True or False: Only Perfection is Worthy?

Anxiety and depression began around puberty for me, at least that’s the first time I remember having symptoms of both. The abusive home environment I lived in was no doubt the catalyst for my mental health issues, and it is what solidified those problems so they would just grow and become more complex over the next decade. As I near six months in my mental health journey using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat PTSD, Anxiety, situational Depression, and Binge Eating Disorder I am analyzing the root cause of these issues. While many experiences combined to create my mental health cocktail, the overall theme of why I struggle to overcome these issues is my self worth.

For example, two weeks ago I started my two year old son in daycare. I began working out with a trainer at a gym three days a week, I have more dedicated work time so that my work/life balance is less stressful, and I have more time to focus on therapy and meditation and healing. Each of these things is an overwhelmingly positive change in my life, or at least, it should be. So why am I noticing signs of my brain falling into depression? Why do I seem to be self sabotaging these positive changes? My theory? I think my brain is reacting this way because at the deepest of levels I don’t believe I’m worth better. I don’t believe I’m worth my time, energy, and love. I don’t believe I’m worth self care. I don’t believe I’m worth the effort to better myself.

That’s a hard thing to admit to yourself, let alone to other people, but there it is. In analyzing how my self worth got this low, and how it got concrete poured over it to make sure it never moved, it seems to come back to many things I witnessed and experienced in those teen years when my mental health problems began. I want to share some do’s and don’t’s for parents that would have made a huge difference in my mental health journey, my body image issues, and my personal self worth.

DO: Reassure your child that the changes their body is experiencing are normal and all of them is beautiful all the time because their beauty is more than physical.

DON’T: Say conflicting things about your child’s appearance, even jokingly. Don’t tell them they’re beautiful, then make a joke about eating a second slice of cheesecake “for the other cheek”.

DO: Take care with how you speak to and about other people around your child, making sure you are respecting all other human experiences.

DON’T: Insult and belittle other humans in front of your child (or at all). We notice when you tell us we’re pretty and then call the curvy woman on TV a fat ass.

DO: Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms for stress, and use those mechanisms yourself so they can see it in action.

DON’T: Lose control of your emotions, blame others for your stress, use unhealthy coping mechanisms yourself (like substance abuse and binge eating).

DO: Encourage your child to talk to you and truly listen to their truth. Assure them that their stress and feelings are valid, and help them to find healthy ways of coping.

DON’T: Share your personal problems and stress with your child. They are not responsible for your stress level and should not be made to absorb your problems in addition to their own.

DO: Honor your child’s stress, even if the problem seems trivial to you. Encourage them to feel their emotions and work through them in a healthy and rational way.

DON’T: Belittle your child’s stress or force them to put their emotions in a box. Even if you are in public and feel embarrassed by your child’s tears, do not push your stress of being embarrassed onto your child. If they are going to learn to take care of themselves and not care what other’s think of them they are going to have to see you exemplifying how to do that.

DO: RESPECT YOUR CHILD’S EXPERIENCE.

DON’T: Try to control your child’d experience.

Those of us with mental health issues will most likely unintentionally pass them onto our children. I can already see anxiety in my two year old. The important thing is that we teach them how to cope. We teach them how to handle stress in a healthy way. We show them through example that every person’s experience deserves to be respected. It wasn’t just the abuse that I endured that shaped my mis-wired brain, it was also the abuse that I witnessed. It was the casual hatred for other people, the subtle and not so subtle ways I was taught that only perfection is worthy and perfection is unattainable so I am not worthy. Let us be the generation that ends the cycle of abuse, that ends the cycle of hate, and that begins respecting people simply because they are people.

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Judgements and Ego

Just because you can’t see a persons struggle doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just because you can see a persons struggle doesn’t mean you get to judge them for it. All of us have something we are working through. Some issue, or vice, or unhealthy habit, or irrational tendency that has a negative affect on our lives. Every single human being has something. Our need to judge other people is just our ego trying to build itself up. It is also our ego that makes us take other people’s judgments to heart. The judgment of ourselves and others have a huge impact on our mental well being and I believe we should all be more cognizant of our shared humanity when we find ourselves judging someone else.

What does this have to do with my current mental health journey? Everything. The anxiety in my mind consistently tells me that I’m not good enough and that I can’t be better. It makes me hyper aware of other people’s judgement of me and their judgments of others. Therapy is helping a great deal and I feel like I’ve made quite a bit of progress. I’ve seen how this anxiety formed as survival instincts during an abusive childhood. I can see how it served me then to think and feel the way anxiety tells me to think and feel. I can clearly see how those irrational thoughts and feelings are only destructive to me and my relationships as an adult. I can see how I formed the coping mechanisms I have, specifically how I developed Binge Eating Disorder as my main coping mechanism. I hadn’t binged in over two months with the help of introducing better coping mechanisms and going to therapy.

Then I received some bad news. Without even thinking about it I grabbed junk snack food at the store and binged on it in the car. When I realized what I was doing the shame I felt was extreme. I again became very aware of people’s judgments of those who are overweight or obese. Today it literally feels like I have made no progress with my self image and the anxiety voice that tells me I’m fat and weak and worthless is quite loud. I mean, have I really made any progress if some bad news takes my mind back to square one?

The answer is yes. Yes, I have made great progress. I know this because I can see this as a small slip up. I can recognize that voice as being irrational and a tool that kept me under an abusers thumb. I can remind myself that I have worth and strength and mostly believe it. I can lean on the people around me for support instead of hiding my struggle. I can feel the anxiety in my mind and write about this issue I face to help me cope with it. I can recognize people’s judgments as their own irrational problem trying to build up their own ego and not as a true reflection of me.

You can’t see the anxiety in my mind, but it is there. You can see the binge eating disorder that has helped me cope in the past, you can see it on my hips and thighs, on my chubby belly and flabby arms. Before you judge someone else’s appearance, or someone else’s struggle, look at the issues your own ego is facing and decide to focus on self improvement instead of taking the easy way out and building up your own ego at the expense of another.

What I Didn’t Understand About Mental Illness

There are thousands of articles and blogs out there with titles like “10 things I wish people knew about anxiety” or “What I want people to understand about depression.” Reading articles like that helped me to understand mental illness in a way I had never understood it before seeking that knowledge out. Here was my big lesson: mental illness is not black and white. It does not look a certain way or act a certain way on everyone. It is a spectrum, like most illnesses. I went over a decade not realizing that the way my brain functioned was not typical. I genuinely thought every single person out there had the same struggle and they were just better at handling it. Realizing that my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were caused by a treatable condition changed my world.

Since beginning therapy it has been confirmed that I struggle with anxiety and PTSD, and that I developed Binge Eating Disorder and situational Depression as ways of coping with those conditions. The fact that I am and have always been high functioning does not change the severity of my anxiety, it just means I adapted to hide my symptoms and keep my struggle invisible.

I want to share a few thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that I had during this decade of high functioning mental illness which I never knew were caused by my mental illness. Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of these words and it will help you realize you don’t have to struggle alone and that treatment and healing is possible. Maybe you’ll just gain a better understanding of how mental illness can look on different people and be more empathetic towards those with invisible illnesses in the future. It is my hope that someone will read this and it will help them gain a better understanding of themselves and others.

  1. Every so often I would feel like my life was spinning out of control and I would find a corner to sit in, make myself small, and breathe it out.
  2. Sometimes I was just overwhelmed with emotion but didn’t know where it came from, so I would use an emotional movie or song as an excuse to cry the emotion out.
  3. I would randomly start shaking, my heart beating too fast, my breath labored, without knowing the cause. Or, if I did know the cause the reaction didn’t seem to fit the trigger.
  4. I felt on edge a lot of the time, like I was barely containing my feelings and any little thing could be the straw that breaks me.
  5. I couldn’t focus on simple tasks because my brain was busy worrying about different things.
  6. I fidgeted a lot. Shaking my foot, tapping my fingers, clicking a pen, I just couldn’t sit still and relax.
  7. I constantly feared other peoples judgments and worked to keep everyone as happy as I could.
  8. During difficult emotional times my stomach would be upset for weeks, I could have a tension headache for over a month, and no matter how much sleep I got I was never rested.
  9. I would talk back to my brain often, trying to talk myself off of the edge of a panic attack, trying to counter irrational thoughts with rational ones, trying to convince my brain that there is nothing to worry about.
  10. I would sometimes release my physical anxiety by dancing it out, spinning in a circle, generally moving around in a silly way. Friends would laugh and join me thinking I was being fun and carefree, in reality I couldn’t stop shaking and knew if I didn’t do something to distract myself I would start crying.

Reading this list now it is hard to believe I didn’t see the anxiety that caused these things, but I truly didn’t. I didn’t know crying it out in a corner hugging my knees was a panic attack, I just thought I was emotional and a stronger person could handle that emotion without such dramatics. I didn’t know that my fast heart beat, labored breath, and extreme fidgeting were high functioning panic attacks I formed to mask my symptoms in public, I just thought I was distracted and should be able to focus better. I completely believed it was all just a personal flaw, that other people handled their lives without such “ticks” and I just wasn’t as good as them.

Please be kind to others. We don’t know what people are struggling with, and sometimes they don’t know it yet either.

The image posted above is the HAM-A Anxiety Assessment that is used by some therapists to diagnose severity of symptoms. The GAD-7 is a great screening tool to use if you believe you may suffer from anxiety.  https://patient.info/doctor/generalised-anxiety-disorder-assessment-gad-7 

Learning Healthy Coping

I, like many of us I am learning, was never taught how to cope as a child.  I was not taught how to process my emotions or how to handle a trauma in a healthy way.  Lacking actual education on the subject I learned through example. My example taught that when you are upset you do one of two things.  You can lash out and put all of your emotions onto someone else or you can bottle it up and swallow it down with a big helping of dessert. In my early twenties I learned that lashing out is not beneficial to anyone and gained better control of how I displayed my emotions outwardly.  I thought that was all the work I had to do, if my emotions weren’t effecting anyone else then how I’m coping is not a problem, right? It took until a couple months ago to even realize the other method was a coping mechanism I relied on heavily.

Binge Eating Disorder is thought to be the most common eating disorder. It can be simply defined as Eating-Your-Feelings-On-Steroids.  Links at the end of this blog can provide you with more information.  Many people don’t know that this is a diagnose-able and treatable condition.  I know I didn’t. After opening my eyes to the fact that this disorder has been my main coping mechanism since my teenage years I had an irrational amount of shame to work through.  The perfectionism that comes with my anxiety makes me hard on myself, and this was no exception. Why had I not seen it previously? Why was I able to spot and steer clear of other destructive behaviors I witnessed in childhood, but not able to see this one? I would think back on particularly stressful moments in life and could remember the binge episodes that followed. I beat myself up for each and every one. How could I not see it?

Here is where I could get on a soap box for a while, I’m not going to, but I have to make one point. When we are inundated with a culture that encourages you to eat your grief and markets things like a “chocolate hug” for those single on Valentines day it’s easy to see why someone who struggles with the actual disorder would not notice their disordered eating. It’s hard to see the line between what society says is “normal emotional eating” and what is actually disordered eating.

Since seeing my disordered eating for what it is I have taken steps to minimize my use of this coping mechanism and began learning new, healthy ways to cope. I cleared my home of all foods that I would binge on, I set my finances up so I would not be able to swipe for fast food without my husband seeing it (and helping keep me accountable), and I began to write. Writing is quickly becoming the best coping mechanism I have ever used. I can write out my feelings and read them back to myself so I can easily spot what is rational and what is irrational. I can write out traumatic memories and read them back to myself to desensitize the impact they have. I can write out my successes and read them back to myself to remind myself what I am capable of when I have a low moment.

In addition to writing I practice mindfulness and meditation. Forcing myself to be fully in the moment helps keep me out of my head and lessens my anxiety in day to day situations. Meditating on specific triggers, traumatic memories, or overwhelming situations helps me to fully process my emotions and get to the root cause of them so my emotions do not effect my behaviors.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms is something that is not easy as an adult.  Unlearning what you have learned, breaking bad habits, working through long buried traumas is extremely difficult work. It is work worth doing. For every moment that you feel raw and exposed you will have a moment of relief and peace. Every overwhelming memory, every emotion you felt but never processed, every grudge you don’t even know you are holding do not have to burden you forever. You can process them now. You can feel them now. You can work through them in a healthy way and find peace now. I strongly recommend doing this work with a qualified therapist to guide you as I am. But, if you walk away from this post with nothing else I want you to know this: There is no shame in having unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is not too late to learn how to cope. Peace of mind is possible, learning healthy coping is the road to healing.

Visit the Binge Eating Disorder Association’s website for more information on diagnosing, treating, and supporting loved ones with the disorder. http://bedaonline.com/ 

The Battle to be Better

My anxiety likes to tell me I can’t better myself.  It likes to tell me I’m incapable of change. This, combined with the Binge Eating Disorder I developed as a coping mechanism for my anxiety has seen my weight fluctuate across a 60 pound range since I hit puberty. Having a body type that is not societies definition of beautiful or healthy only egged my anxiety on in lowering my self image. Since I began treatment for my anxiety a few months ago I have been pushing myself emotionally and I’m making great strides.  I decided to start trying to make some changes that anxiety has kept me from in the past.  As I gained some control over my binge eating I thought adding regular exercise into my routine could have multiple benefits.  The stress relief, outlet for physical anxiety symptoms, and happy brain chemicals being created would all benefit me with my anxiety. What I didn’t expect was what my anxiety would tell me while I exercised.

What my anxiety told me: 
1. You are weak.
2. You can’t do this.
3. Who do you think you are?
4. You aren’t capable of being better.
5. You’re just a fat, lazy, slob, you can’t be anything else.
6. Why are you even doing this if you’re just going to binge it away tomorrow?
7. You could never have enough strength to see this through.
8. If you’re not going to see this through why even start?
9. Why are you even trying?
10. You’re not going to get anywhere.
11. There are grandma’s who could do this better than you.
12. What makes you think you are worth the effort?
13. You probably look like an idiot.
14. If anyone saw this they would laugh at you.
15. This effort is laughable.
16. If you’re not going to give it your all why are you even trying?
17. That’s not your all! You should have done better!
18. If you’re so weak that you can’t do better then you should give up right now.
19. You are weak.
20. You’ll never be strong.

What I said back to my anxiety: 
1. You can do this.
2. You just did this two days ago.
3. Just push a little more.
4. You got this.
5. You. Can. Do. This.

Multiple tears fell down my face as I pushed through different portions of my workout. My anxiety got louder and louder the longer I went so I screamed back at it in my mind. I did not quit, but I was too exhausted at the end to claim any sort of victory. The next time someone tells you that exercise is more of a mental battle for them than a physical one I’d like you to think of this before you judge them as unmotivated. It is literally a battle in the mind for some people.  It’s a battle that, even when won, is met with disdain in my mind because I had to fight it at all.

Showing Struggle is Strength

My life story from birth to age 17 involves multiple mother figures, parental addiction issues, and verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Many people have heard some or all of the story. I am consistently told that I am strong. I am amazing. I am capable. I am inspiring. People are continuously surprised by how well I function, how “unaffected” I seem to be.

I was praised so consistently and so often for my strength and ability to cope that it took me until the age of 26 to realize I wasn’t coping at all. I have had severe anxiety since childhood and never knew it. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from one specific traumatic memory and didn’t know it. I developed severe depression at different points in life as a coping mechanism for my anxiety and didn’t know it. I developed binge eating disorder as a coping mechanism and didn’t know it. How could I not know all of these well-known mental health problems were problems I was experiencing?

I didn’t know because I was functional. I forced myself out of bed in the midst of my depression, so it must not be that bad, right? I could hide my anxiety symptoms from others so they couldn’t be that concerning, right? I could avoid my traumatic memory so it couldn’t have had that deep of an effect, right? People “eat their feelings,” so my food relationship is totally normal, right?

Here’s the thing, everyone who called me strong didn’t know what I didn’t show them. They didn’t see me curled in a ball in a corner shaking and crying because it felt like my world was spinning out of control and there was nothing I could do to fix it. They didn’t see the sheer amount of food I would sit and eat when I was home alone because I didn’t want to see the darkness in my mind. They didn’t hear the voice in my head that consistently told me I wasn’t enough, I was weak, I was a fake, I was not worthy. They didn’t know that someone simply touching my throat would cause a debilitating flashback to the moment my fathers hand held me against the wall, his spit hitting me in the face as he screamed, his eyes showing his pure rage and lack of control as I pushed out the words “Dad, please don’t kill me.”

I hid these things from the world.

Now that I see my mental illnesses and am on a journey to heal, I see I am strong.  I am capable. I am worthy. Everyone telling me these things was not wrong. I can’t help but wonder, though. If I was less functional would it have gotten this far? If the symptoms of my mental illnesses were obvious sooner in life would I have gotten the help I needed to succeed? Would I have finished college? Would I have made better choices? Does it really matter? After all, I do love my life right now.

The next time someone shares their life with you, let them know it’s OK to not be strong. It’s OK to show vulnerability. It’s OK to feel the emotions and work through them. It’s OK to show suffering on the outside instead of hiding it on the inside. They are still capable. They are still worthy. Showing their true struggle is strength.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

This piece was originally published on The Mighty, but it is the first real piece I wrote about my mental illness(es) and the experience inspired me to start this blog.