Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression affects even the happiest people: Thoughts on the death of Robin Williams

To his many adoring fans, Robin Williams will always be remembered as a funny guy.  He almost always had a smile on his face in public and though he had two rehabs stints (the most recent in 2006), it really seemed like he had his act together.  That's why it's so shocking to many, even those that knew he suffered from depression, that he would commit suicide.  

He had everything going for him, right?  He was famous!  He was wealthy!  He had a great family and many adoring fans!  What could possibly be so wrong in his life that he would choose to end it?  Unfortunately, that's how depression works.  It's a voice in the back of your head telling you that your happiness is a lie, that people don't love you, and your successes don't matter.  Sometimes you can snap yourself out of it or someone will help you snap out of it and sometimes... you can't.  

I tell you this from personal experience.  I suffer from clinical depression and have been on and off medication since I was sixteen.  Looking back on my childhood memories, I think the issues really go back to when I was as young as ten but it was written off as normal puberty/growing up issues.  I wish it was.  I wish I didn't have depression but I do and it is something I have to deal with.  

I think there is a misconception that people with depression just need to get out of their own way, suck it up, and deal with it because life stinks sometimes.  We all have hard times right?  For me, depression didn't just manifest itself as sadness.  I had horrible mood swings and bouts of severe anxiety.  I would burst into tears at the least provocation.  I was awful to be around at times.  I would get mad at myself after the fact, after my ridiculous outbursts and crying jags.  Why was I feeling that way?  Why?  

My original official diagnosis was PMDD (as my episodes were worse around that time of the month) and I was prescribed a form of Prozac.  I did very well with this for several years.  I was doing so well, I slowly went of the medication and I was doing fine.  For a while.  

You know those commercials you see for Cymbalta with their slogan:  "Depressions Hurts- Cymbalta can help?"  Well, depression can manifest with physical symptoms.  In my case, it manifested itself in the way of digestive issues: lack of appetite, reflux, and diarrhea so severe I had to seek care from a gastroenterologist.  My test results (including an endoscopy and colonoscopy) were inconclusive so I stopped going and dealt with it as best I could with over the counter medicines as needed.  When I went back on my anti-depressant, however, my symptoms leveled out, as did my mental and emotional well being.  

I had (and still have) good friends that stuck by me even at my worst.  I knew that logically but depression does screwy things with your brain and makes you think/feel that people don't care about you and don't love you.  It makes you feel like you are worthless.  It feels like you don't have a reason to keep on living.  

I was never suicidal in the sense of actively seeking to end my own life or making a plan but it would cross my mind in the darkest moments.  For the most part, while I had no particular desire to live, I also had no particular desire to die.  I was completely indifferent.  One positive force in my life was my family and friends:  I knew I could never do something like that to them.  The thought of someone I love reading a suicide note or discovering my body was--and still is--horrifying to me.  

No one knew about any of this, however.  I kept it from all my family and friends and pretended everything was okay.  For the most part, people bought it.  The people closest to me always could tell something was up but I don't think they ever realized the extent.  My lowest lows were back in high school, right before I started medication but my relapses/flare ups/whatever you want to call them has been severe enough on their own.  I always had enough get-up-and-go to get out of bed and go through the motions but sometimes I barely managed.  The fall semester of my senior year was the worst for that but I'm not sure that's surprising given that my mother was battling cancer at home while I was trying to be a normal college senior.  My emotional swings didn't make it easy for anyone that I lived with.  Maybe I should have explained it to them and maybe they would've gotten it or maybe they would suffer a lot of the misconceptions of the general public about the real affect of depression on a person's life.  I didn't want to burden them with this information.  Maybe they'll read it now and know that I wasn't just a lunatic.  

I think one of the misconceptions about depression is that being depressed means you are sad all the time and are never happy.  For most people, this just isn't true.  I still felt happiness.  I could still crack a joke.  I could still smile.  But the negative emotions would just become overwhelming.  

I think happy people, like Robin Williams, have some of the worst struggles with depression.  He was funny and successful and he just wasn't supposed to be depressed!  He was supposed to be like the characters he played in so many comedies.  And yet, his depression was severe enough to make him feel like his only option was to end his life.  

Mental illness carries a huge stigma, even the relatively common place forms like mild depression or anxiety.  There is a perception that you just have to suck it up.  Unfortunately, that isn't the case.  The reason it is depression (a clinical diagnosis) and not just sadness (an emotion) is because you can't just get yourself going.  Physiologically, it is a shortage of neurotransmitters in the brain.  To way over simplify, it is a lack of serotonin--which is why SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) are the front line of anti-depressants.  It is, in fact, a physical issue in the brain.  You wouldn't tell someone with diabetes that they need to suck it up and get over it so don't tell someone with depression to suck it up and get over it.  

I hope that the suicide of a high-profile celebrity like Robin Williams opens up people's eyes to the ravaging affect of depression.  Depression takes so many forms and can drive people to do the unthinkable.  I am praying for the family and friends of Robin Williams and the families and friends of the many other people who have also taken their life because of depression.  I hope we are able to open up a dialogue about depression and make it less taboo to talk about depression and other forms of mental illness.  

Robin Williams, rest in peace.  


July 21st, 1951-August 11th, 2014
Image from the movie 'Patch Adams' found HERE

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Serving others, even without the comforts of home

It's been a long while since I've posted.  I've been busy and I would tell you all about it, except that I have something else on my heart right this red hot second.  

Every summer, my church does a mission trip to the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina.  It's approximately thirteen hours in the car, once you include potty breaks and meals.  Because of that, we left at 3 in the morning on July 26th and arrived at about 4 in the afternoon.  I rode in the back seat of the Mountaineer that was populated with the adult contingent and slept for virtually the entire drive other than meals at Shoney's and Chic-fil-a.  I recommend it because it made the drive feel very short (though the crick in my neck was something else...).  

The accommodations at the church are not exactly plus.  There are two bunk houses and us girls stay in the one closest to the church.  There are rows of bunk beds with varying degrees of head room.  Despite my five foot two height, I could not sit up in my bed without hitting my head.  I got one of the better mattresses though, which was exciting.  There are also a few old hospital beds that I imagine were donated so that larger teams could come in.  I almost took one of them but one of the women warned that she snores so I declined.  Our team was small enough that I was able to use the top bunk of my bed to lay out my stuff (Which I prefer to living out of a suitcase for a week).  There are three showers, one of which is in a separate bathroom with its own toilet and sink (the lap of luxury!).  However, the supply of hot water is somewhat... limited.  So I had lukewarm showers most of the week.  But that's okay because when I did get a hot shower and when I got home, the hot water felt like I was in a spa.  Seriously.  The bath I had when I got home was arguably the best of my life.  

In some ways, life in the bunkhouse almost like you're at camp.  Privacy is limited but there is a great sense of community when you can see everybody and everybody can see you.  It's not the best night's sleep you've ever had but as tiring as construction work is, you are grateful for every minute of rest.

I cannot say enough for the quality of food the ladies (and man) in the kitchen put forth.  It's awesome and it's so nice to wake up to a hot breakfast and come home to a delicious dinner with dessert waiting for later in the evening.  If you leave the table hungry, it's your fault.  

I spent my week working on two different projects.  Both of them involved painting decks.  It doesn't sound like major hard work, right?  It wasn't difficult so much as tedious as you had to get each board and each picket covered in paint or varnish.  It involved being hunched over, squatting, or standing on my tip toes to reach the bare spots.  I would finish the day with every muscle aching.  

I'm trying to paint a realistic picture of what we really do and what it is really like being on a mission trip.  It isn't all sunshine and daisies and warm fuzzy feelings.  We come to serve, to work and the work that we do is important.  Painting a deck doesn't sound as important as building a house or a wheel chair ramp or fixing a roof but putting paint on a deck that sees the rain and snow and wind and heat of the outdoors preserves the work and keeps it from falling apart.  

That's not to say it isn't boring though.  I already mentioned it's tedious.  As an assistant crew leader, it was often difficult to keep everyone motivated.  There isn't a lot of variety of task, you know?  And yet... I serve with a joyful heart.  

Let me rewind seven years to the 2007 Cherokee mission trip.  I had been bounced from crew to crew and on my last day had been moved from a job I LOVED doing (building a deck) to a cleaning job.  I don't like to clean.  But it was for a family that desperately needed it as they had just had major construction in their home due to a bad mold problem that had actually landed the wife in the hospital.  She had been in rehab but had twenty-four hours to get out so the house desperately needed to be cleaned.  So clean we did.  I scrubbed cabinets and vents and every imaginable surface.  We finished the job satisfied but I was still frustrated at having been pulled from my job so as we were leaving, I talked to Mr. Jim who is our construction head.  As a somewhat experienced crew member, I was usually in charge of the saw so it hadn't made sense to me that I had been pulled when a less experienced crew member could've cleaned just as well as I could.  I will never forget his reply.  He told me that while what I said was true, he knew that I would do the job without complaining and do it to the best of my ability because (and this is where he really got me) I have the heart of a servant.  

Part of me feels like I'm bragging when I say this but what he said is true.  Serving others is where my heart lies.  It's one of the reasons I think teaching is a profession that suits me.  It's about the kids, right?  I'd be lying if I said I were perfect and if I said that I did absolutely everything with a joyful heart without ever complaining.  I can whine with the best of them (it isn't one of my better qualities).  I can also be super bossy. During the week, it was suggested to me that I think of myself more as a coach than a teacher or a boss.  I tried really hard to do that but found myself slipping into teacher mode more than I would prefer.  But I love to serve.  I got up each morning with every muscle aching and was excited to get to work because I was helping people.  

Cherokee is an unbelievably special place, full of special people.  There is something in the air or the water or those mountains that is peaceful.  It's the winding roads and the slow pace and the people and the mist that hangs over the mountains on a cool morning after it has rained.  It's the red mud that clings to my boots.  It's the cold streams that run through the woods, babbling over rocks and boulders.  It's a place that is instantly home.  Even first timers call it home within a few days.  I wish I could fully explain this place but I can't even begin; it is a place that must be experienced for you to know what I'm talking about.  

I've rambled on in this post over several days, trying to commit my thoughts and feelings into words.  Life back in Seaford is stressful right now as myself and my fiance work to make important life decisions about where to live and how to plan for a secure financial future.  I am prone to anxiety and have been trying to meditate on Phillipians 4:6-7.  I'm trying to leave it all in God's hands (I know it is) but it isn't easy for someone like me who has always been a worrywart.  The week in Cherokee was not only a week to serve but a week to reflect on the decisions to come.  I won't claim everything was instantly crystal clear but one thing surely did:  God is number one.  Everything else comes after.  

I don't really have pictures to share with you all.  I think I took four the whole week because I was focused more on being present in each moment rather than trying to capture it for posterity.  You'll just have to come to find out what a beautiful place it is.  :)

Monday, January 27, 2014

I'll never be...

I'll never be...
A size zero.  And I am perfectly okay with that.  While I'd love to lose a few more, I could stay the size I am for the rest of my life and be perfectly satisfied.  

I'll never be...
Neat and organized.  Much to the chagrin of my mother, I am messy and chaotic and disorganized.  And I'm okay with that.  I clean up when I want to or when I need to.  There are more important things to me.  

I'll never be...
Completely free of judgement.  Nor will I ever be free from caring about people's judgements about me.  This is a hard one for me to admit to.  I am doing a lot better on this front, and I rarely voice my judgements and frustrations with others publicly.  I hold myself to a very high standard in many ways, and it's hard at times when people don't hold themselves to those same expectations.  More and more, though, I am able to push past my judgmental nature and find my empathy and compassion.  I try to place myself in the other person's shoes.  I am striving to stop seeing the specks when I'm walking around with a plank in my own eye.  

I'll never be...
Done learning.  I'm an adult and a teacher, and sometimes I swear I'm learning more than the kids each day.  I'm not sure this is a bad thing.  

I'll never be...
Perfect.  And that's okay, because there aren't perfect people.  To claim anything else would be a flat out LIE.  The point for me, though, is that despite all my flaws, all my messed-up views and screwed up ways, Jesus loved me enough to die for me.  That's something I can't forget.  When I find myself judging someone, I try to look through the eyes of Jesus and love like he does.  Do I always succeed?  No.  But every day I try, and try, and try again.  

I'll never be able to fully love like Jesus, but I surely can try.