Month: November 2018

100 Posts of Surviving by Living

This is my 100th post on SbL. 1700+ days. 25000+ viewers. 85+ Countries. 20+ Collaborations. Two eye-opening projects.

Countless hours of writing. Even more hours of thinking and not writing.

Since launching, I’ve spent 6 days in a psych ward, made two ER trips, attempted suicide once (contemplated more times than I can count), tried 9 different prescription medications, seen more than 7 doctors or specialists, talked to 8 therapists, received 1 additional diagnosis, and had over 150 hours of therapy. Caring for my physical and mental health during this time has cost me over $25,000 out of pocket (and that’s with extended health care coverage/insurance). Every. Single. Penny. was worth it.

What I’m trying to say, is that it’s been a wild ride. And I’m so grateful to all the people that have stuck around for this crazy ride and followed along. And I’m at peace with the people who chose to leave, because they taught me valuable lessons, and were in my life for a reason at the time.

Whether you’ve been the one I go to when I’m upset, or have helped me get out of a funk whether you knew it or not, or even if you just tossed me a “like” on Facebook  every so often, thanks for being there. Thank you for accepting me. Thank you for making this “roller coaster from hell” a little more fun and a little less dark. Thank you for showing me that I matter, and not giving up when I don’t believe I matter. Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for giving me the platform and space to have my story heard. You’re teaching me that my story deserves to be heard. That I deserve to be heard.

In my very first post, I said I’d be sharing “more of my real story – not sugarcoated, not horribly depressing either” and I hope I’ve done that. I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and more importantly, I hope that you think of your own mental health more.

Pursuing a better mental health state is a lifelong journey – that’s something I’ve learned the hard way. I’ll admit that I thought I could be fixed or cured, and that if I ever wrote a 100th post it would be looking back and saying “damn, what a wild ride. Glad that’s over!” And I’d be lying if I said that a part of me isn’t a little disappointed that the words I wrote in my first post ever, almost five years ago, are still pretty true.

I wrote: “If you ask anyone what type of person I am, common words used to describe me are “Funny”, “Witty”, “Intelligent”… Are these words an accurate depiction of me? Probably. On the outside, at least. Notice how none of those words showed any deeper emotion? I like it that way.

If you really wanted to know me, you would know that I have a tendency to overanalyze everything, my thoughts are my biggest enemy, I am stubborn as hell, and I grapple with mental illness everyday.”

Yep, I’d argue that still sums me up pretty well. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made a ton of progress. I forget that a lot. I forget how much I’ve grown since I was a scared student who wrote about her mental illness in secrecy from the safety of her bed at 3am. While I may wish that I could have progressed more, and sometimes give myself a hard time for not having made it further, it’s important that I recognize the strides I’ve made.

I’ve transformed over the past five years and really started to own my story. I talk about mental illness to anyone who will listen. I commit my time and energy to teaching others about mental health, and work to reduce stigma and make people a bit more compassionate about these issues. I’ve even worked in the mental health sector, and have been affiliated with a number of different organizations supporting mental health over the years.

I’ve learned that no one has to go through this alone, and there should be no shame in struggling. I’m still learning that it’s okay to admit that I’m not okay and reach out for help. I still face the same demons I faced years ago, I just have a better support system, and know more about myself.

So I hope that these 100 posts have meant something to you. They’ve meant a ton to me. I’ve poured blood, sweat, and yes, even tears, into this process, so that maybe someone out there feels a little less alone. I hope that the words “Surviving by Living” mean more than they did before – that they’re more than three little words. They’re a way of life. They’re a commitment to striving for more than just survival.

Surviving by Living is not just a blog, it’s a promise to demand better for our future, so that we may enable one another to live full, beautiful, wonderful lives that are worth living. Are you surviving? Or are you living?

Here’s to the next 100 posts of Surviving by Living.

For the 100th time, Keep Surviving by Living.

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The Pressure of Recovery (and tips to help!)

Some of closest people in my life have seen multiple versions of myself over the years. They knew me before mental illness was a part of my life, they knew me when I was in the thick of my depression and suicide attempts, and they know me now.  If you ask someone about me, they might say how I think I’m really funny (and if they’re in a good mood they’ll admit they think I’m funny too). They’ll probably think about my intelligence, or my love of craft beer, or other parts of myself that I choose to showcase more than others. And despite openly talking about my struggles with mental health, it’s probably not the first thing they see.

I’ve designed it this way. I wouldn’t want to be seen as my mental illness (even though I talk about it literally all the time, sorry pals, I don’t intend to shut up about it anytime soon 🙂 ) .

The issue is that when I talk a lot about the strides I’ve made to get better and recover, people forget about the harsh realities of my mental illness that pop up when I least expect it. They forget the bad days can strike at any time, and they do.  They still seem surprised that so many years later, I’m not “better.”

I’m not better. It doesn’t go away. Even when I’m laughing and smiling and having a good time, it hasn’t gone away completely. I may not be as bad as I once was, but that doesn’t mean I’m good. Just because you don’t need a hat and mitts when it’s not snowing anymore doesn’t mean you don’t need a jacket. We all bundle up after the blizzard too, because it’s still cold out. So I’m not freezing, but I’m still cold. We still see mental illness as something that gets better and goes away, like an infection or cold, and don’t accept that it could be something we live with every day like diabetes or arthritis. We always hope mental illness will go away, yet we never go to someone with diabetes and say “oh, I really hope you beat this soon! You’re so strong, you can do it.” Saying that makes it sounds like if it doesn’t go away, we weren’t strong enough to make it go away.

My friends and family are wonderful, and I love them dearly, but they’re often the ones building that pressure when they ask if I’m better, or tell me how happy they are that I am better. This type of pressure comes from people meaning well, but they actually make me feel guilty about my recovery being a non-linear process.

Now, as you’re reading this you’re probably thinking “shit. I’ve said that.” Don’t worry, I’ve said it too, but here are some shifts in language that I’ve found really supportive and helpful. Here’s a great trick on good days as well – celebrate the wins and accomplishments of the good day, rather than just the good day itself.

Language Shifts on Good Days

“I’m glad you’re better” –> “Sounds like you’ve had a few good days”

“Yay, you’re cured!” –> “I’m so happy you feel the worst is over, I’m here if it’s hard too though.”

“You’re finally better!” –> “I know it’s been a long process, but I’m here for the long haul.”

“Phew, glad that’s behind us.” –> “I know you’ll have ups and downs, and that’s okay.”

“I knew you’d get here if you tried hard enough!” –> “I know how hard you try to have good days, and I know how much harder you have to try on the bad days.”

Basically, you’re just trying to reassure the person that you’re excited for their good days and for the times that they’re better, but you’re also totally okay with sticking around for the bad ones. When I’m feeling better and having a good day, my biggest fear is that it’s not going to last, and that I know I’ll have another bad day again (as we all do, to varying degrees).

I also find it really helpful when my friends point out small wins – a friend and I often do this for each other when we’re having good OR bad days. We recognize accomplishments, regardless of how big or small, and celebrate them. On a bad day it’s something like “YAAASSS, YOU ATE A MEAL!”, and on the good days it might be “YAASS, HIT THE GYM!”. We’re proud of each other both times. When I get treated with the same amount of enthusiasm and respect for what I’m capable of on good days and bad days, I feel less ashamed of the bad days, and less pressure to hide them.

That being said, don’t be the annoying person who acts like the bad days are good, because they’re not. I need my support system to acknowledge how hard it is, and how it’s okay to be sad and scared and upset that I’m having a bad day because it’s really hard.

Language Shifts on Bad Days

“Tomorrow will be better” –> “I know today is really hard, how can I make it a bit better?”

“Just try going to the gym, you’ll feel much better” –> “You’re having a hard day, is there anything that you can think of that might help?”

“I know how you feel.” –> “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

*When you don’t know what to say, so you say nothing* –> “I don’t know what I can say or do to help. Is there anything I can do that would be helpful?”

“it’s just a bad day, don’t worry about it.” –> “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this will be temporary. You’ve gotten through it before and you will again. Until then, I’m here for you”

“Come out and have a good time! The distraction will help.” –> “Would you be up to coming out if you think a distraction would help? Or I can come over to distract you or talk about it? You’re not alone.”

“Let’s have some fun and get your mind off it.” –> “I’m here to sit with you in the darkness if that would help. If you’d prefer to have fun, we can do that too.”

“Did you forget your meds?” –> Just. Don’t.

“Call your therapist.” –> “Did you want to talk about anything? I know I’m not as good or qualified as your therapist, but I’m willing to listen until you can talk to them.”

“You have to eat” –> “Have you eaten anything? Can I bring something over? I can leave it outside and we don’t even have to see each other if you don’t want company.”

“I hate seeing you like this” or “I hate when you have bad days” –> “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. I wish I could make it easier for you, but it’s totally okay to not be okay sometimes.”

Basically, by not making the person feel bad on their bad days, and showing up to listen, care, and just acknowledge their struggle, you’re removing the pressure for them to be okay all the time.

So here’s the point I want to make: I feel a ton of pressure to be better, and the fact that I’m not better makes me feel really guilty and ashamed sometimes. Actually, most of the time. Recovery (I hate that word) Progress is not linear, so extra good days don’t mean I won’t have extra bad days anymore. Dealing with mental illness doesn’t look like climbing a mountain – it looks a lot more like surfing. I’m working on accepting that being cured or better may not be a reality for me, and that’s okay. I’m becoming okay with it, and I need the people who love me to be okay with it too. It’s not something to be sad about, it’s just how it is. Some people will have depressive episodes and be okay later, and others won’t. Some people will have their anxiety virtually go away completely with the right therapy and meds and coping strategies, and others won’t. It’s okay. It’s okay to have a mental illness, it’s okay to have dealt with a mental illness at one point, it’s okay to struggle with your mental health before, now, or in the future. It’s okay, because we all struggle a bit, some of us more than others. Most of all, it’s okay because we can all love and support each other a bit more to ease that pain even just a tiny bit.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Suicidal Ideation is a Sprained Ankle

CW/TW: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation

People are scared to talk about suicide because it’s a scary thing to think about. And because the only time we talk about suicide is after we’ve lost someone from it. Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Chester Benningfield. Our suicide awareness and discussions come at the expense of being shocked enough to open our eyes.

We see suicide as a point-in-time event, like a strike of thunder or lightening, as opposed to considering it as a lengthy storm. We often hear people say that the attempt “came out of nowhere” and was completely unexpected, but that doesn’t make it true. Whether we could see the signs or not, suicide is often not an impulsive decision. People can be really careful to not show signs of what they’re thinking, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Therefore, if someone survives an attempt, we cannot treat it as a one-off.

When we talk about suicide when the person survives, IF we talk about it, we talk about how they made it through – how they survived and things will be better now. Surviving an attempt means life continues, but the hard work is after the attempt. Surviving an attempt doesn’t mean the pain that caused the attempt disappears. The hard work is rebuilding, or building from scratch, a life we can live. When we see people survive the suicide attempt in movies or TV, that’s the happy ending. It’s not. It’s just the beginning.  It’s what comes after the attempt that we need to lean in closer to, it’s how we all have to band around that person and make their experience a little better.

Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but this is how suicidal ideation is for me. Suicidal Ideation is like a sprained or broken ankle, or any big injury really. Have you ever broken a bone or had a bad fracture or sprain? And no matter how much physio you go to or how much you take care of it, it can still hurt sometimes? Maybe the weather changes and you feel that part ache a little more, or you work out too hard and the impact forces you to take a couple extra days of rest before working out again. Sometimes you have flare ups from sleeping funny or not resting enough, sometimes you get flare ups for no reason at all. For me, suicidal ideation is just that. It’s the sprained ankle that will never be the same. And you can still do all the things you did before, like run or play sports or do the things you love, but maybe you’re a little bit more careful. Maybe it’s the first thing to get triggered to indicate that you need a break. I have to be mindful of my “triggers” and take a bit of extra care to avoid flare ups, and avoid unnecessary pain.

What if we treated people who survive suicide attempts the way we treat people after an accident? What if instead of never talking about that “one dark time” that’s finally over, we talk to them about how rehab/therapy is going? What if we reassured them that it’s a process, and it takes time, and there are ups and downs to physio (or therapy)? If we normalized that and didn’t pressure them to be okay overnight? What if we accepted that they will need a brace or supports every now and again, maybe forever? And five or ten years down the road, when our friend complains of shoulder pain from that car accident they had that they were never quite the same after, we offer to hold their bag and slow down. Similarly, if our friend who survived a suicide attempt five or ten years ago mentions that they’ve been having some passive thoughts of suicide, what if after confirming they have no intent to act on it, you just offered to help take some of the weight off by listening?

People are so happy when they hear that I haven’t attempted in almost five years. It’s a great accomplishment, and I’m very grateful for my first, second, and third chances because life has been so worth it. But I can’t remember a time I didn’t have passive suicidal ideation. Passive, meaning I have no intent or plan to act on my thoughts, but they’re just floating around. Not strong thoughts of wanting to die, but fleeting thoughts of being okay with not being here. In my world, I can think about suicide, and not be suicidal. In Frank King’s TED Talks, he says “Let’s say my car breaks down. I have three choices: Get it fixed, get a new one, or I could just kill myself.” It’s so common for me, that I hardly notice it anymore, and of course in King’s example, it’s not the option he is going to go for (personally, I’m rooting for option 2 – new car), but as he says “it’s [suicide is] always on the menu.”

This is usually the part where people get scared and think this is very, very serious, and they’re not wrong because suicide is scary. It is scary. But the reason I’m telling you this is not to be scared, I’m telling you because we need to reframe the way we think of suicide as a single occurrence, and adjust to seeing it as a process. We need to make these conversations okay, because talking about it really, really helps. And if we respond to these conversations with rushing to a hospital or freaking out, we make it unsafe to talk about something big and scary.

Offer love. Offer compassion. Throw judgement out the window. Isn’t that what we should be doing when anyone talks to us about their mental health anyways?

As a caveat, I must add that if you or someone you love is experiencing ACTIVE suicidal thoughts, it’s important to help them get the help they need immediately. Remind them they are not alone.

  1. If it’s an emergency, call 911.
  2. For 24/7 phone support for you or a loved one, call 1-833-456-4566
  3. For youth (<20) texting support, text “TALK” for English and “TEXTO” for French to 686868

Suicide attempts occur in a fleeting moment, but the stuff that led to that moment, and the aftermath of it, is where we need to band together as a community and support each other. We can’t act like surviving an attempt gets rid of the problem, and that someone dying by suicide is always a complete shock.

Look out for your friends, check in with them, make sure they’re okay. And if you have a friend that has attempted, be on the lookout for warning signs, but also be there to listen to what got them there in the first place.

I’m not suicidal. But I experience suicidal ideation. Much more often than I wish I did, but I’m safe and I’m not going anywhere. And people like me shouldn’t have to feel this way alone because it’s scary or uncomfortable for others. It’s scary and uncomfortable for me too. It’s easier when we’re in it together. So just as you’d be there to support your friend with that pesky busted knee from hockey 6 years ago, be there to check in on the friend that “made it out of the woods”. Pause. Listen. Support.

Keep Surviving by Living.