Sunday, May 14, 2017

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

I've seen a lot of posts online this week talking about Mental Health Week, and a quick Google search also showed that May is Mental Health Month. Both of these things are great, we need more discussions about mental health issues and concerns and ways of starting to chip away at the stigma that has had control of many of us for too long.

We see a lot of nonsense online, people trying to tell us that mental health issues are just a phase or trend and that those of us who say we suffer from anxiety/depression/etc are just faking it, trying to be trendy, or (my personal favorite) just want to be a "special snowflake". *insert massive eyeroll*

Can we just talk about the ridiculousness of that last one? Snowflakes are wonderful because they're beautiful and unique, no two snowflakes are exactly the same. Seriously, who wouldn't want to be a snowflake?! Every human being is special and beautiful and unique. So, hate to break it to the critics, but we're all special snowflakes. Each and every one of us. And if mental health is becoming a bigger topic of conversation these days, it's not because it's a new "trend", it's because more people are finally being brave enough to share their experiences and speak up about this topic. It's not a new topic, we're just finally getting more vocal about it.

Seriously, who wouldn't want to be something so pretty?!
I've talked about my own struggle with anxiety and depression on my YouTube channel (you can watch the video here). I've also shared my struggles with feeling like a fraud and a failure (aka "Imposter Syndrome", you can watch that video here) and they are definitely all connected. I've always dealt with anxiety and depression, long before I had language to describe or label my experiences. These days I talk mostly about my experiences in grad school working on my PhD and how that contributes to my mental health issues, but before grad school it was struggling through my undergrad degree and worrying about my future (your typical quarter life crisis, though we definitely didn't call it that then lol) and before that it was all the joys and sorrows of high school and before that it was the massive high and lows of growing up an Army brat. Point is, my life, like most people's lives, has not been easy. We all have our struggles and I'm no exception.

Grad school really does bring it's own special brand of anxiety.
I've been in and out of therapy a few times over the last several years, actually more like the past 15 years. But it's only been recently that I've realized how important a really good therapist is. My first one was nice, but it really was just a venting session each week, and then no skills for helping me deal with things the rest of the time. I moved, stopped seeing her, and never got back into therapy. Several years later, after starting my PhD program, I was really struggling with adjusting to the program and dealing with being a PhD student. Increased responsibilities and obligations plus imposter syndrome is a really nasty combination. It got to the point where even my friends were noticing things and finally said to me, "we love you and we're here for you but we think you need to see someone," one friend even walked with me to the counseling center on campus.

Over the course of that semester I worked with an amazing therapist, who was so different from the first one. We started uncovering past issues that I was still dealing with but had internalized and shoved so deep down I didn't realize they were still affecting me. We made a lot of progress in only about 15 sessions. But on campus they can only do short term counseling and it was about to be summer break and I was going to the UK for the whole summer so we decided we'd transition me to someone off campus in the fall. That summer was great, life changing you could say. I visited a friend in Prague, did study abroad in Oxford, spent a ton of time in London, and met some amazing people. I got back to Arizona and thought "I'm fine! I don't need therapy anymore." That was a mistake. The second year wasn't as rough as the first year but it was still hard, and I wasn't coping as best as I could. But I had some new friends and I was able to distract myself enough. I also had a trip to London planned for Christmas and was planning to spend the next summer in Oxford again as well, so planning those trips served as a distraction.

My time in Oxford, over both summers spent there, were huge learning experiences for me personally. They weren't all easy lessons, but I wouldn't trade those summers for anything.
That following summer had a lot of ups and downs, and even though I knew I needed to come home to see my doctor and get back to school, I didn't want to leave England. I think deep down I knew my mental health had gotten really bad again and I needed help, and that's a really daunting feeling to deal with. I forced myself to call my insurance company for a referral to a therapist as soon as I got home and was back in therapy within about a month. That therapist was really great at helping me with some of the issues that I was struggling with, especially the anxiety. And after a few months I was feeling a lot calmer and more in control. But there were still things that were nagging at me that I just couldn't express to her and she didn't seem able to pull it out of me. Then I got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, and then later I had to switch insurance companies. By that point I knew I was kind of ready for a new therapist, so the insurance change provided a good excuse/opportunity.

I went to campus to get my consultation/referral, I had switched to campus healthcare so I had to go through them to find someone off campus. I delayed going for a couple months. I switched providers in August, I didn't go to the counseling center until October, and only after having a really bad panic attack. I went in for the consultation thinking of the last therapist I'd seen there and how I hoped they could find me someone like her but off campus and able to see me long term. That's when my mental health miracle happened.

That therapist was now working off campus, was covered by my provider, was able to start seeing me the following week, AND her office was 5 minutes down the road from my apartment.

It was too much to just be a coincidence.

That was back in late October. I'd was worried she wouldn't be able to see me until after Thanksgiving, but she had something that following week, which meant we had a good couple months to work together before Christmas and my trip to London with my mom and sister. After our first appointment we decided to meet twice a week, which at the time made me feel like, "wow, I must be worse than I thought," but after some time it made a lot of sense and made the sessions so much more productive. At some point I'll probably switch to once a week but even now, several months later, I'm not ready yet. You'd think by now I'd understand myself better but I'm learning with each day that I'm much more complex than I give myself credit for. We all are.



The difficulty with mental health is there's no quick fix. Medication can help with some things, but it doesn't solve everything. Therapy is great but it takes a ton of time! You have to work through all the issues, including things that you might have already dismissed as not important. You think the problem is ABC but you get into it and realize it's also XYZ. I'm not brave enough to get into all the things that she and I are working on, but one day I will be. The more I got into therapy the more I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I'm still exploring Wonderland and discovering all sorts of crazy things, but I'm also gaining all the knowledge I'll need to eventually climb back out of the rabbit hole. I'm learning to be patient and to be compassionate towards myself. To be quiet and listen to my inner voice that I've been stifling and silencing for too long. It's not an easy process, nor is it a quick one, but it's worth the time and energy and bravery that each session requires.

I still struggle with being open about my experiences. In some situations I just don't feel safe talking about my mental health. Not everyone understands and there are still a lot of people who think we're making it all up. I'm not entirely sure those people are as happy as they pretend. Not everyone struggles with severe mental health issues, but I think everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum. Some people really can make themselves feel better by thinking positively or meditating or exercising. Some of us need extra help. There's no shame in that.

I always say, if you're just having a bad day or a bad week, play your favorite music, try meditation, try thinking happy thoughts. But if your bad day or week has turned into a bad month which has turned into a bad year which has turned into you honestly can't remember the last time you were truly happy?......go see someone, as soon as possible. Go see your doctor, go through the referral process for a therapist, go see the counseling services at your school, do whatever you have to do but just do it. You deserve to be happy. And don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Yes, life is tough and you're going to have bad days, but you should be having more good days than bad so if you're not, get yourself the help you need and deserve. You are a special, beautiful, unique, magical snowflake and that is a good thing. You are precious and loved and wanted. And it really does get better.

xo
Andrea


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