Mental Health and Partial Hospitalization

It’s through a haze of essential oils I realize I’m more or so stuck. A diffuser hisses in the corner. I remember I’m supposed to do something asked of me a second ago, but my mind is foggy. I stare down at the laminated “Check-In” sheet that I’m clutching.

“Hi. My name is Kristin H. My mood for today is anxious…at about a six out of ten,” clarifies my disembodied voice, reading the prompts. “Today my goal for therapy is to learn what I can about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I can accomplish this by listening and using mindfulness?”  

Ella, the clinician leading group smiles. Nods encouragingly. “And can you read one of the group rules on the back?” She indicates at the sheet.

“Refrain from taking illicit drugs while in program.” Some nods. Mostly at the floor. A girl in the corner lets her head loll over her lap, hair covering whatever it is she’s drawing in her notebook. I strongly suspect she’s been tracing a circle figure for the last fifteen minutes.

“Thank you, Kristin. Next?” Ella indicates that I should pass the laminated sheet along to my right.

I pass along the sheet and let my thoughts flow in and out of the room as all fourteen of us “check in” to group therapy, stating our names, answering the questions, reading the rules.

I’m an investigative journalist here, I rehash in my head. I’m not one of these crazy people. I’m fine. I don’t know why the hell I thought this was a good idea. I should be in work. Maybe I can write an expose on this once I drop out tomorrow…

I glance up as the sheet makes its way around the room. We’re all a bit unkempt, disheveled, though some of us look like we’re trying. The chairs that line the room are uncomfortable, so many of us fidget as the chairs reject our desire to sit still. Group rules are read one or two at a time by each patient, some rules more obvious than others.

Refrain from personal relationships. Do not talk about personal details related to suicide, addiction, and trauma. Use “I” statements.

I try my best to be a model patient, as if persuading the clinicians that my presence here is a silly mistake. Hands resting on my lap, back straight as an arrow, I realize I’m one of only a few women who aren’t scribbling in mandalas with colored pencils. Is this allowed? I continue to listen intently.

“Alyssa T. I’m tired. At about a seven…”

We’re required to start every session with our firstnamelastinitial, so names begin to bleed into one another, forming meaningless labels. Sarah E. becomes Sarahee, Whitney N. becomes Whitneyenn. Chris R. has a strong Boston accent, so she becomes Chrisahh. The faint smell of booze and tobacco linger around the room. A door slams somewhere down the hall of our classroom. Yelling. A fresh wave of paranoia hits me.

I’m in the looney bin. For all I know, someone got ahold of a gun and intends to shoot up the place.

My thoughts have been along a similar line for a few months now, ebbing and flowing in my mind, not discriminating based on my location, time, or place. But this fear has been increasingly asphyxiating me as each day slips by, and the medications I’d begun taking (and defiantly stopped taking for a few days last week) hadn’t appeared to quell these thoughts yet. I was convinced every forty-year old man on the commuter rail was plotting to kill me and bomb the train. Anyone who looked at me on the streets would follow me home and torture me. I was in an almost-constant state of fear. There had been one too many panic attacks as of late.

“…Jessica, J-E-S-S-I-C-A. Pizlowski. P-I-Z-L-O-W-S-K-I,” a nasally voice interrupts my thoughts. A girl across the room with amplified cat-eye transition lenses states her full name and mood matter-of-factly (“I’m OK”) much to the clinician’s dismay. I think she believes she is showing how little of a f*ck she gives that she’s here.

I stare longingly at the door. Only three forty-five minute morning sessions, a forty-five minute lunch, and two forty-five minute afternoon sessions until I can escape.

***

I definitely don’t want to ruin the suspense for you, but I did not end up dropping out of the Women’s Partial Hospitalization Program I had enrolled in that day. I spent my half-birthday plotting my liberation and ended up staying the full amount of days my insurance covered. On weekdays last month, I drove myself to a hospital and participated in group-based and individual therapy from 10am to 3:15pm. It proved to be emotionally exhausting and not every day felt positive. Some days felt downright heavy and frustrating. But others reminded me of how strong my group of women were, how strong I could be, and how there can always be hope for treatment.

This came at a minor cost.

As we’re all aware, there is a plethora of stigmata behind mental illnesses. I try to be candid about the mental illnesses that affect me in hopes to destigmatize and change the narrative surrounding them, but admitting my health had deteriorated to the point of partial hospitalization seemed like a fairly different ballgame. Should I be embarrassed? Was this something I should avoid telling relatives and friends? Had I literally entered the realm of bat-sh*t crazy? Do I need explain this to my employer?

We’re all aware that psychiatric hospitals conjure up images of Electric Shock Therapy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, gurneys, restraints, and hospital gowns. Before my experience, they did for me too. While this is certainly a realistic (and sad) view of how psychiatric hospitals operated in the 18th century up to more recently, my experience was quite different (though I can not speak to inpatient care).

In practice, partial hospitalization is a program designed for those who need treatment for a psychiatric disorder and are not seeing improvement when meeting extensively with their outpatient therapist, but do not need twenty-four care. Partial is set up to give one “tools” to become more stabilized and able to cope with life. This is certainly not something to be embarrassed by.

I realized I may need this increase in care about a month ago. Both inpatient care of partial had previously been suggested to me during my sophomore year of college, but I could never imagine halting my life for full or part-time care. Now I had a full-time job. I couldn’t just take three weeks off, the thought was ludicrous.

I’ve normally been pretty adept at using coping skills I’d learned through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) over the years, but recently found myself drowning in an ever-increasing amplitudes of emotion. I’d been off medications for two years and hated the thought of taking pills again, especially given I have been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder (which historically, is hard to stabilize). I needed a space to safely and effectively learn how to regulate my mood while adjusting to the medications I was started. Partial seemed like the right choice for me. And it was. It felt like one of my last viable options.

***

I call it the “brain itch”. When I feel it, I know I’m not well.

Most of the time, it begins with fleeting thoughts that spin around in my mind. When I’m healthy, I’m able to ignore them or address them with a healthy coping skill. However, when I’m already feeling particularly vulnerable, it can quickly escalate into what I perceive to be utter madness.

I’m sitting at Barnes & Noble. I have a book in my hands, but I can’t seem to read more than one sentence without constantly repeating it over and over in my head. Why can’t I read? Am I anxious? Try harder. Eyes glazed over, I turn the page without really finishing the sentence I left off on. “Artemis glanced at me…” A cold knot forms in my stomach. What’s going on? It’s probably nothing. Or what if that napkin I touched earlier had some sort of contagion on it that I now have? Is that why I can’t focus? It can’t be. I know I’m not well. Just ignore it. I stare harder at the book’s stark white pages. That napkin had some sort of blood on it, I knew it. I glance around. A kid sits lazily to my right, reading a comic book. People line up on the escalator. Who is that man and why did he glance this way? He might have explosives. I need to get out of here. I put my book down. It’s not real. You’re so stupid. He doesn’t have a bomb. I need to get out. I get up abruptly and place the book back on the shelf I found it. Exit the store. The clerk looked at me on the way out- did he think I stole something? No. Get in the car. I start the engine. Drive home. Tap your right foot for every striped line you drive past. I tap my foot. I miss a few. Bad things are going to happen. I get home. Avoided danger. I lay on my bed and the stress slowly seeps out of my body onto the covers below. Breathe. I don’t think I’m sick. Threat neutralized. I laugh. I’m so stupid to think someone was going to bomb a Barnes & Noble. But now I’m bored. I don’t want to do anything, yet I have to do something. I’m so bored, what can I do? I sit up. I don’t want to paint. I don’t want to read, I can’t. Study, you need to study for the LSAT. I pick up my study guide and look at it blankly. Try a question. Wrong answer. You’re beyond stupid, you’re worthless. Why even try? Stop it. Try again. I’m trying to fight off the tears that are inevitably coming. I can’t even focus, maybe I did catch something from that napkin. Text your sister. You do not have a disease, but confirm this with her. She’s going to roll her eyes. This is so dumb. I can’t seem to bring the energy to look at another question. I glance at the clock. 7:37pm. Those numbers add up to seventeen. It’s a safe number. I throw my LSAT book on the floor. Open my drawer. Lay out half a pill from one container, two pills from another. One from another. Two from the last. I take every last one of them, just as they have been prescribed. What if they all mix and kill you in your sleep? I get into bed and pull the covers up to my chest. Hands at my side like a wooden soldier. Did you check the doors? No. You should. Check the doors or someone will abduct you as you sleep. I think I did. Did you though? I get up. Check the door. It’s locked. You’re so pathetic. No plans for tomorrow? No one could stand you anyway. No reason to get up. No wonder you were dumped by the last guy you saw. Get back into bed. Covers up. A tight feeling in my chest. Am I dying? Please make this end I can’t be in my own head like this. I can’t do this. Make it stop. Make the noise stop. It’s been two hours and I succumb to the drowsiness that takes me down…down. Down. Sleep five hours. I’m not tired at all. But hungry. Did I eat dinner yesterday? Blank space. I do not remember.

***

I started appreciating partial on the third day. Once I realized (through conversations with the clinician at the hospital and my own therapist) that it was ill-advised to stay for a few days and leave, I began to embrace group sessions.

At my particular program, two to three of the five sessions revolved around Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Each session was led by a staff clinician who directed, steered, and offered prompts for the group to discuss. Some clinicians offered a more psychoeducational approach, while others allowed for more of a group-led discussion. The structure was the same, but the quality of the group largely depended on who was in or leading each group (in my case, there were two rooms you could choose between each session).

A majority of our time was spent learning about appropriate coping mechanisms to help us through times of high distress. DBT tends to focus on the synthesis of the “logic mind” with the “emotional mind” through four main components: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation. The idea is that instead of thinking in extremes, we should find the middle-ground between what is logic and our emotions as the result of an inciting incident. The ultimate goal of DBT is to create a “life worth living” through acquiring new skills and healthy changes in behavior. You can read more about it here.

Most of the time in each session involved learning and practicing coping skills in a controlled environment. By practicing in a “safe” environment, it’s become easier for me to utilize my DBT skills when in times of distress (such as doing the “opposite action” of when I am feeling sad, i.e. dancing to music, a coping mechanism taught in DBT).

The remaining sessions would vary upon the day. Sometimes we’d work on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or do an Open Process session. Other times, art therapy was incorporated through painting or drawing. One of my favorite sessions was called “Empowerment”. My group of women was challenged to come up with empowering words or phrases for ourselves and create something on a blank sheet of paper. At the end of the session, we went around the room and spoke about what we chose to write and why.

I picked the quote, “who is stronger than you?” from the book Wild. Other women had their own phrases, but we all spoke to the challenges of finding our strengths through our depression, trauma, and other disorders. I’d never been so hyper-aware of the difficulties facing women who feel crushed under the weight of their mental health. We were all struggling, yet we built one another up during the session and let ourselves be vulnerable with one another. I left that day feeling much lighter than when I had walked in. I was learning to truly love myself and see the beauty in others.

***

I’m in the forest again, just like when I was a kid. This time is different, though. The path leads my tennis shoes down a wood chipped path, swallowed by thick, lush, green leaves and branches. I’m sweating lightly, having just returned from a run. Normally, I’d be slightly paranoid about being alone in the woods, but as I breathe in the deep, musky scent of the earth, I’m present. I’m here.

I stand in a clearing dappled in the colors of a warm May sunset. My eyes close slowly and I feel the air around me from my feet, to my skin, to my very being. What do you smell? A verdant oasis, the earthy smell of mud, a slight breeze wrapped in gold spun from the light, sweet honeysuckle. What do you feel? Hair brushing my temples, feet grounded like the tree roots swelling from the earth around me, the sun’s faint, glowing embrace on my face. What do you hear? The longing twill of a robin, the soft rustling of leaves in the forest’s topmost branches.

Opening my eyes, I begin to wander, fingers eagerly outstretched to the beauty around me. What do you see? Colors, the high contrast of sound and light, sharp definition of jagged rocks, soft light filtering through the delicate flora above. My worries melt away and I’m here in this moment. Nothing else matters except my exact position in time and space.

It’s the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. To me, I’ve always known it as mindfulness.

We sometimes forget the little things because we’re focused on the future, on worrying about our next few steps. But it’s the little things like a walk in the woods or enjoying the scent of a wildflower that add up to make a majority of our life experiences. I’ve learned the art of finding myself in these fleeting moments. Through this, I’ve found peace in the madness.

***

The penultimate moment in partial for me was when I decided to let go of my denial that I was not “okay”. For many months preceding this May, I’d been lying to myself and others about my well-being. I lost motivation and tried my hardest to remain optimistic while ignoring most of my feelings. After spending time with my family, friends, and their significant others, I focused on how alone I felt instead of how happy I was to be surrounded by positive, loving relationships. I could hardly focus on studying for the LSAT, but when I could, I quickly grew frustrated with myself. Was I stupid? I continued to beat myself up as if it was a sport. I felt like a fraud. I knew and preached what a healthy person should be thinking during times like these, but I couldn’t mentally convince myself to get there.

Sadly, it would be months until I realized I had been pushed to my breaking point. One day after work, I started uncontrollably crying in my car and could not stop. I wanted my brain to stop bullying me. I wanted to turn my thoughts off. I couldn’t go a day without experiencing a myriad of uncontrollable high and low thoughts. I didn’t need to be happy, but I desperately wanted to put a pause on being me. If I couldn’t commit to partial hospitalization for myself, I’d do it for my loved ones. It’s all I feel I had left. So I talked to my therapist, called the hospital, and asked for a place in their women’s mental health program.

Initially, I was relieved. But after getting buzzed through a double set of security doors at the hospital, I panicked. Once again, I convinced myself I was fine. I was functioning, right? I didn’t need this, it was a mistake to have committed to this program. I wasn’t a lunatic. I’d work on getting my way out as soon as I met with my clinician.

In my denial, I had convinced myself I already had all the necessary tools to live a happy, healthy life. But this changed as the women around me shared their stories and allowed themselves to be vulnerable while in group therapy. Suddenly, it was okay to admit I was struggling. It was okay to not know all the answers, okay to feel a loss of control. We were in partial together to figure ourselves out. To find a sense of peace in the madness. To acquire coping mechanisms to help us fight through trauma, depression, and life. In this, we were strong together. The moment I let my facade go was truly the moment I was set free. I was free to begin healing again.

Another large part of my healing process began with addressing the fact that I shouldn’t try to hide every negative emotion from myself and loved ones. Hiding my feelings is not the true meaning of being “healthy”. It’s okay to feel sadness, anger, and frustration- even when I’m not feeling well. It’s more so how I choose to address the amplitude of the emotion that matters in the short and long term. This is something I’m still working on to this day.

Overall, partial was a humbling, eye-opening, overall positive experience. It’s taught me that I want to become a student, not a sufferer, of my mental illnesses. Through psychoeducation, I’ve built up the skills necessary to bouy me to the surface when I’m in times of distress. I learned how to do this in partial, which provided a safe environment for me to do so. This is hardly anything to be ashamed of. I asked for help when I needed it most, and this is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

So circling back to my initial questions: Should I be embarrassed? Was this something I should avoid telling relatives and friends? Had I literally entered the realm of bat-sh*t crazy? Do I need explain this to my employer?

The short answer to all these questions is a simple “no”.

Taking control of your mental health, if not for yourself, but for the loved ones who surround you, is never something to be ashamed or embarrassed of. If you are surrounded by a great support group, you will have little reason to avoid telling your loved ones you had the strength to take charge of your mental well being. Those who do not support you despite this may not have a place in your future. And in my opinion, your employer only needs to know you are taking time off for your health (to keep things professional).

Mental illnesses are rife with stigma. It won’t be easy to change the negative narrative surrounding them, but it shouldn’t mean we do not try. While I once was afraid to admit I needed partial to regain a sense of meaning in my life again, I no longer feel this way. I’m strong through my struggles. I’ve learned a lot about myself through the time I’ve spent participating in group therapy. The women around me proved to be overall positive influences on my life and I wouldn’t change this for the world. I’m strong knowing I am on the path to finding a life worth living and this is largely due to facing my fears, admitting I was struggling, challenging stigmata, and participating in a partial hospitalization program. And this is the path I want to be on.

***

If you have any questions after reading this post, please do not hesitate to reach out to me in the comments section below.

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SELF-LOVE | Thoughts

From the dawn of time, I remember learning I should treat others the way I’d like to be treated. As the first-born child of God-fearing, Methodist-raised parents, this message was delightfully reinforced by studying Luke 6:31 while in Sunday school.

“Do to others as you’d have done to you, boys and girls,” the Pastor’s daughter preached as identical, corresponding coloring book pages were passed around the class. My Sunday school friends and I then scribbled in a Caucasian Jesus to bring home to our parents so they could accidentally misplace it in the recycling bin later that week.

As kids, most of us have been taught to treat others the way we want to be treated. Whether it be our parents, religion, or watching Disney’s Bambi (“if you can’t say anything nice…”), we somehow figure out that life tends to be more enjoyable and rewarding this way.

But sometimes we are so adamantly taught how to treat others; we forget how to properly treat ourselves.

How often do you hear a friend dismiss a sincere compliment, catch a parent disapprovingly looking at his or her reflection in the mirror, or see your sibling caught in a toxic relationship?

It has taken me an extraordinarily long time to write this particular post and not because I have a shortage of feelings about self-love, but because I feel as though I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m a work in progress, but this is a place I think many of us identify ourselves as being in. I dismiss compliments, get caught up in how my physical appearance is lacking compared to others’, and let toxic relationships fester for longer than I should let them. All these things add up to quite a lot of unhappiness.

Until recently, I identified “self-care” and “self-love” as taking five minutes out of my life to apply a face mask or buy myself a pretty dress as a reward for an achievement. These can definitely be expressions of self-care and self-love. But while doing these things can certainly be a way of properly grooming yourself to become the best version of yourself that you can be, I think there are many other facets to learning how to treat yourself with love and respect to maximize your enjoyment from life.

The first is learning how to truly love your physical appearance. The second, in my humble opinion (hey, I’ve been living for 26 years now, that gives me some clout), is who we choose to surround ourselves with.

SELF-LOVE: Physical Appearance, Diet, Exercise

While I’m never one to say “no” to an undressed wad of cold, plain spinach, and long (plyo-filled, of course) walks on the beach, I’ve learned that part of my satisfaction with my body relates to more than just what or how much I choose to eat or workout. My satisfaction comes from how I view food and exercise and what their function is in my life.

Like many women, I’ve struggled with food guilt, binging and purging, abusing the treadmill, counting calories, and struggling to adhere to a workout plan amongst countless other negative behaviors. My senior year of college, I convinced myself that a strict, vegan diet was the pinnacle of all health and further convinced myself to adopt an unmaintainable, intense workout regime.

I’ll look so great, I thought. I’ll be happy.

It’s no surprise that when I set myself up with so many lofty goals surrounding my physical appearance, I failed spectacularly. I hated working out. I didn’t see myself getting thinner. I hated food, which I now felt alienated me. My skin was still acne-prone and cutting dairy out wasn’t helping. To make matters worse, I viewed these failures as an innate character flaw in myself. Food and exercise had always been something I knew I could control, so I controlled them obsessively to feel like I had discipline in my life. Once I burned out, however, I stopped working out and limited my calories to “make up for” my decreased activity. I felt like sh*t. Was I a sh*tty person for not having a pristine physical body or lacking the consistent drive to get there?

A large part of how we see ourselves and how we determine our self-worth comes from our relationship with food and exercise. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, deviations from standards of beauty (flat abs, a miniscule waist, a dance-hall ass, you know the drill) can equate to a perceived deficiency of character or lack of self-care. We all know this is ultimately not true, but sometimes it’s quite hard to remember. It’s difficult to be a woman or gay man on social media. We’re bombarded with images on a daily basis of gorgeous tanned skin, pearly white teeth, and airbrushed perfect bodies. When we become acclimated to these images, it’s almost a cruel reminder looking in the mirror to see how we may not measure up.

Since I’ve turned 26, I’ve found that whatever images I’m plagued with on social media, I’m most happy with my body and self-image when I have a relaxed, non-image focused, sustainable attitude toward food and exercise- not when I’ve achieved a week-long calorie deficit and lost five pounds. I spent a vacation on the beach a few weeks ago and for the first time in a long time, I did not feel the need to hide or cover up my body. I found a sustainable workout regime (and I hadn’t lost weight!) that focused more on just getting me moving as well as found a non-calorie deficient diet I could manage. I enjoyed working out and appreciated preparing dinner. Confident in this, I accepted that my body is just that, – a body. A body is just that, but also so much more. It’s wonderful tool to aid me in doing what it must- living. I can enjoy hiking, dancing, hugging, laughing, and anything in between with what I have now, and I feel infinite. I can do all these things enjoyably without washboard abs, perfect skin, or after a five-day juice cleanse.

Self-love comes from a place of finding sustainable methods that help you find YOUR beautiful, whether it be on the inside, outside, or both. We all know what society finds beautiful, but when is the last time you asked yourself what you find beautiful about you? The more I’ve grown into my twenties (a tumultuous time, let’s be honest), the more I place value on loving myself for who I am and my effort to become a better version of myself. Part of this comes from remembering to practice forgiveness- forgiving myself when I’m not able to finish my workout, and not feeling guilty over eating what I want, when I want to. I’ve grown to appreciate a makeup free face, guilt-free donuts, and loving my body (and mind!) for what it can do for me. Loving yourself begins with thankfulness and forgiveness. After all, a body without a beautiful mind is simply an empty vessel.  

SELF-LOVE: Relationships

We are who we choose to surround ourselves with. Some of these people are in our lives whether we choose to have them there or not, including family members or co-workers. Others, we choose, such as friends and partners who become family.

Much of our happiness or lack thereof comes from this community of people. Will they be there for you or abandon you when you need it most? Are they someone you trust? How do they treat you?

Self-care is taking a part in positive relationships (both romantically and platonically) with those who lift you up. A positive relationship will demand the best of both parties, show you how to truly love and be loved, and teach you more about yourself. You’ll feel safe, trusted, and empathetic and return these courtesies to the other party involved. Cutting those out of your life who do not fit this criteria can immediately be the most painful experience in the world, but how can you care for yourself if surrounded by negativity?

I’ve been pretty lucky to stumble upon some of my closest friends through sports. High school volleyball gave me some of the healthiest friendships that I’ve had for the longest time. Distance has certainly taken a toll on how often we talk, but we all know we are there to support one another whenever or wherever. Through college, I gained more friends as I weeded through others. In my toughest times, they lifted me up and shown me unconditional love not unlike my own family. Relationships are never perfect, but at the end of the day, I’m grateful knowing the friendships I continue to foster push me to be a better, happier person.

After moving away from home, I’ve attempted navigating through a different type of relationship I’m most unfamiliar with: romantic relationships. Romantic relationships have always been more of a challenge for me. This past summer and fall, I let an overall negative romantic relationship fester because I so desperately wanted affection and thought I’d found it. I couldn’t be more wrong. I had been independent for so long and I wanted someone to take care of me, someone to be my best friend and someone to support. As we all know, relationships are a two-way road. I hated who I had become when with this guy and didn’t feel like myself. I was embarrassed. I hardly recognized the girl that left her house at night just to see him for a few hours, knowing full well I’d never get what I truly wanted: a stable, loving, relationship.This past winter, I did what I knew I had to do. I broke things off. It still hurts to this day, but I learned the hard way that just because someone else does not love you, does not mean you should not love yourself.

This past year, I did not do an overall great job of surrounding myself with healthy, positive, romantic relationships. This is why I especially consider myself lucky to be surrounded with friends and family who remind me I am very much loved for who I am. I’m trying to remind myself to be grateful for the hard lesson of not letting my self-image be contingent on someone else’s perception of me. It’s taken some time to begin rebuilding myself up again, and I’ve done so through the positive relationships I choose to surround myself with.

Now that I’m in my mid-twenties, I have less time to entertain negative friendships and relationships. I’m figuring out what I value in a relationship and am learning to say “no” to anything that is not that. Remember that you always have a decision, even when it feels like you don’t or when it feels impossibly hard. By evaluating relationships consistently, I’m practicing self-care and self-love. Surrounding myself with positive relationships serves to make me an overall happier, more secure person. I’m able to more effectively navigate life’s trials and tribulations with loved ones at my side.

***

So my question to you is this: what are you doing to self-care and self-love? It could be something as simple as acknowledging a friend’s compliment or finally having the courage to end a relationship that has been negatively impacting your happiness. It could even be as simple as taking five minutes during the day to apply a GlamGlow Supermud face mask.

Learning to love and care for yourself is not as innate as we may think it is. Life happens quickly. We become complacent, allowing ourselves to think that diminishing happiness is simply a reminder we should re-adjust to this new self-prescribed norm. What we may not realize, however, is that we can be much happier than we think. It starts from within and can require practice.


What if we started treating ourselves the way we treat our loved ones?


Self-care for me is 12/10 dancing in the rain.


2018 | The Good, Bad, & Ugly

About one month ago I sat on my bed, eager to write a “Christmas Letter” detailing my year. This clearly slipped through the cracks. My bad. To be fair, I try my best to come up with a main idea for each post I write as to not embarrass my previous English teachers, but I struggled to think of a point to make readers reflect on their own years. Unable to come up with any cohesive storyline, I abandoned the post until today. Here’s to a selfish “my year in review” which is sure to entertain. This past year was full of triumphs, setbacks, and one overarching theme that finally became evident with only a few days left to spare: gratefulness.

***

2018 was another year of growth for me, much as I’m sure it was for you. I began dating, got two (two!) new jobs, moved to Boston from Providence, took the LSAT, and fell in love with Scotland. There were plenty of tears. Some came streaming down my face as I uncontrollably sobbed, wondering if the pain would ever subside. But others, and these are my favorite, came from beautiful moments of unadulterated happiness- such as one of my best friends getting engaged this past September.

Essentially, it’d be silly to characterize the year as either “good” or “bad”. I don’t feel like a year is quantifiable in such terms. Instead I like to rely on more ambiguous I-have-a-liberal-arts-degree questions like What have I learned? Have I loved and been loved? Am I trying to better myself? What makes me happy and why? As we all know, the end of the year is typically a time for reflection, review, and resolutions.

So let’s start with the highlight review reel, the sometimes superficial fluff I’d include in a Christmas letter that’ll lead you to believe my life is flawless, darling:

IMG_3959
Mount Adams from the Madison Spring Hut in New Hampshire this summer.

I welcomed in the New Year surrounded by friends unlike the previous year and will be in one of these friend’s weddings this May. Photography became my go-to hobby on weekends and I continued to travel New England in search of places to utilize my Canon T5i Rebel’s tripod, having graduated from leaning my iPhone precariously against inanimate objects with a self timer. I secured a new full-time job in a high rise in the heart of downtown Boston. Scotland and London blew my mind in April. I bagged a few additional peaks in the White Mountains this summer and have now summited seven of New Hampshire’s ten highest 40,000 footers, some multiple times, most alone. This September I juggled studying for the LSAT with a full-time job and part-time volleyball coaching gig at Suffolk University. I turned twenty-six this November.

As we all know, pleasure accompanies pain. It’s how we can distinguish feeling between the two. Though 2018 was an overall productive year for me, it was only this way because pain often drove me to make difficult, but necessary choices.

Dating has not come easily to me. I’ve written about this previously, but struggling with your mental health while trying to let another person into your life can be a challenge (it’s a challenge even without a mental health disorder!). I began the year by making myself miserable over a guy who clearly only wanted a casual hookup. I self harmed, closed myself off to friends, and questioned my value as a human being. After some deliberation, I pushed myself to continue dating. This summer I was delighted when I was asked out on a second date with a guy I felt I had a connection with. After a somewhat turbulent, yet sometimes wonderful seven months, the relationship ended amicably. As I sat on my bed crying, I felt a million emotions at once, but self-harm and suicide never once crossed my mind. I felt both relieved and anguish in a beautiful, tragic kind of way, but above anything, grateful. I learned so much through my heartbreak. I’d grown and came to terms with what I consider to be things I am inflexible about in a relationship. I will not beg someone to love me as I have in the past. My self-worth is not determined by anyone other than myself.

Other than dating, the latter half of my year largely revolved around studying for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). Working as a paralegal over the past year has not satiated my appetite for the legal field, so after many heart-to-hearts with female attorneys I had worked and work with, I signed up to take the September LSAT in August. I’d never considered myself someone who could even dream of being a lawyer, so I kept the fact I was studying for the test quiet for a few weeks until my anxiety really kicked in. Was I too stupid to do well on the test? Did I even have enough time to study? What would people think of me if I didn’t get into a good school? The “what ifs” began making me physically sick, negatively impacting my health as the test approached. I constantly felt nauseous and sick and ended up losing fifteen pounds, but not in a way I was proud of. Finally, test day came and I completely bombed the LSAT. Again, my self-worth came into question.  Was I a piece of sh*t for not scoring what my brother had? How could I have thought this profession was for me?

One of the blessings of working around attorneys is that it forced me to begin thinking more critically and logically. So while faced with a choice, I did what I believed to be necessary for my success. I swallowed my pride and paid half a month’s paycheck to sign up for a class leading up to the next test in January. After busting my ass this winter, I scored three points higher on the midpoint test than I did on the September test. I consider this a small victory. No matter what happens, I know my self-worth is not contingent on a test that asks me questions like, “Where can Polly sit if she can’t sit next to Jeff and Nora?”. CRAZY, right?

In addition to getting comfortable with the idea and practice of dating, I have also come to terms with aspects of my past that I’ve buried for some time. Interpersonal, romantic relationships had been a violent, emotional struggle for me while growing up. I grew up believing I was “sick” and “unnatural” because I was attracted to both sexes. I beat myself up and spent a large majority of my highschool career and a few years in college terrified someone would find this out. After thirteen years (yes, I knew as early as 7th grade), I finally began identifying myself as pansexual if asked. I no longer feel frightened or disgusted by something that I consider naturally a part of me and who I’ve always been. I’ve never felt the need to proclaim this or make a statement about it, but my point is that 2018 was the first year I am not afraid to admit it. I have nothing to apologize for. For this realization, I am immensely grateful.

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Picture Cred: Amanda Dettmann

While visiting my sister this Christmas, I walked into her room to get a grip on the new condo she now inhabited (my parents moved to Georgia this fall leaving Alli in Wisconsin to finish up her master’s). I sat on her bed slowly, wrapped in a warm towel, still sopping wet from the shower. As tendrils of water from my hair snaked down my back, a small handwritten note caught my eye.

I am grateful for my struggle because without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.

If you know my sister, Alli, you know she lives for Pinterest quotes. If you know me, you know I live to roast Alli about living for Pinterest quotes. Somehow, this quote didn’t strike me as something to make fun of.

I’m still kind of unsure of my strengths in life, but I know 2018 has pushed me to my limits. I’ve felt emotions I was unaware I could even feel until this year. Some came from simply gazing upon peaks of summits shrouded in cloud, others from allowing myself to become intimately vulnerable with another human being. It’s been a year of pain, bliss, stress, joy, and everything in between. For all these things, I am grateful because it’s allowed me to live my life to the fullest. We call can’t be sure we will be granted another trip around the sun, but we sure as sh*t can be sure of making what we can of the life that was given to us.

Here’s to 2019!

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When one member of the squad gets engaged, we all get engaged.

Dating for (Mentally Ill) Dummies

It wasn’t my best date, but it wasn’t my worst either. He showed up, unlike my first date ever in college. That was a plus.

He was sweet, I knew that much, but I found myself straining to find common ground amidst lengthy, awkward pauses. Tense crossed legs, vigorous nodding (don’t dissociate, damn it), I gripped a cold fizzy beer in my right hand like the lifeline I knew it was. Feigning interest, I propped my chin in my hand and noticed that his eyes flicked towards my now-exposed wrist. Self-consciously, I jerked my arm off the high-top table and back into my lap.

We needed a distraction. He had mentioned salsa dancing in passing earlier, so I drained my IPA in ten seconds and vaulted myself off my chair, date in tow. The poor guy probably thought he was gonna lay the pipe that night.

After a ten minute Uber ride, we flashed our IDs and a quick smile to the bouncer and entered a sticky-floored bar in downtown Cambridge. Shaking my head when asked for another drink, my date and I hit the dance floor. Under the flickering lights and gyrating, sweaty bodies, a bridal party from my college’s hometown screamed at my arrival and asked if I was dancing with my husband.

Grinning like an idiot, I smacked her shoulder and yelled, “HE’S MY BOO” over the pounding bass. Whipping my hair around like a banshee, I fumbled with my date’s shirt buttons and unceremoniously unbuttoned his shirt in the middle of the dance floor. An hour later, I soberly drove him to his house and dumped him off on the curb. I hope he didn’t see me exchanging numbers with that Julian kid earlier. Gawd, being manic was so great.

The dates I’ve had are few and far in between, but it’s safe to say that between myself and my friends, we have a few stories to tell.

If “getting out there” and “meeting up with hawt singles” on apps is what gets us millennials off our phones, off our asses, and into the arms of that girl/guy who had a puppy in photo number three, then so be it. I used to balk at the thought of exchanging messages through an app only to meet a rando in a bar, but now I have learned to embrace it for what it does and the purpose it truly serves (meeting people!).

Dating is hard. I often find myself wondering how the hell two people can mutually agree to see one another after a first date. Through many (MANY. I’m a HAWT piece of a**!) trials and errors, these meet ups have taught me to live in the moment and chill out a little bit. Not every Tom, Dick, or Harry will be your potential husband. What they will be is a potentially good time, so offer to split the beer, get to know the human next to you, and enjoy being in the moment.

Easier said than done though, right?

It used to be a lot harder. As I’ve described in previous posts, I’ve had a somewhat abnormal dating past life due to several factors, the largest being my mental health.

After a particularly ugly break up in high school, I was confronted with parts of my illness I was in no capacity and had no idea how to control. I became angry, frustrated, and increasingly negative while in the throes of my anguish- but most of all, I became scared. Scared of myself, scared that I was unable to control my mood, and scared I was unworthy of loving someone or being loved in return. Undiagnosed and not treating with a psychiatrist or therapist at the time, I had convinced myself at the age of eighteen that I couldn’t be trusted to date or see anyone until I “fixed” myself. Unfortunately, this delusion continued on through college.

As you may be well aware of (but I was not at the time), mental illnesses aren’t something you can “heal” or “get over”. It’s a bit harder than just taking your Prozac, drinking water, and reading up on the latest edition of “Dating For Mentally Ill Dummies”. Mental illnesses are for life. For some, myself included, it’s sometimes just a matter of learning how to properly cope and find ways to be successful despite maladaptive learned behaviors and thinking patterns.

In hindsight, I spent years (yes, years!) too afraid and discouraged to put myself out there and go on dates, worried I’d become obsessive, manipulative, and insecure like I had been in high school. What I failed to accept until recently is that I’m no longer the girl I used to be.

Now that I’m cognizant of the fact I’m better equipped to handle what life throws at me, I decided to make some changes and take some risks this past year. I know I’m far from the functioning capacity of one who has not struggled with a mental health disorder, but I understand it should not inhibit my pursuit of happiness and self-discovery. With this in mind, I accepted that dating would be an uphill climb, but one I was willing to undertake. Life is simply too short to close oneself off to pathways just because they may be painful and difficult.

***

I’m not unaware of the shock that has passed across some of my dates’ faces as they see the deep purple scars on my arms, a visible talisman of inner turmoil from my past. For some, my mental health been a deal breaker. For others, it’s served as a topic of conversation that has led to unexpected common ground.

It’s a road divided. My mental illnesses serve as a fork in the road where I know only one of two routes may be chosen after my illnesses been revealed. Either we will see one another again, or we will part ways contingent on this reality.

This fork in the road used to worry me, but I’ve learned to let go. I have nothing to apologize for, I have nothing to hide. My mental illnesses are something I will have for the remainder of my life and whoever I end up with will be well aware of this. As long as I’m working on getting better, I see no reason why they should be thought of as having a negative impact on my dating life.

So although it’s taken me years to build up the courage to go on dates, I couldn’t be happier I finally took the chance. I can’t expect (and don’t expect) every date to end perfectly or even well. I’m becoming better at dealing with rejection, though it sometimes hurts more deeply than I know it should. I’m a work in progress. I’m better off learning how to deal with the ups and downs of dating now rather than avoiding it altogether because I’m worried something will go awry- because things always do.

The more dates I go on, the more I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing- even through heartbreak. I’ve never characterized myself as someone who is resourceful, but now I’m forcing myself to deal with my mental illnesses head on instead of avoiding them. Becoming comfortable in a fluctuating state of disquietude doesn’t allow growth and I’m learning to embrace this, however scary it seems. And so far, it’s been a painful, yet wonderful road filled with lessons I’m beyond grateful to continue learning.

 

 

Goodbye, Rhode Island

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Fall, 2016. The first time I’d visited Fort Wetherhill in Jamestown, Rhode Island. It’s still one of my favorite places to go on weekends.

God knows it’s been awhile since I first drove down through Carolina, by way of the isle of quiet winding pine woods onto East Beach Road, past raised, bleached houses that were delicately hidden behind rolling dunes.

It was winter of 2016 when I first drove down to the south shore. Charlestown’s wind-swept beaches offered me the chance to witness the steady roaring of crystalline blue waves buffeting fine white sand. Away from the busy chatter of the city, the cool breeze off the ocean tossed tendrils of my hair around my face and bit through my thin jacket. I fell in love.

I’d been living in Providence for about five months at the time. I couldn’t tell you (and still can’t tell you) the best places to dine in Federal Hill or what coffee milk tastes like, but I can navigate the rough crags of Fort Wetherhill in Jamestown and tell you when the tide rolls out to sea, leaving hidden coves along the shores of Beavertail Lighthouse.

I was young when I moved here two years ago. I still am. But Rhode Island has offered me something beyond what I could’ve hoped for- a chance to make my life my own. A chance to make my own mistakes, a chance to learn.

When I made my first solo trip to Boston two years ago after moving into a four story house on Olney Street on the East Side of Providence, I glanced up at the towering skyscapers above and wondered who worked there. Too afraid to take the train up from Providence (how did it work?), I paid dearly for parking that January day and wandered the streets until I found a museum with free access- it was Thursday, one of my two days off at the dealership down in Warwick.

Clutching my phone tightly, I walked one block and turned around. The sun had long since disappeared and I felt vulnerable. I returned to the steamy underground parking garage, found my car, and pressed the start button a little too quickly than the occasion called for. The ignition roared to life and I silently sat in my car, glancing past the steering wheel to the brightly lit dashboard.

48,656 miles.

I drove home, the thought that I’d be working a few blocks away in less than one year’s time never crossing my mind. A year and a half later, I stare down at the streets of Boston from the 16th Floor of 125 Summer Street remembering the time I’d wearily driven home, not having visited the Contemporary Institute of Art that Thursday- in Seaport, as I now know.

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Unedited photo I took while down at Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown, Rhode Island. If you’ve never watched a storm roll in from the southwest while on the coast, it’s amazing.

To date, my Ford Escape has about 65,000 miles on the odometer. Hundreds of miles have been spent driving down to the frozen beaches of Newport, Jamestown, Westerly, and Charlestown during the winter of 2016. The beaches were blissfully empty during those months, but as I began to see shoots of flowers emerge from the undergrowth, so too did people begin to emerge- both in my life and on the beaches.

Gone were the days when I’d go twenty-four hours without speaking. The road down to the southern shore remains a familiar friend as I play the same music as I always had, but now I take friends and family down to the places I’ve grown to know so well.

Oh, there’s a river that winds on forever/ I’m gonna see where it leads/ Oh, there’s a mountain that no man has mounted/ I’m gonna stand on the peak.

Two years later, I know I’ll see these beaches less, but somehow I know I’ll always be able to guide myself over the cool, salty rocks that have been here long before me and will long survive me. I feel timeless as the sea foam floats eerily through the air around me, the sun beating down on my cheeks.

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Blue Shutters Beach, Charlestown, Rhode Island. I took my parents to my favorite Rhode Island spot last summer before they swung up to Acadia, ME.

I never realized how young I was when I graduated from college and I never knew I could experience true happiness while in solitude years later. Moving from Wisconsin offered me the chance to figure out what I value most in life, my loved ones and a sense of adventure.

It’s been one of the hardest, yet easiest choices I’ve made in my life. Getting here was the easiest part- I had supportive parents and a friend who offered me the spare room in her apartment. The next part was the hardest. I had to find a job to support myself.

Post-college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew what I loved and was passionate about, but had few connections that led to anything fruitful. I’d spent hours shooting off my resume to random job sites and recruiters to no avail, becoming more and more discouraged at each turn. How could I have a four-year degree that offered me nothing?

After a jobless four months, I managed to connect with someone who put me in touch with a manager seeking to fill a position at a car dealership. Since that time, I’ve learned acquiring a new job is twofold: it’s about who you know and being patient. This is how I acquired my most recent two jobs as well as ended up switching career-paths. I’ve also learned no job is beneath me or my education. If it pays the bills, it pays the bills.

With the ability to support myself monetarily (still with some help from my parents), I began to explore. Ocean to the east, mountains to the north and west, friends to the south. I now felt a freedom like I’d never before. No longer in my college bubble, I began to find myself. I went out on dates, began caring less what others thought of me, and confronted demons that threatened to bring my delicate, newfound life crashing down.

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The first time I visited Blue Shutters Beach, Charlestown, Rhode Island. Though I look cold, it was an unseasonably warm January day.

Though I know I’ll never be cured of my mental heath illnesses, I am very aware what I’m able to do to manage them. While surrounded by sun bleached trees, softly chirping birds, and a trailhead, I began to challenge myself to live unapologetically a year ago. I am me, that’s all I can give. I might as well learn to tolerate myself if I want to experience everything I can about life while I can, I thought. My world became a much less depressing place as I acknowledged the beauty of the sea glass on the ocean’s shore, the sheer magnitude of the mountains in the Pemigawasset Wilderness, the soft colors of the sunlight filtering through the pine trees on a winter day.*

Shedding much of the negativity I had brought with me to Providence, I let the sand beneath my feet guide me and sky overhead remind me of how incredibly lucky I was to be alive. These fleeting moments never cease to bring me out of a funk, even if only for a short while.

I began taking up hobbies my parents so graciously introduced my siblings and I to as kids. I hiked, biked, and ran more. No longer mindlessly doing these tasks or performing them with volleyball season in mind, I consciously began learning to savor each movement of my body and how lucky I was to be able to perform each exercise. I climbed summits, pedaled through vibrant green fields aglow with wildflowers, and started enjoying the feeling of running for time, not distance.

It’s taken time (two years!) and I’m still learning to like myself. I’m taking each day for what it is and I’m working on becoming less stressed about my future.

As I leave Rhode Island for Boston (I know I’m being dramatic, it’s not that far- but still, it’ll be a two-three hour drive to get to the destinations that now take a half an hour), I feel more prepared to continue my life out on the east coast than I had two years ago. There’s been hard lessons to learn and will still be in years to come, but I’ve never been more excited to begin a new chapter of life.

So although I’ll be farther away from the crashing of the ocean waves on Blue Shutters Beach or the tangled vines that twine around the fences of Fort Wetherhill, I know part of me will always be amongst the salty air, waiting to return to the places I grew from a recent college grad to a young (functioning!) woman. The move I’m about to make is far less about distance than about the person I’ve become since moving here in August of 2016. And I wouldn’t change a single moment of the past two years for the world.

Goodbye, Rhode Island. Living here has been a pleasure.

xx KH

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My favorite photo I’ve ever taken while at Moonrise Kingdom in Jamestown, Rhode Island. If you haven’t already seen Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson), I highly recommend doing so- some of the movie’s scenes were filmed here. 

***

*Let me make this clear…I am in no way hinting depression or any other mental illness can simply be cured by sitting in the middle of the woods. It doesn’t work that way. Though it has greatly helped me by being “in nature” while depressed/anxious/obsessive-compulsive, it doesn’t replace meds or therapy. Trust me.

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Beavertail Lighthouse, June 2017. Nothing makes me happier than when I’m able to make it down to the coast while it’s shrouded in a thick layer of fog- it’s beautiful.

Picking Up the Pieces

If any of you know me well, you are well aware I am currently in possession of four or five diar- journals. They’re journals.

I’d be in possession of six if I could find the journal I wrote in fifth grade when I recorded my feline endeavors at recess as “Blackstar”, leader of Thunderclan, but I think I must’ve done a great job hiding it because I’ve been looking for years now to no avail. One of my high school friends will undoubtedly bring it out just in time for my engagement party within the next ten years. Thanks! ❤

The first journal (alright, it really should just be called what it really is…a “diary”) is a spiral notebook with a hard pink cover. A flower adorns the cover and “MY JoUrNaL” is printed sheepishly around the stem, as if an afterthought. My first entry is dated November 18, 2005.

Once inside (if you could unlock it, that is), you’d realize all of the entries are pretty mundane- unless you were my younger sister at the time. The diary included the classes I went to in seventh grade, Venn diagrams of my crushes and their strengths/weaknesses, and random song lyrics I had been feelin’ at the time (Duran Duran). Basically, anything you would imagine would be in a journal which has, “THIS BOOK BELONGS TO NO OTHER THAN THE GREAT KRISTIN, NOT YOURS SO DEAL WITH IT” scribbled on the front inside cover. Yes, it was scrawled proudly across the page in sparkly gel pen. It was 2005, man. A hell of a year for any millennial.

The most satisfying part of having a diary (or several) is being able to glimpse back to a time where memories might ordinarily have become muddled by time or bias. Having the ability to look back at written material has served me well. When I wasn’t meticulously recording my crushes and their daily interactions with me (“omg Alex saw me in the hall today, I think he looked at me”) or showcasing the spelling fads of 2007 (“i no i shouldnt b saying this but i ❤ jordan. his eyes r awesome tho”), it is interesting to see how my brain processes information at the time.

Though my spelling has gotten much better (I still struggle with “i” before “e”, except after “c” or whatever the hell it is) and I’ve become less boy crazy since the days I hid behind my bed to scribble down the events of the day, parts of my thirteen year old self carried over into my college years- for better or worse.

Hidden between the hundreds of pages I’d written about volleyball, soccer, and crushes was a girl struggling with self acceptance. She just didn’t quite realize how much this struggle would impact her late teenage years quite yet.

Middle and high school can be remembered fondly to some, while others bask in the glory of having the class bully unclog their toilet forty years later. To say the least, it may be a time best described as having many highs and lows. :.)

Our innocence waned as we learned cuss words on the bus from the older kids, we finally figured out what Chat Roulette was while at a sleepover, and broke curfew…again and again.

My childhood was somewhat more sheltered than most in the sense it was mercifully uneventful until my teenage years.

My diary entries noticeably shifted as 2005 slipped to 2007, then 2008. I continued to sporadically write into high school, but did not write much beyond a few entries in 2008 and two in 2011 (one had been ripped out). I began writing less about my crushes, favorite songs, and daily encounters with my teachers and family.

The girl whose biggest issue was worrying about not making the soccer team now drew a picture of herself pointing out her flaws, writing “ugly” repetitively over the page. I was pale, fat, had too large a nose, regretted cutting my hair, overdid my eye makeup, and hated my freckles. The date above the crudely drawn picture was March 21, 2008. I was sixteen.

Why couldn’t I look like the pretty, popular girls at my school?

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Above: Teenagers tend to be a bit hard on themselves when encountering a herd of their own kind at school. It’s a time often characteristic of trying to fit in- I was no exception.

It was the beginning of a long and difficult road, a struggle not singularly unique to my life.

The girl who looked back at me in the mirror continued to remind me of everything I failed to be. Not only was my appearance unsightly to me, but my perceived personality flaws were now under scrutiny as well. Bashing myself became a cruel hobby, the innocent child in me struggling to stay afloat with compliments I now felt were lies.

I was under the impression nobody liked me, I was a weak leader who constantly underperformed at volleyball, I was a failure/benchwarmer at soccer, and I was selfish. Coaches constantly told me to “fix my face”. Why did I look sad or bitchy one minute then become overly cocky the next?

Unbeknownst to me or anyone else at the time, I was in the early stages struggling with some mental health challenges. While it is normal for a middle or high school student to feel awkward and unconfident, my brain had been in overdrive and had convinced me I was an evil, horrible person undeserving of affection. While not an excuse for my behavior at the time, it definitely gives some insight looking back. It didn’t matter how much my parents and siblings loved and cared about me. I had convinced myself otherwise.

The insecurity, anxiety, and pessimism I had been feeling was further amplified when I thought I may not just be attracted to just boys like the other girls in my grade.

My hometown was a great place to grow up, but is not the forefront of progressiveness like many larger cities. Sexuality was viewed as a choice by many and the church I had attended since I was in preschool condemned gay marriage. I spent much of my junior year worrying someone would think I was disgusting, repulsive, and gross for feelings I had recognized since seventh grade. Taunted by upperclassmen in the halls, I spent time overthinking my every move while with my close friend.

At the time, I didn’t find solace at home. My sister and mother had correctly guessed I was in a relationship with another girl at school and I was terrified. Was the comfort and happiness I found while with my best friend and confidant worth the constant stress of being an embarrassment to my family? I didn’t have time to make the choice myself, as my friend chose to end the relationship before she graduated that spring.

Not only did I loathe myself, but now someone I had trusted deeply had denied we had ever been together. Heartbroken and confused, I began confessing my feelings through a Word document on my MacBook. I had to hide everything from my friends who had no idea any of the previous events occurred. Steadily, my writing became more dark and poetic, but pulled me away further and further from reality. I had no idea what was substantive in my life. I didn’t know if I was drowning in pain or if I was just numb. I began self harming to feel something- anything.

I continued writing at college after a year break. My freshman year had been a whirlwind of social events and stimuli, but I picked up the hobby again my sophomore year in the fall when my past relationship became a breaking point. I felt alone, insane, and didn’t know where to turn.

Entries became sloppy, ink trailed off pages, mixed with tears. An entire entry consisted of an untidy scrawl wherein I tried convincing myself I was another person. I had repeating the same phrase countless times until the page ended. Another page contained confused last rites. I was drunk nearly half of the nights I wrote entries. The same girl who worried over her appearance at sixteen had gotten carried away into a never-ending cycle of self loathing.

Writing had once been a fun release, a way to express myself not unlike my favorite characters from Meg Cabot books. My confessions and heartbreak had morphed into a twisted monster, threatening to finally convince me I was insane and unlovable, a worthy candidate of ending life as I knew it.

However, years later it serves as a reminder of how incredibly sick I had been during this period in my life. Though the entries are painful to read, it truly shows far I have come and how far off the rails I had gone during this period of my life. I had convinced myself of an overwhelming multitude of entirely false information. I lived my life off lies, overreactions, and misconstrued encounters. My illnesses had twisted my outlook on life and stolen years of happiness off my life. It took me awhile to realize my writing was not beautifully tragic, reminiscent of existentialist heroes like Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche before me, but instead a clear sign I was not well. 

Though some of my behaviors are still evocative of the girl who loved to hate herself, it is more clear to me than ever how much I had needed help at the time. I was lucky to have friends and family who sought out help for me. I’m grateful to this day, because the girl in high school and college had no idea how hard she’d fight to find happiness- and how much progress she’d make by the time she turned twenty-five.

Self loathing had been built itself into the core of my being as a teenager, but I’ve changed this after years (yes, it took me years) of therapy sessions. More recently, I finally took a chance and let myself truly believe I wasn’t a horrible person. It didn’t come easily to me and is sometimes still a challenge, but by learning to dismiss the cruel voice in my head (not to be confused with schizophrenia), I am becoming happier. It turns out life is easier when you’re not trying to cut yourself down (wow!).

So although we don’t have a choice what challenges we are born with (or being born at all), we have a choice of who we become. With the right tools and attitude, humans can be remarkably resourceful. These tools and attitude will come more naturally to some, while others will need to fight more to gain the necessary skillset to be happier or even survive.

I was born into this world with some odds stacked against me (acknowledging my privilege as I am white). A few mental illnesses loomed on the horizon of my late teenage years when I was a kid, but I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by a loving family and friends who wanted to see me succeed and gave me the resources to do so.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, but I’m learning to accept myself instead of resorting back to maladaptive behaviors and constantly putting myself down. Instead of allowing myself to get caught up in a tailspin of obsessive, pessimistic thoughts, I recognize my brain doesn’t interpret everyday events like a mentally healthy adult. Though it won’t always work right away, the fact I recognize my thoughts and behavior as unhelpful is a start.

Hopefully, I have a long life ahead of me (gawd willing). I might as well learn to like myself if I want to live my life to the fullest.

***

I’ve written less in journals or diaries as the years go on, but every once and awhile I take time to recount my day- no matter how mundane or uneventful. My journals have served as markers of my mental health through the years and continue to remind me that while life is ever changing, my overall positive attitude about life doesn’t need to.

In striving to find whatever positives I can, I’ve become healthier and overall happier. Even if I’m not entirely happy (who can honestly claim they’re happy all the time, let’s be real), I’m also learning through pain and sadness.

I’m not quite there yet, but I can say with confidence I am much better than I had been a year ago at this time. When morale gets low, I remind myself I’m not just living for myself, but I’m doing it for those I love. I know I want nothing more than to see my loved ones genuinely happy, so I try to put honest effort into becoming a happier, healthier person each and every day.

So far, it’s been working- because everyone deserves a chance at living their best life– one which includes true happiness and self-acceptance.

Fighting to Find Your “Happier”

LOOK AT THIS VERY NON-STAGED HAPPINESS!

A coworker recently described me as “positive” and I nearly spit coffee in his face.

LOL wattt? I stroked my beard thoughtfully.  

I recovered quickly, flipped my hair, and continued to sip my iced-venti-sized-soy-wingardium-leviosa-five-points-to-Gryffindor latte. Because I am fabulous and fabulous people do nawt spit cawffee in anyone’s face.

Whatevs.

…but I digress.

Whether it be HIV or attitude, I’ve never been positive. My younger sister, Alli, has always been the ray of sunshine in our family. I’m more likely to win the “I Do Not Believe In Love” award.

It’s a chemical reaction in the brain! I yell at the happily married couple next to me, shaking my fist, haphazardly dumping my Founders Porter on their shoes.

So whether I’m yelling at couples that the object of their affection is a result of evolutionary mechanisms or reading Sartre’s No Exit (“hell is other people”), there’s been a shift in my behavior in the past few months.

Yes, it’s spring and the sun is out longer. Nearly everyone feels happier in these conditions. For anyone with bipolar disorder, it’s possible to cycle into a manic phase because the sun is out longer.

When I recently began controlling my swings more efficiently, I didn’t know if it was because I was happy or just manic (and therefore under the false impression everything was great). After some thought, I decided I was truly happier. I’d been more active in making critical behavioral changes in the span of six months time and saw them finally taking effect.

Yas, kween.

***

It was difficult for me to move out east this past summer. I decided to leave the comfort of home for the unknown while in a mixed state (unmedicated). I moved for a volunteer coaching position with no guarantee of eventually securing a full-time job.

For someone born into a privileged upper-middle class life, I had never put the “yo…lol” in “YOLO” so hard before.

Holy bawls.

Though I knew I was taking a necessary step forward in my life, I struggled to stay positive after the move. My friends were already getting promotions, making ten grand more than me, and were in careers specific to their bachelor’s degrees.

I grew worried I made a stupid mistake by moving out east. I unwillingly dipped back into depression this winter, but it felt somewhat comforting. I knew how to cope with my behavior better than I did while in a mixed or manic state.

Thoughts of self-harm and suicide frequently slid into my head and I found it increasingly hard to keep my mind on the right track. Self-doubt filled my thoughts and I constantly worried I was disappointing my boss, coworkers, and customers. I began obsessing over the smallest things I’d done “wrong” throughout the day and let my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder control my interactions with others. I slowly withdrew from others.

But the biggest difference between my former self and the Kristin who moved to the east coast is simple: I knew I’d do whatever it took to survive here.

It sounds incredibly dramatic, but I knew I’d fight like hell to stay out east. I loved the ocean, the mountains, the history, and I wanted so badly to make my life a success story. This winter was a turning point for me. I decided to do whatever it’d take to feel happier every day.

It’s naive to believe you can be happy all the time. But in choosing to find my “happier” to keep myself afloat and successful, I took concrete steps to begin changing my thought processes. I don’t necessarily aspire to be happy each second of the day, but instead happier. I’m too sarcastic of a person to throw up rainbows and sunshine 24/7.

One of ten paintings I completed this winter.

To combat maladaptive thoughts, I began painting for the first time since high school and started writing more. I also turned to humor to get me through the worst of my thoughts.

For example, I cracked a joke to a coworker who did not reciprocate well. Realizing this, I instantly felt beyond self conscious and thought it was necessary to cut myself for being such an idiot. That was my immediate reaction. A couple seconds later, I forced myself to laugh at my ridiculousness.

Really? I asked myself. You crack one joke someone didn’t get and you decide hurting yourself is the answer? You’re such a bonehead.

Though I had convinced myself I was a complete idiot at the time, I let myself laugh at my immediate reaction. Humor and sarcasm have gotten me through a lot this winter and spring. Being able to laugh at myself has been a godsend and it completely lightens the mood whenever my thoughts take a turn for the worse. I do not brush feelings off, but instead acknowledge them and decide not to give them merit.

Armed with a sense of humor and a few hobbies, I managed to level myself out. I finally found something worked for me and was figuring out how to cope with maladaptive and intrusive thoughts. I walked off into the sunset pumping my fist in the air to the tune of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”.

That’s all well and good. It wasn’t easy, but I finally wanted to fight back to find true happiness and stability. I used to be under the impression being a pessimistic person with self-destructive tendencies was sexy and mysterious.

Yeah, not so much. It makes no sense from a logical point of view.

I made the decision this winter to put energy into becoming my best self. I wanted to be the girl people want to be around, the one who makes those who hang out with her feel better about themselves. To put it psychedelically, I wanted to give off good vibes as often as I could. I challenged myself to find a way to make those around me feel better off for meeting me.

I’m at my best when I push myself to be positive. Given my disorders, it’s what I need to do to be successful. Happiness to me is caring less about my physical appearance and working on becoming beautiful on the inside- someone who is comfortable in her own skin. I value kindness, humor, being spontaneous and fun, and trying to make those around me feel better off for being around me.

Each day I fight hard to become this girl.

True happiness: popping a bottle of champagne at the Grand Canyon with my best friends. Not pictured, friends.

***

I’ll always have suicidal thoughts, urges to self-harm, obsessions, compulsions, and anxiety. I’ve accepted this but cope by expressing myself through what I love most: art, writing, and humor. I’m chasing what I’m passionate about in life and am trying to live life authentically.

I once believed having mental disorders ruined my life. I equated it to having a chronic sickness with no cure, but I now believe my disorders serve as my best asset. They’ve completely altered the way I look at life because I made the conscious decision to push myself to become happier. I’m grateful for my experiences, though it hasn’t been an easy journey for myself, friends, and family.

***

If you’re struggling and don’t see a way out, just remember you can be incredibly resilient if you want to fight to find your “happier”. It’s a battle. Sometimes I get frustrated by the fact I’m fighting so hard for what many take for granted.

It’s difficult to see how naturally others cope with disappointment when you feel like you’ve worn yourself out for something insignificant. Just remember the fight is worth the hard work. Fight to be happier and you’ll find true happiness along the way.

I wouldn’t take back any of my experiences because it’s led me to where I am today: finally becoming okay with who I’m becoming and who I want to be. 

***

NOTE:

I am periodically asked why I choose to write about my personal experiences with mental health disorders. Why would one so willingly talk about something that makes you appear “weak” or “flawed” to others?

It’s my personal opinion that the dialogue needs to be open when discussing mental disorders. A diagnosis does not make someone less of a human, less of a co-worker, less of a friend, less of anything. Every once and awhile the world needs this gentle reminder.

Countless people have reached out to me thanking me for opening up. I understand it’s comforting to know you’re never solitary in your struggle. Occasionally, it takes brutal honesty to reach out and make necessary connections to help save or improve another’s quality of life.

I’m willing to share because my experiences can be a lifeline to anyone who is under the impression they are hopelessly alone. You’re not alone and your life is worth more than you can ever imagine.

Another painting I completed this spring. My mantra has been “create” so my sister bought me a bracelet as a constant reminder to me to create when I start feeling down.