Your right to pain

Hugh Laurie is a well-known British actor who has struggled with depression for years. Mr. Laurie played the lead doctor on the USA Network television show House.  He doesn’t like to talk about his depression, not because he is ashamed of it, but because he doesn’t feel that he has the right to complain about his personal situation inasmuch as he has been so successful in his professional life.  Well, Mr. Laurie’s professional success does not have anything to do with his right to complain about his mental health.  Speaking personally, I remember when I went through my first bout with anxiety and depression, I felt that I could not complain either.  I had a wonderful home, husband, and family, and was otherwise very healthy.  I repeated that story to myself over and over.  It didn’t help at all.  I was still depressed.

When my first bout with depression hit, it was during the summer Olympics of 1996.  I remember listening to all the hard-luck stories of the athletes, thinking, “What right did I have to complain?”  These athletes had experienced worse challenges than I was experiencing.  They had been separated from family, suffered debilitating injuries, lost a parent, or lost a sibling.  Over and over I repeated my mantra – “others have it worse – my life is good – others have it worse – my life is good.”  But you know what?  It did not help. What eventually did help was to seek a solution for myself that would enable me to deal with my own situation.  I didn’t need to feel bad that I was feeling bad.  At the same time, I realized that everyone has his or her own challenge, and one’s own challenge is a legitimate source of discomfort for that person.  Everyone has the right to have his/her own pain.  Everyone, rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, loved or not loved, has a right to feel bad about the difficulty of his/her particular challenge.  What is not acceptable is to do nothing about meeting that challenge, and finding a solution to the pain.

Hugh Laurie could potentially be a lot of help if he shared his story.  People listen to celebrities and take solace in knowing that famous and successful people also suffer human issues just like the rest of us.  The rest of us rationalize that if someone like Hugh Laurie is not immune from depression, then it is okay for us to suffer from depression. Perhaps Mr. Laurie’s candor would encourage other people to seek the help needed for healing and having a better life.

Fear of Stigma

Our world is full of people who face serious challenges every day.  It might be a lump in a breast, one drink too many one time too often, or an addiction to drugs.  It might be depression or an anxiety disorder.  Each of these challenges is an illness, and each is unique unto itself with its own pain.  One thing that all of these challenges have in common is that it requires courage to face them, and strength of character to navigate the path through them.

Recently I heard an interview with an actress who had been diagnosed with a disease twenty years ago, and had kept the diagnosis buried deep within her family.  She said that she was finally ready to publicly acknowledge her illness, and had found the courage to tell the world that she has been battling Multiple Sclerosis.  I was shocked, not because she had MS, but because she had been scared to let that information become public.  In the interview, she said that she had finally found the “courage to come out of the closet” (a term that I use regularly when talking about the stigma attached to having a mental health illness).  What is there about MS that could possibly cause someone to keep it secret?  At first I just didn’t get it, and I spent a long time thinking about her story.  For goodness sakes, MS is an illness that everyone recognizes as an illness.  MS happens to people. People with MS are never told to “get over it” or “ just get on with it.”  MS would never be associated with any form of personal weakness.  Then I realized that she, like so many of us with mental illness, was afraid of people’s reactions.  She was fearful that people’s minds would be closed up, and that their willingness to see her as a productive person would be shut down.  She was afraid her friends would pity her.  Goodbye to the profession she loved.  Goodbye to any sort of normal life.  She felt opportunities for movie roles would disappear.  Directors would be nervous about working with her.  Colleagues might look at her differently.  She was afraid of the stigma that her illness would carry with it. Now, after twenty years of living with this illness, she finally found the courage to “come out of the closet.”  She decided that freeing herself of the weight of her secret was worth the stigma that might result.

When one is battling a disease like cancer, MS, diabetes, a stroke, or one of so many other diseases, a person needs courage and strength to get through the maze of doctors, the swamp of uncertainty, and the wall of pain that accompanies a health crisis.  I never thought “stigma” would be part of the medical picture for a person with a “real” disease, i.e., a disease that everyone accepts “happens to a person.”  I thought that the word “stigma” was saved for people living with a mental health illness, a disease most people think one chooses to have.

I have no idea how this new public revelation has affected this actress professionally.  It might be too soon for her to even know that answer.  What I do know is that the fear of “stigma” seems to be shared by a much broader group of people with illnesses than I had previously understood.  Stigma not only goes hand in hand with a mental illness diagnosis, but it seems to accompany other medical diagnoses as well.  We all have some challenge that requires us to dig deep inside to find that extra amount of energy/strength to own the issue and map out a course to a healthier state.  I am sorry that I became myopic, and I forgot the rest of the world is out there battling challenges.  I will continue to be a passionate advocate for mental health issues, and I will continue to write about and talk about the stigma that is glommed onto mental illness, but I wanted to acknowledge in this blog post that there are many challenges in the world that require enormous courage in order to face the dragon and move forward, through, and beyond.

The Military and Mental Health

It is a well-known fact that troops returning from combat missions are very susceptible to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Department of Defense (DoD) has acknowledged this problem, and is trying to make therapy more readily available to all military personnel who seek mental health treatment.  Additionally, the DoD is trying to educate people about the reality of mental health issues.  Just as in the world at large, military people tend to shy away from seeking help because they are intimidated by the stigma that is attached to having a mental illness.  Along with the stigma comes the insecure thoughts that cause a person to question his/her abilities and value as a contributing member of society.  Members of the military are often afraid that acknowledging a mental health problem will impact negatively on their military career.  They fear that promotions will be less likely, and security clearance out of the question. The result is that fewer military personnel seek treatment, and more commit suicide.

Historically, soldiers perceived themselves as weak, unfit for duty, and unfit for the world in general if they suffered from any mental health issues.  To the military’s credit, instead of ignoring this situation the DoD has dealt with it head on.  Every branch of the U.S. military is taking steps to combat that powerful stigma.  For example, members of the military are no longer required to report their mental health treatments, and they are now permitted to go outside the military system to get the treatment they need.  High-ranking officers are encouraged to share their own experiences with PTSD in order to help others understand that PTSD can be a normal consequence of combat, and that there is help available and hope of recovery.  The DoD is aiming to incorporate mental health well-being into the routine evaluation of the general health of those who have served in combat zones.  As part of that effort, they have added a second therapy session that takes place a number of months after return from combat, and which supplements the one therapy session that was required in the past.

A significant step forward in the DoD’s efforts to encourage military personnel to seek mental health therapy is its anti-stigma campaign entitled Real Warriors Campaign.  The website for this campaign explains that the goal of Real Warriors Campaign is to promote recovery and support for members of the armed forces, veterans, and their families. Important to this goal is providing people with the tools they will need in order to find a path to healing, as well as getting rid of the stigma that is attached to mental health disorders that so often prevents people from reaching out and getting the help they need.  Real Warriors Campaign is trying to help their constituency understand that PTSD, although an invisible wound, is no less serious than a bleeding gut or a lost limb.  Not only does the website open with the words, “Real Warriors/Real Battles/Real Strength. Reaching out makes a Real Difference,” but this message is repeated throughout the site. The phrase “Reaching out for help is a sign of strength” can be found on almost every page, along with phone numbers to call for that important first step of connecting to help, and phone numbers for crisis hotlines.

Serious about its goals, the site also provides a plethora of opportunities for people to connect with others who have faced the same challenges.  One can find message boards, live chat rooms, videos of service members sharing their stories, a place to share one’s own story, cheerleading posters (reinforcing that reaching out is a sign of strength), suggested educational reading material, a list of questions to ask a mental health care professional, and constant reinforcement of the point that getting help is a sign of strength.

In addition, Real Warriors Campaign has linked itself with the National Center for PTSD and the Anxiety Disorder Association of America  providing its readers with a larger pool of resources to help on the path to well-being.

A Bit of Pride

I am not crazy, or wacko, or certifiable, or any of the many words that are used to describe someone with a mental health illness.  I am a productive, creative, happy person, and I am living with an anxiety disorder.  There, I said it.  That used to be very hard for me to say.  I was embarrassed by the thought of having a mental illness.  What would people think of me?  Would they look at me as a person who is less than whole?  Would they think of me with pangs of pity?  Would they still be willing to be my friend?  Would people cast me out as they would a pariah?  How would my family react?  Would I become that crazy old aunt about whom everyone laughed?  And what would I think of me?  These questions filled my thoughts, and definitely held a place in my subconscious thoughts even at times when I was not actively thinking about them.

Today, after a lot of work, I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of this condition.  I actually feel a bit of pride when I tell people that I have an anxiety disorder.  Yes, pride.  I know it sounds strange to think of an anxiety disorder as a source of pride, but it is.  Just saying the words out loud, “I have an anxiety disorder,” is a huge accomplishment.  I feel pride in that accomplishment.  I feel pride that I have been able to find the strength and courage to rebuild a solid, productive, happy life.  I feel pride in all that I have learned about myself, my mental illness, and mental illness in general.  I feel pride that I have taken ownership of my illness, with no more denials or excuses.  I feel pride in each day that I awake to inner peace.  I am grateful for each day that I am able to live with inner peace.

I know that I will always be recovering, and can never take wellness for granted.  I will never be able to assume that I am free and clear of another major episode of anxiety.  I don’t like that piece of this illness.  Not a bit!  However, I am learning to accept that element of uncertainty.  I remind myself that I know how to do the hard work.  I know where to go for help if the work becomes more than I can handle on my own.  I hope that I never need help again, but I might, and I know that.  And I want to be very clear.  I am not fooling myself or being cocky about this disease.  Not for one single second!  I appreciate, beyond words, the good and solid place that I am in right now.  That is all I can take for granted – right now.  I know that inner peace is fragile. It can disappear instantly, and without warning.  But I will not let that frighten me, because it will not change the future, just make the present more difficult.

It feels awful when, as in the past, I found myself in the middle of a downward event. I hated it.   It felt like happiness was forever and a mile away.  And should that ever occur again, I will need to remember that it will get better.  I will be happy again.

Light Therapy

 

I read this article about Seasonal Affective Disorder on a website called Techlicious.com.  It specifically addressed the issue of the benefits of light therapy for SAD.   It was very informative and interesting, and I thought I would share it.   The article explains how the lack of daylight can mess with our internal bio rhythms during the winter months when daylight is at its shortest cycle.   The reduced sunlight can leave some people feeling depressed and tired.   Along with the explanation of the condition, you will find recommendations for light therapy lamps, if you are looking to increase the amount of light that you  get in a day.   If you have been experiencing more blah days and less energized days have a read.   And always, Always , ALWAYS, seek medical help if symptoms are severe.

 

 

Get it? Remember it! Use it!

Words are powerful.  The wrong words can be powerfully harmful, hurting people and causing personal harm.  The right words can be powerfully uplifting, and encourage positive behavior and action.  Words like certifiable, crazy, nuts, psycho, wacko, deranged, schizo, freak, insane, loony, weirdo, batty, demented, and odd, are only part of a much longer list of derogatory language from which I have drawn that describes people with mental health issues.  These negative words help promote and reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  The stigma is as harmful to the healing process as the symptoms themselves.  The stigma tends to keep people who are exhibiting symptoms of mental illness from seeking the help they need.  Well, that makes sense.  Who wants to be branded as “an odd duck” or a “weird wacko?”  Who wants to feel ostracized or embarrassed? So, people ignore their symptoms.  They tell themselves that all is okay.  They pretend that nothing is wrong.  They think that if they ignore reality long enough, everything will be fine.  They tell themselves that if they remain stoic in the face of all that is not fine, the symptoms will disappear, and their lives will return to normal.  But ignoring the issues does not make them disappear.  Ignoring the symptoms makes them get worse.  So we need to encourage people to stop ignoring their symptoms, face the fact that everything is not okay, and accept that their symptoms will not disappear on their own.  But most importantly, we need to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness so people will be more comfortable with seeking help, and less afraid of what people might say about them having a mental health issue.

I believe that less “stigma” and more “comfort” starts with changing the vocabulary that we use to describe people with mental illness.  I have found website upon website dedicated to exploring the words used to describe mental health disorders, and the impact upon the individuals who are affected by them.  I am bemused that there are so many people who are trying to figure out WHAT IS the appropriate language when referring to someone with mental illness.  What should we say, and how should we say it?  We want to be sensitive.  We need to be respectful.  We want to be thoughtful.  We need to be honest.  WHAT ARE the words that will provide the vocabulary for a sensitive, respectful, thoughtful, and honest conversation about and with a person who has a mental illness? My favorites so far are two that I found on a website called BC2M.  They promote the phrases “affected by” or “living with” a mental illness.  So simple, right?   So let’s use these phrases.  Remember to use “affected by” or “living with” bipolar disorder, “affected by” or “living with” schizophrenia, “affected by” or “living with” an anxiety disorder.  Get it? Remember it!  Use it!

Speaking Out And Speaking Up

While I was doing research online for my blog, I discovered quite a few organizations that were established specifically to speak to the issue that is so near and dear to my heart.  GET RID OF THE STIGMA THAT SURROUNDS MENTAL HEALTH DISEASE.  There are more advocates speaking up about that stigma than I ever imagined, and I happily read their websites for hours, truly excited about finding this treasure trove of validation.

Brandon Marshall, in conjunction with his wife Michi, started Project 375, an organization whose sole purpose is to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health illness.  Marshall himself had shown signs of erratic behavior, but thought he needed to tough it out and remain stoic in the face of his problems.  That stoicism was not working.  In 2011, Marshall, a highly respected NFL wide receiver, had a decision to make.  Either get the help he needed for his erratic behavior, or Michi was leaving.  Devastated by the possibility of losing his wife, Marshall checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, and there he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  He spent the next three months at the hospital getting therapy, during which time Marshall realized that being stoic was not the same as being strong.  Instead, he found that it took strength and courage to own his illness and get the help that he desperately needed.  After a period in therapy, his personal and professional life began to stabilize.  As a result of the progress that Michi witnessed, Michi and Brandon reunited.  Marshall and Michi now speak out about his disease, their journey, and the mission of Project 375 to eradicate the stigma of mental health disease and disorders.  Project 375 is making a particular effort to reach out to the male population that is resistant to owning any mental health issues.  Through their programs, Brandon and Michi are trying to educate men to understand that it takes strength, not weakness, to seek the help needed to learn how to live with a mental health disorder.  I was very impressed with this organization and its goal of promoting healing through understanding, and promoting the principle of speaking out and speaking up – of coming out of that old stuffy closet. Continue reading Speaking Out And Speaking Up