Learning to live in spite of suicidal thoughts

I’ve been slowly realizing something. The realization is that I can’t continue to use the same techniques for coping with my depression and suicidal thoughts that I always have, now that they are constant. You see, for years I experienced ups and downs. My depression came in waves. When I was at my lowest I could expect that I would pull out of it soon. When I was suicidal I knew that it never lasted more than a few months at a time.

That pattern changed three years ago. My depression worsened, my anxiety skyrocketed. My life changed dramatically. Since then, I’ve had only a few brief breaks from my depression and suicidal thoughts. Depressed and suicidal is my new normal.

I’ve had to adapt to my worsened symptoms, lower level of functioning and the ways they have limited my life. At first, I did what I have always done when I feel my worst. I ate comfort food. I wore pyjamas. I took baths multiple times a day. I watched all my favourite movies, over and over again. The problem is, while I say “at first”, I have been mostly doing this for the past three years. My coping has been in keeping myself as comfortable as possible. This was how I adapted, the only way I knew how.

The instinct to keep myself comfortable is a good one. It has saved my life on many occasions. It has kept me from further self-harm, helped me feel safer when everything around me seems dark and uncertain. However, after three years these attempts to self-soothe and provide comfort have begun to look more like my own form of hospice care. Being suicidal, I’ve not believed I will live. When I don’t believe I will live, I don’t see any reason to not just make what remains of my life as comfortable as possible.

What if being suicidal doesn’t mean I’m going to die? What if I can come to terms with my worsened illnesses and find ways to adjust my lifestyle to accommodate my new needs? What if I can bring myself to believe that I can live in spite of all of it? Seeking comfort in a decadent dessert, favourite movie and cozy pair of pyjamas can be helpful in coping with intermittent illness, but it’s no way to live every single day of my life. What if the things I’ve been doing every day are holding me back?

In short, comfort isn’t a solution. Comfort can help me cope with momentary distress, but is not suitable as the main line of defence against my long-term illnesses. It has a part to play, but I can’t allow it to take the leading role in my life on an ongoing basis. Not if I want to believe my life is worth living.

The alternative to comfort is, of course, discomfort. Pushing. Wearing clothes that I feel uneasy in after three years of pyjamas. Maintaining a routine for my exposure therapy even on days when it is hardest. Waking up at the same time every day and forcing myself out of bed even when my whole being revolts against it. Exercising at home, since my agoraphobia and social anxiety have stolen my ability to do it elsewhere. Eating healthily instead of chasing momentary solace in foods that cripple my body in the long run. None of this is comfortable. It is gruelling, unsettling. More importantly though, this has the potential to actually help.

I’ve been treating my day to day life as if my death is inevitable. I’ve given therapy my absolute best, but I haven’t done the same with the way I live. Despite being sure I’m going to die my mind and body have refused to give up. Even when I wish they would. Perhaps then, I should start believing that it is not my death, but rather my life that is inevitable.

I’d love to tell you that the changes I’m making and the manner in which I’m adapting my thinking have had a major effect on my illnesses. I wish I could but I can’t. I remain just as depressed and anxious. Most disappointingly, I’m still suicidal. In a way, that makes me all the more proud of myself. Proud that I am making changes in spite of feeling horrible. Proud that I’m not allowing myself to give in so easily. Pride in myself, as far as I can tell, is as good an argument as any to keep going.

Take care,

Fiona

Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash

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My 2018: Loneliness & Finding Purpose

As the year comes to an end, it seems appropriate to reflect on 2018. In comparison to the drastic highs and lows of my 2017, this year has been calm. However, it hasn’t been without its own significance.

In 2017, Tom and I got married. I also spent a lot of time in mental health inpatient wards at local hospitals. We bought a house. I struggled with adjusting to prolonged unemployment and learning to cope with my worsened illnesses. These were the kinds of disjointed highs and lows that marked a very dramatic year. If I had to describe 2017 in two words, they would be: love & hospitals.

2018 has been much more subdued and I’m glad for that. 2017 was hectic, nonstop. 2018 has been, on the whole, slow and steady. There have been no hospitalizations or trips to the emergency room. There have also been no major life events like our wedding or buying our house. I’ve seen both improvements and regressions in my mental health. It’s hard to draw conclusions about 2018, it has been an inconclusive kind of year. However, if I were to once again pick two words to describe my year, this one could be summarized with: loneliness & purpose.


Loneliness

For much of 2018 I have been more secluded than ever. I seldom see anyone other than Tom. This isn’t due to any barriers other than my anxiety and depression. I have many amazing family members and friends who live close by and are eager to see me. I’m dying to see them, but I can’t. My depression causes a lack of motivation and drive to connect with my loved ones. My anxiety disorders cause me to feel sick at the mere notion of seeing others. Working in tandem, my illnesses led me to enter into a cycle of seclusion, which is proving hard to break.

Loneliness has had several impacts. It leaves me with a constant aching to see the people I love. I believe it worsens my depression, particularly my feelings of worthlessness. It also takes a toll on my physical health. Between this loneliness and my continued struggle to leave the house due to my agoraphobia, I’ve had to fight to maintain a sense of hope that my life has any real value. Much like 2017, 2018 has been riddled with long and low lows, high anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

To that end, however, I’ve seen improvement. I’m much more capable of managing my symptoms than I was in 2017. I haven’t needed to be hospitalized. I’ve come quite a long way in reducing my self-harm. I have a plan for when I become depressed. I have strategies that have helped me reduce the amount of panic attacks I have in my day to day life at home. I have skills that contribute to less onerous anxiety. I have strategies to cope with panic attacks when they come, which help them resolve more quickly and less painfully. I have a lot of work left to do, but there has been progress in these areas. I carried a lot of lessons forward from 2017 and these are some of the ones that have stuck. These have perhaps been my most notable achievements this year.

Purpose

Another achievement that marks this year is finding purpose. In December of last year, during my final hospital stay, my inpatient psychiatrist made a recommendation. The absence of work or studies since my health declined a few years ago has contributed to me feeling worthless and hopeless. With my frequent mental health related appointments in 2017, managing my mental illnesses had become my whole life. His suggestion was that I pursue some sort of volunteering or activity to help give me a sense of purpose.

The question became: What could I do from my own house, with minimal interaction with others, on a flexible schedule, that would fit in with my skill set and give me a sense of purpose?

Eventually, I created a volunteer opportunity that worked for me. I connected online with a young family of five in my neighbourhood. For a few months, I cooked a weekly healthy meal for them. It was perfect, I got to utilize one of my skill sets and interests for the betterment of others. For the first time in a long time, I felt I was making a valuable contribution to someone else. This continued until my depression worsened and I could no longer cook.

Around the same time, I also began volunteering for a political campaign leading up to an election I cared about. I was grateful to be able to place phone calls from home for the campaign. Taking on that responsibility was a significant challenge, as the phone is a source of anxiety for me. However, driven as I was to support the cause, I placed somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred phone calls in couple of weeks. On election day, I even pushed myself to leave the house and go to the crowded polling station to place my vote.

The most significant new source of purpose I have gained was in finding Letters Against Depression. I intend to write a dedicated post about this organization soon, so stay tuned for that. In short, Letters Against Depression offers a way for individuals who are suffering to receive encouraging and positive hand-written letters from volunteers. I began volunteering as soon as I learned about them, and I’m so glad I did. Writing these letters has given me an opportunity to help others, while also reminding me of all the things I have learned. Much like this blog, it is a way of taking this mental health nightmare I’ve been living for the past several years, and actually making some good come from it.

Of course, this blog cannot be forgotten. Since launching in late 2017, I’ve grown to understand that I have a voice and that there are people who want me to use it. Having always wanted to be a writer in some capacity, this has been amazing for me. This blog and my associated Twitter account are also responsible for a significant buffer to the loneliness I spoke of earlier. I have met some truly incredible people who inspire me, motivate me and make me feel I have something to contribute. I have written some pieces that I am very proud of, and have been moved by the positive feedback I’ve received as a result. I continue to learn and grow through the work I put in here. I continue to be grateful for it. In this blog, I’ve found a great deal of purpose.


I take comfort in knowing that despite the positives and negatives this year has brought, it was much more level than the year that came before it. Likewise, I’m comforted in things that have not changed, like supportive and loving relationships with my husband, family and friends. In 2019, I hope to continue my journey towards further stability. I want to learn more, do more things for others and write more. I hope to spend more time with people I love, and reconnect with things that anxiety and depression have stolen from me. In an ideal world, I’d like the opportunity to feel better too.

I’m wishing you all a warm end to 2018 and a 2019 that surpasses your wishes.

Take care,

Fiona

Sincerely, Your Friend with Social Anxiety Disorder

Hi there,

It’s me, your friend with social anxiety disorder. I wanted to write to let you know that you matter to me. I’m sorry that I haven’t been in touch enough lately. I know it isn’t easy for you, and I’m trying to do better.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to see you. Sometimes I have to cancel plans or decline invitations. Sometimes I can’t pick up the phone when you call. Sometimes those ‘sometimes’ turn in to ‘all the time’. I know that’s hard for you. Please don’t take it to mean that I don’t care. I’m working hard to manage the symptoms of my disorder so that I can shower you with love and attention. Our friendship is important to me. You are important to me.

It’s okay if you don’t understand why I can’t always handle social situations and interactions. I have a hard time understanding it too. Thank you for being patient with me.

Sincerely,

Your friend with social anxiety disorder

The Medication Gamble

Medications offer a chance of improvement, but as most anyone who has tried a psychiatric medication can likely attest: it can be hard to find the right one for you. The process can take years and be disheartening at times. Taking medications is a gamble. We risk disappointment and side effects ranging from minor to severe in order to potentially reap the rewards that medication can offer. Medication is a critical tool in the management of mental illness for many people. However, the process of finding the right medication and complications that can arise from taking medications deter some of us from trying.

This morning I took my first dose of a new (to me) medication. I have tried over 15 psychiatric medications, among which very few have had the desired result without unbearable side effects. To say that this morning’s pill was a hard one to swallow, would be painfully accurate. I’m anxious. I’m trying my best not to read in to every little thing I’m perceiving in my body and mind. You know that feeling when someone says they have lice and you start itching your scalp? Reading the list of potential side effects of a medication can cause a similar sensation. In an effort to calm down, I’m trying to remember why I’m taking this risk, and I thought I’d share that with you.

Early this summer I stopped taking all of the daily medications I had been previously prescribed. I decided to reduce the dose of each of them, one at a time, in order to see if I felt any difference with or without them. The result seemed to be that none of the medications I was taking were having any positive effect on my mood. In one case, reducing and then eliminating one of my medications from my regimen seemed to pull me out of my brutal two-year-long depression. I had been prescribed all of the medications I was taking over a short period of time, so I hadn’t been able to isolate the impact of each medication. Starting back up from zero felt like the right decision. Once I was free from daily medications, I was faced with a choice: start trying a new medication or take a break. I took a break.

The break has been wonderful. It has given me the opportunity to rest my body – free from the side effects of medications and symptoms of beginning and ending medications. For two years I had felt like a guinea pig – constantly trialing something new and coming off of something else. Trying 15 medications in two years was taxing on my body and mind. I tend to be sensitive to changes in psychiatric medication, experiencing headaches, stomach upset, brain zaps, nausea and negative mood changes, among other side effects. In a couple of cases I have had to immediately stop taking a medication because of potentially severe side effects (a rash with Lamotrigine & a dramatic increase in suicidal ideation with Mirtazapine). I’ve had to stop taking Venlafaxine, Desvenlafaxine and Clonazepam, leading to horrible withdrawals. In all of this I’ve found one medication that works for me without any major side effects, the afore mentioned Clonazepam. While I’ve had to stop taking it daily due to concerns around dependency, I continue to use it infrequently on an as-needed basis to help manage my anxiety and panic. One medication, out of at least 15, has been helpful in a lasting way. Taking a break from trying new medications has given me the chance to escape from the pressures of trying medications, and the disappointment when the gamble doesn’t pay off.

I knew, of course, that I would have to make the choice between continuing to manage my illnesses without daily medication or trialing new medications again. Would I continue to avoid new medications and eliminate the possibility of finding a medication that helps? Or keep trying medications in spite of my terror of putting my body and mind through uncertain changes again? Ultimately, I know I don’t want to cut out the chance of finding a method of treatment that could make the weight of these illnesses easier to bear. Yesterday, when my psychiatrist again suggested I try Moclobemide, I agreed. She first suggested this medication to me months ago, and I’ve been giving one reason or another (with the prevailing reason being my anxiety about beginning medication trials again) for why I didn’t want to start taking it yet ever since. Now, in the beginning phases of a depressive episode, after months of rest, I decided it was time.

Moclobemide is an antidepressant in a different medication class than any I have taken to date. It tends to be weight-neutral (a major plus for me as I struggle with weight gain), low on side-effects and has been seen to improve social anxiety for some individuals who take it. I took my first pill this morning. It’s time to hold my breath and hope this gamble pays off.

Take care,

Fiona

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The Meaning of “Like As The Waves”

Perhaps you have wondered why this, my personal mental health blog, is titled Like As The Waves. Well, today I’d like to attempt to demystify that for you.

What’s in a name?

In searching for a title for this blog, I kept coming up short. I wanted something that held meaning for me, that spoke to who I am and also related to mental health. I’m confident that, without the context, it might be hard to understand how this relates to mental health at all. The explanation is personal and layered, but I hope you’ll enjoy it. At the very least, I think you’ll learn a bit more about who I am and what is important to me.

The words, “like as the waves”, open my favourite sonnet by William Shakespeare, sonnet 60. I first discovered this sonnet in my teen years when I attended a Shakespeare program at an arts camp. There, I was taught to perform Shakespeare’s pieces and appreciate his work. In my teens I was heavily involved in theatre, a passion I still hold but haven’t practiced in years. My final performance for the camp was a scene from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but sonnet 60 was one of the pieces I practiced with. Back then I was entranced by Shakespeare’s work for the wordiness, drama and rhythm of it all. Too busy learning iambic pentameter to delve into the most important part of any piece of literature – the meaning. I lacked a real understanding of Shakespeare’s work, so I had trouble interpreting it.

There were other things I struggled to interpret at that camp. My time at that camp was the setting of some of the earliest panic attacks I can remember. I was away from home, I had to socialize, take care of myself and do things I wasn’t always comfortable doing. At the time, I knew I had asthma and assumed my panic attacks were just asthma attacks. It was only years later that I was able to see that I struggled significantly with my mental health during my time at camp.

I think it’s fair to say, I’ve struggled significantly with my mental health ever since, too. I’ve had periods of happiness amongst depressive lows. A pattern which I eventually began explaining as waves. It’s common, when I’m talking to someone I trust, for me to reference my waves (e.g. “this low wave is lasting too long” or “I feel the next wave coming on”). This phrasing isn’t uncommon amongst individuals with mental illness, and its link to my favourite piece of poetry didn’t occur to me until recent years.

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end;

Each changing place with that which goes before,

In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

 

Nativity, once in the main of light,

Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,

Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

 

Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,

And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,

Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,

And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:

 

And yet, to times in hope my verse shall stand,

Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 60

I believe, all these years after his death, it is up to us to interpret the meaning of Shakespeare’s work. Certainly, we can draw on the work of expert scholars for sound interpretations to trust. But, if I may be so bold, I think poetry is as beautiful as it is because it is interpreted by each person who reads it. Ten plus years ago, in camp, I didn’t fully understand this sonnet. It was just a lyrical collection of pretty words. Now I see it as a powerful piece with themes of time, loss and water.

If you’re interested in much more in-depth, academic and, I’m sure, accurate interpretations of this, my favourite sonnet, a simple Google search will bring up hours worth of reading.

Sonnet 60, to me, speaks to how time gives and takes. It tells a story of how time changes us, it brings us in the world but also ages us and takes us from it. I often find depression and anxiety cause me to fixate on time. When I come out of a depression I often feel a sense of grief over the time and life I lost while I was in it. During a panic attack, time seems to be rushing by so quickly, every second can feel like a minute, every minute like an hour. “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end;” With time we can recover from mental illness, with time our mental illness can worsen. We wish for more time or less, depending on how we are at that moment. Time, along with language, is one of the principal ways I feel we construct our world.

Back to the waves; they are at once captivating and predictable, tenacious and fleeting. A tidal wave can pull you under, while the splash of a wave on your feet can make you feel alive. Waves vary in strength, in number and in size, but through it all they never stop for long. I experience my own waves of many kinds too– happy waves, anxious waves, depressed waves, but time keeps moving and I keep going.

I find water to be a powerful source of imagery in describing my life with mental illness. Beyond just the use of the word “waves”, I also find myself using other depictions. “I’m sinking”, “I’m drowning” and “I’m treading water” are other phrases I use regularly. I’ve always been a bit of a water baby. My mom is a fantastic swimmer who always shared her love of swimming with me. As a kid, I also had access to a great outdoor pool at my dad’s home. One of my top coping tools for hard days is taking a bath. A long-term goal of mine is being able to get out to the public pools near me. Given a choice between the four elements (water, fire, earth and air) I will always choose water. Water is my element, I’m in my element with water.

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I was in the middle of planning this blog when I flipped through my Complete Works of Shakespeare for inspiration. In revisiting my favourite sonnet, “like as the waves” seemingly jumped off the page. I couldn’t think of anything else afterwards. No other option would suffice. Yes, I sometimes wish my blog title had a clearer message to everyone who reads it. Yes, I do find it awkward capitalizing the “As The” in the title; while that’s not proper English I visually can’t get past how odd “Like as the Waves” looks. I may change the title someday. However, to me, this blog title is perfect. It’s me. It’s my mental health, my mental illness, my passion for theatre and literature, and my story all rolled in to one confusing (to others, I assume) package. I’m okay with that. Mental illness is confusing. I’m confusing. This blog is at times confusing. There is a certain beauty in uncertainty and confusion, anyways.

If you’ve made it this far, I sincerely applaud you! I’ve tried to write this a few times before and struggled to find the right balance in which I avoided making a lengthy essay while still hitting all the major points of the meaning the title holds for me. (My longest draft was over 5 pages long – so at least you were spared that pain!) I’m not sure if anyone will quite understand this, but it feels cathartic to put it in to words anyways. This is me, I’m Fiona, and like as the waves, I keep going.

Take care,

Fiona

Both images included in this post are my own