Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Self Care Progress, Kind Of

I happen to be in a profession that really takes a toll on my body.  Being an elementary school teacher I am on stage for nearly 6 hours a day and it is extremely exhausting work.  I love it and I'm good at it, but it really wears me down.  I often get sick about this time of year, and it has happened again.

I'm grateful to have a boss that understands that family and your health need to come before work, but it's still hard to take time away when I need it.  The students don't generally respond well to substitutes, and when I come back there is often something to deal with that happened while I was gone.  On top of that, it typically takes about an hour or more to get the plans together to have a substitute in your class.  It's not the kind of job where you can just wake up and call in sick.  

It was this exact week last year, the week before Christmas break from school, that I was home in bed all week beginning my recovery from pneumonia.  I remember the week before I had noticed a cold or something developing in my chest.  However, instead of recognizing the signs and slowing down I ignored it and thought I could push through it until Christmas break.  Well, that didn't turn out too well.  Being so sick was scary, and being in bed for over a week definitely got my attention.  This past year I've really tried to work on taking better care of myself and recognizing the signs my body gives me.  I've had mixed results.

I'd like to tell you that I've made all of these dramatic changes; that I exercise regularly, eat well, and get consistent sleep.  As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety I know the importance of these things for my well being.  But if I told you that I'd be lying.  I exercise occasionally, I love beer and ice cream, and sometimes I stay up too late on work nights and don't get enough sleep.  The unavoidable stress of having two dogs, two teenage boys, and a busy job definitely play a role in all of this.  I try to remember this and do my best.  I think a big part of my self care is not expecting perfection, and to be gentle with myself when I don't make the best choices.

As often is the case, I had another opportunity this week to make a better choice given similar circumstances.  On Saturday, which was the exact day last year that I was diagnosed with pneumonia, I began feeling that congestion in my chest and the exhaustion of an oncoming illness.  But this time I listened to my body.  I rested that whole day and Sunday also.  Then I went to work yesterday and took it as easy as I could on a rainy day with kids in the room all day.  During the times they were working and inside recess time I diligently worked on my sub plans for today.  So now I am home resting and trying to get over this thing.  I cancelled my therapy appointment for today and I took a long nap. I'm far from perfect when it comes to taking care of my body, but I can celebrate the fact that I listened better to my body this year than I did last year.  I'm hoping that means it will pass quickly and not linger into my Christmas break.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I am a Stigma Fighter

About five months ago I began writing this blog and quickly became connected with people around the world who also blog about issues related to mental illness.  Within a day of posting my first entry I was connected to someone through a mutual friend who was also a mental health blogger.  She promptly added me to a private Facebook page for mental health advocates who blog about their experiences.  It was a bit overwhelming at first to be among all these accomplished writers who were doing great things as mental health advocates, but it was also a wonderful gift.  I realized I was not alone in this endeavor, that there are thousands of people all over the world doing amazing things to raise awareness about mental illness and end the stigma and shame associated with having a mental illness.

One of those people is Sarah Fader.  She has created a webpage called Stigma Fighters where people share their stories of living with a mental illness.  It is very powerful to see people from all walks of life taking a risk and sharing their stories of suffering in order to heal themselves and others.  She is trying to take the next step and turn Stigma Fighters into a non-profit organization that would create chapters at college campuses where students who struggle can become part of a community who understands.  In order for her to take this next step, she needs to raise $5,000 to become a non-profit and set up some tours of college campuses to get things started.  

 I was so impressed by her work and I decided to get involved a bit.  I donated some money and also submitted my own story of living with mental illness to her page. Stigma Fighters is a community, and I am happy to be a part of it.  Around this time I also began following the progress of her fundraising and was surprised and disappointed to see that more people were not donating.   

I think people don't realize the severity of this problem, especially for our young people.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24.  As a father of two teenagers this really scares me.  Mental illness and suicide are not things that only happen to "other people", it can happen to anyone.  There are over 1,000 suicides annually at U.S. colleges, which means an average of three people each day taking their own life on a college campus. 

Despite all of this, I still never really hear about it.  It's still a topic that is taboo and filled with shame for people.  By not talking about this issue, we are teaching our youth that it is indeed a shameful thing that should not be spoken of.  Then when youth begin to have symptoms, as many do, they feel ashamed, isolated, and don't know how to get help.  They need to know it's okay to talk about it, and they need to have a place where they can get help.  Stigma Fighters can be that place. I sincerely hope that this money can be raised so Sarah can continue moving forward with this important work.  Without a doubt I know it does and will continue to save lives.  

If you are interested in donating here is the link to her fundraising page:  http://www.funddreamer.com/campaigns/help-stigma-fighters-become-a-501c3

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Staying Afloat

I haven't been able to write for several weeks now.  I'm not really sure why, but I have a few theories.  First, ever since I shared my story of living with depression publicly at church about a month ago I just am not sure what to talk about.  That was such an intense experience that maybe I just felt like I needed to crawl back in my shell for a bit?  Another possible theory is the "my life is crazy" theory.  This has been a really tough last several months for me.  Both of my sons are having difficult years in school (10th and 7th grade) and the tension and conflict in the house is really creating a lot of stress.  On top of this we got a new dog, a one year old bulldog, right around the time school started.  She is having a harder time of settling in than we had hoped, and it really feels similar to having a toddler back in the house.  She chews things and we need to watch her most of the time.  The combination of these two things has me so busy and stressed I don't often have time to slow down and reflect.

Whatever the reason, I don't like it.  I miss writing, I miss publishing things, and I miss the cathartic experience of putting things on "paper" and sharing it with the world.  When life is stressful I need that release that writing brings me even more.  So here I am, trying again to write.  Seeing what may come.  I'm guessing this won't be one of my better posts, and it will likely reflect where my mind is right now.  Scattered. 

These last several weeks have been particularly challenging.  Truthfully, we are at the point of not being sure if we will be able to keep our new dog.  This is a really difficult decision to make because our youngest son has become really attached to her and we worry about the effect giving her up would have on him.  We have a trainer we have worked with before, and are going to give that a shot before making any decisions.  Part of this is that she requires so much attention and energy, and our boys haven't been as helpful as we had hoped.  They are struggling to keep up with their workload in school as it is.

So in this time the question I am often asked by my therapist is, "What can you do to take care of yourself?"  Well... I suppose that's an area where I'm a bit of a mixed bag right now.  On the one hand, I'm going to yoga once or twice a week.  I really love yoga and it clears my head and gives me a fresh perspective most of the time.  On the other hand, I find myself turning to alcohol a bit more frequently after a stressful day.  Not an excessive amount, but it likely makes me more worn out in the long run.  I think my biggest barrier to self-care though is just being hard on myself.  Expecting myself to be perfect, getting down on myself for not always reacting in the best way when things get tough with my sons.  Life is just hard sometimes, and now is one of those times.  This is always a difficult time of year with the days getting shorter, the long stretch of school from August to November without many breaks, and just getting worn down.  I need to remind myself that I don't have to be perfect.  I need to remember all of the good things that I do, and not dwell on my struggles but learn from them. I need to keep writing, connecting, and reaching out when I feel overwhelmed and disconnected.  I'm starting to do those things a bit more this last week, and I can feel the difference.

So despite the fact that my household feels much like a battle zone these days, I am hanging in there.  I am doing my very best to be a good parent, husband, teacher, and person while still working to take care of myself.  I'm certainly not doing it perfectly, but that isn't my goal anyway.  Doing my best, being transparent about what is happening, and living with the results is what I'm striving for. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Bump in the Road

It's hard for me to say I'm not doing okay.  But that's where I was much of today.  My depression and anxiety are lying to me.  I don't believe them, but it's still been a hard day.  I've been having negative thoughts about myself, overreacting to things, and I just wanted to hide in a corner somewhere.  And truthfully, sometimes in these moments hiding in a corner for a while is the best thing I can do.

I was already feeling a bit off when I woke up this morning, it seems it's been building up for a week or so with the stress and just feeling not quite right.  Being overly busy, which I have been for over a month, can trigger a mood like this.  Especially once I have a bit of down time like I have had this weekend.  Today at church was youth Sunday, which meant both of my sons would be participating in the service in one way or another.  One was leading the prayer and the other was playing his electric bass with the band and reading scripture.  It "should" have been a happy and proud moment for me, but when I'm feeling bad it doesn't really matter what's happening on the outside.  I am proud of my sons and they did a great job, but my actual experience at church was mostly one of self-judgment and social anxiety.

One of my sons was also having a difficult time before church and I didn't handle it very well at all.  I was reactive instead of trying to be understanding.  I felt the wrath of his anger for that one, which sent me a bit deeper.  During church I was thinking a lot about what a bad father I was, though my thoughts attacked me in other ways as well.   I know I'm not a bad father, but those thoughts are very real and powerful.  There were moments throughout the service, which I can objectively say was beautifully done, where I escaped the fog and enjoyed it.  The music was great and the teen who gave the sermon was inspiring.  But the negative thoughts kept coming back and after the service they kicked back in completely.  I've learned that, at these moments, it is best for me to just get away.  Of course, this isn't always an option.  So I stuck it out and then headed home once I was able..

Now that I'm home and some time has passed I can already look at the experience with a little bit of perspective.  It is very hard to be out in public and interact when I'm not thinking straight.  Battling negative thoughts and feelings while I'm surrounded by people connecting with each other is hard.  So is having conversations with people while my head is filled with negativity and heaviness.  One thing I've improved on in these moments is being less judgmental of myself.  I had the awareness today, even in the moment, that the thoughts aren't reality and they will pass.  I was able to get myself home and start getting myself back together.  I took a nap, went to yoga, and tonight I'm feeling a little bit better.

I still don't fully understand my depression and anxiety.  It has a mind of its own, comes and goes when it pleases, and I can't always predict when and where it will emerge.  Today was definitely a ride it out day.  I went through the motions, I did the tiring work of challenging my negative thoughts, and I made it through the day.  I don't like it, but it's part of living with depression.  Oddly enough, I'd call it a successful day.  Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why we Have to Speak Up

Around the fall of 2011 I decided I didn't want to keep my mental illness a secret anymore.  I wanted to be open, I wanted the people in my life to know, and I was tired of living in the darkness.  But I was afraid.  I worried what others would think about me.  I was still living in my own self-stigma.  I lived on the fence for a couple of years and had opened up to people in my life,  yet in many ways I was still keeping my mental illness hiding in the corner where I felt it belonged.

It's not in the corner anymore.  I'm completely out in the open now about the fact that I live with depression and anxiety.  It culminated two weeks ago when I spoke candidly in church about my experiences and the need to break the stigma.  I know my talking and posting about it makes some people uncomfortable, but I really just don't care anymore.  Not having to keep my two lives separate any longer has been a blessing for me, and I feel more than ever that I can be who I really am.  And for a while that was enough. It's already not anymore.

I have a new feeling emerging as I go through this process.  Anger.  I'm angry about the stigma, about how we don't talk about mental illness, and how this leads to a world where shame and secrecy still surround issues of mental illness and suicide.  A world where every year a million people worldwide take their own lives instead of seeking and receiving treatment, in large part because of this stigma.  We should all be outraged! And yet we're not.  Mental illness is treatable after all, and treatment saves lives.  It's not enough anymore to just be comfortable in my own skin, I need to keep pushing to bring mental illness fully into the light and break the stigma. 

I think about the fact that in the U.S., where I live, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24.  I also think about the effect not talking about mental illness and suicide as a society has on our suicide rate, especially for our young people.  By not talking about it we are giving our youth the message that it is a shameful thing not to be spoken of.  I know there are other factors, but no wonder so many don't choose to seek treatment.  No wonder so many choose to take their own lives.   This is an illness, like cancer, that does not discriminate.  It could happen to any of us.  And for those of us who are parents, it could happen to our kids.  We need to let them know that if they do begin to have symptoms that it is okay to talk about it and seek help. 

Not too long ago I was approached by a youth who was struggling with depression.  She knew she was depressed and wanted me to tell her how she can get help.  What a wonderful thing that this youth would take the risk to talk to me and take steps to get help. However, their parents have pushed the issue aside when she has tried to bring it up.  They have also made comments like, "nobody in this family is depressed" since she has been struggling.  That's shame, that's stigma!  And sadly, it intensifies this person's feeling that there is something wrong with them.  It's an awful message to give a youth, and it's not true.  What is this person supposed to do now?  They are dependent upon their parents to get help.  How can they get help if their parents won't even acknowledge a problem exists?  This is why we have to speak up.  This is why I will continue to push awareness of mental illness.   This is why I will not stop talking about it!  I implore you to do the same.  There are many lives at stake, and we can no longer stay silent.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

There's no shame in having a mental illness

Sunday was not the end of my journey, but it was certainly a momentous step on my road to recovery and self-acceptance.  I spoke at church about my life with depression, I was the guest speaker in place of  the sermon.  I was honest and open about what it's like to live with depression, the stigma, and how much work needs to be done to raise awareness.  I have long envisioned my journey as a path from self-hatred to self-love and acceptance.  I'm not there and will continue this journey throughout my life, but I can see how far I've come.

In my teens and early twenties I was filled with shame.  It encompassed every aspect of my life and completely clouded the way I viewed myself.  It affected all of my relationships. At my core I felt there was something wrong with me.  I knew I wanted to be authentic and be myself, but I saw myself as shameful and unlovable so I felt the need to pretend to be something I wasn't.  I hid my real feelings from the rest of the world.  Despite going through a lot of therapy and really getting myself to a better place, I basically lived this way until about 3 years ago.  That's when I began the process of "coming out" following my worst and scariest episode of depression.  Sharing my story in public was in many ways the culmination of that process.  By speaking at church I did something I've been wanting to do at some level for the last 25 years. 

I told the truth.  I got up in front of about 150-200 people at church and for 15 minutes I told them the truth about my experience of living with depression and anxiety.  It seems like such a simple concept.  But when it comes to depression and anxiety, telling the truth publicly is not easy or common.  How freeing it was to be able to just get up in front of people and speak honestly about my experience with having a mental illness.  As I spoke I could see that many people in the pews were crying a bit.  My wife and kids were there, my parents, some of my closest friends, and a number of people who I have known for about 20 years who didn't know this about me.  I shared a lot of details, but my basic message is that I have a mental illness, I lived in the darkness with it for nearly 25 years due to shame, and now I live in the open with it and have become a mental health advocate.  All the different work I have done over the years led me to a point where I was comfortable enough to speak about it publicly.  When I was finished people clapped, and we are not a church where clapping really happens.  They clapped for a long time.  I was so humbled by this, I never thought this day would come and then to have such a positive response was wonderful!

It was clear that sharing my story had an effect on people.  I had a lot of people come up to me after the service to talk to me or just offer a supportive hug.  Some "came out" to me, others asked how they go about getting help, many shared about their family members who have suffered or still do suffer. I realized yet again that we are all affected by mental illness, either directly or indirectly.  People may not accept it or talk about it, but it's there.  It seems to be everywhere.

I have only begun to process what all of this means to me.  I do know I really liked it and would welcome other opportunities to share my story publicly.  I think my biggest takeaway so far is the power of simply talking about mental illness honestly.  People have been telling me since I started blogging and being open about depression that I am brave and courageous.  I don't know about that, but the fact that they think I am courageous brings light to the level of taboo and stigma that still surrounds this topic.  So many, and often with good reason, suffer in shame and isolation.  People are still told by parents, partners, and friends to "just get over it" or "stop feeling sorry for yourself".  I know this because some have confided this in me over the last several months.  This makes me so sad.  We need to talk about it, and people need to understand that it is an illness.  It actually is a matter of life and death  Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, it's not a character flaw, and it's not your fault if you are suffering!  I have hope that change is happening.  There are many of us coming out in the open and letting the world know there is no shame in having a mental illness.  I finally know I am not alone, and that's a feeling I want everyone who suffers from a mental illness to be able to experience!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

FInding my Way

Today is one of those days.  I've been going non-stop for the last two weeks because my sons started school two weeks ago and I had a training last weekend that cut into that time I need to get emotional reset for another busy week.  So I entered this week already feeling a bit worn down.  Despite all this, it's actually been a great couple of weeks for me.  School is going well, our new dog is settling (slowly) into our house, and my mood has been pretty steady and generally up.  But when I run myself a little too ragged there is often an emotional dip once I finally get the time to breathe.  Today is that day.

Thankfully I have not had a major episode of depression in over three years, but I do still have days or even several days where I struggle.  I do feel some symptoms of depression today.  I'm easily frustrated, I've been overreacting to things with my family, and I just feel kind of down and have low energy.   The negative thoughts are spinning around my head.  In the past, it was easy to let a day like this snowball into several days of it or even a longer episode of depression.  I'm learning that one way to keep it from spiraling further is to just let it be and acknowledge it without judgment.  I'm not perfect at it, but I'm also not piling guilt and shame upon myself for having a bad day and feeling bad about myself.  I know it will pass.  Even as I'm in it, I can see beyond it.  

As a teen and young adult trying to survive with depression I learned a lot of habits and thinking patterns that are not very useful now.  Because I felt, with good reason at the time, that I needed to hide my depression and  keep my negative thoughts and feelings from others I learned to deny my actual reality.  It was very damaging for me to have to pretend to feel different than I actually felt.  It led to further shame, lower self esteem, and would often move me towards episodes of depression.  Slowly I'm learning to accept my negative thoughts and feelings and not push them away or deny it altogether. It is such a simple concept, but owning and accepting whatever I'm experiencing is incredibly difficult and takes effort.  It is effort well spent.

This journey through depression and anxiety has been incredibly painful and challenging, but it has also made me grow in ways I likely would not have if I had never experienced it.  It has allowed me to more fully realize who I am and become comfortable in my own skin.  I has given me a level of compassion that has made me a better teacher, friend, father, and husband.  I have made connections in real life and through social media that would not have happened without depression and anxiety being a part of my life.  Being in the light with my struggles and having communities of fellow survivors is a blessing.  It feels like home in a way that nothing has felt like home before.  And thanks to that I can even feel a little hopeful and connected on a down day like today. 


Friday, August 29, 2014

Battling shame

Now that I'm back in the full swing of school there is less time for writing on here, but I'm still trying to write something about once a week just to keep the momentum going.  This past week has been better overall with the negative thinking, and I'm getting back in the swing of things with school.  One of the biggest struggles I have going on right now would be the fact that I'm trying to change some habits around eating and exercise.

In therapy the other day I realized, once again, how difficult it is for me to let myself be human and imperfect.  I have no problem allowing that to others, but not so much for myself.  I had so much trouble just talking about wanting to eat better and exercise more.  I was ashamed of the fact that I have put on some weight over the last several years and don't always make the best choices when it comes to what I eat and drink.  Shame is a feeling that comes up often for me, and it came up again this week in therapy when talking about this topic.  Shame is not something I like to admit to, but I know it's a common experience for people who live with depression and other mental illnesses.  The truth is that it is deeply ingrained in me that there is something wrong with me. It is just something I have to grapple with on a fairly regular basis.  This despite the massive amounts of evidence in my life to the contrary.  That's the depression in action.

I know that with shame the best thing to do is put it out there.  Keeping things inside only makes me feel more isolated and alone.  Exposing shame to light takes away some of  it's power, admitting to how I really feel often empowers me.  My shame often comes from the fact that I feel different, alone, or like I'm the only one that struggles with whatever it is that I'm struggling with.  My therapist asked me if I thought I was the only one who struggles with eating healthy and exercising.  It was kind of comical because of course I know I'm not the only one.  And yet, at a feeling level I do feel that way sometimes.  There's a part of me that thinks I'm the only one who experiences any difficulty in life.  Again, the depression in action.

So I am trying to make some healthier choices and also not be so hard on myself when I don't do it perfectly.  One of the positive things I'm doing, that I actually started doing several months ago, is yoga.  Beginning to practice yoga has been really great for me.  In addition to it helping me get back into shape a bit more and gain some strength and flexibility, the spiritual aspect of yoga is really amazing.  The practice of yoga is like the opposite of shame.  The teachers will often say things about recognizing thoughts and feelings without judgment.  Some have even literally said to the class you are perfect just as you are.  It seems to be kind of the message and energy of people who teach yoga.  The clear message I always get when I'm in yoga is that I am perfectly fine just the way I am.  What an amazing and beautiful concept! 

So I will move imperfectly forward in my attempt to practice more healthy habits.  I will try and remind myself that I'm not alone, and that everyone struggles with something.  Nobody is immune to suffering and difficulty in life.  And most importantly, I will continue to write and talk about all of this both here and in other places.  The truth continues to be that I am perfectly imperfect, whether I'm feeling and believing it or not.   

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stress and Negative Thinking

I often forget how tiring and stressful the beginning of the school year can be.  And this year there are a few added challenges that is making it even more difficult.  I've changed from 2nd to 4th grade, so I am learning a whole new curriculum.  I had to move classrooms and am still trying to get some things in place.  We have a new math program that is really challenging for the students (and teachers).  And maybe the most frustrating aspect of life right now is the fact that our house is still in disarray due to the remodel not quite being done.  Having the house be a mess and so many things being where they do not belong is really getting old!

The first week of school has been a real roller coaster emotionally.  When stress hits me I tend to fall into some negative habits and thinking.  Especially the thinking... I'm extremely hard on myself and have difficulty allowing myself to just be human.  Being in a new grade level it's natural that I have a lot to learn.  But time after time this last week when things don't go well with a lesson or I need to ask for help from the other teachers I have really gotten down on myself. I don't give myself the same compassion I would offer any of my colleagues in the same circumstances.  From there it has a tendency to just snowball.  At least, I fear it's going to snowball and I'll fall back into a deep pit of depression. 

So I brought this overwhelmed and stressed out attitude to therapy yesterday.  I went on for about 15 minutes about my negative thinking, the things that weren't going well, and all of the stress in my life.  Once I slowed down she asked me if it was possible that I'm just stressed and overwhelmed because I have a lot of change and challenges in my life right now.  She's right. It's frustrating how when things are tough I just go straight to self-judgment instead of just acknowledging that things might just be difficult and challenging right now.  It's such a persistent habit that I often don't realize it's happening.  I'm working on being more aware of my thoughts, and challenging them with reality.

Another thing I noticed I am doing is focusing on the negative aspects of my day more than the positive ones.  Yesterday, for example, I felt really down and stressed as I went to school.  I was lacking confidence and my energy wasn't very good.  Then once I started teaching things went really well.  The technology in my class that had been broken since school started was fixed, which makes teaching so much easier!  And I was just kind of in a groove all day with my teaching.  The kids were engaged, I was having fun.  It was a great school day!  After school on the way to therapy that heavy and down feeling I had in the morning returned.  I carried that into the session.  But what I notice now is that I was completely focused on the fact that I was having this heavy, overwhelmed feeling instead of the fact that I had felt really good all day at work. 

I think over the last several months I've been working on changing my perspective about how I react to my moods.  Somehow I have this expectation that I should always feel good.  That's not realistic.  Nobody feels good all the time, especially those of us who battle depression.  So I'm trying to change my expectation.  I'm trying to be okay with the fact that sometimes I won't feel well.  Sometimes I'll be stressed, sad, tired, frustrated, angry and a variety of other not so great feelings.  It's okay to not feel okay sometimes!  The real trouble I think is not that I have these feelings, it's that when I do I get so down on myself.  I think they won't pass, or they mean there's something wrong with me.  But the truth is that life can be hard at times and I will not always feel good.  The bad feelings pass and I can often remind myself that the negative thoughts are just the depression lying to me.  It does that a lot, for everyone who suffers from depression. 

The truth is that the beginning of the school year is challenging and takes a lot of energy!  I'm going to be tired sometimes.  Stressed.  Frustrated.  Overwhelmed.  But I can't let myself forget that I also love what I do.  And I'm good at it.  I connect really well with my students and the other teachers.  I laugh and smile a LOT during the day.  I also have amazing co-workers.  We work well together and really do our best to do what's best for kids.  Not all schools have that.  All of this is true!.  The negative that often creeps into my head does not take away the positive.  I have a feeling I'll be reminding myself of this fact a lot over the next several weeks...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Beginnings

After four years of teaching 2nd grade I've moved up to fourth grade. Today was the first day of school.  I'm tired.  Really tired!  My wife actually just looked over at me and told me I look exhausted. She's right. But I'm excited also!

Last year was the most difficult year of teaching I've ever had.  There were many challenges that eventually just overtook me.  It was a very emotionally exhausting year.  The truth is, I took things a bit personally and took the struggles of some of my students on as my own.  I know from talking to teachers over the years that everyone has a year like that every once in a while, last year was mine...

A year like that definitely made me question a few things, including my abilities as a teacher.  It made me doubt myself for sure.  So I entered this year with that hanging over me a bit.  But at the same time, I'm determined to not have a repeat of last year. I do think I've learned a few things from the struggle.

Over the last several days as I've prepared my classroom I've been doing a lot of thinking about things.  I have a summer of perspective on my year and it's allowed me to make some shifts in my thinking.  There were many of my students who did make great progress last year both academically and socially.  I was also able to remind myself that there are many things I cannot control and that I did my best to help all of my students.  But most of all I regained perspective on what's most important to me as a teacher.

Teaching for me has always been about the relationships I build with the students and creating an environment where kids feel safe and empowered.  Everything flows from that.  Teaching and learning happen so naturally when you build a strong community in the classroom.  I know these days there is so much emphasis on high stakes testing and data.  It's easy to slip into thinking that's what matters most because of all the pressure put on teachers and schools to get good test scores with no excuses.  But teaching kids how to score well on a test is such a small part of what I believe will ultimately make them happy and productive people both now and down the road.  Kids need to learn problem solving, social skills, empathy and teamwork.  They need to feel valued as people and gain confidence that they can be successful.  And that's just scratching the surface really...

I was able to bring that perspective into the classroom today and had a great time.  We did some art, went over rules and procedures, and got to know each other a bit through some other activities.  It was a really wonderful day. I'm hopeful about this year.  I have the opportunity to make a positive impact on my 26 students' lives, and for that I am very grateful!


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ready or Not....

I want to be a mental health advocate.  I have come to accept my own depression and I want to let people know that there is nothing wrong with having depression or any other mental illness.  I know this work can save lives and help me grow as well.  I'm done living in the dark and pretending like this doesn't exist.

But at the same time, it's not like I make my statement and I'm done.  These steps are opening doors that I'm not sure I'm ready to walk through. I have issues with anxiety, I think and worry about things.  Change scares me, putting myself out there scares me, and taking risks in general scares me.

The most recent door that has opened for me is an opportunity to share my story in public.  My pastor is aware of the process I've been going through with coming out in the open and working to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness.  This week he asked me if I would be willing to share my story with the congregation in church.  I was thinking he meant giving a 2-3 minute testimony near the beginning of the service.  But in fact what he meant is my speaking would replace the sermon.  Or rather, I guess my talk would BE the sermon.

As he brought this up to me in person earlier this week I told him I was interested.  But inside I was thinking there is no way in hell I'm getting up in front of the whole congregation and sharing my story.  Here's what was running through my mind.  I can't do this.  I don't know what to say.  I'll freeze up, panic, shake, shut down, etc... Who would be there?  What if _____ shows up?  These are just some of the fears that immediately began racing through my head.  And yet, I told him I'd think about it.  I figured this was something that would happen down the line and I'd have plenty of time to hopefully warm up to the idea.

Then just a couple of days ago I received an email from him giving me an actual date, September 28th, that he would like me to speak in church.  Again the fears started running wild and the anxiety started running through my body.  My mind was racing.  Public speaking in general scares me.  I mean, I'm an elementary teacher and I speak in front of kids (and often parents who may be in the room) all the time.  But this is different. This is new.

I often talk about my depression here, but anxiety is something I also have issues with.  I've definitely been  having some anxiety with this.  Intrusive thoughts.  Difficulty quieting my head enough to fall asleep. General nervousness.  So part of the struggle with both depression and anxiety isn't just the depression and anxiety, it's the negative thinking and self judgment that go with it.  So I'm working on that with this whole opportunity to speak in church and share my story.  What if it's just scary and anxiety producing because it's new to me? There are plenty of things that used to scare me terribly that I do now regularly with little or no fear.  Maybe with practice speaking in public about my depression can be the same.

I'm going to do it.  I'm going to share my story for whoever shows up at church on September 28th.  For years I have let fear rule me.  As a teen and young adult my fear and anxiety played a role in nearly every decision I made.  Since starting therapy nearly 25 years ago it's become a process of learning to live out of love instead of fear.  It's an extremely slow process... So despite the fact that I am really scared and full of self-doubt at the moment I'm doing this. 

There's also something else I sense within me.  Excitement!  Behind and mixed in with all the fear and doubt I'm currently experiencing is excitement.  I'm not excited about the actual act of getting up there and speaking, but I'm excited about the effect it may have on me as well as others.  I'm excited about a chance to touch other people's lives.  Somewhere inside me hidden amongst this fear I know the message I have to share is powerful and that speaking up about mental illness can change and save lives.  This is an amazing opportunity, and I'm not going to let my fear keep me from it this time. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On my Mind

I've been writing this blog now for just a couple of weeks, and I find that at times it consumes me.  I've never really been much of a writer.  I avoided writing at all costs in high school, and thanks to a great city college instructor I learned to at least gain a little confidence with writing throughout college.  However, other than writing in my journal and sending personal and professional emails I haven't really written anything in the 20 years since leaving college.

So how does it consume me?  I find myself thinking about things I want to write about all the time.  Multiple topics float around in my head, but there are so many different topics that focusing what I actually want to say is not easy.  I suppose with practice I may get better at organizing my thoughts and getting them out in a coherent way.  I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I find myself not wanting to "publish" anything on here until it's just right.  Well, not today!  Today I think will be more about what's been going on in my head and whatever else I seem to be thinking about.

I start thinking that there is somehow a "right" way to be doing this.  It's been great that I've been invited to this mental health bloggers group on Facebook.  I'm learning a lot, reading some great articles, and realizing how many people are out there working to reduce the stigma and raise awareness about mental illness.  The other side of this coin is that I tend to compare myself to others a lot.  When I compare myself to others, I'm always the one not measuring up.  I tend to look at their blogs searching for the correct way to do it.   But the reality is I am going to find my own way, find my own voice, and write my blog the way that fits for me.  I have to remind myself it doesn't have to be like other people's writing. 

The other thing on my mind is that I'm going back to work next week.  Well, one of the other things on my mind... I am an elementary school teacher.  For the last four years I have taught 2nd grade, and I'm very excited to be teaching 4th grade this year.  I do better with kids a bit older, so I think this will be a positive change for me.  I also will know many of the kids because it's the same group that was in 2nd grade two years ago. 

The other part of going back to work that's on my mind is that I started writing this blog over the summer and many of the people I work with have read it.  I know many of my coworkers as well as some of the parents are aware of and have probably read this blog.  There's a part of me that really doesn't give a shit to be honest.  What I write is simply the truth. I'm perfectly clear on why I'm doing this and I'm committed to bringing light to depression, anxiety, and mental illness in general.  But that doesn't mean it's not scary.  That doesn't mean I don't worry that others will think badly of me or wonder why I would want to share such personal things with the world.  I'm back and forth between these two sets of thoughts and feelings constantly.

This line of thinking reminds me of another blog post I read just the other day.  It was about stigma and the shame that those of us feel when telling others (either in person or in writing) that we have a mental illness.  The point was that we have to keep working at it until that shame and stigma is gone.  The article reminded me why I need to continue to putting myself out there to the world to show both myself and others that there is nothing "wrong with me".  I can have anxiety and depression and still be an effective teacher.  Actually, I feel that my experiences with depression and anxiety have made me a much better teacher.  And as that sentence makes it's way to the screen, my mind begins racing about how I can write a whole entry about how fighting depression and anxiety has made me a better teacher.  But I'll save that for another time, no need to worry about that now.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Therapy today

So it's hard to believe that it was exactly a week ago today that I posted on Facebook the link to this blog.  I continue to be excited about being out there to the world and not being ashamed to say I have depression and anxiety.  I have had many kind messages and comments, several good conversations in real life, and some have confided in me that they, too, have similar struggles.  It has taken me about 25 years to get to this point, and I'm grateful to be out in the open.

However, when I walked into therapy today thinking I was going to be so excited to tell my therapist that I had taken this step it didn't quite work out that way.  As I often do, I walked in and kind of just froze up.  This happens often... I wasn't excited, I felt tense and nervous and so we talked about that for a bit.  Even after over a year with her, I still get nervous about opening up.  I actually have found that I'm more nervous and likely to freeze up when I have something positive to share.

So eventually we got around to talking about this whole being out in the open thing.  She asked me how I felt about it, I said excited but still wasn't really feeling it at that moment.  It's pretty amazing how quickly I forget the details of what happened in therapy... So it will get a bit blurry from here for a bit.  I know I spent some time talking about all that has happened as a result from putting that post out there, mostly the things I mentioned above about people's responses.

Let me take a step back for a second and share some background.  I am one of those people who feels like I need to resolve everything.  If I have an issue with someone I don't feel comfortable around that person until we've talked it through.  At least in most of my relationships that's true.  I see people who are able to let things go and function fine around people they have unresolved conflict with.  I have never understood that.   I've always wanted to do that, but it just hasn't seemed to be something I could have any control over.  Things that had happened several years ago could still be triggered at a moments notice.

So back to therapy.  I was telling my therapist that I walked into one of those situations one day this week where I am often triggered and nothing really happened.  There was someone there who I feel I have these unresolved issues with.  I mean, I actually felt fine being in this environment and enjoyed myself for the short time I was there.  She wondered what had changed.  I couldn't really say.  I had talked with a separate friend about it this week so maybe that was it?  But I've talked about this issue with people before and nothing had changed.  So my therapist wondered about the possible connection between "coming out" this week and my not being triggered.  It's possible I suppose.

Whatever it is, there was clearly a shift there.  For the first time I had a real feeling sense that I may be able to resolve issues within myself without needing the other person's participation.  It's still very new to me, but it feels like this is a big deal.  How nice it would be to not take things so personally all the time, to have another tool in my belt for dealing with people who I struggle with.  This felt like a big breakthrough to me.  At that point I talked about how for several months I have felt like I'm just coasting along through therapy and not much is happening.  But I think the reality is that sometimes changes are taking root that I don't really see coming.  Lulls are normal, and I guess I never know when what I've been working on is going to result in some kind of breakthrough. 

I had another breakthrough towards the end of the session.  I was feeling very open now and was expressing myself much more easily.  I told her about how hard it is for me to tell her good things about myself.  I think that was why the anxiety at the beginning.  I have trouble thinking of myself in a positive light.  This week I had done this amazing thing of coming out to the world about my depression, a huge step, and I still am not giving myself credit and letting myself feel all the good that is coming out of this.  So she told me that this week she wants me to work on acknowledging how great I am, and how what I'm doing is really helping me and others as well.  I'll be working on it...

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Hope

In 2012 and then again this year I participated in something called the out of the darkness overnight walk.  It's a 16-18 mile walk put on by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that begins shortly before sunset and ends with a closing ceremony as the sun rises.  Each time it has been an empowering and healing experience for me.  All that I'm doing now; starting the page on facebook, starting this blog, coming out in the open about my depression, would not be happening if I had not done each of these walks.

We walk to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention.  The money goes to research and programs aimed at raising awareness and opportunities to seek help.  Most of the people who walk do so because they have lost someone they love to suicide.  Some, like me, walk because they have suffered from mental illness and we want to raise awareness and be a part of the healing that happens there.  It's a place where talking about mental illness and suicide is completely acceptable.  Despite all the sadness and pain that is very present, the event is filled with a sense of hope and love that is beyond what I can put into words.

When you arrive at the walk you get to choose different colors of bead necklaces to wear based on why you walk.  When I see people wearing a white bead necklace, I knew that they had lost a child to suicide.  When people saw me wearing my green bead necklace, they knew that I have struggled personally with mental illness.  There are 8 different colors of beads that represent different reasons for walking.  It's a brilliant idea and so empowering for me to be able to wear those beads.  It's very comforting to be in that space surrounded by people who understand..

So now I've done that walk twice, and what I'm trying to do is bring that same sense of acceptance and love that I feel there into my daily life.  How amazing would it be if people could speak freely, without shame, about their emotional struggles?  How many lives would be saved if people were educated about the warning signs and were able to seek treatment?  That is my hope, and I will work to live my life in this way.  I read a statistic today that only 1 in 5 people with mental health issues are currently receiving treatment for it.  That makes me so sad, but I understand some of the reasons why.  Many people don't even realize they have a problem that could be treated and many don't have access to help.  But I think a lot of it has to do with the stigma.

I have been working on myself through therapy and support groups since around 1990, and I've made a great deal of progress.  There has definitely been a major shift in my work over the last three years since my last major episode of depression..  Most of this recent work has been about dealing with my own stigma of my depression.  I was ashamed of it, I'm not feeling that as much anymore.  For years I felt it was a weakness, and I felt that it was my fault that I couldn't just overcome it.  I know better now.  I work now to embrace and accept my illness.  Don't get me wrong, I still have my moments where the darkness takes over and the negative thoughts and feelings dominate me. These times are very difficult and hard to endure.  Thankfully there haven't been many of them lately.  However, even in those moments now I have the sense that they will pass and I have a lot more tools for riding it out and getting back to a better space.

I have been reading a number of other blogs about people's experience with mental illness and I found a quote I really liked on one.  His motto was, "enjoy the good and ride out the bad".  It definitely has meaning for my experiences with depression.  To me that means when things aren't good I don't need to try and force my way out of it or fight it.  I just need to accept it and ride it out,  It will pass, it always does... As for now, I'm in one of those good phases and I'm going to enjoy it.  Well, both my sons are up now so I think I'll talk to them and figure out what we will do with our day....


Friday, July 25, 2014


I decided tonight to post a link to this blog on Facebook for all to see.  I was terrified to take this step.  It felt like a really big one. Each time I have taken a step like this over the last couple of years it has felt like stepping off of a cliff.  Tonight was no different, and I needed a bit of encouragement from Amy (my wife) to hit that post button.  As the "likes" and kind comments poured in the fear turned quickly to peace and excitement.  I have gotten so many kind and supportive comments.  I really appreciate you all for your generous words and thoughts, it means so much to me.

It's hard for me to put into words what it means to be completely out in the open about my depression.  For years and years I have felt like I need to keep my depression a secret.  I know now I did that because I thought of it as a character flaw, that there was something wrong with me and it was shameful.  I have been seeing the same therapist now for a little over a year.  At the beginning of my time with her she was constantly telling me, "there's nothing wrong with you".  She still does sometimes.  That negative message is very deeply ingrained in me.  I know that there is nothing wrong with me now in my head, and more and more I'm beginning to feel that as well.  It's a slow process for sure....

It's the next morning now and I'm still feeling excited about all the positive feedback.  Just like in 2011 when I began this "coming out" process the weight on my shoulders is even lighter.  One thing about my depression is that it tells me all kinds of lies.  It has told me, and continues at times to tell me, that people don't like me, nobody would understand, I'm a burden to those in my life, etc...  It's that whole secret thing.  Sure, people are always nice to me and like me and such... But if they really knew the truth that would all change.  Well, here I've told anyone willing to read this the truth and yet you are still here.  You don't think less of me.  In fact, it seems to be just the opposite!  Wow indeed!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why am I doing this???

I've been asking myself this question.  Why would I want to write about my personal experiences with depression and anxiety and then put it out there for anyone to see?  It scares the hell out of me to be honest.  And yet, it just feels like the next logical step at this point in life..

I have dealt with depression and anxiety for nearly as long as I can remember.  For years I would not fully acknowledge that simple fact.  I was on and off medication, I went to therapy, and yet I still didn't really consider myself as someone who had depression and anxiety until fairly recently.  I never attempted suicide.  I have never been hospitalized.  This line of thinking was a way to separate myself from people who were really messed up.  I just wasn't ready to accept it, or maybe I just couldn't see it clearly.  I would go off my medication once I started to feel better with the assumption that everything was better now and I didn't need the medication anymore.  I wanted to be "normal".  Who doesn't?

About three years ago I had one of my worst episodes of depression that once again pushed me back onto medication and into therapy.  It was different this time.  I had always managed to push my way through my episodes before.  I mean I was miserable, but I still managed to function.  I did get through this episode, but I felt more out of control than I had ever felt before.  It scared me.  A LOT!!!  I didn't feel safe.  I thought I would have to be hospitalized.  I would make it through work somehow (those close to me noticed something wasn't right) and then just come home and cry.  I would often cry in the car on my way to and from work.  After a while, maybe 2 months, the medication started to kick in and slowly I began to stabilize...

I started taking it a bit more seriously.  Instead of just letting my general doctor take care of prescribing me medication I asked for a referral to a psychiatrist.  He questioned me for about an hour about my history and then told me I have episodic major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.  I hadn't noticed it really before he pointed it out, but over the years my episodes would come more quickly each time after going off of meds and the severity of the episodes began increasing.  I made a choice at that point that my goal was no longer to go off of medication.   I'm still on it 3 years later and am not sure I'll ever go off.  I'm open, but at this point I see no reason to.

Now comes the part that begins to explain why I am writing.  As I was coming out of my depression and working on some things in therapy it became clear to me how difficult it was for me emotionally to keep my depression from people.  It takes soooooo much energy to pretend like everything is okay when I'm falling apart inside.  Not only that, but it was like I was living a lie.  Because... I was.  I didn't want to do it anymore.  So I started telling people.  Not random strangers on the street or anything, but people who were close to me.  My wife already knew, but my parents did not.  Many of my friends didn't know either.  So when the opportunity arose, I started telling people.  I told my parents, my brother and his wife, many of my co-workers, and a lot of friends.  I also had a conversation with each of my sons about it, who were then 9 and 12.  The conversations were really good and each of them asked me questions and tried to understand.  They were a little concerned and didn't understand, but they each seemed glad that I told them about it. 

Through that process an amazing thing happened.  Pretty much everyone I told responded sympathetically.  Some would tell me about their struggles, or those of a family member or close friend. I realized in those instances that my talking about it gave them permission to share their own experiences. Obviously many people don't understand it entirely and didn't necessarily know how to respond.  But that's not the important part.  The important part was the weight that was lifted off of my shoulders.  I didn't have to pretend anymore.  Even though not everyone knew, there were multiple people in all parts of my life who knew about it.  I still had the same issues, except now I didn't feel so alone with them or like I had to work so hard to put up a false front.

A lot has happened in the last several years, but I'll save that for next time.  At this point in my life I feel very strongly about the fact that a mental illness is just like any other illness and there should be no shame or stigma attached to it.  I still struggle at times and I've been in therapy with the same therapist for just over a year now.  I have a long ways to go, but I'm getting there.

I've learned over the last several years how common suicide is, and how it would be so much easier to prevent if people were able to get help and not feel the stigma attached to their illness.  I want mental illness to be seen in the same light as diabetes or any other illness.  I want people to be able to talk about it.  So part of my process in trying to bring this about is to live in the light with my illness.   I know it will be helpful to me to share my struggles, my successes, my fears, and my hopes.  I am also hopeful that my writing will give others hope and let them know they are not alone.