I’m not okay and I haven’t been for a while. And that is okay, I don’t have to be okay for anyone and it’s perfectly fine to have bad phases when dealing with psychological illnesses. You know what? No one actually knows that inside of me, I’m not okay and that too is fine, it’s something I handle on my own, in my own way. I’m managing my “illness”.
I have both depression and anxiety, so if you see me out, smiling and it looks like I’m having fun, this is what I call “chasing smiles”. I’m chasing them because it seems like once I catch one, it ignites a tiny spark of joy inside of me that reminds me of what it used to be like to feel alive. That tiny spark quickly dissolves into smoke and wafts away from me once I stop doing whatever it is I’m doing that makes me feel happy. You know, most days I just pray for that contented feeling. I pray for “Okay” because okay is not great but it’s also not bad, it’s just baseline and baseline helps me to maintain my forward momentum.
For the past two days, I was not okay, I was toward the bad side if you can picture this as a sliding scale. The hard part for me now is trying to distinguish what is PTSD related anxiety and what is suicide survivor depression/anxiety because to target each I have to identify the cause. Is it depression or is it anxiety? The symptoms, in my case at least, sometimes seem indistinguishable and the causes aren’t always evident. When I’m depressed, I think death thoughts which can give rise to severe anxiety symptoms. When I’m triggered to a trauma reminder, I can experience severe anxiety, so I do my best to avoid my known triggers – but aha, there are also unknown triggers out there! Gotta love this, huh?
I was struggling with anxiety, it came out of the blue and hit me while I was getting ready for bed two nights ago. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t breathe because there was a huge knot in the pit of my stomach, my heart was pounding despite my deep breathing and progressive relaxation; I was nauseated and just generally uneasy, like I wanted to grab my head and just scream or get up and run off the end of a bridge. My nervous system was overloading and I didn’t know why. What was causing this intense fear reaction in me!? (Oh and not knowing increases the anxiety!)
For each of these episodes there is a cause, a trigger and that trigger could have just happened, or have happened within the past 24 hours. In all honesty, you may not have even been conscious of the trigger at the time, so when your brain goes to process your experiences, boom, the anxiety hits you. For this case in particular, I wasn’t sure if this was related to the seemingly unending publicity of the Chester Bennington suicide, the sirens I’d heard that day, the explosions I’d been exposed to the day before, the suicide scene on a tv show or simply desperately missing my husband again (and believe me, that can be a desperate anxiety). For this particular episode I reached for medication which for me is an absolute last resort and I did this simply because I know my mind needed to rest even if my nervous system didn’t want too.
I was dealing with the exact same symptoms when I awoke the next morning. It hadn’t worked itself out. Here’s the fun thing about combating anxiety and depression, it’s a fine balance you have to walk, you push too far to one side and it triggers the other. In order to not feel depression I have to chase smiles, to do that requires a lot of “doing” and jumping in feet first to things the anxiety prevents me from doing normally. I run headlong into things to make my insides feel alive for moments at a time and I ignore the anxiety management strategies that I used to employ, like working up to public events or the “baby steps” method of engaging in the public eye. Nope, I stubbornly, perhaps even desperately (because fighting depression can get pretty desperate at times), launch myself straight into the deep end of things. The result is often me screwing up my anxiety management plan. It’s a fun little see-saw I live on now.
To manage PTSD it is often advised to go silent, still and exercise control over your inner sensations, yoga, meditation, or a mind-resting activity of some sort. The goal is to trigger diffuse mode in your brain to allow it to process your experiences at a sub-conscious level. If you take the time to listen, a mind is always on chatter mode and in order to allow it to rest fully, it has to be shushed in some manner (and not electronically, so walk away from the tech toys!). Now contrary to this is depression management where you are advised to not be alone with yourself for too long because the chatter of depression is too negative and extremely difficult to “shush”. You need to be distracted and quiet to adequately manage both. I went hiking. It was quiet, peaceful and I was also “doing” at the same time, thus distracting myself.
If you push too hard or heavy on one side, you suffer. Lesson learned. Try to find the balance. Peaceful activity. Limit the audience. Limit the noise levels. Find the joy in that peaceful activity, re-establish your bond with life and when you feel up to it, allow yourself to have a little fun.
It’s perfectly fine to be chasing smiles. You’ll get judged for it but pay no mind to the people who ask why you can no longer work because you seem to be spending a lot of time “having fun” or those who push you to explain your days to them because heaven forbid you spend your days painting!? You have to have a Job right? Maybe one day painting will be your job, don’t give up, you are a work in progress and you are allowed to smile and feel alive while you’re doing it. You are allowed to re-invent yourself in whatever way makes you feel alive again and those who don’t want to support you in that, just let them go, you don’t need them pulling you back down.
I do things in my life now that help me to stay alive. That is my job now, staying alive and believe me, it’s really tough work some days. People who’ve never walked this closely with death will never understand what this feels like and they should be grateful for their naivety. I’d give anything to have the blinders back on.
So for all of my former first responder family out there struggling, stay strong. Maybe one day we’ll all catch a smile and it will stick until then, what you are doing now is good enough, even if all you do is take another breath. You are good enough as you are.