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.




To My Kiddos

This morning I read a news article explaining that the original founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, were arrested in the Capitol for protesting ‘big money’ in politics. Knowing a bit about the two, and knowing that they regularly speak up for and out against issues that they find important, I wasn’t really surprised by this information. But maybe because it’s the primary election day; or, maybe because we’re in the midst of a political movement that has been a long time coming and needed, and the likes of which we haven’t ever seen; or, maybe it’s my own growing desire to do something of similar meaning and importance; or, maybe it’s a firestorm of all of those things; whatever the reason, I felt compelled to seize this feeling, and make this an opportunity to hopefully teach my kids a little something someday. Thus, this letter is born.


Dear Lily and Ollie—

As your parent, I want so very many things for you. The normal stuff—love, friendship, health, opportunities, and of course happiness. But I also want some pretty complicated things too. I want you both to understand things about life that took me far too long to figure out, or at the very least, accept. But these things I want for you aren’t things I can give you. No, these things are far too valuable, and which you must earn on your own. And I worry each day about you missing out on them, and feeling like I could be failing you if you do. Please understand that it’s not that I don’t want to give you these things. If I could, I’d open your skulls, and crack open your ribs and shove these things deep into your brains and hearts. But like most things that are worth anything at all, these things will only be worth it if you go out and get them yourselves, and define what each means to you as individuals.

I can hear you now, Lily, “Ok, Mom, stop being so damn vague. Get to the point.” Or, at least that’s what I imagine you’ll sound like someday when you’re old enough to read and appreciate this. Ollie, tell your sister to calm down. I’m getting to it. So impatient she is. 😊

What I want so badly for you is something I was not able to give myself until recently. I want you both to feel safe enough to always be brave, and fierce, and radical. To do what’s right, not what’s popular or expected of you. To believe in something so deeply you’re willing to risk everything for it. To put yourself out there and try. And to put yourself on the line sometimes. You know, “fight the good fight”.

I want these things for you because no one ever achieved anything great by sitting on the sidelines. And what I want for you is greatness. Not necessarily in the sense that you need to be President or someone rich and famous. But greatness in the sense that though you may question yourself or doubt your choices, you’ll never regret them because you’ll have earned a life that makes you genuinely and wholeheartedly happy. I mean happiness that seeps into every cell of your being. Happiness that cannot be permanently erased by a slipup or momentary hard time. Happiness that is so inherently a part of who you are that no one can take it away. But the only one who can give you that is you.

And so you need to live each day with the intention of doing all you can to better your life. To find that place of deepest contentment. But not be afraid to shake things up to get there. You need to go to sleep every night knowing that you truly did all you could that day to be the best you, work toward the best world, and that what you’ve done could have enacted change or goodness for others, and lead you to your greatest happiness. If you cannot do that, you mustn’t be too hard on yourself, but promise yourself to do so tomorrow. But don’t sell yourselves empty promises. Believe me, that’s only a temporary soothing. It’s a Band-Aid where you need stiches. Use your words, and use your heart, and act. Take a plunge, knowing you could, and likely will at some time, fall hard. Then get yourself back up again, brush off those bits of gravel from your pants, and climb up and jump again.

Of course, don’t be foolish. Your dad and I have hopefully raised you better than that. Do your research. Think. Inspect. Ask around. See for yourself. Experiment. And listen to others. Don’t always take what they say and adopt it. But listen. Always be listening. And choose wisely. There are so many chances to take. And there are so many battles in this world. You can’t fight them all. It took me until my 30’s to realize that. You must be more like Atticus and less like Scout. (Surely, you’ve both read To Kill a Mockingbird by now! What kind of mother would I be otherwise??) As long as you are helping others, and not harming yourself or anyone else, know that we will support your choices.

And just remember that everyone is someone. We all have thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, mistakes, etc. If you can look into the eyes of every person you meet, and see them as a person, an individual, regardless of their actions, behaviors, or choices, and see what is universal in us all, I think you will never really make a terrible mistake. We’ve tried to raise you with empathy, and with consideration for others in hopes that when you see a wrong being committed, you’ll act to stop it. And when you see a need being unfulfilled, you do what you can toward filling it. Everything we have done and continue to do is for you two. For your greater good and so that you will become amazing adults. And we hope you can use our examples as a springboard for doing so much more. Losing my job for speaking out against poor education practices is small peanuts really. But I have the hope that it was one of the first examples of you seeing your parents standing up for what they believe in, even though it had a somewhat unfortunate outcome. Follow us, kiddos, but eventually pass us. Forge those trails on your own. Look back and we’ll be waving. We will always be here; we will always support you. So don’t be afraid to be yourselves and do what’s in your heart. Because if you do, you’ll never want for a thing. And what more could we hope for you both?

Love you with all my heart and soul,


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.

Not Waving but Drowning

“Not Waving but Drowning”

-Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

This poem came to mind today on my drive home from work. I’ve been thinking lately about writing the entry I’m sending out now, and trying to figure out a way to explain my thoughts with as little cliche as possible; and, this poem captured the essence of what I’ve been living with for some time now.

I feel uncomfortable saying I am living with depression because I have not had a medical professional examine or speak with me and give me his/her diagnosis. But that’s not to say that I don’t completely feel it in me.

I know that many people use this term so very flippantly. Depressed is often used in place of sad, or bummed, or even in jest at some some slight. But I know what untreated depression can be like. My grandmother suffered from depression that I don’t think even she wanted to recognize, and she also suffered feelings of paranoia and rage. Her one sister was bipolar and attempted suicide more than once. Her other sister was institutionalized. So I know that depression is a real and serious thing. Nothing to say causally or without great reason. And so when I say that I believe I am living with depression, I don’t mean stress or sadness or anger or apathy. I mean all of these things in an overwhelming combination and intensity. And trust me, this is not something I’ve wanted to admit to myself, let alone others. But it is something that I have just come to accept very recently.

Imagine being at the beach enjoying yourself in the water and sunshine when you notice something in the distance. It’s small and fuzzy, but you can almost make out that it’s coming near. You look up and see an almost imperceptible change in the color of the sky and the intensity of the breeze. You have this unshakable feeling that something bad is coming. You look around to see if anyone notices and is worried, but everyone around you continues to have a good time. They don’t see what you see. They don’t feel the dread in the pit of your stomach. And so you think you’re imagining it. Maybe it really is nothing. Maybe it will go away. So you keep on doing what you were doing, but keeping the darkness in your peripheral. But even though you try to pretend nothing is happening, it is. The dark spot in the distance becomes bigger and comes clearer into focus. You watch it advance with detached curiosity. What is it this time? Is there a way out? You always wonder if there is a way out. But as always, you find that your legs have become lead. The sand is sucking at your limbs, pulling you down. You can now see that this darkness is a full-blown tidal wave and it’s drawing nearer and nearer without any stopping. You look around again to see if anyone else notices, but you find that there’s no one there. Where did everyone go? Why am I alone stuck here? But stuck you are. And you know with absolute certainty that no matter what you do or how much you fight, you will lose. And soon the wave washes over you. It doesn’t crash into you or knock you down; it swallows you whole. It pulls you under to the deepest depths of the sea and rocks you gently. And much to your surprise, you find yourself not even trying to get loose. You accept it, embrace it. It’s just so much easier to give in. It’s dark here, quiet, secret. And even though you think your lungs should burst from the pain, you really just feel nothing at all. An absolute blankness consumes you. No light, no joy, but no pain either. Just absolute void of all feeling. You just want to sleep. Just sleep it all away. But you can’t. Your eyes ache with fatigue, but your body remains alert. Alert, but inert. Here, but not really. And you remain here for some time. Days, weeks, it all varies. Until at last, and with no apparent provocation, you are slowly pushed to the surface again. You look around and notice that everything looks different, even though nothing has really changed. And then you notice that even though you were alone when the wave hit, everyone is back in their places again. And they look at you with careful eyes, but say nothing. They don’t ask where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, or anything else that would indicate they’ve noticed your absence. So you think maybe you’ve made it all up in your head. And you do your best to go back to enjoying the sun and the water while it lasts. Before another wave comes through again.

This is what the last year or so has felt for me pretty much without much ease. It always begins with this feeling in my chest, these jitters that give me a sense of unease. It always progresses into a whole-body consummation. And as much as I want to drag myself out of it, I just can’t. I wait and ride it out, and inevitably it settles down and dissipates. Sometimes after a few days, sometimes after a few weeks. In the past, a few months. But always I could find a way out. Something to grab on to and heave myself back into the land of the fully living. But the longer I live with this, the longer these moments last. And I’m starting to worry that they’re going to become more of my norm. And that’s not the way I want to live.

This would probably be a good time to mention that I am not in any single way suicidal. Don’t worry about that. Despite all, I love living so damn much. But I love living so much that I want to go back to living without this weight. And it frustrates me to no end that I can’t get rid of it by sheer force of will. For the ultimate control freak, this lack of control is infuriating.

I imagine that for many people who know me well, reading these thoughts will no doubt cause some surprise. I know. I think all in all, I do a pretty good job of hiding it. I’m so concerned with not inconveniencing anyone or showing weakness that I pass it off as a bad day or being unusually tired. I want to be the ultimate super mom: working full-time, coming home to make dinner, raise my babies, have hobbies, and go to sleep with a smile on my face. I don’t want my kids to see me sob for seemingly no reason. I don’t want to snap at them for no fault of their own. I want everyone to not worry. I’ll be fine. I always am.

But even though I am proud of my acting skills, my resolve is starting to deteriorate. I just want to withdraw as soon as I get home. I don’t want to hear any stories, or answer any questions. I want to be left alone in silence. I want to escape into a book where I can pretend I’m somewhere, someone else. I can’t be bothered to show any intimacy to my husband. I’m grappling with holding myself together. That if I give anything at all of myself, my facade with crumble to dust. And then what? What will we all do?

So I try to tell myself it’s all nothing.The school year will be over soon. Oh, maybe it’s just vitamin D deficiency. Maybe I’m overreacting. Even though I know I’m not. But maybe if I can convince myself otherwise, I’m not too far gone.

And as much as I want someone to say to me that they get it, they understand how I’m feeling, that they worry about me, that they recognize I’m barely above water most days; I really don’t want anyone to think I’m out of control, that I’m crazy. I also don’t want anyone to think I’m just full of shit or making things up. I guess I’m just so tired to feeling like I’m bearing this burden alone. But what kind of person would I be to ask the people I love most to help carry some of this weight that isn’t theirs to deal with? Why wouldn’t I want to spare them of this?

Usually I have an ending in mind for each of these posts. But this time I can’t figure out how to wrap it up. It’s been a struggle just to get this much done. In the hour I’ve spent working on this, I’ve vacillated between wanting to shut down and wanting to break down and cry. Instead I’ve pushed forward and continued to get whatever I could out of me. Even though I’m currently underwater, I still want to struggle my way out. I want to be better.

I just stopped writing because Lily asked what I was writing about. She asked if I was writing about my stress and sadness. I was shocked that she knew. I asked her to tell me how she felt having a mom that felt this way everyday–stressed, sad, short-tempered. And she told me she feels sad and wants to help, but doesn’t know how, but hopes I can help myself because I’m an adult and adults can solve anything.

Fucking broke me.