Category Archives: mental health

Therapists should NOT be allowed to get sick!

At the psychotherapist

I want to be like this guy, but both of my therapists are sick. Damn!

Last week, I got a call from my therapist’s office. He has a medical emergency and will be out for at least a few weeks.

That sucks, but at least I still have my group therapy. Or so I thought. I just got a call from my group therapist. He’s sick. No group therapy this week.

I wish my therapists a quick and speedy recovery from whatever it is they’ve got. But damn if I don’t feel like I’m on a trapeze, and I’ve just lost a good portion of my net.

I hereby proclaim that therapists should not be allowed to get sick. If they do, there should be some kind of magic pill that whips them back to health just like that. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Who wants to see Catherine Zeta Jones on a bad day?

Catherine Zeta Jones - mental illness

Catherine Zeta Jones: so beautiful, and so admirably open about her mental illness.

A few days ago, at one of my support groups, an unusual subject came up: Catherine Zeta Jones.

Catherine has always been a favorite of mine. She’s a versatile actress, and she has an earthy, gutsy persona that I’ve always liked. On top of that, she’s been admirably open about being bipolar–even going so far as being honest about her treatment. If mental illness has the face of serial killers, it’s good to know that mental illness can also have the face of Catherine Zeta Jones.

But a wise young woman in our group brought up an interesting point:

“Even now, whenever you see Catherine, she’s beautiful and radiant and dressed to the nines. I just read this article about her being bipolar, and all the article focused on is how beautiful she still is. It’s not Catherine’s fault. She didn’t write the article. But I want to see Catherine when she doesn’t look stunning. I want to see her with her hair undone. And without makeup. And in baggy sweats that she hasn’t gotten out of for days. I want to see her flying off the handle when she’s manic, and disheveled in bed when she’s depressed. I want to she THAT Catherine Zeta Jones. But the public, I’m sure doesn’t want to see that. And that’s the problem.”

Now, I can’t blame Catherine for not wanting to reveal this side of herself to the public. I mean, when I’m in one of my down periods, I don’t want to reveal myself to anyone. But the bigger point is: if people only see us on our good days, how can we get them to understand what we go through on our bad days?

In my own case, I can’t totally hide my bad days, because I occasionally get anxiety attacks in public. They’re embarrassing as hell, especially when they happen in front of friends and family. But because people SEE me shaking, sweating, and stuttering, they at least have a visual of me when I’m “off.” They don’t question me when I say I’m not doing well. Boy, do I appreciate that.

So, maybe it would be good if we found a way to show more of our bad days. Because the reality is, they’re not pretty. Even for someone as beautiful as Catherine Zeta Jones.

To disclose mental illness at work — or not to disclose? NPR runs a great piece on this question

Ever so slowly,the media in the United States is covering mental illness more than it ever has before. True, many stories do nothing but sensationalize–like most of the stories about that German pilot who deliberately crashed a passenger plane. Note to media: I’m sure there are plenty of pilots with depression that you know nothing about. I have it on good authority that 99.9999 percent of them will never deliberately crash a passenger plane.

That tragedy was also the basis of this NPR report. Mercifully, NPR takes a much more effective approach. What is it like to be high-functioning, yet still have mental illness? I wrestle with this just about every day, and there are no easy answers. But at least responsible news sources like NPR are starting to ask good questions.

Listen to the report here.

People I love: Johnny Cash

Johnny CashIt’s been more than 10 years since Johnny Cash died. But to me, he is, and always will be, very much alive.

It’s not just his iconic, cut-to-the-bone voice, or his ability to mix so many musical genres–country, folk, rock, roots music–and make it seem effortless. My connection is personal, too. When I was growing up, Johnny Cash was one of  the few things my mother and I could agree on. My mother was very conservative in many ways, including her music (she really didn’t even like music all that much, but that’s another story.) But she loved Johnny Cash. He had a weekly television show when I was little, and I think my mother and I watched every episode.

I remember mom telling me, “Johnny’s got guts. He’s had a hard life but he turned himself around. And he’s been to prison.” Mother would always mention prison when she mentioned Johnny.

I think about this, because I’m re-reading Johnny Cash: The Life, Robert Hilburn’s excellent biography. As much as I love books, I rarely re-read them. But something told me to pick this one up again, and I’m glad I did. It makes me think about how much my mother loved the myth of Johnny Cash as much as she loved him.

You may ask what I mean by that. The book clearly points out that Cash had a lifelong propensity for making up stories. One of the biggest myths about Cash was that he was an ex-convict. That wasn’t exactly true. He was, of course, famous for his prison concerts and for his live album from Folsom Prison. And he had been arrested a few times when he was heavily into drugs and alcohol. Even then, he was always bailed out. Still, the way he presented himself, you’d think he spent years behind bars.

Johnny didn’t live in a time when mental illness treatment was common. Still, I’m pretty sure he had some form of mental illness. Throughout his life, he battled drug and alcohol addictions. I’m certainly no psychiatrist, but God knows I’ve seen psychiatrists. Every one of them has told me that, if you really look at the reasons many people cling to drugs and alcohol, mental illness of some kind often comes up right below the surface.

So, even though he’s not an official member of my tribe, I’m making Johnny a posthumous honorary member. And somehow, his habit of making up stories makes me connect with him even more. Cash was a storyteller–in his songs and in his life. He was a creative loner who loved to tell good stories–truth be damned. He wanted to entertain. And boy, did he ever.

At the same time, he wasn’t afraid to show his pain. That was clearly demonstrated in one of the last–and best–songs he ever did: his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt.

If my mother fell for one of Cash’s myths, there was also a poignant truth that I think she connected with whenever Johnny sang. My mother had a very hard life. I certainly haven’t had it easy, either. Johnny sang especially for people like us. He didn’t just sing his songs. He felt his songs.

Like Johnny, my mother is no longer on this earth. I’m not sure I believe in a heaven. But I like to think that in some eternal way, she still listens to the Man in Black. I know I always will.

Can I keep calm if my anxiety doctor’s on vacation?

Today, at the start of my anxiety therapy group, the doctor who leads us started with an announcement: he’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks.

The good news is that, even though all of us have anxiety severe enough to land us in a doctor-led group, our fearless leader is not assigning another doctor to us while he’s out. In other words, he thinks we’ll be just fine for a few weeks without him.

The bad news is, that’s not how we think. When you have an anxiety disorder, any kind of change can create more anxiety. Our doctor knows that, which is probably why he opened with that announcement instead of saving it until the end. He knew this was something that needed “processing.”

I already miss the guy. He’s a tough therapist who pushes us to do the things that scare us the most. Needless to say, I haven’t always been thrilled when I left his sessions. But I can see the progress that I’ve made, and I don’t like the thought of not reporting to him until next month.

It kind of reminds me of that old movie What About Bob?, where Bill Murray plays patient who finds where his doctor is vacationing — and joins him there. Now, I’m not planning on stalking my doctor. I’m afraid he wouldn’t like that, and that’s probably a “good” fear.

And besides, an intrepid member of our group has already come up with a solution: what if we just get together on our own for the next few weeks and check in with each other anyway? Our doctor supports this idea, and I think it’s a good one.

That suggestion tells me two things: first, we are committed to our recovery, so much so that we don’t want to take a “break” from it. This other thing is (channeling Sally Field here), we like each other. We really like each other. Even though all of us have different roots and levels of anxiety, we all have issues with social interaction. So it can only be good that we still want to interact with one another, even without a doctor.

I’ve committed to joining my temporarily doctor-less group. I’m sure we’ll listen to each other and give some pretty good advice. Or maybe we’ll watch What About Bob? That would be fun. We’d be reminded that, as bad as we think we are, we could sure be a lot worse.

Monica Lewinsky and the price of shame

Monica Lewisnky gave a TED talk recently on the price of shame, and it’s one of the best TED talks I’ve ever heard.

Her’s is a name that will always conjure up a mixed bag of emotions, and she knows it. Say what you will about her, but very few people have had to live out their mistakes as publicly as she has.

To me, that makes her now very public stand against cyber-bullying all the more impressive. In standing up against cyber-bullying, she is also standing up for mental health. She addresses the issue of how, especially among the young, the increase in online bullying has also led to an increase in suicides and suicidal ideations.

But to me, there’s also a more subtle, if no less important, way that she addresses mental health awareness here. She talks a lot about the need for empathy, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a big difference between empathy and sympathy. When I tell people of my own mental health issues, I notice that it’s easier for many to project sympathy than empathy. But the thing is, I’m not looking for sympathy. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. Who does?

But I do want empathy. I do want people to at least make an attempt to put themselves in my place. To tell me that they are there for me no matter what. I’ve noticed how hard this is for a lot of people, and I think it’s indicative of an unfortunate lack of empathy that is due, in large part, to the Internet. Of course, if I want empathy from others, I also must become more aware of how I project it myself. I like to think that I’m good at it. Now, though, I’m thinking that I could do better.

So, when Monica Lewinsky talks about the need for empathy here, she is speaking for people like myself. I applaud her, both for this amazing TED talk, and for taking a stand. Take a listen and let me know what you think.

Why the International Day of Happiness doesn’t make me happy

Today is the International Day of Happiness.

I kid you not. Someone actually concocted the notion that, gosh darn it, if we all just come together and do a little something, then everyone around the world could be happy. For one day, anyway.

When I heard of this, I laughed, but not because I was happy. I laughed because of the sheer absurdity of it all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Happiness is a good thing. A very good thing. It’s always a good idea to be reminded of things that make us smile, or things that make us grateful. But in my humble opinion, “special days” like this force the idea of happiness. And there’s a big difference between forced happiness and real happiness.

Here’s where I think that those of us with mental illness actually have an advantage over those who don’t; we know this. Because we have to fight so hard for happiness, we know that achieving it is not always simple, and that it often takes a lot of work.

With that in mind, I propose that, at the very least, there needs to be an opposite special day. An International Day of Sadness might be a bit too maudlin, but how about an International Day of Feeling Like Crap? Or International Show Your REAL Feelings Day, Even If It’s Not Pretty? (Okay, that name needs work, but you get the idea.) Just think of what a great release this would be! Maybe, just maybe, people would realize that it’s just as healthy to honestly show your “dark” side as it is to show your “bright” side.

I’m going to honor the International Day of Happiness by vowing to be my true self, whether I’m happy or not. If people can’t handle that, screw them. I want to be my true self, warts and all. That’s an idea that does make me happy.

My life last year, or Even Harvard Students Get the Blues

Commencment 2010At this time last year, I was about to graduate from Harvard, with a master’s degree in literature and creative writing. My classes were all done. My thesis was all approved. I even got an email from Harvard, with the subject line blaring CONGRATULATIONS, HARVARD GRADUATE!

You’d think this would be one of the best moments of my life. Instead, it was one of the worst. On the same day I got that email, I was a patient at McLean Hospital. Depression and anxiety had me in their grips. And believe it or not, this email didn’t help. In fact, it freaked me out. I ran in to the office of one of the therapists treating me. I was sobbing. Soon after I got the “official” Harvard email, a flood of other Harvard emails came. All with exclamation points! Order your cap and gown NOW! Get your graduation tickets! You’re invited to THIS graduation party! And THAT graduation party!

All of this gave me one of the worst anxiety attacks I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget how great Stephanie, the McLean therapist, was when I came running to her. She didn’t judge me. Instead, she helped me sort out the emotions I was feeling. “Harvard’s throwing a lot of information at you all at once,” she told me. “It’s a lot to take in. Honestly, I would be a little freaked if all of this came at me all at once.” Very patiently, she worked with me to take the emails and prioritize them: the ones that needed response quickly, the ones that could wait, and the ones that could be ignored all together.

She also gave me a believable reason why I was feeling the way that I did. “College offered you a lot of structure, and you’re about to lose that structure. That can be very scary.” That made sense to me–that, and the irony of getting my “official” email while I was in a mental hospital.

All of this came flooding back to me today as I read this post by Melissa Engle on It deals with what so many college students go through. It felt very familiar, because I went through it. It’s an odd paradigm, being high-functioning yet still having a mental illness. You tell yourself that just because you can accomplish things, you’ll be okay. But you can only fool depression for so long. Eventually, it grabs you. Hard.

I’ve come a long way in the past year. I did graduate. And I became involved with Harvard Speaks Up, a video effort designed to reach out to fellow Harvard students who may have a mental illness, but are too embarrassed or ashamed to get help. It has not been easy for me. It still isn’t. But with patience, a concerted effort to change some things in my life, lots of therapy–and yes, meds–I’m becoming the person I was meant to me.

One thing hasn’t changed. I still get a lot of emails from Harvard. Only now, they’re mainly from the Harvard Alumni Association, and I can handle them. I am a Harvard alumnus. I’ve got the diploma to prove it, and no one can take that away from me. It’s nice to be around and appreciate that.

To read the post mentioned above, click here.

Why is it so damn hard to reach out?

Yesterday, my depression really got to me. I woke up. I saw rain outside my window. I knew that it was cold because this is Boston and this is March. How could it not be cold? But cold rain is a trigger for me, and just knowing that it was cold and rainy sent me into a tailspin. I really needed to do some grocery shopping, but I couldn’t even bring myself to do that. I could barely get out of bed, let alone get up and face the weather that was triggering me.

Sometime during the day (I don’t even remember when), I got text from one of my good friends, who is also part of my “tribe.” He, too, has depression. He asked how I was doing, but I was so down at the time that I didn’t even respond. Instead, I slept, which was not good for me because I tend to oversleep when my depression gets to me. It’s nice while I’m in dreamland, but when I wake up, I feel even worse than I did before.

When I finally did wake up, I at least got the nerve to text my friend back. I told him that I wasn’t having a good day. Immediately, he texted me back: “I’m still up if you want to talk. Just call me if you’re up to it.”

That’s not what I did. Instead, I went on Netflix in search of a movie–any movie–just to get me out of what I was feeling. For a reason that only my therapist could probably decipher, I picked Orson Wells’ film version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. It’s the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find out that he’s been arrested, but he’s never told why he’s being arrested. The book is one of my favorites, because Kafka was a master at writing about loneliness, isolation and all-around unfairness in the world. So instead of reaching out to a real person, I thought it would be better to watch Anthony Perkins as “Mr. K”, Kafka’s hapless protagonist. Maybe I thought to myself, “This will help me, because this guy’s more fucked up than I am.”

It didn’t help. I couldn’t even get through a half hour of the film before I started feeling even more hopeless. I turned the film off and went back to sleep–again, not good for me, because in total, I probably slept around 20 hours yesterday.

When I got up this morning, I felt better. It was gray and gloomy outside, but at least it wasn’t raining. Then, I got a call from the same friend who texted me yesterday. This time, I answered. He asked how I was. I told him I felt better. He said he was relieved to hear that.

This is a guy who’s been going through a lot lately. Two weeks ago, his apartment roof collapsed, due to all the snow and ice we’ve had this year. Luckily, he wasn’t there at the time. He’s grateful about that, but he’s also been frustrated, because he still hasn’t been allowed back to his building to collect whatever possessions he may still have. He already has a new apartment, but he’s had to shell out hundreds of dollars just for life’s necessities, and he’s not wealthy to begin with. That’s a lot for anyone to deal with, but for someone with a mental illness? It’s hard for me to even imagine.

With all that, he sounded cheerful when I talked to him today. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to share an experience he had during the last week. He shared his story with another friend–and that friend responded with financial assistance to help him get back on his feet. My friend didn’t want to take it, but his friend wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I started crying when I heard this. I told my friend, “this is proof that there are people who care, and that there is human kindness in the world.” My friend agreed, but he also felt guilty about taking the money. He doesn’t know how or when he’ll be able to pay this money back. The only reason he was telling me this story was because he was acting on his friend’s one condition–to share the story with others and let them know that there is always hope, and it often comes very unexpectedly.

This made me cry even more, but my friend still feels guilty about taking the money. I couldn’t convince him to feel otherwise. But I know where he’s coming from. It’s not easy for me to reach out to people when I need to, let alone accept their concern and kindness. If it was, I would have called my friend last night, instead of going to Kafkaland. And it’s not easy for him either–even when he gets help that he wasn’t even expecting.

The cruel paradox, though, is that it’s especially important for those of us with mental illness to reach out and ask for help when we need it. Our illness is invisible to many, and we’re often good at making it look invisible if we have to. And yet, it’s so damn hard to do that. At least it is for me.

It’s something that I still need to work on, and I said that to my friend. Maybe it’s something we can work on together. In the immortal words of the Beatles, it’s a good thing to tell someone,  “help me if you can, I’m feeling down. And I do appreciate ya being around.” If only I could say that as effortlessly as they could.

Good morning world–and hello anxiety

Almost every morning this week, I’ve woken up with an anxiety attack greeting me. My heart pounds. My body shakes. The works. This is happening even though I make a very concerted effort to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night, so I can’t blame this on lack of sleep.

But what CAN I blame this on? I’m the type of person who always has to think up a reason for things. It’s hard for me to accept the idea that with anxiety disorder, attacks can come on for no reason at all. My doctor thinks my attacks this week may be due to daylight saving time. Initially, I found this hard to believe, because I really like the fact that there’s more light later on in the day. My doctor reminded me that I was like this last year at this time, which was comforting because I forgot about that. He believes that it’s actually common for even slight changes–like changing the time on a clock–to trigger anxiety for someone like me.

I know there have been growing calls from people who wonder why we still change our clocks twice a year. A friend of mine is literally so set against it that he’s starting his own movement to stop this outdated practice. I might just join him.

But I know this: there will probably always something that triggers anxiety for me. I just have to deal with it and wade through it when it comes. At least I’ve been able to pull myself together and function after my recent attacks, even if it takes anywhere from 1-2 hours to do that.

I just have to keep telling myself that the attacks don’t last for ever. And that when I do pull myself together, I can make myself a cup of coffee. Or eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Coffee + peanut butter + jelly = a better world. I consider that a scientific fact.

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