Posted in Anxiety, Bipolar, bpd, coping, Depression, mental health, OCD, PTSD, stigma

Stories from the Mental Hospital

**all names changed for privacy reasons

Two years ago, I graduated from a residential mental health facility. Yes, I lived in a psych ward for a few months (average stays were anywhere from 1-4 months). It doesn’t mean I was or am currently dangerous. It wasn’t legally required or forced on me. I was sick enough that I qualified for admission, and it was an incredible opportunity to make leaps and bounds in my mental health recovery. The hospital I stayed in (Rogers Memorial Hospital) is one of the best mental hospitals in the country. There were patients from all over the country and even some from other parts of the world. There was an intense screening process to determine if you qualified for admission. Then I was put on a waiting list and waited for a bed to open up for me.

So… why did I qualify? I struggle with 8 mental illnesses on a daily basis, including borderline personality disorder, type 1 bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I was sick. Monthly visits to my psychiatrist and weekly therapy visits weren’t enough. I was on some medication, but it wasn’t the right concoction yet.  For 18 months or so leading up to my residential stay, I was in the ER at least twice a month for self-harm or active suicidal thoughts and was admitted to stay in an acute psych ward at least once a month. I was constantly suicidal and had attempted to take my life over 100 times by that point. There are multiple times I would have died had the police not broken into my apartment, or a friend had not physically held me back.  I wasn’t a danger to anybody else, but I was a grave danger to myself.

So one Friday afternoon, I got the call from Rogers that a bed would be available for me the following Wednesday. I was sent a detailed packing list, outlining the restrictions on what I could bring (the unit I stayed on was extremely self-harm and suicide-proof, so things like drawstrings in pants and spiral bound notebooks weren’t allowed). Naturally, I did my best to live it up for the next few days before I was “locked up” in the hospital. I ate so much junk food, stayed up late binging on Netflix, saw my friends one last time, ran around outside at 3am during a thunderstorm… you get the idea. Before I knew it, Wednesday had arrived and I was off on the adventure of a lifetime.

I was amazed at how massive the campus was when we pulled up to the hospital. I had been picturing a typical hospital, tall with lots of windows, not a lot of outdoor space. What I found was much nicer. There were half a dozen beautiful buildings. Gardens filled with statues and flowers sprawled out between the buildings, and you could see multiple gazebos poking up behind the bushes. We walked through the main doors and filled out some paperwork, then loaded my luggage into a van that would take me across campus to the FOCUS center where I’d be living. Yep, the grounds were so big we took a van to the building I’d be calling home.

I will never forget pulling into the FOCUS parking lot. My favorite building I’d seen so far on campus was the one we stopped in front of. We dragged my luggage through the front doors and into the office just inside. I met some of the staff and started my paperwork and assessments, which took about 2 hours to complete! My fellow patients were all very friendly and introduced themselves, telling me it was going to be okay. And with that, life in the mental hospital began.

At FOCUS, they just push you in head first. There was very little leeway given and they kept a strict, rigorous schedule that you were expected to follow, or you would be promptly kicked out (believe me, it happened). Each morning we’d start with mindfulness, then either art or “gym” before attending dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) with our therapist. After lunch, we had cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with our behavioral specialist (BS). We received plenty of homework in both therapy classes that kept us busy until dinner. Once a week we had a spirituality class and a nutrition class. Our evenings were filled with more homework time, as well as weekly activities like open gym, open art, going to the YMCA, or a trip to Target (to pick up snacks, clothes, anything we needed). We also met 1-on-1 with our therapist, BS, and the head psychiatrist every week. There were also sessions with our family every week or so, to keep our loved ones up to date on our progress and educate them on how to support us when we were discharged. We were given free time before bed and on the weekends. We could vote on activities we’d like to do on the weekends (go to a bookstore, an ice cream shop, a playground, etc) and went to the YMCA on Saturdays and Sundays.  To say we were busy was an understatement.

When we met with our therapist and BS privately during the week, we were given personal assignments to further specialize our care. Each patient was given a list of “bans” (harmful behaviors we weren’t allowed to engage in, such as self-harm, ruminating or reassurance seeking) that we tracked in a notebook, and reported to our BS on a daily basis. Our BS assigned us various exposure therapy exercises to complete and track, as well as positive activities that supported our hobbies and passions (I was supposed to do things like watch dance videos or learn new words in sign language). Our therapist gave us writing assignments, like exploring what recovery meant to us, or our ideal perfect day. The BS and therapist also decided what “level” we were on during our stay. The levels determined if we were allowed to do certain things or not, and were based on safety. For at least the first 48 hours of your stay, you were on “safety,” which meant you couldn’t go anywhere without staff supervision, including walking just down the hall for meals. This was so the staff could get to know you, and if you were at risk of trying to hurt yourself/ others or at risk for running away. You would be reverted back to being on “safety” if you ever did become a flight risk or a danger to yourself/ others. While on “safety” you were not allowed to leave campus for the group outings or the YMCA/ Target trips. For most levels, you were asked if you could be safe with scissors before you were allowed to use a pair. The next level up allowed you to go on the outings and go places in the building without staff supervision. As the levels progressed, you would be allowed to walk around campus with other patients and without staff, and eventually you could roam on your own. Everything was completely personalized to our situations and really added a lot to the overall therapeutic experience.

Being in a residential treatment had its ups and downs, and my time there wasn’t without its fun and drama. So here are some of the more prominent memories from my time living at Rogers.

Jim and Lexi were my two closest friends at Rogers, and two years later the three of us are still very close and talk weekly. Jim arrived 2 days before I did, and coincidentally left 2 days before me as well. Lexi arrived and a few weeks after me. Jim and I were in the same small group, and had a wonderful connection from the beginning. He is into card tricks, and since my dad is a professional magician, we had fun bonding over magic. Lexi was quiet at first, but when she warmed up, she, Jim and I were inseparable. Lexi was also in our small group. When the three of us reached a high enough level, we would go on long walks on campus and talk about the drama on the ward, homework, life… anything really. These were genuinely my favorite times during those few months. It was spring, so the air smelled wonderful, flowers were beautiful and birds were singing. We’d hike in the woods on campus, and get lost in each other’s company. Those walks helped me forget that I was living in a hospital. I felt like a typical, stable and accepted person. Sometimes I imagine my walks with them to help me fall asleep at night.

Sky was a lot like me. She was also in my small group, and we instantly bonded over Broadway and American Sign Language. She could put her feet behind her head and make a face and noise as if she were “possessed,” and we liked to joke that she should do that when someone new comes to the unit to scare ’em into thinking living on a psych ward is like in the movies. We never did this, obviously, but it was fun to laugh about.

One time, most of us created personas for everybody and sometimes pretended we were the cast from a sitcom… life on the ward was certainly weird enough to provide material for a TV show. We went for the classic stereotypes… there was the jock, the hippie (me), the nerd, the princess, the thespian, the bad-ass, the southern boy, the surfer dude, the player… you get the gist. Honestly, that helped us get through some of the more intense drama, to pretend it was a sitcom plotline.

Speaking of drama, here’s one of the more dramatic things that happened while living at Rogers:

We were on a group outing one afternoon to a local craft store. Paul had asked earlier in the day if we could stop by a gas station so he could buy more cigarettes. This wasn’t unusual, as we were the only unit that allowed outdoor smoking during certain times, and there were opportunities for the smokers to buy more when they ran out. In this particular instance, the staff said no, we could not stop for cigarettes on this outing. Paul was upset by this, and when he found out there was a drug store right down the strip mall from where the craft store was, he formed a plan with Becca and Rose. Paul was a high enough level that when we were at the craft store, he didn’t have to stay within sight of the staff member like the rest of us did. Becca and Rose picked and end cap that displayed bubbles and purposefully knocked a lot of them over, making a loud ordeal out of the whole thing. This distracted the staffer, and Paul knew he could successfully sneak out of the store and run down to the drug store to get cigarettes. Back in the store, a lady who worked there approached Becca and Rose, making sure everything was okay and chastising them for being so loud. The lady also complained that they weren’t supposed to be carrying large bags in the store (all of us had backpacks that we took pretty much everywhere, that contained all of our skills worksheets and various fidgets and things to help us mentally). Becca seized the chance to fake-freak-out, exclaiming that the backpack was her medical bag because she lived at the mental hospital in the area. The lady quickly backed off and cautiously tried to diffuse the situation by treating Becca like a rabid raccoon or something. It was a very stigmatized situation, but also pretty funny.

Whenever we got back from a trip where we could buy stuff, the staff checked our purchases (and sometimes our bags), to make sure everything was safe to be on the unit. Cigarettes had to be kept in the nurse’s office and smokers had to ask get one during specific smoke times. Our rooms were searched daily, so Paul decided to turn in his cigarettes he had snuck away to buy, with his thought process being “there’s nothing they can do about it now!” Naturally, the staff were not pleased. At all. They took the pack and refused to give them back. Paul became upset, and got into a heated debate with the staff because the cigarettes were his property, and if he wanted a cigarette during the smoke break, he should be allowed to have one since he spent his money on it. During this heated debate, Lucy needed one of her “as needed” medications, and also went into the nurse’s office to ask for her pill. The staff were trying to deal with Paul’s outbreak, and asked Lucy to come back later. This made Lucy upset, because she needed her medication and didn’t like being denied because of Paul (only one person was allowed in the nurse’s office at a time). An explosive argument broke out and one of the staffers moved the rest of us into another room to keep prying eyes away and simply to get us away from the situation. We all sat awkwardly in the room across from the nurse’s office, still able to hear the muffled shouts of Paul and Lucy. A handful of us were emotionally upset at this point, feeling triggered by the argument and screaming. No one really said a word. Then we heard a loud bang from outside the door (Paul had punched the wall) and that sent 2 or 3 of us into genuine panic attacks. The staff were busy trying to deal with Paul and Lucy, and so there weren’t staffers around to help us with our panic attacks. It was intense, to say the least. There was drywall missing from the wall, and Paul’s had was the size of a baseball… literally. Things were intense for the next few days on the unit.

There were other “classic Hollywood” things that happened, like the police were called when one of my roommates tried to run away, or when a patient had been hiding his medications under his tongue and stock piling them to snort in the bathroom (so we were moved to a different unit for the evening while the police searched everything). But honestly, it wasn’t like the movies for the most part. We played card games, watched TV, did our homework, took our sedation meds early in the evening so we could get super out of it and have “drunken” conversations late at night.

There was one weekend where Rose had her senior prom that night. Unlike most of the residents, she lived in the area, and her high school was close by. She was given permission to leave that night for prom, but she had to get ready on the unit. Some of us girls helped her shop for her dress online (we could get mail while living on the unit). The day of prom, all of us girls piled into one of the 3 single-stall bathrooms on the unit (which was totally not allowed) to help her get ready. Thankfully we had two female staffers working that night who let us do it. There was a no-touching rule on the unit, normally we couldn’t do anything from painting each others nails to giving hugs… absolutely no contact (touching leads to feelings, and feelings lead to relationships, and we were there to get healthy, and relationships would distract us from that goal). That night we were “permitted” to help Rose do her hair, make-up and nails (I say that with quotation marks because we definitely would have gotten in trouble if any of the higher up staffers found out). We listened to music (on our old school iPod touchs because no phones or electronics with cameras were allowed so we all bought old iPods without cameras) and all of us girls dressed fancy to support Rose. Us girls were very close, we loved to sit in the hallway and have chat circles and talk about boys, life on the outside, our families and friends, and the current gossip on the unit.

There was a Wii that was shared between the 3 floors of our building. Whenever my floor got it (which was more often than not), most of the my fellow patients and I would hold Wii tournaments. There was a whiteboard in the room that had the Wii, and we’d create brackets and go head to head in bowling or tennis. We’d blast “Panic! At the Disco” and eat chips and rice crispy treats (there was always an excess of them in the cafeteria. If you would have walked in that room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell we were all severely mentally ill. We were just normal 20 somethings playing Wii on a Sunday night.

Sometimes when people are sick, they need to stay in the hospital. If you have a heart attack or a stroke, you stay in the hospital. Our brains are sick, so we stayed in a hospital. We’re not people you need to fear. You can be our friend. The people I met while living at Rogers are all people worthy and deserving of friends… not people who need to be shunned and shut away. We don’t need to hide because of who we are, and you don’t need to hide from us. Living in a psychiatric hospital comes with a heavy stigma, and believe me, I’ve endured a lot solely because of I lived there. It isn’t like Hollywood, so please stop treating it like it is.

 

Posted in Anxiety, coping, mental health

“What Can I Do to Help?”

I’m sick. I’ll always be sick. When I’m having a bad day, or when someone first learns of my health issues, they almost always ask: “what can I do to help?” Often, in the moment, there aren’t many immediate things people can do to relieve my pain or frustration… but there are often things that can be done that can keep me from getting to that point as often or as quickly. Here are some ideas of ways you can help your mentally or chronically ill friend:

  1. Quality Time. Your friend probably spends a lot of time alone at home. There are only so many movies on Netflix. Visiting your friend at home can give them a break from the marathon hours of loneliness. As long as you promise not to judge them for their appearance or the appearance of their home.
  2. Housework. If your friend suffers from any sort of fatigue or chronic pain, housework can be a near-impossible task at times. Offer to do a load of laundry or wash the dishes. Ask if they need a room vacuumed. Bring a homecooked meal (check if they have dietary restrictions first). Walk the dog. It might seem like a trivial thing, but any of these tasks can use up all the energy we have and leave us stuck in bed for a day trying to recover.
  3. Words of affirmation. Being permanently sick can wear on your friend’s self-esteem and become a frustrating, hopeless experience. Send your friend a quick text or give them a call letting them know you’re supporting them. We need the reminders from time to time 🙂
  4.  Errands. Offer to go grocery shopping with us! Or better yet, ask us if you can pick anything up while you’re grocery shopping for yourself. Or maybe we need more Ibuprofen from Walgreen’s. If you’re already out and about, this can be an easy one to do, and can make a big difference! It saves us from having to get dressed, drive around town, walk through the store, wait in line… etc. and completely wear ourselves out.
  5. Learn about their illness. Google their diagnosis and read about it! Knowing that you made an effort to learn about such a major part of our lives in an effort to understand us better is incredibly validating.
  6. Get creative! You know your friend… and your friend knows their needs. Brainstorm ways you can help out to fit each individual. There are endless ways you can help!
  7. Be there. Most importantly, be our friend. Laugh with us, play games, make memories. Enjoy the time you have with each other and treasure the highs and the lows. It’s what makes us human and what makes a life worth living.
Posted in Anxiety, mental health, Uncategorized

My Biggest Fear

As each day passes that I’m battling all my mental and chronic illnesses, the more I feel convinced that I’m never going to find a partner. Each night I sit with a cold wash cloth on my head while on the bathroom floor puking my guts out, the only question in my mind is “why would someone sign up for this?” As I sit in the hospital for hours hooked up to an IV pole every week I wonder “who would willingly get to know me as a potential date with IV scars all over her hands?” Or “Someone who wakes up sweaty and screaming from nightmares?” … “Someone who takes lots of medication and has multiple doctors appointments every week?” I’m not looking for someone to “save me”and I’m sure as hell not looking for a caretaker… I’m just looking for someone who will be there on my good days, but also on my bad days. I want a best friend who will make me laugh when I’m sad and be there when I need to scream and cry. Someone who will go on adventures with me on the good days. And even the not-so-good days. I’m just scared that being my partner is asking too much. And I’ll be all alone. I know there are people who stick by their partner when they become sick… but what happens when someone’s sick before the partner is in the picture? I’m so scared I’ll be dismissed before I even get a chance to say “hi!” I’m so much more than my illnesses. My whole life I’ve been paranoid that the people who love me secretly see me as a “project” or as something to make them feel better about themselves. I mean, who doesn’t love the saint who supports the sick girl? I’m scared that if I recover, they’ll leave cuz they succeeded, but if I don’t recover, they will see that their “project” is a failure and take off anyways. So even IF I somehow happen to find someone, who’s to say my paranoia won’t get in the way? Or my borderline? Or my chronic pain? Doctor’s appointments? The list is endless! I feel like a liability. Like I’ll end up alone. I’m good at saving myself. I just wish I had a cheerleader of a partner.

Posted in Anxiety, coping, mental health

Self-Harm Breakthrough

I’m back! I apologize for being so inactive on this site lately, but now that my book is in the editing process, I have time to dedicate to the blog again!

TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about SELF-HARM and SUICIDAL THOUGHTS/ ATTEMPTS which may be triggering to those who struggle with suicidal ideation, cutting and other forms of self-harm.

Yesterday in therapy I had a huge breakthrough in my recovery from self-harm behaviors. It started when I was with my psychiatrist in the morning. I see her once a month, so she likes to check in and see how I’m doing safety-wise, like if I’m having any thoughts of suicide or struggling to stay clean. I discussed with her how in the past week or so I’ve been increasingly obsessed with my scars. I’ll catch myself counting them, or trying to remember when I made certain scars that are crooked or especially long. I am hyper aware of when I’m around people who are close enough to see the scars on my arms. Nothing happened that would really explain the increase in the behavior. My psychiatrist recommended I talk about it with my therapist. Luckily I was seeing my therapist later in the day, so I didn’t have to wait long to really dig deep into the new behaviors.

I had tried to figure out what was triggering this new behavior in me but was unable to come up with anything. I felt a certain emotion when looking at my scars, but I couldn’t name the emotion. I knew my physical symptoms of the emotion I was feeling when I would obsess over my scars, but I couldn’t link the symptoms to any emotion. My therapist suggested we do some brainspotting to try and determine what was going on. Although the process ended up being different than traditional brainspotting at the end of the day, I almost instantly had some profound thoughts about where I’m at in my recovery from self-harm.

My thoughts immediately jumped to my future. I thought about my kids and what they would think of their mom having self-harm scars on her arm. I thought about my husband, and how he and his family will feel about the scars. I’ve never been someone who is ashamed of my scars or makes an effort to hide them. I wear t-shirts without a second thought. Back when I cut, one of my reasons for doing so was so I could prove to myself and others that I was sick, and my scars kept that proof as a point of validation. They’re tangible proof of the intangible, unseen struggles I wrestle with.

So what does this have to do with my new obsession? I realized that I’m at a point in my recovery where I don’t need proof. I know I’m sick, and I know how to advocate for myself and explain that I’m sick to others without needing cutting and scars. If people still don’t believe me, I can use my radical acceptance skill to make sure I don’t feel invalidated by their disbelief.

When I first started my journey to clean arms, I was upset that I didn’t give myself more scars before deciding to drop the behavior. I would obsessively look at pictures of people’s scars online with envy. Now I am accepting of the number of scars I have, and if my scars faded, I believe I’d be okay.

It’s taken me 632 days of being cut-free to get to this point, but I still have a long way to go. I’m still not comfortable having knives in my kitchen, and the thought of buying razors to shave with makes me feel nauseous. Recovery is a slow process, but it’s definitely worth it in the end.

 

Posted in Anxiety, coping, mental health

What is an Exposure?

Exposures are a type of therapy exercise that I learned when I was staying at Rogers Memorial Hospital for my residential stay. They’re designed to help lessen your anxious reaction to everyday situations because unfortunately, simply telling yourself not to be scared simply doesn’t work. When I was at Rogers, I hated doing my exposures. Not going to lie, sometimes I would fake the results just to get out of doing them. It wasn’t until I returned home that I saw a need for exposures, and started doing them on my own. In the past year, I’ve seen the difference that exposures have on my life, and am excited to share my experiences with you!

First off, you’re probably asking me what an exposure is. Exposure therapy is trial habituation to situations/ experiences that give you anxiety. This means you routinely expose yourself to things that give you anxiety in safe, controlled environments, in an attempt to help you reduce your anxiety when encountering the situation out “in the real world.” For example, I get stressed out when I’m driving behind semi-trucks, so for one of my exposures, I look at a picture of the back of a semi. It stimulates what I would see in the anxiety-filled situation, but it happens in a safe environment. While looking at the picture, I take note of the moment when my anxiety reaches its peak. I rate it on a scale of 1-10 and start a stopwatch. When my anxiety has been reduced by half, I record how long it took, as well as the new rating of my anxiety. For example, if my anxiety peaked at a 7, I would time how long it took for my anxiety to come down to a 3 or 4. The catch is that you’re not allowed to help yourself cope with the anxiety, like using fidgets or participating in breathing exercises. Wait a minute for your anxiety to come back down, and then repeat the exercise 4 more times. Record your results so you can see the progress you make!

Now, the above method is very homework-esque and suited me just fine in a therapy-centered environment like Rogers, but at home, it just felt like one big chore that was always looming over me, so I adapted it to fit my at-home life and learning style. I make a conscious effort to routinely expose myself to things that cause me anxiety, and take note of how my anxiety behaves in different situations. Going grocery shopping is a very stressful and overwhelming experience for me. Being around food is very triggering for my eating disorders, and trying to decide what I’m going to buy to eat just makes things worse. In addition, being in public where there are other people around is also anxiety provoking. I make an effort to go to the grocery store during non-peak hours like 6 am or 10 pm (right after opening or right before closing) when there are fewer people around to ramp-up my anxiety. Before I actually go to the store, I take the time and look at a map I drew of the store, and visualize my route. This way I don’t stress about what to buy when I’m surrounded by an overwhelming amount of food, and I don’t have to spend any extra time returning to aisles for things I forgot the first time around.

If the idea of exposing yourself to things that make you anxious sounds scary, you’re not alone. Remember that you can start small. Just imagine the situation, or look at a picture of something similar to what makes you anxious (i.e. rather than looking at a picture of the back of a semi, look at a picture of an angle that’s less threatening, like the side of a semi, to start with). Keep in mind exposures are designed to help your anxious reaction become less extreme, it will not magically heal your anxiety.

Do you have anything that helps you with your anxiety? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Posted in Anxiety, coping, mental health

DIY: Weighted Stuffed Animal!

**DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is designed to provide helpful information to people with sensory disabilities, mental illnesses or other special needs. I do not own any rights from Build-A-Bear or Pokemon, or their affiliates. Any references are for informational use only. I understand Build-A-Bear and Pokemon are not responsible for any problems the product has after it’s alteration.**

If you follow my Instagram, you know I took a plane out west for vacation! It was an exciting adventure, but I had my fair share of nerves as well. When preparing for my trip last week, I knew I wanted to bring my weighted blanket to help me regulate my anxiety while on the plane and in a strange city, but the thought of lugging a 14lbs blanket through the airport was less than appealing. I began trying to think of solutions that were more practical for travel, but still gave me the benefits and feelings of security. If you look on Amazon, there are weighted lap pads and some weighted stuffed animals. I had found the solution! But pricing and the time it would take to ship were far less than ideal. So I called up a friend who’s a wizard at sewing, and we got to work.

I love Build-A-Bear and have been collecting for years. I had the idea to buy an unstuffed skin from them and stuff it at home with the poly pellets used to stuff weighted blankets. When I called my local Build-A-Bear, they informed me that their skins were not tested to hold weight inside of them and that they wouldn’t sell me an unstuffed skin if I planned to weight it. Upon further research (a call to the guest service line), I was told that while the animals were indeed not tested to hold weight, there wasn’t anything stopping me from unstuffing it at home and restuffing it myself, so that’s just what I did.

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I picked Squirtle to be turned into my weighted stuffed animal. I liked the idea of having a Pokemon as my partner in crime to hang out with me, much like Pikachu does with Ash in the TV show. After stuffing Squirtle as usual at Build-A-Bear, we brought him to the sewing room at my friend’s house for some major surgery. We reopened the hole in his back and pulled out all the stuffing. It was an incredible sensory activity for me, I used it as a mindfulness activity, focusing on how the stuffing felt in my hand, how it looked, how it smelled… you get the idea. img_20171004_190157882.jpg

Once Squirtle was unstuffed, the real work began.  We sewed small pouches of fabric into sizes that represented the general shapes of his limbs, head and body shape. Those were stuffed into his body instead of regular stuffing. To make sure small things like his fingers and roundness of his head were preserved, I stuck small amounts of stuffing back into his body to give him the final shape he needed! After being stitched back up, he was all set and ready to go!

I couldn’t believe the effectiveness when I tested him out! We had been able to stuff about 5lbs of pellets into the skin, and while it wasn’t like my weighted blanket, it wasn’t nothing either. Placing Squirtle on my chest helped with my anxiety, and when my legs started to shake, placing him on my lap gave me a warm reminder that everything was okay. These positions are much like the ones a psychiatric service dog uses when it’s owner experiences the beginning stages of anxiety attacks. The dog with lay it’s head on your chest or put it’s front paws on your lap when you begin to feel anxious. Squirtle doesn’t feel unlike a newborn baby when you hold him, and it’s a very comforting feeling.

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As predicted, I experienced a great deal of anxiety while on the plane and while taking a bus from my aunt and uncle’s house to downtown Portland. Squirtle was a real trooper and sat on my lap for the duration of my flight, occasionally crawling up onto my chest when I took a nap. It’s fun to imagine he’s alive, especially because he has the weight and density of a real animal. I feel like I’ve got a real travel pal who I can whisper my anxieties to, and know that he’ll keep the secret. Did I get some weird looks? Sure I did. It’s not every day a 21-year-old sits and talks to a stuffed animal in the middle of the Minneapolis/ St. Paul airport, but it got me through my flights!

Do you have a unique possession that helps you get through stressful experiences? I’d love to hear them- let me know in the comments below!

 

 

Posted in Anxiety, coping, mental health, stigma

To College or Not to College?

It’s back to school time! For some of you, that’s high school. For others, it’s college. Maybe your kids are heading off to kindergarten or you’re teaching in your own classroom for the first time! Empty nests, the freshman 15, new teachers and new schools. It’s both an exciting time and a time of big change. For many, it’s college move-in time. College is a big deal, and it’s not always possible for those of us with chronic and mental illnesses.

I never went to college, and it wasn’t an easy decision. Today I’m going to share my college experience… or lack thereof, in hopes that it helps those of you struggling with the back to school season.

I came very close to attending college… in fact, I probably got about as close as you can get without actually going. I did everything, college tours, applications my junior/ senior year, picked a college, got a roommate, got assigned my dorm room and signed up for all my classes… I even attended freshman orientation. I had everything I needed for my dorm room, including a mini fridge, and was mostly packed and ready to go. About a week before move-in day, I made the difficult decision to drop-out… before classes had even started! It wasn’t easy, but it was the right choice.

In the spring before college move in day, I wore myself thin applying for scholarships and trying to bring my grades up so I could graduate high school. I was also struggling with worsening mental illness symptoms. I was out on my own, living with a friend’s family. I was constantly suicidal, and my friends and I struggled to keep me safe that semester. I was getting Ds and Fs in most of my classes and my attendance slipped. I skipped physics class more than I attended it. I spent most of my time in the PAC, just wishing I could dance my life away. Even with all my troubles with school, at least it gave me something to fill my time. When summer hit, I was a wreck. I slipped into very unhealthy patterns. I threw all my energy into self-destructive behaviors. I put college on this pedestal and began banking on it being the magic wand to fix all my problems. But as move-in day got closer, I was getting sicker. Going to college and doing it on my own, in a new city, with nothing but strangers, scared me. My support system would be so far away and I’d be alone. I was already suicidal on a daily basis, and I knew that going to college was just opening me up to a whole new list of possibilities in self-destruction, and there would be no one there to stop me.

But as move-in day got closer, I was getting sicker. Going to college and doing it on my own, in a new city, with nothing but strangers, scared me. My support system would be so far away and I’d be alone. I was already suicidal on a daily basis, and I knew that going to college was just opening me up to a whole new list of possibilities in self-destruction, and there would be no one there to stop me. Plus, my last semester of high school was a glaring reminder that I was not able to handle a full school load. Making the decision to stay home was embarrassing. I felt like such a failure because I wasn’t going about my education the “traditional” way. My abandonment issues were triggered by the thought that all my friends were leaving without me, even though logically I knew it wasn’t their fault/ because of me. I locked myself in my room for days, refusing to eat or to interact with anybody. The thought of calling the college and dropping out was overwhelming, but the thought of letting my roomie know that I was dropping out and that she’d be rooming with a stranger all year was even worse. That was the hardest phone call I think I’ve ever made.

Three years later, looking back, I’m thankful that I made the choice to not go to college, or at least not at this time. Knowing the severity of my chronic and mental illnesses now, I can see that I would not be able to cope with everything that college would have brought on. While seeing all my friends “move on” with their lives without me was depressing, I know that trying to keep it together and being successful in college would have been completely detrimental to my health as well as my sense of self.

Have you ever made a choice that was against “the norm”? Let me know how you did it and how you coped in the comments below!