There are some demons we fight that never leave bruises, cuts, broken bones, or other physical signs of struggle. These are sometimes the most difficult to overcome. They usually leave us feeling alone, inside our own minds, with nothing and no one to comfort us.
As a young child, I witnessed some things that I pray my children never have to see. Some of those images cannot be erased from my memory. I still have nightmares about them. I still find myself having to catch my breath when I see or hear something that reminds me of those experiences. I cannot write about this without getting emotional because it is something that has so deeply affected my mind and heart.
I have decided to share these experiences not to scare people, convince them to feel sorry for me, or make them feel uncomfortable around me. I share them with the hope of raising awareness about the reality of mental illness and hopefully offer some comfort to those currently in the trenches, fighting to get help.
In a strange way I am almost grateful for my experiences. I have learned some important skills that have turned out to be very useful. Because of that, I have a better understanding of how to teach my children those skills without them having to experience what I did. I also hope that I can be some kind of resource or encouragement for people going through similar struggles. This was a big part of the reason I wanted to start this blog.
I have seen many therapists and been on many different medications throughout my life. Just last year I was working with a therapist who diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the many symptoms of this much larger problem is anxiety and depression.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows the results of a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the year 2014. It shows that 15.7 million U.S. adults suffered at least one major depressive episode in the previous year. That is 6.7% of all U.S. adults. When you consider how devastating and even dangerous this disorder can be, that is a huge number of people.
Looking even deeper, the NIMH states that women are more likely to suffer from depression than men, including an estimated 10-15 percent of women who, after giving birth, experience postpartum depression. This is a serious problem and deserves our attention in order to bring more awareness, understanding, and better treatment for those who suffer from it.
My depression and anxiety started as a young girl with odd, obsessive and compulsive behavior. In my unpredictable and turbulent world I was fighting for some control. As a result, I developed some tendencies that I still struggle with today including compulsive overeating and binge eating, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, a disproportionate desire to please other people, and severe anxiety in situations where I do not feel safe or in control.
I also experienced physical symptoms that were aggravated by anxiety. These included bedwetting, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which brought with it a whole slew of digestive problems including extremely painful colon spasms.
I used to think about how much I wished my symptoms showed up as bruises and broken bones because at least people would be aware of my struggle and maybe they would be more understanding and I wouldn’t feel so alone in my own head.
After escaping the dangerous environment of my early childhood, I went through the rest of my young life, being embarrassed about my past and my “issues” but managed to cope enough to get by and live a fairly normal life. I would occasionally go through downtimes and see a therapist for a while, even try different medications but nothing ever seemed to help and most medications caused side effects I couldn’t deal with.
After decent success in high school in my many endeavors I received an excellent scholarship to the college of my choice. I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to attend the university I had dreamed of but knew I could never afford. I set out on my own, with total confidence and thinking I had control over my mind and my life. Little did I know, I was on a straight path to total breakdown.
After some unfortunate and traumatic experiences that brought me back to feeling like a scared child again, hiding in my closet, I barely survived my first year of school. It was suddenly brought to my attention that maybe I had made a bad decision. I was completely and totally overwhelmed and my anxiety was on full force. As a result, the deep depression I fell into was an act in the story of my life I hardly even remember. Most days, I didn’t so much as get out of bed.
My roommates would try to encourage me in different ways. Sometimes they would do it lovingly, other times more direct and offensively. One roommate in particular felt it necessary to add insult to injury when she nonchalantly commented one day while we were all in the kitchen, “I can’t stand people who waste their scholarships. I have to pay my own way through school and so I work hard to get good grades. Yet there are people who have scholarships where someone else is paying for it and they don’t even go to class.”
Of course what she said was true. But that didn’t help motivate me. In fact, it made me feel even more guilty and more worthless and…more tired. So I went back to bed.
I would sometimes wake up hysterical and crying and want to punch myself to wake me up out of this fog I was in. It was incredibly debilitating and frustrating. Some days I lost the will to live but was too exhausted to do anything about it.
As a result of all of this, I lost my scholarship, my acceptance at the school, my job, and my entire identity. I slowly sunk into what felt like a never-ending hole that I would never be able to get out of. I can see, while many people absolutely cannot, how there are people in this world who feel like taking their life is the only way out.
It is difficult for many to understand why we depressed people just can’t see the brighter side of things. When you’re in the hole of depression, everything looks black. You don’t see the entrance nor do you see the exit. Your biggest fear is that you are stuck in that black hole, with only your own terrifying thoughts, forever. You begin to feel that everyone in your life would be better off if you just weren’t here. They could move on and stop depending on you and being disappointed when you don’t get out of bed and show up. They could stop worrying about how to help you.
Luckily, I have an amazing mother who finally got to the bottom of my aloofness and realized I was in a very dark place. She suggested I move home in order to try to get back on my feet.
Moving home saved my life. I was once again in my “safety zone” and my anxiety was turned down tremendously. I had to start over essentially. I started over at a different, much smaller school, with good friends from my childhood who buoyed me up and helped me climb out of that black hole.
Turning my focus back to my faith in God was vital in my transformation. Although I had never lost it completely, I relearned how the atonement of Jesus Christ can help us overcome absolutely anything, including climbing out of the black hole of depression.
Through therapy with the right therapist and finally a medication that actually helped, I was able to rebuild my life. Soon after, I graduated with my associate’s degree and decided to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
My mission was truly the highlight of my life up to that point. I was extremely apprehensive about my ability to stick it out the entire 18 months because I knew it was another drastic change, taking me out of my “safety zone”. Fortunately, and much to my surprise, I was able to manage my anxiety and depression by continuing with my medication and learning to rely on my Savior. I made many new friends and learned more about my relationship with my Savior and myself than I ever could have otherwise. It was life-changing and prepared me more for the rest of my life than any other experience.
It is also because of my mission that I was able to meet my husband.
Dating had never been a big thing for me. I never really had a steady boyfriend and frankly, trusting men was never something I felt like I could do. I felt incredibly anxious around them and an unhealthy obligation to please them. I enjoyed having guy friends but could never allow them the privilege of holding my heart because I knew how fragile it was, especially in the hands of a man.
Somehow my husband convinced me otherwise. I fell in love with him as a person before I ever fell in love with him as an eternal mate. I respected him in a way I had never respected any other man. All that he had been through made me admire his strength and I felt safe in his presence. He became my new “safety zone.”
Since marrying my husband I was able to successfully wean myself off my medication. I am not convinced that I will never need it again but I am committed to going without it as long as I possibly can. I have learned new and more effective coping skills to deal with my anxiety and am more aware of that downward spiral that quickly leads to the black hole of depression. With my excellent support system that includes my husband, my kids, and my close-knit family, I have been mostly successful without depending on medication.
This month I would like to create a series about depression and hopefully offer some help to both the victims of depression and the loved ones of those victims. Depression is kind of a general symptom of many mental illnesses. It is different for everybody and there are all different kinds, causes, and levels of severity.
Please note that I am not qualified, nor would I ever claim to be, to offer advice or treatment for people suffering from mental illness. I only offer my story, strategies that have worked for me, and the always undercurrent counsel to seek professional help. Therapy and medication were what essentially saved me when I was in the depths of depression and I would always encourage anybody I know in similar situations to seek counsel from a doctor or therapist.
The topics I intend to cover this month are warning signs of depression, strategies to keep you from going down that rabbit hole, advice for loved ones trying to help, and hopefully some strategies that might help people who suffer from anxiety that tends to lead to depression. Again, professional therapy and medication are often necessary and very helpful and I am not against them in any way. If you or a loved one is suffering from severe anxiety or depression, please talk to your doctor.
I hope you will join me in the fight against mental illness by being more open in our communication about it. It is scary to talk about our thoughts and what we feel when we are in the depths of these things but it is the most secure way to climb out of it as well. I hope what I share this month will either help encourage you personally or that you will share it with someone you believe might be encouraged by it.
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Do you or someone you know suffer from depression and/or anxiety? What has been your experience and what has helped you?