I’m Not Doing Okay: Mental Disability and Oppression

I’m not doing okay. Those words scare you, don’t they? They scare me too.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability. I’ve mastered being vulnerable about my past – I’ve learned how to wrap up my hardships up in a little box and tie a ribbon on top. I’ve learned how to turn my stories of struggle into stories of hope, into stories of “I’m-doing-a-whole-lot-better-now” and “look-what-I’ve-overcome.” I’ve seen how powerful other people’s stories of vulnerability can be in encouraging others to share there own stories and reach out. But how come vulnerability is only acceptable when it’s contained to the past? How come I feel so much more comfortable sharing my past struggles, but not my present ones, the ones that need to be shared?

When I talk about mental health, I tend to talk about it in the past. Like it’s something I faced when I was younger. Something that I’ve overcome. And in a sense, I  have grown since then – I’ve learned how to care for myself and I’ve established a better social support system. But no matter how great of a job I do at self care, no matter how many times I go to counseling and no matter how great I am at remembering to take my anxiety medication, I still have bad days. Really bad days. And I don’t know how to talk about them, nor do I feel I have the space to talk about them (which is why I’m writing a post about it…forcing myself to be extra vulnerable).

I’ve learned that no matter how much self-care I do, I will still face hardship from my mental illnesses on two levels: 1) The biological, chemical level, and 2) The oppression I face for my disability.

On the biological level, I can’t help it. I’m sick. Sometimes I feel like a ticking time bomb – like one day, the depression will get so bad that I’ll explode. And that scares me, no matter how good I’m feeling, I’m terrified of that happening to me one day.

On the societal level, I am damn tired of constantly feeling pressured to normalize and minimize the oppression that I face. I took a social justice class last year. The professor was the best I’ve ever had, but I first started to notice something about the oppression I face as a person with a disability in this class – disability is always the first to leave the table. When we fell behind in class, the disability unit was the first to be cut. I attended a leadership conference a few weeks back. We did an activity about identities, where various identities were all put up around the room. Disability was not up there. I raised my hand and asked why, and was told that not all models are perfect. While that is true, I’m tired of disability being discounted from discussions about oppression. It’s incredibility important, especially when talking about intersectionality and the cross-over between other identities (i.e. race, gender, sexuality) and disability.

When it comes to invisible disabilities like mine, I feel like I’m constantly having to prove my disability to others. I’m very high-functioning. Like, in my three years of college, I’ve only missed a course because of a panic attack once. I volunteer a lot. I’m active on campus. Because of all these things, people doubt the validity of my mental illness. People assume that because I’m not having panic attacks at school like I used to in high school, it means I’m all better now.

Mental health is not simply an individual issue. Like I said earlier, I know how to practice self care. I go to therapy. I take my medicine. I work out and eat well and I do everything I can for my mental health, but it’s still not enough, and it won’t ever be enough if people continue to let the stigma that surrounds mental illness be so pervasive in society. Oppression for those with both physical and mental disabilities is real. I face it from  my own thought patterns that have been socialized into my behavior, from my peers, and from laws/policies/political rhetoric.

I’m tired of always being the voice to advocate for myself. Where are all of my friends who had my back for so long, who have seen first hand the things I experience in my mind – where are my allies? It’s exhausting enough to live with a mental health condition. It’s even more so to constantly have to speak up for myself when nobody else does.

When I say I’m not doing well, I generally get one of the following responses: Either people freak out and assume I’m at risk, or people think I just mean that I had a bad day. I hope that one day, I’ll live in a world where I can tell others I’m not doing well and they’ll understand what I mean – that I need support. Isn’t that what all of us need?

di9radxat

Why I’m Afraid of Netflix’s New Hit Show: Imitative Suicide and 13 Reasons Why

After watching 13 Reasons Why, suicide has been all I can think about, in an unhealthy way. I’ve been watching the show despite it being incredibly triggering, because I keep being told to give it a chance. I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast about suicide (highly recommend Freakonomics if you’re into podcasts like me), and it was enlightening in that it talked about the issue that 13 Reasons Why has been making me fear the most – imitative suicide.

One of the most intriguing cases of imitative suicide with the most telling results happening in Austria in in the second half of 1987. Because of high profile coverage of suicides on the Viennese subway, there was a huge jump in imitative suicides. To address this problem, the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention developed media guidelines about to address suicide, what images to show, and how to better prevent further instances. By changing the way that the Austrian media talks about suicide, there was a dramatic decrease in suicides in Austria. However, is censoring media coverage of suicide only furthering the problems with the stigma that surrounds suicide? Does starting the conversation about suicide and preventing suicide always have to be head-to-head?

For a short answer to that big question, I would say no. I’ve had successful experiences in small groups facilitating discussions about suicide prevention and I’ve seen it done on the media, in social settings, in the classroom, etc. 13 Reasons Why does provide an important conversation about bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, and my problems with the show aside, the cast is incredibly talented and diverse. Yet the show, in my opinion, is dangerous. My opposition to the show does not mean that I think suicide should remain silent and taboo – in fact, I’ve spoken out against the suicide taboo many times – but is a critique on the way that suicide is addressed in this show.

Graphic depictions of suicide lead to increases in suicide (again, listen to that Freakonomics podcast!). It’s not a controversial opinion; there is data that backs up these findings. When I first read the book, I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, and was just beginning to be influenced by mental illness and anxiety. I was hoping that a book about suicide, a topic that had been creeping into my mind, would help me better understand what I was going through. It only made me feel worse, and I can’t imagine what seeing a visual representation of the story would do to a person watching the show who is experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts. Granted, there are content warnings before more brutal or heavy episodes. But I know that I wouldn’t have paid much attention to them when I was younger, because I didn’t fully understand what I was going through.

Suicide cannot be riddled down to thirteen reasons or thirteen people. It’s complicated and complex. If you’re interested in the complexities, reach out to me, I’ve got access to a lot of resources and scholarship.

I am glad that the show decided to take on such an important topic, but am unhappy about the ways in which the topic was portrayed. I believe there could have  been more of an effort to talk about mental health and prevention. I know that the story is about a girl who was bullied, not mentally ill, and that thousands of suicides occur because of bullying. But I’m thinking about the impact here –  it is so difficult to access information about mental illness as a young person, especially if they are just beginning to experience mental illness, and this show is triggering to a point far beyond what I was expecting.

I know that I can’t speak for everyone. But my experiences are certainly relevant. I was bullied throughout my life – I was a bossy little kid who liked to read and would brag about my spelling test scores. Of course kids were mean to me. “Ditching” me on the playground was a game at recess – I wouldn’t go to the bathroom during the day because everytime I did, I would come out and my friends would be gone. In  middle and high school, friends talked about me behind my back frequently. Granted, we all talked about one another behind each other’s backs – but words affected me in a way that they didn’t affect everyone else. I had friends turn on me and break my heart. So yeah, I was bullied.

And on top of that, I had traumatic experiences with grief and loss and mental illness going on. So suicide is a familiar topic for me, as I’ve been in the position of feeling suicidal and I’ve dedicated a lot of my research and extracurricular experiences to suicide prevention and awareness.

I’ve seen a lot of articles and talked to a lot of people who have expressed concern with 13 Reasons Why – who feel it doesn’t represent the whole of feeling suicidal and feel that it portrays a false and dangerous message: If you kill yourself, everyone will feel bad about it and regret ever being mean to you. Even as someone who is no longer high-risk, the thought of everyone who was ever mean to me or pushed me aside feeling bad about it is appealing. And that terrifies me. If it’s appealing to me, how appealing is it to young people who are high-risk? Or are starting to have inklings of suicidal thoughts?

Yes, the show is addicting. Yes, there is phenomenal acting and representation in the show, which I don’t want to overlook at all. Maybe the show just isn’t made for people like me, who have had close experiences with suicide. But I think it’s safe to say that, if this show is having such a profound and terrifying effect on me, it’s having a profound and terrifying effect on many people. And the mere fact that so many people who identify as mentally disabled, have experience with suicide, or have experience with bullying are expressing discontent with this show demonstrates that there’s a problem. Obviously, not everyone with these experiences is expressing that there is a problem. But enough of them are.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to like the show, regardless of your relationship to suicide. I’m happy that there are people who have expressed love and healing that have come from this story. I’m so happy that it has facilitated a discussion about suicide, rape, and bullying.

I’m trying to say that, just  because you like the show, doesn’t mean you should discount the voices of people who are expressing concern. Do not label them as sensitive or easily triggered – I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’m not afraid to talk about suicide. My voice, and the voices of everyone else expressing concern, mean something, and that deserves to be heard and validated.

netflix27s_13_reasons_why_title_screen

Because I think talking about suicide and hearing stories about suicide is so important, here are a list of some of the better books that I have read that I think approach the issue in a much more accurate and less triggering way:

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Hold Still by Nina LaCour

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

 

 

 

Not Just “That Time of the Month”: Living with PMDD

10 days left until period. Once my lovely period tracker app reads those few words, I can already feel the panic. Every single time, spot on, I PMS for 10 days straight. But, it’s not just normal PMS (not that any PMS is particularly normal) – I suffer from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, or PMDD, a disorder that I was recently diagnosed with, despite knowing for years that it was happening to me. PMDD often goes untreated or unnoticed – people, even doctors, tend to write it off as “just PMSing.” This all, as too many things do, connects back to the narrative we tell ourselves about women and PMS – women’s experiences aren’t valued the same way that the experiences of men are. When I would try to explain my severe emotional PMS symptoms to doctors, I was not validated, and I felt crazy.

I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder a while ago, on top of multiple anxiety disorders. Not until recently has a clinician reassessed this and validated my experiences with depression and PMS. And unfortunately, many women have this similar experience.

Yes, I get cramps and I get emotional and I crave a lot of chocolate and fatty foods. But it’s more than that, and it lasts for 10 straight days. I have severe mood swings. I get sad, really sad, and I question everything in my life in those ten days. I have panic attacks. I’m irritable. I can barely make a decision about anything – which is incredibly frustrating, as if lasts for such a long time. I get night sweats. I’m so tired, I feel depressed, and I feel hopeless. I know that it will end; I know that once my period starts I will feel so much better.  But knowing that it gets better doesn’t stop the symptoms from happening.

The cycle is exhausting. It’s incredibly predictable and I tell myself that I know how to handle it – but sometimes, when I think about how 10 days out of my 30 day cycle are spent feeling depressed and anxious because of my period, I get really hopeless. I’ve tried birth control and that only made it worse, anti-depressants have helped treat my anxiety disorders but haven’t helped much concerning my PMDD. And the worst part is that I find myself invalidating my own experiences and belittling myself – I hear that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I’m just a crazy woman who’s PMSing. It’s been socialized into my brain to invalidate women’s experiences with their periods, even though I am a woman. That’s the most frustrating part.

Read more about PMDD here and ways to treat it (thanks Web MD!) and don’t be afraid to seek help from a therapist if you feel like you have PMDD.

pmdd01_amanda_excell_web

 

What I Actually Mean When I Say That I Can’t Come Out

“Sorry, I’m going to have to sit this one in.”

“I’m really tired tonight.”

“I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”

“I’m busy.” 

It’s hard being a college student with mental illness. It’s hard growing up in a culture that celebrates things my mental illness prevents me from always doing; a culture that celebrates going out, rewards you for how many drinks you can down in an hour, and high fives you if you pull an all-nighter.

            I wish I could do those things. Some of the best stories from my best friends come from sleepless, crazy nights. The truth is, that’s not something I can do very often, and it’s not because I’m boring or lame or a prude or whatever you want to call me.

            Mixing alcohol and anti-depressants is poison. Anti-depressants have a very similar affect on the brain that alcohol does; I like to joke around with my friends that it makes me always “a little drunk.” I’m the definition of a “light-weight.” I weigh 100 pounds, 5’1”, and I am a vegetarian – less carbs in my belly to soak up the alcohol, unless I stuff my face with bread beforehand (which I would gladly do, who doesn’t love bread). One drink and I can get tipsy, if I don’t have much in my stomach. And on the days when I have panic attacks, and have to take extra medication for that, I don’t dare to drink.

            Crowds give me anxiety and big groups of people do too, and I get worried that people will judge me for not having more than two drinks. I get worried about having to walk home alone, because my anxiety will get the best of me and I’ll have to leave before anyone wants to leave.

            I feel like nobody understands how much it affects my life. I became a vegetarian, in the first place, because my anxiety was affecting my eating habits and I would get attacks about becoming overweight every time I felt full. I thought becoming a vegetarian would help me lose weight. Now, I embrace it – I do it for the animal rights and for my own personal health, but when people ask why I became a vegetarian, it’s hard to explain that I became a vegetarian because I borderline had an eating disorder and was convinced that eating meat made me look a certain way.

            I work out four times a week because if I don’t, I start to get those feelings again. I start to feel like I’m getting lazy or not being productive, and I break. I do my homework ahead of time, not because I’m a goody-two-shoes or a prude, but because my brain literally screams at me until I do it.

            It’s more than just my introversion. It’s more than me being lame or square or whatever, because I chose to stay in. It’s because I don’t want to go down that hole. I know myself well enough to know my limits, and I hate that anxiety limits me in a way that stops me from doing all the things all my friends are doing. I hate that people don’t understand; that they just see it as me not liking to go out. I don’t know if I like it – there are times when I have. It’s not a question of liking it or not, it feels like life or death for me.

            Everything in my life has been shaped by my experience with generalized anxiety and panic disorder, and periods of depression that accompany it. My worries, my dreams, my career goals, my hobbies; literally everything. When I think about it, I get so mad. Because I want to be like other people; I want to have crazy stories about going out to bars while I’m abroad. I hate that I can’t, and I hate that people don’t understand, and I hate that it affects how others see me. I’m not judgmental. I’m not a prude. I want to hear about your crazy stories and how much fun you had; I want to hear it all. I’m just tired of being judged for a part of me that I didn’t choose. I’m working on loving, understanding, and caring for that part of me, and I hope that you can too.

             

Living with Panic Disorder

There is not cookie-cutter, clear-cut way to describe a day living with panic disorder. Sometimes, it’s just like what any other college student would call a normal day. I wake up, I work out, I go to class, I work, I hang out with friends. That’s what my day looks like most of the time. I think it’s the things that everyone can’t see that make my days so drastically different.

I try to stick to routine for stability. My brain doesn’t always follow suit. When I wake up in the morning, I have no idea how the day will go. Regardless, I’m always aware of how badly it could go. I’m always afraid of the drop of the pin moment when I can’t keep it together anymore.

A day filled with panic is a day that I can’t see coming. It’s when I’m five and my mom parks in a different spot than usual to pick me up, and the anxiety shoots up my spine as I cannot stop crying because I think that she has left me. It’s when I’m ten and my friends tell me I’m not very good at jump rope, and I feel the tears and the panic pulse throughout my body, all while I’m trying to argue with the feelings – I don’t even like jump rope. Why is this happening?

It’s when I’m twelve and I’m sitting in my best friend’s room and suddenly the world is moving too fast and everything is wrong. And they keep asking me what’s wrong and what happened, and the truth is I just don’t know, but I make up something because it’s not normal to be upset over nothing.

It’s when I’m sitting at lunch in high school surrounded by friends but suddenly get hit in the chest with feelings of being alone, unwanted, and invisible. It’s at my graduation after party, when I’m supposed to be happy, but the crowds make me hyperventilate and I spend most of the night crying in the bathroom. It’s when I’m running late for an event, and I get hit with feelings of worthlessness and panic.

The same thing could happen twice and it could give me a panic attack the first time, but not the second. The same thing could happen a hundred times, and only give me a panic attack once. The worst part is not knowing when it’s coming, and not knowing what will trigger it. The worst part is the ironic panic I constantly feel about the possibility of having a panic attack.

A panic attack feels different for each person, or so I’ve been told. For me, it’s like a train of feelings of sadness, insecurity, anxiety, and depression hit me at once. It’s when the world suddenly feels too loud, too bright, and too quiet, and all I want to do is close my eyes and plug my ears. It feels like I’m drowning in a tank that everyone walks by, staring in.

To all the people that have tried to help me but haven’t known how, I want you to understand that this is an illness. I am not having a panic attack because of something you did, I did, or anyone else did. I am having a panic attack because of the chemical imbalance in my brain. Please do not try to fix me, or tell me that you don’t understand me. There is nothing to be fixed or understood. Just a person who is drowning who wishes to be listened to. Thank you to everyone who has listened to me and sat with me – that is the best possible thing that you can do.

Teach Your Kids to Talk About Mental Health

My mental illness is a disability I’m very, very aware of. I’m made aware of it every day. I’m made aware of it when I sit in class and cannot sit still without a million of thoughts racing through my mind. I’m aware of it when throughout the day, my entire body urges me to crawl back into bed. I’m aware of it when people treat me like a bomb ready to explode, when all I want is to be treated like a person. I’m aware of it when sending a simple text makes me sweat until my palms are soaked and my hands shake. I’m aware of it when I have to leave the classroom to cry. I’m aware of it when everyone in my life tries to fix my problems, or calculuate my thoughts and my feelings down to one experience or event, when in reality it’s a daily routine. I’m aware of it when it’s hard to get about of bed. I’m aware of it when I look down and see that I’ve scratched so much at my hands that I’m bleeding. I’m aware of it when I’m alone, I’m aware of it when I’m with people. I’m aware of it on the days I’m feeling good, because I’m afraid that the next day, I won’t be feeling good. I’m aware of it on the days I’m feeling bad, because I can feel all eyes on me, staring at me, watching me fall apart. Little do they know that the days when I cry, when I shake, when I waver, are the days that I am fighting the hardest. The days when I smile and when I laugh I am still fighting, the war is just not raging as loudly on those days. And most of all, I’m aware of it when people don’t know how to help or talk to me.

Over the past few years of my life, I’ve been diagnosed with Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Seasonal Depression. Want to know what a panic attack feels like? It feels like a train hits you full of every feeling of insecurity, anxiety, and depression I’ve ever felt. It feels like the world gets too bright, too loud, and too crowded all at once, and all I want to do is plug my ears and close my eyes. It feels like drowning in a tank that everyone just walks past, not noticing. The worst part, though, is the lack of understanding and compassion from others, who try to equate my experience to “over-reacting,” while in reality it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that sends pangs of anxiety throughout my body in very unexpected and unpredictable circumstances.

I was lucky enough to receive training on how to talk to others experiencing these feelings and thoughts through a volunteer program. That, in addition to the fact that I live it every day. Of the plethora of problems with our education system in the United States, I think that a large problem is the things that we teach our kids. We know how to measure the angles in a triangle, but we don’t know the difference between OCD and Panic Disorder. We know how to properly cite with MLA citation, yet we don’t know how to spot the signs of depression in a friend, or what to do if we do spot those signs. We can draw a parallelogram, but we don’t know how to talk about the faded red lines on the arms of our best friend. It’s like the system is built to make us alone; to make us afraid and unable to help others.

We should teach our kids the warning signs, teach them to listen to the whispers that echo from the eyes of those suffering. The halls of my high school are filled with my demons  because not even I was trained to fight them. We need to arm our kids with weapons of self love and compassion to fight off their own demons and the demons of their peers. I’m tired of the neglect of mental health in this country, and I’m tired of my disability being overlooked, devalued, and invalidated. I’m tired of seeing articles that question my experience, and I’m tired of explaining myself. If our education system is so progressive, then mental health should be included, valued, and understood on the same level that physical health is. My experience is valid, and so is that of everyone else. I hope that you can all see that too. One in four people suffer from mental illness in the U.S. It’s not invisible, it’s present everywhere, and America needs to wake up to that.

pic

 

How to Help: Panic/Anxiety Attacks

Every word feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. Every decision feels like it is life-threatening. Every move feels like it is the most important thing in the world. The world feels too bright and the light hurts my head. Everything is spinning. I cannot breathe. I cannot think.
I get anxiety and panic attacks a lot. Lately, it has been daily. It’s been hindering my writing, hence the lack of posts in the past month. Thank god for my dog, who always seems to know what’s going on, and cuddles me even though I can’t stop hyperventilating. When I’m able to clear my head, I realize what I must look like from the outside, and how hard it must be for the people who love me to see me like this. I’m writing this for anybody who loves someone who suffers extreme anxiety attacks, and for those of you who suffer attacks like I do, I would suggest creating something similar to show your loved ones.
A few simple steps to help somebody having an attack:
1. Listen to them. If they tell you to stop talking, do. If they tell you to leave them alone, do. Don’t completely abandon them and walk away, but take a step back and be there to listen.
2. Get them water I know it’s something very simple, but it helps a lot. Especially if they are dry heaving or hyperventilating. They need water. It can help calm them down.
3. Remember, this is NOT who they are The person they become when they are having an attack is not who they truly are.
4. Do NOT downsize their problems While the situation at hand may appear easily fixed from your point of view, to them, it’s the scariest thing in the world. Do not downsize or try to fix their problems. Listen to them. If they want to think of a solution, you can help, but do not try to fix everything yourself because you do not see the problem the same way they do.
5. Be there Honestly, that’s the best you can do. Sit with them through it. They will appreciate you so much for it.

Hope this helps somebody. Will try to write more these coming weeks. xoxo