An Open Letter To Those Treating My Mental Health Disorder

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A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days engaged in a partial hospitalization program with the hope that I would gain a few more coping skills that would reduce the intensity of my PTSD and Bipolar 1 symptoms. The program actually ended up to be a more of a “one size fits all” program and it wasn’t truly beneficial to me. Without going into too many details, I had a couple of incidents of conflict where I felt disrespected by some of the employees there. This is not all that uncommon. It happens. Employees are just people in the end and some are not always sensitive, others might be experiencing a “bad day”, and still others are just there to “pick up a pay check”. The experience, however, got me to thinking about what I would like to say sometimes to those who treat me for my mental illness on my “worst days”. I decided to write an open letter to those who provide mental healthcare services, particularly those who do so in an inpatient setting or intensive outpatient program. The following sums up what I want those treating me to know. Maybe it will resonate with you as well.

Dear Mental Healthcare Provider,

To you, I am more than likely just another patient in a fast-paced program that has the goal of crisis-stabilization. I am one of many that you serve in a busy environment where safety is more than likely your primary concern. With the amount of people coming and going, it is to be expected that you might not ever truly know me. Between facilitating groups, completing necessary documentation, and other miscellaneous duties, there is very little time to actually connect to each patient in a meaningful and memorable way. In order to ensure safety, and a routine where programs run efficiently, the relationship between patient and provider is not one of equal power. Your role by it’s very nature, especially in an inpatient setting, is to enforce boundaries and rules to maintain the type of environment where people can receive the help they need in order to return to baseline. This dynamic, albeit necessary in ways, can be difficult for some of us to adapt to as it can feel not only constraining, but even oppressive, at times. In addition, the often sterile environment of some hospital settings and the loss of personal freedom, can seem disorienting and demoralizing to someone seeking help.

As a patient, I am coming to you at my worst, often in a place where I may not be in complete control of my impulses, moods, or perceptions. You see me when I am most vulnerable, often in the throes of an illness that I am doing my best to manage. Despite my efforts, there are times that the illness takes a hold, and I need a little help to return to my baseline. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment when I have to admit to myself and others that I need help to cope and manage the chronic illness of Bipolar 1 that occasionally rears it’s ugly head, robbing me of my time, joy, relationships, and even jobs.

When I walk through your doors or am brought in by an ambulance, I am instantly reminded of how powerless I am, at times, to this debilitating illness. All my possessions, like my purse and anything else I bring in with me to the hospital, gets stripped from me and I am asked to stand unclothed in a robe so that someone on staff can “search me”. I can remember being asked to do this each time I have been in inpatient, and yet, the actual occurrence of it I have conveniently blocked from my memory. As a victim of sexual assault, this is particularly dehumanizing and distressing for me. At one inpatient placement, I even was forced to wear a blue jumpsuit very similar to what is worn in a prison setting. The contents of my purse were dumped into a plastic bag. I felt violated, having my privacy breeched and felt nearly treated as if I were a criminal.

When you see me, I am coming to you to at my “worst” asking for your for help, but it can feel sometimes like I am part of a machine that doesn’t value or see my humanity. The first few days of treatment can feel somewhat numbing. Pink Floyd’s song: “Comfortably Numb”, comes to mind and the medications that I am pushed to take during an inpatient stay feels like what is conveyed in the lyrics: “just another pin prick” and “there will be no more, “Ahhahhhaaa, But you might feel a little sick”. Often the first day or two, I feel like just “another brick in the wall”, numb and disoriented, wishing I were anywhere else but back in this spot, vulnerable and raw.

When I walk through the hospital doors asking for your help, I carry with me 32 years of experience as a consumer of mental health services. I also am informed and aware of my patient rights. I may be struggling, but just in the past week or so, I was at work serving clientele as a social worker. I was sick and struggling, but holding it all together. I came to you because I had the insight and awareness to acknowledge that I need the help. I want to be seen as someone who is currently struggling, but respected as an individual who on most days is competent and insightful. Ultimately, I want to be seen as an individual who has many strengths, not just a mental illness you are treating.

Even on my worst days, when I am receiving care, I want to feel that I have a sense of agency over my healthcare. I want you to ask for my input and respect my right to decline treatment. Sometimes, it can take time for me to research and decide what I feel is best for my health. I’ve had nurses “talk over me”, even insist I was delusional, because I wouldn’t take the medications that were initially ordered by the prescribing doctor at the hospital. I once even had a nurse threaten to “tie me up in a rubber room and inject me with my medications” if I continued to refuse. Sadly, due to the stigma surrounding my mental illness I know if I had reported this incident I would have not be seen as credible. Yet, many of us in treatment have endured abuses or threats like the one above.

Just because I live with a mental illness and am requesting help, does not mean that I am incapable, even while hospitalized, of making informed choices. Had I taken the medications prescribed by the doctor during some of my stays, it would have been too much for me. I know my body and I also know my rights. I have the right to decline medications. I earnestly am asking you to educate me, provide me with the information about the medication you are prescribing, allow me to research it, and even provide alternatives. Wouldn’t you want the same for yourself if hospitalized?

I realize that providers are just people and they make mistakes. I’ve had to remind a few of my providers that I couldn’t take certain medications due to drug interactions. Sometimes, they are too busy to look up a medication or have forgotten that an interaction exists. I realize providers are not walking encyclopedias and their knowledge may be limited. And I also understand that most people willingly trust what the doctor “orders”. I am someone who has had a few truly negative and scary experiences while taking medications and I am hesitant to start any new drug. Please give me the time I need so that I will feel comfortable trying another new medication. And please don’t take it personally if I question a medication you prescribe or even decline it. It is my body and I will do what I feel is safe and comfortable for me.

I also again want to remind you that I am at my worst when I come to you. I am sick, vulnerable, and often raw. I again have to open up and tell a complete stranger things about myself that might be hard, stressful, and downright painful. I feel exhausted and depressed after having to explain my history and symptoms to, yet again, another individual that, in a few days, I will never see again. The mere thought of disclosing and repeating my history once again can send me into panic and is nauseating for me. To you, I might be the new admit going to bed 107 that you have to quickly assess before the next patient arrives. But, for me, the whole experience feels dehumanizing and it often makes me feel powerless and small.

I sit in the chair slumped over across from you, often sharing the things I don’t want to share with anyone. So, please excuse me if I appear on edge, easily angered, defensive, or irritated. For me, I am at the beginning of a stay where I will be thrust into groups with strangers, sleeping in a room on an uncomfortable bed with a roommate I do not know, and told when to eat and where I need to be for the next few days. Nothing feels normal at the moment.

For you, it is just another day at work and you’ll be home to your creature comforts soon enough. Your demeanor and approach with me can set me at ease and even bring a faint smile to my face, or it can make me feel ashamed, angered, or numb. I understand you are human as well, but I hope you are able to understand that I truly am at my “worst” and please be sensitive to that fact. It will make such a huge difference in my stay if you do.

During my stay with you, I will sit in groups and listen to some of the same approaches and interventions that have been introduced to me before. Initially, I may feel, on a certain level, that for me to wind up here again, I must of failed in some way. There is a lot of shame, grief, and even rage, that I am feeling. I wonder to myself: How did I wind up here again? I long for the group that tells me I am OKAY, despite my struggle of living with a mental illness. I appreciate the rare facilitator that starts the group out telling us that our chronic illnesses are nothing to be ashamed of and that we are not here because we “behaved badly” or that we somehow caused our illness. There is no shame in struggling. Many people “behave poorly” and have unhealthy habits, but do not land in an inpatient psychiatric setting requiring care. A mental illness is a true illness and if unhealthy habits were responsible for the struggle, many more people would carry a diagnosis. Please remember that I have an illness, not a “behavior issue” and that I do truly try to manage it.

I will also add while I am at it, that I wish I had a private room and the hospital would separate the men from women, particularly not allowing them to sleep on the same halls. This was distressing and distracting for me. I would also like for the environment to be less sterile and more homelike and for groups to be designed with functioning level in mind. Hey, I can have a wish list, right? Some groups are difficult for me to sit through because the information is not new to me.

On my worst days, when I find myself in an inpatient or intensive outpatient setting, please treat me exactly as you would like to be treated. I can respect certain safety measures as I am aware that they protect me as well as others in the program. And yet, please don’t talk “over me”, or refuse to accept my input. I would prefer you not ransack my purse or insist I dress in a blue suit. I also want to be seen as an individual.

And, please, if I have a “meltdown” or an angry outburst and I later come to you to share why I was upset or I wish to apologize, it would be nice if you accepted my effort to resolve things graciously. There have been incidents in the past where I have tried to smooth things over and it was met with stonewalling and a complete disregard for my struggle. Please remember if I am in the hospital for my mood disorder, I might not have the best control over myself. If I did, I would not need to be in an inpatient setting. Like others, there is a lot of shame that I experience during times when I lose dignity and become verbally abusive when upset. I genuinely am not proud of these moments and if I am making the effort with you to apologize, my hope is as, a professional, you will at a minimum try to acknowledge that not only am I “at my worst”, but I’m also in a position where my freedom and power has been stripped from me. The inpatient setting alone is abnormal and adapting to it can be a challenge for anyone. Often patients escalate as a result of responding to a system that is inherently dehumanizing, at times.

I feel so much needs to change regarding the structure of inpatient stays. So many of the patients need longer stays with additional services to truly stabilize. The current system is overwhelmed, rushed, and often the stay is too short to ensure a safe discharge. More time is needed to determine if the medication changes made are indeed actually effective. In the past, stays not only were longer, but the care was more individualized. I remember in the 1990s not only receiving a variety of physical and mental tests and assessments, but I also met a therapist 1-2 times a week. My recent hospital stays were too brief to actually ensure a correct diagnosis or to provide patient-centered care. Maybe it is too much to ask that a mental illness, be treated like a physical one? A holistic approach would benefit patients to ensure that there isn’t any other reason for their symptoms. I shudder to think about the accuracy rate of determining one’s diagnosis or the safety of the discharge when stays are often too short to truly know the patient’s needs. This causes unnecessary recidivism, but again I guess insurance companies prefer to take that “gamble”. Sadly, lives are lost doing so. And for many, who suffer for years without adequate care, their quality of life is greatly diminished. This can lead to poor outcomes for some such as incarceration, homelessness, or other health complications from lack of self-care.

My hope is that one day those who survey the hospitals to renew their accreditation involve a board of individuals who actually live with a mental illness who have been inpatient. Please consider our voices in the process. Many of us have ideas for how we wish to be treated and what we need for the experience to be better.

I will be the first to admit, I don’t always show my better side while in treatment. It is a demoralizing experience where as an independent, educated, and high functioning individual, I feel my rights are stripped from me. If I am unlucky, there might be a few staff members that can make the experience intolerable. I have experienced some truly effective and good providers in the mental health system and to those people, I am eternally grateful. But, the few “bad apples” can truly damage an individual who is already struggling, causing them to not ask for help again. That is why the quality of services matter so much to me. It can save a life. And it can enhance the quality of life for so many struggling.

Thanks again for taking the time to read my thoughts and concerns. It is just my perspective from the position of a patient being served in our current mental healthcare system.

With sincerity,

A Mental Health Consumer

A Heavy Burden to Bear: When Lack of Access to Affordable and Quality Healthcare Compounds Complex Trauma

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With the current focus on mental health issues relating to the Coronavirus Pandemic, I feel this is an opportune time to have an honest and frank discussion regarding access to affordable and quality mental healthcare services in America. Those of us who have been struggling for years living with a mental illness, are all too familiar with the challenges of finding the help that we need to not only reach stability, but maintain it. Often the services and programs to support recovery are difficult to access and some are virtually non-existent or not affordable. Most of us with lived experience have managed to piecemeal our recovery efforts over time to sustain our recovery, but we are also aware that services and programs fall short to meet the needs of many and, as a result, some unfortunately do not ever recover.

One of the main triggers for my depression is the lack of concern for those living among us who are struggling with a mental illness and/or addiction issues that often leads to incarceration, disability, or homelessness. I am particularly sensitive to these issues because of my own life long struggle with mental illness. It is also distressing for me to see those living with addiction issues who experience homelessness or incarceration because I have loved ones who struggle with addiction and I am empathetic towards the issues surrounding the disease.

For the past two years, I have been living in Los Angeles and the level of homelessness here in the city is at epidemic proportions. It is disturbing, to me, to see so many living on the streets in such dismal and dire circumstances. While not all who are homeless struggle with issues of mental illness or addiction, many of them do. As a consumer of mental health services for nearly three decades, I know first hand how difficult treatment can be to access and how, often times, the quality of treatment is poor. Services rarely include the continuity of care that leads to and enables long term recovery. Too many people are slipping through the cracks and it becomes nearly impossible for these individuals to remain in recovery when society lacks the infrastructure needed to support those rebuilding their lives. Most who have never experienced accessing mental health services firsthand are unaware of how deeply fractured the system is and make judgments without having the lived experiences of attempting to do so. As an educated individual who is able to advocate for myself, I have often been appalled by the way I have been mistreated, and even defeated, at times, by the lack of services available that would support and facilitate my recovery.

Many services and programs are often laden with structural and attitudinal barriers that even the most skilled, experienced, and educated individual would have difficulty navigating. My hope in sharing my story is to demonstrate the complex interplay between the individual struggling and the programs and services that are sometimes unavailable or of poor quality. Many times people seeking help are dealing with not only the symptoms of their illness, but also the consequences of struggling for too long in a system that lacks the wrap around services to truly help them. They also may be experiencing shame and frustration from having people in their lives who lack the awareness of how difficult it is to access help, make the false assumption that they are “just not trying hard enough”. Many who do not suffer have the wrong impression that help is easily accessible and they unknowingly invalidate the individual struggling. Using my own struggle, I hope to bring awareness of how one individual over the course of many years might experience several damaging experiences and this can lead, over time, to mistrust and a hesitancy to reach out. I am fortunate to have a good therapist at the moment who validates my complex history which is unfortunately littered with many incidents where I “hit a wall” when attempting to access help. I hope the following resonates with some of those struggling and sheds light on how challenging it can be, at times, to access quality care. The difficulty of accessing quality medical care, the services and programs needed to enable recovery, and the protections meant to prevent disability discrimination can create a challenging and difficult road for an individual who is struggling to recover from a mental illness or addiction. Below, I discuss examples from my own life to help contextualize each of these struggles in hopes to spread awareness and cultivate empathy for those doing their best to access the needed treatment and services to heal.

Lack of access to quality medical care and treatment. This can present itself in a variety of ways. Here are some actual incidents that have occurred to me personally that not only were damaging, but caused a relapse in my symptoms of anxiety and depression. Beginning with the most severe and damaging incident causing a distrust in the system, to the least offensive causing a delay in access to care, the following are my own personal experiences as a an educated individual attempting to access quality care for the disorders I live with: Bipolar 1, PTSD, Somatic OCD, and ADHD.

  • Denied access to an inpatient care facility for crisis stabilization: I was once forced to leave inpatient care prematurely after only one day of receiving treatment. I had waited roughly 36 hours in the emergency room department to be assessed by a social worker and was later admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit. Once admitted, I was able to sleep a few hours. I made the error of requesting to leave after feeling mistreated by one of the staff there. I immediately changed my mind and communicated my wishes to the staff as I knew deep down I needed the help and more than likely needed my medications adjusted. I also was waiting to receive a test that was ordered due to having breathing difficulties from a recent respiratory infection. The doctor there decided to discharge me, even though I was openly requesting help for the suicidal ideation that I was still experiencing. They forced me to leave treatment stating that if I did not leave, I would be ushered out of the inpatient unit by the hospital security. I was discharged with no medication change and the test that was ordered for my breathing difficulty was also not completed. This incident was probably the most damaging experience I have endured during all of my years of treatment for my mental health disorder. It not only placed me at increased vulnerability for a suicide attempt, but the hospital placed my physical health in jeopardy by not completing a test to determine why I was visibly having breathing issues.The incident was traumatizing and has made me not want to ever seek inpatient services again. I also felt powerless to do anything about the incident because I did not feel I would be believed. Other than to write a poor review of my experience on their Facebook page, I have taken no other actions and have moved my life forward.
  • Medical providers who have been unwilling to support workplace accommodations. I have had therapists or psychiatric providers who were unwilling to provide documentation to support my request of setting up accommodations in the workplace. This was particularly damaging because the delay caused by having to find a provider that would assist me in this way, lead to employers doubting that I had a disability that required accommodations. This also caused significant stress for me which only exacerbated my symptoms. Some providers are unwilling to assist in letters regarding unemployment claims or accommodations requests. This leaves the individual struggling with no real pathway to gain accommodations in the workplace unless one decides to change providers and this can take a lot of time.
  • Inability to afford or being waitlisted for needed healthcare services. I cannot count the amount of treatment opportunities (particularly recommended DBT classes) that were thwarted by lack of insurance or long waitlists. Many times I was willing and waiting for treatment to become available and the waitlist was either too long or it was too costly without my insurance providing payment.
  • Certain services that would be helpful are not covered by insurance companies. I was told over and over that residential care would be the most beneficial for me. And yet, my insurance through my workplace did not pay for this type of treatment. Plus, it would have been nearly impossible to get the time off of work required to complete the program. The cost was “out of reach” for me.
  • Denied access to needed treatment due to having to rely on Medicaid which often does not cover speciality care. While waiting on Medicare to “kick in” after being approved for disability insurance (SSDI), I was denied multiple needed treatments by Medicaid which caused my condition to worsen and my symptoms were exacerbated as a result. The process of waiting to receive access to quality care for both my physical and mental health for 2 years was a dehumanizing experience where I truly felt invisible and devalued. I was even suffering with a new medical condition that affected my swallowing whereby I had lost nearly 80 pounds in 6 months and I was denied multiple referrals to a gastroenterology specialty clinic. It was a terrifying experience to lose so much weight and not get the help I needed and it actually thwarted my initial plans to attempt working part-time. I was too sick and unable to get the care I needed through Medicaid. With Medicare in place now, I get the care I need and am grateful.

Lack of access to services/programs that facilitate recovery. Many of the program from housing, disability insurance, vocational rehabilitation, etc. are often inaccessible due to long waitlists or other factors. Below are some of my personal experiences trying to access these services and programs.

  • Being waitlisted for vocational rehabilitation services. When I lost employment due to being denied accommodations in the workplace, I immediately signed up for vocational rehabilitation services in the state of WA. I was approved for services, but waitlisted for nearly 3 years. By the time my name came up to be served, I had already moved out of the state with a friend in order to prevent homelessness. I consider myself lucky that I have people who have supported me when needed. Being in a state of vulnerability where I could not access the services to help me return to work, has made me more empathetic to those who do not have a “lifeline” and end up homeless.
  • The long wait time to be approved for social security disability benefits leaves the disabled more vulnerable to homelessness and loss of needed medical treatment. Waiting for disability insurance (SSDI) to be approved, was yet another dehumanizing experience that included many roadblocks that appear to be “set up” to deter people from gaining benefits. With determination and grit, I was able to get my benefits awarded in a little over a year. However, I know many more who wait 2 and 3 years and lose everything in the process while waiting.
  • Programs, like section 8 that helps low income adults afford housing, have long waitlists and are often difficult to access. I have attempted to learn about housing opportunities here in Los Angeles so that I can be independent again and begin working a part-time job. I was told by the Department of Mental Health and another social agency that in order to receive section 8 here in Los Angeles, I would need to be experiencing homelessness. I have placed a few more calls to request about other programs for low income individuals who are dependent on their disability insurance as their only means of income, but they have been very slow to get back to me. I realize I have to be persistent, but again not everyone struggling has my education level or access to the stability I have in housing to make contact in a consistent manner. They might not have access to reliable internet or a phone. Not everyone who is struggling is well enough to voice their needs and remain consistent in pursuing services.

Lack of protection when there is a denial of rights or services. Often when an individual living with a mental illness experiences discrimination in the workplace, a denial of treatment, or another abuse, it is too easy to discredit the individual as often the above can be difficult to “prove”. Many times people who struggle experience poor treatment or other damaging incidents, but they are unaware of their rights or even if they are aware, it is common due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness for a lawyer to decline representation to provide a remedy.

  • Workplace disability discrimination is more common than one might think and victims often are unaware of their rights or have difficulty gaining representation. I have experienced multiple incidents of workplace discrimination in the form of denied accommodations and even the refusal to engage in interactive discourse to facilitate the process of getting accommodations set up. This has lead to job loss, loss of housing, loss of health insurance, and ultimately a disruption in continuity of care. The entity where one can file a complaint of discrimination, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), is often very slow to act. It took a year for them to investigate a claim of discrimination that I reported and I was already in another place of employment when the investigation began. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the civil rights law that protects those living with a disability from discrimination in the workplace, however, it’s language is often not specific enough to provide true consequences for those engaging in discriminatory practices. More often than not, places of employment are able to escape the consequences of discrimination and this leaves the employee extremely vulnerable, having to pick up the pieces and move forward. Many people who experience discrimination in the workplace are fearful to defend themselves as they may need a descent reference or might wish to avoid other negative consequences of doing so.
  • There is little protection for those who experience mistreatment from a mental healthcare provider. One can file a grievance and I have, but I have never had anyone follow up with me. Lawyers are very hesitant to get involved because the stigma lends many to believe that those living with a mental illness may not be credible, particularly when in an inpatient setting. Obviously, reaching out to report can be re-traumatizing for the victim in and of itself, especially when the victim is not “believed”.

Many of my examples are more than likely relatable to so many living with a mental illness. And believe it or not, I have many more stories that I could share. These experiences compound upon one another, and, over time, truly “break” a person. It becomes harder to trust the system and more difficult to trust medical providers enough to open up again and risk being vulnerable in order to receive help.

Living through so many tough experiences, I feel compelled to speak out regarding these issues. Many times, people lack the compassion towards those struggling because they only are viewing the one incident that is being shown to them at a particular time. Life is complex and too often I see people minimizing an individual’s struggle because they are simplifying their experience by looking at only one incident. Living with a mental illness often comes with many layers of struggle from living with the stressors of income instability, job and relationship losses, and dealing with the shame that stigma causes for those struggling. All of this is in addition to managing the symptoms of their illness. More often than not, when someone is requesting help, they have been “kicked around” a bit in the system, told “No” a lot, and are truly trying. It is truly hard out there.

This begs the question: “Why do so many not care? Where is our humanity?” I view our world as the interplay between us, the environment, and the systems we create to support a healthy relationship between the two. When we have many homeless living on our streets, we have to ask ourselves, how healthy is our society? Perhaps, those struggling with mental illness are more aware of these issues because some are faced with these risks and this makes them more attuned to the struggle. It is just a thought. My experiences over time have truly cultivated empathy. It hurts to see so many living on the streets. I personally know how hard it is to access the few services that exist to help people and I’m aware that the care is not always of stellar quality. I am acutely aware that had I not had a support system in place, I, too, may be at risk for homelessness.

I also am aware that many who struggle with issues of addiction were raised in families where their parents struggled in similar ways. The system failed to serve them as children and now they are adults mirroring what they have learned. Our society often devalues those who are currently incapable of contributing. And yet, the infrastructure simply isn’t there to help people to contribute. I am educated, persistent, and able to advocate for my needs and it was still impossible, at times, for me to receive the help I needed. As a result, I ended up relapsing and now I even have other physical illnesses, such as fibromyalgia, IBS, and migraines, that I feel are a culmination of living with an illness for so long and never “catching a break”.

I know in my heart that we have enough resources, talent, and creativity to address the problems of mental health issues and addiction that are now both at epidemic proportions. I feel if I want to see change in my community that I have a personal responsibility to act and to voice my concerns. Perhaps, in doing so people will become more aware of the challenges in addressing these issues, as they are complex and multi-layered. Isn’t it time to truly tackle mental healthcare in a creative way that not only changes lives, but changes our community and world? I would wager a guess that most people who do not see the value in serious mental healthcare reform would feel that it is too costly. In reality, the cost of the programs and services created to help families and individuals in need would be more than paid for by the decrease in rates of incarceration, disability insurance, and other medical costs incurred by individuals requiring repeated care due to relapse, etc. Investing in those who are struggling and early intervention/prevention will provide for less dependence overall.

Many times I can hear in people’s tired voices, who indicate that they are depressed, that they don’t know how to put their struggle into words. That is is “too much”. I hope by articulating my struggle I have shaved off a bit of the “iceberg’ so to speak that keeps so many of us immobile. It is too much and we shouldn’t have to work so hard to receive the treatment and services we need to help us truly recover. Society has a responsibility to meet us half way. No one is an island and the more we work collectively to address these systemic issues, the healthier our entire society will be. Our wealth, power, and sense of community is only as strong as our most vulnerable members living within it. How we treat those struggling is the difference between a decaying society and one that is flourishing, truly “rich”, and healthy.

I have hope in humanity. We are resilient and innovative. I hope by sharing my own complicated struggles that some become aware of the different issues impacting many of us who are still paddling at the surface, treading water. Give us a hand, pull us to shore. Be willing to listen. Many of us are willing to share, work, and engage with you. The struggle of so many has been weighing heavy on my heart this year and this is hopefully just the beginning of my own role as an advocate.

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The Political Divide and How it is Impacting My Mental Health

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This past year has been truly difficult for me. Election years in America seem nearly intolerable anymore, with hate and division sewn on both sides that have often left me feeling hopeless and “small”. Many times I feel as though people are talking over one another, belittling others, and even engaging in bullying behavior. Admittedly, I have, at times, engaged in these fruitless pursuits. But, many more times than not, I end up deleting my post or comments entirely, especially if it gains traction. It just doesn’t seem to be worth the energy to argue as I often wind up feeling defeated and even downright depressed.

This last year has been particularly hard for me. The rhetoric, tension, and dysfunction displayed on social media, parallels the narcissistic abuse I have been disengaging from in my own life. As many others, my leisure options have been somewhat limited due to the restrictions placed on our city to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Boredom sets in and I become restless, seeking stimulation on-line. The division and animosity felt on both sides leads me to retreating again and again, with a greater commitment each time to not “engage” anymore. But, I would be amiss to not share some of the observations I’ve made and what I’ve learned by disengaging.

Ultimately, and even oddly, this year has mirrored so much of what is occurring in my own personal life. I was diagnosed a few years ago with PTSD and this year has triggered my trauma while at the same time, providing the space and time to address it. The year 2020 has seemingly pushed me to my breaking point and forced me to deal with some of the harder emotions I had tried in the past to “stuff” and ignore. It’s been more challenging to distract myself when I’ve spent more time alone than ever before. As challenging as it has been for me to maintain stability in my mental health, I feel I’ve grown immensely during this time and have actually relied even more so on different and new ways to cope.

Here are some of the ways the political division and the coronavirus pandemic have impacted my mental health and the ways in which I am coping.

  • Becoming more aware of how stress is impacting my physical and emotional health. This year has allowed me to practice the skill of being more mindful and present. As a result of many businesses being shuttered, and having “less on my plate”, I have been able to slow down a bit and take notice of how stress is impacting my body. Being on social media with others during a time of less distraction, has allowed me to understand how unresolved conflict and the outward expression of it, causes an exacerbation of my symptoms of depression and anxiety. I began making the connection between the unhealthy relationships in my life and the impact they were having on my health. This has taught me to disengage more, not just on-line, but also with those in my life who are unhealthy for me.
  • Acknowledging when to disengage and practice self care. This last year has been difficult to witness. I can remember watching the first presidential debate and cringing. I couldn’t bring myself to actually “look” at the TV. The constant interruptions and “talking over one another” put me on edge and I found myself staring at the floor, almost feeling like I was the one being berated and criticized. I had to turn off the TV after a few minutes, because it was actually unsettling, and even triggering, to me in the end. Watching the debates kinda reminded me of the calm before the storm in my own life. The times I allowed too much from others, then later found myself swept up in emotion, raging. The constant on-line bickering also felt like a personal assault to me. I realized how toxic the on-line environment was and became more aware of certain negative patterns in my own life. This lead me to the process of disengaging and spending more time practicing self-care. This has allowed me to more quickly recognize my triggers and disengage earlier.
  • Acknowledging when relationships are truly hopeless, letting go, and redirecting my time and energy to worthwhile pursuits. The political divide, I feel, has mirrored, in ways, my own personal struggled with those in my life who often are not interested in compromise, yet still hold some level of power or influence in the lives of those I love. As a person who lives on disability insurance, I do not hold a lot of power in society, and voices like mine can often easily be muted or “drowned out”. The limited scope of power, both in my personal life and politically, has taught me to set stronger boundaries in order to protect and preserve my energy so that I can make a difference where I realistically can. Setting boundaries with myself and others and engaging in self-care, and not feeling guilty for doing so, has been a lesson I have learned during this time. Certain relationships are hopeless. Much like the futile attempts on-line to change someone’s political opinion, I have learned to just “let go” instead.

Election years are tough anymore. And this past one, coupled with a global pandemic, provided the space, time, and conflict to usher in a few “life lessons”. Even though it has been tough, I am grateful for what I have learned. I spent more time getting to know myself and was able to grow emotionally and spiritually during a time of turmoil. Life can be difficult and even painful, at times. With 2020 behind me, I feel like I have a few more tools in my toolbox as far as knowing how to disengage, set better boundaries for myself, and invest in endeavors that provide personal growth and contentment.

What lessons did 2020 teach you? Did you find yourself able to make some changes in your life that helped you, big or small? I definitely feel the the past year was a turning point. I’ve turned more towards myself and this has helped me to manage and cope with the symptoms of my PTSD. Here’s to hoping this year brings even more light and and self-love to everyone’s journey of healing!

The Broken Bootstraps of America: The Increasing Income Inequalities that are Breaking Us

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I have a story to tell, it’s a story that often goes untold because of the shame that surrounds it. An unpopular story that needs a voice, but rarely receives a listen. It’s a story that goes against what we’ve been taught, what we’ve ingested, and what’s been woven into our very identity as Americans. I’m sharing this story because I feel that we’ve been told a lie. A damning one, at that. In fact, it’s the greatest American lie of our times. And, I fear, it is breaking us.

The story has materialized over decades, where competition has been valued over collectivism; And where wealth, has been valued over an investment in humanity for the greater good. Those who have shaped our culture and who remain powerful, have spent an inordinate amount of time and investment amassing wealth in these capitalist, “United” States of America. They have done so under the guise of the “American Dream”, often by exploiting our societal and cultural norms of being fiercely independent and materialistic, leading us into isolation, and ultimately, to embittered division, and even, hatred.

The lie that was fed to us is called “The American Dream”. It is this very dream of “independence and amassing material wealth” that has been used to justify the ever increasing economic disparities in our country and the negligence of our most vulnerable citizens. It is safe to say that greed and lust for power is a human flaw that has lead to many systemic injustices, as well as a system of unwritten societal structures that have served to diminish one’s capacity to gain power, thus acquiring a piece of the “American Dream”.

Many people have been denied the acquisition of this “dream”. This lie, in fact, of the “American Dream” has been propagated to us over decades to instill fear and has been used by some to justify various systemic injustices. Many people have been told they haven’t tried hard enough, are lazy, and it is essentially their fault for never reaching stability or security in this country of great economic wealth. But, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor widens, the foundation begins to erode further, and one can see the cracks built upon the lie that ALL Americans have had equal access to the “dream”. It simply isn’t true.

Sadly, we’ve been living a lie and it is one that was spoon-fed to all of us in our educational settings and through our media, which drives our cultural norms and values. Most of our institutions and organizations are heavily influenced, and some even outright owned, by corporate entities. When political campaigns rely heavily on outside funding sources, there is little doubt that those in positions of power have a hold on the societal infrastructure that maintains their wealth. We’ve been manipulated into believing that monetary gain and financial security is a measure of an individual’s worth. That somehow if a person is wealthy, he/she must be intelligent, at least, and that securing wealth has become somewhat of the ultimate, American Dream.

But, hasn’t it become the American Nightmare?       

When millions are out of work and one wealthy individual spends millions on a home during a global pandemic, and is still revered by so many, haven’t we lost our way?

Those who are wealthy rely on those who are not to sustain them. Wealth does not “trickle down”. Instead, we have large corporations with owners who have the ability to spend millions on a single home, while their employees are unable to afford healthcare treatment and have to work two jobs to afford an apartment. While the owner spends lavishly, their employees are unable to save for a modest home in order to secure the tiniest slice of the American Dream that grants financial stability.

The extreme wealthy are so because they exploit labor. They have more, because the give so little. I am not referring to our small business owners. I am referring to the top 1% that are monopolizing resources, exploiting labor, and taking more than their fair share and they are doing so under the pretense that they somehow “worked harder” than others or are “smarter” in some way. The reality is no matter how they got into their position, once there, the “name of the game” is exploitation and maintaining the status quo. These individuals take more than they need and in order to do so, they must give so little. No one needs to live in grotesque excess. And yet, this is what our culture seems to value. This is actually the American Nightmare, and it’s maintenance of it through securing political “real estate” and essentially owning the media outlets that promote this fallacy, which I feel is breaking us in the end.

Some people in America have been blatantly, and more obviously, denied the American Dream through systemic racism, ableism, sexism, etc. This side of America is fighting not only for justice, but for equal access of which they have never truly had. Those who are living in rural areas are seeing this fight as a threat to their own struggles of seeing the cost of living, over time, rise while their wages stay the same. They feel invisible, that their hard work is going unrecognized, and that the programs and ideologies that will grant more access and equality to marginalized populations, will be a threat to their sustainability. These are people connected to the American soil, somewhat divorced from the urban areas and the problems that plague cities. The lines have been drawn and those in power are using the American public as pawns, easily used and discarded for personal power, wealth, and gain. Those in power are not connected to those who have so little of it. America is slowly crumbling and without serious mending, it will fall. Like any great empire, there comes a time when power is lost. Without recognition of these issues and what is at stake, we will continue to unravel and things will get worse.

I’ve felt called to write on this subject because I feel as an American our safety is increasingly at risk. I am connected to people from all walks of life: young and old, black, brown, or white, gay, trans, straight, Christian, Muslim or atheist, rural or urban dweller, etc. I feel we ultimately are products of our upbringing and the cultural frame in which we were raised. There has been a serious lack of education and awareness to certain issues, and again, much of this has been intentional. The influence from those in power who wish to maintain it, saturate our media and even often overshadow every aspect of our daily lives. It is inescapable. It truly takes one to intentionally question the information we receive and to purposely set out to seek understanding from others living here, and even abroad, to break the “spell” that we’ve all been subjected to both in media and in our institutions.

I see my country crumbling before me. I am ashamed to admit that there is so much I do not know. I am embarrassed to say that I live in one of the wealthiest countries, but I haven’t truly learned about the struggle of others abroad because I could “afford” not to do so. Like so many, I was living in a bubble, concerned with my own experiences. This past year has shaken me, awakening me to acknowledge the crumbling foundation and the dissolve of the “American Dream” that I now believe to be a “lie”. I see those struggling the most, sometimes barely hanging on, being blamed and gaslighted, by those who are comfortable in their modest wealth and who appear to be fine with the “status quo”.

We are a country on the “edge”. And we’ve been fed an atrocious lie. In our ethnocentrism and cloak of American “values”, we’ve boasted of being the ‘best”, when in reality we are ascribing to a sentiment that isn’t always practiced. We can do better. I can do better. Our values need to truly be reflected in all aspects of our American way of life. Otherwise, it is just “lip service”.

I will keep reading. I will keep learning. And I will keep my heart open and my voice will not waver. I grew up, fortunately, with parents who truly believed in the American core values of honoring diversity and living in a world where all were valued. I still believe in that America. I just feel that living here for so many years, without having to directly face certain harsh realities, I became numb in ways to the struggles that so many face, here and abroad. We cannot afford, as a nation, to remain numb or complacent. We are all interdependent and the world needs us to “wake up”. I think many of us are. I hope so anyway.

If we stay asleep and continue to crumble, not addressing the core root of our problems: greed and the lust for wealth and power, and the admiration of it, we will continue to erode and so many living in our country will not attain any measure of the American Dream. We are only as “rich” as our poorest citizen. Our communities are only safe and healthy when we invest in all of our citizens. When we stop gaslighting those who struggle here, and instead, provide them with equal access, we are strengthened. The American Dream, was called a “dream” for a reason. It was not real and never has been. But, we could get a lot closer to this dream by acknowledging the lie and listening to those hurt by the gaslighting, shift blaming, and stonewalling that has trickled down from the wealthy, spilling out of our mouths, denying others access to a part of our wealth.

We need to start listening to each other. Forget the memes, the media, and those seeking to divide us. We are stronger together. Let’s not play into their hands, sewing more division. Listen more. Love more. And hopefully, we will all “have more” as a result.

A Sibling’s Open Letter to the Deadly Disease of Addiction

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The last few years have been particularly difficult for me. I’ve had to disengage from my family due to their struggle with severe and persistent addiction. My sister and all of her adult children have struggled for more than a decade with substance abuse issues, causing severely strained relationships, disability, and even the recent loss of custody of my two great nephews. 

I wrote the letter below to help me process the pain of essentially losing my family to the very serious and deadly disease of addiction. Two of my family members are now disabled with severe and persistent mental illness due to their use of methamphetamines. None of my nieces and nephews are employed, nor did any of them receive their high school diplomas. My mother and I are no longer in communication because her denial and enabling over the years has fractured our relationship. I’ve had to disengage and take a break so that I can heal and begin to recover from the loss. 

Addiction truly is a family disease and it affects everyone in the family. I have found Nar-Anon to be a valuable resource for support and information for family members struggling to cope and heal with the presence of addiction in the family. Nar-Anon, adapted from Narcotics Anonymous, is a worldwide group whose members are family and friends who are concerned about a loved one’s struggle with substance abuse. Here is their website: https://www.nar-anon.org.   

Here is my letter to this deadly disease.

Dear Addiction

I hate you. 

I hate what you have done to those I love. You’ve taken their lives and ruthlessly thrown them into the fire, watching them burn, with indifference. You truly are the living embodiment of hell on earth.

Addiction, I hate you.

I loathe the day you waltzed in promising my sister that you would make things so much better for her. Rolling out the red carpet, giving her the royal treatment, and romancing her so she would get hooked. All the lies you fed her, knowing that when it was all said and done, another soul would be stolen and another victim, left, scrambling, sweating, sick on the floor, begging for more. All the times you gave her and others the false impression that they could easily let go of you, when and if they desired, knowing that your physical dependence would imprison & enslave them.

Addiction, I hate you.  

I hate the power you hold over those I love, and what they gave up when you finally secured a place in their soul. They gave up their identity and called themselves “addicts”, enslaving themselves to a lifetime of using and shame. You don’t deserve those victimized by you. You’re not only taking lives, you’re robbing millions of their potential and peace. Their waking hours are spent fixated on you, and how to remain in your “good graces”.  Some will steal, lie, and destroy relationships to maintain your presence in their lives.

Addiction, I hate you.  

I hate what you do to families, ripping them apart. I hate that your destruction causes bewilderment and confusion, leaving people uncertain whether to confront or enable. Often, children, affected by your disease, will defend you and may even grow up somewhat complacent and numb to the chaos you have created. You sit back waiting, chomping at the bits to claim another victim. Children, raised in an environment where you reign, are particularly vulnerable. 

Addiction, I hate you.

You tell your victim lies, entrapping them in shame and self-loathing, many times causing them to discard their loved ones who confront their drug use. You mock those who are to trying to keep your victims safe. Those screaming in the distance are muted by the noise you cause, that continually deafens and disorients your victim. 

Addiction, I hate you.  

I hate you for destroying my family bonds. As the flames grew higher, and the devastation reached epic proportions, some of us screamed louder, while others have enabled more and shrunk back in denial. I’ve screamed so much that my voice has become hoarse, hitting a brick wall, reverberating around this dark chamber that has become all too familiar. I’ve been sent to the dungeon, cold and alone, by the loved ones who you have claimed as your victims. Nothing penetrates the walls you’ve built, keeping the victim in a vicious cycle, enslaving them, encouraging them to justify their actions that serve you, and you alone. You’ll have your victim admit that they are powerless, but your allure will entice them to forever stand close to the fire. The fire is never entirely extinguished.  I have become disillusioned and have danced around the flames, sometimes raging, and other times desperately trying to reach you. And you discard me once again.  

Addiction, I hate you. 

Through the years of my experience knowing you, I have doubted my own reality. I have looked through the eyes of the victim and no longer know if it is you or my sister that I am staring at and this devastates me. Her adult kids have now all been touched by your fire and are struggling as we speak.

Addiction, I hate you.  

If one ever tries to cut ties with you, you hold on like a bitch with nails, clinging, taking the life out of them. You torture them with beatings and lashings, as they hurl you from their body, clinging to the toilet, and sinking on the floor, sweating. “I’ll teach you never to leave me!” You snarl and spit in their face, sometimes hijacking their minds with hallucinations and delusional thinking.  

No, it’s hell to leave you.  

You do not want to relinquish your control.

Addiction, I hate you.  

And when the dust settles, there is stillness. And then, there is the dealing with the aftermath while the cravings for you are forever present, occupying a permanent space in the victim’s mind.    

Addiction, I hate you.  

And, if all of this is not enough, your victims wear the label of “addict”, having to rebuild, often ashamed and remorseful. There are some who have been sitting at your table for so long they have lost themselves. Your presence can cause changes to the brain that may lower empathy and create cognitive issues. I am perpetually oscillating between the extremes of trying to help and becoming angry and aggressively confronting . I am seen as harsh and cruel, when really I am sad and scared. I have become an indirect victim, my moods and perceptions often altered by this deadly, intoxicating dance. 

Addiction, I hate you.  

Because of you, I am letting go of my family. Not just my sister, and her family, but my mother as well. It’s getting too hard to keep trying, only to be devalued and discarded. The pain has become too intolerable for my mother. She compensates with enabling and denial which only serves to further isolate me, while those I love become increasingly more sick. I sometimes lose my dignity in anger and rage, saying things I know will only cause me more shame and sadness. I begin to wonder and fear if some victims ever reach full recovery from you. 

And, then, I hate on you some more. 

Addiction, I hate you. 

Your reign in my life is over. I have truly tried to save my sister and her kids from your very ugly, abusive ways, but it is up to them to ride this dangerous storm out and do what is necessary to seek help and change. I will remain hopeful that they one day they have the strength and perseverance to eradicate you from every inch of their lives. You have absolutely no place in mine. I will be more healthier in the end, letting go, healing, and remaining available, when and if any are ready to heal.

Goodbye, addiction.  

I’ve learned that those who leave you, must be the one to cut ties. No one can do it for them. I hope to one day stand on the other side of you, with my family, free from the pain and suffering you’ve created.

Addiction, I hate you.
Our story is complete.

Please Stop Scapegoating Those Living with a Mental Illness

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With all the on-line bickering and arguing as of late, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. It’s become so commonplace, that I see something nearly every day that truly rubs me the wrong way. It is the “scapegoating” of those living with a mental illness in social media. And it is not something that is only being done by “one side” or the other of the political divide, it is actually rampant on both sides.

Some examples I’ve recently seen are:

*Referring to those who are “racist” as “mentally ill”.

*Calling either political party “mentally ill” because their beliefs are in opposition to yours.

*Stating that someone is “mentally ill” because the are unwilling to take the vaccine to prevent Covid-19.

*Responding to an article about an individual who committed a violent act as “mentally ill”.

*Referring to those who are members of extremist groups as “mentally ill”.

This list goes on and on. Many of the above examples “scapegoat” those living with a mental illness by generalizing an entire group of diverse individuals by affixing the label, “mentally ill”, in a context that is dehumanizing and demeaning to those who truly suffer. As someone who has lived with a mental illness for nearly 32 years, this obviously is upsetting to me. And, it also increases the stigma surrounding mental health.

For those of us actually living with a mental illness, we realize that our diagnosis, disability, or condition does not define us. When you collectively refer to any group of people as “mentally ill”; You are devaluing this population by stereotyping and generalizing a group of nearly 44 million adults (roughly 18.5% of the US population) who come from all walks of life, socio-economic backgrounds, educational levels, etc.

As someone who lives and struggles with Bipolar 1, PTSD, OCD, and ADHD, I get tired of having “mental illness” being used as the catch-all and “go-to” phrase as the rational for everything wrong with humanity. When humans behave in harmful ways, a mental illness is NOT always to blame.

Hatred and the type of ideologies that lead to violence or discrimination, stems from learned behavior. Fear as well as a lack of education and exposure to others and novel ideas, can also lead individuals to act in irrational ways.

It is crucial to understand that living with an actual psychiatric disorder, causes the individual who is struggling to experience limitations and symptoms that are disruptive to his or her life. This could take form in a number of ways to include difficulty with employment, relationships, and even basic self care. Some struggle more than others and each individual’s experience is unique.

Many people who live with degrees of racism/homophobia/misogyny etc. actually do not experience any limitations in their day to day functioning and they are still able to function with little to no problems. So, acting in a violent way, espousing racist ideas, etc. may not mean you actually would fit into the criteria of having an established psychiatric diagnosis.

On the converse, many of those who live with a mental illness might struggle in a variety of ways, but are caring and empathetic individuals who have never been violent and are competent members of society who contribute both at work and in their respective communities. This includes people from all walks of life: pastors, nurses, teachers, etc. Often, because of the stigma attached to mental illness, individuals do not always disclose their struggle.

Thus, when I see so many people use the term “mentally ill” to describe a violent or racist individual, etc. it is harmful to me and others who are working to debunk the myths surrounding mental health and decrease stigma.

I actually spend a lot of time on-line educating others. Sometimes, I have been pleasantly surprised to receive an apology when I explain to an individual who has just equated racism with mental illness, that their words are every bit as damaging to the mental health community as certain expressions are to POC.

Those of us living with a psychiatric disorder are like anyone else. We want to be seen for who we are, not for our disability. And we want to be seen in a positive light.

I live with a mental illness. I also am educated and hold a MS degree. I have never harmed anyone, nor have I ever been violent or arrested. When you take the word “mentally ill” and equate it with something truly negative, it is harmful to people like myself.

I hope this helps people to understand that changing what words we use actually matters, even when it is something as trivial as a comment on a Facebook or Twitter post. Words are powerful. They matter. Please respect them and use them responsibly.

I hope one day I see a lot less scapegoating and stigmatization of the mentally ill. It does make me more hesitant to openly discuss my psychiatric disability for fear that people will assume “the worst” about me. And this causes some individuals to not seek treatment because they don’t want to be identified as someone with a psychiatric disorder.

I am just like YOU. I am just another person journeying along in life, trying my best to improve, grow, and learn. Next time someone scapegoats an entire population of people, please remember me. There are 44 million more of me in this country and we want to be seen for who we are, not diminished to a label in a demeaning and disrespectful way!

Thanks for reading. I just felt this was something I needed to express, not only for myself, but for the many others who also might feel dismayed and discouraged by being scapegoated. Let’s lift each other up and see the best in all of us!

Hearing I’m Sorry Isn’t Always a Reason to Stay

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Sometimes saying, “I am sorry” isn’t “good enough”. Especially, when those words have beed dropped so effortlessly from your tongue, with no context, nor an explanation as to why, and with no observable change in behavior that follows.

I grow weary of hearing, “I’m sorry”. I grow nauseated of being reminded how many times it’s been uttered from you.

There comes a time in life when you realize the one holding the key to the heavy shackles weighing you down is yourself. It then becomes, a conscious decision to unlock the shackles binding you and fling them to the ground, thus freeing yourself from the chains that have kept you in bondage for so long. For years, we may have not even known we possessed the key. And even after the discovery, it can be years after that until we are willing to let go of the comfort of the old patterns and beliefs that have captivated us for so long.

Once the shackles fall, with a loud thud on the ground below, there is more work to do. If we are not careful, we will get swept up in the layers of sadness, even despair, that is stagnating in the dense air surrounding us. We’ll find ourselves choking on it, biting back the tears, wishing we could of somehow managed to save and savor what we sacrificed years trying to obtain. No amount of effort would have saved what we lost. Often times, we discover it was never truly “ours” in the first place. Perhaps, what we so desperately desired was to commune with ourselves and to preserve the dignity that we lost when we weren’t yet ready “to let go”. The depth of what we sensed was missing in our lives is nearly equal to the space we need to fill completely with ourselves. This is where and how we turn the page.

And, at times, it feels like the heaviest and hardest page to turn. We agonize over the next chapter, with trepidation and uncertainty, fearing that what we accepted in the past must surely be so much larger and better than what could ever discover for ourselves in the future. Even when the times in our past were lonely or painful, it can be still difficult to “let go”. Looking back, there were surely times that were spent stuck, in limbo, grieving what was lost in the past and worrying about what may or may not transpire in the future.

Even so, in this space of “limbo”, we are learning. And we are, at times, becoming swept up again by the inaction of others, allowing their “story” to take precedent in our lives while we take a “back seat”. Maybe the larger fear is the responsibility gained when success is achieved. For some, maybe that prevents them from going forward. Have we become so used to “falling short” that the mere idea of success becomes paralyzing? Even so, there is something pushing us forward. Change happens. It is the one constant we can acknowledge. Nothing remains the same in the end. I’d like to embrace change fully as it’s overtly apparent to me at the moment that everything has drastically shifted. Not just in my personal life, but also on a global scale. And I would even say, on a spiritual level.

As of late, I have been “showing up” in my life, sometimes even fighting mad. I’m no longer willing to accept an apology that is not followed by action. I definitely will not entertain one when I have to continue to “ask for it”. My boundaries are becoming stronger and my tolerance for abuse in any form: gaslighting, shift-blaming, dishonestly, manipulation, discarding, etc. has reached its limit. ENOUGH. Even with members of my family, I have now “cut ties” and have “walked away”. This has been difficult. But, again, I had for years sacrificed so much of my time, energy, and space for people who gave little to nothing to me. To people who were complacent and remained silent, or even, at times, defended or protected those who were harming me and others who I love.

And so, I will “let go”. And I intend to keep walking. I remind myself, in leaving, that I have already proven in a past romantic relationship, when I felt I wasn’t strong enough to leave, that I am capable of doing so. That relationship has been over for 4 years. In fact, once the coronavirus is defeated, I feel ready to date again. I took the time to heal and am excited about the future.

It has taken me a few years “to turn the page” and believe my story as well as reclaim my dignity. I’ve stopped engaging in the fabricated world they create to justify their mistreatment of me. I actually sincerely feel pity and sorrow for those so lost and separated from themselves that they continually hurt others by denying intimacy and truth in their lives. The time I spent trying with them was fruitless in that the relationship was never repaired, but I did grow immensely from the experience.

Loving thyself is actually is being honest and real with oneself. There is no denial of one’s imperfections or mistakes. Self-loathing during difficult times when rejected or mistreated, is now being replaced with practicing self compassion and forgiveness. It is trying harder to set firm boundaries and acknowledging that this is “hard stuff” to learn so “late in life”. It is being kind and gentle with myself.

And so, the page turns. Not always with ease. Sometimes, with hot and salty tears, grieving what I feel should have been “mine”.

We all deserve love, protection, honesty, intimacy, human touch, compassion, laughter, joy, light-heartedness, to feel safe, etc. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to cultivate these things for yourself. Once that is accomplished, there is a deep sense of mastery in life whereby relapses, triggered by rejection or other incidents outside of our control, become easier to manage and the duration shorter. Life will still have its difficult days, but you’ll be less likely to be moved from “the center” that you cultivated over time that is “yours”.

I’m still active in this journey towards wholeness and healing. I still have both good and bad days. I feel I bounce back more quickly and am more “separate”, allowing for distance and space between myself and those who have harmed me. That space provides peace, and even, joy, at times.

I hope this New Year finds you focused on your well-being, safety, and healing. Much joy and light along your path. We are all just trying to find our way. We all hold a deep reservoir of love, peace, joy, and light within us. May all of these things grow within you this year. That is my hope for myself and you! Thanks for reading!

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Snowflakes and Forgiveness: Letting Go and Living after Trauma

The following video is one I created using an older blog post and stock images from Storyblocks.com. I am new to this process, but decided to go ahead and share. I am hoping to develop my skills in creating videos and then post them to YouTube, as well as my blog.

This post is about letting go and forgiving both the self and others after surviving trauma. I have lived through the childhood trauma of being molested at the tender age of 4 by a next-door neighbor. In my adult life, I have lived through two abusive relationships, one with someone I had planned to marry and another with my nuclear family. The video below takes a post that I wrote a few years back, and uses the imagery of a snowstorm as a metaphor of letting go and forgiving, thus becoming “lighter in life”. Snow always covers up the rougher edges of life and instills calm and peace. I hope you enjoy!

Letting Go of the Shame Caused by Stigma

Me and Gracie!

That’s me above, and my pup, Gracie.  This picture was taken nearly 5 years ago while I was still working.  I was living in Seattle, WA at the time, and working in a long term facility as a recreation therapist (CTRS).  And, trust me, even while donning a huge smile, I was severely anxious and struggling! 


Since then, I’ve been approved for SSDI and have been focusing on rebuilding my health, one day at a time. My  hope is to live gracefully with my illnesses of: Bipolar I, PTSD, ADHDOCD, and PMDD. I have learned to accept my illness and am acquiring new skills and approaches to cope more effectively.
 
The suffering I’ve endure related to my mental illness has been amplified by the stigma and the shame surrounding it.  It has taken me years to separate myself from the symptoms that my illness has caused and the stigma that is perpetuated by those who lack the awareness and sensitivity to understand my struggle. The shame I feel from having an illness has significantly decreased over time, as I have worked to cultivate acceptance and compassion for my struggle.
  
The “stigma and shame” surrounding the “suffering” can, at times, exacerbate the severity of my illness. It has taken years of healing to separate the “suffering” from the “stigma” and the “shame” that often accompanies mental illness. I share in the following paragraphs how the suffering, which is often biological for me, has been impacted by the stigma I’ve faced, which inadvertently causes shame. Being able to see these as independent from one another, has allowed me to move further along in my healing process. 
        
What do I mean by my “suffering”? 

My “suffering” is my life-long struggle with an illness that causes chemical changes in my brain that are often difficult for me to manage and control. I never chose to be mentally ill, not for a certain time period, or even for a day! In fact, my illness began when I was in the “prime” of my life! I was captain and MVP of the swim team, had a leading role in the school musical, and was well supported by my friends and church. Like many others who struggle, I was active and involved prior to the onset of my mental illness. My illness began around my sophomore year, and it crept along, gaining momentum, until one day it was painfully obvious to others that something was just “not right”.  In my case, my struggle presented itself as a combination of symptoms that included: obsessive & intrusive thoughts, delusions, anxietypanic attacksdepression, and disassociation. I was acutely aware that my thought processes were somewhat “off” and I decided, on my own, to seek treatment. It was unsettling to me at the time and caused me much distress.
  
I have often made the comparison that my “suffering” is much like having an onslaught of bad “side effects” to a prescribed medication, except that the symptoms are often more severe than that of side effects and the onset and duration of symptoms can be unpredictable and uncertain. For example, too much caffeine may cause some to experience symptoms comparable to mild mania in that they may be: edgy, anxious, irritable, energetic, even euphoric, etc.  Their mind might even race and they may feel overly optimistic about what they can accomplish.  Depression can feel somewhat like taking too much Benadryl for an allergy attack: one can feel foggy, exhausted, excessively sleepy, and withdrawn.  In drawing these comparisons, I am trying to help a person who doesn’t suffer understand that the symptoms are not only biological, like side effects that must wear off, but they are also difficult to “snap out off”.  Unfortunately, for the sufferer, it is not as easy as discontinuing a medication to stop the unwanted side effects. 
  
Thus, my “suffering” is a lot like clipping along and doing “ok” and then being suddenly blindsided by a cycle of unwanted “side effects” in which there is no escape.  Sounds like a personal hell, right?  It is. This is the suffering that most people (unless they experience it) do not understand, while some others do not even acknowledge. Medication and other approaches (mediation, therapy, etc.) can sometimes alleviate or decrease symptoms, but many of us suffer for years, on and off, endlessly trying to “escape” a chemical imbalance that causes the illness.  

The Stigma: 

Unfortunately, because mental illness is often misunderstood, I’ve had to “suffer” in world that stigmatizes and shames those struggling.  There are many people that question the validity of mental illness and have unfair and unrealistic expectations of those struggling. I can remember being released from my first hospital stay and friends laughing at me or telling me I just need to “snap out of it”. I even had a counselor in college who told me, I needed to “pull my boots straps up, and try harder”. Obviously, this caused me immense shame as I blamed myself when I struggled to control my moods or manage my level of anxiety. This compounded my anxiety and depression as I felt ostracized from others and would resort to “self-loathing” when my illness became episodic and I couldn’t “snap out of it”. I often blamed myself and became more alienated. I was diagnosed before the internet was in existence and couldn’t reach out to “social media” or on-line groups for support.  
  
Often people who have a mental illness feel that they must hide their struggle from the workplace, for fear of retaliation. I remember after being initially diagnosed in the early 90’s with Bipolar 1, I was told to “hide” my diagnosis from others, particularly in the workplace. This only served to ramp up my anxiety as I struggled to keep everything “sucked in” and hidden from view. I have even lost jobs and experienced discrimination in the workplace when requesting help in the form of accommodations. My struggle was often viewed as not credible and I was seen as a “troublemaker” or an “attention seeker”.
  
The stigma surrounding those struggling with a psychiatric disorder, often prevents people getting help in the workplace and seeking treatment. The effects of stigma can be devastating and can mean job losses and access to adequate care.  Many of the failures stemming from those suffering are not the fault of the individual struggling, but of the inadequate and unjust system that perpetuates stigma and negative stereotypes.  

The Shame:

The stigma can lead to a deep level of shame. Without others having the awareness and/or sensitivity of my illness, of which I felt I had to “hide”, there were times I was misunderstood. I might have been seen as haughty or short when I had to disappear quickly to manage an escalating panic attack. I may have been viewed as uninterested or unmotivated on a day when I was struggling with my depression. My symptoms were often misinterpreted as my personality, and this caused me conflicts with others. In time, I could see clearly that my illness had robbed me of my potential in the workplace, but NOT of my talent, motivation, experience, or passion. It was often how I decompensated during times of stress, due to my illness, that wrecked me. And my frantic efforts to to feign “normalcy” only exacerbated things, until I just “quit” abruptly, or began missing too much work.
 
These lived experiences of struggling, experiencing stigma, and then feeling shame, ultimately caused me to respect my illness, for what it truly is: a devastating biological illness that affects my mood and perceptions which is often visibly seen through my behaviors. I began to see the distinction between myself, when I am suffering, and myself when I am not. I started to challenge myself in the midst of my suffering to let go of the shame that I had relating to my behavior when sick.  I could see that focusing on the negative behaviors that arise during an episode, often served to keep me hooked in a cycle of shame and regret.  Instead, I decided to give the illness the respect it deserved and I spent time finding ways to aggressively fight it and keep it at bay. 
 
If you are like me, if will more than likely rear its ugly head again, but this time when it does, I have decided to forgive myself, instead of lamenting the mistakes made when chained against my will, and suffering with a serious mental illness. Now, I get busy working to “get ahead” of the next episode.  I’ve decided to be like a hunter and become skilled at tracking it down, intercepting it, hopefully before it escalates too much. And even, if I become ill, and things “get messy”, I quickly return to practicing self compassion and respecting the chronic mental illness that I live with that takes immense effort to manage effectively. 

I’ve learned through a lot of years of tears and immense pain, that I don’t have to be ashamed anymore. I also acknowledge that many people are going to misunderstand my illness and there is only so much I can do to educate and inform others. My hope is through writing I can help others better understand what it has been like struggling now for nearly 32 years with a severe and persistent mental illness. And, I am immensely proud of the courage and persistence I espouse, despite the often insurmountable odds I’ve faced living in a world that is still sometimes not accepting or sensitive to my struggle. I hope this helps others. If it does, I am even more grateful for what I’ve lived through and survived. 

Surviving Being The Scapegoat

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Looking back at the last few years, I wonder, how I even survived it all. Watching helplessly as my family was annihilated by addiction and sociopathy while at the same time, being devalued, discarded, and invalidated by my own mother. Constantly signaling alarm, seeing the writing on the wall, and forecasting the devastation with surprising accuracy… but doing so alone and alienated. And doing so while being gaslighted, shift-blamed, stone-walled, and discredited. It has been really hard. And it has hurt me, both physically and emotionally.

The times I’ve dropped to the floor wincing in pain, sobbing loudly. Or the times, I’ve had to take a muscle relaxer or two and an Ativan to be able to breathe, because I am holding the tension and my breathe so tightly that I become fearful that I might soon find myself in the ER. Submerging my body into the hot bath water I poured with Epsom salts, trying my best to regain balance and bring myself back to baseline. This is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). And this is what it causes for me.

I have lost my ability to work for now and am doing my best to rebound after relapsing and becoming severely depressed. I even have experienced difficultly swallowing for nearly a year (still struggle somewhat) and lost 80 pounds in a short 6 months. And the last year, as the Coronavirus raged on, so did my rage with my family as it became more evident that my sister’s wrath towards me was intentional and my Mother’s complacency more visible than ever. I was told by my sister that I was hated, no longer part of the family, and denied the joyous occasion of the birth of my great nephew. I reacted to the abuse, at times, poorly, I admit. And yet, it dawned on me this year that I was in a losing battle. Nothing I could say or do would prevent my sister’s manifesto to character smear me and destroy any familial bonds I had left. My pleas for her to get help for her addiction fell on deaf ears, while she continued to deny and lie her way through losing custody of her grandchild and him testing positive for ingesting Meth. Even my own mother lied to cover up that my great nephew, a 3 year old, tested positive for ingesting meth. These lies, among other abusive tactics made to equate my reactions to the abuse to the ACTUAL abuse that was occurring, further alienated me from my family during a time the whole world was dealing with the alienation surrounding a “global pandemic”. When commercials on TV boasted of “staying home” and how family was so important, mine was becoming blown apart at the seems.

There were weeks that I was wrapped up, consumed, and lost in the grief of losing an entire family, knowing instinctively, and through years of observation, that it wasn’t just an addiction, but sociopathy that wreaked havoc on every member of my family. And while doing so, my Mom turned a blind eye to the pain and devastation that kept mounting for all of us. My step-Dad was never present, nor was he a part of any endeavor to protect us. And so, now what is left, is an epic mess of a broken and disordered family system that is too fractured to reconcile. It would take a miracle of sorts to fix what has been broken. Two family members are now severely mentally disabled due to the drug use and the deep neglect and enabling they endured when they took the same road as their mother. One is quickly speeding towards disability as we speak. Another has lost custody of her two children and is in rehab, but this situation remains tenuous and fragile, especially if she goes back to the same environment where she was using. And as for me, there does come a point where you have to walk away and say ENOUGH is ENOUGH. I do realize that so much of the devastation is being perpetuated by historical cycles of abuse and the negative coping mechanisms resulting from having endured it. My mother, sister, and step-father all have their own personal struggles and I do feel they often are completely unaware and divorced from their own negative ways of coping that are hurtful to me. Some of what they do that is hurtful is not intentional, but it does not dismiss the complacency that often follows and the lack of action that occurs after an apology. My attempts to have equal power and influence in the family, whereby my needs are met, are often ignored and not acted on and it just ends up a very negative and damaging cycle. When I attempt to get my needs met with my sister, it is often met with disdain and abuse and I am belittled and quickly discarded and ignored.

I deserve a safe, loving, kind family. One that cares to call and check in on me and ask about my life.

And so, I am writing this today as I wish to again ACCEPT the devastation and MOVE FORWARD. Writing about the pain might help others reading know that they are not alone. Some pain, especially involving “family hurts”, truly runs deep.

Some days, I go back and massage the hurts and again, feel the depth of what I lost. I still feel in many ways, perhaps, at least with my sister, that I haven’t had much of an amenable, reciprocal relationship for decades now. Putting the words down on paper, visibly, helps to provide the distance needed to heal.

It allows me to validate my own inner experience while simultaneously having hope that someone out there is reading this and relating and feels less lonely in their struggle.

It is hard sometimes. But, we survive the hard days when accepting the truth. I am surviving them by also expressing my truth. I do so, anymore, unapologetically. I do so now without self-loathing. In time, I will be past the pain and will be in a different spot altogether. Until then, this is how I am moving forward and surviving the loss.

My life has the potential to be peaceful and fulfilling. I am slowly releasing the grip history has had on me. I am writing my own script and practicing compassion and forgiveness.

And I am releasing and distancing from any and all expectations I have from my “family”.

I realize every individual in my family has their own struggle, their own pain, and their own ways of coping…. be it positive or negative. I will not return to the negative ways of coping. There is a new dawn and I will not fear flying solo when I’ve learned over time that I have already been doing so… just with so much weight on my wings.

I am OK and I am ENOUGH.

In ways this global pandemic has overshadowed and paralleled my own personal struggles and fears. It has forced me to look inward, while at the same time, providing a bird’s eye view of both the tragedy and miracle of life. It has given me pause to appreciate what I have taken for granted, while affording the time to accept “what is” and work to create the space and distance needed to provide peace.

I feel we are living in extraordinarily spiritual times. And my road has lead me down a path of solitude for now. I may get a little lost at times, but I am on the path towards forgiveness and compassion.

I wish you light along your journey.