Thursday, August 28, 2014


Coping with the loss of a loved one is hard for anyone, regardless of mental state or whether the beloved was human or animal. This week, my parents' cat Sweetie was hit by a car suddenly. He was a stray that somehow by the grace of God found my mom (no joke...he magically showed up at their doorstep one day asking for food until she caved and bought that first can of Friskies)...and two years later, he went from a wiry-looking, weary little hunter to my mom's smoking buddy and my dad's little grilling companion. He was so happy that he willingly shared his dry cat food with the mouse my parents have been trying to shoo away from their house for months now (no killing traps for the Petrillos, but one would've assumed the cat would do the trick).

Needless to say, it was a shock that our family's "retired" cat was motivated enough to dart out into open traffic to fetch an animal or object, having no idea that he would end his own life. I grieve this week. For my mom and dad's loss and their deep sadness. For the way our poor boy went (without suffering though, thankfully). For my own loss exacerbated by my depression. I find myself seeking out my own beautiful feline, Lucky and hugging her a little tighter. I didn't know that the last time I saw Sweetie would be my last. And you never do really know, I suppose.

I also grieve for many other things that have changed since I came to terms with being clinically depressed and anxious. I don't want to mislead. I am in a MUCH better place than I was at year's start. I actually feel human again. Whether or not you personally believe in medicine for the treatment for mental illness...I don't care. That in itself is a feat, to not value others' input so much. But my medicines have singlehandedly saved me. I still panic and freak out, but I can manage it better than before (not as well as a typical person...but baby steps, my friends). The medicine and the therapy, and the conscious decision to change my lifestyle in a number of ways has saved me. Or at least set me on the path to salvation.

But a lot has happened as a result of all this. I feel that I've been inaccessible at times because of how crippled I felt from the sadness and fear...and as a result, I'm left with a small group of dedicated friends and loved ones that have shown consistent and unconditional support in many ways (visits, cards, emails, online messages, etc)...and I've received support from places where I'd least expect. For that, I am so grateful. But I have also experienced relationship of those "knowing who your true friends are" kind of things when you're at your worst. A valuable lesson, but a hurtful one nonetheless for someone who loves with all she has. I'm learning that relationships that drain and leave you feeling depleted on a regular basis are no good. Better late than never to learn this. No friend or relationship is perfectly supportive. But striving to be your best never hurts anyone. So I continue to. And now, I have come to expect the same in return.

Also, this is the first year since I was five years old (legit) that I am not preparing for the start of an academic year. I literally went from preschool to K-12 to college to graduate school to working in higher education for four years or so. It's a loss, but a welcomed one and a much-needed one. It's nice to be the maker of my own schedule and to be able to take cry breaks. Or PSL breaks (fellow Starbucks fans get me on this). Or to take mental health days (legitimately, for doctor visits and informally when I'm in a bad mood) and not have to gain approval or feel stigmatized. It's definitely weird to not be a part of the buzz of the academic world this fall, though. And maybe someday I'll yearn for it again. But if it continues to feel this good not to be a part of it, then I'm satisfied to applaud my higher ed and teacher friends as they begin their busy seasons. I'll keep my place on the sofa warm as I watch "Different World" reruns and do some editing work on my trusty laptop, PSL in hand.

For now, I'll keep writing away and healing away. And thinking of my beloved Sweetie, lost too soon.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How to help

With Robin Williams tragically dying from suicide last week, I think depression is on a lot of folks' minds in the aftermath of it all. Mental illness is one of those things that, while widely de-stigmatized over the past decade (I was very secretive as I sought treatment in high school and in college), is still one of those topics that many fail to understand. Of course, there are a number of exceptions. There are psychiatrists, social workers, therapists, counselors and various other care workers who see this kind of thing regularly. There are also folks that deal with some type of diagnosis themselves - this can range from mild Generalized Anxiety Disorder to the level of anguish that Robin Williams was apparently dealing with - the kind of profound sadness and hopelessness that drives a person to take her/his own life. There are also those dedicated and committed partners, family members and friends that strive to learn more and empathize when they learn a loved one is in anguish.

I used to fail to understand suicide and the thought patterns that led depressed and suffering folks down such a final and irreversible path. I personally never took that path because I did not want my partner, family and friends to have to live with the aftermath. No one can really help it when a person dies of natural causes. But if a loved one commits suicide, you're left wondering a lot of things. What did I do to cause this? Could I have prevented it from happening? Even in my darkest hole of a mood, I  kept in mind that it wasn't my destiny to feel soulless forever, It would get better. It had to.

Not everyone is lucid enough to come to that conclusion in the heat of a manic episode, though. I think I finally get that and it took losing one of the best actors of my lifetime to see that. I understand that suicide can be perceived as selfish because of what it does to those around the deceased. Until you've experienced depression on a level that goes beyond "feeling sad," or you have taken care of someone in this condition on a regular wouldn't understand. Failing to understand fully is acceptable, but it's not OK to judge. As I've come to learn this year, it's rarely ever  "OK" to judge. 

There are a lot of resources out there for folks that want to learn more about depression, anxiety and the like. Folks that suffer can explain it to loved ones in the best way they know how. And what I've learned is that, no matter how much I try to make people in my life "get it," some just don't or refuse to. And that's OK. That's not my burden to carry, nor should they feel guilty for not being able to relate on a firsthand basis. But how does a family member or a close friend help?

Well, there are a number of related Buzzfeed lists and HuffPo articles out there that have been very popular since Robin Williams passed away, so this topic is buzzworthy. These articles tell you what not to do. I can't tell you how many times I've had to bite my tongue when someone says something well-intentioned but unhelpful/offensive to me. You can probably see the teeth marks in my tongue. :) But instead of focusing on what people are doing wrong, I want to provide some perspective regarding ways to potentially help someone dealing with depression or any kind of long-term mental anguish.

Don't pretend like you get it and don't try too hard to. Educate yourself, but don't pretend like what you or your friend Sue is dealing with is the same as what the distressed person in your life is dealing with. Different people have different triggers, thresholds for emotional pain, clinical diagnoses...and the list goes on. Everyone is different. You are not the same as Sue. And Sue is not the same as your friend Harry, so comparing the still-depressed Sue to Harry, who "conquered" his depression using methods A an's doing Sue more harm than good. What you think may serve as motivation can make someone feel as though they're not living up to the world's expectations, or more specifically, yours.

Just listen. Agree that what your loved one is dealing with is hard. Thank them for sharing their story with you. Ask what you can do to help. "I hear you, friend...that really sucks that you're dealing with those feelings. Is there anything I can do for you?" Just knowing that there's a support system available that is willing and flexible means the world. At least it has for me. And if the person is dealing with social anxiety in any form, other forms of communication can  take the place of in-person support if the suffer isn't up to visitors or willing to talk it all out on the phone. Emails, cards, social media...the smallest I-love-yous do a world of good. And if someone isn't in a place to respond, give it time. Maybe they're not up for karaoke night, but a nice Hallmark card goes a long way. Or a reaffirming text. It's easy for others to move on with their lives and forget to include folks stuck in manic episodes because those folks aren't up for big, fun adventures and often push loved ones away unintentionally while suffering on the inside.

Understand that a depressed person probably doesn't want to be that way. I would gladly give up a limb (literally) to go back to the week before my breakdown and do it all over again knowing what I know now. Or to be reborn without the predisposition to being depressed and anxious. To be the kind of person that takes it all in stride. Also understand that depression does mean that a person may not have the capacity to be the most social, humorous, optimistic or romantic at this point in time. This may be finite, it may be permanent. It depends on the person. Recovery takes as long as it needs to take and there is no timetable for when a person "needs" to start feeling better so that others around them feel less awkward. 

I got told by a former supervisor once that I didn't "look" anxious etc. and this person was shocked that I'd been suffering. It's often said that when a person breaks like I did, it's from trying to be strong for too long. I'm learning in therapy how to give myself grace and permission to not be the best at everything this year. Do the same for friends and family that may be suffering.  

And take care of yourself. It can be hard to be around a person who is as her/his lowest levels of depression and fear. Learn how to care for yourself and how to be a good supporter through reading, therapy, co-therapy with the sufferer...whatever it takes. Lastly, throw away the practice of being judgmental. There's just no room for it. Unless you've walked a mile in someone's shoes...


Friday, August 1, 2014

I'm getting older, too...

So the good news is I am still thankful, above all else. Thankful for having a support system in Mike, my immediate family, my aunt, my animals and friends both in person and through the wonder of technology. Also thankful for good physical health and an effective change in medicine over the past couple of weeks. I feel like I'm timidly coming out of another "low" in this journey that's lasted all year so far.

It's weird. I would cut off a limb to not be prone to anxiety and depression. To not have to make a conscious effort to think positively and redirect the way I think naturally. To not be so intentional and so emotional and to feel so depleted at the end of each day. My counseling background drives me to support others and hold them up even when I can't hold myself up. While I will never stop being that kind of person - I am PROUD to be that way - it makes for one tired little woman in this apartment at the end of the day. Antidepressant-induced slumber is always welcomed at the end of each night, along with some good animal snuggles.

And yet, while I'd give anything to be a carefree spirit, I'm wondering how I will live my life without my old pals, depression and anxiety. As I start to feel better (thank you again to my therapist, some good literature and my pills for guiding me through that process) I feel a new kind of anxiety. Because I am so used to living with sadness, crying every morning (because it's so intense to face the day and all the unknowns) will be an adventure to live life again without constant fight-or-flight. Freud has a term for this feeling of fearing what will happen when the depression eventually lifts, but it's slipping my mind (thanking the pills yet again, his time for the lovely side effect of memory fogginess)...what if friends and family will care about me and be less interested in me once I appear to be "better"? What if their lives now include traditions and customs that I can't be a part of yet? Or what if they're used to me not being around?

Truth is, folks with anxiety and depression are never cured in my opinion. It's always a cross to bear, it just is heavier during certain seasons of life. So when it's a lighter cross, it doesn't consume you, but you learn how to cope effectively and healthily. But the outside world is still a little scary on this end. Making good progress though due to the aforementioned and to Him.

I heard the Smashing Pumpkins' rendition of this song today, "Landslide." Always loved this song, especially the Fleetwood Mac live version. But hearing it from a depressive's perspective was very real and emotional. For those that are experiencing even a smidge of what I am this year, this is for you.

And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills/Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?/Can the child within my heart rise above?/Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?/Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I've been afraid of changing 'Cause I've built my life around you/But time makes you bolder
Children get older/And I'm getting older too...