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

Coping with Agoraphobia During the Holidays

This post is a part of Nicole Carman’s mental health-related holiday post series, “Taking Care of your Mental Health during the Holiday Season.” To see the post line-up for the previous and remaining posts in this series, please visit this page on Nicole’s blog, Navigating Darkness. If you enjoy this post, please comment and consider sharing it on social media!

Holiday outings, gatherings and travel can all be stressful sources of anxiety and panic for individuals living with agoraphobia. There are, however, steps we can take to help mitigate the anxiety of the holiday season and increase our chances of finding joy in the festivities as this year comes to a close. With that in mind, I’m sharing some practical tips to help you cope with agoraphobia during the holidays. I hope these suggestions will help you keep the holiday spirit alive!


Set yourself up for success

During the holidays, you may find yourself being repeatedly invited in to situations that trigger your agoraphobia. The demands can be high with shopping, travelling, celebrations, religious services, outdoor activities, and more. The holidays are a time of togetherness and tradition, which can lead us to feel pressured to ensure we don’t miss out on a thing. It’s okay, and it’s healthy, to prioritize your needs during the holidays.

In advance of the holidays, formulate a plan that you are comfortable with. Make sure your schedule is manageable and that you aren’t going to exert yourself to a point of excessive distress. That might mean that you can’t do everything you would like to do or that is expected of you. Or perhaps you need to make accommodations to fit your needs. Be realistic with yourself and find a balance that will help you feel safe this holiday season. Managing your expectations ahead of time can help you feel more in control. Likewise, making realistic plans can lessen your disappointment or feelings of guilt over things you can’t participate in. The holidays are hard enough without blaming yourself for the things you can’t do.

Here are a few examples of accommodations you can make in order to minimize the toll of agoraphobia at this time of year:

  • Conduct your holiday shopping online.
  • Schedule breaks away from your triggers.
  • Offer to host an event at home.
  • Reduce your number of social engagements.
  • Limit your travel.
  • Plan to attend social engagements for a limited period of time.

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Photo by Walid Amghar on Unsplash

Start exposure early

You will likely be familiar with the concept of exposure therapy. For people with agoraphobia, avoidance can create a vicious cycle. There are few things more terrifying in my life than heading in to the holidays after months of seclusion. Personally, I know that it wouldn’t be healthy for me to jump in to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season without exposing myself to similar situations and settings in advance. Nor, however, would I be satisfied with avoiding the holidays all together. Even if you are not currently trapped in a cycle of avoidance, exposing yourself to situations that mirror those you will be faced with during the holidays might be a good plan and help you feel prepared.

Think of what your plans are for this holiday season and take note of the challenges they present for you. As someone with agoraphobia I struggle to leave the house, be in crowded spaces or open spaces and spend time in the car. Ideally, this December I would like to be able to attend family gatherings at my parents’ homes, go to a Christmas market, take a small road trip to visit my in-laws, and maybe even build a snow man or two. This list is daunting, so I am beginning to prepare myself.

Let’s say you are also planning a road trip to see family in December. A good idea would be to start preparing now. How comfortable are you in a car? If you are currently comfortable spending 5 minutes in the car in your neighbourhood, that could be your starting point. Make a schedule of when you will practice your car exposure. Ideally, you will increase the time you spend in the car each time you practice. Is highway driving more frightening to you than driving in rural areas? If so, build yourself up to being on the highway in short increments. Don’t forget to use your coping tools here. If music helps you feel safer, play music in the car! If you are the passenger and using distraction is effective, bring something in the car that you can distract yourself with! Celebrate your successes and don’t despair in the times when your anxiety gets the best of you, this is hard work. While graded exposure is exhausting, with practice, the situations that provoke your anxiety may begin to feel less threatening. Hopefully by the holidays you will be able to get in the car with a higher level of comfort.

Consult with any mental health professionals you see regarding your pre-holiday exposure. Their advice may be invaluable in helping you set achievable goals and develop coping strategies to help manage your anxiety during anxiety-provoking situations.

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Photo by Pexels on Pixabay

Plan for difficult situations

Inevitably, we will find ourselves in situations that make us uneasy during the holidays. Making accommodations for ourselves and practicing exposure can help, but those measures won’t remove all potential for distress. It’s important to have a plan in place for when you become anxious or panicked. Here are a few suggestions based on how I am preparing for any difficulties that arise from my agoraphobia this holiday season:

  • Address anxiety as it arises. Whenever possible, don’t allow it the chance to escalate.
  • Ask someone you trust to accompany you for your anxiety-provoking plans.
  • Assemble a crisis kit. My crisis kit is a collection of items that help me manage feelings of anxiety, panic and distress in order to keep me calm and limit the need to use maladaptive coping tools. A crisis kit should include items that work best for you. This might include items that engage your senses (which I have found to be a powerful distress tolerance skill), a list of your top coping tools, personal mementos that calm you, etc. When I feel my emotions spiralling out of my control, I reach for my crisis kit to find comfort, calm, and practical tools to address my distress.
  • Establish a safe place where you can retreat during outings. This might be the bathroom at a restaurant, the basement at your friend’s house or an indoor space adjacent to outdoor activities. You can use this space for planned breaks or as needed. Knowing there is somewhere safe to go can make a difficult situation feel more tolerable.
  • Keep anti-anxiety medications on hand. There is no shame in taking medication to help manage your anxiety. If you take an anti-anxiety medication on a ‘take-as-needed’ basis, it may be helpful to make sure your prescription is filled and you carry it with you during the holidays.
  • Have someone to call if you need it. Whether this is a loved one, your mental health professional or a local crisis line – ensure that you have someone to turn to for help. You don’t have to manage the holidays alone, there are people out there who care and will want to support you.

Maintain a routine

While this is can be a significant challenge at this time of year, maintaining a routine can help you feel more comfortable, safe and calm. I suggest that you try to maintain a sleep schedule, or at least ensure you are consistently allowing yourself a full night’s sleep. Eat healthily throughout the day and maintain your exercise routine. Try not to let your hygiene routine slip either – prioritizing showering or bathing, brushing your teeth and combing your hair can all help you feel more in control. Self-care practices can (and probably should) also be a part of your routine. If you need to stray from your routine, ensure your basic needs are still being met. The anxiety and panic of agoraphobia are often exacerbated when we are tired, hungry or don’t feel like ourselves. Maintaining a routine can also help you navigate your way more smoothly through the transitions into and out of the holidays.

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Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

Be kind to yourself

I know all too well how harshly we, as people with agoraphobia, can beat ourselves up when we feel we have let ourselves or others down. This year, you may not make it to every party you’ve been invited to. You may find the holidays to be a chore rather than a celebration. You might not be able to travel with your family. You may not build a snow man. Agoraphobia is hard, harder than I can generally express. It can rob of us our most joyous celebrations and traditions, which makes it a most unwelcome guest during the holidays. Please, show yourself some compassion. I understand the frustration or disappointment you may feel in yourself, but I’m confident that you are doing your best. Fixating on your perceived mistakes will only make you feel worse, and may well make next year’s holidays feel like an even greater challenge. Be proud of the things you manage to do, celebrate any moments of joy, and dispense of the rest. It’s the season of giving, let this be your gift to yourself.


I hope that these tips and suggestions have helped you feel prepared to face challenges that come your way this holiday season. The above are recommendations based on what I have been taught by mental health professionals and strategies that have been most effective for me. This isn’t meant to be a substitute for the guidance of your trusted mental health professional. Sharing a diagnosis doesn’t erase our individuality – we will each respond best to different strategies. If something I’ve advised isn’t the right fit for you, forget it! You know yourself best. I hope you will let me know in the comments section below if this post has been helpful to you and if you would like me to share more practical suggestions like this in the future.

I send many thanks and holiday well-wishes to Nicole who organized this Holiday Post Series. I hope anyone reading will go read the contributions from the other wonderful bloggers who are participating in the series. I’m grateful to take part in this initiative alongside such fantastic writers, advocates and friends.

I’m wishing you all well and hoping your holidays are full of family, friendship, laughter and joy.

Take care,

Fiona

When Depression Ends

Today I’d like to share a positive post with you. I recently pulled out of my latest depressive episode. I have been feeling gradually better for the past month or so. I’m happy to say that the cloud has left for now. Depression always feels inescapable, it is a relief to be reminded that depression isn’t permanent. I have had many depressive episodes in my life and I know myself well enough to know that my depression will be back. Nonetheless, I’m enjoying this moment of respite.

A lot of changes occur when depression ends. In celebration of this return to myself, here are some of the positive changes I have noticed over the last few weeks.

The Big Changes

I’m optimistic about my future

When I’m depressed, I don’t always see recovery as an option. A future that looks any better seems impossible. I feel there are few things worth working towards, because life is what it is: depressing. When the depression lifts I’m reminded of all the things I have to live for and the things that keep me going. I’m able to acknowledge that there is a chance I can make lasting progress. I know that my depression is cyclical and it will come back, but I know that relief from the depression will too.

I feel better about myself

I’m very proud of myself and the progress I have made. I can see how much I have learned in my last couple of years in therapy. I can identify myself as strong and a fighter. I know that I’m a good person and am just doing my best. Conversely, when I’m depressed I feel like a burden. I feel like the worst person in the world and that my existence makes everyone else suffer. Suffice it to say, a break from this horrible self-concept is a gift. As a direct result of this, my self-talk is also much more positive and adaptive when I’m not depressed.

My anxiety is a bit easier to cope with

Since my depression ended I have been trying to leave the house and go for walks more often. I’m even slowly starting to see other people. My anxiety remains painful and debilitating, but I’m determined to try to cope with it when I can. Depression exacerbates my anxiety disorders by impacting my motivation, energy and desire to do things. My anxiety is all the more gruelling when depression robs me of any benefit that facing anxiety might otherwise yield. I’m less resigned to my anxiety when I’m not depressed.

I can feel fully happy

When I’m not depressed I can feel and sustain genuine happiness. When I’m depressed and good things are happening in my life, I can feel a fleeting sense of happiness about it, but rarely does that last. Anything happy is often quickly destroyed by my general sadness or lack of emotion. Or the happiness gets picked apart by unhealthy thoughts like, “I don’t deserve to feel this happiness” or “if I’m happy now it just means something terrible will happen soon.” Those thoughts occur infrequently when I’m not depressed, allowing me to more fully enjoy moments of joy.

I recognize the good things in my life

When I’m depressed, being reminded of the positive things in my life can actually make me feel worse. When my mood is incongruent with the things I “should” be happy about I tend to beat myself up about it. The guilt I feel over being sick is raised because I have so much to make me happy and live for. When I’m not depressed I’m able to appreciate my life and all the good that comes with it. I’m blessed in a lot of ways, chief amongst which is my loving and supportive network of family and friends.

The Smaller Changes

  • My internal alarm comes back. I wake up easily.
  • I sleep more regularly.
  • I make healthier food choices.
  • I want to spend time on my feet.
  • I’m able to play more board games. (When in a low it’s hard for me to focus and cope with unexpected changes so board games become hard to handle)
  • I use positive coping tools as a default.
  • My head doesn’t constantly hurt.
  • I dance and sing throughout the day.
  • I remember everything I have learned in therapy.
  • I drink water.
  • I play with my dog because I want to.
  • My body aches less.
  • I can make simple decisions more easily.
  • I’m able to read more comfortably (no repeating over lines, etc.).
  • I care more about my personal hygiene and self-care.
  • I’m not as easily tired.
  • I can contribute more by doing chores and volunteering.

All of these changes provide much needed light after months of darkness. They also highlight just how much my life is changed by depressive episodes. Depression can be a thief of joy, purpose, energy and self. Depression can make it seem like life isn’t worth living, but even a few short weeks out of depression can be enough to make months of struggling feel worthwhile. I hope that I’ll get a long break before my next low. I hope everyone who is experiencing depression right now will get some relief soon. I hope we all come to know more wellness and joy.

Take care,

Fiona

Photo by Marko Blažević on Unsplash