Remembering to breathe

*Trigger Warning – mental illness, self-injury*

 

 

tattooI was 4 years old when I had my first panic attack. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I continued to have panic attacks throughout my childhood and teen years not knowing what they were. I’d try to explain them to people . . . . how words and even thoughts would start sounding funny, like they were speeding up and slowing down at the same time and how my heart would beat and the world would just feel wrong. They never understood. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I finally had a therapist put a label on what I was feeling.

She put labels on me too – generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was kind of terrifying to hear those words. It was also incredibly liberating. You mean I’m not just some wacky freak show? There are, like, other people who deal with this too? And I can get better? It won’t always be like this?!

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I was 14 years old the first time I cut myself on purpose. I think that’s a really unfathomable thing for a lot of people. The idea of self-harm doesn’t compute. For those of us who do or have self-injured, it makes sense in a way that can be very difficult to explain. Our reasons vary, our triggers vary . . . . but there’s a thread that connects us . . . . that makes the unfathomable not only fathomable but natural.

When I was 17, I started my first period of recovery. I didn’t self-injure for nearly 5 years. After that relapse, it was another 6 years before I would do it again. Since then I have started calling myself a “(mostly) recovering self-injurer.” I seem to fall every couple of years . . . . . sometimes just once, sometimes several times over a few weeks . . . . and then I pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep on going.

I almost fell a couple of weeks ago. It’s been a rough summer, and for about a week, I forgot to take my medication. It was completely out of my system by the time I started again, which means it needed to build back up. Anxiety and depression overwhelmed me. Since finding the right combo of psychophramaceuticals, I’ve been a completely different person . . . . . I’ve almost felt “normal” (in the functional-can-do-“normal people”-things kind of way, not the no-longer-a-total-geek-and-weirdo kind of way, which would be totally boring). Losing that “normal person” feeling was a crash I haven’t felt in a very long time. And I wanted to burn myself.

Around 12:30am, I went for a walk. After about 30 minutes, I found myself at a Wawa. I contemplated my purchase the entire way. I walked in, sweating, sore, and tired. I knew I’d have to walk home. I live in the suburbs now and the buses actually stop running at a certain time every night. I grabbed a soda and cheese and grapes. I still hadn’t made a decision. I made my way to the register . . . . and bought a pack of cigarettes (with matches) instead of a lighter (I quit a year and a half ago).

I consider that a success.

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I’m 36 years old now. My diagnoses have been changed and tweaked over the years. The specific labels are not incredibly important on their own, but they are a part of my self-identity, and that makes them important. I have depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. I’ve been seeing the same therapist for more than 2 years. I’m on the just right combo of meds (now that I’ve readjusted back on them). Overall, I feel pretty damn good.

But I still have my moments . . . . the ones that make it difficult to get out of bed, not because I’m tired but because the idea of facing the world is just way too much pressure. I have my moments when the idea of speaking to another human being makes me want to crawl into a cave and become a hermit.

It’s in those moments that I need to remember to breathe.

Yesterday, I got a new tattoo to remind me to do just that. Many of you may already be familiar with the Semicolon Tattoo Project. The idea is that semicolon is used when a period would be sufficient, but the author decides to pause and keep the sentence going instead of ending it. That’s my reminder – to pause and breathe. In addition to the semicolon, I got the word “Love,” also a symbol of mental health awareness inspired by To Write Love On Her Arms. It has added special meaning to me because we used an old Christmas card to get “Love” in my mom’s handwriting. (Last week was 20 years since she died.)

I also found out last night that yesterday was National Suicide Prevention Day, which just makes this all the more fitting.

This tattoo is more than a piece of ink on my arm. It’s even more than my reminder to breathe and a tribute to my mom. It’s a catalyst. I have big things coming . . . . and this time, I won’t get distracted, and I won’t make excuses.

Life is too important. *I* am too important.

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You are not alone and you are okay

LoveI was 21 years old before someone finally told me what was “wrong” with me . . . . 17 years after my first panic attack. It was eye-opening. Finally, I had an explanation. Finally, someone could tell me that the constant worry, the constant fear, the constant desire to run away and abandon my own skin was not the way it was always going to be . . . . that help was possible.

It would be another 14 years before I’d find the right combination of medication. It happened last September (well, August is when I started taking them, but it takes a couple of weeks before you start to feel a difference). It was as if a veil had lifted. It was no longer a fight to get out of bed in the morning.

I still have my struggles . . . . and I’m still working toward “normal.”

Every few months I have to do this questionnaire thing with my therapist. It puts me on a depression and anxiety scale from not at all to severe. The last time I did it (about a month ago) was the first time I fell into “moderate anxiety” instead of “severe anxiety” . . . . I still laugh about it because if this is what “moderate anxiety” feels like, I can’t even imagine what it feels like to not have anxiety. I’m pretty comfortable at moderate . . . . though I think mild would be nice! (For those wondering, I moved from “moderate depression” to “mild depression” and am now at “borderline depression.”)

Sometimes it strikes me as incredibly bizarre how good I feel, how in my most stressful moments I feel like I used to on a daily basis.

But none of that means my fight is over. I still have difficulties around lots of people. I still avoid social situations whenever possible. I still avoid my triggers instead of working through them. I still can’t move past some early traumas and accept that they’re over. It’s hard work . . . . every day . . . . but it’s worth it. I’m worth it.

And you’re worth it too.

Earlier tonight, I stumbled onto the video below. I love Wil Wheaton for his advocacy of geekdom and his overall “don’t be a dick” mantra. I vaguely recall hearing that he deals with mental illness as well. The thoughts he expresses here hit home quite a bit. More importantly, he’s right . . . . you’re not alone.

Check out more videos, important resources, and other useful information at Project UROK.