The Birds Saved Me

Two years this May is my anniversary, if you will, of being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. At the time, I hadn’t realized it was mental health awareness month and how fitting it was that I was finally going to see someone about this problem I’d had, hid, and endured for far too long. And even in going to see my primary care health professional, I had gone in with the mindset that it must have been just stress and anxiety that was plaguing me. But after spewing my guts out to her, and sobbing for a good half an hour, she made me gently realize that no one was supposed to feel as awful as I was for as long as I had been. And thus began my journey into accepting my, and now advocating for mental health awareness.

I can’t speak for every person suffering from some sort of mental health issue. Every person, and every issue is so very different. But I can say with 100% certainty that what I can say for every person dealing with a mental illness is that there isn’t nearly enough information, awareness, and understanding about the struggles so many people with mental illnesses face each day. And I can also say that this needs to end.

And the best way for this to awareness to grow is by those of us living with or loving people with mental illnesses to speak up about their experiences. Because maybe, if one more person can see that they’re not alone in the way they’re feeling, that they’re not broken or hopeless, and that there are people who care about them and will support them, then that’s one more person to get help and then share their experiences so even more can benefit.

While I know I’ve shared bits and pieces of my story before, there’s always more. So, here’s a little bit you perhaps didn’t know before.

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Many people who are close to me know that I love birds. I love having my feeders out and full each day so that I can watch the wild backyard birds in my neighborhood congregate and eat. I know each species that comes frequently, what their calls are, their habits, their mating patterns. I watch for my favorites, and am worried about them when the weather takes a nasty turn. I revel in seeing the babies each spring and summer, and am heartbroken when I find one that has smashed against our dining room window and didn’t make it. I’ve downloaded apps, bought books, joined groups, and researched websites all to learn as much as I possibly can about these amazing animals. And they are. I know this now having studied them for two years. But I didn’t always know this or care at all to learn about them.

If you’ve known me longer than two years, you might wonder when I suddenly became so obsessed with birds. My daughter certainly did, and asked me as such not long ago. “Why are you so into birds all of a sudden?” I think was the exact phrasing. And my answer was this: they saved me.

Two years ago, before I was ready or capable of admitting I was depressed, but was in the deep, dark hole of it, I found myself learning how to mentally check out. I would stare into nowhere, almost like an out of body experience because it was so much nicer than to be present with my feelings. Being numb to everyone and everything was far more desirable than feeling angry, desolate, useless, and out of control. So, I would leave my body where it was, and allow my mind to cozy up into a fuzzy blanket, and ignore the world.

It was during this time, early spring, that when I would check out during meals, I would turn my head and gaze toward the window and stare outside. Well, I imagine you needn’t be a birder to know that many birds start migrating back into our area during this time. And so, as I was trying to check out, a flash of color or a song would catch my eye or ears, and pull me back in. It began happening so frequently that eventually I simply couldn’t ignore it anymore. There they were, flitting here and there, dragging dried grass for their nests, or showing off to attract a mate. And always, always looking for food.

It was at that time as well that my dad put out a couple of simple feeders, and began filling them with seed. And still I would watch. I’d watch and see how different birds preferred different seeds. How some were ground feeders, while others preferred to eat while perched. Some were aggressive, and scared the other birds away, while others waited patiently until most all the other birds flew off, and then picked at the remains.

I watched and watched, and as I watched, I found myself being inside of myself for longer and longer periods of time. And the more I was aware of my emotions, the more I started realizing that I couldn’t continue to live this way. It was either I find help or I lose everything by permanently shutting myself off from everyone else. Everyone I loved. Luckily for me, I was able to recognize that, and did get help.

So, when I say that the birds saved me, it’s not because of some profound realization I had about them, or some meaningful connection I made between us. They saved me because their presence caused me to slowly creep out of the grayness of my mind and thus forced me to recognize that how I was living was unhealthy. I was able to begin a path of recovery, which to be honest, I don’t think will ever end. There is a distinct difference between major depressive disorder and situational depression, and therefore different treatments, which is a topic for another day. But part of the treatment I found was in connecting with something outside of my immediate bubble. And in doing that, finding that perhaps I wasn’t too far gone yet that I couldn’t be brought back. It allowed me to be cognizant enough of my own needs that I was still able to recognize that how I was feeling and how I was acting was not healthy, and so changed all that.

It’s been two migrations and eight seasons since the birds unknowingly filled a void in me that no one knew was there. And they continue to be a salve for me on days when everything still feels wrong.

I love my family. I love my friends. And I cannot express my sincerest gratitude for those who have expressed their care and understanding to me. My love for all of you is immeasurable. But these birds…they are really the ones I owe everything too. Because they don’t even really know I exist, they ask for nothing, they require nothing from me. They don’t want to solve my problems or feel inadequate if their attempts at making me happy fall flat. They simply are. And in their being, I can just be with them. And thankfully, those who love me best know this, and know now to just leave me be with my birds when they see that look in my eyes. Because they know that I’ve found my way of coping. And their love for me respects this therapy of sorts.

Because it is therapy. It may not be exactly conventional or backed in some scientific study, but it’s good for my mind and soul nonetheless. And I firmly believe that whatever it takes, so long as one’s choice of coping or therapy does not inflict further harm on themselves or others, then so be it. We all need different things, and respond different ways. And there’s no right way to live with mental illness.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Last June—right around this time, actually—Ollie got a mosquito bite on his eyelid that made his whole eye socket swell up so much that he couldn’t open his eye. It was frightening and stressful because I had no preparation for that. I had no idea how to handle it, what to do, other than to call the doctor. And luckily for us, it turned out just fine in the end.

But while his eye was healing—it took about a week—we obviously had to go on with our lives as normal. One of the things we look forward to at the beginning of the summer is the food truck rodeo at the Historical Museum. We weren’t going to let a little eye swelling get in our way of a nice evening. So we went as usual, and got our food, and went to sit in our usual place. And it was during this very brief walk, that ultimately felt very long, that I began to notice the stares. Other people were openly staring at Ollie’s face, and some were even whispering amongst themselves while staring at him. Yes, he looked different, but he was still the same Ollie. I truly hadn’t realized how brazen people can be in the presence of someone else. Like who the hell were they to judge my child, a little boy? And I thought to myself at that moment, “I imagine this must be a little of what it’s like to have a child with special needs.” Now please excuse me if this thought was inappropriate for the situation, but at the time, it really felt like so many people were looking at us differently, waiting and watching to see what Ollie would do. And it broke my heart. And this was only one day that I experienced this! I thanked whatever powers that be or forces of nature at that moment that we ended up with two healthy, well-adjusted children without any significant health, developmental, and/or learning concerns. I couldn’t imagine the strength needed to have a child who was anything but typical—I hate to use the word normal.

Fast forward a year to now, and I’m singing a different tune. We are now amidst figuring out how to live with Ollie’s newly diagnosed anxiety disorder. It feels like our world was turned upside down practically overnight, even though, in retrospect, this was a long time coming. It had been right in front of us for so long, but we had no clue.

And though I don’t want to place blame on anyone or anything, certainly because in placing blame, I would also be claiming that what Ollie has to deal with is something regrettable, which it is not. But I suppose I want to point out that what appeared to be just personality characteristics, because of society’s continual (though slowly changing) ignorance of what mental illness looks like, were really early signs of his issue. What I thought was just excessive empathy and sensitivity was his mind overthinking sad or scary scenarios. What I thought was age-appropriate uncertainty at being new to school was really obvious separation anxiety. What I thought might have been normal indigestion or the need to poop was really physical symptoms of stress after his anxiety was left uncontrolled for so long. I really had no idea. But I should have.

Even as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression herself—and as I now can realize after being educated about this topic, did as a child as well—I didn’t have the needed knowledge or tools to look at my son’s behaviors and spot something wrong. And again, I don’t want to place blame on anyone specific, but to blame society as a whole for constantly overlooking mental health issues and for this deficit of what should be common knowledge.

You see, we all know about children with ADHD or signs of Autism, or what a speech delay looks like. Any good pediatrician these days will ask the parents at every routine checkup for signs of these things. But never did I ever get asked any questions like, “Does your child have a difficult time leaving you?” “Does your child ever complain of being lonely and/or scared?” “Does your child seem to worry a lot or engage in repetitive behaviors when upset?” Never. Not once. And maybe if I had, I would have picked up that these behaviors were not, in fact, normal for someone of his age. Instead of thinking that perhaps he was just a little immature or stubborn or too sensitive, I would have caught the warnings before they got out of hand like they are now.

Maybe. Maybe not, of course. But the fact that these issues were never even brought up upsets me. Because to me, and loads of other people speaking out lately, it seems that not only is mental illness very much misunderstood, it’s also misrepresented as something of less importance than other conditions. And I can back this up.

Here are the statistics for numbers of people/children diagnosed with the following conditions:

Autism—approximately 1% of the population

Sensory Processing disorder—approximately 5% of the population

ADHD—approximately 11% of the population (But I must add that there are numerous studies pointing to misdiagnosis of anxiety disorders and/or depression as ADHD in children as symptoms of these disorders are far different in children than in adults.)

Speech/Language Disorders—approximately 7-8% of the population

Mental Illness (Broad category)—approximately 20% of the population

Anxiety Disorder (more specifically)—approximately 8% of the population

Now I realize these are not the only conditions parents find themselves facing when raising children. These are just some of the more easily recognized and understood conditions. And I’m also not implying that any of these conditions is any easier or more difficult to live with. I just want, again, to point out that even though mental illness (in general) ranks the highest for diagnoses in children (and adults, I might add), it’s often the least understood, accepted, or treated.

Unlike so many other conditions, mental illness symptoms often get either misunderstood as other things or pushed aside as something the person should be able to control. Would a parent whose child doesn’t make eye contact or fusses excessively when touched push that away as nothing? Would a parent whose child hasn’t spoken a word by age 2 push that aside as being a “late bloomer”? I hope the answers to my previous two questions would be a resounding no. And yet, when a kid is so distracted by whatever is in his/her mind that they can’t focus on anything else, we tell them they need to “pull it together or else”. Or, when a child is clinging to his/her parent, refusing to let go, figure they’re just a little immature. And when we do these things, whether intentionally or not, we set the child up for an increase in the condition.

Here are some more facts for you:

Approximately 60 percent of adults, and almost one-half of youth ages 8 to 15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year.

One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays−sometimes decades−between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.

Approximately 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition.

Seventy percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20 percent live with a severe mental illness.

Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

Over 50 percent of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older who are served by special education drop out−the highest dropout rate of any disability group.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide) and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years. More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide had one or more mental disorders.

 Think about this: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women. It is the cause of death for 20% of men and women each year. So, someone with heart disease is 20% more likely to die from cardiac arrest than people without heart disease. That’s pretty awful and scary. BUT, people with mental illness are 90% more likely to die from suicide than people without mental illness. And this is considering that people with mental illness also account for 20% of the population. That’s terrifying for someone either suffering from mental illness or a loved one of someone who is. But where are the ad campaigns highlighting how we can reverse these statistics? Where are the constant reminders at doctor’s appointments to take better care of your mental health? Why do we act as though mental illness is a brand new condition that we’re still trying to get a grasp on?

Because despite all these things we know about mental illness, it is still one of the most highly undiagnosed and untreated conditions people suffer from.

But how can anyone outside of the medical profession see these symptoms for what they really are when the information is just not out there? Worrying, stressing, being afraid of something, feeling lonely or lost: these are all very common feelings that everyone at some point experiences. But what makes the difference is when these feelings are negatively impacting the quality of life of the sufferer. Then it becomes a disorder. But perhaps because so many people have experienced these things and have gotten through it, they seem to think that anyone can and should also. But like I said to my husband, “Not to be an asshole, but if you don’t suffer from mental illness, you can’t possibly understand.” You can’t understand the feelings of futility. You can’t understand why someone would not want to feel a certain way, but be powerless to do anything about it. You can’t understand how hearing someone tell you to “just get over it” makes it worse. You just can’t understand.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t help. It doesn’t mean you can’t spread awareness. It doesn’t mean you can’t support someone who does know. It doesn’t mean people who have mental illness have to suffer in silence or ignorance.

Because mental illness does have a genetic component to it, it is very likely you know or will know someone suffering from mental illness. No matter how good their life may seem, brain chemistry imbalances trump all else. Remember, you’d never tell a diabetic to just stop not processing insulin correctly. So you can’t possibly expect a person with mental illness to just stop feeling anxious or scared or depressed.  (Please also remember depression is not the same thing as sadness, so please don’t use these words synonymously.)

So what does that mean for our family? Well, it means that we will have to work as a group to overcome some obstacles together. We’ll need to see a psychologist, both individually, and as a family. We’ll need to be more patient. We’ll need to be mindful of using effective coping strategies and not letting our tempers rule our behaviors. And we’ll have to remind ourselves daily that we are living with loved ones who have special needs. Perhaps our needs are not something that’s seen as easily as Ollie’s bug-bitten swollen eye. We look just like everyone else. But we have special needs nonetheless.

I’m hoping that homeschooling with help ease a bit of Ollie’s anxiety in being left with others. And I’m hoping our time together will not reinforce that I’m the only safe person, but that he can use what we learn together—in his time and comfortable pace– to make himself feel good enough to function well. And I’m also hoping that him knowing he’s not alone in this will help him to feel less worried that others are judging him.

But this is not something that my family can do alone. We can’t normalize mental illness for everyone. People will continue to stare when he has a meltdown for what appears to be no reason. He will still feel fear and uncertainty. I will still feel guilt.

But if everyone who reads this can do one thing toward normalizing mental illness, it can become just another condition. If you see something on the internet, share it. If you hear a comment you know is incorrect, correct it. If you see someone out in public who is having a hard time, smile at them warmly or offer a hand. If you know someone who has a mental illness, remind them you are there. There is certainly power in numbers and the ability for something to go viral. And if we all work toward bringing greater awareness and understanding to these issues, we will all benefit.

 

Souces:

http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/

http://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/facts-statistics-infographic#3

https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-voice-speech-language

https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

http://www.spdfoundation.net/research/newresearch/

http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/common-genetic-factors-found-5-mental-disorders

The Fog Has Lifted

It’s been two months since I came to accept that I suffer from depression, three weeks since I started treatment on Zoloft, and over two years since I’ve felt this light, this happy.

I don’t know what stopped me from taking care of my mental health for so long. I guess it was a lot of things, really. Stubbornness in admitting I had a problem, and the unwillingness to admit I couldn’t fix this all on my own. I also think I really didn’t even fully understand what was happening inside my brain. Did I really have a problem? Am I over exaggerating everything? And worse: am I going crazy?

There are still so many stigmas attached to mental illness. It’s a topic that remains largely taboo, and I think this adds to so many misperceptions and misunderstandings of what mental illness looks like in all its various forms. I mean, even I, who was dealing with it, didn’t even know what it was I was experiencing. Didn’t everyone feel overwhelmed, out of control, hopeless, and despairing all the time? Oh, they don’t? Shit, I guess something is wrong with me.

But it’s this very statement that shows that even I maintain some semblance of ignorance of the complications of the human brain and our conditions. Nothing actually is wrong with me. Is my brain chemistry different than others’? Yes. Do I need to cope with some different things than others because of it? Yes. But does that mean something is wrong with me? I don’t think so. This is just who I am. And I’m starting to realize  that it’s ok. I’m not going to be ashamed of it. I’m not going to hide it. I’m not going to be like the pharmacist at Target when I picked up my prescription and whisper, “Zoloft” as if it’s something illicit. I’m depressed, and I’m on ZOLOFT! Will I always need this medication? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But if I do, I’m ok with it because it has helped to bring me back to my former self, something I truly could not do on my own.

I don’t really know if I can even explain the ways being on Zoloft has helped me. And I don’t think that if I did find the right words, you would even be able to understand fully because you can’t be inside of my brain. Here’s what I do know, and what I can say: my brain is finally cooperating with me. Instead of flying out of control when stressed, snapping at my children for little reason, feeling dizzy and like my mind is underwater, and ultimately shutting myself off from reality to cope, I now see whatever issue is pressing and deal with it. I can think objectively. I can problem solve. I don’t ruminate on upsetting things like I once did to the point of making myself physically ill. I can walk around Target with the kids by myself and not freak out every few seconds about them talking to me or walking too far away or worrying about how many people are there and figuring out how I’m possibly going to get through the insurmountable task of picking up a few things from the store.

Now I come home from work happier. I have patience again. I’m reading to my kids at night again. I’m happily cooking dinner. I’m not overwhelmed with physical contact from others. A simple kiss from the hubs used to feel like just another thing that others were demanding of me, and I simply couldn’t give anymore. Now I remember how nice it is to feel his lips and face and look into his eyes. When my kids crawl into my lap it no longer feels like suffocation, or like bugs crawling all over my skin. Conversations and noises don’t make me want to scream and hide in a dark closet.

This is not to say that things don’t bother me anymore. The difference is that I can cope now. I can rationally work through everything without the most minute incidents becoming world-ending. And if I do get angry or annoyed or upset, it doesn’t last long, and it certainly doesn’t  push me down a spiral of despair into my zombie-like trance. And when I feel myself slipping back into what would lead to a depressive state, I can actually sense my mind working around it, almost as if it’s telling itself to stop and not go there. It’s really nice being a part of the world again. I really didn’t realize what I’d been missing until it was restored. I will never let myself feel like that again without doing something about it.

I really appreciate everyone who has supported me throughout this. All those who have had to deal with my mood swings, anger, irrationality, sadness, absence of self, and did so while still loving me. It couldn’t have been easy. And it won’t likely always be easy in the future. Depression is not really something that will just magically go away in a month because of medication. It’s going to be a process, something I may have to deal with the rest of my life. But I now know that as long as I have the support system I have and the treatment that I’m receiving, I will be fine. More than fine. I will be me. Wonderfully me.