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.

Selfishness

It’s a trait that is pretty universally known as a negative. Being selfish means you don’t care about others, that you only care about yourself. At the extreme end some can use it to describe a person that lacks empathy or is narcissistic. Where is the line, though? That’s where it gets fuzzy, and where my anxiety lies. For people raised in healthy homes it seems clear that taking care of yourself and being selfish are two completely separate things. For us that were not raised in healthy environment the two become one in the same. Attempting to learn the difference between self care and selfishness as an adult has proven difficult.

First I had to process what it was that made the line so fuzzy in the first place. For me, and many others like me, it was both obvious and subtle. Obvious things, like getting punished for using your earned income as a teenager to purchase something on a class trip for yourself instead of purchasing souvenirs for family members. Things like being punished for having an emotional reaction to being verbally abused in public. These things would make a developing brain think that what they want or need does not matter and that in order to survive they must put the needs of those around them before their own in every instance. Then there are the more subtle things that groom us to be over-givers and overly empathetic, like never having your thoughts or feelings acknowledged as valid. Like being expected to know the adult’s mood instantly and behave accordingly or suffer the consequences.

For example, I remember at 8 years old or so, that when my dad came home in a good mood he enjoyed walking in and “looking” for us, so we were expected to hide and play the game. If we didn’t do this in anticipation of his arrival he would be upset and make us feel guilty for not wanting to make him feel special after his long day at work. If we did hide in anticipation of his arrival and he came home angry we would stay in our hiding spots until he and my step mom moved their fight out of the living area and then we would scurry down stairs to stay out of sight of his anger. Recalling memories such as this one helped me to see that I was groomed to be self-less to a fault. I was explicitly taught that any thought for myself was a selfish thought.

Now that I know where the wires in my brain got crossed, how do I move forward to straighten them out? How do I recognize the difference between positive self care and selfishness as an adult? How much longer to I have to live with this dissonance while I figure it out?

Right now, logically and rationally, I know that going to therapy is the best thing I could be doing. I know that putting my son in daycare instead of trying to pull double duty working and watching him all day is the best thing I can do. I know that taking time to read, write, get a pedicure, meditate, is a good and healthy thing for me to be doing. Rationally I know this. But instinctively my brain tells me that all of those things are selfish and wrong. It tells me I should be focusing on my son, not giving him to another to care for, no matter how much the double duty wears on my mental health. It tells me that taking time for myself, whether its for therapy or a pedicure, makes me a horrible wife and mother. It tells me that if I wanted to be deserving of my family I would be willing to put myself last at all times and sacrifice my health as needed. Better yet, it tells me that I don’t deserve my family because if I did I would be able to do everything on my own without it negatively affecting my health.

My anxiety is me having to talk back to my brain constantly. It is me seeing my irrational thoughts and not being able to change them. The best I can do right now is to counter my irrational thoughts. To remind myself of the rational reality and to model my feelings and behaviors off of rational thought. That is a big step forward, being able to recognize and dismiss my irrational thoughts, to see where the wires are crossed. It doesn’t make arguing with your own brain any less exhausting, though. When it comes to selfishness and self care I fear I will have to live with this dissonance for a while longer. Some of these problems are so deeply embedded that even after you see them it takes diligent work to affect actual change.

When you see someone who is overly-generous, who is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others, who never seems comfortable doing things for themselves, maybe take a step back and realize it could be traumatizing events and abusive grooming that made them that way. There is a good chance they developed those qualities to survive. Think on how those qualities affect that persons quality of life before you default to it being a positive character trait. There is such a thing as being selfless to a fault and if more people understood this perhaps there would be less stigma around the term “selfish”.

Words Matter

The words we choose to use make a difference. In this journey a few seemingly small changes have made a huge difference for me. 

First, I stopped separating “child” from “teenager” or “young adult”. If a fifteen year old came up to me today and shared their domestic abuse situation I would immediately think “why would someone hurt this child”, not “this teenager is having a hard time”. So, why in my mind do I default to this separation between arbitrary ages? It’s because it affirms my own self blame regarding the abuse I endured. Calling myself a young adult instead of a child has a way of affirming that I should have been able to control the situation better. That I should have known better to trigger his anger or I should have responded differently because I was mature enough to understand. Simply put, its bullshit. I was a child. Even at 15 or 16 I was a child, just like we all are. I didn’t have any power over the situation and I couldn’t control any of the outcomes. Today, choosing to use the word child when working through these memories is allowing me to release more of the self blame I carry. 

Second, I now choose to refer to abuse as abuse. I do not qualify emotional abuse, psychological abuse, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. It is all abuse and I find that in my mind when I put the qualifiers on it I’m doing so to diminish the damage it caused. When I say I was verbally abused it’s because I’m saying “I had it bad, but not as bad as people that are physically abused all the time”. Learning not to rate my level of abuse has been therapeutic for me. Learning to say “I was abused throughout my childhood” instead of saying “I was verbally and psychologically abused and it got physical a few times” has made a big difference. Accepting the damage that has been done instead of trying to minimize it and make it less than is a healthy change. 

These simple changes in the words I use to refer to my experience has helped me to accept the pain that I feel. It has helped me to stop judging myself for my own damage. It has helped me to be more compassionate to me. Learning to love myself the way I naturally love others has been a hard road, but I finally feel like I’m making progress. 

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 

The Little Boy in the Room of Light

There are a million ways parenting is made harder by mental illness.  Probably more than a million.  You don’t have time for self care, you can’t work through your emotions right away when you’re triggered, every minute of every day you are needed by this other human being who relies on you for everything. It’s exhausting having to put your needs aside every day to make sure your child’s needs are met.  It’s terrifying doubting your every move and parenting decision.  It is just plain overwhelming to have to push your anxiety down to be fully dealt with and worked through later when your child is asleep. The thought of my anxiety bleeding over onto his experience has literally kept me awake at night.

You know what, though? I wouldn’t choose any other experience for my life right now.  My son is the reason I sought help.  My anxiety reached peak levels after having him and forced me to see it for the illness it was instead of ignoring it as a personal flaw. My son pushes me to be my best self every single day. The best illustration of this happened in therapy a few days ago.

I did a guided imagery for PTSD for the first time.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, just lots of emotion.  I have a very active imagination so it turned out to be a great exercise for me. The recording starts out having you picture yourself walking on your heart, seeing all the damage on the surface. Walking through and past the trauma, the pain, the shame, the anger. Then you are supposed to picture a tunnel with a light shining through it, this tunnel would lead down to the safe, pure, undamaged, loving part of your heart. My tunnel was guarded. A large grizzly bear blocked the entrance. It was not threatening, it simply said “people are not allowed here.” With my husband by my side we eventually stepped into the tunnel and the bear walked through with us. When we reached this room of love and light which I keep so well guarded I saw my son.  He was sitting on the floor playing like I have watched him do millions of times.  He looked up at me with his beautiful, joyful, smile and seemed to say “Hey mom, welcome to my room.”

The beautiful, loving, undamaged part of myself that I keep so walled off that I cannot even reach it myself is where my son lives his life. I may not be able to accept love from others, or able to love myself yet, but my son has just nestled in without my realizing it.  He has helped me to open my heart to others’ love. Most of all, he has helped me to open my heart to myself. I have no doubt that he is the reason I can picture a safe and undamaged part of myself at all.

I can never thank him enough for the influence he has had on my life. I can never fully express the impact motherhood has made on my mental health. I can say with full certainty that I would not be on this road to healing if he had not shown me that is it possible.

Is parenting hard with a mental illness? Abso-fucking-lutely.  But, parenting is what makes my daily struggle a little brighter.  It is what forces me to live in the moment. It is what shows me multiple times a day that life is beautiful, no matter what my negative voice says. On my hardest and darkest days I still have moments of clarity and love because of the little boy who lives in a room of light and love, mirroring it back to me, showing me what I’m capable of every time I forget.

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.