Turning Off, Turning Out

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I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.

My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.

I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?

Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.

Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.

Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).

It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.

If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:

Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.

Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.

Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.

Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.

It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.

P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.

Love Need Not End

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The last month or so has been a period of transition and unsteadiness, as I have moved to a new city to take on a new employment contract. I have laid my weary bones to rest on couches and air mattresses of both friends and friendly strangers with whom I have corresponded on the Internet.

I recognize that, 6 months ago, not having a private escape to call my own would have chipped away at my mental well-being and caused me sincere discomfort. I’m grateful to be in a place where I’m adaptive and open to my life being somewhat unpredictable.

I will write more about this, and discuss how my new city is a challenging but productive place for me, but in light of the recent loss of a special man who means a great deal to friends of mine, I’m compelled to talk about what happens when we lose someone to mental illness. It can be difficult to understand how someone we love could come to a permanent decision about their life, especially when we feel so much love and appreciation towards them. We might ask, don’t they know how loved they are?

Our minds are a powerful force. The mind can heal us and it can hurt us and it can make us believe things that may not be true. When the mind is not healthy, we are vulnerable to influential thoughts about our worth and consider ways to escape what feels like permanent pain. I’ve been in that place and felt absolutely sure that this was as good as my life would ever get. I wasn’t healthy enough to challenge the constant barrage of negativity, and despite their best efforts, the support and encouragement from my loved ones remained muted and unconvincing. Nothing they could have said or done would have persuaded me otherwise because, at that time, I couldn’t be reached.

Knowing that it was not me but my depression calling the shots did little to assuage my friends and family that they were doing “enough”. It hurt my heart when, during moments of lucidity, I witnessed how much it pained my mom to see me that way. I knew she loved me and I felt her love, and she was absolutely doing enough, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach out to her to pull me out. I had so much more work to do and changes to make.

When we lose someone in any way, through their passing or a break-up, we will undoubtedly look back and wish and wonder about what we could have done differently. If you had only reached out more, had banged down her door to see her, had demanded his attention, shown “more” love, maybe things would be different. Your mind may try to hurt you, using guilt and regret during the grieving process to try to convince you there was more you could have done.

Please know your love was enough. It was always enough.

A beautiful person was lost this week, and the world is different now. For the ones that loved you closely and from a distance, let’s remember that, sometimes, for many reasons, life has to end.

But love does not.

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.