Seeking: Woman with Mental Illness

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Dating is difficult enough with its uncertainties and vulnerabilities, without throwing the challenges of mental health into the mix, however, trying to build a relationship when one or both parties has a mental illness requires, I would argue, even more care and consideration.

Dating in this modern day is, in a word, uninspiring.

With dating apps promoting “drive-thru” dating that promises another potential mate with the next swipe of a finger if you don’t like the one in front of you, it’s no surprise that we have grown accustomed to a “grass is greener” mentality towards relationship-building. If we are underwhelmed by our newest match at first impression, there are five more equally attractive folks within a 2km radius. And while many may find the casual culture of dating fun and free from pressure, this environment can become a confusing game for an individual with a mental illness.

As always, I speak only from my experience, but considering I’ve passed the crest of a decade of membership in the romantic dating realm, I feel confident that I’ve collected at least some nuggets of wisdom.

The biggest struggle I’ve found is how to incorporate a conversation about mental health into the dating equation with someone you’re interested in. While this can come up more organically when meeting people through friends and connections, broaching the subject of my mental illness remains one of the biggest hesitations in my dating life, regardless of how we meet. I’ve become more comfortable with identifying with depression in recent years, however, it is not necessarily a topic that comes up authentically and comfortably on a first date at East Side Marios.

Does a person I’ve just met require or want this information? Is sharing this part of myself contributing or detracting from my otherwise charming first impression? I guess if I decide to bring it up with someone, their positive or negative reaction would certainly help form my opinion about whether or not they are someone I want in my life. But I also don’t want to misrepresent myself by sharing my mental health struggles when this other person only knows a few things about me, like my cat’s name and where I went to school. With such little information about me, someone else may assume my depression may seem like a much larger part of my identity than it probably is.

However, I’ve certainly made the mistake of hiding my mental illness behind the “cool girl” façade (and if you’ve read or seen the movie Gone Girl, you will know of what I speak) where I found myself initially allowing myself to be strung along going with the flow, and “down for anything” because I was so cool like that. I should have known, being the farthest thing from cool, that my mental illness would eventually rub up uncomfortably against the cool girl disguise, and the discrepancy between how I felt and how I acted would make me miserable. I never felt like I could explain to someone that I liked why I needed to pull away, or how uncertainty made me spiral out, because I wasn’t certain the truth would be accepted. After all, this other person didn’t know me very well.

I also found it difficult to determine how I myself felt about someone else because my anxiety causes me to be very concerned with how I am perceived and accepted by others. I was more worried about being liked than taking the time and energy to decide if I actually liked him – was he kind, patient, mature, funny, and generally my kind of person. Was I 100% myself around him? If not now, could I be?

I’ve taken away a number of lessons and endured a few romantic fumbles that, if I haven’t been able to laugh at by now, I will one day. In the meantime, I’ve left drive-thru dating behind and I’m focusing on relationships that add both comfort and novelty to my life, where I feel at ease being myself.

What to Give a Fuck About

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This winter was brutal. After a long and sunless couple of months, I feel like I am finally waking up. As much as I wish my spirit animal is an enthusiastic teacup pig, I know I embody many more of the qualities of a hibernating brown bear.

I feel better. Between the improved weather, bedtime routine adjustments, and yet another change in medication, I am feeling more myself and better able to adapt to life’s inconveniences. Don’t forget the “soft” changes I’ve made in adding more creative and mindful outlets to my day-to-day, which you may have read about here.

I think the most important adjustment I’ve made involves a change in mindset that I’ve adopted from Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, a book that supports understanding what you value, discovering what is really important and not letting everything else bother you so much.

The book doesn’t pretend that life can exist without problems – life will have problems and that’s all but guaranteed. But Manson asks the reader to determine what problems we wouldn’t mind having. If someone wants to make a ton of money and be highly successful in their career, they may have to deal with the problem of working late and spending most of your time at the office. For one person, working late is a problem they wouldn’t mind having – they love what they do and want to spend lots of time doing it. For someone else, working late means time away from home, which would be a problem they could not happily live with.

Someone who wants kids and who values raising a family will have their own problems – sleepless nights, less free time, hundreds of loads of laundry, and the parents’ own needs and wants taking a back seat initially. These are problems that many parents would gladly choose as they raise their kids.

As I surface from a depressive episode that took me out at the knees, I’ve started identifying what I give a fuck about and what kind of problems I don’t mind having. I give a fuck about showing up for my family and friends, recognizing the big and small wins with them. This means hustling across this great province to do so, which costs money. I don’t mind having money problems in exchange for healthy relationships because my people make me happy. For someone else, they couldn’t live with money problems and would choose to have another problem instead.

Taking the pressure off to care about everything has significantly improved my mental well-being. Being more selective about what I give a fuck about has made room for the things that are really important, and also recognizing that life is not designed to be comfortable at all times. If my expectation is that my life is supposed to be free of hardship, perfectly organized and with gorgeous filtered lighting, I am setting myself up to be sorely disappointed. Instead, I give myself permission to be less than perfectly put together, to choose a few things to care about and work on those, and cut myself a little slack for the rest.

 

A Case of Self-Care

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With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, we’ve likely come across the concept of self-care as it pertains to reducing stress and managing mental illness. If you’ve been encouraged to take a bath on occasion, exercise, or unwind with a glass of wine the evening, it might have been in the name of self-care.

Having worked in a university setting as a student and professional staff, I have been encouraged to engage in self-care practices since I was a teenager. Perhaps in its overuse, self-care has lost its meaning for me, or I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for it. Either way, until recently, I had considered self-care and its practice to be a touch “froufrou”. Of course taking time for oneself would be nice, however, things need to get done, and quite frankly, I’m tired.

In the past month, however, my therapist and I discussed reframing self-care into a concerted effort to engage in a relationship with self. Another frilly thought, at first glance. But then I thought about the relationships in my life and the effort it takes to maintain and nurture them, and realized that if I was dating myself, I would dump me.

Looking at healthy relationships around me, I see people making an effort to listen and understand their partners, taking on an equal of household responsibilities, cooking healthy meals together, trying new things, and occasionally unplugging from electronics and social media. In short, making their relationships/friends a priority and behaving as such. When is the last time I made my relationship with myself a priority? As my own oldest friend, I admit, I have neglected myself shamefully.

So this past month I have focused on jumping two feet into a relationship with self, reminding myself to take it slow and not rush into things. Wouldn’t want to scare myself off, after all.

This month, I rekindled a creative outlet in crafting and even entertained the idea of learning to crochet. I have had a quiet night in binge-watching Glee. I have taken myself to a movie. I have gone on long bike rides. I got my hair cut and made time to put make-up on in the morning. I unplugged from social media when I maxed out my cell phone data (not my choice). I did my dishes right away, because if I would do that for someone else, why wouldn’t I do that for myself?

I tried to take the pressure off myself in terms of attempting to remove all the negative symptoms associated with my illness, but instead worked to add things to my life that bring me closer to my most authentic self. Why? Because all of the loved ones in my life are in receipt of my generosity, my thoughtfulness and my time, and I need to devote just as much of that energy into my oldest and greatest relationship: the one with myself.

I’m stuck with me for life, so if that relationship is suffering, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

In this case, it’s not you, or anyone else.

It’s me.

Helpful, and not so much.

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Up to this point, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of the mentally ill.

If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who suffers from mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.

Maybe Not So Helpful: 

“Get well soon!”

Said with undoubtedly the best of intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “Get Well” or “Feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it”, that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. Certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is that there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.

Maybe Try: “Take care of yourself.”

“I know exactly how you feel”

A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know EXACTLY how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.

Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”

“Have you tried…?”

Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help, however, could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried…yoga? Meditation? Have I tried NOT being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet, and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say that you shouldn’t share your success stories – just keep in mind that your mentally ill loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.

Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”

Definitely Helpful:

Do something

When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “let me know if there’s anything I can do” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favourite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized that I was paralyzed by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.

Be a generous listener

Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.

“I will be with you”

There are times where I am fearful that the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me that I’m not fighting this alone.

 

Choosing Happy

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The season of #BellLetsTalk is a great time to talk about reaching out for help with our mental health struggles, and supporting one another by listening and being a friend.

It’s a mark of great courage to trust someone else enough to be that vulnerable, and I certainly respect that. I have found it’s quite another thing to admit to yourself that you need help and manage the fallout that comes with an evolving identity that suddenly includes mental illness.

In my early 20s, I had some great strategies for dodging my depression and avoiding pesky feelings: overworking at a demanding job, over-committing in my social life, and a weekly alcoholic beverage count that absolutely stunned my pure, wide-eyed, naturopath. These strategies worked for a time – no one guessed I was depressed, and I did not have the time or attention span to confront my deteriorating mental health.

I moved home after leaving my demanding job, and figured I’d begin the quirky rite of passage of moving home as many people do, complete with aggressive resume distribution and calling my parents “my roommates”. Eight months later, I was still a barista, living in my parents’ basement and eating an impressive amount of expired pastries from Starbucks.

I had time on my hands. I didn’t have a team of staff members to focus my energy. I worked weekends and early mornings so margarita weeknights were a thing of the past. There was nothing for my shitty feelings to hide behind: I was not okay.

Admitting that my tried-and-true coping strategies had turned stale quickly was not easy. I kept telling myself, but I’m not the sad girl, I make everyone laugh. I’m not the underachiever, I held a great job for years. I thought I knew myself and my capabilities, and adjusting that perception was a hit to my ego.

I did not want to be on medication. Medication meant admitting to needing extra help that other people didn’t need. It meant that I wasn’t capable of handling the “challenges” of my already privileged life. It was admitting failure. It wasn’t me.

My change of heart came when my family rented a cottage in the late summer of 2013. Being around just my immediate family for a week with limited social stimulation, no cell phone service and poor weather, the last of my well-crafted performance art fell away. My mom said even my face looked different: there was no life there. I didn’t have to pretend in front of my family, so I didn’t.

I agreed to take antidepressants after ruining that family vacation with my piss-poor attitude, although it was certainly no miracle pill initially. My emotions, even positive ones, were dulled, and I was heartbroken when I found myself unable to cry at the funeral of my best friend’s mother. I was groggy in the morning, had wicked indigestion, night terrors, and my all-time favourite, night itches.

So I switched the meds, and tried again. And I found a combination of brand and dosage that works for me. And the best part? The meds allow me to feel as though I can manage the highs and lows of life, without huge blows to my confidence and self-esteem. Negative thoughts are promptly triaged and evaluated logically, and often quieted or released completely.

With this help, I consistently feel like the capable person I am, so why would I deprive myself of something that works for me? To preserve my pride? There are more important things. My ego need not require that much real estate in my life – not when I could be happy instead.