26 April 2017

The Characters of Mental Health

When you’re dealing with depression and anxiety, you’re often handling conflicting emotions and thoughts. Your brain cycles between caring about nothing and caring too much about everything.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster. A ride that’s exhausting and seems endless. There are many ways to explain it, but there’s really no way to completely understand unless you’ve been diagnosed with the illness.

Many people think they get it. They can comprehend depression because everyone has down days, and sometimes people get anxious. The official medical diagnosis of depression and anxiety disorder is much more than just feeling blue.

It’s different than dipping your toe into a pool of tears. Depression is like being hit by a tsunami of blackness. You’re pinned down by a weight. Trying to pull yourself out of its depths is a tremendous struggle.

Many times, depression doesn’t want you to fight against the current. It wants you to stay submerged in the dark weight of nothing. That ugly monster gobbling color and light feeds on the darkness and demands you remain.

Your loss of motivation and energy is its success. Depression wants you to stay in bed. The lack of caring and feeling of futility strengthens its grasp. Meanwhile, the other “bad guy,” anxiety, shows up to make sure that you feel bad about not feeling bad.

It has lovely little phrases it likes to throw at you – “you’re a loser,” “you’ll always be an idiot,” “why are you so stupid,” “no one cares about you,” “you’re a waste of space,” “people think you are ugly,” and “everyone thinks you’re lazy.”

Anxiety keeps the thoughts running on a continuous non-stop loop. If you forget any of those thoughtful acknowledgements don’t worry, you’ll hear them again. Your depression beats down the walls of resistance so anxiety can deliver a volley of stomach churning messages.

You worry about how you are perceived by others, how you appear, will you sound intelligent if you speak, will others laugh at you, do others even notice you? Anxiety makes you worry and fret over everything. You are locked in a room with a loudspeaker constantly berating you.

So, with the combination of depression and anxiety, you find it hard to concentrate, stay motivated and most of all, feel happy and content.

Does it all sound too dramatic? Are you left thinking it is just a weak person who enjoys the pity party. Well, it’s not and it isn’t. We have to ask what is going on inside the brain with depression? A better understanding can be garnered in this video “The Science of Depression” by AsapSCIENCE. (View The Video)

There’s no weakness of character. In fact, people dealing with this complex medical condition show great strength in dealing with the symptoms.  Most effective treatment is a combination of medication and therapy. Also, there should be a focus on nutrition, exercise and other wellness practices.

There is great importance in dealing with the chemical reactions that are misfiring in the brain, and the cognitive behavioral aspects of the disease in one comprehensive treatment plan.

During a recent therapy session with my counselor, she had an insightful idea about creating a character to represent how anxiety impacts me. As a writer, I can use my skills and shape a physical form that is anxiety.

I can give it a name and a personality. I can even create a conversation with this character (in my head of course, I don’t think a crowd in an elevator would appreciate my verbal sparring.)

I’ve named my anxiety Axel. He’s loud, annoying and constantly wants to create worry, fear and panic. By realizing Axel is stalking me, I’m aware of the thoughts he brings and can work on practices to shut him up.

I wish a muzzle would suffice, but it’s not working yet. In this simple act of being able to identify Axel’s presence I’m already controlling my reaction to him. I’ve decided to do the same thing with depression.

Dorian Depression is a slow, gloomy recluse who has many ugly faces. He sleeps under the bed and is often covered in dust, since he spends a lot of time immobile.

I hope this creative process will help me recognize symptoms and behaviors that become ingrained in our psyche over time. Being able to identify them lessens the impact.

There are different types of therapy and a large array of medications used in the treatment of mental health conditions. It is brave to be open to all forms of medical help. The brain is the most complex organ in the body.

Research continues and what can show positive results for one patient doesn’t work for another. Perhaps, there can be Axels and Dorians for other individuals dealing with depression and anxiety.

I’ll keep you posted on my two characters. I believe Axel is calling me right now.  

27 February 2017

Don't Speak - Self-Stigma and Mental Health

I’ve been asked twice to talk about my personal experience dealing with depression, anxiety and the use of genetic testing for mental health treatment. I became aware of this new test during a medication management appointment.

My practitioner, a psychiatric advanced practice nurse, is an expert with psychopharmacology, and very knowledgeable about the latest treatments for depression.  After trial and error with many medications, we discussed pinpointing the best antidepressant for me, through genetic testing.  

My interviews were featured on “Innovations”, a TV series on the Discovery Channel (watch here), and most recently, on a KYW-TV medical segment (watch here) during a six o’clock evening news broadcast. 

Both times, I went through a lengthy internal debate about doing the interviews. There was serious trepidation about speaking publically concerning mental health. I’ve written several articles about depression, but it’s not the same as facing a live audience to talk about it. Aimed at being an advocate for issues surrounding mental health, I accepted the invitation.

I want to dispel the existing stigma applied to mental health. Through communication and using my voice I can raise awareness. While I can research how people’s attitudes and beliefs perpetuate the stigma, and write about them – speaking publically makes a greater impact.

Social media has become a channel to learn and process information.  As a writer, I know the written word has tremendous power, but I can’t always hide behind my laptop.

I’ve worried about my perception by those who saw the interviews. Am I educating others, or exposing myself to ridicule? I realize that the stigma I want to fight resides deeply in the social psyche. In my goal to eliminate this public negativity, I have to confront that stigma is also internal.

I realize being constantly exposed to existing stereotypes reinforces my belief in them. Negatively, I apply those aspects to myself. I am a victim of self-stigma, which creates low self-esteem.

The challenge comes in dealing with the issue head on. I need to be aware of the destructive messages I deliver to myself continuously. These messages stop me from sharing about depression and how anxiety impacts my daily life. They stop me from being authentic and honest.

I give into all the unfavorable thoughts until I’m sure no one will understand. They’ll see me as weak or wanting sympathy. I tell myself, “Don’t talk about a mental health condition. People will feel uncomfortable, unsure of what to say and will ultimately turn away.”

Thus, the thoughts become a conundrum. How can I move forward on my public campaign unless I can remove my self-stigma? I must be bold with my conversation, speak honestly and take a jump into the unknown.

If I was diabetic, I wouldn’t be concerned about telling people about a blood sugar attack, so why is there hesitancy about discussing a panic attack? They are both symptoms of a medical condition and are caused by chemical reactions within the body. The safety zone seems to end at the neck.

Any conditions that stem from chemical brain imbalances remain a gray area in the gray matter. Right away the stigma seeps in and many people go right to “he’s crazy,” “there’s something not quite right with him,” “he needs to take a chill pill,” or “boy, he likes drama.”

People are quick to perpetuate a stereotype rather than look beyond it. It’s easy to understand a brain tumor, because there is a physical manifestation. Giving the same legitimacy to an unseen condition inside the brain is more difficult. Biochemical conditions that effect personality and behavior can be too complex for some to deal with.

It creates fear, and what do we do when we are afraid of something? We stay away from it. People may fear individuals who are identified as bi-polar or schizophrenic. Different behaviors make us uneasy. There’s no risk in avoiding what seems out of the norm.

Everyone can be more empathetic. If you are self-stigmatizing, then the empathy needs to be directed inward.  I’m learning not to discount my health, and to stop pretending that everything is always status quo.

It is important people understand there are many facets of depression. Many individuals have what is known as “high-functioning depression.” While everything can look fine on the outside, there can be turmoil, despair and loneliness raging inside. Without being able to share about the symptoms and struggles in an honest conversation – assumption, misunderstanding and stigma continues.

I know I can only help others with mental illness if I can be honest about mine. Too many times I’ve avoided the subject or just said “I’m fine” when someone asked how I was. 

Very few people know I have the national suicide hotline number programmed in my phone, or that I have a safety plan in case I want to harm myself. I’ve never shared about the time I sat in my car with the engine running, the garage doors closed and windows open, wanting to shut off my brain.

I haven’t talked about days when it’s hard to get out of bed, to get dressed, concentrate on writing, leave the house or feel happy. It all remains inside, but these are effects of the disease.

As with any personal topic, there is a concern about how much we disclose and what seems appropriate. Is it okay over lunch or dinner to let a friend know you’re struggling with your depression?

The disease can be hard to verbalize at times. It becomes more difficult when you’re not sure how friends and family will receive the information. It’s not without risk, but I must be willing to accept it if I want to make the conversation easier for everyone.

Being able to talk openly about mental illness is vital. I see a therapist on a weekly basis, but that shouldn’t be the only time I can share about my struggles. I’m learning to utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to deal with the negative self-talk.

There are positive aspects to CBT that everyone can benefit from, but I don’t share those. Keeping it withheld like a dark secret is because I’ve bought into the stigma.

Mental illness doesn’t define me. It is just a medical condition I must deal with. It’s not about making excuses for my behavior; it’s about educating others to the symptoms.

Talking let’s people know what might be assumed in silence. Individuals can feel I’m aloof, disinterested, distant, self-absorbed, antisocial or just shy. At my core, I’m none of those things, but I’ve worn those labels. That’s what happens when I don’t speak up.

I don’t want to be an assumption, a whispered opinion or a misunderstanding. It’s time to shed the self-stigma. Those diagnosed with a mental illness should be able to talk about it and everyone should listen.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness – approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year. Out of that population 16 million are diagnosed with depression.

There are so many stories out there waiting to be heard. I want to know that every time I share about my mental health issues, I am making it easier for someone else to speak out. The conversation has to grow and the stigma has got to end.


09 January 2017

SPARKS BRIEF: Headliners Annouced for Inauguration

Washington, DC – The Trump Inauguration Committee just updated the list of performers to once again include The Rockettees. Also, added are Stevie Wonder and the cast of “Hamilton.”

15 December 2016

SPARKS BRIEFS - Essential Stocking Stuffers

Now that the holiday season is upon us, we should be talking about Christmas parties and not political parties. In fact, any discussion of politics should be off the table and the elf should be on the shelf. 

21 November 2016

Happy Scary Merry!!

It’s that time of year again. The Holiday Season – when Halloween morphs into Christmas. There’s barely time to put away the cobwebs, ghosts, and gravestones before the snowmen, holly, and lights are out. Retailers don’t even wait for Halloween to be over before Christmas starts blending into the mix