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.

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.

 

 

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?

IMG_9900.JPG

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.

Preliminary Dating Profile: One Hundo P Real

Any time I visit my dear old grandparents, they make it a point to ask how I’m doing:

“Oh, we didn’t think we’d make it this far. We might go any day now…it’s nice you called. How is the weather? Do you like your job?”

Sprinkled amongst their many questions is always one that always serves as a special treat:

“Are you meeting any nice men out there?”

While it’s definitely thrilling enough having them grill my sister about her boyfriend (whom they are under the impression was born in Nigeria and whose name has been American-Depression-Era-icized as “Timmy” instead of Temi), I sometimes get the pleasure of explaining to my 88-year-old grandparents that no, they will not live to see the day I date anyone and get married anywhere other than a Las Vegas church by Elvis while three times over the legal limit.

My grandparents are tough folks, having grown up in the Depression and all, so they put on their bravest faces, ignore the shock, and try to keep their teeth in their mouths.

Bless their souls, I love them to death.

In spite of them almost certainly believing I am a closet lesbian, I have decided to put myself out there…starting now. Here’s a preliminary start to my dating profile which will be up within the next month. I’m not joking.

This will be my Profile Pic.

Name: Kristin Elizabeth Hovie III*

*Not the III

Short Blurb on Me: I spent most of my life fighting with my father (who didn’t understand my curiosity about the human world) and this curvalicious octopus b*tch (who wanted my voice to seduce my hot love interest). My best friends include a neurotic crab who composes music and Flounder, who is basically my day one hoe. Oh wait…that’s The Little Mermaid…

Hometown: Bumblef*ck, Wisconsin

Currently: Laying in a ditch contemplating the meaning of life.

Birthday: November 9th

Education: BA in English, elementary tap dancing.

Occupation: Standing in line for food at soup kitchens due to said Bachelor’s Degree.

Height: Chances are I can probably dunk on yo ass and hit a three point fade away jumper on you in a game of one-on-one. If you like ya shawties…shawt…I am very not that.

Body Type: A cross between a sock monkey and an 80-year-old amateur adult film star. I will not send you anything other than head-shot photos because I want to troll you so hard on date #1. I just might be a transvestite.

Sexual Orientation: I identify strongly with a potato.

Ethnicity: White as f*ck.

Thing I am Most Passionate About: Taco Bell, a good whiskey Old Fashioned, and shaking my ass on the hood of Whitesnake’s car

Religion: The one with human sacrifices every Tuesday night.

Skills/Rewards:

  • Thumbs Up from mom for cleaning up dog poop on front lawn
  • Gold Star for mastering “Mississippi Hot Dog” on the violin
  • Pat On The Back from dad for being able to tell the difference between a Phillips and Straight Edge screwdriver
  • $10 from Grandpa for power washing front porch
  • Insurmountable Feelings of Pride from Self for backing a trailer 
  • Pokemaster (all badges, beat Professor Oak’s nephew no prob)
  • Killed a Basilisk and saved Hogwarts on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (for PS2) in roughly eight hours
  • Powers: Fireblast (but only five times per battle or I get worn out), Bubbleblast, Scratch, and Whine
  • Participation Ribbon for 13th place at Summer Fun Run of 2004

Hobbies include chilling.

Things Overheard about Kristin:

    • “I just don’t understand how she finds shoes large enough for her feet…” -Kristin’s prom date Senior year of High School after being stepped on several times
    • “I was always very concerned about her…in fifth grade she would crawl around on the ground at recess by herself and insist that others call her ‘Blackstar’ or something like that. The janitor had to rip down half the forts she made along the fence back in ‘04.” -Kristin’s 5th Grade Teacher
    • “Kristin who?” -Kristin’s 7th Grade Crush
    • “Helluv an ass.” -Homeless man in New York City

Hobbies:

  • Catching mad air off my front curb with my Razr scooter
  • Cyberbullying children 
  • Tweeting slam poetry at McDonald’s
  • Working on my beer pong wrist flick while in public places
  • Probably making you a sandwich

Quotes:

  • “Positive self talk is hard when you’re working with an idiot.” -Me

This is me knowing how to have a good time.

If Interested:

  • Contact me at this phone number (920-555-5555). It’s my dad’s cell, he’ll want to conduct a thorough screening of your dating profile and will set up an appointment/date if you fit the following qualifications:
    • Nobel Peace Prize recipient
    • Have owned or currently own a Mustang GT
    • and Like fart jokes

Tuesday Thoughts: Think Next Time You Say, “Oh my God, I’m So OCD”

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Courtesy of Deviant Art. 

It’s typically something that’s said without much thought, as a sort of excuse for an overly organized bedroom or clean car:

“Oh my God, I’m so OCD.”

Though these behaviors have the possibility of indicating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder on some levels, I find many are quick to throw out this phrase casually as if having OCD is simply about being a neatfreak.

Truth is, the mental health disorder is much more complex.

Though I have never been offended by someone saying, “I’m so OCD” while referring to their cleaning habits, I think it’s important to clarify that this disorder isn’t always about washing your hands into oblivion or continuously checking to see if your door is locked. Next time you say, “I’m so OCD” or hear someone else mention it, it’s my hope that after reading this post, you’ll remember the wider span of the disorder.

IMPORTANT: You’ll never hear me claim to be an expert on mental health, but I experience the obsessions and compulsions characterized by this disorder on a daily basis, sometimes for hours and hours. From this, I seek not to find sympathy, but instead a newfound understanding of OCD, because there’s much more to this disorder than being a “neatfreak”. In turn, it’s my hope people will use the term less flippantly.

In the past, I’ve shared my experiences with you guys about living with bipolar disorder and anxiety, but I figured it was time to let this often-misunderstood disorder have center stage. In doing so, I’ve also just solidified my place in society as a millennial. Well, then.

So really…what is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

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Courtesy of Deviant Art.

OCD is a disorder of the brain and behavior. According to Robert Boland, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown Medical School, patients with OCD are plagued with obsessions, compulsions, or both (this is more common). For those of you who don’t know, obsessions are characterized by recurrent thoughts, ideas, images, impulses, fears, or doubts. Patients can resist these thoughts but also may be unable to stop them. Compulsions can manifest in a variety of ways. Patients may feel compelled to touch, count, check, have everything arranged in a particular order, or repeatedly wash their hands. Any attempt to resist the compulsions (even though patients at some point recognize the senselessness of their obsessions and/or compulsions) are met with increasing anxiety.

Chances are, you probably knew something above from Psych 101, but in the spirit of broadening our horizons today, here’s a personal example of an obsession that has nothing to do with cleanliness:

As I’m walking down the street, I’ll suddenly feel I absolutely can’t walk to the left of the stop sign ahead or something bad will happen. If I walk to the left of it, I’ll die.

It doesn’t stop here. After I walk to the right of the sign, I’ll have these little thoughts every other minute for hours on end that I’ll:

a.) have a terrible day tomorrow,

b.) get shot,

c.) have a family member that will get maimed beyond belief,

d.) get possessed by a demon, or

e.) all the above. I’m a creative person, I’ve imagined myself dying in many, many ways. The options are endless!

Other days, I’ll continuously hear recurrent meaningless phrases or songs. The first time I listened to Casting Crowns’ “Just Be Held”, I heard one snippet of the song in my head for the entire day on repeat- not even the whole song, just a few phrases. TALK ABOUT ANNOYING.

Though these are just a few examples, there are many more. Here’s a link to a great site that teaches more about other intrusive thoughts those suffering from OCD may have.

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Courtesy of Lancaster Online.

As for an example of a compulsion, here’s a common one I used to struggle with:

Every night before I’d go to bed, I’d have to check my entire room for a robber/criminal/whatnot. I’d peak under my bed, behind my desk, in my closet, and behind my door. Just like with my obsessions, I knew this compulsion was completely senseless, but I had to do this routine a couple times before I could go to bed.

Another classic example of a compulsion I’ve recently overcome:

After my iPod was recently stolen out of my car, I’d sleep next to my keys and wake up repeatedly through the night to constantly double-tap the lock button. Every time I locked the car, I’d relieve some of my anxiety and go back to bed, however, I’d wake up a half an hour later to redo the whole process again.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve also always had to tap my left and right foot separately for every time I pass a stripe or landmark (mailbox, sidewalk ending, etc.) on the side of the road while listening to music. If my left foot tap doesn’t line up with the quarter notes of the song and my right foot tap doesn’t line up with the eighth notes in the song, I get frustrated and nervous. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but it’s a compulsion that’s easy to hide while with others. I’ll attribute this to taking piano lessons at an early age and listening to a metronome.

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Road with lines = my feet going tap tap taptap tap taptap. Courtesy of the BBC.

To give you a more scientific idea of what’s going on:

Boland notes, “[c]ompulsions spring from recurrent doubts or fears that something awful has happened or will happen…almost all patients view their compulsions as senseless, and out of embarrassment…they resist carrying them out. The growing tension that accompanies this resistance, however, is generally unbearable”.

Well, that sounds like nothing but happiness and sunshine! So are things kind of hopeless then?

Not at all.

Managing day-to-day activities with OCD is completely doable, with or without meds (meds can function as a sort of “crutch” to help you along if your symptoms worsen). The key is to controlling OCD is to first recognize maladaptive behavior, and secondly, not give obsessions and compulsions any merit.

Often times, for example, I’ll say “screw it” not give into my obsessions or compulsions regardless of my increased anxiety. This essentially breaks the “cycle” of obsession. Even though I’m sometimes convinced suffer a horrible death or have a family member fall off a cliff, everything seems to be okay so far.

“Oh My God, I’m So OCD”

So next time you hear someone utter this phrase, please think about those who truly suffer from this disorder. To me, saying this isn’t completely offensive, but like I mentioned before, shows how we’ve carelessly let another mental health disorder become part of of our casual daily vernacular (read: “I’m so depressed” while experiencing sadness).

To some, having OCD is a daily struggle not characterized by simply enjoying a neat room. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is very real to 2%-3% of our population which roughly translates to 3.3 MILLION people (Boland). It’s time we started treating OCD for what it is, something that if left untreated, can interfere negatively in all aspects of one’s life.

My point?

Let’s work to keep Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a noun and not an adjective.*

xxx

 

Source:

Boland, Robert, MD. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (DSM-IV-TR #300.3).” (n.d.):               n.pag. Brown.edu. Brown University. Web.

*This goes not without saying this should expand to other mental health disorders as well.

Suicide and Self Harm

What a title. I had a couple others planned out but as I typed each one it began to sound like one of those horrible “OMG, I did it and now so can you!” self help books you see at Barnes and Noble. I decided to keep it simple. So there you have it. Suicide and self-harm. They’re hard topics to talk and hear about and are something that aren’t often discussed until it’s too late. Remember the Penn U cross-country runner? The man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived? Those people could be someone around you.

A whopping 26.2% of Americans 18 and older suffer from mental health disorders. As a percent, this may seem small, but this roughly translates to 57.7 MILLION Americans- and each of those people mean something dearly to an entire network of people. Pretty soon you begin to realize that mental health affects a hell of a lot of people, whether you are the one with the disorder or the one who knows someone with the disorder.

With the large amount of people affected, I find it of utmost importance to keep the dialogue about mental health open- because most of the discussion seems to happen when it’s too late. Normally I’m a “seat of the pants” writer, but I took a lot of time putting this post together. There are so many stigmas about mental health and things I want everyone to know to help anyone affected. I know that every case is different, but at the heart of each person’s problems there tend to be similarities.

Before I begin, I have to make what I think is an EXTREMELY important point. If you are close to someone who is struggling, keep in mind that you are their FRIEND or FAMILY not their therapist. Listen to them, of course, but keep in mind that you should not feel completely weighed down by being the only one they talk to. I’ll give my sister, Alli, a quick call or send a quick text if I’m about to have a panic attack that I have some random disease I saw on WebMD, but would never weigh her down with suicidal thoughts. Those I save for the professional- and I would personally advise everyone else to do the same. Friends and family are great support teams, but are not health professionals with extensive knowledge of mental health. Unless of course they are.

My friend Alexa said this herself in a detailed email to me, “you are not this person’s therapist and you are not going to be the person who ‘saves’ them”. She went on to say that yes, let them vent to you, listen to them when they come to you or need to bounce ideas off you. Sometimes the person just wants someone to listen (which I can vouch for, personally) and sometimes they just want to be left alone. Don’t pry or prod but just be there whenever you can.

***

Tackling the Issue: Three Points of View

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My friend Alexa, and I boogie boarding and tearin’ up Myrtle Beach

In addition to my first hand experience, I’ve asked my sister and a close friend for their points of view. My sister was not at college with me when I began to fall off the deep end, but she witnessed the panic at home after my dad received a call from the ER at 3 in the morning when he dropped me off at school a few hours prior. Alli has been my rock ever since.

Alexa is one of five close friends that witnessed everything as it happened. She’s been there before, during, and after and has kindly offered to share her experience- honestly.

Though I can say I’ve both suffered from and had more than one loved one suffer from a disorder, I like to get as many voices as possible. I’ve tried my best to arrange this post as logically as possible- chronologically with alternative points of view scattered wherever I felt most applicable. I’ve then addressed some misconceptions about mental health disorders including my experience as well as Alexa and Alli’s on medication and disorders as an excuse. This is a longer post, so I’ve taken the liberty of sectioning off parts here and there. There is some overlap from a couple previous posts but I try to keep this at a minimum. My goal in writing this is not to recall painful memories just for memories’ sake- if this helps anyone out there than I will have considered myself successful.

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My sister, Alli and I this past Christmas

***

Self-Harm: Escalation into Suicide

My own experience with self-harm began in high school and should have been a huge red flag for myself to get some help. I began by scratching my wrists, and when that became a little more obvious than I would’ve liked, I began cutting and scraping my stomach with a scissors- from my rib cage down to pelvis. Though these cuts were not deep, they were hard to hide in the summer. When asked about the angry red marks, I would lie and say it was from tubing and everyone seemed to believe me, except for my ex. She noticed and got upset and talked to me many times about getting help but I never did.

At the time, cutting served as a way of feeling something. It physically hurt me to feel the anguish of knowing my ex was growing distant when I wasn’t completely numb. To make matters worse, I didn’t feel like I could go to anyone for help because I was paranoid I’d be labeled as a lesbian when I wasn’t even sure if that was true or not. Gender didn’t (and still doesn’t) factor into who I like, but I was under the impression at the time that if I was with a girl, it was completely disgusting and unnatural. Being able to see the inner pain I felt physically manifested on my body helped me bottle up my feelings and move on.

The cutting stopped when I went to college freshman year and I had no visible scars. I didn’t begin self harming again until my sophomore year. The shallow marks no longer did justice to me; I was a failure even more than I was already. I hated myself for not being able to actually hurt myself. Instead of cutting to “feel pain” like I used to, I cut because I hated myself and everything I had become. I cut because I didn’t have perfect stats at volleyball practice, I cut because I thought my friends hated me, I cut because I just didn’t seem to hit it off with several of the boys I tried talking to at school, I cut because it made part of me happy to destroy me. Furthermore, I started burning my wrists with a lighter. This was hard to hide with volleyball season so I would try and get to the training room earlier than all my teammates in an attempt to privately wrap my own wrists. I thought I fooled them into thinking I just liked to tape my own arms for passing (they didn’t believe me).

Several of my friends took note and began to get worried. Alexa said every time she’d see a new cut her stomach would drop. It was a lot to take in at only nineteen years old. Shouldn’t we only have to be worrying about homework and tests?

Amidst my anguish, I’d displace my anger and sadness on my friends. Often times I’d realize this and try to distance myself from them. They continued to try and show how much they cared about me but I constantly shoved them away. They never knew which Kristin they’d get each day, and quite frankly, neither did I.

Though I’ve already described in a previous post the night where I was going to commit suicide, I’ve never really gone back and asked my friends what was going through their heads at the time.

Alexa and my other friends who knew I was struggling were living in constant fear of my safety. Who knew if they’d check on me in the morning and find I wasn’t there? This escalated the night in November when my friends made one of the harder decisions they’d had to make in life to that point, whether to call the cops on me. I remember begging them not to while trying to hide the blood covering my sheets, but they did, and I can’t thank them enough. They saved my life that night.

When I was at the hospital going through testing, my friends were back at the dorms cleaning up my mess. They called my family members to let them know what happened, took away any scissors, tweezers, anything sharp from me, and washed my bloodstained bed sheets. That’s when Alexa said she realized the full extent of what was going on- and that this was going to be a long uncertain road ahead of all of us.

Though I wish I could say this was the last time I ever self harmed again, I can’t. The road to recovery isn’t a short, easy one. Having a mental illness is something you have all your life. You can’t get rid of it- there are just ways to revamp the way you think. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll always have these thoughts- I’ll just work to have them floating around in my brain a lot less.

Self harm, like suicide, a permanent solution to a fixable problem. I’m still enduring the aftermath of the cuts that I have. I’ve had everyone from unbeknownst family members at Christmas, children at the camp I worked at this summer, and completely random people ask, “oh my gosh, what happened to your wrists?” for which I have no immediate answer. It’s scary for others to see the marks once they realize they were self-inflicted. That’s understandable. I hate knowing the scars remind my family and friends of the pain they’ve gone through. For me, I like to think of them as a reminder of how far I’ve come. Though I will lie to people who ask and tell them with a laugh, “aw, it’s from this accident with a rake” or something, I won’t hide anything from someone who asks me at a non-awkward time. It’s extremely hard to admit to having a problem, but it’s also just as hard to find the courage to ask someone if they’re okay and need help. The more we keep an open dialogue, the better we can all help one another understand each other. The only reason I am here today is because I had friends who did one of the hardest things one can do- reach out and get me help even though I begged them not to.

Now, to those who contemplate suicide…

As someone who continues to struggle with this, all I can say is that every time these thoughts creep into my mind, I remind myself that my thoughts ultimately have no merit. Thoughts are just thoughts. It took me awhile to take the leap of faith and begin to believe others that I was not a complete piece of shit, but once I did, I became a lot happier- not quite happy, but happier- and that’s HUGE. It’s not a switch you can just turn on, it’s something you have to push up your sleeves and get dirty with. It’s going to be hard, YES, but life has a lot of potential to being a great place if you let it be. So let me be your personal cheerleader- I went through this shit and it got me to where I am today. Going through what I have allows me to be more patient and understanding of others, and my friends say that going through this has allowed them the same experience. Even though your or your friend’s mental illness may feel like a burden, remember this: there is so much to be learned, and that makes every single struggle worth it in the end.

“‘Make your mess your message’ -Robin Roberts” -Alexa Zbytniewski***

***(If you’ve ever watched The Office, you’ll understand my use of quotation)

***

Recovery: A Process, Not a Destination or Whatever It Is They Say

The next few months after the hospital visit were pretty hard, to say the least. I had a month and a half until the end of the semester and a few days before I could be home again for Thanksgiving Break but still had yet to face the consequences of my breakdown.

If my friends were scared before my mental breakdown, they now had even more reason to be worried now. As I mentioned before, they took away all of my sharp objects so I now needed to go and ask to borrow my possessions back for menial tasks like cutting paper and plucking my eyebrows. Alexa even noted she still has some of my clippers and razors to this day.

Back at home, 1,300 miles away, my parents and siblings continued to worry as well. Over the two years that I had been away at school, I had probably called home three times- twice to ask for more money. My family found it shocking and was completely surprised at what had happened. Alli knew things had been a little rough for me for a while but not because we were braiding one another’s hair and talking about it. We had been sitting in the Neenah Wal-Mart parking lot earlier that summer waiting for my parents to come back with groceries when we got into a shouting match about the marks on my wrists. I don’t remember too much from the situation, but Alli remembers me yelling at her, “you don’t know anything about my life!”

While my family and friends continued to worry for my safety, I knew it was long overdue to get myself some help- but I didn’t know how or where to start other than my University’s athletic department. My coaches already knew what had happened because my friends had called them the night I went into the ER, but I needed to go in to have my mental health assessed before I could continue practicing volleyball (we played Penn State in the NCAA tournament that week).

I had absolutely no idea what a “mental health assessment” would be like, but I knew the only way I could possibly describe the way I was feeling at the time was to show them the suicide note I had started writing a month ago. After reading it aloud to my head coach, assistant coach, and academic advisor, they immediately referred me to the University Counseling Center. I bounced around and talked to several different psychologists in the area but began feeling more and more dismayed at everyone I saw. One psychologist diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and the next another told me I should buy his book and visit his wife’s gay bar downtown. It took me months to find a great psychiatrist, but the wait was well worth it.

Looking back on everything now, I’m shocked I made it. I had (and still do have) the best support system I could’ve ever asked for but sometimes that’s not enough. It takes a lot of trust in a great psychiatrist or psychologist, hope, and most importantly the will to get better. Fighting negative thoughts that you’ve learned to accept as normal in your head is a 24/7 job and it’s exhausting. I can only imagine how hard it was for my family and friends to be there for me. The only thing harder than going through a mental health disorder is watching a loved one go through it not knowing what they’re thinking or how to help.

***

A Common Misconception/Perception of Suicide

One question or affirmation I find to be quite popular in conversation about suicide is, “how could they kill themselves? It’s so selfish”. Why would anyone want to take their own life away while others fight so hard for theirs? At first, I found this question to be highly frustrating. I didn’t understand how to even begin.

First off, a person contemplating suicide is not in the right state of mind. Suicide is not a normal feeling to have- the person thinking this is not operating like the average human being. When I get suicidal, my thoughts tend to be more along the lines of, “my family, friends, and the entire world is better off without me. I’m a piece of shit, I am doing nothing positive for anyone, and my death may be hard for a little while, but they’ll realize how much happier they are when I’m gone”. Other times, a person’s anguish blinds any rational thought and they succumb to a split second decision that has permanent effects. I’m sure there are a thousand other “justifications” in a depressed individual, but I would be willing to argue that 99.9% of the time the person has no intentions of purposely hurting their family or friends. If anything, they are trying to help but because the way they deal with information in their head, their thinking is maladaptive. Killing oneself is not a logical way to deal with issues- a lot of people know this already- but this is not the case with many struggling with mental health disorders.

Alexa and Alli also brought up a great point worth mentioning – both said that if you’ve never gone through having a mental illness, you will begin to realize that you will never understand. Alexa continued to say, “I’m no expert, but there’s usually one thing in common with people who deal with these issues; all of their thoughts and actions are irrational, which is exactly why it makes absolutely no sense to you”. Keep this in mind in life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve personally thought this even while dealing with people at work. But couldn’t have said it better, myself, Alli and Alexa.

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Medication: An Aid, Not a Quick Fix Solution

Though there are tons of different types of treatments for anything from Bipolar Disorder to Anorexia (think psychotherapy, ECT, etc.), sometimes these are not enough alone.

Meds have never been something to me that are a “quick fix”. I began seeing several different therapists until I found one that worked out for me- always using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (essentially retraining your brain, look it up, it’s pretty cool stuff). Learning how to retrain your brain takes a lot of those “leaps of faith” I was mentioning before and progress is sometimes hampered by severe bouts of depression or mania for me. When these become too much and I feel like I’m losing my mind and can’t even focus on retraining my thinking, meds come in handy. They are like tools to help with therapy. Simply taking medication does not magically make you better- the processes that go on in your brain are much more complicated than that.

There are, however, several drawbacks in taking meds. Some people’s bodies react differently to different medications. What may work great for me may actually do more harm than good for someone else- and that’s not to mention figuring out the proper dose and how much increasing or decreasing doses will impact your mood.

My sophomore year, I began taking a mood stabilizer to help me “level out” a little to aid in the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Meds typically take a month to actually kick in, and once they do, they have to be monitored closely. As my psychiatrist and I were trying to find the right amount for me to take, we increased my dose by a half a pill (the pills were extremely tiny) and a week later I was almost a completely different person.

After weight lifting one morning during spring season, I was walking down the hall following the rest of my team. I asked a question and no one must’ve heard me because no one answered. I asked again and still received no answer. I suddenly felt this herculean surge of rage and screamed, “WHERE IS BRYAN?” and threw my water bottle I had been holding, completely ruining the lid. I remember some of my teammates turning around, shocked.

After that outburst, I immediately went down a dosage. A pill as large as an earring stud can make that much of a difference.

Some meds I tried out completely leveled me off and made me into a shell of my former self, others made me extremely tired, some even more depressed, and even more anxious and manic. Interactions with others were hard when I felt empty inside, panic attacks sometimes increased with some pills and I’d skip class for fear of dying, and I spent a lot of time confusing the hell out of my friends. It wasn’t until about two months ago that I have something that finally works.

Meds are something I avoid using unless I absolutely have to they but can come in handy if one is able to find the right match, and I’m proud to say I’v been med free for quite some time now.

Both Alexa and Alli have had to deal with my varying moods with meds and without. Alexa said it was beneficial to ask anything she could on my disorders and also noted how important it was that she realized “her role” in my life. She became (in her words) the neutralizer. She’d ask me if things were okay if she noticed I was having a bad day she would go about the rest of the day as normally as possible- not hovering over me. She understood this was the best way to help me and it worked out best for us. Eventually, once I began to open up more about how I was feeling, it helped our relationship a lot. Once we were able to talk to each other, Alexa understood where I was coming from instead of shutting me out or vice versa. I always forgot that although I knew clearly in my head how I was feeling and what my intentions were, my friends and family had to play the guessing game constantly- which was highly stressful for them to do.

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Disorders: An Excuse or Not?

As a former collegiate athlete, I grew up my entire life feeling like there was no such thing as an excuse. This is great motivational inspiration for a poster hanging in a weight room, yes, but I find that when it comes to mental health disorders there is a little leeway for excuses. It almost pains me to type that, but at the end of the day, people with disorders are fighting an entirely different battle in between their ears in addition to everything that goes on in their everyday life.

If you are suffering from a disorder, it can at times be incredibly hard to be a fully functioning member of society. Those with anorexia might feel light headed and weak all day as they worry about burning off the few calories they consumed earlier. This is in addition to working a forty hour work week or studying for tests and writing essays for school. A person suffering from depression may barely be able to get out of bed for eight hours a day let alone two to practice and fight to keep their starting position on a team they aren’t even sure if they want to be a part of anymore. Anyone with bipolar disorder knows if a manic episode overcomes them they risk blowing through all of their savings unless they can manage talk themselves out of it- if they even are able to recognize their manic phases from actual happiness. Like I said before, these people are all around you. The only difference between them and a completely “normal” person is a small chemical imbalance in their brain.

When I was diagnosed (to those who haven’t read my previous post, OCD, Bipolar II, Depression, Generalized Anxiety) I didn’t freak out and deny it. To me, being able to look back at the ways I had mishandled life and knowing I had a sort of “excuse” was a huge relief to me. I had spent my life thinking I was a completely shitty person, but I now knew that I had messed up chemicals in my brain and maladaptive coping methods. This of course does not account for 100% of my personality but it does explain some of my crazier behaviors.

Even though having a mental health disorder can be an “excuse” to an extent, I like to use this to fuel my fire. I refuse to let this get in the way of my life as much as I can, but realize that I have a little leeway when things get rough. It’s only an excuse to me if you know in your heart you could not have possibly pushed yourself any harder or further. To think you can live your life with no excuse is a valiant thing to think, but truth is, not everyone has the mental capacity to do this all the time.

***

If you’ve made it this far, I genuinely hope this has helped you understand yourself or a loved one better. When I discussed writing this post with Alli and Alexa a week ago, one of the more important lessons we took away from everything that happened was that we ALL became better people from it.

We can all say that going through what we did has made us all more empathetic people- and I’d never consider that a bad thing.

So if you’re the sufferer, let me be 100% honest with you…

It will be hard. You’ll feel lost, you’ll feel uncomfortable, people might look at you a little differently, but the more I’ve opened up, the more I’ve grown to like myself. Turns out, the more I like myself, the more other people seem to like me too.

The fight will never completely end, but I can say that going through the crap I have has made me a better person than if I hadn’t. Use your disorder as a way to connect with others, to empathize with others, and to live life unapologetically- because the world becomes a brighter, better place when you do so.

Here’s That Long Ass “About College” Post- Another Bullshit Story Told By Yours Truly, <3 K Hoves Jr. <3

Well slap me in the ass and call me Betty. As you may know, I’m done with college. In fact, you may only know this due to my ridiculous amount of instagrams, facebook pic uploads, and my nostalgic drunk tweets about how much I love my friends and Taco Bell. Awesome. But since I’m now graduated, I feel the need to sum up my college career so I feel like I did more than just binge drink four days a week in spring and struggle to make it through three hour volleyball practices every day in the fall.

Alright. Big picture first because people have 3 second attention span.

HERE’S WHAT I LEARNED:

I am not the same person that I was when I walked onto campus for the first time in August 2011. I look back on my freshman self and think, “Jesus Christ tweeze your eyebrows, stop dying your hair black, boys don’t have cooties, dumbass, and I am not the same person anymore”.

LOL but before I go into a bullshit story about how “Binghamton has really become my second home” or “I wanted to transfer my freshman year but really swagged out and liked it after awhile” type thing, I have to start here. Here’s my bullshit story.

When I left Neenah, Wisconsin in the summer of 2011 for preseason, I was not sad to say goodbye to my family. Alright, a little sad, but I was never homesick for the next year. High school left me in a difficult spot. My junior year was a constant tug of war with Reedo and Karen for extended curfews, time spent with friends, and a bad relationship choice. Of course, as those of you out of high school now realize, most high schoolers are complete dumbasses. We just don’t recognize it till we get older.

Though my relationship with my parents fluctuated, I was pretty close to my siblings. My brother, Logan, and I got along well because he was the mediator between my youngest sister, Alli and I. Alli and I were close but I spent much of my time comparing myself to her making sure that I was the best at everything. When she made Varsity volleyball halfway through her freshman year, I didn’t rejoice. I saw her as a threat to the “legacy” I was trailblazing as my high school’s first freshman to make the Varsity squad. It’s incredibly sad and pathetic.

Oh my god, teenage angst!! Me junior year of high school.

Oh my god, teenage angst!! Me junior year of high school.

Alli and I continued to butt heads my junior year of high school as she (and my parents) didn’t approve of the semi-secret relationship I was in (only considered “semi” because no one really knew we were together except my mom and sister who had their doubts- a couple kids guessed at school but my friends didn’t know and neither did the other party’s parents). They were scared and I was scared too. I still remember a senior taunting me about being in a relationship with the person I was with and I spent the rest of the week freaking out that everyone knew I wasn’t exactly in a “normal” relationship. Add that to signing to a school 13 hours away from home and you have a SHIT ton of teenage angst.

Me signing spring of my junior year of high school

Me signing spring of my junior year of high school.

Junior year ended and it was onto senior year. I made some great friends that I still have to this day, but struggled with the fact that my lifeline and essentially, my entire “world” had left for college. Senior year was pretty great, however; I joined track and field and was able to compete in high jump. It was fun to be good at something and not have a lot of pressure on myself to perform- it was a great release for me.

Alright. So now that I’ve had a glass of wine and can now look back on my high school experience, it sucked. I know I always whine about being 22 years single, but it’s actually a lie. THIS IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE: I attached onto a person who in the end denounced the entire relationship and left me when they clearly should have pushed me to get help at that point. I didn’t get over this person until the beginning of THIS year (yes, THIS year my senior year of college!!!) and it ruined many other opportunities to date other people at Binghamton. This affected my happiness at college. (I figured I’d make sure I put my points in all caps for emphasis and also some sassiness~)

So let’s fast forward a little to college. Freshman year was mostly uneventful. I always tell anyone I meet how you don’t realize how much freshman year of college sucks until you’re done with it. I didn’t go out much, but I had a successful freshman season of volleyball and made some friends on my team. My next year was one for the books, however.

If you’ve read my previous posts or seen me play volleyball, you either know I’m a literal psychopath or am bipolar II/depressed/OCD and also semi-lactose intolerant. My sophomore year is when everything I dealt with in high school with the poor relationships I had with my family to the termination of my “secret” relationship came to a breaking point.

Some day in November (can’t remember approximate dates) I was drinking with my friends which clearly later impaired my decision making skills. I had been wandering off into the woods or into empty bathrooms on campus to cut and burn my wrists on a regular basis and covered it up at volleyball practice with prewrap and tape. That night, however, my friends found me in either the bathroom or in my bed with blood all over my wrists up to my elbows. I don’t remember much except being taken to the hospital in an ambulance and begging them to believe me that I wasn’t drunk because we would have to play Penn State in the NCAA Tournament that week. All I do know is that if my friends hadn’t found me and called for help, I would have committed suicide that night.

Me sophomore year- wrists taped up at the Cornell match in attempt to hide what I'd done.

Me sophomore year- wrists taped up at the Cornell match in attempt to hide the cutting and burns.

During sophomore year, I had seen four different therapists, tried at least ten different medications, and had seen a little improvement. I spent much of that winter break debating whether or not to go back to school in the spring. I’ve been told that most people that struggle with Bipolar Disorder take time off. I couldn’t imagine not going back to school with my friends, so I went back and struggled through a grueling preseason while my friends, family, and coaches watched me closely. Who knew when I’d fly off the handlebars again? Not even I knew.

Sophomore year at conference tournament- even though we won the whole tournament I still struggled with self-harm at the time and much of this period was unremarkable for me.

Sophomore year at conference tournament- even though we won the whole tournament I still struggled with self-harm at the time and much of this otherwise “happy” time was unremarkable for me.

Sophomore year ended and Alli committed to Binghamton that spring. Unlike the high school me, the college me was thrilled. My near-death sort of deal ultimately made us much closer than before and I was extremely happy to have her with me in New York. REMEMBER WHAT I SAID BEFORE ABOUT CHANGING? I’M DOING IT HERE, PEOPLE!!!

My last two years of college were some of the best years I’ve had my entire life. Junior year I made friends on my own and became closer to my friends Lex, Amanda, and Jordan. (Heyyyyyy gurlz there’s a shout out! <3) I spent much of my volleyball career sidelined due to various injuries and such, but overall, I was happy. (Like ehmahgawd, I could sit on the bench and do my hair and look fab without it risking getting messed up!)

Things getting better for me as Alli joins me at Bing

Things getting better for me as Alli joins me at Binghamton ❤ ❤ ❤

As senior year approached, I was in a much better place than I had been two years prior. Though I struggled with sort of “hating myself” I hadn’t cut myself in awhile and was starting to come out of my shell around people. After I played my last volleyball of my collegiate career, I didn’t cry. I felt relieved. As I’ve probably told you on a Tuesday at JT’s at 1am, I have cried way too much during the past four years in the West Gym wheelchair bathroom stall to be able to muster up a single tear to justify my athletic experience at that point.

As for the rest of my college experience? Spring of my senior year was the best time of my life I’ve had yet. I had five classes I was more than excited to take and the time to enjoy other pursuits. Even though I’ve continually struggled with mania, depression, anxiety, OCD and beer shits the morning after a great night out, I was finally figuring out who I was and becoming more comfortable with myself and being less apologetic about it.

Myself with my closest friends (minus Steph and David) graduating

Myself with my closest friends (minus Steph and David) graduating (cray crayyyy!)

So essentially, I believe at this time that life isn’t worth living unless you experience those highs and lows. God knows that if you don’t have them you might as well be an emotionless robot.

So where in the world is our dear little Kristin Hovie now?

I’ll stick my now empty wine glass where the sun don’t shine if you ask me what I’m doing after college but I will tell you this:

When I left Binghamton University a couple days ago, I was sad. And you know what is so absolutely precious about that? Being sad means I cared. Being sad means I made some great friends and had some great experiences I’ll never forget. So before I get all existential on your ass, I’ll just sum it up to this since I’m all about the capital letters now~

COLLEGE WAS GREAT IT WAS AWESOME I HATE LEAVING BUT IF I COULD TURN AROUND MY SHITTY HIGH SCHOOL/SOPHOMORE YEAR OF COLLEGE, I HAVE A LOT OF GREAT STUFF AHEAD OF ME.

So that’s that. I’ll bet you didn’t bargain on me “in vino veritas”-ing all over you on a Tuesday night, but I did. (It’s probably because I know I should be doing $1 pitchers at JT’s right now and bitching about their $3 cover.) I had a helluva ride and am happy to say $%^&, I made it. Because I did- I did with a little help from my friends.

xx

ACE~

😉

P.S. Big thank you to my coaches, family, friends (Lex, Manz, Jojo, Steph, and David amongst others) for being there for me when I needed it- because I did need it. Thanks for being great listeners.