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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Simplicity Means Eliminating Stigmas From Your Own Life, and For Others

I’ve been a lifelong “worrier”. I lived in my head, ignoring much around me, for many years. As such a lot of my memories, especially from childhood & my school years, are much hazier than I’d like them to be. I never indulged in drugs or drinking in school at all, so no, that’s not the reason for my lack of memory! I just wasn’t present in the moment and as a result I lost out on a lot of pleasure. I was always worried about the future, daydreaming about what I wished my life could be or going over my past with a fine-tooth comb. If I could do it all over again, I would've relaxed & enjoyed those years instead. That time will never come back to me. This is one of those cases where hindsight is 20/20 of course, and I’m not looking at school or childhood through rose-colored glasses. Some things about that time in my life truly were tough & painful, which is why I “checked out” mentally on a lot of occasions. But there were times when I really should have been having a ball  & instead moped or wept. The emotions of the bad times always carried over into even the good times. However, I know now that it was a result of hormones in some cases (especially as a teenager), my own upbringing, household circumstances which were out of my control at the time & also my own particular brain chemistry that created this issue. And my genetic composition all the way through no doubt plays a role in it, too. On one side of my family, severe anxiety & bouts of depression were regularly felt by several different people, even when no outer circumstances could be blamed for it. These were usually characteristics that waxed & waned in the family members who suffered from this, but the traits were always there to a degree. Proper medication invariably resolved these issues. For whatever reason, I inherited this tendency towards anxiety & depression, too.

If there’s anything that’s scarier in life than admitting freely that you have a genetic flaw, a chronic mental or medical condition, or that you are disabled, I don’t know what that scarier thing would be. Despite a culture which rampantly advertises about new pills for depression, anxiety & myriad other conditions, mental & even chronic physical illnesses are still mostly a taboo topic on a personal level. Even in those ads, what they show are active, smiling people who’ve gotten “control” over their conditions, a classic baby-boomer advertising trick that has filtered down into the belief system of younger people, as well. The message is “Yes, talk to your doctor about the condition- but try to look like you’re doing great on the outside!” This mythical illusion regarding control over illness & aging has gotten to a rather ridiculous point. To publicly show feelings of sadness, frustration, ennui or anger, even when it’s warranted, is typically a no-no in Western culture. This is especially true on the job, but is also true in many friendships, places of worship & sometimes in the home. I think that men & women have equal problems with struggling to hold back what are considered inappropriate feelings, and this usually creates nothing but problems. It’s time we took the shame away, started getting real with each other, and I’m going to start with myself. I hope that by sharing my story, my truth, it will help you, too.

I am one of those people who, without proper & consistent medication for it, suffers from severe anxiety & irritability. I have been this way from early childhood- easily drawing into myself like a hermit crab. When I’m not on medication, it is extraordinarily easy for me to fall into deep depressions, periods of excessive introversion & isolation. And it doesn’t usually come from anything logical- this fear, sorrow or grouchiness. While depression isn’t something I suffer from chronically (unlike anxiety, which is perpetual), I have suffered with it in the past, and I know how painful it can be. And I know how unsympathetic people, especially superiors in a workplace, can be. I had severe bouts of anxiety in my early teenage years, which turned into full-blown agoraphobia & panic attacks which affecting my school performance & attendance dramatically. Later, these symptoms did the same damage to my work life. When I was growing up, things were much different than they are today. Back then, at least where I lived, doctors didn’t believe kids were affected by “true” (genetically-inherited or biologically-based) depression and/or anxiety in my age group. There was no such thing as a child or teen being put on medication for these conditions unless it was an extreme case, like for someone who was suicidal. And until the attempt was made, even suicide ideation wasn't taken seriously enough to be medicated in most cases. This wasn't just my experience (to my great surprise initially), but I found out later on was the experience of several depressed peers. Back then, a lifelong commitment to mental health management through medication wasn’t addressed. Counseling was available, but a blame-the-patient attitude prevailed from these social workers & other entities like them. Unless you were an obvious schizophrenic or something, a person who could be a potential danger to society, medical or pharmaceutical intervention was frowned upon. Maybe it was an overreaction to the drastic “answers” of the previous generation, which included the excessive & dangerous use of barbiturates, amphetamines, electric shock treatment, lobotomies & more for mental disorders. Anyway, I had several so-called experts tell me that it was my fault, that I possessed a lack of self-control, discipline & focus. Not once was my biochemistry, feelings or background addressed- only that I was “causing trouble” for others. Serotonin or other brain chemistry issues were never mentioned. It never occurred to them that my troubles weren’t based in a personality deficit on my part or lack of integrity. This shaming has occurred to so many people with anxiety and/or depression that it’s no wonder they start on the path to suicide ideation, drug or alcohol addiction, habits such as cutting themselves & eating disorders. Many people never end up seeking treatment after an initial consult because their examination isn't thorough. On the opposite extreme are people handed medication immediately (this is especially common now, at least with adults, as psychiatrists have notoriously long waiting lists & are often insanely busy), without their entire picture being reviewed. It is truly tragic that even a highly-trained & experienced medical doctor or psychologist can’t see the whole picture at times. Things have improved somewhat since then- but with some doctors going to the opposite extreme of overmedicating the children who experience depression. This isn’t good, either. It usually comes from the socially-driven need to get the child "back to normal" & back to school without a hiccup. We must take a balanced approach, and for the most part, we're failing at it.

The second my anxiety medication is out of my system, I know it not by any sense of withdrawal or physical discomfort, but by my immediate overreactions to everything. Even my cat, whom I adore exceedingly, starts to get on my nerves. I lived for years as a sniping, emotionally up-and-down person floating between periods of near-manic happiness & extremely low sadness. Even being in a car, and as a passenger with a safe driver no less, made me nervous. Now, as I said, I am not a believer in putting on a front. If you have a right to be angry about something, then you should speak up when the anger is warranted concisely. When you are sad & need to cry, do so. I certainly do! The difference, for me at least, is how I handle my anger, frustrations, irritations, etc., now. Without medication, I blow things way out of proportion, cannot think clearly & can’t put my emotions into words easily. They come out as irritated hissy fits or cruel sentences that I cannot take back once spoken. And being able to distill my feelings into clear communication (even just to myself) is vital to making real changes. This is often misunderstood by both the sufferer of this condition and the people around them. Medication shouldn’t turn you into a zombie. If anything, when it’s a case of biological chemicals in the brain being “off” naturally (such as serotonin), medication putting the right chemical back in place can be a freeing experience. No one should have to live life feeling numb, either.

I had to eventually realize that my natural inclination to excessive anxiety wasn’t a character flaw, it wouldn’t be healed by religion (i.e., faith) alone, and that it truly was something biochemical in nature. I completely believe in the power to be healed by things other than medication, and in God‘s ability to change me over time. I know it's true because I’ve experienced all of that. And let me tell you from experience that no medication in the world will make a terrible life feel wonderful- not for long, anyway. Medication won’t replace making necessary lifestyle changes, including getting out of abusive relationships, dead-end jobs or unhealthy habits. It doesn't magically turn the world into a fairy tale, unless you're on something seriously mind-altering, which are not the type of drugs I'm referring to! But if you believe in God, let me advise you that there is no shame in acknowledging that you need help from medication, therapy, journaling, solitude in a retreat of some kind or another form of treatment. No generous God who wants us to inherit the world would ever want you to suffer in silence & pain needlessly when help is available. It has nothing to do with a lack of faith when you seek out help from a doctor, medication or community. We should be here on earth to help each other and that includes those from within the medical profession. Think about it this way- if your wisdom teeth get infected & need to be removed because they’re going to continue causing you pain & illness, do you then blame yourself for not having enough faith to overcome the infection? Do you feel guilty because the size of your mouth & jaw won’t allow the teeth to come in all the way correctly? Do you keep the teeth in & just hope for the best, despite the crippling pain? I certainly hope you wouldn‘t! No, you go to an oral surgeon, get antibiotics for the infection, have the teeth taken out, take a little pain medicine, heal up and get back to your normal routine. You needed help, you got it, and now you can move on to the next thing in life. There’s no “moral” ramification for seeking medical care in a physical ailment- and there shouldn’t be any to getting treatment for mental conditions, either. Chronic insomnia, anxiety, depression, mania, self-abuse, physical pain- please don’t ignore these symptoms & refuse outside help because you are ashamed or feel like you can do it all alone if you just get strong enough. At best, you’ll probably end up suffering longer than you need to, and may end up taking far longer to get healed as a result. At worst, you could be putting your life- or in very extreme cases, someone else’s life- in serious danger.

If anything, having a biological disorder which is properly treated with medication and/or lifestyle modification makes for all the clarity you can stand. Take my word on this. Needed medication will not make you an automaton. When something isn’t right in your life, no amount of medication can make it be okay, not for any extended length of time, anyway. It is really important not to judge others & assume that something they’re doing is a moral failure on their part, if you see someone else struggling in this way. We typically don’t know anything about another person’s brain chemistry, their genetic structure, their medical history or their familial past. Certainly, people from abusive and/or neglectful families tend to have more problems with mania, depression, anxiety & physical disease. But again, don’t make assumptions. Try to refrain from judgment, especially if the person hasn’t gotten any sympathy or help before. Biology, genetics, sociology, psychology- all very complex subjects- come into play here. Remember, sociopaths can be born from two completely normal, kind parents. Two horrifically abusive parents, by contrast, can somehow end up with a wonderful child who grows up into a great adult, in spite of the odds. No two people are ever exactly alike.

You cannot get your life organized & simplified if you’re being crushed under the weight of severe mental and/or physical disease. Before you take any medication or make serious other modifications to your life, you need to do your research. Look for both the success stories & the problems that people have had with various medications, because there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all. You need to be aware of how a medication could affect your system for better or worse, and that takes some education. Don't ignore OTC options, either. A natural, OTC option like 5-HTP or SAMe might be better for some people, while for others a prescription anti-depressant works better. And you could have the most wonderful doctor on earth, but ultimately you need to listen to your own mind, heart & body first.

Being organized, simplifying your life & striving to be a minimalist as much as comfortably possible will help make any type of disorder or disease management far easier. Tripping over clutter, having a dirty house & not knowing where things are obviously won't help any medical condition feel better. That's true whether the illness is mental, physical or a combination of the two. De-cluttering your home can bring instant doses of depression & anxiety relief, as does getting your house cleaned. I would highly recommend, though, that you don't clean or de-clutter wildly if you're right in the midst of a manic episode, should that be something you suffer from. Being in the midst of a bout of depression, anxiety & mania can negatively affect the memory- not good when you're trying to carefully determine what to keep & what to toss, or putting things away while organizing. I've done this, only to ache horrifically in every bone & muscle I have the next day because I over-cleaned in a fury of manic energy. So try to take things slowly & carefully, making notes if you need to about where things are placed- especially if they won't be in plain sight. Take breaks when you physically & mentally need it. Everyone's different, but usually a ten- or fifteen-minute break after an hour of work is a minimum that people need if the work is very intense. I thoroughly believe that most people without severe hoarding tendencies can get organized on their own in the physical sense, but we all need teachers & fellow travelers on the path for knowledge & motivation. If you have the financial means, hiring a professional organizer and/or maid service for one session or even a few may give you the pick-me-up needed in your home & life. Sometimes meeting someone new in the form of a professional organizer or other helper can be a much-needed boost to getting back belief in yourself. They might be able to see & help you develop talents that you've forgotten or discarded. These individuals can get a space organized that enables you to get back to a cherished hobby or craft, another healing aspect in life.

Often if you ask a friend for help, they'll be more than happy to give of themselves. If you have friends who wouldn't give you the time of day if you asked for help...well, you can probably tell already what I'm going to say. Friendship & love is supposed to be a healthy, loving balance of give-and-take. If the people in your life only do the taking or the giving all the time, then things need to change. On the flip side, you may need to make yourself more available to help others. There are letter-writing & volunteer programs designed to reach out to others which you can take advantage of, even if you're not able to get far from home. These programs can be researched & signed up for online, quite often. This action can touch the lives of others in wonderful ways & get you out of focusing on your own problems for awhile. In some cases, you can become a real friend to someone with no more required from you than an open heart, a few pieces of paper, a postage stamp & a willingness to listen. I believe that this is a necessary balance to any therapy or project where you're mostly focused on thinking/talking about yourself or those immediately in your circle at home. It has nothing to do with getting to heaven or being "good enough"- if it doesn't come from your heart, you'll never really feel blessed by it. There's a whole wide world full of hurting people out there, and reaching out to someone in kindness can be the balm that both of you need. The cynics out there may think I'm being too sappy or saying this out of some kind of a religious obligation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe for whatever reason you can't reach the people right in your own life because they don't want your help for now- but I guarantee you that there's plenty of souls out there who would like to hear from someone like you & be your friend. All you have to do is open your mind to that possibility, look for the opportunity & I can almost certainly say that it will appear.

Moderate exercising (fifteen to sixty minutes a day is usually a good amount), drinking lots of clean water, taking supplements that address specific concerns for your particular state of health, eating healthy but tasty foods- all of those things are going to make you get better faster. People are going to argue until the end of time about what's necessary for health & fitness, but some things are quite clear- trans fats aren't great for the heart. Regulars doses of bleached sugar & white flour in excessive amounts aren't good for people, especially if they don't burn a lot of calories off easily or already have health problems. Oils that have been bleached, degummed, heavily processed (cottonseed oil is one such common example)- they're not going to give you health or even a lot of temporary fuel for your brain. Just researching what you can add to your life in terms of nutrition & exercise, not what you have to subtract, can be a boost. If you have a particular medical condition, look into what supplements can help. As always, watch for patterns in these writings- certain supplements will be recommended over & over again for a condition, and you'll be able to read what has occurred from others who have tried them. Don't make yourself a guinea pig if at all possible- try to go for the most widely-used & well-reviewed items first. The government isn't going to sign off on supplements and frankly, I don't think that's what the government needs to do. Obviously, harmful substances shouldn't be allowed on the market without warning to consumers. But to say that you'll only take something into your body because your government has signed off on it...or you won't take something because the government won't endorse it'll miss out on a lot of decent items. The truth is that scientific studies go on all the time for most, if not all, supplements on the market. Many of these items have been used for thousands of years. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration isn't going to sign off on any dietary supplement other than a vitamin or mineral (it's not what they are bound to do by law). But ask anyone who works for the FDA if that fact alone means no one in America should ever take an over-the-counter dietary aid & you'll probably get a good laugh from them. Keep in mind that millions of people have put prescriptions into their bodies which were approved by the FDA only to later on have serious complications (at the very least) from those medications. Sadly, the FDA has to recall medications or issue strong warnings years after they're approved for unforeseen problems all the time nowadays. Please do your own research, and don't give any governmental agency outright responsibility for your health, or count on them to protect you unquestionably. The government is made up of fallible humans who sometimes have questionable motives & ethics.

On another note, a lot of people don't do the exercise that they'd like to do because they've been told at one time or another that it wasn't the right kind for their body type or frame. If you are a larger person, you may have been told that swimming won't burn enough calories, so you don't swim anymore since you think it'd be "a waste of time". Or you feel uncomfortable with how others might look at you in a bathing suit or wetsuit, so you've given up water sports despite the fact that you love them. Maybe you've been told that you're already bulky enough, so you don't lift weights despite the mental boost it gives you & the physical prowess it imparts. Doctors can make snap judgments based on your size & tell you to do loads of aerobics even though your natural inclination is to perform yoga each morning. This actually happened to me once- I could easily touch the floor in a forward bend, do splits, backbends & a perfect Dancer's Pose in yoga because of daily practice, in front of a doctor. He was testing my physical fitness to determine my pain level from fibromyalgia (which I thought was a little odd to begin with). But the man I was seeing told me that my flexibility was meaningless & that I should take up running to lose weight. Considering my size, joint damage that I have from osteoarthritis & daily high pain levels from fibromyalgia, he might as well have told me to move to Mars. He was just that insane. I have a weird body- I can barely walk off a curb because of my crappy knees & back pain, but my double-jointed body means I have immense flexibility without having to work for it very much. I've only met one doctor who understood this- not every patient with fibromyalgia or arthritis is as stiff as a board. And  as far as weight goes, it works both ways- skinny people can get just as much flack as heavier souls. If you're very slim, others may have told you to hit the weight room to pack on muscle, even though it's really kickboxing or step aerobics that you adore. "Experts" may tell you to try a yoga class for stress relief even though it bores you to death. I encourage you today that if you have a workout or a variety of workouts that you like, get back to doing them. Stop worrying about what your body looks like now, or could look like in the future if you "do the wrong thing", and just do what brings you enjoyment. This worrying does nothing but paralyze you- it does not build fitness! You'll never be perfectly fit or meet every little standard other people come up with. Give up that goal, please. You will always have strengths & weaknesses. Life is too short not to accept this- don't get to the end of it only to look back & see a host of things you gave up out of fear. That's not living at all. Screw the naysayers!

Get all the help that you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, to be healthy & happy- and give the same to others in return.

Peace to you,

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