembrances to some family members and they stared at me in disbelief. There was a long pause and then one of them said, "Wow. That is really depressing." I understood why they might think that, but since I discovered them years ago, I have come to find them freeing.
A certain level of acceptance is necessary to find peace with these first three remembrances. But let's face it: we can all agree we're going to age, become ill, and die, right? That's the nature of this life and there's no way around that. Once I learned that that was the way of things, I knew there was no reason to fight it. And I saw how much unhappiness arose not only in me, but others, when we can't be the young healthy people we desire.
I've come to peace that this is how my life is going to go. Does it mean that I like getting older, ill, or the thought that my loved ones (and I myself) will someday die? Not really. But what can I do about it? I can have empathy for those experiencing times of illness or who are going through the death of a loved one. And I can listen and love them when they're frustrated that the strength of their youth has gone from them.
Once there's an acknowledgment of the way life works (aging, illness, death) we can turn to accepting them. That acceptance is a daily struggle. It requires constant patience (which is one of my weak traits). But what does fighting against these constants in life get us? It can often cause us sadness, despair, and frustration, which doesn't help things.
I will be the first to acknowledge this isn't easy to accept. And that it comes off as a major downer. But I can also tell you that learning to accept that life operates this way has brought me a great deal of patience and humility.
It's also helped me avoid situations that might otherwise exasperate my depression and anxiety. There are times I’ve fallen ill with the flu or an injury from being physically active. Those situations leave me wondering if I’m at the beginning of some greater, more serious illness. It also leads me to sadness at not being able to do everything I want to do. Yet, when I reflect on the remembrances, I acknowledge that such events are a given in life. There’s nothing I can do but accept it and adjust my behavior accordingly.
So, I've addressed some of the bigger forces at work in our world—things that have been upon us since the dawn of humankind. But what about the nature of other humans? How do we deal with them and how freaking annoying they can be? That's material for the next blog post.
I’m not a Buddhist and have no intention of becoming one, but do appreciate many of the teachings and have found them useful. The one I return to daily is something called the Five Remembrances of the Buddha. There are many translations of it, but the one I like is by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I shared these with some people recently and they found them to be very depressing. I can see how one might draw that conclusion. Looked at from a certain perspective it appears to be saying that life is a big bummer and then you die. Nothing is going to stay the same. Everyone and everything is going to change. Sounds shitty, doesn’t it?
Yet, I find that the Five Remembrances have cut down on my anxiety. I need facts in my life—foundational ideas that cannot change. I need to be able to know there’s something I can rely on. I’ve thought about these five things and realized that they are true and unchangeable. They will always be there. And thus, they’re something I can believe in.
The Five Remembrances also encourage me to live in the moment and get out of my head. And they’re important (and confusing) enough to be worthy of exploration in future posts.
On occasion I fear a relapse into depression. Other times I find myself in the depths of despair. The best thing I can do to help me then is to remind myself that whatever I’m feeling, it’s happened before and I survived.
I’ve worked horrible jobs that I hated and where management was atrocious, so I know that should work get bad I can get through that. I often struggle with impatience. But I've found it’s helpful to remember that there were occasions where time took. I wanted out of my situation badly enough that I made the necessary plans to escape and did so. Thus, I am pretty sure I can do it again.
Even with new situations, such as going to a mental hospital, there’s a first time with that. I had never been through that. But I reminded myself there had been times before where I felt as despondent as I did then. I also knew to rely on those around me, such as my therapist and psychiatrist, for support. With their help I was able to survive that situation and now I know it’s possible to get through a hospitalization.
I also find some comfort in seeing how others have made it through difficult times and know that I, too, am capable of making it. I may not always feel I am able to do great things. Yet my success in other areas shows me that I have the knowledge and understanding to do something as well as those around me. I try and take hope in that.
Still, the more years I have behind me, the more experiences I have. I also see that with some planning and help from those around me, whatever is happening, I can get through it.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.