A Collection of Thoughts

Category: Personal (page 1 of 4)

World Mental Health Day 2018

I have Major Depressive Disorder (clinical depression), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have also been previously diagnosed with an unspecified “mood disorder”—most likely a symptom of my other three disorders.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’m writing because even though transparency and mental health have come a long way during my lifetime, it’s important to constantly remain open and supportive about mental health problems.

It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to seek help. You are not weak. You are enough.

My mental health journey finally began in January 2013, the spring semester of my junior year in college. It should have started several years before, when I was in high school, but my disorders remained latent enough that I could essentially ignore them or let them “resolve” on their own. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what triggered the coalescence of my disorders, but as the spring semester of my junior year at Mary Washington began, everything fell apart. I fell into a horrible, deep, hopeless depression, and it was accompanied by an utterly crippling anxiety. I couldn’t eat more than half of a snack bar or sandwich because of the knots in my stomach and tightness in my chest, and that half-bar or half-sandwich was what sustained me throughout an entire day. There were several days where if I ate more, I vomited because there was simply “too much” for my anxiety-riddled intestines to handle. I had horrible insomnia—so much so that I slept only about 20 minutes each night for at least a month. With endless depression and crippling anxiety, sleeping was all I really wanted to do, but even sleep was no longer a respite for me. Sleep, my “safe place,” became an object of severe anxiety for me.

A deep, helpless depression, crippling anxiety, and unending insomnia turned me into a completely different person. I wanted to drop out of Mary Washington. I couldn’t function at a basic day-to-day level, so I couldn’t even see how I would make it through a week or month, let alone a semester, and a semester filled with challenging, upper-level coursework. If I wasn’t going through the day as a zombie, I was constantly sobbing and wishing that my condition would end. I remember walking downtown several times to meet friends for coffee, and I remember thinking how easy it would be to just step off the sidewalk into the path of an oncoming car. I remember looking at my bottle of ibuprofen, after days and days of no sleep, and wondering how many pills I would need to take before I would die. I remember burning myself on the stove in our kitchen and burning myself on a curling iron because I wanted to feel something—anything—other than despair and hopelessness. I knew that these actions of self-harm and suicidal ideation weren’t healthy, but they also seemed like the only way out for me. I truly felt that my anxiety and depression were so crippling, so unmanageable and so incurable, that suicide was the only way to truly end how I was feeling and bring me peace.

I remember my parents coming to pick me up two weeks after the semester started—a dark, cold, Friday evening in early January—because I couldn’t function. I remember my mom feeding me at home, lifting forks full of food to my mouth as I sat listless at our kitchen table. I remember her giving me baths at home because I was incapable of doing so myself. I remember feeling so ashamed about all of this, but also feeling utterly powerless and incapable of changing it. I remember sobbing on the phone to several of my close friends, calling them every two hours every day as my brain failed to escape its depressive and anxious cycles. I said the same things over and over again to them because my brain couldn’t process the solutions that we’d talked about two hours before. I remember Taylor, my roommate, getting in the tiny twin bed with me on multiple nights, coaching me in deep breathing and snuggling me as I struggled to fight anxiety and insomnia to get just a couple hours of sleep. I remember her stroking my back as I sobbed each night because I was so exhausted but still couldn’t sleep.

I remember my dear friend Jenny telling me, as I finally revealed my suicidal ideations to her, that “Suicide doesn’t really end your pain. It just gives your pain to somebody else.” And I remember the profound effect her statement had upon me. As much as I was struggling, and as much as I felt that suicide was the only way to solve my problem, I couldn’t imagine all of the pain and suffering from my mental health disorders being put upon someone else because of something that I had done. If I couldn’t handle what was being thrown at me by life and mental health, how on earth could I force that upon someone else? Or upon multiple people?

So I kept going. It was never enthusiastic, but it was the next best option for me, and it was the option that would spare all of my loved ones from suffering. My mom took me to the doctor, and the doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant (a generic of Zoloft). I started going to the counseling center at Mary Washington, and I requested a graduate student because that was the only way I could see someone as frequently (every 2 weeks) as I needed to. I talked with all of my professors about how much I was struggling, and most (if not all) of them seemed shocked to find out that their friendly, bright, capable student was struggling to just live.

Finally going on medication and going to regular therapy changed my life. Sertraline, the generic for Zoloft, is an effective anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. It’s a class of medication known as an SSRI, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. Essentially, it helps your brain take in more serotonin (the “happy” chemical), so it can help correct the chemical imbalance in your brain that is believed to cause depression. When serotonin breaks down, it becomes melatonin, which is a natural part of the sleep cycle, so the medication helped tremendously with my insomnia as well. The transition to being medicated was extremely difficult for me for a couple reasons. First, the side effects were difficult. I had horrible dry-mouth, but even worse, I had the “worsening depression or suicidal thoughts” that every anti-depressant commercial warns about. The 3 days of first taking medication, and then the first 3 days of upping my dosage, were even worse than my “normal” days. But after those 3 days passed, it was like coming out of a thick, dark, hopeless haze and entering into a bright, new future. It wasn’t necessarily going to be easy, but I felt “even,” and I felt like I could finally begin to manage my mental health problems.

The second issue that made medication difficult for me was that I felt like being medicated meant there was something wrong with me—people might think of me differently if they knew. They might judge me. They might not like me. And I might become even more isolated and alone because no one would like me. My therapist at UMW help me overcome these worries and to think of my anti-depressant as more of a vitamin than anything else. To this day, that is still how I think of my anti-depressant, which I still take every day. I stay on a low therapeutic dose of sertraline (50 mg) to keep me at a level where I feel “even” and can then handle the rest of my mental health issues on my own. I’m no longer ashamed of taking an anti-depressant, and I hope that other people seeking treatment can also come to this realization. There is nothing wrong with taking medication that helps treat a disease or disorder that you have.

Along with medication, therapy has been a key component of my treatment and recovery. My therapist at Mary Washington did wonders for me, and I believe therapy is a crucial part of treatment for depression and other mental health disorders. While medication can address the chemical imbalance that causes depression, it can’t effectively address what is causing that chemical imbalance—and, more often than not, it’s our patterns of thinking and other mental activities that cause the imbalance. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is what all of my therapists have engaged in with me, and it’s a method that of therapy that can help re-track your brain, leading to better mental awareness and healthier patterns of thought, and thus help correct chemical imbalances over time. Since my therapist at UMW, I’ve seen several others. I don’t regularly do therapy because I find that I do well enough on my own, but when something triggers my mental health disorders, I seek out a therapist and go for several months to work through my issues. (This decision is largely a monetary one for me, but I also always get to a point in therapy where it feels like the sessions are no longer productive because we’ve resolved what I wanted to resolve. The unproductive sessions are my sign that it is okay to end a round of therapy.) Though I don’t go to therapy regularly, I cannot stress enough how much of a difference it has made for me over the years. Having someone who is trained to help you recognize your thought patterns and help you correct the unhealthy patterns is beyond helpful. If you are thinking about therapy, go. It can be a huge mental burden at first to find a therapist whose style fits well with your needs, but it is worth the time and effort. Going in with an open mind, in my opinion, is the best way to go. If you think that therapy won’t help you or that therapists are just “shrinks,” you won’t get much out of therapy.

The days of the onset of my depression and anxiety were easily the darkest days of my life. But in that time, with great effort and mountains of help, I was able to find hope. I found wonderful friends, old and new, who answered the phone no matter what time I called, who got in a tiny college bed with me and soothed me to sleep, and who commandeered classrooms with me to watch Battlestar Galactica and distract my brain for a few hours. I found a family who would come and take care of me, even though I was an adult, and do whatever they could to support me. I found professors who truly cared about my well-being and who wanted to be there for me and help me. Most importantly, I found an ability within myself to overcome the toughest of mental hurdles.

I also found many other people suffering from mental health disorders like my own, who I otherwise never would have thought had mental health problems. It may very well be that the people who smile at you most, who are the kindest to you, who give the most, who work the hardest, who seem to be thriving, are the people who are struggling the most. It may also very well be that the people who seem to not work at all or who are not particularly friendly are the people who are struggling the most. Mental health disorders and their symptoms affect people and manifest themselves in different ways in each of us.

What you are feeling and experiencing is valid. It is okay not to be okay. It is okay to seek help. Please seek help—do not be ashamed. There is nothing weak about seeking help to better yourself. Do not feel ashamed for taking medication or going to therapy. These are treatments for a medical problem, and there is nothing wrong with treating your problems and bettering yourself. You are enough, and your deserve to be better.

End the stigma.

Questions for Listening

You won’t learn nearly as much talking as you do listening.
Pay more attention this week. What questions can you ask so that you learn something new every day?

—Ink+Volt 2018 Planner

This was the weekly prompt from my Ink+Volt planner for September 10 to 16, and I wanted to record my responses here for several reasons. Firstly, I find that the initial statement is overwhelmingly true for me—I love sitting in on discussions and just listening to well-informed people talk. While I definitely feel impulses to join in on conversations, if I can rein myself in, I learn so much about the subject (and about other people) if I just listen. That being said, I know that I don’t listen enough. I jump in with my own thoughts, or I’m too frustrated by what I’m hearing to continue trying to listen, or I’m listening to the surface statements but forgetting to listen more deeply. Hopefully my answers to the prompt will help me become a better listener and enrich my understandings of other people.

What questions can you ask so that you learn something new every day?

  • Why do I feel this way?
    • What external circumstances are influencing my reaction to this? Internal circumstances?
  • Why do other people feel this way?
    • What external circumstances are influencing their reaction to this? Internal circumstances?
  • What is the other person trying to accomplish? — This question is one that I particularly want and need to keep asking, especially in my digital work with faculty and students. I find that many of my frustrations come from not asking this question, and thus not fully understanding why someone wants to do something a particular way.
  • What don’t I know about this? What information am I missing? — As with the previous question, this is one that I need to keep asking.  I often assume that what I know is what I know, and for whatever reason, there isn’t a need to push beyond that—to think that perhaps there is more to a situation than what I already know. I am so comfortably situated in my own environment that it’s sometimes difficult for me to see that someone else’s environment may be completely different—or it may be the same as my own, but it brings someone else a very different and distinct set of challenges.
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • How does my privilege affect this situation? How does it affect my point of view? What blind spots does it bring?
  • Does this help me? Does it help others?
    • How can I productively focus my energy? — One of the most difficult things for me to do is to focus any negative or unpleasant energy on a productive task. I’ve nested this question under “Does this help me/others?” because I find that not focusing my energy (or focusing it on something unproductive) doesn’t help me or anyone else.
  • What invisible labor is being done here? By whom? — As a staff member at a public, state institution of higher education, the issue of invisible labor is, for better or for worse, an integral part of my job. In my experience, most faculty and administrators are blind to the invisible labor that comprises the daily jobs of staff members, so it’s very important to me to recognize the invisible labor that people are doing. More broadly, as a citizen of the United States, it is paramount to recognize that our nation has almost entirely been built by invisible labor, by the tasks that we and our forefathers and our foremothers put upon the backs of other, marginalized groups of people.
  • Am I showing/practicing empathy in this situation? If not, how can I better practice empathy?
  • How can I best address a situation that I view as problematic while still respecting the viewpoint and/or identity of someone else?
  • Why does that work the way it works? — This question is less serious than the rest, but it’s still very important. It’s a question that I often ask when I’m working with digital tools, whether they be WordPress or something from Knightlab. I want to understand the way a tool works, but I also want to understand why a tool works a certain way. Understanding the “why” helps me better understand the tool, as well as more general principles of digital spaces.

Of course, asking myself these questions each day (or just a couple of these questions) isn’t even half the battle. The largest battle for me is being mindful and self-aware enough to give myself a space in which I can begin asking and thinking about these questions. So often I press myself to keep moving forward that I don’t leave much space for deep listening or introspection.

What questions do you ask yourself each day?

Toxic Value(s)

DISCLAIMER: I do not mean this piece to be a critique of my direct supervisors, all of whom are absolutely wonderful and are helping me work through the systemic problems related to working as support staff in a state institution. I work with amazing individuals. I write this piece as an emotional, raw critique of systemic inequalities and issues that result from the policies in place in public, state institutions of higher education that continually disadvantage me and others in a position similar to mine. The fact that I even feel obligated to include this disclaimer shows the truly bifurcated nature of higher education—freedom to speak out is reserved only for the few. Nevertheless, this issue is too important to remain silent about, and I am working in avenues other than my blog to address these problems. To change the system, we must first critique the system.

“It must be such a privelege to work at your alma mater.”

I get this a lot. It used to feel like a privlege, but more frequently now it feels like poison.

What is value? According to Google’s dictionary function, value is:

  1. the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
    • the material or monetary worth of something
    • the worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it.

Value sounds important—it sounds good. How can values be toxic? Or how can the value of a person, or what you hold to be valuable, be toxic?

It’s toxic to work in a place where you need to “prove” your value. To work in a place where you are not valued, where you cannot be properly and fairly compensated due to the short-term nature of your work—where short-term work is not valued.

It’s toxic to work in place where you are constantly told just how valuable you are, yet the simple “price” that you ask for—a living salary—cannot and will not be honored. It’s toxic to work in a place where, without debt, and with only rent and a credit card to pay every month, you still cannot afford to live where your job demands that you work.

It’s toxic to work in a place where the people who shoulder the burdens of the institution, who do all of the leg work, and who are not properly compensated for it are required to manually log their hours, day in and day out. Where they are not trusted to do they work they are being (poorly) paid to do. Where they are told that if they improperly log their hours, they are stealing money from the institution. It’s even more toxic to work in a place where the administrators are overcompensated for having big ideas that they then delegate to (read: shove upon) their peons so they can then spend most of the work day—if they come to work—only pondering what frivolous items they are going to spend a limited state budget on.

It’s toxic to work in a place where you are overworked and underpaid—where you are not valued. To work in a place that seems to value people who do not work. People who consistently come to work at least two hours late and leave at the same time as (or even before) everyone else. The privileged people who have no real appreciation for the luxury of earning a living salary. It’s toxic to work in a place where not working—and spending work time seeking other jobs—is rewarded with counteroffers. Where you can be paid, and receive a raise, for not working. Where the people who do work day in and day out, who are overloaded with work, with no time or mental space to seek other jobs, cannot receive a raise. Because apparently it is more valuable to not work and spend your work time searching for the perfect counteroffer.

It’s toxic to work in a place that doesn’t value mental and emotional work and capital. Because it takes mental and emotional capital to apply for new jobs, but when you are already overworked, you don’t have any extra to put toward the job-search-for-counteroffer effort. It’s toxic to work in a place where the people who do have the mental and emotional capital for job searches—who, coincidentally, are the people who are not overworked and already earn more than a living salary, thus freeing up mental space—are rewarded with counteroffers and less work.

It’s toxic to work in a place where your regular workload can double, triple, quadruple, but you aren’t valuable enough to be compensated for it because you are just doing more of the “same” work. It’s not enough to do more. It’s toxic to work in a place where to prove your value, you have to take on different, “higher-order duties,” only to find that even after taking on these duties, you aren’t valuable enough to be properly compensated for the extra, different work.

It’s toxic to work in a place where you are so valued that new tasks, new duties are shoved onto your plate because you can handle it, but when you point out this is more work, different work, higher-order work, you are met with silence. You are met with false equivalencies. It’s toxic to work in a place where, after asking for a raise for this extra work, you come to find that the administration has re-written the duties of your supervisor so that your new, higher-order duties are no longer that. They are no longer outside of your responsibility. They are now your responsibility, and you can no longer justify asking for a raise.

It’s toxic to work in a place where the answer is: “That’s just how it is. It’s a shitty system.”

I know my value, my importance. I am not toxic. My employer, however, is a different story.

ADDENDUM: I want to add that I do really like most parts of my job on most days, which is one of the many contributing factors as to why I haven’t left.

Deconstructing Freedom

Land of the free, because of the brave.

I see this quote going aroud all day on July 4th. So, on this Independence Day, as we get drunk at cookouts, wear American flag clothing items, watch fireworks, and loudly bellow “patriotic” things at each other, I’d like us to more carefully consider what we say and what we celebrate, starting with this quote.

“Land of the Free”

For so many Americans, this land is not free. When you can’t legally marry the person you love, when you can’t go out in public without fear of being killed because of your skin color or your religion, when you can’t be paid equal salary or wages as a male counterpart, when you can’t speak about sexual abuse because you will be blamed, and so many other scenarios, we cannot consider America a “land of the free.” This land is not free for so many people: LGBTQIA+ people, African Americans, Muslims (or people who “look” Muslim, whatever that means), immigrants, women, sexual abuse and rape survivors, Latin Americans, homeless people, people living in poverty, and so many other minorities and underprivileged groups of people. This land is not free for them.

“Because of the Brave”

We are certainly “free” thanks to the many Americans who fight for our freedom–and I in no way mean to belittle the sacrifices that so many Americans have made throughout the decades–but the “brave” are by no means limited to the military and are by no means the only people who have made America a “free” land. Our “freedom” has been built on the backs of enslaved, underprivileged, and minority peoples who are underpaid (or simply not paid, in the case of slaves), undervalued, and underrepresented (to name a few).

For those of us who are lucky enough to confidently say America is a “Land of the free, because of the brave,” think about who you are excluding. How your freedom impacts others and has been built upon disadvantaging others. Be grateful, but think about how you can leverage your freedom and your privilege to help the millions who are not as fortunate as you.

A Day Without A Woman: Power and Choice

Today, International Women’s Day, was also “A Day Without A Woman” for many across the US. Organized by the same group that orchestrated the Women’s March on Washington, the idea of A Day Without A Woman is that this general strike would highlight the significant contributions women make at work and in society and provide another day when women could rally for their rights. I loved the idea of this strike–if we actually had a day without women and every single woman was a no-show, a significant number of people would struggle. So if even a fraction of the female population went on strike, at least another fraction would get a better glimpse at the contributions we make every day to life and to the world.

But in talking with my friends and coworkers, some pieces of the choice to not work, to strike, didn’t sit as well with me as they originally had. The one thing that by far bothers me the most about the strike is that it is, at its core, however unintentional it may be, a classist movement. Some of us, myself included, are privileged enough to work somewhere where we can accrue leave and make the choice to use this leave for A Day Without A Woman (or come to work anyways, as I chose to do). But what about the women who are not so privileged? What about the women who don’t have a choice, and they have to continue going to work so they can support themselves and their families? Being able to take leave–to take a day off of work to strike–is a privilege that not every woman has. And what happens when the women who choose to strike, do? Whose shoulders does that work then fall on? Some of the work may fall on men, but it will also fall on women and non-binary individuals–the more vulnerable minorities. How are we to think of ourselves if, when we strike, we force our burdens onto people less fortunate, less privileged, than ourselves? If a school district closes, as some did, what burden are we then putting on mothers who may or may not be able to take off work or find child care? What work are we making invisible, rather than visible, by striking? By saying that taking off work and staying home (as some women chose to do, rather than go to rallies), are we not making invisible the work of stay-at-home moms? Are we not conflating what they do every with “not working”?

It’s heartening and inspiring to see other women think deeply about these issues, recognizing their privilege and leveraging it to help fight for others who could not strike. To see women recognize the faults of this strike but take leave, knowing that their actions will spark a conversation somewhere. We–women, men, everyone–should absoutely fight and protest against an economic system that has long exploited women’s work and neglected us. But in choosing to fight via strike, we should be careful in thinking about how our actions will affect other women who may not be able to fight in the same way and women who may not be in the traditional workforce. Having privilege and choice is a powerful thing, but we must constantly be thinking about how the choices we make because of our privilege can put undue burdens upon the people for whom we are fighting.

Thank You / Here

Thank you
For assuming the worst of me
For making false accusations

Thank you
For claiming we’re adults but not speaking to me, for shunning me instead,
For being condescending and patronizing

Thank you
For [not] giving me the same chance you gave everyone else
For lying to those who lent you a sympathetic ear

Thank you
For not admitting your own mistakes
For not taking any responsibility for the mess you have helped create
For continually playing the victim while scapegoating me

Thank you
For showing me what our friendship really means to you
For showing me your true colors

So here
You won’t find sympathy or forgiveness–

You will find a smile plastered onto a fragile, cold veneer
With cracks running deep below the surface.

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