Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Things I Wish People Knew About (My) Depression

It's been almost a full month since I last wrote. Wow. I would say that is hard for me to believe, but it's really not--not when I look back at how difficult and sometimes excruciating this past month has been for me. I knew returning to Gettysburg this fall was going to have its ups and downs, good days and bad days. Realistically, staying at home would have also had ups and downs because that is what the reality of living with any mental illness. I was prepared for this. But what I wasn't prepared for was bad days turning into bad weeks turning into a bad month.

I wasn't prepared for this level of depression. I thought I was stable depression-wise, after I changed medications this past spring. I was feeling okay at home, and when I came back to school, I wrote off my symptoms the first few weeks as needing an adjustment period to being back on campus. But now, its past the period of newness and I'm finding myself having a depressive episode at a time when I can't really afford to have one.

I wish people knew how frustrating depression is for me. It comes suddenly, without much warning, and I don't really know what triggers it in me. But the most frustrating part is when there's nothing I can do to make it better--the times when showering, getting up and getting dressed, going to class, doing my homework, being social, going for walks, taking my meds--the times when none of that works. Those are times when I just want to pull my hair out and scream because there's absolutely nothing I can do because I have a freaking chemical imbalance in my brain and I am not in control of that.

I wish people knew everything is 400 times harder to do because I have depression. Going to class? I spent two hours this morning convincing myself to get off the couch and actually go. Doing my homework? That's difficult even on a good day. On a bad day, it just isn't in the realm of possibilities. The mental effort it takes to make my body go through the most basic motions is enough to tire me out for the rest of the day. Often after class, I feel the need to go home and sleep for hours because everything is so difficult. Lately all I've been able to do is the bare minimum to be functional here--class, meetings, immediate graded homework. Studying or working ahead is near impossible.

I wish people knew how difficult it is to not isolate all the time, whether my depression is bad or not. One of the most crucial pieces of my depression recovery is not isolating. Isolating just feeds my depression more and more, but the same time, going anywhere and seeing anyone is the last thing I want to do. Initiating contact with a friend is not an easy task when my depression is bad. Accepting an invitation to hang out is almost as difficult.

I wish people knew I am a bad friend when I am depressed. This means I might snap at you over a tiny thing. It means I might ignore what you are saying to me because I don't care at the time. It means I might not be able to help you when you are struggling. It means I might say mean things. It means I'll forget to text you or text you too much or cancel plans. I am always sorry, even if I do not say so.

I wish people knew I hate using my depression as an excuse. Any mental illness makes functioning hard. I try not to let it impact my every day life--my schoolwork, my commitments, my relationships. But sometimes I really cannot fulfill an obligation because my brain literally will not function properly. Sometimes I need extra time to finish an assignment because showing up to class over-exhausts me to the point where I cannot do anything else. I have depression and it impacts my life. It is an illness and has similar impacts as any other illness, so sometimes I need to be accommodated, which I hate. So don't make me feel bad about asking for an extra to turn in an assignment or to be excused from a meeting--it is always my last resort.

I wish people knew my depression is not about being sad or feeling bad, although it sometimes is. But mostly, its a feeling of nothingness, emptiness. It feels like drowning slowly. Sometimes I am sad, but mostly, its a heaviness and a darkness that overwhelms all of me.

I wish people knew medication does not cure depression (and needing medication does not make me crazy). Medication helps. Ditto therapy. Ditto walks. Ditto food and friends and support. Nothing fixes it. Depression, as I experience it, is not a problem to be solved, not something over and done with. When I first started taking medication four years ago, I was hesitant about needing a drug to feel normal. Don't only crazy people need meds? Now that I understand more about depression and how the brain works, I understand how biological this illness is and how it needs to be treated like any other condition, like asthma for example. My brother has asthma and he has to take his inhaler every day in order to keep his lungs healthy. Its the same with depression--I have to take my meds every day to keep my brain healthy.

I wish people knew my depression is also physical. I get tired, really tired. Sometimes all I can do is sleep because I am so tired. I lose my appetite completely, and as someone who has a history of an eating disorder as well, this is a very difficult thing.

I wish people knew depression causes a disconnect between my mind and body. Part of this involves not being fully "present" in class or in a conversation. My body will be there and my mind won't necessarily be somewhere else, but it will not focus or concentrate. I've sat through many classes this semester where I took extensive notes and walked out having no idea what we covered. Another disconnect is when I struggle to organize my muscles to do what I need. Mostly this involves getting out of bed or getting up to go somewhere.

I wish people knew I struggle to reconcile my faith and my depression. I often feel like less of a Christian when I cannot feel joy during worship. Or when I'm just going through the motions in church or in my devotions and I feel nothing. When my heart just isn't there. These things make me feel guilty and like less of a Christian because Christians are "supposed" to feel joyful. I struggle to reconcile why God is allow me to suffer like this and why he doesn't heal me. I struggle when someone tells me my depression is a result of something I am doing or not doing spiritually. I struggle when people tell me I need Jesus and not medication or therapy.

I wish people knew its okay to ask me questions about my depression and any of my other mental illnesses. I am not ashamed of them because I know they are partially because of biology and how my brain is wired. I like questions. I like helping people to understand what I am going through because it reduces stigma in our society about mental illness, something that is all too prevalent and damaging.

I wish people knew I just want to know I'm not alone in fighting my depression. Most people ask what they can do or they offer to listen if I need to talk, which are nice gestures. But what I need is someone to snuggle and watch movies with, someone to send me encouraging things in the morning or before class, someone to just give me hugs. Someone to eat with. Someone to reassure me. Someone to tell me it really will be okay and I can get through this. Someone to remind me I am stronger than my depression. Someone to tell me they are proud of me for fighting this hard.

Thank you, Jordie, for this reminder and encouragement.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On Performance

I've been feeling rather weary lately. This whole college thing is starting to drain me and zap my energy levels and in addition, I have this whole set of mental health issues to keep under control. It's exhausting, so I come home most days and all I want to do is sleep, but I am hindered from napping or even going to bed early by what seems to be endless piles of reading, as well as extracurricular and social activities. All of these things are good and normal. 

But there comes a point when I can't actually handle all of this and I get overwhelmed -- usually around the time I start pressuring myself to do everything and to do it really well. This pressure, of course, comes with the fear of disappointing and failing, which paralyzes me. So I try to keep going, pushing myself to do better and try harder and do more, and I inevitably end up failing because the truth of the matter is I cannot do everything and I definitely cannot do everything well. 

The good news is its not about my performance, its not about how much I do, and its not about how well I do things. 

In Primetime on Friday, we looked at how Jesus redefines our performance in John 13: 36-38 (NIV): 

36 Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” 37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

When we talk about Simon Peter, we want to throw him under the bus most of the time. But in this moment, all Peter wants is to follow Jesus all the way. But here's the thing about this moment -- Peter is trying to spotlight his own performance, saying "I will lay down my life..."

Peter's performance is not the point. 

Jesus' crucifixion is his greatest moment of glory. This is the point. Because Jesus sacrificed himself for us, absolutely nothing we can do will earn us favor with God. Peter was trying to prove his love and devotion and possibly that he was the greatest disciple by offering to die for Christ. But its not about him. 

Back in the scripture, Jesus says to Peter "Will you really lay down your life for me? ...you will disown me three times!" Peter tried so hard to earn Jesus' favor and to prove his love, and he failed because he made it about him. 

This same thing happens to me -- I try so hard to do everything and do it all well so as to prove myself, but I fail because I am making it about me. I make it about how Sarah can be glorified and how Sarah can be seen as good. But Jesus' performance on the cross is sufficient for me and therefore, I do not have to rely on my own performance to prove my worth or show I am good enough to be deserving of love. 

Which is good, because I fail and will continue to fail. I will probably always make it about me and my performance. But the cross covers that! 

In church on Sunday, we looked briefly at Hebrews 6:17-20 (NIV): 

17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.

Because of Jesus' performance, we have a stable and secure hope in the work and person of Jesus because God promises that, and God does not lie. Therefore, we are no longer tied to our own performance, but anchored to that of Christ. 

So even though I will continue, like Peter, to perform in order to prove my worth and to make it about me, I no longer have to live in fear of failing and not being enough. 

I have the assurance of salvation regardless. I have hope regardless. I am loved regardless.

I am not my performance. I am free. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Please Love Me"

"Please love me." 

Sometimes I think that by screaming those words out, something will change. That the mere fact of saying those words will relieve the aching in my chest and dissipate the pain I feel in my soul. That there will be no more sleepless nights where the nightmares are real and every breath echoes the words, "I am alone."

I crave the reassurance that says, "You are okay. You are loved. You are enough."

My greatest fear is not that I am inadequate, but that I am abandoned because I need too much. I need too much comfort. I need too much reassurance. I need too much love.

I need too much just to stay afloat.

My life is not an easy one to be a part of these days, with all the chaos of rediscovering what my life even is and who I want to be. My days revoke every consistency, it seems. Today might have been good, but tomorrow? Tomorrow might be miserable. My mind is unbound chaos and focus is ever-absent.

So every night, my mind wanders to how I can fix the broken pieces of me and put my emotional puzzle back together so I can be someone worth staying for. So that someone will love me. So that someone will want me.

Just tell me I am okay. Tell me you love me. Tell me you won't leave.

Because I can't take another sleepless night, wondering if any of those things are true. I can't take another night yearning for someone to reassure me. I can't take another night of this alone-ness.

I can't take another night with "This is only a feeling, not fact. It will pass." echoing in my mind because this feeling is constant enough to be fact. It is with me when I wake in the morning, when I sit in class hours later, when I spend time with a friend, when I lie down again at night. It haunts me, regardless of my actions or how many people are around. This loneliness has settled deep in my soul.

In my pain, I cry out to my Father and beg for comfort, yet in the morning, I do not see new mercies. I fear I am walking through this valley all alone.

Come to me, and please... tell me you'll stay.

Tell me you'll stay regardless of the late nights when I need you to stay up reminding me that I am loved and not abandoned. Tell me you'll stay even on my bad days when I push you away and tell you I don't need you. Tell me you'll stay even when you don't understand any of this.

Tell me you'll walk with me, no matter what the road looks like. And then tell me again and again and again until I am able to tell myself - if I am ever able to tell myself.

Remind me of what is true. Remind me who my Father is. Remind me of the promises He has for me. 

Let me cling to you, just for now, until I can do these things for myself.

But please, please love me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

World Suicide Prevention Day 2014

Every day, every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide. Take a moment and let that sink in, and then think about this - for every one successful suicide attempt, statistics have shown there are at least 20 other unsuccessful suicide attempts, meaning that every 40 seconds, 21 people - people who are just the same as you and me - attempt (and succeed) at taking their own lives.

Read it again.

Every day, every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide. Take a moment and let that sink in, and then think about this - for every one successful suicide attempt, statistics have shown there are at least 20 other unsuccessful suicide attempts, meaning that every 40 seconds, 21 people - people who are just the same as you and me - attempt (and succeed) at taking their own lives.

40 seconds. That's how long it just took you to read the first paragraph twice. In that time, someone, somewhere died by suicide and 20 others attempted it.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. The SECOND LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH of adolescents and young adults whose lives are filled with so much potential, whose lives have not even really begun.

Suicide is preventable. 

The World Health Organization has just recently released a report that covers in-depth the risk factors for suicide and summarizes it with this: "Social, psychological, cultural and other factors can interact to lead a person to suicidal behaviour, but the stigma attached to mental disorders and suicide means that many people feel unable to seek help (2014)."

I am not (yet) qualified enough to speak about the factors leading to suicidal behavior and thoughts. I can only speak from my own experience. And my own experience includes stigma.

The stigma is real, my friends.

Over the past years, as I've struggled with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and various other things, there have been a few points where I wanted nothing more than to not be alive. I was done - done going to therapy, done talking about it, done fighting, done trying. I wanted to not exist. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.

For the longest time, I was afraid to say anything about my suicidal thoughts to anyone because I was afraid of what they would think, of what they would do. I was afraid I would be seen as a crazy person. I was afraid I would be restrained in a hospital bed. I was afraid I would be medicated to the point of not knowing who I was. I was afraid I would be institutionalized and would never come out. I was afraid that once I came out as not okay, I would never again be treated as okay.

We do this thing in our society where we skirt around anything major. We don't give the real answers when someone asks how we are because we think they don't care or they'll judge us. We don't talk about the hard stuff. We don't talk about suicide. 

Except we do, when a celebrity dies of it. A few months ago, Robin Williams committed suicide and then for a week or two, we talked about it. Briefly. The conversations, though, seem to have focused more on his depression than on his suicide, which although is a start, it isn't okay.

It isn't okay because although mental illnesses like depression have a correlation to suicidality, they are not always the cause. Many people living with mental illnesses are not affected by suicidal behaviors. Not everyone who dies by suicide has a mental illness. It is myths like these that contribute to stigma.

September is Suicide Prevention Month. It is a time when organizations and people attempt to bring the conversation to how we can work together to prevent suicide because, according to the World Health Organization, "Despite the evidence that many deaths are preventable, suicide is too often a low priority for governments and policy-makers (2014)."

In my experience, the best prevention is being there to ask the hard questions, to talk about the tough stuff, to care about the messy, broken parts when a friend is struggling. As Will Hall writes:

"When we begin to listen we also discover something very surprising. Suicidal feelings are not the same as giving up on life. Suicidal feelings often express a powerful and overwhelming need for a different life. Suicidal feelings can mean, in a desperate and unyielding way, a demand for something new. Listen to someone who is suicidal and you often hear a need for change so important, so indispensable, that they would rather die than go on living without the change. And when the person feels powerless to make that change happen, they become suicidal.

"Help comes when the person identifies the change they want and starts to believe it can actually happen. Whether it is overcoming an impossible family situation, making a career or study change, standing up to an oppressor, gaining relief from chronic physical pain, igniting creative inspiration, feeling less alone, or beginning to value their self worth, at the root of suicidal feelings is often powerlessness to change your life – not giving up on life itself."

By allowing someone to tell their story, you give them what they desperately need - power. By not keeping a story untold, the author of it gains a bit of power and control over the situation. Things seem to get more hopeful because there is one more character in that story. It's not a one act play anymore. At least that's how it was for me.

I had people in my life to tell me I mattered. To tell me I was important. To tell me no one else could play my part.

And tonight, I'm telling you.

You matter.
You are important.
No one else can play your part. 

"Welcome to Midnight. That's what we say when the ball drops and a new year begins. i like that moment because beyond the fireworks and resolutions, beyond the kisses and celebration, is the quiet hope that something can be new. That it's possible to leave the past behind and start again. There's nothing extra special on television tonight, no clapping crowd in Times Square, no parade scheduled for the morning. But this midnight means World Suicide Prevention Day, and we would like to think this day can be significant. Not because the world needs another holiday, and not because we need a stage to stand on. We believe in World Suicide Prevention Day for the same reasons we love New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Because perhaps it's possible to change. Perhaps it's possible to start again. Perhaps it's possible for things to be new. We know that change takes more than a moment, and we aren't saying it will be easy, but we're saying that it's worth it. This life. This night. Your story. Your pain. Your hope. It matters. All of it matters. You're loved. You matter to this world and you matter to the people who love you. So stay. Please stay. No one else can play your part." 
-Jaime Tworkowski, founder of TWLOHA

The conversation does not end at midnight. Organizations like To Write Love On Her ArmsActive Minds, and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention are working to change the conversation. 

If you are struggling with suicide, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

World Health Organization. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative. http://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/world_report_2014/en/

Hall, Will. 2013. Living with Suicidal Feelings. http://beyondmeds.com/2013/04/24/living-with-suicidal-feelings/

Tworkowski, Jamie. 2014. Welcome to Midnight. Welcome to World Suicide Prevention Day. http://twloha.com/blog/welcome-world-suicide-prevention-day

Monday, September 1, 2014

First Day of School

I survived my official first day back Gettysburg in almost a year. I managed to make it through each of my three classes today without much trouble, but now I am extremely exhausted and ready to sleep for a while (especially since my anxiety kept me up much of last night, which is just how you want to start a new semester at college...) 

Awkward first day of school picture.

Today didn't suck. Parts of it did, but as a whole, today was okay. 

I felt a great amount of shame walking into and sitting through my stats class and Introduction to Brain & Behavior, mostly because I should have completed both of these courses last fall. It is really hard for me to come to terms with having to retake them, even though I know those medical withdrawals last fall were for my health and will be best for me in the long run. Most of the time I can't see the forest for the trees, especially when it comes to my future and my recovery. 

(I know most would think retaking these courses would give me an advantage because the majority of the material--at least for the first two months--will be review. This is not the case! I was active in my eating disorder last fall, which means my brain was not processing information to long term memory as effectively as usual, thus resulting in my not remembering much of what I learned last year. I am in for a frustrating semester with these two courses... So please, stop telling me they should be easy for me.)

On Monday and Wednesday afternoons, I'm taking this course called "Writing through Conflict," taught by Hugh Martin, a contemporary author (read more about him here). It'll be an interesting course, for sure, albeit a ton of work. I think the hardest part of the course for me will be handling the stress of its workload, as well as the memories the professor's presence brings to my mind--he reminds me of someone I'd much rather forget. 

Academically, I think this semester will be okay. It'll be an intellectual challenge, but I think the hardest part will be acting against this perpetual exhaustion I've been feeling to get myself to class, get myself out of my apartment, get myself to do my work.

The most difficult part of this semester, by far, is going to be dealing with the loneliness/aloneness I've felt since arrival. Don't get me wrong--I have friends here. At least, I think I still do. Little by little, I've been realizing the friends I still have here, although it's going to take time before I feel loved and cared for and supported here again. It's going to take time to build my relationships back up. I know that, logically. 

I can't help but feel I don't have someone I can turn to here when I'm having a bad day. I feel like I'm fighting the war all on my own, which is a hard thing to do when it seems each battle is never-ending. I feel I can't articulate my needs to people here. I feel I can't share my emotions here. I feel I'm walking on such eggshells here. I thought that was because of knowing if things get bad again, I going home and not coming back, but I'm realizing it's not. 

In a conversation with someone today, I was told, "Congratulations on beating eating disorders!" I was a bit taken aback by this statement at first, until I thought about it some more. 

I think there is this expectation of people--my friends, professors, acquaintances--that once I'm back, I'm better. That ten months at home is enough to "fix me" or "make me feel better." I don't think it's anything uncommon, but most people believe mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders can be cured, when in reality, I don't think they can. 

My Brain & Behavior professor gave an example from the media in class today when talking about depression and I think it applies well here. He said someone (I forget the name) rich and famous was being interviewed on the radio and was asked how he could be depressed when he was so well-off. This person responded with a question, inquiring how someone similarly well-to-do could have asthma or cancer or any other more socially acceptable illness. 

My professor was trying to illustrate the idea of mental illness being a result of an inconsistency in the body, but I think his analogy was slightly incomplete. Mental illness is more accurately depicted as a chronic condition--asthma or allergies, for example. It's not something you can treat once and then it will go away. (Wouldn't it be nice if it worked that way?!) 

Eating disorders, like depression and like anxiety, are something you learn to live in spite of (Most people say you learn to live with these conditions, but they suck the life from you, so I think it is more accurate to say live in spite of these conditions). I am learning to live in spite of my disorders. I am earning my education in spite of my disorders. I am back at Gettysburg and got through my first day of classes in spite of my disorders. 

Let that be enough.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry. 

Those words have been my mantra tonight, at least for the past few hours. I've been on the verge of tears and/or in tears tonight. 

Today, I moved back to Gettysburg, one of my favorite places in the world. I should be happy and joyful and excited to be back. 

[I see you over there, "Should Statements," trying to distort my cognitive functioning...]

Tonight I am sad and anxious and lonely and in pain. Tonight I am an emotional mess. Tonight I am crying because my emotions are real and valid and important simply because I feel them (Thanks, Laura Jensen, for reminding me!). 

And I was thinking about these feelings in the shower and trying to get to the root of why I'm feeling this way already, after not even being here for 24 hours and I realized: it's because I'm not unpacked yet. 

I don't mean not literally unpacked, although I am not that kind of unpacked either, but settled here. I'm not in a routine. I don't officially have a treatment team here yet. I'm not sure what my life here looks like. 

I don't know what I look like here. 

Yes, I've been here before but it's completely different. I'm different. 

I guess it's similar to when you move and you're trying to fit all your old stuff into your new house (or apartment or dorm room). Trying to fit the old and the new together and figure out what it all looks like and how to make it work. 

I guess it's a little like that. 

Because right now I don't know what sort-of-recovered-and-still-in-recovery-Sarah looks like at Gettysburg because I've never been in this position here before. I suppose that maybe after my assessment tomorrow, maybe once more friends get here, maybe when classes start, I'll feel more settled and okay and unpacked. Who knows? 

Right now, I know I am having emotions that I don't like. I know I'm having emotions that I shouldn't be having right now. I know I don't think I can handle being back if I can't handle tonight. 

All of this is okay and valid and real because I am feeling it; so I am going to let myself feel it--all of it--every bit of pain and fear and anxiety and loneliness and sadness, every bit that thinks I can't handle this. 

And it's going to get better (and easier), right? 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

In Times of Tragedy

There are nights when I stare at my computer screen trying to come up with some compilation of words to sum up what had happened that day, nights when I wish I could string letters together into profound thoughts to make things just a little better. Last night was one of those nights. 

There's a lot in life I just don't understand and that I probably will never understand. Tragedy is near the top of that list, and lately, my community has been forced to deal with too much of it, but yesterday, it directly hit my band family. 

A 2014 graduate of my high school and a member of my high school band tragically fell 100 feet to his death while hiking with his girlfriend. He was killed instantly. 

There are no words for this kind of accident. 

This kind of loss seems unreal. This kind of loss shakes everyone to the core. This kind of loss brings unfathomable pain. 

I only knew Zach for two years in high school, but he was a good kid--kind, polite, humorous, ambitious, smart, and talented. He was an important part of our band family and all of us, no matter how close we were to him, are mourning his loss. 

Last night, I watched from the stands as my marching band paid tribute to Zach by wearing high socks on the field. 

Last night, I held candles and friends as family, friends, and classmates gathered together around the flagpole at my high school for a vigil in remembrance of Zach. 

Last night, I prayed with my community for healing and comfort in this time of brokenness. 

And last night, I repeatedly asked myself "Why?"

Sometimes there are no answers for our questions. Sometimes there are no words to be said. Sometimes all we can do is remember the lives touched, the laughs shared, the memories made.

And sometimes it is simply enough to be with one another. 

Friends, you are not alone in your grief. A community of people stands beside you, mourning for the loss of one of our own. We all have heavy hearts and carry this burden with you.

You are not alone.