Anxiety, religion, and finding calm

I was reading through some of my old blog entries and noticed that it’s now been almost six months or so since I stopped forcing the issue of religion at all and accepted that it’s just not for me.

The part I realized that surprised me: I found the freedom from anxiety and peace that I was always seeking from religion–but I found it within myself.

Perhaps ironically, it was getting a very Catholic tattoo of the Miraculous Medal that was the turning point. It led to me finally giving up on the tortured struggle I’d been putting myself through for nine years.

When I gave myself permission to let go of trying so hard to believe something that I mostly didn’t that I shifted my focus to developing my own sense of inner peace. I do have a pretty strong sense of my true self and the reason for the years-long religious struggle was because I was fighting against what I really believed.

I don’t have anything against people who choose to believe. I think that it’s really childish to look down on people just because they’re Christian. But as much as I wish I could be a devout believer of an organized religion, I’m just not–that’s not the way I’m wired. I still have a few Catholic practices and sacramentals around my home because that’s a largely cultural thing that brings me some comfort.

But I had a really interesting revelation yesterday. I realized that even though I have moments when I’m scared of my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I am also calm about it.

That doesn’t mean that I never acknowledge the potential gravity of the situation. That doesn’t mean I never cry about it. I don’t even know that I can adequately explain the difference, other than to say that my reaction is free of the anxiety and panic it would have caused in me a year or two ago.

I don’t think it’s because of the medication I’m taking, although I’m sure that doesn’t hurt. In truth, my medication helps my depression. But I had to retrain my brain to fix my anxiety.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that my anxiety was almost always an over-reaction to things that hadn’t happened yet. I let my thoughts of “what if” run away from me, which kept me in an almost perpetual state of panic. Even if I wasn’t in panic mode, it took almost nothing to get me there.

My oldest, who also deals with anxiety and is seeing a therapist (about which I’m SO proud), often talked with me about our mutual tendencies toward what we called catastrophizing. We both had habits — which I’m sure he learned from me, in addition to sharing a genetic component — of assessing a situation and assuming the worst possible outcome, despite a lack of evidence.

We started to gently point it out to each other when the other was doing it. Like most cognitive distortions, I’ve learned that it’s often a habit that can be unlearned with some consistent effort. He has also made a lot of progress.

How you react to anxiety–whether your own or others’–either amplifies it or defuses it. If I overreacted to his anxiety (which I sometimes did in a misguided effort to validate him), I actually gave him more reason to believe that anxiety was a justified reaction.

Being mostly free of the anxiety that was once almost crippling is giving me the sense of peace within myself that I always wanted to find in religion.

But because I’ve also started to honor my true self, I’m no longer bothered by other people’s practice of religion. My husband finds Catholicism very helpful and comforting to him, especially as he’s going through chemo and cancer. I’m fully supportive of him doing what brings him peace. Sometimes I wish it also brought me the same peace, but I no longer beat myself up over the fact that it doesn’t.

I’m grateful that I started doing this work on myself. Really, it started more than a year ago, when I realized I was better off with a much smaller circle so I could focus on healing than to be around people who were actively discouraging it. I’ve read elsewhere that when you want to work on healing yourself, you won’t be able to bring everybody with you. But I at least hope that someday they too will do the same work.

The cool thing is that as you grow, your feeling of peace gets stronger. You discover that you are indeed strong enough to handle things like being permanently disabled with a progressive illness and a husband with cancer. Because your peace is inside you, it never leaves.

All those corny things you read about becoming your own best friend are true. It changes all your closest relationships, too: you just deeply appreciate all of them in a way you couldn’t before. You no longer feel desperate and needy but more like they complement you. If I’ve made this much progress in less than a year, I’m excited to see how things will change with more time. How I’ll react if true disasters do happen.

But so far, my husband’s cancer is the biggest test of my anxiety-management skills. And other than a few scary moments, I really do feel calm and at peace.

Finding peace as a depressed parent

Obviously I struck a chord with the last post about being a parent who deals with depression, given the larger than usual number of page views. What I take from that is that I’m definitely not alone.

But if the post seemed a bit gloomy, I think it’s also important to present the other side of the issue: hope.

I believe that most people do the best that they’re able, given the circumstances they have. Maybe that’s naive, but I do tend to believe the best in people.

I’m sure there’s some percentage of the population that truly doesn’t care how they affect others and don’t care about being better. But I think that if you’re reading this and feeling bad about how your depression affected your loved ones, you’re obviously not in that category of those who don’t care.

If you care about how your depression affected the people you love, it can be almost unbearable to think about. That’s actually a good reaction because it means you want to do better. And you can.

But the truth is that nearly every parent messes up their kids in some way. Maybe some people more or less than others, depending on their resources and self-awareness and self-actualization.

I’ve honestly never met anybody who didn’t have some complaints about their parents at some point in their life, whether their parents were too strict or too smothering or too distant. (For the sake of this post, I’m leaving out those whose parents were abusive, just because that’s not a topic I can take on today. But I know you’re out there and I see you and validate you.)

Even people I’ve known who would otherwise say they had good childhoods were still affected when their parents got divorced, for example. Most of us are scarred in some way. What matters is that you learn lessons from how you grew up and change what needs to be changed. As the saying goes, either you get bitter or you get better.

None of this is to say that all decisions are equal or that we can do anything we want to our kids because they’re resilient. Some of us have addictions, whether to the internet or spending or alcohol, that damage our families. Those usually have roots in how we grew up, too–they’re all part of the same effort to emotionally escape the uncomfortable parts of life. Like anything else, though, once you’re aware of it, you can change it.

But what I am also saying is that eventually we have to forgive ourselves for messing up, for not being the people we wanted to be or the parents we wanted to be.

I may not have done everything right as a parent. My kids may have been affected by my depression. But I’m proud of a lot of the things I did do as a parent, too.

I wanted them to know that home was a safe place without a lot of fighting or instability. I was honest about my mistakes (in an age-appropriate way, of course) and I apologized for the things I did wrong. I wanted them to have a good moral compass and to be helpful and compassionate toward others. I wanted there to be a distinction between adult and child, not that one was more important than the other but to keep the roles of each separate.

I didn’t want them to be selfish or greedy but to appreciate all that they had. I wanted them to have a sense that as family, we’re all in this together and everybody has some responsibility. I wanted my kids to gain the competence and confidence from knowing how to do things for themselves. So far, I can say that I feel like a success in all these regards.

I do also think there’s a way to improve yourself, even if you’re not in a place where you can access good therapy or find appropriate medication. You can start some type of mindfulness practice, whether it’s reflective journaling or meditation or prayer or yoga.

I’m living proof that if you put effort into mindfulness practices, it will change you. If you read some spiritual or mindfulness types of books or even websites or books about recovery, it will change your focus. (I’m really loving Russell Brand’s Recovery, which I think is very valuable reading despite being personally unsure about the 12-step aspect and only having “soft” addictions of my own.)

You can’t keep doing what you’ve always done and expect anything to change. You have to put in a little bit of work to get better–even if at times all you can really do is a little bit of work on yourself.

Once you start the work on yourself, the results won’t be instant. Depending on how much you hurt people, it may take a while for them to trust you. Don’t let that faze you; just keep getting better. And when you do begin that work, protect it. You can’t be around negative influences or you’ll fall back into negativity, too.

But what I can say, especially if you’re a parent living with mental illness of some sort, people will notice the work you do on yourself and the results from it. That especially includes your kids. It’s never too late to start trying to learn how to be more in touch with your emotions, to be calmer, to experience less fear, to be more stable. And the benefits of that work are far-reaching and will be a positive role model for your kids. It could potentially change things for generations to come.

Forgive yourself. Then get to work on getting better.

Depression and parenting

I know I just wrote the other day about reflections on my parenting and the fact that my oldest feels like his childhood was magical. And I should probably be re-reading that right now.

But instead, I’m thinking about the effects it had on my kids to grow up with a mom who had untreated depression and garden-variety mental illness. There are so many studies out there about how detrimental it is to grow up with a depressed and anxious mother.

I did try to get treatment, but so many of them either didn’t work or I didn’t like the side effects. Ironically, now that I’m on effective treatment, I can see more clearly that I needed it all along. Choosing to be ill because I didn’t like the side effects of medication wasn’t fair to my kids or my husband. At the time, I thought I had everything under control without medication, but looking back, I can see that I didn’t. I was fooling myself to the detriment of my family.

They say that kids who grow up with depressed mothers are more likely to have depression or anxiety themselves, and what a surprise that my kids do. Even though I’m now modeling how to take care of myself, I wish I had done so sooner for their benefit.

I’ve always had this mentality that I should be able to pick myself up by my bootstraps and just not be depressed, even though it doesn’t work that way. I’m now getting social security disability not only for my multiple sclerosis but also for my depression.

Yet I’ve never really taken my depression all that seriously. And right or wrong, I’ve perceived that nobody else who knew me took it very seriously either. If my parents knew, I believe they were probably too depressed themselves to know how to help me. I am also pretty sure, based on things she’s said, that my sister thought I should just bootstrap myself out of it.

There was even another mom in the online mom’s group I was a part of for nearly 20 years. She was on disability for mental illness and people always tried to build her up and tell her how brave she was, etc. Why wasn’t anyone telling me the same? These moms knew I was depressed, often suicidally so — in fact, that’s what led to them funding my move back here. So I can’t say that they didn’t care because they obviously did. I just wonder if they, too, thought I could bootstrap my way out of it with a change of scenery.

Looking back, I can see that I was already pretty sick when I moved here. But I got worse because of the MS pretty shortly thereafter, and depression is itself a major symptom of MS.

I don’t blame anyone for anything. I’ve forgiven my parents years ago for the things they did that weren’t so great. I understand now that they were doing their best and sometimes made the wrong call, just as I have. I now recognize a lot of what I grew up with as the result of their untreated depression.

They chose to put me in a harsher social environment with people who were not my economic peers so I could have a better education. When you have a bright kid but not a lot of money, it’s hard to know what to do. I ended up doing the same with my kids and it was similarly as hard on them as it was on me.

How can I hold a grudge against my parents when I ended up largely doing the same thing with my kids? Their hearts really were in the right place, as mine was, even if in many cases the outcome of what they did had an unintentionally detrimental effect.

Even when I’ve told a couple people I thought were my friends about traumatic things in my childhood, it wasn’t to try to get them to feel sorry for me or to suggest that I was still resentful about those things. I just thought I was sharing things that would explain a little more about why some things were triggers for me.

I don’t think anyone else is responsible for me but myself. Do I have things in my childhood that kinda messed me up? Sure, but I think most people do. And I’ve been working for the past several years quite intently on trying to move past them and get better.

But the hardest part of seeing more clearly and starting to get better is that you also see your mistakes. And I feel like my biggest mistake by far was allowing my depression and anxiety to go untreated for so long. I hope it’s not too late to undo some of the damage that has done to my kids.

Complex PTSD, borderline personality disorder and the value of labels

Sometimes labels are good and necessary if they can help us find the right treatment. But I’m also not entirely sure they’re helpful, either, and may be overused.

I’ve read a lot about the link between Complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder, and how the difference between the two can be complicated even for therapists to distinguish.

My husband often thinks that my interest in the topic of personality disorders is unhealthy, especially since I’m so often trying to diagnose myself with one. I can kind of see his point.

The truth is that aspects of my childhood were pretty fucked up. I have since made peace with and forgiven my parents because I now understand that they were doing the best they knew how and didn’t intend to hurt me. At the same time, that forgiveness doesn’t erase the fact that some things I experienced did hurt me in lasting ways.

Socially, my environment was even worse. Being one of the brightest but poorest kids in a wealthy magnet school exposed me to a lot of bullying. I very definitely have complex PTSD from that, no questions about it.

These things are now my issues to heal from. Blaming people won’t fix me. Recognizing where my struggles came from just points me in a direction for healing.

My meeting with the neuropsychologist last week was also very enlightening. He said that given my verbal IQ, if I’d had a more nurturing home environment and my talents were allowed to bloom at school (rather than being the reason for my bullying, causing me to hide them), I likely would have grown up to become very professionally successful. He said that I had a very strong core capability that, properly developed, would have enabled me to earn graduate degrees and have a career that used them.

The ironic thing is that I wanted to be a doctor when my oldest child was a baby, but I thought I was too old to get started at 24. (Ha!) I still regret that I didn’t do it; I would’ve been good at it. And I have a theory that my MS wouldn’t have required me to stop working if I had gone that route.

When I went back to finish my degree, I graduated magna cum laude and I very definitely wanted to go on to even earn a doctorate. I never intended to stop at a bachelor’s degree but I did. That now leaves me with what all of my kids see as a “useless degree,” a cautionary tale rather than an achievement.

But the opportunities for grad school just weren’t there. Not where we lived at the time and it would have taken a Herculean effort to relocate for school with a husband, three kids, and no money. My husband and I talked about this extensively at the time. It was a dream I had to consciously give up.

And my brain was already so used to the cycle of trying and getting defeated that I couldn’t overcome it at that point.

Graduating college with a 3.76 and thinking I’d go on to graduate school and a great career got my hopes up. Being stuck in that crappy town and not being able to get any job until I got in part-time at Starbucks 8 months after graduation was par for the course of my life. The success in school was the anomaly.

It’s really clear why I’m depressed. Maybe I truly have had dysthymia/”persistent depressive disorder” since kindergarten. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that needs to be drugged all to hell until I can’t feel anything anymore.

Maybe I have a personality disorder because I need a lot of reassurance and fear rejection and I just really want to be liked but expect that I won’t be.

Or maybe it’s that I was a plant potted in hostile soil, trying hard to bloom and flourish in spite of where I was and what I was up against.

Getting back down here to Texas where there are more job opportunities was part of my perpetual effort to keep getting back up and trying again. I went really big that time. I had some crucial help from friends, but like college, it was also a time where I put in a huge amount of effort to achieve a goal.

Yet somehow I wound up back at home again with a low-paying patchwork “job” that I didn’t want. Just like in the place I left.

Up until my horrific MS relapse in August 2017, I was still trying to rebuild. I still had hope that I could do something with my life that mattered. I got my acceptance into a Masters of Social Work program while I was lying in the hospital. I obviously had to turn it down. At first, I thought I was just postponing it, but now it’s pretty clear that I’m not going back.

The degree of memory loss this disease has caused me has pretty firmly nailed shut the doors to grad school and all my career plans.

If I’m depressed, is that really biochemical? Or am I just still in mourning? Things were always hard, ever since I was a young kid. And I always kept getting back up, heroically trying anyway. Fighting against whatever harsh circumstances I was put into. And it doesn’t look like that will change for me anytime soon.

So bringing this back to the topic at hand: does it really matter what label you give to someone with mental illness? You may see the outward manifestation of it and that might be very disruptive and unpleasant. But if you scratch the surface, there’s almost always some type of unhealed trauma. There’s almost always some other explanation.

In earlier generations, there was less awareness of personality disorders. Anais Nin, for example, is a textbook case of histrionic personality disorder. She was manipulative and selfish and thought her diaries were fascinating just because they were her thoughts. She cheated on people repeatedly, even being married to two men at once. Her incestuous relationship with her father was clearly the trauma that explained why her behavior was so destructive to others. But back then, they just said she was “eccentric” and “libertine.”

The grandfather I knew who had now-obvious undiagnosed and untreated PTSD upon returning from the war just terrorized his family. They didn’t know what PTSD was back then. There wasn’t any psychological support for him or his family. It just was what it was and they just tried to cope.

I don’t actually think any more people have personality disorders now than they did before. (I do think that certain things in our modern culture celebrate traits that could be called narcissistic, though. Selfie culture is normalized but not healthy.)

We do have more depression now, in part because our social support networks have all eroded. And because the internet (lovely, lovely internet…) has made it easier to be isolated and have hundreds of “friends” we may never meet.

But I believe the same basic traits have always been present in society. There have always been people who jumped from one relationship to another in short succession, but now we might look for other coexisting traits so we can assign a label like borderline personality disorder. It’s still considered largely incurable, so what is the point of the label?

We don’t have more personality-disordered people now. We’ve just come up with ways to classify people who have always existed. The people who could be defined as having these “disorders” always thought they were fine the way they were before. Even if their traits made their lives harder and caused pain to their loved ones, it was just who they were. In that regard, most people with so-called personality disorders haven’t changed much. The people who don’t want help won’t seek it out.

But the worst thing is seeing any of these traits in yourself and wanting to get rid of them. Sometimes all that requires is time to grow up and mature a little bit. But sometimes it also needs therapy, lots and lots of therapy. And this society’s mental health fabric is absolute shit, so only people with enough disposable income will get the help they need. And the rest of us are left fighting hard against occasional suicidal impulses, trying our best with sketchy DIY treatments that don’t work very well.

The rest of us will muddle along, trying to get better, trying to both cause and experience less pain. If that’s you, like it is me, I don’t have any good advice. But in case nobody’s told you today, it’s okay. It’s all okay. You’re doing the best you can in a world that’s sometimes pretty harsh. Breathe.

The disability exam

Today was my long-awaited exam by the Social Security examiner. It revealed some things I had never really put together but which now make perfect sense.

Interestingly, it was a mental status evaluation, not a physical one. It was very in-depth and took about an hour and a half (although 20 minutes of that was how long it took me to fill out three pages of answers to their questions because my handwriting has gotten so difficult.)

I was honestly afraid that my problems wouldn’t be apparent enough because I can often appear pretty normal until a person spends enough time with me to get a fuller picture. But the examiner really looked at all aspects of my history.

She determined that I have persistent depressive disorder (which is classified as more constant than major depressive disorder) and generalized anxiety disorder. I already knew I was depressed since I have been since kindergarten and I knew I had generalized anxiety disorder, too.

She also did some tests like saying a series of numbers and asking me to repeat them back in reverse, or telling me three objects and asking how many I could remember 5 minutes later. Based on the results of this, she said I had significant problems with short-term memory.

This doesn’t surprise me at all, since at most of my recent jobs, I’ve annoyed my coworkers by asking them for constant reminders of how we’re supposed to do something.

She said she definitely thought I should be approved for disability and even said that I was “the kind of person the program was made for.” The fact that she thinks I qualify doesn’t guarantee that I will be approved on this round, but it does improve my chances significantly and it means that I will definitely appeal if I’m denied at first.

She did tell me some really interesting things, though. One is that she could tell that I had a baseline of being highly intelligent and that I probably used to be great at the kind of memory questions she was asking (very true.)

She also said that it’s likely that I managed to muddle along with work for all those years despite my severe depression and anxiety because I had coping mechanisms to keep me somewhat functional. When I got sick with MS and the memory loss set in, it just was too much for my compensating mechanisms to be effective anymore.

I think that was the most surprising part, because it recast the narrative I’ve always told myself. I’ve bought the viewpoints of people who said I could achieve more if I just pulled on my bootstraps a little harder. I always blamed myself for not trying hard enough. I called myself a slacker. I thought that the fact that I completed college with honors was proof that my major was just easy and that anyone could do it, but also proof that I was capable of maintaining that level of achievement indefinitely. I always thought it was just an issue of attitude and I’d be more successful if only I could become more positive.

The way the doctor reframed it is that it was really admirable that I was able to manage as well as I did before I got sick, considering my level of impairment even then. She said that my mechanisms to compensate for the mental aspects of my illness had to have been really well-developed so I didn’t completely fall apart.

And suddenly I saw myself a little differently, maybe even a little brave. Instead of beating myself up for what I haven’t been able to do or accusing myself of just making excuses, I can finally admit that I’ve been struggling for a very long time. My whole life, actually. From that perspective, the amount of things I’ve been able to accomplish are really pretty remarkable. It’s like I’ve been trying to climb a mountain with a heavy backpack and I was actually doing somewhat okay, but the cognitive impairment from the MS was the final load that made it too heavy.

I am so lucky that my husband is understanding and patient. He has come a long way in our marriage in grasping what commitment is really about, as have I. But I know that a lot of people with either MS or any kind of recurring mental illness are not as lucky as I am.

After the exam, there is no question anymore. I can’t beat myself up for not trying hard enough (which isn’t to say that I’ll immediately be able to stop, haha.) I can’t say that I’m just lazy. Like my husband said after I told him about it, even if they deny me disability and I have to appeal, this examination proves that I am disabled, with or without the benefit payments.

That’s a hard thing to wrap my head around. I have to figure out what my next steps are now. I have to decide how I will define myself without work. Luckily I’m not very money-oriented, so I’m not too sad that I’ll probably never make a lot of money.

At the same time, I’m going to fight hard not to become one of those “poor me” people who’s solely focused on being disabled. That would be a bleak life and life is hard enough already.

What’s next for me if I’m not always going to have to focus on what my career will be or how I’ll make money? Maybe I will finally be able to rest, to let go of some of my stress. Maybe I’ll just set plan some regular activities for self-discipline and spend the rest of the time enjoying my life and trying to serve others.

I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better outcome from the social security exam, but it definitely surprised me. It completely legitimized my struggles. Maybe now I can legitimize them, too.