Sunday, September 28, 2014

5 Ways to Support Friends with Mental Health Issues

It's no secret on this blog that I have dealt with depression, suicide, anxiety, and eating issues. If you experience those same issues, you will know what I mean when I say that these issues can take over your mind. For those of you reading in an effort to understand what your loved ones are experiencing, let me try to explain.

When someone experiences suicidal thoughts, for example, the ideas that they are not good enough, not contributing anything to the world, incapable of ever feeling better, etc., take over. Let me assure you that we do not choose these thoughts or feelings, nor can we escape them simply because you say that you love us.

The same is true for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. The statements that you love us, that we are beautiful, that everything will be fine, and all of the other loving things you say will never fix us. 

I don't emphasize this to be cruel. I simply need you (whether you deal with these problems yourself or are here on behalf of a loved one) to understand that, in the moment of struggle, these statements make no difference. I realize that sounds incredibly harsh, but it's true.

Here's the trick - the idea that a person is worth something must be built up in the times when he/she is not struggling. I read somewhere a piece of advice for people struggling with mental health issues. It read: "Choose to believe what you know to be true, not what you feel in the moment." This only works, though, if there is a set of useful, positive things that you know to be true.

So, Nina, how do I help build up my friend so that she has positive truths to cling to when things get bad?
I am so glad you asked!

  1. Offer sincere compliments consistently.
  2. If the person struggles with something specific - body image, for example - ask if you can help. (Please only do this if you have the time and ability to actually help.) 
  3. Ask for their opinion/help/expertise AND LISTEN. Nothing makes a person feel more worthwhile than someone else needing them.
  4. If you and the person you are helping are people of faith - do Bible studies together. Become accountability partners. Make that faith a part of your regular interactions. A friend with the guts to talk to me on a Biblical level saved my life once - don't underestimate its power.
  5. Most importantly - Be there. Pour a glass of wine. Talk about the days you've had. Mental health support is often as simple as just listening.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"He looked so happy" and Other Depression Myths

I've heard lots of stories lately about suicide "out of the blue." They all go something like this:

George committed suicide last week. I just can't believe it. He just posted pictures from their family 4th of July and they all looked so happy. 

These stories made me realize that perhaps I need to take a step back in my blog to explain that depression, suicide, self-injury, anxiety, and related issues hide. You cannot (always) see them. Depression can hide in the most smiley, outgoing person you know. Suicidal thoughts can hide in the person always talking others into continuing life.
hiding depression cover
The next question I imagine you asking, were we to have this conversation in person, is: "So, if these issues hide, how can I possibly help?" I can't give you one definitive answer. I can, however, provide you with some tips and ideas. Please feel free to add to these in the comments below!

  1. Show kindness, grace, and mercy to everyone you meet. (Yes, everyone. Yes, even the kid who stole your lunch money. Kindness, grace, and mercy do not require making yourself a doormat, though. You can and should draw boundaries in a kind manner.)
  2. Ask for genuine answers to the "How are you?" question. And give genuine answers. I read somewhere about "the gift of going second," in which admitting your struggles can encourage someone else to admit theirs. 
  3. Become an observer. Although mental health issues hide, there are typically changes when a person is nearing their breaking point - but these are often small changes only noticeable if you are intimately aware of how the person normally acts. In the days before I attempted suicide, nobody mentioned a change in my behavior, but I know that I much more willingly made future social plans (because I didn't intend to be around to keep them), stopped doing homework, and began ending interactions with "goodbye" instead of my more typical "talk to ya later" or "goodnight." 
  4. Stop speaking judgmentally about suicide, self-injury, depression, and other mental health issues. This is huge. There are numerous friends I still will not reach out to because I've heard them say things like, "People who self-injure are just attention seekers," "Depressed people just need to go do things and they'd be fine," or even the seemingly harmless, "You don't even want to know what I think about suicide." Watch your words - they're having an impact you can't even fathom. Imagine if my suicide attempt had been successful and my friends who spoke that way would have had to read in a note that I didn't reach out to them because of it. 
  5. Tell your story. Over 25% (more than 1 in 4) American adults have some kind of diagnosable mental illness. If you have a story, tell it. It doesn't have to have a resolution. It just has to be true. All some of us who live with mental illness need is to know that we're not alone. (Not that a positive story now and then wouldn't be helpful!)
  6. Know the facts. We tend to focus on teens when discussing these issues (and rightfully so, it's a tumultuous time), but actually, suicide rates are highest in ages 65 and up. Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to succeed. Rates of success go up with each attempt, so someone who has attempted before should actually be watched even more closely. The list goes on and on. (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has excellent information.)

I hope this has been helpful for those of you concerned that you're unable to spot these issues in your loved ones. Again, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below or email me at I'm always happy to chat!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Breakdown in Aisle 9

Recently, I was having a rough day. My anxiety levels were very high, as was my aversion to food/eating. A friend messaged me after the experience, and he and I came to the conclusion that I needed to try to explain anxiety for those who do not live with it. This is a description of a "bad" anxiety day and how you can help not only me, but anyone in your life with anxiety.

I finished up work around 2 PM and headed home, where I changed into comfortable clothes and, knowing it was a high anxiety day (though not knowing why - there is often no reason), tried to prepare myself for the necessary trips to the bank and grocery store.

I hit the grocery store first, but I barely made it through the door before I began to feel overwhelmed at needing to locate and purchase food. I stopped in the breakfast aisle, knowing that I needed options that would easily transport to work. Suddenly, everything on the aisle seemed fattening, too high in sugar, too high in sodium, too expensive, or in some other way unfit for me to purchase. I could find nothing that both sounded good and seemed like a good idea.

To make matters worse, I was growing more and more anxious the longer I stood there, debating my choices, because other people were trying to get to things in the aisle. Never mind that none of them asked me to move or needed anything I was standing in front of. I was not actually causing anyone a problem, but anxiety doesn't care if the problem actually exists, only that it could. Anxiety tells you that, just around the corner is a mean little old lady who will yell at you for taking more than a couple minutes to choose your breakfast for the week. And anxiety insists on the "flight" option in all situations, even mean little old ladies.

I finally just abandoned the breakfast aisle, nearly in tears, and got only the things actually written on my list, such as toilet paper, and skipped the "general category" items, such as "breakfast" and "two suppers." I felt awful any time I even dared to make eye contact with someone, much less turn down the same aisle at the same time, and at first apologized profusely, before anxiety stole my voice, and I just ducked my head and tried to be as small as possible.

Anxiety dictated that I go through self checkout, because having to talk to another person on my way out the door would have only made things more difficult. I checked out as quickly as possible and finally arrived at the car, trembling, heart racing, nearly in tears, and dripping in sweat. I practiced breathing techniques and visualizations I had picked up from friends and learned in therapy. Eventually, I came down enough to drive.

Keep in mind that what I just described was a snippet of a bad day. However, certain features remain, even on good days. Even on good days, I worry constantly that I might be inconveniencing someone. Even on good days, I go through the self check-out to avoid talking to any extra people. Even on good days, I apologize for needing to pass people, for people running into me, for things that are in no way my fault and do not require apology. Even on good days, my heart rate increases when I enter places where other people will be (work, stores, banks, church, family functions, etc.). Thanks to therapy, these symptoms are manageable most days.

However, there are still bad days, days when I might start crying in the grocery store for no apparent reason, days when I will screen your calls not because I don't want to talk to you but because the idea of connecting with another person is so overwhelming that I just can't do it, days when eating is a next to impossible task. On those days, you will feel helpless. On those days I will be unable to tell you what I need. So, I'm telling you now: on those days, I need you to simplify tasks for me - don't do them, just simplify them. For example, if I'm going to the grocery store, tell me to buy oatmeal so that I will not have to decide on a breakfast item. On those days, don't ask me to explain my issues, just hug me (if we have that kind of relationship) and encourage me to do things that de-stress me. For me, those include painting, reading, a hot bath, and even cleaning. On those days, just be there, and wait until the next day to ask me about the experience.

Friday, May 2, 2014

School's Out! (Almost)

The end of the school year is upon us - can I get an Amen? Although the end of the school year is widely celebrated around the country (and world), it is also one of the times of highest stress among students, teachers, and parents. So, I'm going to talk to each of you. Even if you don't fit into any of these categories, listen up - you have friends who do.

Students - You are facing final exams and the consequences, good or bad, of those final grades. You are likely to be experiencing high levels of stress, resulting in disruptions in eating, sleeping, and socializing. This is bad enough if you're healthy. It is far worse if you're struggling with physical or mental health issues. To get through your finals, you need to reduce stress. See the end of this post for some strategies and links. Also know that your school (whether middle, high, or college) will have counselors or other resources for you, should you want or need more help than you can find on your own.

Particularly for those of us with mental health issues, the coming lack of schedule and potential increase in free time can be horrifying. For instance, my depression and anxiety combine to make me want to sleep all day, rather than face the daunting task of forming and following my own schedule. This, in turn, exacerbates my eating issues. So, if you have similar issues, I strongly encourage you to make a plan now. Ask trusted friends to help you create and stick to a schedule. Make practical, reachable goals for your summer. Do anything that might help you keep eating, keep moving, keep fighting to stay healthy (or start fighting, if you're not already).

Teachers - You are also facing final exams, albeit from the writing and grading side of things. This means that you are also facing having to deal with complaints from students and parents about those grades. As a teacher with a desk and email inbox both overflowing with things to grade, I fully understand. You should see the list of stress-busting ideas below.

As a teacher who struggles with various mental health issues, I know that this can be an extremely difficult time. See the stress-busting tips below. Also consider intentionally making time to interact with colleagues and friends outside of work during this time. You feel the busiest, but this is the time that you need socialization the most. It can make you feel less alone and force you to step away from work, even if only for a little while.

Parents - Bad news, when summer comes, your kids come home full time. This means you have to arrange for child care, if they are too young to stay alone, and worry about them being alone even if they are old enough. If your kids are teenagers, this likely also means some disagreements, to say the least. Sadly, I have not been blessed with children, so I can't offer suggestions with much authority here. What I will say is that my friends who are parents have emphasized over and over the need to create space for themselves to just be themselves without the stress of parenting. This might mean creating a weekly date night with your significant other, a daily Bible time where your family knows not to bother you, or five stolen minutes of reading before the baby starts screaming and you hear the teenager leave without permission. Whenever it is - make time for yourself. It may seem like a scheduling nightmare, but you'll thank me later, when you realize you've managed to cling to sanity. :)

Stress-Busting Links & Ideas
Since you're reading this, I presume you're spending a fair amount of time online, so give virtual bubblewrapguided meditationvirtual stress ball, or just get some peace and quiet.

For offline de-stressing, try exercise, creating some kind of art, taking a bath, listening to your favorite music, or harmless destruction (such as tearing up paper).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When There are no Words

Recently, I have watched several friends go through very different, but equally heart breaking, losses. On Easter Sunday, I watched one of the strongest women I've ever known break down in tears over spending her first Easter without her husband. There was nothing to say. Only a touch of the hand and an understanding nod when she left early to visit him in the cemetery.

I have seen and heard Christians claim that such mourning is silly, pointless, even un-Christian, because we know that there is something far better for believers after this life. But when Jesus learned of Lazarus's death, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). See, even if we know that Heaven is infinitely better than this life, there remains the pain of change, of absence, the ache of what could have been. Mourning itself is not bad - we were created to feel pain as well as joy. Wallowing in mourning, refusing to live, not allowing our story to be, in some way, a ministry to others is what is bad.

So, I challenge you to tell your story, whether it be to one person you know is experiencing a similar struggle or to a much larger audience. Our stories have power to help, to heal, to show others the power of faith in grief. Because sometimes, when there are no words, your story will do just fine.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I Am New

I sat in church this morning, feeling grateful for a supportive family, the forgiveness of God, and the opportunity for a new start at a new job in a new town. Then, I glanced down at my bulletin and saw the scars on my arm. A year ago, this would have brought my mood crashing down.Today, I realized something monumental, for me anyway, which I'd like to share with you.

On Easter, we celebrate Jesus's crucifixion on Friday, death and burial, and resurrection on Sunday. As a song performed by the church praise band today put it, "He put Death in his grave." (Song starts at 3:40)

This song was playing when I glanced down and saw my scars. As I listened, it occurred to me that Christ did not just conquer his own death; he conquered Death himself; he conquered my death and yours. That defeat of Death doesn't start with our entry to heaven. My scars are evidence that God defeated Death in me on May 25, 2013. I have been resurrected, set free, given new life and new purpose.

I've been delivered from more than just physical death, though. I've been resurrected from the death of living in depression and anxiety. I've been rescued from the storm of self injury. I'm being lifted from the depths of eating disorder. All of these are spiritual, emotional, mental death, and many are physically harmful as well. I am offered resurrection from them - so are you.

This is not one of those posts that will tell you that all you have to do is pray and it'll all work out. It's not that easy. It's never that easy. In most cases, I had to first ask to be rescued, and then fight, hard, against forces determined to push me back toward death. In one case, a friend stepped in and simply informed me that I was going to fight and gave me a reason to. Regardless of how it starts, once you begin fighting Death, do so with God's help, and hopefully with supportive family and friends. You can't do this alone, but you can be resurrected from whatever kind of death you are experiencing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

When Dreams Are Shattered

My life is in what some of my friends call "a season of change." With all due respect, when they tell me this I am just barely restraining myself from smacking them. I hold myself back only by reminding myself that they mean well. They wish only to remind me that things will get better someday, that someday I may feel less in turmoil. I know that they're right. But right now, it doesn't feel that way.

Right now, it feels like all of my dreams are being ripped from my hands and dashed to pieces, as if I am scrambling on the ground, gathering the broken bits to myself but finding only pain on their sharp edges, rather than healing.
This week, I paused in my metaphorical attempt to gather the pieces and put them back together the way they were. "Why," I asked myself, "would I put these things back together the way they were if that likely means they'll just be ripped away again?" Still, I couldn't bear to just throw away all of the pieces. Some, after all, still seemed worthwhile, like my dream of someday teaching.

So, I did the only logical thing: I prayed. And by prayed, I mean I cried, I yelled, I ranted, I let God know exactly how I felt about losing so much. Then, I listened. I was reminded of a high school trip to Spain, and of my favorite place there: Park Güell in Barcelona. Everything in Park Güell is covered in trencadís (Catalan word meaning "brittle"), a mosaic created from broken shards of tile.
Although the entire park is made of  broken tile/pottery, it is the most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen. I decided then to pray over which pieces of my dreams to salvage and utilize to create new dreams, and which to throw away.

My life is currently somewhere between those two pictures, somewhere between shattered on the ground and pieced into something beautiful. If we were honest, we all spend most of our lives in this "work in progress" space. At times, a piece of the mosaic will come together, but it doesn't take long to realize that there is still more to do.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Panic! At the Airport

My life experiences have left me with many scars, both visible and hidden. Some, like the one on my knee, remind me of fun times (though jumping from the swing to the wood chips isn't recommended). Others, like the ones on my abdomen spark memories of difficult choices. The most painful scars, though, are the ones whose stories I still struggle to tell in person. So, in honor of my one year survival celebration, today's blog tells you a little more about one of my more private struggles: anxiety.

A loud, crowded airport is not the ideal place to discover that you forgot to pack your anxiety medication. To make matters worse, I was traveling alone. No chance to leave luggage with a friend and go collect myself in the relative privacy of a bathroom stall. Nobody with me who could help talk me through it. (Though I will note that an amazing friend helped talk me through it via messaging.)

Nobody around me noticed. I doubt any but my very closest of friends could have seen the change in me. My heart rate increased, breathing grew shallower and more rapid, I felt my muscles tense and begin to shake as waves of nausea rose wet higher in my throat. On the outside, though, I was just a very quiet, shy fellow passenger. At worst, perhaps a touch nervous about flying. None of my airport neighbors would have guessed that I was experiencing a panic attack.

So, how do you know when someone around you is having a panic attack? Here are the common symptoms. If you think you notice any of them, ask. 

Now that you know your friend is having a panic attack...what do you do? Check out this great article on ways to respond. For my part, I'll just say that I like being touched by certain people, encouraged to talk, and even reasoning through the things that are causing me anxiety. But, if you're not sure what to do, ASK!! 

Hope this is helpful. Drop me a line and let me know of any topics you'd like me to cover in the future!

Friday, March 14, 2014

I Will Not Tell My Daughter She is Pretty

Now, before you join the lynch mob, hear me out. And know that I truly believe that my daughter and sons will be beautiful and handsome, respectively.

I will not tell my daughter that she is pretty or my son that he is handsome because I do not want their self-worth to come from their physical appearance. Likewise, I will not tell them that they are fat, slow, too short, too tall, etc. (Something tells me you're okay with that last part.) Instead, I will tell them that they are smart, that they are good at things, that they worked hard, but most importantly that they are loved, forgiven, saved.

See, I firmly believe that my children's sense of identity and worth should come from the fact that they are saved, that Jesus chose to die for them, for me, for all of us. There was a time when I argued against the articles saying that you shouldn't tell your daughter she is pretty because her worth should come from her faith. There was a time that I believed they could coexist. There was a time that I believed that I was successfully drawing my worth from both my faith and my beauty.

Then, my counselor asked me why I had never (with one notable exception) physically fought back any of the numerous times I was sexually assaulted, even though I do not fear pain and have physically defended friends. I was stumped. Why hadn't I punched, scratched, kicked, bit, any of the hundreds of self-defense options I'd been taught in school? In fact, why had I repeatedly allowed myself to be alone with men I did not trust? I couldn't answer. Then, he asked me the most important question I've ever been asked: "Aren't you worth more than what your body can offer?" 

That is why I will not tell my daughter that she is pretty. I want her to know that she is worth more than any boy (or girl) looking at her outward appearance could ever know. Even more, I want her to want people to see past her appearance. Mostly, though, I do not want her to believe so deeply, so innately, that her worth stems from what she can offer physically that she may say no and refuse to consent, but also refuse to physically fight back against sexual assault.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Importance of Touch

This morning, a friend, Tyler, messaged me. I thought nothing of it, though we hadn't talked in awhile. Then I asked how he was, and his response told me that there was a reason he had reached out to me this morning. Last night, a friend of his committed suicide. I froze as a chill ran through my entire body.

Let me back up here for a minute. I "met" Tyler through my personal blog shortly after attempting suicide. I told Ty the whole story, even though he was essentially a stranger, and his Christian perspective, even from thousands of miles away, was a big step on the road to recovery for me. So, when he lost someone he loved to suicide, I wanted to help.

I have composed several texts. Some simply said "I'm sorry" over and over again. Some attempted to explain that his friend didn't do it to hurt him and likely didn't think Ty would be hurt anyway. Some offered the thought that the suffering of this world was over for his friend, and that heaven is coming for those left to grieve. I haven't sent any of them. Nothing I can say is enough. To be honest, nothing I can find in the Bible is enough. (Yes, I realize how controversial that idea is, particularly on a Christian ministry blog.) Sometimes, pain is just beyond words.

There is something you can do, though. I remember reading somewhere that the average person needs at least eight positive physical touches per day in order to be healthy. Think about it - how often do you give or receive positive physical touch each day? We each have a responsibility: offer positive touch. However, I would also challenge you to ask for positive touch from trusted people in your life.

Today, I pledge to ask for and offer at least one positive touch. It's not much, but it's a start. What will you do? (And I sincerely hope that someone who actually knows Ty in person reads this and offers him a hug.)

Friday, January 31, 2014


I have a MAJOR milestone to share with y'all. A week and a half ago, my therapist announced that he thought I was ready to begin weaning off of therapy. And I was excited! Not nervous, not depressed, not anything negative, just excited. My last day of therapy is March 26th - one day after the one year anniversary of my suicide attempt. And then, the week from hell began....

Tuesday, I accomplished nothing I needed to thanks to various friend and work emergencies, got lots of extra work dumped on me, and had a panic attack myself in the library over telling my father about my impending divorce.

Wednesday, I started to feel sick, which I just don't have time for right now.

Yesterday, I got a call at work. It was Mom, so I answered. She was crying, and struggled to tell me that a great man, who's been a grandfather figure to me, had passed away. I know we talked after that, but I have no memory of the conversation. I know that one of my students came over to ask a question, but I couldn't tell you what it was for anything. I was simply in shock.

I made plans to go home this weekend to see his family, as well as my own. Today, they were derailed by, you guessed it, snow and ice (seriously, is anyone in the contiguous US not getting this stuff???).

However, this is not a rant post. Because today, I realized that, in spite of everything challenging my mental health, I was still happy, healthy, and positive. I realized that my therapist and my best friend were both right - I was "better." With the help of God and family/friends (really, those words are interchangeable at this point), I can handle absolutely anything thrown my way.

The conversation with my best friend upon telling him that I was weaning off of counseling. He said that what he'd told me last spring was coming full circle:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Happy New Year???

Given the state of my personal life, I've heard more New Year's platitudes this year than ever before.
"New year, new you!"
"Time for a fresh start!"
"Everything can be different this year!"

With all due respect to the people who told me those things, they are bald-faced lies. Now don't get me wrong - I firmly believe in the power of choosing to start over. However, there is nothing magical or inherently more powerful about the new year. You remain the person you were when you entered. My past has not suddenly changed or disappeared.

That being said, I have decided to make some alterations to my life this year. I'll be updating you as we go along, letting you know at least one change per week until I run out of changes. This week, that change is a book.

It's no secret that my faith has been wavering, thanks to my life circumstances. (More on that later.) But when I received The Bible in Rhyme by Kyle Holt from my mother for Christmas, I decided to give it a try. After all, it couldn't hurt, right?

Wrong. I am a poet, by both nature and schooling. The rhyming scheme (and its frequent misses) often grate on my nerves. But it's cute, fun, easy to read. I have consumed more of the Bible in the past three days than I usually achieve with the standard "I'll read at least four chapters a day" kind of resolution.

The Bible in Rhyme has also forced me to think about what I'm reading in a way that reading the standard Bible never has. The author has made a concerted effort to capture a cohesive, overarching story, which ash forced him to omit some details and to explain the relevance of stories that interrupt the overarching narrative.

Should this Bible be your only Bible? Absolutely not. However, if the original text is hard for you to get through, difficult for you to understand, or in some other way prohibitive to your reading it, give this a try. Thus far, at least, it seems to be a great way to get to know the general story without getting bogged down in difficult language, incoherent measurements, or genealogies that do not carry the meaning to modern readers that they would have to the original hearers.

What are you doing to change yourself or your circumstances this year? What do you think of New Year's resolutions?