Against Stigma

Against Stigma

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. It’s something new for me, it seems to help keep me focused, in my body and out of my head. They’ve generally been on topics like emotions, communication, philosophy, love, mental health, social work, and stigma. The latter is a massively burgeoning topic right now, thankfully, as it absolutely needs to be discussed everywhere possible all the time if we’re going to have any chance at cracking down on it and getting it the hell out of the mental health community where it does nothing but harm. The dictionary definition of stigma: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Living with mental illness is tough enough as it is, no one who is suffering needs or deserves that shit.

If there’s been one overarching theme I’ve noticed behind a majority of the topics I’ve been listening to, it’s bringing forth real measurable change and progress through banding together, talking, loving our fellow man, being open and equanimous; what can best be described as community: “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of having a particular characteristic in common, sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” Everyone needs this in one way or another. To be human is to commune. People need other people, more specifically people with whom we share common ground. Especially when it’s a highly stigmatized ground we stand on. I say let’s stand together!

I’m probably going to wind up hyping up the value of community in future posts til I’m blue in the face. To be honest I could always sense that something integral was missing from the fight against stigma but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was so perfectly summed up in one encompassing word. All the podcasts I’ve let into my head lately have done a wonderful job of really cementing upstairs for me how fundamental community is as a huge catalyst for change and progress on any facet of life. Good thing is that it’s a pretty simple notion; it’s all about coming together, loving, celebrating and accepting each other as we are, lending a hand or an ear or a resource, letting go of the pretense. Rather than an individualistic, shame-ridden silent suffering, it’s about a collectively proud, boisterous effort to bring forth change for the better.

I personally take pride in my ability to stand up in front of 1 or 100 people and say I have depression, anxiety and ADHD because the fact is, I’m still standing. I’m a survivor, I beat the odds. I’m proof positive people can live with mental illness and actually thrive under the right care and support. But those are exactly what’s missing from the fight against stigma– proper care and support. As well as community, acceptance, and the freedom from stigma. Love is missing. Let’s call mental health stigma what it really is: discrimination. When was the last time you saw a person who felt too stigmatized to admit they are afflicted with something like cancer or diabetes? Why is it any different for those battling mental illness? How do we change that landscape? We build community around it; there’s power, strength, and resolve in numbers!

We not only need to rally together around the topic of mental illness, need to talk about it. Your actions could make someone’s day and your story could save someone’s life. Having feelings is not wrong, it’s not a sign of weakness. Just as the need to commune is human, so is the need to emote. I don’t care who you are, what you come from, or how hard you’ve become, you’re still human. Shining a light on the topic is the entry to the path of healing. It creates much needed hope that there is a solution to a problem that’s been rampant yet stifled for too long. Untreated mental illness kills people. I’d be willing to bet you know someone who’s been adversely affected by it, or you at least know someone who knows someone who has. 1 in 4 Americans deals with some form of mental illness, it’s all around us every day. Yet 56% of those people go untreated. It’s time to get real about this and stop treating it like the black sheep of the litany of illnesses that humans endure.

It’s time to officially throw out the old ideals of “it can’t happen to me, mentally ill are those on the street corner talking to themselves, just get over it, it’s only the blues, not in my family, not in my culture, what about my pride, my image, no no no not me”. It can happen to you, it quite frequently happens to those around you as well, and there’s no shame in it. Simply stated– we want to stay in good physical health so we regularly see the doctor for checkups and as needed for symptoms. Why wouldn’t you treat your mental and emotional bodies with the same respect? That’s really all it should boil down to but we’ve baked it into this monster of a thing that people are too afraid to cop to and continue to treat it as such.

Mental disorders are not adjectives. The stigmatizing words need to go, their heyday is over. “Crazy”, “mental”, “insane”, “psycho”, “nuts”, etc., they’re all total pejoratives when applied to those facing mental health issues and wholeheartedly perpetuate the stigma. We need a shift in the context of the language we use. Instead of appropriating these words and casually throwing them around when referring to those with mental illness, much like we don’t use the word “retard” anymore (beside the fact that it’s totally inappropriate and offensive), we need to be more aware of and sensitive toward the words we use. The best, most instantaneous thing you can do right now is to lead by example.

Years ago when I was unknowingly a little too forthcoming about my challenges with people who weren’t ready, willing or able to be kindly receptive, I remember telling a guy I’d been seeing for a while that I dealt with depression. His response “oh, does that mean you’re going to lose it and go crazy on me?”. Whether he meant it as a joke or was genuinely curious what that meant for him, to me it was rife with ignorance and stigma and I quietly released him from my social life. Comments like his made me realize exactly how much work there was and still is to be done in the effort to overcome stigma. I’ll never forget that instance though, and who knows where he was coming from, maybe he’d previously had a bad experience with a girl in regards to mental health. However, just because he judged me didn’t mean I was going to return it.

I’ve been called all sorts of things along my path to wellness. When you’re too afraid to open up about what you’re facing, people are free to draw their own conclusions and as such I’ve been labeled lazy or self-involved or maladjusted. Even when I did come out to those I thought I could trust, for example when I fessed up to my boss at work many years ago I was called a burden, or admitted my struggles to people who I thought were friends I was deemed as misguided or flaky. Surely I’ve been called crazy behind my back plenty of times over the years I struggled the most. But these are all views that are again, riddled with ignorance and stigma. When we watch how we speak about and regard one another, each individual choice of words can be a drop in the bucket of breaking down the stigma on mental health.

When I look at someone who is visibly struggling with any sort of mental illness in any sense, I don’t see “crazy” or “nuts”. I see pain, or PTSD, or what has probably been a really rough and harrowing ride in life for them trying to work its way out. I see an intense, acute need for healing, care, love, acceptance and safety. We all want and need those things. I personally think the only reason behind someone stigmatizing another is because they’re simply unfamiliar with the other person’s experience and it makes them feel safer to distance themselves from that person by stigmatizing them. If only we could reprogram society to think and act oppositely of that, it would by default create more cohesiveness and community, one non-judgmental, kind action at a time.

We need to make this a priority, everyone needs to be an advocate. If you hear someone saying something crass or stigmatizing, or acting out of judgement or ignorance toward someone with mental health challenges, say something. If you see someone acting out of character, or strange, instead of viewing them through the lens of judgement and shame and casting them off, try and see through their behavior to what is more than likely underlying pain, trauma and a need for healing. If you saw someone trip and fall on the street you wouldn’t automatically assume they were drunk, in fact you’d probably try and help them up and make sure they’re ok. Don’t assume that because someone’s behavior doesn’t fall within the spectrum of what’s perceived as “normal”, that they deserve to be judged. More often than not it’s a cry for help.

If you’re curious as to how you can do your part, check out this article from the National Alliance on Mental Illness on 9 ways to fight mental health stigma, and keep on fighting the good fight one word, action, or thought at a time. We’ve got a long way to go.

Peace, love, and wellness.

The Daily Struggle

The Daily Struggle

Given mental health challenges, my reality is that most days, at least to start, are a struggle for me. I wake up, I’d rather not get out of bed, I’m not overly excited to start my day, I’m not exactly looking forward to whatever greets me or what challenges may lie ahead. I either have to work myself up to, or relax myself into the idea of the day before I even get out of bed. I call this process waking up slowly– it involves a lot of meditative-style breath work, clearing of my mind and energy, sometimes an emotional purge in the form of tears, and a promise to myself to start my day on the best foot possible. If I wake up, immediately get out of bed and start my day without acknowledging whatever I’m feeling, it’s usually a bad start to the day.

That said, I personally for whatever reason tend to wake up feeling anxious. This is something I’m very much working on but have yet to find my answer. There isn’t much concept of “waking up fresh” daily for me. I’m moreso in a constant loop, I just get breaks of unconsciousness and rest in the loop. I have a lot of resistance in me toward life and it’s obstacles, and I fully acknowledge it. I know it’s via both nature and nurture, and it’s also something I’m actively working on. I genuinely want to rewire my point of view so that I no longer see daily life as being loaded with obstacles facilitating this built-in resistance. It’s easier said than done.

It’s not that I have no lust for life, or no excitement for anything or just a really shitty outlook. I definitely do have passion for certain aspects of life and I do at times get breaks from feeling this way. It’s that given mental health challenges, even when well managed, still make every single day challenging in one way or another and my fervor can easily get buried underneath it all.

It’s like every day I wake up wondering– how am I going to stand tall today, find my happiness, balance, productivity, and so on? How am I going to only let in what I need and keep out what I don’t? Every day is this simultaneously new but old navigation of how to make it from start to finish. How to deal with the daily build-up to break-down, then finally levelling out. Consistency is few and far in between for me, albeit I try my best to maintain in the ways I know how.

But it’s also like being in a constant state of distress in one way or another. I’m forever saving face, feeling disruption, or suspended in fight or flight. It’s an “invisible illness”, so most don’t have any idea I’m even in this state, but it does show itself sometimes in things like my posture, my tone of voice, choice of words and communication, or the look on my face. It can appear in my lack of patience with the people and stimuli around me, my responses and reactions. I see and feel it on the inside all the time, but the above is how it tends to manifest itself on the outside.

I know anyone can be subject to a bad day or waking up in an off mood but I often wonder if most people have any idea what it’s like to wake up many days only wanting to get to the other side of the day so they can stop going before they’ve even started. Hoping and praying to just make it through the day and feel ok because feeling “good” is a bit too ambitious and at times just unrealistic. Wishing to feel ok enough to be productive and with-it enough to actually accomplish what you’ve set out to do for the day. I’ll reference the spoon theory here; every day how many spoons am I going to be lucky enough to start off with? And if I don’t have what I need, how am I going to manage and then also make up for lost time/productivity? I feel like I’m generally running to catch up. It doesn’t exactly help the anxiety.

This isn’t every day for me, thankfully. But so many factors weigh into it when most everything hits you really hard all the time. I’m a very sensitive being, and I seem to keep getting moreso as time goes on. Most things are too much for me most of the time. I don’t sleep well, I have some emotional or personal challenge, I’ve not taken good enough care of myself, I’m overloaded by my schedule or stimuli, then I shut down and there goes my mood, energy and productivity. There’s always this delicate balance to be struck, this homeostasis to maintain. It takes on an absolute physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual effect. Some days I can hardly maintain and regulate something as simple as my body temperature, let alone my mood, energy, appetite, reactions, sleep, productivity level, etc.

On the worst days daily life can end up boiling down to just getting done what was absolutely necessary, even if that’s only showering and feeding myself. There have been days where it’s been reduced to simply continuing breathing and existing and all my effort goes to just maintaining a state of what I’d call existential purgatory; it’s not good, but it’s not hell in a hand basket either. I can’t function, but I’m still here and tomorrow is a new day. I failed today but I get to try again. For the day I’m forced to set the bar lower and it ends up becoming a total reorganization of daily priorities based on whatever I’m processing and my capacity for handling what’s in front of me.

That said, I’m always finding my process. I’ve got my usual tools in my kit but every day I’m learning what may or may not help me get out of these spots and into where I want and need to be, and how to stay there. Clearly tears are a big one for me. I let emotionally at least a few times a week when I’m struggling, if not once a day, just to get stuff out of me. I’ve had to work hard to be ok with that because of my own emotional cognitive dissonance; it’s not cool to be overly emotional, but, I honestly don’t have a choice. Sometimes it’s my only outlet, it’s going to come out of me no matter what, and frankly it’s a damn effective one for me. I meditate A LOT. It often leads to crying. Self care is HUGE, listening to my body, being kind to myself when it comes to my feelings and emotional needs as opposed to viewing myself as high maintenance and beating myself up over it. I find myself constantly checking in with myself in an attempt to stay grounded and continue getting to know myself and my process. I’m always trying to stay objective about it and step outside of myself to not get too caught up in what’s going on inside. It’s a weird duality to exist under, honestly. At the same time I often wonder if I am really dealing with myself in the right way, which brings me to my next topic of self-care, medication and substance.

It adds another level when you bring substance into the picture. As much as I personally prefer to naturally dig myself out of any hole I’m in, I don’t always get to do it my way and so at times the need to medicate can be hard to avoid. Example: I’m experiencing so much anxiety I’m having to Xanax myself to sleep then coffee my way out of it in the morning. If I don’t sleep I can’t function the next day, I can’t get anything done. But if I take something to sleep I wake up feeling like a zombie and I can’t fully function. But if I drink too much coffee I get edgy and anxious. It becomes this viscous cycle of maintenance that’s hard to get out of and I’m really sensitive to substance– benzos, caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, you name it I’m a lightweight. It helps and at the same time throws a real wrench into my program to be simultaneously tired and wired.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so I hope that every day I’m garnering a little more strength and lesson learned out of my struggle. I hope I can pass that onto others and help by sharing my struggle. It’s the only silver lining to it really, because this kind of existence is a whole other level of being a “constant work in progress”. So many days of just maintaining and not truly enjoying life and being able to live it to the fullest.

Every day I’m always curious if all these other people existing around me have any idea what this experience is like. I can’t help but wonder how much more naturally simple and blithe and unadulterated others’ daily lives might be. Maybe they’re not, I don’t know. I only know my own daily struggle. Either way it doesn’t make me feel sorry for myself, it only makes me try harder and play the hand I was dealt to win.

Peace, love, and wellness.

The Mean Reds — Anxiety

The Mean Reds — Anxiety

I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s about a million times. And there’s this one line Holly Golightly says to her future lover, Paul, that speaks to me every time still:

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?

Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?

Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

I’ve said it about a million times, upheaval in life is a trigger for me. Some people, things just bounce right off them, they’re able to roll with the punches and weather the storms. Then there’s me, surely like a lot of you, who is an absolute sponge and feels everything to the nth degree. At first it all just kind of blurs together and I think I’m managing alright, but then it hits me, the weight of it all. I step outside of myself and am able to realize the extent of exactly what I’m dealing with and how it’s becomes the mean reds.

That was my week last week and it took me down hard. I haven’t experienced a breakdown like that in over a year. I was truly afraid and I didn’t know what exactly I was afraid of. I woke up last Monday morning hysterical, out of nowhere. Hyperventilating, inconsolable, out of control, hiding in my bed, screaming into my sheets, with no answer to my hysteria. I’d totally lost myself, and over what? I realize I’ve flipped my life on it’s head changing jobs, working only part-time because I’ve made the decision to go back to school for my degree in social work, the addition of the newness of certain relationships, the old toxicity of others, fresh hell greeting me on what seemed like a daily basis at that point in one way or another, stress, grief, struggle. But sometimes that’s just life.

I had to do something, anything. So I did one of the things I feel I do best to get me out of these pickles: I wrote. I couldn’t meditate my way out of this, I’d been stuck in it for two days already, I had attitude about medicating when a friend came to me with all the love, Thai food, and Klonopin he had to offer (although I ended up backing down and taking his advice and medication by the middle of the week, and was utterly grateful for it), and I had by that point ceased to be functional. I can’t remember what day it was last week (As I’ve mentioned I have that natural mental protective mechanism that blocks out painful events and it’s details), but I just verbally vomited in pencil all over 3 pages of my school notebook (instead of doing my homework), and I’d like to share it with you in hopes that maybe some of it will speak to you, or maybe help you not feel so alone when the anxiety monster strikes. It came out of me in bullet-point fashion so I’m going to translate it here as such, in order.

  • Anyone who doesn’t believe in anxiety has never truly experienced it.
  • It’s crippling/all-consuming- A hurricane-like internal unstoppable shit-storm living in your mind, body, and spirit.
  • Nothing matters.
  • The mean reds, you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.
  • Meditation is the best drug there is.
  • I’ve been to the ER twice for anxiety, with no insurance, absolutely worried for my safety, feeling my world crashing down on me.
  • I often wake up with anxiety for no reason, it can strike out of nowhere, and I often go to bed that way, too.
  • I have to work really hard to keep anxiety at bay. I meditate my way out of anxiousness at least 2x a day- I don’t always win but I can at least regain enough composure to carry on.
  • It’s often a buildup, then a breakdown that sometimes just shows up out of nowhere and sometimes it’s because I know something before I actually know it (intuiting things).
  • Do I accept it and give it love to quell it or do I fight it? Do I let it run its course, or medicate?
  • You lose your grounding entirely. It feels like falling off a cliff and being stuck in mid-air waiting for the ground to come at you at full speed.
  • You lose yourself, your self-control, and control of your mind. You think you’re dying and there’s no answer.
  • Feelings of wanting to hide in bed, crying, shaking, wanting to jump out of my skin, coming unglued.
  • I looked up the definition of panic: “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior”.
  • There’s a difference between a regular cry and an anxiety cry which involved uncontrollable hyperventilation, as well as the physical symptoms. There is no way to anticipate them.
  • Why is severe anxiety a thing and what even is it?
  • Do I learn anything from it? What?
  • It’s so real when you’re in it, your mind and body have no idea it’s not.
  • With depression you don’t just “get over it”, with anxiety you don’t just “calm down”. It’s impossible to get a grip.
  • Pain and fear are often at the root in my experience, as well as stress, both mental and physical. Feeling overwhelmed with pain, fear, and stress, being caught in a negative feedback loop or full of unresolved emotion.
  • Every day I get to start over, fresh.
  • I try to remember I may not always win the battle but be mindful of what really matters in spite of the struggle- love, loving myself, all that I am, and blessing myself.
  • What good can come from it? A reminder to slow down, to be kinder to myself, to love myself, to have gratitude for what is right in my life, to work through my issues, and not try to stifle them?
  • Can anxiety be a call to action? A call to go deeper? To look inward and connect with myself? To listen and respond to things I might not have known I needed? A chance to sort myself out?
  • A quote I reminded myself of- “If you’re depressed you’re living in the past, if you’re anxious you’re living in the future, if you’re at peace you’re living in the present”.
  • Keep trying everything I know: The Ho’oponopono Meditation, the Mental Health Check-in Check List, The Serenity Prayer, go outside and let nature cleanse the filth, pick up your favorite hobby, surround yourself with positive people, express yourself through words, art, exercise. Anything to get you out of your head and distract you, but still be able to come back and deal with the anxiety at some point.
  • The last thing I wrote down, because I’m forever a proponent of natural remedies is “Lithium Orotate“. It’s a naturally occurring element that can help relieve symptoms of anxiety without the side-effects of Benzodiazepines.

I have been able to slowly but surely see my way out of this episode and even have a revelation or two. Hopefully you can relate to some or any of this, and know that you’re not the only one who feels this way, and that there are solutions whether you deal with anxiety daily or occasionally.

Peace, love, and wellness.

Thankful for Remembering Depression

Thankful for Remembering Depression

The following is from yesterday, it’s not eloquent. As I’m sure most of you know, mental health challenges don’t exactly lend themselves to fully functional cognitive abilities. I’ve been riding this massive wave of transition lately in all aspects of my life and it came to a head this week. I’m learning that major upheavals on fundamental levels in my life be they good or bad, are big triggers for me. So instead of waking up yesterday feeling grateful for seeing my family, feeling the love, and having a killer dinner together, I woke up with a big fat cloud over me.

I was grateful for it anyway because as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have a built-in protective mechanism that blocks out a good majority of my past mental illness experiences and their accompanying symptoms. I quite literally can’t remember on a granular level most of the time what it truly feels like to be depressed.

It all comes back to me in tsunami-like form however when I’m in the thick of it, so I’m thankful for the reminder because my intent here and in my work is to be able to relate to those dealing with mental health issues so I can be of help. It’s hard to help when I can’t fully relate because I’ve subconsciously blocked most of it out, so the reminders really helpful. What else is helpful is documenting it, for myself, and for you. And so, I’m grateful for my episode yesterday, even more grateful for having been able to process it and enjoy the holiday, and grateful I put my feelings into words. Here they are:

“It starts with waking up to the feeling of my body being really heavy and letharged, not wanting to get out of bed physically or mentally. The world outside is cold and complex, it’s almost holding me down where I lie. It’s alright, It’s safer here. The world is all going to be sensory overload anyway. The lack of motivation and will are far too familiar. The dread of the day ahead, even when it’s an easy day ahead filled with family, food, and love. Body aches and a dull, unforgiving headache. A wash of slight sadness over my being but for reasons I can’t fathom. A cynicism toward whatever lies ahead of me, none of it feels worth any effort. My body is slow and defunct, so is my outlook. My brain is foggy and still, and at the same time busy in the background full of useless noise. All I feel like doing is achieving unconsciousness again, I feel like I could sleep for a hundred years. The thought of that gives me a little relief. I don’t wonder what’s going on out in the rest of the world around me because I don’t care. There must be a storm cloud above me because I can feel it weighing me down, it might even be sitting right on my chest because it feels heavy there and kind of hard to breathe. I pay attention to the expression on my face and notice a natural frown. I have no appetite and realize I’m parched but with no plans to do anything about it. I could really use a shower, it would probably help. No plans for that either, and no will or energy for any of it. What can I do? Staring at the ceiling, my old friend. Checking out. Why that does so much for me when I feel this way? I believe it’s because I’m fried and my brain really appreciates the blank white space rather than the cluttered dark noisy mess that otherwise exists. My vital energy has been robbed, my mental sharpness and clarity are gone, too. I can’t even access the more descriptive words I’d normally be using to describe this experience because I haven’t got them right now. Everything is so tired. And this is a mild day, a mild experience. One where if I really try, I can begrudgingly drag myself slowly out of bed and start my day one chore at a time. Everything is a chore when I feel this way, and I slog through my day just waiting for it to be over so I can either maybe start feeling better, or just let it be over and eek a little joy out of going back to bed. My shinyness is dulled, my vibrance buried under this heavy existence that I will endure for the day. The hardest part is having no rhyme or reason behind it. Maybe if I knew what was causing it I could do something about it. All I can really do is acknowledge it and try to press on taking as good of care of myself as I can. But even that’s too much work for me right now, I haven’t got the energy or motivation to take care of myself and so I fall deeper down into whatever’s got it’s hold on me today. I hope it will fade away and I will get myself back. My head hurts and I hope so much deep inside that this will last just one day that it makes me a little emotional. This is no place for me to be and I don’t deserve this, it’s not fair. It’s not who I am. I want it to go away. It’s like a vicious monster from the closet that I have to fight for my life and my only defense is to feebly throw feathers from my torn pillow at it as I watch it creep closer and closer toward me, threatening to eat me alive. I feel so weak. So I take a deep breath, wipe a tear from my face and make the decision to start somewhere, anywhere, by getting up and brushing my teeth. The simplest thing, but the absolute last thing I have the energy for or want to do. I remind myself that I love myself and I deserve to be here and to be happy, then I put my feet on the floor, I feel my lower back ache, and go from there. I look forward to the notion of this just being one day, hopefully, and not continuous. I remember exactly how easy it is to forget this feeling when I’m not feeling it every single day anymore and I wish myself luck.”

Peace, love, and wellness.

Peer Support & World Mental Health Day

Peer Support & World Mental Health Day

Happy World Mental Health Day! Given the topic we’re celebrating today, the basis of my project, and that I’ve made the decision to pursue my degree in social work, I feel like it’s a great day to talk about one way we can help the world improve mental health: peer support.

I recently read an article on peer support that I found fairly accessible to the average mental health consumer. Namely because it’s not a clinical paper written by doctors, it’s a theoretically-based paper written by educated people who have spent years working in the mental health community within the peer support space. That means you’re automatically spared the medical jargon in favor of more humanistic characterizations of the deeper levels upon which mental health recovery should be based, and why.

I’m going to be doing a lot of direct quoting from the article because I like the way they represent their perspectives, starting with their abstract, followed by a definition of peer support.

Abstract

“This article offers one theoretical perspective of peer support and attempts to define the elements that, when reinforced through education and training, provide a new cultural context for healing and recovery. Persons labeled with psychiatric disability have become victims of social and cultural ostracism and consequently have developed a sense of self that re-enforces the “patient” identity. Enabling members of peer support to understand the nature and impact of these cultural forces leads individuals and peer communities toward a capacity for personal, relational and social change. It is our hope that consumers from all different types of programs (e.g. drop-in, social clubs, advocacy,support, outreach, respite), traditional providers, and policy makers will find this article helpful in stimulating dialogue about the role of peer programs in the development of a recovery based system.”

Definition of Peer Support

“Peer support is a system of giving and receiving help founded on key principles of respect respect, shared responsibility, and mutual agreement of what is helpful. Peer support is not based on psychiatric models and diagnostic criteria. It is about understanding another’s situation empathically through the shared experience of emotional and psychological pain.

When people find affiliation with others they feel are “like” them, they feel a connection. This connection, or affiliation, is a deep, holistic understanding based on mutual experience where people are able to “be” with each other without the constraints of traditional (expert/patient) relationships.

Further, as trust in the relationship builds, both people are able to respectfully challenge each other when they find themselves in conflict. This allows members of the peer community to try out new behaviors with one another and move beyond previously held self-concepts built on disability and diagnosis. The Stone Center refers to this as “mutual empowerment” (Stiver & Miller, 1998).

Peer support can offer a culture of health and ability as opposed to a culture of “illness”and disability. (Curtis, 1999) The primary goal is to responsibly challenge the assumptions about mental illnesses and at the same time to validate the individual for whom they really are and where the have come from. Peer support should attempt to think creatively and non-judgmentally about the way individuals experience and make meaning of their lives in contrast to having all actions and feelings diagnosed and labeled.

Many people have learned roles that build a strong sense of identity as “mental patient.” Because this becomes a primary identity we find affiliation with others who have also been labeled. Zinman (1998) refers to this as “client” culture. This “identity” leads us to the assumption that the rest of the community can’t understand us and creates an “us/them” split with others.

An imbalance of personal and social power lies at the heart of mental illness and is the cornerstone of the theory of recovery that we wish to present. Recovery lies in undoing the cultural process of developing careers as “mental patients.”

We undo this by practicing relationships in a different way. Peer support, therefore, becomes a natural extension and expansion of community rather than modeling professionalized caretaking of people defined as defective. As peers feel less forced into their roles as “patients,” they naturally come to understand their problems in the larger social and political context from which they emerge, rather than pathologizing themselves.

Peer support is a simultaneous movement towards autonomy and community building. It is not based in deficits model thinking. It is a model that encourages diversity rather than homogeneity, and recognizes individual strengths.”

Well put, right? Are we getting this out of our current mental health care system? Hardly.

Anyone who’s been processed through modern medicine’s modus operandi can clearly see the disparity between it’s approach to mental health treatment and recovery, and the peer-support approach. The former being a one-sided approach, and the latter being a two-way street of acquiring treatment and maintaining recovery.

Peer support creates an environment that allows consumers to dissociate the pejorative of clinical mental health patient, and identify it from a more human perspective that transverses across more planes of society and will basically fly under the stigma radar a little more easily given it’s peer-to-peer foundation.

I see it as reframing mental health care in a manner that allows for more accessibility, utilization, understanding, acceptance, safety, cost-effectiveness, hope, community, retention and recovery, and minimizes stigma, attrition, and relapse. I see it as a whole-person approach rather than a symptom-based approach.

I also believe that to have peer support in the role of advocate or liaison for a consumer of mental health care between their community and the clinical side of treatment makes the entire process, as I keep saying, more human. As it is in America, it feels like a machine; not easily navigable, approachable or very caring. Placing a human being in all those voids, one who can actually relate to the traumatic experience of the consumer, seems like an easy answer to me. A wise choice for the attempt to correct the imbalance between personal and social power, as the article states. I’ll go ahead and make the obvious statement that all of that, to me, adds up to more efficiently utilized health care with better outcomes for consumers.

Also, I couldn’t help myself with the image I used for this post 🙂

Peace, love, and wellness.

The Norm

The Norm

Where is the line drawn when things have gotten bad enough to need help, and how do you define that? When I look at other’s experience with mental health challenges, when they describe their symptoms and how it made them know something was wrong, I always try to relate it my my experience. The easiest way to assimilate something is to make it relatable to you.

So when I hear about things like a constant separation of mind from body, uncontrollable racing thoughts and rumination, paranoia, extreme moodiness, uncontrollable emotional reactions and episodes, dissociation, insomnia and oversleeping, panic, hysteria, a feeling of heaviness, body aches and pains, fatigue, feeling angry, sad, edgy, burdened, hopeless, worthless, powerless, afraid, and waking up daily to life generally being a drag, it always hits me with such familiarity because all of that was always so normal for me. As well as all of those factors infiltrating my actions, words, my whole life.

Imagine all of that being your daily norm. My problem was that I didn’t know any better, yet somehow I was still able to eek some satisfaction and happiness out of certain aspects of my life. Otherwise it was perpetually existing in fight or flight mode feeling all those symptoms and feelings. Because this was my norm I didn’t understand how to act on things, I could only ever react. But I’d still managed to protect myself enough to keep it together on the outside by keeping my mind closed, heart closed, and often times eyes closed. Looking at old photos of myself I could see in my face and in my posture the weight of the world I had no idea I was carrying.

I clearly never had a benchmark for my wellness. I never knew where the line was drawn where I could say “something’s wrong with me, I need help”. As long as I felt what I perceived as functional, I didn’t know I needed help. And even if I did, I don’t know that I would have asked for it. It just was never really an option for me. Before I was on my own as an adult I knew that my wellness was my parent’s responsibility so I’d incorrectly assumed that if they weren’t actively taking any steps to help readjust the norm I was experiencing, no matter how much of it they bore witness to or not, then I must not need help. So I pressed on thinking this is the way things are supposed to be.

When I began to fully unravel around the age of 22, all I could really glean from it was that I was losing my mind, spinning out of control, and at this point the only one any longer responsible for my own well being. No more mind over matter, my mind is my matter. I had no idea what was happening to me but trying to get help all of a sudden seemed like the only answer.

Now, over a decade later and in recovery, I read or listen to others’ accounts of their mental health struggles and how or when they knew something was wrong. I find it incredibly fascinating to hear about people’s personal yardstick of wellness and sanity. When someone says something like “I had an entire week where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt really heavy, distracted and emotionally off-balance”, or “My thoughts would race, I was feeling apathetic and joyless toward life”, or “I stopped eating regularly and began substituting food with alcohol”, my reaction is generally to the effect of “Wait, that’s what made you realize something was wrong and you needed help? I lived that almost every day of my life. I had to lose my goddamn mind to have that revelation!”

I had to look up the examples I used of where the line is drawn to write this post because even still I sometimes have trouble delineating my reactions and behaviors as either triggers or genuine responses. That’s not to say I can never tell the difference, I’m better accustomed to that discipline by now as I’ve worked to build my personal protocol for working through whatever is challenging me. But it can still be a gray area for me to know where the line is drawn between acting and reacting, especially when in the moment.

“When I learned the other way people thought” was another good account that hit home, too. It used to be that I didn’t realize it wasn’t a shitty storm cloud inside everyone else’s head most of the time as it was in mine. It’s also difficult to see outside of your mental illness box when you’re that deep in it, so you can’t really use that as a tool for comparison. It’s tough to look around you and wonder why everyone else seems lighter and happier than you when you’re too tunnel-visioned by your own little personal, yet normal to you, hell to be able to see it.

It takes examples like this to really shake me, “The first moment was when I was 12 and I seriously considered killing myself rather than have to change in front of other boys in gym class. I thought it was normal to be constantly thinking about suicide when I was younger”, or “When I found myself sitting on a bridge with pocket beers after a 2 day binge. I had spent my entire paycheck on alcohol and went MIA all weekend. Lost my job, was kicked out of the house. I spent several years self medicating on any substance I could get a hold of. It wasn’t until being pronounced dead twice after ODing on heroin until I realized maybe this shit isn’t working”.

Despite getting a reaction out of me, it’s still easy for me to see how these types of behavior can easily become someone’s norm when they never really knew any different. So when someone recounts their experience with something like “I knew when colors weren’t as bright and music no longer made me want to dance”, I don’t by any means intend to minimize their feelings, but relative to the way I used to feel I have no idea what they’re talking about.

I’ll never forget when I was tested for ADHD in my mid-twenties, I told the psychiatrist my story and she called me “a survivor”. It blew me away. Me a survivor? No way, survivors are people who have lived through cancer, or rape, or wars, or car wrecks. I wasn’t a survivor, just a product of my environment looking to shed the layers that were unraveling and be on my way to feeling mostly in one piece. At that time I had no idea exactly what a survivor I was, I just thought I was carrying on. Turns out I’d spent my whole life surviving and had no concept because survival mode was always my norm. I’m happy to say things are exponentially different these days and much of that gray area has become more black and white.

Peace, love, and wellness.

Stay With Me

Stay With Me

Thank you to everyone who’s stuck with me over the last couple months, I know it’s been an obnoxiously long time since I’ve posted here or to my Instagram. My deal is that I got a new job at the end of June and it’s been absorbing every last one of my spoons every day and challenging me in ways I didn’t think possible. Truth be told, I don’t like it at all for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that I have changed exponentially since the last time I held this occupation. I’m coming up on month 3 now and I wake up every day and fight with this job. I’m not doing what I love and what I love has fallen by the wayside, but this is what I signed up for. That was the least of what I knew going into this.

So why did I do it? I was comfortable in my last job but financially as an independent contractor I felt I could be doing better. An opportunity was put in front of me to go back to an industry I’d worked in in my early 20’s. One where I knew I’d have to bust my ass at first but once I’d laid the foundation, the potential for income was there. It’s an industry I know I don’t like, my heart is not in it but I thought I could compartmentalize for the sake of the future stability. It was also an industry at which I used to be really successful. It didn’t take long for me to realize how the new me was not fit for this role, how it was now sucking my soul, absorbing all my personal resources, and triggering mental health symptoms. I now have a prescription for Xanax. I haven’t medicated for anxiety in 4 years.

So here I am rounding out week one of reentry from Burning Man, with the revelation that I have found a silver lining to this occupational experience. This job I don’t like was the much needed catalyst to get me out of my comfort zone and boot me into a place where I could realize the path to pursuing my true passion. There has been a huge lesson to be had out of this as well- stop chasing money and chase my dreams. My heart fully lies within helping people with mental health, I’ve known that for a long time.

For the last 5+ years I’ve been told countless times I should be a social worker, because I’m so passionate about helping people. That’s why I started this project because I wanted to advocate for mental health without having to spend the time on a degree to do so. Realistically I can’t expect this project to pay the bills when I’m doing it for free, and I don’t have the scale or business model in place to make this a career yet. I also don’t have a degree. Therefore quitting my job and going back to school for a BSW is my answer, and once I came to that conclusion earlier this week, a huge weight felt like it lifted off my shoulders and my heart.

That said, I wouldn’t feel right about not sharing my mental health struggles given that I’m here to use my experiences to help others. At first I was really excited for the change of pace and challenge of this job but as I began settling in the anxiety started kicking in. I think it was due to the realization of exactly how alone I was with this position. I took on a territory that I was to build from the ground up within 6 months, with minimal support by a management staff that’s also brand new, from a company that is going through a lot of growing pains and doesn’t have a very substantial or thorough training foundation. Expectations are high, support is low, pressure is on and it began affecting me quickly. The further I went a long the more I realized how this company wasn’t overly capable of setting me up for success, and that I’m not alone in my sentiment. 

I started as per usual, thinking I could manage on my own, naturally with my favorite anti-anxiety/mood regulator lithium orotate. That quickly became no longer enough to manage and I was forced to seek professional help. I began taking .125mgs of Xanax every morning just to take the edge of so I could get my head on straight and begin work. Then another .125mgs in the afternoon, and often another .125 to get to sleep. I had to be careful not to take too much because Xanax is really strong for me and makes me very sleepy. However prior to that the anxiety levels were so high that it began clouding my head and my ADHD kicked into ultra high gear. We know how one mental health issue can feed into others, this was a classic case.

I explained both fronts of my symptoms to the doctor and he suggested medicating the ADHD as well but I was incredibly hesitant. I’ve been off Adderall for about 18 months now as it was incredibly caustic to my body and also never really helped my focus. He suggested Strattera because I mentioned I might be open to a non-stimulant medication but after researching it, I still wasn’t convinced it was the answer.

Xanax was helping the anxiety which did help to ease the ADHD to some degree. I also researched natural ADHD supplements and found Neuro-Peak which has also been pretty helpful as well and I decided I didn’t need to medicate for ADHD which I was really happy about. Still I found myself waking up everyday feeling like a live wire as a result of how ungrounded this position has made me feel. I definitely lost entire days here and there to anxiety because I simply couldn’t function. I also lost plenty of hours to ADHD for the same reason.

I’ve now reached a point where I’m going to ride out the next 3 months of what’s left of my guaranteed base pay and give it my best effort. I want to be able to leave saying I really tried but that the job wasn’t for me. Meanwhile I’ll be working on getting myself back into school and I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of having my degree, and having a future in helping people that will pay the bills. Even if I’m still scraping by, at least I’m doing it heartfully. I’d rather be broke and happy than rich and miserable. I’m also looking forward to a time again when I don’t have to medicate to function.

I now feel a sense of gratitude for this hardship and experience I’ve been through. For the lessons I’ve learned, the new path I’m on, and the weight that has been lifted. I’m also grateful to be a part of this community, to have people who love and support me, and to have you guys who are hopefully still getting something out of my posts. Like you, I’m doing the best I can with the resources I have, and I hope like me, you’re genuinely looking forward to what’s to come in life.

On another note, it’s National Suicide Prevention Week, September 10th-16th. I want to take a minute to recognize the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the work they do to help #stopsuicide.

Peace, love, and wellness.