Confession: I’m a mess. Most of the time I look like I have things pretty much together. Sometimes I actually do have it together. But mostly it’s a trick of light and careful editing. And there are times I just stop doing everything except tasks of daily living — when keeping everything balanced gets too hard.
When I disappear, it means that depression and anxiety have won a small battle in a war that’s been raging for years.
It’s exhausting – both keeping up the façade and cleaning up the aftermath of a lost struggle.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Judging by the posts that have been popping up in the blogs I follow, a lot of creatives engage in arting, crafting, and writing as part of their mental health wellness plan.
Those things are a huge part of mine, too.
So, today I’m going to share my story – the one I’ve hinted at here too many times to count. Reading other people’s stories helps me because I don’t feel so alone or like I’m the only person who has rough times.
When people share their stories, it takes away some of the stigma that surrounds talking about mental health. There is so much misinformation out there, and it unfairly creates negative perceptions of people who have them.
Anxiety and depression, on the level I face them now, are new to me. They’ve visited off and on throughout my life, but I could always link them to a time-limited stressful event. If something worrying happened, my wrists and ankles would itch for weeks. When I got depressed, I’d lose my ability to eat more than a bite or two for months at a time. I’ve had months-long insomnia on a few occasions, but that came with an upside of having extra crafting time in the middle of the night.
When I needed meds, I took them. When I needed therapy, I saw someone.
And I felt fine most of the time.
About ten years ago (it’s hard to believe it’s been that long because it still feels like last week), I married the kind of person you read about in those “I survived this” features in magazines. It was a horrible, stressful marriage that I tried starting to escape three months in.
Eleven months later I extricated myself from that marriage and entered the life of being a domestic violence survivor as an unemployed, single mother of a three month old baby. I’d literally lost everything. I was minutes from being homeless and a lot of times had no idea how Smalls and I would eat. That marriage marked the moment when my struggle with anxiety became my third full-time job, right after taking care of Smalls and working full time.
Anxiety moved in and set up shop in my body 24 hours a day. Depression remained a visitor, showing up in the winter and on cloudy days.
This was when my casual hobbies of knitting, crocheting, and crafting became a lifeline for me – the most important pillars of my wellness plan.
At that point in my life, I didn’t have the money, insurance coverage, or time to see a therapist. I was nursing, so medications weren’t an option I was willing to consider. I didn’t have time for friends or hitting the gym or much else besides taking care of Smalls, working, and trying to get enough rest. And as anyone who ever worked as a paralegal knows, working an eight hour day is not a thing.
I was focused on surviving.
Thankfully I’d amassed a stash of yarn and patterns in what I now refer to as Before. In quiet times when Smalls was napping, or sometimes while he was nursing, I’d pull out some yarn and knit or crochet. Nothing too complicated – just enough to keep my hands and mind engaged.
I’ll never forget my first full blown panic attack. I was laying on the sofa watching tv and Smalls (a toddler at the time) ran over to the sofa, grabbed my cheeks with his pudgy little fingers, and kissed my forehead. A spontaneous act of love triggered my fight-or-flight response. My heart started pounding, I felt faint, and for a few minutes thought I was having a heart attack. It took about an hour to calm myself down enough to function again.
For days I couldn’t figure out why my body responded to Smalls’ sweet gesture that way and I felt like a horrible mother.
Then I had a flash of insight while washing dishes one night: my ex-husband used to grab my cheeks, pull my face close to his, and scream at me.
Over the course of the next few years, I slowly put the pieces of my life back together. Got a better job. Got married. Bought a house.
Things were going great until the law firm I worked for went through a nasty partnership split. I got to keep my job, but I had less support staff and my case load doubled. The partnership struggled to find its footing and we never knew what crisis we’d face when we got to work each day. I was soon working from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed, answering emails around the clock and bringing work home so I could meet all of my deadlines.
It was so stressful I became physically ill – labyrinthitis, stomach nasties, and crippling panic attacks that lasted for days. When I first got sick, nobody knew what was wrong with me because everything seemed broken.
These panic attacks were nothing like the ones I’d had before. They lasted for days and sometimes weeks. I felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen and my heart pounded and I’d have chest pain and back pain.
Every time I got checked out at the hospital, they found nothing wrong with me. My EKGs were usually fine. My bloodwork was perfect. My blood pressure was elevated, but not alarmingly so. I always felt better after sitting and not moving for a few hours, but the moment I got up and started moving around, it would start again.
I ended up having panic attacks so frequently that I lost my job. Getting my pink slip wasn’t a surprise. In many ways, it was a relief.
That was two years ago. Now my panic attacks are few and far between. I have to carefully monitor and manage my stress level, which isn’t always easy to do when raising a child who’s been diagnosed with ADHD.
Anxiety and depression can look different from person to person. Anxiety, for me, goes beyond feeling worried and stressed. My body reacts. I take a beta blocker to lessen the effects of my heart palpitations, which are sometimes so severe I’m physically unable to get out of bed for days at a time. My hair falls out. I can set my watch by it – when I have a series of panic attacks, my hair falls out in clumps starting about six weeks after. My stomach has been shredded for years. I have severe TMJ pain – which basically feels like the worst earache you’ve ever had – that can sometimes last for weeks (I’m dealing with that right now).
After a bazillion tests turned up nothing, my doctor told me (and I quote): “there’s nothing physically wrong with you, you just need to chill the fuck out.”
I love my doctor. And he’s 100% right.
Some other fun gifts anxiety and depression have given:
- Weight gain
- Unclear thinking
- Inability to concentrate
- Short temper
- Loss of motivation
- Sleeping too much
- Not wanting to leave the house
- Feeling drained and flat
- Hypochondria (having a body that feels broken but is clinically just fine can lead your brain to some scary places!)
- Pervasive sense of dread
- Excessive worrying
- Worst case scenario thinking
Maybe some of these things sound familiar to you?
I never know what kind of day I’ll have when I wake up in the morning, because the physical symptoms of anxiety aren’t related to a specific event. There’s no cause and effect. Sometimes I can be having a great week and something with flare up for no reason I can pinpoint. It’s just all the excess stress I carry around all day, every day, trying to find ways to escape, and that’s a stressor all on its own.
Creating saved me. This blog, right here, saved me. The people I’ve met along the way in my bloggy travels saved me – everyone who’s made something from a pattern I’ve designed; everyone who’s left a kind comment; everyone who’s sent me an email to tell me how much something I wrote helped them.
In short, you, my readers, saved me.
Every second I was focused on the yarn slipping through my fingers was a moment I was giving my mind a rest from trauma. Every hour I spent writing was an hour I wasn’t engaged with whatever drama my ex-husband was stirring up. Every day lost to designing and testing a pattern was a day I didn’t have a panic attack. Every time I clicked the post button, I was one step further to recreating all that I had lost.
I still struggle. Every damn day. Thankfully the ongoing trauma is in my rearview mirror. But the anxiety and depression that trauma stirred up…most days are good, but the bad ones are bad. Especially the rainy or cloudy days. Seasonal depression can grab me hard even in the middle of July.
Over time I realized that there are things you can do to build a sort of framework to prop yourself up. I call it my wellness plan.
These things can help you, a lot:
- Taking anti-anxiety medications and/or antidepressants
- Making art
- Eating healthy foods
- Taking vitamins and probiotics daily
- Getting enough sleep
- Drinking plenty of water
- Engaging in a spiritual practice
- Focusing on gratitude by writing something you’re grateful for before bed each night, and focusing on why you’re grateful for that thing
- Making lists
- Using essential oils
Sometimes I scramble around propping myself up by doing many of these things every day. Other days I can only manage one or two on the list. I constantly try new things and discard ones that don’t serve me.
The more of them I do each day, the better I function. And the more options I have to choose from, the more likely I am to get at least some of them done.
Maybe some of these might help you too?
I know. When you feel blah the last thing you want is a list of things to do.
My main reason for sharing all of this is because if you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, I want you to know you’re not alone. If you need help, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone.
You don’t have to do it alone.
I’d really like there to be less of a stigma around discussing mental health, because it’s an issue that touches so many of us.
So talking about it here is my contribution to that conversation.
Science has demonstrated being creative is good for your brain and your mood. Here are a few articles you might like to read:
10 Health Benefits of Yarncrafting (Lion Brand Yarns)
Creating Art Relieves Stress (Be Brain Fit)
The Cognitive Benefits of Doodling (The Atlantic)
Do you make art, craft, or write to support your emotional and mental health?