|Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, USA - a beautiful campus|
nestled in the shadow of the majestic Mount Timpanogos.
My one choice is like a bullet ricocheting off of a solid stone wall that I put up to try to keep out hard issues like pain, struggle, discomfort, and anxiety. I’m talking about choosing to skip school, work, or time with loved ones to isolate myself in my room and sleep, because when I am asleep, I don’t feel anything; I only dream, and usually those are the most pleasant and surreal moments for me, completely deadened to my grief.
|Living with depression, my choice of whether or not to get out|
of bed every day is like choosing to fire a bullet that eventually
comes back to strike me.
But eventually I have to wake up from the safety and innocence of my subconscious mind and face that bullet that I fired ten, fifteen, or even twenty hours before, which has slowly bounced back to strike me square in the chest. And as I sit up on the edge of my bed in a fog and suddenly take in all that I have put in jeopardy—my grades, my employment, the trust and care of my family and friends—I feel as if I am falling figuratively to my knees as my lone wound quickly gushes out a flood of emotion—shame and guilt, mostly.
As I lay dying (or at least, feeling like I would rather perish in that moment), I see flashes of the day I could’ve had, and should’ve had. The things I would’ve learned in class, the money I would have made at work, and the fun and enjoyment of the company of others all appear in my mind’s eye and then dissipate like a stinging mist of regret and self-blame. Sometimes, for a second or two, the idea of just lying back down to escape this new pain once again seems appealing, if not for the stiffness of my muscles and growing hunger in the pit of my stomach.
This is often when I force myself to get in the shower, which consists less of cleansing my aching body and more of leaning my head against the shower wall under the hot water, reliving the day that might have been. Frequently I even say out loud, “I can’t believe I slept all day.” But then the pessimistic voice of shame and guilt blurts out, “Of course you can! You do this all the time!”
|I've taken numerous medications to treat |
my many disorders for over 20 years; for a
long time I was reliant on drugs to function.
Sometimes, on a good week, sleeping most or all of the day will occur maybe just once or twice, if I’m lucky (which is all I consider that feat to be now—sheer luck). Other times, I have weeks where my Sunday night, start-of-the-week rest, turns into a Thursday evening of waking up to the piercing feeling of that bullet in my chest, after literally not leaving my room for three or four days, except the use the bathroom a few times.
The lengths of time vary; sometimes I will eat between those days, sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I counteract my oversleeping by staying up all night (which is usually when I wake up, after the day is already over) and then go to bed “normally” at the end of the next day over 24 hours later. I get so sore and weak on those days, and the increase in motor and vocal tics under fatigue do not help soothe my mind or body. Sometimes I lose my voice or ache so terribly that I can’t get to sleep even when I’m exhausted. My mind continues to race and retrace my day, or plan the coming day, and I struggle to turn it off.
But even after sleeping an entire day and staying up and entire day, I am afraid to go to bed the next night. In fact, I am afraid to go to bed every night, because I literally don’t know how I will feel about getting up the next day. The more tired I am, or the more trouble I have falling asleep, the less motivation I have in the morning to face my day. The scream of my dozens (not an exaggeration) of alarms is the worst thing in the world for me to hear. I always have the best, most responsible, active, productive intentions when I say my prayers at my bedside every night. But even when asking for help from God, I am usually always disappointed at what seems like a lack of heavenly help.
|I use excessive sleep to avoid my anxieties, and have frequently|
missed school, work, appointments, and time with loved ones.
I have hurt many people by choosing to sleep instead of to wake. The anxiety of certain events, people, or going certain places will always play a role in my decision of staying or going (next to how tired I really am). Not uncommon for individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders like Tourette's and OCD, I have many sleeping problems, including insomnia and sleep apnea (a condition related to my steady weight gain over the years on psychiatric medications). Still, my mother has told me that I was the most disturbed and unpredictable sleeper of all her four boys, even as an infant.
|After dropping out of college twice because of my mental health|
issues, I finally earned my Associate's degree in Behavioral
Countless others have been affected by my poisonous depressive “medicine.” My parents and siblings have expressed that they don’t like to take me on trips to see other family members because I just end up sleeping most of the time out of town. I have missed many bonding moments with them and my niece and nephews because I was unconscious. On those trips I wake to criticism and playful teasing from my family, who act shocked when I actually get up at a reasonable hour and walk into the kitchen for breakfast. This has gone on for years; and even though I know full well my issues with sleeping too much, my family doesn’t seem to conceive how much it tears me apart inside to be reminded of it so callously.
|Danish artist Don Kenn captures mental illness |
so well with his macabre, otherworldly drawings;
this one represents my feelings on depression
and the way it seeks to constantly drag me down.
I have been blessed (no, not lucky—truly blessed) that I have had understanding teachers and a patient, forgiving boss at my day job as a cashier at a retail store. In May 2017 I reached a welcomed milestone by graduating with an Associate degree in Behavioral Science after twice dropping out of college in 2005 and 2012. Still, I have been known to be absent for at least one class or more per week at times. In truth, some semesters I have missed more days of school than I have probably attended in the last three years as a part-time student.
I still get my homework done, often in the middle of the night after I’ve slept through the entire rising and setting of the sun. When others are lying down after a long, productive, busy day, I am rising to take a bullet in the chest, with a river of shameful blood pouring from my stinging wound of regret. But I do what I have to do, usually in an uncomfortable rush against the clock. And somehow, as I keep my instructors informed and receive a little leniency from them (per my Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) student accommodations), I have been getting all A’s (I got my “worst” grade of the last three years just last semester—a B+).
|Monthly Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is the only|
reason I am not homeless. It has been a blessing; but I am
striving toward a career and self-sufficiency.
Another blessing is that I’ve been able to receive social security disability benefits since I lost my CNA job, without which I would be living on the streets or with my parents. I don’t tell a whole lot of people about where I get my money, but I know they wonder. I have to use Medicare and Medicaid programs for my health care and medication management, and I have lived on food stamp privileges on and off for ten years, before I started working again. The increase of coprolalia, the tics that involve swearing and inappropriate words and phrases, made working with the elderly difficult for me; and an increase in the medication I was taking at the time was the fuel to the fire for my needless sleeping, as many neuropsychiatric drugs cause extreme drowsiness and fatigue.
|Another unsettling illustration by artist Don Kenn; |
this one is representative of the ever-lingering
disruption and disorder of living with heavy,
often debilitating anxiety.
Nevertheless, I am persevering through school in an attempt to make a better life for myself. Though blessed by my social security disability payments and full insurance, I am ashamed of getting “free” money at the expense of others, and I am reminded by some of my chiding friends that their taxes pay my rent; I don’t think they know that their joking hurts and embarrasses me. But I have never been content to stay on government assistance forever, and the help I’ve received has truly been a godsend while I’ve been focusing, slowly but steadily, on completing my education.
I know that God prepared a way for me to live while I got my life together through this long learning process, and I am forever indebted to Him for that. My intention is to use the challenges I’ve been given and the experiences I’ve had to help make sure that other people like me don’t have to suffer psychiatric disorders and mental illness alone; that’s why I want to be a therapist, to show others that there is hope and empathy in living with these types of challenges.
It’s frustrating to experience troubles in life that seem to come out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times; certainly that happens to all of us from time to time. In my experience, though, it is even more difficult knowing (or feeling, at least) that most of my problems are my own fault. Not to suggest that I am personally to blame for the biology, physiology, and genetics that resulted in me having Tourettes, OCD, anxiety, and MDD.
But rather, it's that I most often feel like I am not trying hard enough to combat these issues, choosing to avoid daily responsibilities rather than to face them bravely, and worsening my circumstances. I recently read over three-hundred of the timeless fables of Aesop, and among many of the morals, one stood out to me especially, declaring, “Misfortunes springing from ourselves are the hardest to bear.” True, indeed.
|All my life I have put up emotional and psychological |
walls to avoid difficult feelings and stem my deep fears
I would rather keep sleeping than be at work for five hours. I would rather sleep than shower, do my hair, brush my teeth, and get dressed. I would rather sleep than drive to my friend’s house in a nearby town for a party. I would rather sleep than sit in a lecture for over an hour taking notes at the sound of a droll voice. So, rather than fighting against my better judgment, knowing that I have the figurative gun cocked in my hand a ready to fire, I find life that day too scary or too stressful—before it has even begun—and I pull the trigger at the wall that I put up to keep out the pain, and I lie back down and drift away.
It’s difficult to describe this to people, and why I do it, which is one reason I haven’t talked to many others about it—other than my therapist—until now. I often hear, “Well, I don’t want to get up and go to work every day, but I do it anyway because I have to.” These people don’t usually understand how anxiety feels when it is constantly present in one’s life. Of course I realize each time I fire that gun that everything I am doing will most likely come back to bite me; I could lose my job, fail a class, miss a huge assignment or social event, and disappoint someone I love.
|Anxiously avoiding emotions and responsibilities creates a|
snowball effect that only increases my stress and worry.
I have been so wishy-washy about my commitment to a college education over the last twelve years, that I’ve pockmarked my transcript with many unfortunate grades. As a poor, first-generation student with no other way to pay for college, I have been blessed (yes, again) to receive federal financial aid to pay for my schooling. Bad grades along the way, and dropping out twice has made it necessary to file three separate appeals to my university petitioning for reinstatement of my financial aid.
With endorsements from many wonderful and influential people in my life, all the appeals were approved. I have almost had to file two more in the last year because I had reached the maximum time frame allowed to earn my degree, and because I had exceeded my attempted credits limit for my Associates Degree. I escaped those appeals by graduating this year and switching over to a Bachelor's Degree.
|"Jumping ship" is a phrase I've used to describe my total physical|
and psychological abdication of the responsibilities of daily living
in favor of choices that are easier and less painful, for a time.
This phrase wandered in and out of my mind for several weeks while I was working simultaneously on four different blog posts, one of which I only just finished (see “God Will Send Rain,” May, 2017). I had incorporated some beautiful imagery into one post about how life was like sailing a ship. I enjoyed the metaphorical pictures so much that I cut all references to the “jumping ship” idea and inserted them into this post already in progress at the time. Because of this, you may notice that my tone or the emotion of this post will gradually change as you read on; that's because I wrote the two halves of this blog months apart, after my life had improved. Still, allow me to carry you into the scene that played out in my head.
|I liken life to sailing a ship; our bodies are|
the vessels, and the ocean represents mortality.
Our bodies have been called our mortal vessels—the vehicles that allow us to travail through life. I can see myself and my body as a large ship. When our ships are brand new and aching for their trial at sea, we are born, and then take our maiden voyage to a greater and grander port than the one from whence we launched. Though we will make many stops along the way at many ports, this will be the only trip we will make, and so it has to count.
I think of the water as life itself. It sustains us; it is what carries us on to our destination. The water can be calm and pleasant, wavy, choppy, or sometimes downright tumultuous. Sometimes life can seem like it is going to destroy us and take us down to a watery grave. But we cannot sail a ship on a nice, even plane of asphalt; our vessels were not meant to take the easy route. We are here to learn how to sail, and we knew the risks to some extent before we launched into the ocean. The water is the only way we can get where we’re going, and we take that risk as Captains of our vessels.
Sometimes our time at sea is uneventful, but safe and purposeful; we know the basic naval skills and we float along steadily and consistently. Naturally, waves will come as the tides of mortality wax and wane, and we may need to put more effort and attention into our captainship. In all of our journeys, there are hopefully some of those moments when the elements are on our side, and we glide along the water’s glassy surface briskly with no interruptions, no apparent dangers, and a lively wind of motivation to keep us sailing in stride with nothing out ahead of us but an ocean of potential.
|Neglecting compassionate self-care can|
create slow, mental and emotional "leaks"
that can eventually sink me.
This has been the pattern in my own life: If I sense for even a moment that my ship—representing my present or sometimes perpetual situation in life—has even the smallest risk of a leak, I am much more compelled to dive overboard to avoid perishing with a sinking ship, rather than trying discover the issue (if there really is one), and then work to repair it. Certainly getting a little bit uncomfortably wet to repair a small leak in my vessel and ensuring its continued buoyancy and efficiency is much better than treading water in the middle of the pulsing ocean, far from my destination shore.
But I don’t usually think about that in the moment; all I am thinking about is avoiding the hurt, pain, distress, increased anxiety, and hard work of being a good Captain and meeting head on the responsibilities of sailing my ship on to the next port. I figure if I can detach myself from what seems to be the problem (even if that means utterly abandoning the well-being of my ship), I can be free from the guilt and shame of knowing that I have neglected my vessel and been a poor sailor. Obviously, this causes more problems for me that I may not have encountered had I just stayed aboard, taken a deep breath, and problem-solved a little.
Sometimes in my life, after I have already forsaken my vessel, there will later come a sudden sense of panic and a rush to action as I realize that I only have one ship, and that I am not going see the safety of the shore again without it. I see that even though jumping over the rail was an easy task, bringing an instant feeling of relief, the stretch of water is endless around me (as life goes on without me), and I see the greater despair of my hasty choice.
|Being a good Captain of my own life is a|
conscious choice I have to commit to every
single day, and it still isn't easy for me.
That means jumping out of bed just in time to get ready for the day ahead; running into class and finding a seat just as the teacher begins; rushing into work a little bit late, but nonetheless present and accounted for; showing up fashionably late to a gathering, but smiling cheerfully knowing that I saved the day (literally).
These are the real-life waves—the back and forth motions—of living with major depressive disorder (MDD) and anxiety. It’s like an indecisive fight with my body and mind in deciding how much I want to “adult” each day, and then convincing myself, exhaustingly, to take that first, reluctant step in my day, my week, or whatever task is at hand (again, usually a work shift, a class, an appointment, plans to spend time with someone, homework, or big school projects like papers—all the responsibilities I presently have in my life).
I once saw it represented in an internet cartoon that anxiety is the creature upon its feet that is pushing us to the next needless task in an effort to feel busy and productive, while depression is at the same time tugging at our wrists from a comfortably-resigned spot on the ground, convincing us not to bother, insisting that any efforts we put in won’t matter anyway. Having anxiety and depression, I relate to that tug-of-war so much. I had never really put an image to the push-and-pull that I have felt for a great deal of my life.
|The waters of mortality can be tumultuous and unpredictable;|
when compounded with the waves of my mental illnesses, the
success of my journey is often threatened.
This past year, I’ve experienced these vastly contrasting emotions a lot, alternating back and forth depending on my choice each day of whether to fire the gun at the wall, or to unload the ammunition and tear down the obstacles to my happiness. It seems like such a simple choice; believe me, I realize that! But it’s not for me; it’s the most difficult decision I make literally every single day. That choice determines my mood for days, weeks, and months at a time, if I consistently choose the bricks and mortar, and the gun. My happiness deteriorates with each anxiously-avoidant behavior I engage in, and it is very hard to build it back up, even when I am doing well, because I am a huge perfectionist who criticizes himself a great deal.
When I use maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with normal daily stresses—whether in smooth sailing or mountainous upheavals—even a small hole can sink a great ship with time and deliberate neglect. We can ignore it, certainly, and sail on; and I certainly try to do that often. But eventually a small issue can become (or at least sometimes feel like) our doom. I often notice these leaks myself, but I let them go. Practicing self-compassion and taking time for me has been an important thing for me to learn and consistently practice.
|Using sleep to avoid my fears and anxiety sets a course for|
destruction; these emotional wrecks leave me feeling hopeless,
helpless, and alone.
There are times when I am doing well with my “sleeping issues,” comparatively, but I notice other things going awry—not eating well, giving in to bad moral habits, unwise spending as I reward myself for good behavior. Afraid to disrupt my good sailing fortune, I hide away in my Captain’s quarters thinking that if I ignore the present needs of my ship, they might just go away. After all, who wants to risk doing more work than necessary when the weather is agreeable? I suppose I feel that if my biggest challenge in life is under better control for a time, I can indulge in more of the things that I don’t get to do when my challenges hinder my participation in them.
Sailing our ships can be a breeze in fair weather. But when the waters of reality become turbulent once again, it’s easy to lose our direction, even if it’s just a brief departure from our goal. And it’s then, when I know I’ve gotten a bit off course, that I feel all is lost. Serendipity and grace fly right out the window, and suddenly all is for naught. “If my course cannot be perfect,” I criticize myself, “then I no longer want to sail this ship.” Being a Captain is no longer appealing, and my grand ship becomes a creaky, waterlogged burden.
|Deliberate choices and purposeful actions every day contribute|
more to my mental wellness than anything else; peace and
reassurance come from knowing that I can persevere.
I also am learning that preparation is the best way to make the best choices. For me, that sometimes means having my clothes laid out and my backpack ready the night before in case I sleep in too late; this helps alleviate the fight-or-flight panic of whether I can make it to my destination on time. It also means getting homework done early and staying ahead of the reading and assignments so that I’m not up late racing deadlines, and can go to bed earlier to ensure better rest.
Why build a taut ship unless you know that there is a risk of foundering on the sometimes-tumultuous seas? I spoke earlier of luck being my only savior in whether or not I actually get out of bed and go on with life each day. It’s true, I sometimes leave it up to fate whether I will succeed or fail, which is unfortunate. I suppose that’s one reason why I often feel like God is not answering my prayers for help—because I’m expecting results and solutions without any effort or forethought. Perhaps what I see as luck in these circumstances is the combination of divine support, faith, and eight or more hours of sleep. Or, perhaps Oprah Winfrey was closer to reality when she stated, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”
|When I am mentally drowning, Jesus is my rescue.|
("The Hand of God" by Yongsung Kim;
Copyright © by the Artist & Foundation Arts)
What feels different is that the sky above me has seemed to clear, and I can see more clearly my responsibility to myself to care for my own mental health rather than conceding to the status quo and asking for God to save me in my troubles. Certainly, that is not to say that we are not to ask for divine support; that is another thing with which I am getting reacquainted—leaving my troubles at the feet of the Savior, “after all [I] can do,” and letting Him make up for the rest (2 Nephi 25:23).
Since school began again August 21st, I have been implementing this new focus on being in charge of my mental health, and I have seen considerable progress. A few times I have overslept, but not on days when I had to be anywhere (thank goodness), and I was gentler with my feelings after waking and actively encouraged myself to let it go, and do better next time. And the next time I had a day off, I did do better. I’ve been keeping appointments; I’ve been attending my classes and going to my work shifts, and I’ve enjoyed tremendously spending time with my closest friends and my family more regularly.
I guess I could say that I’ve finally put that emotional firearm away; I’m becoming less skilled in building solid walls around myself, and getting better at destroying them if I do. And like “our Captain of Old,” the Lord Jesus Christ ("Ye Elders of Israel," LDS Hymns, #319), I have accepted my life and mission on the oceans of mortality, have magnified my abilities and talents, and become an active contributor to my own destiny and future. “For it became Him,” said Paul to the Hebrews, “for Whom are all things, and by Whom are all things, in bringing many sons [and daughters] unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).
I intend to carry on and fulfill my purpose on the earth, and to do it honorably; to inspire and help others along the way, and look forward to that glorious homecoming when I reach my final berth—even though I know the journey will not always be smooth sailing.
|"I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship."|
~ Louisa May Alcott, American Novelist & Poet (1832 - 1888) ~
(From the 1868 classic "Little Women")