I got asked this question today. More specifically, I got asked if I thought that anxiety could be defeated, could be overcome. It got me thinking.
I've always had a theory that when I hit 30 that my anxiety will simply be gone. I'm still holding out hope, but in the meantime, I've no interest in holding my breath. I know I have to spend every day working on my anxiety.
Once upon a time, my anxiety progressed to agoraphobia. In 2014 I couldn't leave my house, even to do something as simple as go shop for groceries. Thankfully, Thrifty's delivered to my doorstep, from two blocks away. I couldn't leave my house without being physically ill. Including my scheduled therapy appointments. I missed my first few therapy appointments, and when I finally forced myself to endure the physical wreck anxiety and panic attacks were causing, it was an ordeal to sit through my first session. This however was where I learned the self-love technique that has rescued me even now, two and a half years later. I still use this whenever I need to. The next time I went to therapy, it was still bad, but it was a little better. It was becoming safer and safer.
Sometimes the unknown is fucking terrifying. In this case, it was for me.
Anxiety is a chemical reaction your body sends to an unknown threat. It's a fight or flight instinct. It's your conscious mind trying to convince your subconscious mind that something is okay, and safe, while your subconscious is provoking the symptoms of panic and anxiety - shaking, sweating, heart palpitations, uneven or difficult breathing, choking sensation, nausea, stomach churning, brain fog and disorientation, racing and rapid thoughts. All of these things are telling you to leave the situation you're in, and you're choosing to either fight, or fly. Don't fly. And don't fight.
Accept it. Allow yourself to feel anxious. Half of the battle of anxiety is pretending it doesn't exist. Wishing so hard before an event that you won't have a panic attack, and then causing one, worrying about whether or not it will happen. Take a few minutes, take an hour, to lie back, to focus on even breathing, and accept it.
Don't let it ruin your experience. The biggest battle with anxiety is reprogramming your perspective and having experiences that don't revolve around anxiety. For instance, when I drive the Malahat, it triggers anxiety in me for some reason. I used to refuse to drive it, because every time I did, I would have a panic attack - I expected this, and I brought it on. It wasn't until this past summer that I drove the Malahat without having a panic attack and I thought, "Wow, I can do this!" The next time I drove it, I had a panic attack. Whoops. Instead of getting angry with myself or upset, I thought to myself, "Hey, remember that one time you didn't have a panic attack? That can happen again." I drive over that stupid mountain countless times a month now. 9/10 times I'm fine, the tenth time, I'll tend to have a panic attack. But I won't let that ruin the experience for me. The other times, I'm fine. And no matter what my subconscious is trying to tell me, I am always, always safe.
I really don't think the focus should be on overcoming or curing anxiety - but learning to cope with it in healthy ways. I think a huge part of it is to be pushing yourself. Start accomplishing small tasks that once triggered anxiety - grocery shopping, driving a long road, going to a show, going to a festival, anything. Tackle the small things, and get them under your belt, then start tackling more and more. Expect that anxiety will make an appearance - it always tends to. Sometimes though, it doesn't.
I almost cancelled a trip to Vancouver with friends a few years ago, because I was feeling anxious at the ferry terminal. I walked back shaking to my car, and told my friend he could have my keys for the weekend and take my car, I would bus back. He rolled his eyes at me, but agreed, until we realized I'd booked the hotel room in my name. I had to go. It was out of my control. So I sat in the passenger seat, and prepared for the panic as we drove onto the boat. I hate, hate, hate boats. The ferry started moving. I was expecting a full-blown panic attack to hit, and it didn't. After about fifteen minutes of rocking in the ocean, I realized it just wasn't going to happen. I got out of the car laughing, grateful, and was fine the entire trip. I don't know why the anxiety didn't come, but it didn't. And it doesn't have to every time. Just like driving over the Malahat, I now have safe experiences about the ferries, and Vancouver trips in general.
Anxiety is situational, and each and every person's experience with anxiety is different - to what triggers it, to the extent, to how they cope and manage. Different things make different people anxious and to different degrees. Everybody has it to some extent. It's all in how we manage it.
I'm fucking grateful for my anxiety. I get to learn the difference between a real and perceived threat. I get to learn healthy coping mechanisms. I got the chance and realization to quit drinking at a young age, and drugs even earlier. I get the daily strength fighting that voice every day that says, "You can drink this away." I've met some very cool people who are as open and honest as myself about mental illness, and become allies in this mutual understanding. I've grown spiritually as a result of it and am more aware and in touch with my body, mind, and emotions than most, because I have to be. And I have the opportunity to promote strength and growth in others, because despite still having it I am able to conquer it daily, be it going to a music festival, or grocery shopping, and show others that you can recover. Whether it be ultimate, or in a constant state, life is still goddamn beautiful.
If we focus on managing our anxiety, the looming prospect of being responsible for curing it entirely is lifted from our weighted shoulders. We're anxious. We don't need any more fucking pressures, thanks. I get asked, "Oh, so is your anxiety gone?" No. No it isn't. But I'm learning to cope with it, and I'm learning to manage it on my own, for myself.
Who knows? Maybe someday it will be gone. I don't have the energy to dream up 'someday's' all the time. Dreaming of a possible or impossible future will emotionally and mentally exhaust me. I'm holding out hope, but I'm not holding my breath - I'm living for today, and today I'm regulating my breath to stay present, aware, and within the moment. If I do these things today, then all I can do is ultimately hope that I am creating an anxiety-free future for myself.
Sometimes, anxiety feels like climbing a mountain. Getting out of bed is taking that first step. Tying your shoes. Remembering your waterbottle, your self-care. Telling yourself every step of the way that you can do this. Maybe I'm always going to be climbing this mountain. But after years of going at this unprepared, barefoot, I've now got a really good pair of shoes. A waterbottle. Confidence. Self-love. I'm looking forward to climbing this mountain.
Mental health struggles aren't beautiful.
The first photo was taken a week before a suicide attempt in 2011. The second photo was taken last week.
I struggled horrifically with addiction, depression, anxiety, and mania during my teens to mid-twenties when I was finally diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, became medicated, and quit alcohol. That was two years ago now.
In addition I embarked on a quest of spiritual growth to find the meaning in my life. My purpose in life is to simply brighten others. I have drive, and a desire to better the world. I am determined to do this through my story.
I've been really low and lost and I know I'm not alone. And I know that anybody who encounters it is not alone, but it's easy to feel alone when it's all you can think and feel. You are not alone. We are not alone.
I am not a disease. I am not depressed, manic, bipolar, or anxious. These things are a part of my life, but they do not define me. I am not my illness.
Nor are you.
It gets better. Please, believe me. In 2011 I thought it couldn't possibly. In 2014 I thought it would only ever get worse. It's 2017, and I know that every day is better now than the one before it, and will continue to be.
So let's talk. If you need somebody to talk to, talk. Don't hide it. 1-800-273-TALK is an excellent resource and one that I once relied on.
Your friends, family. Hell, send me a message if you're struggling.
Don't hide yourself or feel ashamed. We are all human, and we all have stories. Don't end your story early. Press on. I promise, life becomes beautiful.
Last year I was regularly seeing an incredible therapist who helped me so much to pull back from my depression, and anxiety. One of our last visits we struck up a conversation about whether or not I would change anything in my life. I looked to him and said, "I bet if I wrote a letter to my five-year-old self, I would tell her not to do all of the things I did."
He smiled and he laughed at me and suggested that I exercise that - to go and write a letter to my little self. So the next week I took off to my favorite beach with a journal and pen and began writing. I wrote and wrote, three full pages of advice to my younger self. I'd like to share exactly what I wrote.
Dude, I miss you. The good news is you're still here. I never lose your sense of adventure.
You're pretty scared, hey? Well the world is scary but Mom does a good job of protecting you, little me. She sure loves you.
You're going to put a lot of effort into things you can't change. You're sure going to feel a lot. People like that about you. You're going to try on a thousand personalities but around 22 you'll give up and start growing into the person that you are - me! I promise you will be cool. Wear whatever you want, please. Don't ever second-guess something as trivial as an outfit for fear of looking stupid - you won't.
You and Dad won't start getting along until you're older, but I promise, someday you'll be friends. Grin and bear it. He's actually kind of cool once you grow up.
You will learn so much about people. Not everybody stays. And the harder you try, the quicker they'll leave. Accept loss with humility. Worst-case, forgive but don't forget. You'll have a heart of steel for quite some time after you first get your heart broken. Buckle up kid, it's an important lesson to go through and I promise you'll come out of it wiser and grateful.
Drugs will not fill that void within you but you'll try for a long time. They will open your mind to a world that is ugly, unkind, and will stunt your emotional growth. You will grow up terrified of them but one day change your mind. I won't tell you not to do them, because everything that you do turns you into me. The good news is that you quit right before your 18th birthday. It won't be until after that that you realize just how strong your willpower is. Celebrate it and share it with others.
Same goes for booze. You love to tell your story to others and inspire people to be better. Something good will come of it. You will always be good with silver linings. You're going to think you're ugly until you're about 14. You will grow up and become beautiful. Be gentle with the emotions of others.
You'll care a lot and wear hurt that does not belong to you. You'll do this to distract yourself from your own pain, though you are extremely sensitive to the emotions of those around you. Give yourself time to feel.
Your life won't be easy but it will be yours. You will always write, or create. You are an artist. Always read. Start now. You already like to. Stick with school and accept all of the free knowledge you can. You will always be smart, but you have to work for it. People will try to dumb you down to your level, don't ever let them.
Cherish the people in your life. Honor the friendships that will last a lifetime, a few months, or just the here and now. Spend time with your Granny. She's a beautiful soul and won't be around for forever. Learn to embrace your family, they do love you too.
Breathe. Love yourself. Celebrate. Stay ambitious. Be aware.
I promise you will always be.
As soon as I put down my pen I stared out at the ocean, my eyes full of tears. I wasn't sad, I was crying out of pure happiness. All of my life I had thought to myself that if I could do it all over again, I would have done things differently - and writing out this letter to myself made me realize that everything that I have ever been through has made me into the person that I am today. I was so touched to come to this realization.
Sometimes we have to go through the storm to come out even stronger on the other side of it. Sometimes life is hard, on its own, or we make it hard ourselves without really realizing it. The most important part of everything I've been through is that I have learned to share my story with others. That's my silver lining. That's my rainbow. I'm done with the storms, and I am blessed to have struggled so severely in my teenage and adolescent years, because I've got the rest of my life ahead of me.
I routinely read this letter and smile to myself and send my younger self the love that she needed then, and needs now. This exercise was also an incredible lesson in remembering to love yourself, forgive yourself for your mistakes, and to show yourself compassion. Self-love makes your world go 'round.
I can't believe I did it. I spent three nights and four days out on a mountain, camping amidst strangers, friends, family. I stayed 100% sober and clean. I conquered my fears and anxieties. I left my city. I made amazing friendships. I saw wonderful musicians and acts. I sampled delightful foods and rekindled my long love-affair with churros (mmm!) I was organized. I even remembered to practice self-care after a day of a killer migraine, whoops!
I left on Thursday afternoon. I thought to myself that if I didn't go then, I never would. I had no idea what to expect, or where I was sleeping. I packed my car with food, clothing, toiletries, blankets and pillows, intending to just wing it and most likely sleep in my car. There was no real set plan. I was freaking out. My friend Emily called me and asked if I would drive her up with me. I initially wanted to go on my own. The drive is two hours and I wanted to be alone with my music and my thoughts in case I needed to pull over to freak out. Luckily, Emily gets my anxieties, and I get hers. I decided, fuck it, I'll drive one of my best friends and we can be each other's support. I'm so glad I did!
The fun part about Port Renfrew is there's no reception. I had opened Google Maps when we were out in Victoria and followed the signs to Port Renfrew, and once we got there we were totally lost and had no way to find directions. We ended up out in Botanical Beach, we turned around, we were just laughing. We had music, we were having a grand old time. Finally, FINALLY, we found the sign. We began the descent up the mountain and joined the line of cars waiting to enter. It was both of our first years so we had absolutely no idea what to expect as far as the layout, where I was going to be parked. I dropped off Emily at the festival roundabout with all of her camping gear and I was directed to my parking spot and began to hike back up the mountain. Only about a ten minute walk from the entrance, but up a mountain. My legs and body are still aching.
The view didn't disappoint.
We walked in and got Emily's temporary camp set up and ran into the main stage where The Dudes were playing. I was transfixed. I quickly found an old friend of mine who I hadn't seen in YEARS and we decided we were going to be Tall Tree Buddies! Like myself, he's sober, so it worked perfectly. Quickly, Emily found her crew and Trevor and I watched The Dudes and then hiked down to my car and grabbed my blankets and clothing. This was it. I was really committing to this idea of camping. I hadn't been camping in over a year and I struggle with anxiety around the idea of camping - especially amidst hundreds of people and multiple stages of music. I wouldn't say that I freaked out, but I definitely had moments of anxiety. I did what I always do in moments of anxiety - I disappeared into the tent and retreated from the crowd. It helped. I slept and I eagerly awaited the next day.
The Thursday night Trevor and I had discovered this little nook with a sign that said Be Kinky and we laughed. We wandered down and found a single hammock surrounded by trees. It wasn't visible from the main stage and it was secluded and amazing.
The next morning I woke up around 10. Trevor had started on his volunteer shift from 9-3, so I woke up, did my makeup (this was the first and only day I bothered) and got dressed and headed to the main stage for a coffee. I wandered up the hill and saw Trevor and another volunteer Diego right by the fence. I asked what they were doing and they said setting up hammocks. No way. I grabbed my coffee and headed down to where the single hammock was and saw them setting up more - awesome! All told by the time the project was done there was about eight or nine hammocks set up in this little grove. One of the volunteer supervisors came by and said he really wanted to paint the walls going down to it. We'd started calling it Hammock City, so I followed him and grabbed a tray of paints, rollers, and brushes. While the boys set up the hammocks I painted the walls.
Behold, Hammock City!
Music was playing on the main stage, on the Valley Stage. There was music everywhere. Right near our newly-created Hammock City stood a large teepee, the Wishing Tent.
I was intrigued. I had to go take a wander inside. The sign outside the door said no shoes, so I took off my shoes and I walked inside. I felt like I was inside a different world completely. The music was still playing but I couldn't register it. There was an atmosphere inside the tent that existed solely within its walls. I was transfixed and I was solitary, standing between the wishes of strangers and probable friends. I started reading and was overcome with a plethora of emotion. I picked up the pen and a piece of paper and wondered to myself what I had to wish for. I stood for a few moments and my mind drew a blank. I filled an entire piece of paper explaining that I wished I hadn't spent so much time regretting in my life, regrets about my anxieties. I wished for things to always stay the same, whether they be good or bad. I placed my wish on the wall and I walked away from the Wishing Tent, full of mixed emotion and a sense of change. It was a beautiful experience.
I stayed in Hammock City until one of my best friends Ghosty was going to play on the Stump and Stone stage at 3:30. I ran to the Stump and Stone stage and danced my ASS off with my best friends in the front row.
After Ghosty I stuck around the Stump and Stone stage to catch Band of Rascals. It was my third time seeing them perform, and I've gotta say they've officially become one of my favorite bands. I fucking LOVE Band of Rascals, these guys have amazing stage presence and wonderful energy and their sound is so solid and unique. Even though it was pouring rain, the stage filled up and the energy of the band amplified the crowd - people were going crazy despite the rain. Of course I bought their CD, and you can find them on Spotify and purchase their album on iTunes. Here's Held in Thought, my absolute favorite song by these guys.
I have to admit that by this time the festival atmosphere was starting to get to me. It was raining, I was tired. It's hard to get a good nights sleep when the party is going on all around you. Again I retreated to the tent for some well-deserved rest and crawled out once again when Current Swell hit the main stage at 10:30. Current Swell is such an amazing band to see live. The stage was packed, everybody from the festival dropped what they were doing to go see these kickass headliners and they provided an atmosphere that made me feel right at home. I watched the crowd and felt like I was truly a part of something bigger than myself. It was so beautiful.
Eventually my exhaustion caught the best of me and I headed back to the tent for a night of what I thought would be good rest. Wrong! I forgot, I'm at a music festival. Stages go until 3, 4, 5AM, and start at 10AM. Oh well, that's what coffee's for ... right?
Around noon on Saturday I decided to crawl out of bed. Screw makeup, coffee. I found my roommate finally! She'd made it up the night before but of course among hundreds of people I wasn't able to find her. But I finally found her! We grabbed coffee and decided to wander about the campsites in the light of day, exploring and finding friends. I walked around with this sad but relieved feeling - it was the last day of the festival. In some ways I wasn't ready for it to end, and in others I was completely exhausted. In the end the exhaustion won around 2PM and I headed back to the tent but the noise followed me and I couldn't sleep, I couldn't relax. My head started pounding. I made the trek down the mountain to my car and pulled a blanket over me and charged my phone. My head was truly killing me and I had a bit of a "duh, whoops" moment when I realized that even despite the rain I wasn't properly hydrated. All I had drank for two days was coffee. So I pulled out a water bottle and started chugging. Eventually I felt well enough to go back up. I couldn't miss Kytami performing at 5PM at the Stump and Stone stage. Headache or no headache, I could not miss this show.
The first time I saw Kytami perform was at Rifflandia of last year. One of my friends Deriek from Spaceboots was performing with her then and it was his first performance with her. In the months since Rifflandia, Deriek, Kytami, and Phonik Ops have gone on to do countless performances around Canada and the US and have just killed it. The Tall Tree performance was no exception. I don't know where she gets her energy from, but this girl kills it, every time. At the end of their set Kytami and another violinist had an unrehearsed 'violin-off' that amazed and stunned the crowd.
I was exhausted and I felt ... musically complete. Is that a thing? It's now a thing. I still had Hollerado to watch at 8:15 and Mother Mother to close the festival at 10:15. I went to rest in the tent and went back down to the main stage to go see Hollerado. About halfway through their set it finally kicked in that I was literally festivaled out. THAT is a real thing.
I relied on coffee and my sense of adventure to get me through the weekend but I had actually had enough. I was still having fun and loving the atmosphere but it finally had gotten to me. I went to the tent and I stayed in there even through Mother Mother's set. I could still hear the music perfectly and I knew the crowd was going nuts. I was content to listen to it through tent walls.
Near the end of their set, the band started speaking and I can't remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of being proud of yourself, your bravery, and your courage. "You climbed a mountain," was the line that stuck in my head and brought me near to tears.
Maybe I didn't spend as much time out and about as I had anticipated. Maybe I hadn't taken enough photos, or had taken too many. Maybe I had felt anxiety and exhaustion. But I did it. I fucking did it. I realized I had climbed not one mountain, but two. I had climbed the physical mountain that the music festival was on, and the mountain that exists inside my head every day - anxiety. I had done this sober, surrounded by the people I love and the people who love me. I had seen some of my best friends perform and felt pride and awe. I had experienced beautiful and spiritual revelations. I had spent the weekend in nature and just going with the flow. I learned that you don't always need a plan, and sometimes things happen out of your control. I had remembered to take care of myself first and foremost and show myself the love that I had needed. I had genuine and authentic fun.
I conquered Tall Tree.
I conquered my fears.
When the festival lineup was announced in April I had thought to myself, "I need to be a part of this, I need to go," but the voice called anxiety in the back of my head asked me, "Wait, can you really go? Can you really camp? Can you really spend all that time surrounded by strangers? And finally, can you actually do this sober?"
Screw you, anxiety! I did! And I can do it again!
Tall Tree 2016, thank you for the memories. Coming down off of that mountain meant coming back into reality, into real life. It wasn't until I hit Sooke that I realized I was back in the land of the living, reception, my phone started going off with messages, traffic lights, WiFi, pavement, electricity. The music still flowed through my veins, and even today, it still does. Coming down from Tall Tree feels like coming down from a drug trip, but I will remember everything.
Tall Tree 2017, I'm coming for you, again.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week I felt it was appropriate to write this post about my bipolar diagnosis.
I first learned about bipolar disorder when I was thirteen - when it was called manic depressive disorder. I had a friend who used to sigh and complain, "Ugh, I'm so bipolar." I remember looking up the disorder on Wikipedia and thinking, "Oh my god, this is me."
I don't think back then I even said anything to anybody, but I related to the symptoms entirely. The manic highs coupled with crippling lows, and the sweet bliss of the time in between the crashes. It reminds me sometimes of being tossed on an ocean. I started managing the symptoms on my own. I abused drugs until I almost couldn't anymore, relying on uppers to pull me through depression, and downers to bring me back down to earth. The funniest part is that I couldn't even see that until I cleaned up. I charted my life out with a psychiatrist and we both realized it. I also realized that my swings usually work on roughly a two year basis.
When I was sixteen I hit the wall. I describe it as the 'first time I went crazy'. I fell into a deep despairing depression that even drugs couldn't get me out of. I started cutting myself in places I thought nobody could see. I went for a Pap smear and my doctor noticed a strategically placed cut. I blamed it on a cat scratch. I couldn't sleep, and I slept too much. At night my mind was wandering with thoughts and I would fall asleep around six in the morning and sleep until about six at night. I couldn't go to school, I stopped eating and showering. When I was awake all I did was write and read. I obsessively searched for some sort of Meaning To Life, exploring into religion, something to believe in. I devoured psychology and philosophy books, looking for some sort of sign of my existence. Eventually I was diagnosed as depressed and spent a year on Amitriptyline, Trazodone, and any other pills, which had no positive effect on me. Until that feeling finally went away and - I felt like ME again! Oh, how the sun shined!
Fast forward to twenty years old and four tumultuous years filled with drug abuse and when I quit, alcohol abuse. I was living in a house with no phone, no power, no food, and drinking as much as I could to combat myself and my emotions. One day I snapped. I phoned my mom.
"I'm going up to the hospital to check myself into the psych ward," I explained to her, "I just wanted to call and tell you."
Mom drove out the hour trip into town to come pick me up and take me out to her house on the lake. I went to go see my doctor, again, who diagnosed me with depression, again. I started on Cipralex which seemed to elevate my mood but came with horrible anxiety. I continued to drink. The anxiety got so bad I found it difficult to leave the house. I needed to be drunk to deal with it, so I stayed inside and drank. After a few weeks I got into a cognitive behavioral therapy group and went to go see my first psychiatrist. I filled out so many papers that felt like little games, mapping out my moods and emotions and reactions. He asked me the question I dreaded.
"How often do you drink?"
I lied. I said maybe two-three times a week (which is still a lot, considering I meant getting drunk), and he peered at me over his papers.
"I'd like to give you a proper diagnosis, but I can't do that unless you quit drinking." I nodded. He handed me off a prescription for Ativan, for the anxiety. It was a bottomless prescription. I was on 9 milligrams of Ativan a day. Suddenly I had another addiction. Oh, and you know what? I kept drinking on the Ativan. Drinking on Ativan can stop your heart. Drinking on Ativan, especially that much, can kill you. This was a manic phase. Even during this manic phase, I didn't care if I died. One night I took so much Ativan that I thought to myself, "I don't want to wake up tomorrow."
I was obviously depressed, but obviously much more. I let it go. I didn't get the help I was looking for, because I wasn't willing to help myself.
Skip forward much later to the age of twenty-four. My true descent. I had quit the Ativan and quit the Cipralex and I spiralled down into a madness of anxiety and depression. I lost my job. I was clinically diagnosed as agoraphobic. I ordered groceries to my house. Leaving the backyard made me so anxious I would throw up. I was on a wait list for six weeks to get in to see a therapist and psychiatrist. When I finally got in (after missing the first two appointments from anxiety), I decided to lay it out on the line and be honest for the first time.
When she asked me how much I drank I was honest and I told her nearly daily, to the point of getting drunk. She noted it down but diagnosed me with having a type two bipolar disorder regardless. I cried. Even though I'd recognized the symptoms for over ten years, I still cried. All of a sudden I didn't want to be different, I didn't want this diagnosis. Part of me did, so that I could get the help I needed. The other part of me just wanted to have normal emotions, normal moods.
I started on Seroquel first, which was described to me as a 'blanket drug' that could control my emotions. Seroquel made me drowsy and I felt like a zombie the first few weeks. I couldn't wake up in the mornings and I was dizzy and out of it. I was also still drinking (again, extremely dangerous behavior). When I went to increase my dosage I had night terrors for the first time in my life, vivid hallucinations of being strangled, and three people staring over me. I slipped back down to my nightly dosage and sought out a different drug. This time I started on Lamotrigine, a mood stabilizer.
After the first few weeks of slowly increasing my dosage I allowed my body to get used to the new drug and the nausea and exhaustion faded. I started feeling a bit more normal - sort of. I was still getting drunk nightly, trashed, wasted. When I finally cracked in December 2014 I realized that I wasn't letting the medication take its full effect, because the alcohol was still causing depression. So I quit drinking.
I've been told that medication is simply a stepping stone to recovery, that it can't do all of the work, but it can get you to the point where you can start to work on yourself. This is what Lamotrigine has done for me, and I've been able to work on myself, especially after being sober this whole time.
That was a year and a half ago. In the past year and a half I've felt both a depression and a manic upswing. But they are nothing compared to how they were before. It feels as though my emotions have been muted. I still feel. I had a panicky moment last spring when an event in my life happened where I should have freaked out and lost it. I was still able to feel the sadness, anger and hurt, but I didn't fly off the rails like I would have normally. I went to go see my Dad, in a state of worry.
"Dad, I feel like I almost can't feel. Well I can. I just don't feel as much, you know?"
My dad laughed at me. "Welcome to normal human emotion, kiddo." Once I realized that I was finally reacting to a life challenge with a normal emotion, I calmed down and assessed the situation and assessed myself. I embraced that rational mind. I didn't go out and binge-drunk or use drugs or put myself in a dangerous situation. I was able to rationally handle my emotions and the negative situation.
I've lived with a bipolar diagnosis for a year and a half now and I have accomplished so much in my life since then, including sobriety. I don't think I could have handled the diagnosis with booze. I had to get sober in order to accept and embrace my diagnosis, to allow my medication to work, and to come to terms with it within myself. I have now.
I tell myself, I am not bipolar, I have a bipolar disorder.
Having a bipolar disorder is only one aspect of the human being that I am. I don't identify as bipolar. I identify as an artist, a writer, a clothing designer, a human being, but not bipolar. It is a part of me, but I choose not to let it be the biggest part of me. I take my medication every night and I am aware when my mind and body spike in emotion, and I have enough practice within myself to let myself feel appropriately about every and any situation. I stay sober, for myself, and for my mental health.
This fall will be the two year anniversary of my breakdown, the agoraphobia, anxiety, the crux of my drinking. I mentioned before that my bipolar symptoms tend to work in two year cycles. Around this time two years ago I was already experiencing anxiety nearly crippling me, it's coming up on the two year anniversary of my job loss, when I was fired for having a panic attack at work. If my bipolar disorder wants to work in two year cycles, I should be anxious as all hell right now and letting the depression creep in.
Today I woke up and it's a grey day. I'm drinking my coffee, writing this blog post, and reading inspirational quotes. I woke up happy. I woke up not anxious. I'm not going to let history repeat itself.
Because I now have this diagnosis, I also have the tools at my disposal to combat the symptoms. Without this diagnosis, the medication, the therapy, the sobriety, and all of the work that I put into myself, I very well could be spiralling down into another two year cycle at this moment. But I'm not.
I am thankful for my diagnosis, and my experience. I am blessed to have my diagnosis, because I have gotten to know myself much more than I ever believed possible. I won't let my diagnosis define my life, but I have made room for it, accepted it, and embraced it.
To someone who suffers from anxiety and/or depression, the word should can be so damaging.
Let me put it into perspective for you - last night I was having a chat with a friend and she brought up that she'd been in a recent funk. The weather here has been absolutely beautiful and instead of waking up and seizing the day she found herself sleeping in. I said to her that I understood that feeling - and the apathy that comes along with it - why not just go back to sleep? I told her that I set up an expectation for myself to go out and enjoy the sun, I felt that I should be doing so.
I remember the day that I started the curse the concept of the word should, I was at my therapist's office and talking to him about all of the pressures that I felt coming from simply myself. All of the expectations I was putting on myself to succeed, to remain sober, to pursue and maintain friendships, to give myself the space that I deserved to grow. When I finished my rant he looked at me and asked simply, "Why?"
"Because I should." I responded, and he smiled. Right there and then I had a revelation, because his next question of course would be again, why?
Now it's because I want to.
When I put the pressure on myself to feel the way I felt was appropriate, the way I should have felt, the internal backlash ensued. I felt I should be happy and I ended up miserable, instead of simply feeling. I felt I should be calm, I experienced anxiety. When I let myself breathe and allowed my body and spirit to feel the way that it wanted to feel, I experienced a true connection with myself and a genuine bliss.
I know I feel as though I "should" wake up every day motivated and energetic and happy, but when you live with a mental illness, this isn't always the case. Berating myself for waking up in a lousy mood is only going to make myself feel worse, and the pressured guilt of reminding myself that I "should" be happy compounds these emotions. If I wake and I am experiencing depression or any other negative emotion, I let myself and my body sit and reflect on it. The same is to be said about any anxiety.
Just yesterday I woke up at 8:30 and had plans with a friend for 10:00 and I was experiencing a particularly anxious morning. The word "should" repeated in my mind - "You should get up and shower, you should get dressed, you should brush your teeth, you should get ready for the day," and the more I said it to myself, the worse I felt. I sent a text to my friend explaining my anxieties and pushed the meeting back to 11:00 and allowed myself the space I needed to breathe. I waited until my body and mind told me that going out was something that I wanted to do.
Once I changed my mindset yesterday I was met with a day of entire bliss. I spent time at beaches and allowed myself to exist within nature. I went shopping for healing stones. I made a healthy balanced dinner. I treated myself to a sunset along the beach. I made time for my friends and went out for part of a local show. I came home to my partner and spent time with him. Most importantly, throughout my day yesterday I spent time with myself.
Not every day is easy when anxiety, depression, and mental illness are a part of your daily life. Not everything that I say or write will work for everybody - I am simply highlighting the techniques I learned through therapy or through myself, which have helped me cope with my anxieties. I don't think anxiety is something that ever goes away - it just becomes easier to cope with in time.
For myself, I had to stop telling myself what I should do, and started focusing on what I truly wanted to do. I had to ignore that voice in my head telling me how I should feel and instead just started feeling exactly how I do feel - even if that is anxiety at times. I have learned to allow myself to be.
Before I end this blog post I would like to share a technique I learned in therapy for calming down during anxiety/a panic attack. For me it has yielded extremely interesting results.
During my panic attacks I would self-inflict pain, physically and verbally. I would rip my hair out. I would call myself worthless. I would tell myself, "Normal up, stupid!" That was my mantra, to call myself stupid. The first (and only) time that my therapist saw me exhibit this behaviour, he explained to me how my negative comments to myself were ultimately destroying any chance at reducing my anxiety or depression. He taught me a practice that I use to this day.
"Close your eyes and imagine the last person or being that you touched with a true sense of love," he told to me (I still to this day imagine my cat, Fiona). "Feel the love that you had for this other person, this living being, feel the way that it felt in your body, flowing through your hands, and your fingers. Feel the energy of that love within your fingers as you are transferring it to this other entity."
It took me a few tries but I finally managed to get in the headspace and holding my hands together I was able to draw up that loving energy in the memory of last petting and cuddling with my cat.
"Good," my therapist told me, "Now take your hands and place them over your heart. Give that energy to yourself - you are the one who needs it the very most in your darkest of times. Remember to love yourself, and to show yourself compassion."
This is a technique that I have used to calm myself, to remind myself of the love that I deserve. Sometimes I even do this when I'm not experiencing anxiety - just to remind myself that I am worthy, I am deserving, I have love to give, and I am capable of receiving that love in return. Most importantly, to love myself and to show myself compassion.
I mentioned that this has held interesting results.
When I experience anxiety, I simultaneously experience incredible happiness. Often times when I am the most anxious I begin smiling, giggling, and laughing. It took me a few months to recognize this habit, after using this technique, and when I told my therapist this he smiled at me and confirmed exactly what I had suspected - I have subconsciously trained my body to react with happiness and self-love during my times of anxiety.
It has become a subconscious reaction to my anxiety.
There is no reason why this technique also wouldn't work during times of depression as well!
Isn't it amazing the effects that our brains can have? Imagine the effect that your subconscious can have on you if you stop caving into unknowingly damaging words that you inflict upon yourself, stop focusing on how you should feel, and simply start allowing yourself to be.
Anxiety just sucks.
Last night I was super excited to go up island for a show. I picked up two friends and together we took off and went adventuring, I drove, we all chatted. We listened to Backstreet Boys and sang along and laughed at ourselves while pretending we didn't still all know all the words. We were having fun.
We got up island and my head started feeling gross - full of pressure, I felt dizzy. I blamed it on the altitude, the water trapped in my ear (for five years), the drive. I wanted to push through it. We went next door for dinner before the show and something hit me during dinner and I started to lose it. I had to escape.
When we went back to the hall for the show the music seemed to calm my nerves momentarily, and then it ended. I started feeling irrational. I started feeling guilty because I had to go home and I didn't want to end their night early.
When I get anxious I experience completely normal thoughts that seem irrational to my anxiety-riddled brain. The best way to describe it is imagine with a clear head you're looking at a taxi and you see the color yellow and this is normal. To my anxious brain I feel the need to justify that yellow is a 'normal' color for the taxi. This goes for everything. Why is that tree so large? Is that how that person's voice is supposed to sound? Is this what I'm supposed to be thinking? It all started to creep and grow in my mind. I had to get out. I had to leave and go home.
My friends found another ride back to Victoria and I took off, driving down windy roads. I headed through Shawnigan Lake, where I'd spent most of my teen years doing debaucherous things. My anxiety grew worse and worse and as I headed through Mill Bay I was flooded with memories of living up island - not unhealthy memories. I felt lost even though I knew exactly where I was. I felt like I should have felt safe and at home, but I felt exactly the opposite.
I kept a close eye on my speedometer, simultaneously terrified of being pulled over, as well as the gnawing uneasiness within me wanting to just speed the entire way and get home faster. I stuck to the speed limit. I tried to regulate my breathing. Every song on my iPod was bringing me to different timelines in my life and I was just trying to focus on the here and now. Looking back, I really shouldn't have been driving. I started experiencing mini-blackouts and kept seeing bright lights shining across the top of my window when there was no oncoming traffic. My throat was dry. I took a sip of ginger ale and my stomach immediately wanted to reject it. There was no turning back. I pulled over.
I felt unending guilt about leaving my friends, about missing the show, I just wanted to be home. I listened to my meditation song, Teleconnect Pt. 2 by VNV Nation, and I did. I listened to that song three times before I felt like I was safe enough to keep driving. I started the car and mentally pleaded with myself, "Just twenty more minutes until you're home, you can freak out when you get into your bed. You need to get yourself home." When I started driving again I realized just how out of it I really was - I was five minutes to the bottom of the Malahat, much closer to home than I thought.
When I hit Victoria the anxiety started to subside. I'm not sure why, maybe because I felt like I was home, or the altitude. I have no idea. By the time I pulled up to my house I felt exhausted, still panicky and shaky, but the exhaustion was taking over. Panicking so badly takes so much out of your body. Even today I've slept in much later than usual and I still feel tired. I'm taking a me day. The sun is shining and I'm going to go grocery shop for some healthy food and practice good self-care and meditation.
Why did I panic? I really don't know. I know that trying to figure it out can waste so much potential energy. Today I accept that I had a panic attack and that is okay with me. Today I accept that anxiety is a part of my life - it is not all of me. I am not anxious - I have anxiety. I am not bipolar - I have a bipolar disorder.
I will remember that my anxiety is my own and that nobody can experience it for me, and therefore I do not have to justify it. It is an emotion that belongs wholly to myself and my being. My anxiety is mine and yours is yours. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, it can ruin your night.
But today I am accepting of my anxiety and embracing it. I will not let my anxiety ruin my life.