Robin Williams and The Never-Ending Battle Against Depression

medium_3462043780Hearing the news of Robin William’s apparent suicide hit me the way I’m sure it hit many others who have suffered, or still suffer, from depression. It made me think about my own moments of darkness and hopelessness when I seriously considered taking the pills or slashing open my wrists to make it all end. I’ve spent the past five years writing a book about such moments, so I’m still glued into them like they happened to me yesterday.

What some people may not know about me is that I continue to fight off feelings of depression, as well as anxiety, on a daily basis. Although I identify as someone who has recovered from the worst of my mental illnesses, these things never truly go away. There’s the constant fear of a relapse, the fear that anything (or nothing) could pull me back in. There are the continued pains and fears and worries that haunt me even on the best of days.

Depression distorts your thoughts. It makes the world black and white. It sucks all the light and air out of you. Maybe there’s something that triggered it, something that brought you to that point. Sometimes there’s no reason, and that’s even worse somehow. You just want the pain to stop. People don’t understand what’s wrong with you. They tell you to just smile, to just be happy. You reach the point when you can’t think of any alternatives because it’s gone on for so long and you’ve already tried everything to make it better. It feels like it will never get better, like it will never end.

Some people have suggested that Robin Williams should have just asked for help. I’m sure he did. I asked for help too when I was a teenager. I got all the help money and insurance could buy. Help got me medications that made me feel sick and worse, therapists who were incompetent and uncaring, and a month-long psych hospitalization that did little other than prevent me from going through with my plan to kill myself. Help also eventually got me a therapist who cared about me and saved my life, the right combination of medications that balanced what was imbalanced, and even an alternative high school that provided me the resources I needed to recover and graduate.

Help can be good, and it can be bad. It’s not fool-proof, and it’s not perfect.

The best thing we can do for people suffering from depression is to be empathetic and open-minded. We can offer help and hope it does what it’s supposed to. We can listen, care, and try to understand. Depression is an illness. It’s a disease. No one asks for it, and no one wants it. Overcoming it can be be the hardest thing you ever do. Not everyone is lucky enough to make it.

I was lucky, and I hope I continue to be lucky. I have more resources, more experience, and more love and support than I did at the worst of my depression. But Robin shows us that you can have so much – a family, friends, a meaningful career, an enduring sense of humor – and still lose it all to depression. That’s how powerful it is. That’s how real it is.

Let’s not allow this conversation about depression and suicide to pass as our attentions wander to new tragedies and events. Let’s make sure we’re there for people, that we advocate for better treatment and research, that we keep our eyes open to those who might be suffering and alone. Let’s be kind to ourselves, be patient with our pain, and remember that it is possible to survive and overcome even the worst moments of sadness and depression.

(photo credit: Frodrig via photopin cc)

Lessons Learned from Starless Skies

photoA few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I took a trip to Sedona, AZ. We’d both heard about the infamous vortexes and New Age culture, but we’re not into that scene. Our decision to go was based on cheap hotel availability, drivability, beautiful landscapes, and the ability to see the stars at night.

That last one was probably the biggest draw for us. We share a love of all things space. Since we’re both long-time residents of Los Angeles, our opportunities to see more than a handful of stars in the night sky have been few and far between. Because of Sedona’s isolation and elevation, we were promised an amazingly clear view.

Before we left, my mother excitedly informed me that we’d enjoy a full moon while we were there. When I shared this with my boyfriend, he said, “Oh…that’s not good.” Amateur stargazers, such as myself, might not know that a full moon emits so much light that the stars get drowned out. To our great disappointment, this was true. The moon looked lovely, but the sky was too bright to see stars.

Even though we both love the moon, those nights in Sedona, we found ourselves cursing it. I tried not to get too discouraged. We did research and tried to see if there was a gap between the sunset and moonrise we could try to catch.

IMG_3114In the meantime, we enjoyed what Sedona had to offer. We climbed to the top of a tall red rock and looked out at the city. We took a day trip to the Grand Canyon. We visited a vortex and didn’t feel anything funny. Then we got into a long debate about vortexes and whether places or people have special energy.

But we didn’t see many stars. The last night of the trip was the one night we had a big enough gap to possibly see some between the sunset and moonrise. We went outside after a dinner of burgers and rattlesnake bites to see if it was finally our chance to glimpse what we’d come for.

The sky was completely black, all the stars hidden behind an impenetrable haze. We both started laughing, finally surrendering to the fact that we were out of luck. We still drove to a lookout point and located a couple of stars peeking out between the clouds. We shared a nice, quiet moment beneath the dark sky.

I told my boyfriend I was sorry we didn’t get to see the thing we most wanted to see. He assured me that it was okay. We had a lovely time, and being together was what really mattered.

A week later, a spectacular meteor shower was scheduled to take place. I lamented our bad timing. We could have had front row seats to something incredible. We tried to see the shower in Los Angeles, but were once again met by a hazy, dim sky. This time, I didn’t laugh. It just seemed unfair. But it turned out that the shower wasn’t as spectacular as promised, so even if we’d been somewhere with a better view, there wouldn’t have been much to see. There was also a wildfire in Sedona, which we would have encountered if we’d been there a week later.

So, everything balanced out. We wanted to see the stars, but had to settle for a fun trip. I got upset about timing, but later discovered that it actually could have been a disaster to go later.

Sometimes I think things happen for a reason, but usually think it’s completely random. The thing I still struggle with is wishing I made different decisions when things don’t work out. But we’ll have other chances to see a bright, clear sky. I could even assure myself that it will happen when it’s meant to, or that there’s a reason things worked out the way they did.

I don’t necessarily want to, though. I’d rather be okay with accepting and waiting.

On (Not) Being a Failure: My Post-College Journey

When I graduated college in 2009, I had a plan. I would move back home and live with my mom until I found an entry-level job as a writer or editor. Then I would get an apartment, maybe move in with my college boyfriend, and begin my “adult” life. I anticipated that all of this would take about six months, max.

Things didn’t exactly work out that way. Turns out, there weren’t really any entry-level jobs in my field because of the recession. There weren’t any jobs, period. I spent over a year applying to dozens of positions, anything I was even remotely qualified for. The result of my search was some sporadic editing gigs, a very-part-time job teaching computer lessons to old people, and an ill-fated administrative assistant position for a company that almost immediately asked me to compose college admission essays for non-English-speaking students. I left that one more deflated than ever.

I didn’t know back then that I wasn’t alone in my aspiring adult struggles. Despite the fact that some of my friends were able to find jobs and be independent, many of these fell through, or were exaggerated. Personally, I tried to avoid telling anyone that I lived at home and only worked part-part time doing freelance editing gigs. I was embarrassed. I still am embarrassed. Because, going on five years later, that part of the equation hasn’t changed.

Yep, folks. I still live at home.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been stuck in the same place all these years. But that’s not really true. Because I couldn’t find a full-time job, I decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. I’ve been able to spend a lot of time writing, taking classes, and working on this site. My college relationship ended shortly after I graduated, but after a few years of dating disasters and discouragements, I found an awesome boyfriend who is always there for me and is my number one fan.

\It’s because of said boyfriend that I felt inspired to write this post. I’ve been so discouraged lately, feeling like nothing has changed, that I’ll never be truly successful or independent. As I wrap up my graduate degree, edit my two ongoing manuscripts for publication, and begin to contemplate re-entering the job market, all those fears about being behind, being unsuccessful, and being a failure have returned, full force.

I want to be an “adult” so badly. I know my boyfriend is right when he tells me that no one is where they thought they’d be. There are others out there going through what I’m going through, especially those pursuing creative endeavors. I really just want to be a writer who makes enough as a freelance editor and writing teacher to support that dream. It’s still not clear whether that will be possible or enough. Right now, it isn’t.

I don’t necessarily have anything motivational to end on. I just wanted to be honest about my new adult journey because I don’t want to hide anymore. As twenty-somethings, we’ve been led to believe that adulthood works a certain way, and that it has a timeframe that must be followed. If you’re not able to follow that timeframe, you’re a failure.

Even though I feel like a failure at times, I’m really just trying to find my way in a world that’s changing and uncertain. I’m lucky to have a mother who supports me and my dream of being a writer. I’m also very lucky that I have a few good friends and a wonderful boyfriend who helps me feel accomplished and talented whenever I feel down and hopeless. There are a few parts of the equation I’ve gotten right, but none showed up the way I expected them to. I can only hope that’s true for everything else, that the pieces will fall into place when they’re ready to, and when I’m ready for them to.

Are you still trying to figure out this whole adulthood thing? Or are you someone who went through this already and came out on the other side? 

Project for Awesome 2012, and The Power of Giving Back

In this new world of social media and independent publishing, it can be really easy to get caught up in the tunnel vision of self-promotion. We’re told as writers, artists, and musicians that we need to build a platform to sell ourselves and our work or else we’ll never be successful. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed myself getting far too wrapped up in promoting myself and my own projects and not thinking enough about connecting with others and supporting the issues that I believe in.

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted a YouTube video as part of the annual Project for Awesome 2012 charity event hosted by John and Hank Green (aka The VlogBrothers). I chose to do mine on The Help Group, a nonprofit organization that runs several nonpublic high schools in the Los Angeles area. They specialize in individualized, small classroom education for students with emotional and developmental disorders. They recently acquired my alma matter, North Hills Prep, to keep them from going under due to a lack of funding.

Amazingly enough, my video was featured on the Project for Awesome website and livestream. Thousands of people watched my video and left comments on it. I was completely blown away. But what was even more incredible was that a bunch of my high school friends and teachers saw the video and told me how much they loved it. The Help Group even screened it at an event they hosted with over 500 people and personally thanked me for supporting their cause.

The whole experience made me realize that it’s important for us to use the reach we have via the internet and social media to promote good causes and bring greater awareness to issues we care about. While my intention in writing memoir is to share my story in order to help others, it’s hard to stop myself from getting caught up in dreams of fame and success.

It’s difficult not to get sucked into the self-promotion mentality we’re trained to develop as independent artists. That mindset, while very human and practical, is also somewhat flawed. When we focus all of our attention on ourselves, we aren’t able to form real connections with others or produce meaningful art.

Of all the things I’ve ever created, the project that’s received the most attention and appreciation is one where I was promoting a cause that I believed in. That’s not a coincidence. People connected both with the personal experiences I shared in the video and the passion I felt for the cause. And that kind of connection is the most valuable and meaningful in this cluttered, crazy universe of social media and promotion.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Help Group, please visit their website or watch my Project for Awesome video. Although the Project for Awesome is over for this year, you can still check out the videos on the website to learn about the many wonderful organizations doing important work all over the world.

What is Anxiety Disorder?

Photo credit: Alana SaltzIn previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’ve dealt with anxiety disorder for most of my life. Although I think mental illness is becoming less and less stigmatized with time, I’ve noticed that anxiety disorder is still very misunderstood.

Life is stressful and anxiety provoking. Everyone struggles with anxiety, often on a daily basis. So what’s the difference between being anxious about the realities of life and having an anxiety disorder?

Think of anxiety disorder as being similar to clinical depression. Everyone gets depressed at times depending on their life circumstances. Clinical depression, however, is when depressed thoughts and feelings occur constantly over an extended period of time, often without cause, and aren’t easily relieved. The same is true of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorder is when a high level of anxiety is consistently present and is easily triggered and heightened by circumstances that most people don’t think twice about.

For example, my anxiety often comes up in relation to social events. I get anxious when I’m going to an event or party where I don’t know a lot of people or when I’m planning a date with someone I don’t know very well. Sometimes the anxiety appears in the form of worries about feeling awkward or uncomfortable, having to deal with potential traffic or parking problems at the venue, and the possibility of getting physically ill during the event.

While everyone might feel nervous about things like this, sometimes these fears cause me to feel nauseous or trigger a migraine that makes me feel unable to go to the event at all. I’ve missed out on parties and have cancelled dates because of this on many occasions. When anxiety affects the quality of your life this way, it’s time to consider the possibility that it may be a disorder.

I’ve been coming across more and more people lately who have complained to me about being anxious a lot but feel they aren’t being taken seriously. I’ve come up against that problem many times in my life. People constantly tell me things like, “Don’t worry” and “Just don’t think about it” and “What is there to be anxious about? You’re being ridiculous.” Of course, comments like that only make me feel worse about being anxious, and feed into the endless cycle of anxiety.

The cycle goes like this: You feel anxious, then you feel bad about feeling anxious, which causes you to feel even more anxious than you did in the first place. You start to feel like there’s something wrong with you, that you aren’t normal, and you wonder why you can’t just make the anxiety stop like everyone says you should be able to. One of the best ways to stop this cycle is to feel understood by others and to be easy on yourself about these feelings as you work on them.

For me, the most difficult part of having anxiety disorder has been the physical symptoms that accompany it. I can’t tell you how many different doctors and specialists I’ve seen over the years. I’ve gone to doctors complaining of constant stomachaches, headaches, and migraines. On average, I missed about 20 days of class every year when I was in grade school. Doctors have done tests and prescribed medications despite never finding an actual medical cause or condition.

When it all comes down to it, I can see that these pains are caused by my anxiety. However, they are real pains and symptoms. Anxiety can cause an increased acid build-up in your stomach leading to nausea and cramping. It can also cause tension in your neck and shoulders that triggers migraines.

I believe there needs to be a better public understanding and awareness of anxiety disorder. So many people who suffer with it feel isolated and misunderstood. If you think you might be struggling with anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to start feeling better. Consulting a professional is always first on the list of recommendations. I also suggest looking into alternative therapies such as yoga and meditation. And being open and honest about your feelings and concerns with your friends and family can make a world of difference. If they aren’t getting it, tell them that you really need them to understand that these feelings are real, and that this is a real condition.

To learn more about anxiety disorder, start with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website. Psychology Today’s website is a great resource for finding a certified therapist near you. There are also numerous guides and workbooks devoted to helping people overcome anxiety disorder.

Just remember, if you or someone you know is dealing with anxiety disorder, be gentle and understanding. It’s not a disorder that will go away overnight, and I’ve spent years in therapy working on making things better. I still go through phases, like over the past few months, where the anxiety is worse than usual. But I try to remember that there’s nothing wrong or broken about me, and that I will get through it. Having the right support system in place makes it that much easier.