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Who am I?

Ok, so I have been accused of being a blogger in the past because I love posting on Facebook, but in recent years I have been very open about some very personal things. A good friend and writer, Frankie Little Hardin suggested I work on a blog to document my journey with my mental health. I had never really considered doing anything formally. I just kind of figured my friends, in life and on Facebook, know me and know about me. However, in the past few years, I have had several people tell me that my story is important. I’m not quite sure where to start and what I will post. I will try to post positive things as much as possible, but the fact remains that life is not always positive. However, life does go on, even when it seems to be crushing you in the process. This first post will probably be a bit wordy, but I want you to know who I am. Also, I have to break the habit of double spacing after sentences, so don’t judge my old school syntax. 🙂

I guess I can start with present me. I am 36 years old. I have been married to Anthony since 2009. He has been an amazing support for me and I sometimes wonder what kind of state I would be in if he hadn’t come into my life. That said, I have several wonderful friends who are also incredibly supportive. I love animals and birds are my passion. I currently own 4 birds- Icarus (hybrid macaw), Doodles (cockatiel), Willie (African grey), and Ripper (Scaly-breasted lorikeet). I also have a cat named Socks who used to belong to my father. I am heavily involved in local theater, both onstage and backstage. I am a kickass stage manager, a decent actress, and a pretty good improviser. I have also been told my sketch writing is good, although I’m not a disciplined writer so sketches aren’t very frequent. I’m sure in future posts, I will make references to different ways the theater and my animals have helped me.

So what does this all have to do with mental health? Well, I have suffered from depression since I was a kid, although I didn’t have a name for it and I didn’t seek treatment until I was an adult. Nothing traumatic happened to me in my early childhood that I can remember. My parents loved me. My brother and I got along fairly well. My parents didn’t really get along with each other, but I think they tried to not let that bleed into their relationship with my brother and me. They were married for 27 years and didn’t divorce until we were both adults and out of the house. I did have several close friends, although I was kind of the awkward weird kid in school. I was smart and got good grades, although the older I got, the less I tried. As a kid, I didn’t understand a lot of what I was feeling. I also think I didn’t realize how much it showed. A while ago, I found one of my high school yearbooks and a lot of what was written by my classmates were things like “cheer up, it’s not that bad” and “life will get better” and “smile once in a while.” I had no idea that was how people saw me, but obviously it wasn’t hidden. Again, at that time, what I was feeling was unnamed. My parents didn’t talk about it. If someone asked me what was wrong, I don’t think I heard them.

So what changed? When I turned 18, I moved in with a new boyfriend. I always knew I was going to move out as soon as I could and I had actually been working towards being emancipated in high school until my dad had a stroke. So 18 meant freedom and doing what I want. I worked full time at Pet Paradise in the bird department and I was a full time student at Old Dominion University. Needless to say, it was a lot to handle for probably anyone less than super motivated. I failed half my classes first semester (most of which I slept through or just didn’t go) and dropped out halfway through my second semester. My boyfriend, Chris, and I moved in with his parents when money got tight. Fast forward a few years. I was getting by as much as I ever had been, which honestly wasn’t by much. I was working as an office manager at a self storage compound and I hated it. It was in an empty city and I worked alone. Some days I didn’t have contact with anyone else. I’m a social person and I’ve learned that I need interactions with people to keep going. Without that, I had some days where I went to work, turned off the lights, flipped the closed sign and laid on the floor to sleep. Once I was so bored, I put on a pedometer and roller bladed around my desk to see how many times it took to make a mile. It was awful and I was sinking. Chris and I were still together at that time and our relationship was pretty good, although I had called off our wedding once (at that point) just by freaking myself out. I decided my job was making me stupid and I was going to attempt college again.

I was about 23 at the time. Actually, it was right before I turned 23. I know this because I still had to claim my parent’s income to get financial aid. My dad was no help because after his stroke and their eventual divorce, he was disorganized and wouldn’t have been able to come up with any records of income. My mom was falling pretty heavily into alcoholism at that point and told me to just make up some numbers. So, my first semester back at ODU, I went half time and paid for it myself. I basically did the same things I had done in the past. Classes that interested me, like German (my major), I did pretty well. Other classes were incredibly hard to bear. I stopped going to some of them. I stopped doing work while I was at work. I had a stack of storage contracts about 4′ high that I never filed from probably a year’s worth of clients. I was falling and falling very hard.

Thinking back, I use Ophelia from Hamlet as a pretty good description of myself. I remember reading Hamlet in high school and being very confused about her death. Did she kill herself? Was she pushed? Did she get knocked out and drown? Nope. She fell and she just didn’t pull herself back up. She just didn’t save herself. That was me. I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to hurt myself. I just didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care what happened to anyone or anything. If you’ve never felt it, it’s hard to describe the feeling of nothing. It’s a void. It’s not pain and not anger. It wasn’t even sadness at that point. It was nothing. Emptiness. A big hole in life where I should have been. Some days I got up and walked through life and others, I stayed in bed. I didn’t move except maybe to get up and go to the bathroom. There were days I didn’t function. One day, I had a moment of truth. This was not ok. I was not ok. I don’t know what the moment was that gave me that spark of wanting help. I don’t think it was something someone said or an event that happened. Maybe it was a compilation of people whispering in my ears. I really don’t know. I just know that one day, I walked myself into the counseling service offices at ODU and said “I’m not ok. I don’t care what happens to me and I know that’s not ok. I need help.”

Those words changed my life.

I sat down and talked to a counselor. I cried. I tried to explain what I was sure made no sense, as nobody could possibly be feeling the crap that I was feeling. It turns out my problem was bigger than what could be dealt with in the 10 sessions allowed for students so they referred me Eastern Virginia Medical School. I got involved and my first appointment with the doctor, I had to take a Beck’s Depression Inventory test. I remember Dr. Handel looking at my results and saying “so, you pretty much feel like shit all the time, don’t you?” I more than doubled the score for clinical depression. After talking a while, maybe more than one session and with more than one doctor, Dr. Handel said I had clinical depression with hypo-manic episodes. Even though he didn’t name it as such, I now know that is Bipolar II.

Now I had a label. I had a mental illness and for many people, that is a scary, scary thing. For me, at the time, it was somewhat of a relief. I wasn’t crazy (not really) and there was a cause. There was a name. I wasn’t broken and there was help. Don’t get me wrong. I still felt broken and worthless and useless and whatever other negative adjective I could come up with. Dr. Handel and Dr. Urbano put me on meds and I went to therapy once a week. Therapy helped me to manage day to day activities and events. Medicine helped me feel human. I started to function again. I also dropped out of school again, but that wasn’t necessarily bad, except that dropping out of school lost me my health insurance.

Well, what’s next? What do you do when you start to feel better? You stop taking your medicine. Yep. That’s what I did. Without insurance, I couldn’t continue to see the doctors that had helped me so much but I felt better and some part of me assumed I was cured. I guess. I don’t think I really put that much cognitive thought into it. And for a while, I was good. Chris and I were still together. We were supposed to get married. Again. I had a great, active job working with birds and doing education programs at Rainforest Cafe. And then, I lost it. I don’t know know the order of how things happened but the depression crept back in. Eventually, after 5 years together, I ended things with Chris. I moved back home with my mom. I was slipping back down but it wasn’t all bad. I only lived with my mom for a semester and then I moved into the dorms at ODU. I was 25 with 18 and 19 year old roommates. Getting to class was easier in some ways and harder in others. But I was living my own life. And I was living.

In March 2007, I went on spring break with my roommate, Emily and our friend, Jon. On the way back, we were involved in a terrible car accident which totaled Emily’s Jeep. Jon was thrown from the vehicle and had lots of cuts, scars, and stitches. I was pinned in it and had to be cut out. Emily was, unfortunately for her, awake for everything. I don’t remember the accident. I don’t remember after the accident. I had amnesia in the ICU and knew who I was and who they were but not when or where we were. My hospital records show they were considering sending me to a hospital in West Virginia (we were in MD) that could deal better with my head injuries. 24 hours later, I knew when and where we were, so they sent me home. The next few months of my life are pretty muddled. I repeated myself often (more than I normally do). I said things that really didn’t make much sense. And depression came back with a vengeance and kicked my ass.

I went completely back to my old ways. I didn’t care about much but a new thing for me was that I started cutting. Not much and not bad. I wasn’t entirely sure why I did it. After a while of that, I realized it scared me. Scared isn’t the right word. Terrified? Worried? Concerned?  I knew what it felt like to deal with depression. I didn’t know what this was. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I wasn’t suicidal but I was harming myself and I was giving up. After breaking down, I emailed Dr. Handal and gave him a brief “I’m not ok and I don’t know what to do” email. Within minutes, I had a response from him that I would be receiving a phone call from another doctor in the office. When she called, we talked about how I was feeling and I explained I had no insurance and couldn’t pay to see anyone or get medicine. As it turns out, EVMS has a sliding scale program to help out their med students. I was able to get in with a resident, Dr. DeFilippo. I saw him once a week and he managed my meds and my therapy. I saw him for 3 years until he graduated. He helped me through a lot of rough times, including a time when I couldn’t get suicidal thoughts out of my head.

Since that time, I have seen several different doctors and therapists. My psychiatrist recently retired and I had to find a new one which was a high anxiety time for me, but I really like the new doctor I see. I have seen the same therapist now for at least 4 years and she has been wonderful. I feel like she gets me. I have come to the realization that I am not someone who will be able to go off medicine. I’ve tried, both with and without doctor approval, and the result is not good. I struggle with that. I wish I could say someday I will be cured, but the truth is, for me, there is no cure. But there is management and there is hope. I can get up and function. I’m mostly happy and definitely more positive than I was. Does that mean I don’t have bad days? Absolutely not. I do. Sometimes I have bad weeks. But my lows are not as low as they were and I can feel them coming. I have no hesitation to call my doctor and say “I need to change my meds.”

Last year, I participated in a storytelling night and shared a small glimpse into my story. Afterwards, I had several people approach me and tell me that I touched them. Some were just starting on their healing and others were pretty far down that path. That night, I felt drawn to what I needed to do. There is so much stigma and fear surrounding mental illness and there doesn’t need to be. Mental illness is a disease. Some call it a demon. It has no limits as to who can be affected. It’s not uncommon, and I’m willing to bet you know someone who is dealing with one of these silent battles, whether they admit it or not. We should not be afraid to talk about it and NOBODY should be afraid to ask for help.

So, when I think about why I am open about my story, it’s because I know there is a light at the end. I’ve been to both ends. Trust me, living in the light feels so much better. Life is not easy. It never will be and everyone has their own battles. But fight them. You are worth it.

If you want to listen to my podcast of that storytelling night, the link is http://www.tellmemorelive.org/2015/06/tell-me-more-live-april-shannon-threet-on-being-mostly/

If you want to learn more about my semicolon tattoo, http://www.projectsemicolon.org

If you want to learn about or support the Walk Out of the Darkness I do every year for support and awareness for suicide prevention, http://www.afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donordrive.participant&participantID=966449

IF YOU OR A FRIEND NEEDS HELP, CALL THE SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE AT 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

#YouAreWorthIt

#SemicolonProject

#YouAreNotAlone

#EndTheStigma

#AlwaysKeepFighting

#MyStoryIsntOver

Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Feel free to share my blog with anyone. Thank you for reading (And I promise they won’t all be this long.)

What is strong?

I decided to make my brave and strong thoughts on two separate blog posts. I’m learning quickly that I’m kind of wordy and I don’t want to put people off by that.

So, as I mentioned earlier, I have been called strong on several occasions, generally after talking about my experiences dealing with being bipolar II. I think there are several reasons to describe someone as strong when it comes to mental illness.

There are people that are strong because of their willingness to be open regarding mental illness. This goes along with my earlier post that someday, I hope that talking about personal experiences won’t be viewed as such a strong fight against the taboo. This is a tricky bit, because even when the world accepts that mental health is nothing to be feared or hidden, our own brains trick us. They lie to us. They tell us how scary it will be when we let our secrets be known. Even when the world changes the general stigma of mental health, it doesn’t mean that our brains won’t fight us when we want to open up. This is important to realize. Every time you want to talk and that little voice creeps in that says “don’t say it,” tell that voice to go screw itself. You can say it. You shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid. Ask for help when you need it. Talk when the urge arises. Share your experiences. I am a firm believer in the fact that we can help people we’ve never met. With social media, it’s possible to reach a world that extends way beyond our front doors. But even within our own areas, you never know who is listening. Or to whom you need to listen. Depression lies. Don’t forget that. It tells us that things can’t improve or nobody is listening. It says there is no help and there is no point. It whispers to you that you aren’t worth helping. Depression tells you to lay down, shut up and take it. You don’t have to. Sometimes the best therapy is being able to tell your story. Just as you never know who you might be helping, until you say it out loud, you don’t know who will be able to help you. Help is there. Support is around in abundance. You are most definitely not alone.

That’s the part of strong which you show to other people. The other side of being strong is very personal and is found within yourself. This is the strong part of you that fights. Sometimes that part starts with a teeny tiny spark. You may not know it’s there and it may flicker and fade sometimes. But when you find that fight inside you, no matter how small, grab onto it and don’t let go. This is the kind of strength that can save us. I am not saying that those that lose their fights are weak. Quite the opposite. These battles are difficult and so often, we don’t let other people in to help us fight them. But there are loads of people out there who want to help you fight when you need it. Friends, family, doctors and other professionals, and too many others to be named. But first, you have to find that spark that tells you the fight is worth trying. That part of you that loves yourself. That wants to live, to function, to be healthy. When you are wrapped up in depression, it may seem that there is no way out, but remember that depression lies. It tricks us into believing all of the bad things. Find whatever good and positive you can inside yourself and hold it close. It will grow. That spark, no matter how small, can be your life preserver that keeps you afloat. That is the part of you that is strong. Never forget that.

When wrapped up in the cold embrace of depression, it is easy to focus on what we didn’t or can’t do. “I didn’t make dinner.” “I can’t complete my assignment.” “I didn’t go to work.” “I didn’t get out of bed today.” Oftentimes, we set goals for ourselves that are unrealistic. Don’t judge your goals on other people’s. Because someone else makes dinner every night for their family, doesn’t mean you have to. Set small goals that you can reach. And each day, celebrate the ones you did. Think of things in the positive. “I did brush my teeth.” “I did feed the dog.” “I did change my clothes.” “I did take my medicine.” Nothing is so trivial that you can’t recognize it as an accomplishment. As you get better at managing your mental health, your goals and accomplishments can and will grow. And on the days when you backslide (which may happen), don’t forget about those smaller accomplishments. Everything you do can be celebrated. Be proud of all of those moments.

These are all the things that make someone strong. Always keep fighting. Be proud and love yourself. You are strong and you are worth it.

What is brave?

Since announcing I had started a blog, and anytime I am open about mental illness, I have been told how brave and strong I am. It is nice to hear that, but it brings up a few thoughts.

First, I hope that one day, being open about having a mental illness isn’t necessarily categorized as “brave.” The reason we call this openness brave is because in being outspoken or open about our conditions, we feel vulnerable. We leave ourselves wide open to possible judgement, unsolicited advice, and a whole array of other consequences. By telling the world we have some sort of mental health condition, we are exposing ourselves. Whether it is true or not, we feel as though the world is making silent accusations. “She just needs to get over it.” “He has nothing to be depressed about.” “She should just try (fill in the blank).” Sometimes, people vocalize these thoughts. It is not always out of a negative or mean nature; many people mean well, but don’t know how to deal with this knowledge. They are doing what they feel will help our situations or what they believe they would do in them. It is imperative to stop the stigma of mental health that tells the world these problems aren’t real, aren’t medical, and can be instantly cured. We have to let people know that it is ok to need help and to ask for help. We have to tell people that we don’t have all the answers and it isn’t an exact science. We have to show that it is ok to have conversations about mental health, whether about personal experiences or in general context. So yes, maybe right now, discussing personal experiences is considered brave, but my hope is that one day, it will be no more taboo than telling someone we have high blood pressure or a broken leg. One day, when someone mentions that they are dealing with a mental illness, the response will be more along the lines of support, knowledge, and experiences. One day, we won’t fear judgment or embarrassment. Talking about mental health may always be a brave thing to do, but one day, some day, it will be easier and commonplace. We should all be so brave.