I’m The ‘Family Therapist’ And It’s Emotionally Draining

Last week was my younger son’s school concert. For weeks leading up to it, he’d been confessing to me as I lay in bed getting him settled into sleep that he was absolutely terrified to perform.

His reasons kept changing. He loves to sing and dance but he told me he only wanted to perform for me. Then he told me he was concerned it would be too hot in the auditorium just like it was last year (it was a freaking oven and absolutely miserable). Then he said he thought the other kids didn’t know their singing parts well enough and were going to mess it up for everyone.

You get the picture. The kid had a major case of stage fright, which is totally normal for his age. But it was actually getting to the point where I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get on stage at all. The day of the show, my son kept going back and forth, telling me he was happy and excited one second, and telling me he wouldn’t leave the house to go perform the next.

When my husband got home from work that day, he ran up to my son, saying, “I can’t wait for the show tonight, buddy!”

I shot him a look saying, “Ummmmm, WTF?” and promptly took him aside to explain why mentioning the show probably wasn’t the best idea.

And then I said, “Don’t you know that he’s been freaking out about this damn show for the past month?”

But my husband had no clue. My son hadn’t breathed a word of it to him. And it’s not because they aren’t close. In theory, he would share his most difficult feelings with his dad. My husband is as loving and accepting and open as can be. But he’s just not the person either of my sons go to when they need to talk about the deep stuff – the vulnerable, hard stuff.

Nope. It’s me. Pretty much 100% of the time.

Now, I mostly have no complaints about this. My kids trust me, and ever since they were little, they tell me everything. Literally everything. I know that not all kids tell their parents every fear and hope and dream they have. Especially as they get older and life becomes more complicated, scary, and confusing, I want them to have a safe place to land and to share. I am lucky that I can give them that.

The problem is that as much as it’s a gift, it’s a burden too. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve spent worrying about the emotional world of my children. I know my husband has his own worries about life and about our kids, but they aren’t exactly that. He isn’t going over in his head the latest late-night confession one of his kids tearfully spilled out to him.

I know I’m not the only one with this gift/curse either. Stuff like this – what many call the “emotional labor” or “invisible labor” in a family – often falls squarely on a mother’s shoulders. As if we don’t have enough shit to contend with, and toss over in our minds at 4 a.m.

Yep, it’s not enough that moms are usually the family scheduler, the family chore enforcer, the family chef, the family nurse, and the family long-term planner – we are the family therapist as well. And it’s a huge burden to carry. HUGE.

We don’t just have to listen and absorb our kids’ emotions. Because we are entrusted with them, we have to help our kids make all kinds of life decisions – and those get a whole lot more complicated and high-stakes the older our kids get. And although our kids are their own agents of their lives, we have to bear the burden and potential fall-out of many of their choices too.

Again, I get that this is basically what being a parent is, and I honestly would not want it any other way. I just wish that the burden was shared more. Like I said, my husband is more than willing to take on some of the emotional labor within our family – and especially since I pointed out the uneven dynamic to him recently.

But – and I’m not even quite sure how it happened – the role seems to have fallen squarely in my lap. And since it’s always been this way, and my kids are used to confessing all kinds of things to me, I can’t see it changing anytime soon.

Maybe rather than taking on less of a “family therapist” role, I need to be unburdened in terms of all other “invisible labor” I do. But those other responsibilities are pretty freaking well established too. Sigh.

I don’t have many real answers here. I love my kids. I love that they want to open their hearts and share their deepest thoughts and feelings with me, and I honestly don’t want that ever to change. But I just need to say that it’s hard. It adds to my overall workload in our family, and sometimes I feel like I might explode with all the emotions, feelings, fears, and other “stuff” I have to keep in check in my mind and heart on behalf of my kids (and my husband too, but that’s a whole other story).

If you are the family therapist too, and you feel me on this, I want you to know you are not alone. We are allowed to love our kids and the roles we play in their lives while also saying, “Hey, this shit is hard, and I need a damn break.”

Hey, maybe what we need is a family therapist of our own. You know, someone who sits with us in the dark as we spill out our worries about everyone in our family, who brushes our hair out of our eyes, tells us everything will be fine, and helps us drift to sleep like a baby.

Now that would be lovely. Maybe that’s really what we all need.

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Stop Telling People With Depression They Shouldn’t Be Depressed

The first time my anxiety was misunderstood was when I was in high school.

A group of eight girls were staying the night at the house of one of our friends. It was nearing midnight, and we arranged pillows and blankets on the bedroom floor, stomachs full of strawberry Pop-Tarts. We were giggling about the IM exchange we’d had with a guy from school, when one friend suggested that we go for a drive. The 16-year-old among us picked up the keys to her mom’s minivan.

It was a balmy spring night, perfect for a drive. Everyone but me cheered and threw on shoes, while I sat on my friend’s bed, familiar panic setting in. Our town curfew for teens was midnight. What if we went for a drive and got pulled over? What if my parents found out I’d broken the rules? What if we wound up with a flat tire on a winding country road with no one to help us? What if, even worse, we got into a car accident?

As my friends were happily chatting and heading out the door, I said to one friend, “I’m not going.” She looked at me funny and asked what the big deal was. I mumbled something about the curfew, and she replied, “Chill out!” before sauntering out the door.

I stayed behind and cried.

I didn’t know then that the chronic stomachaches, the never-ending thoughts of doom, and the moments where my heart was racing and I felt that I couldn’t catch my breath were classic signs of anxiety.

I had decided I was what others felt I was. A Nervous Nelly. A Goody-Goody. A stick-in-the-mud. I can’t count the number of times I was told to “take a chill pill” and stop worrying.

But when you live with mental illness, you can’t just turn it off or talk yourself out of what’s going on in your head. That’s not how it works.

I quickly learned that voicing my concerns and objections ostracized me, so I started pushing my worries down deeper and deeper. This led to me avoiding a lot of situations in which my anxiety would be called out. I sensed that concealing my anxiety was safer and socially acceptable.

Plus, I had a good life, and people weren’t afraid to remind me of that fact. It was their way of implying that I shouldn’t be struggling. After all, there were other people all around me who were so much worse off.

My childhood was idyllic. My parents (who are still married) and two younger siblings and I lived in a comfortable home. I earned a few college scholarships, spending five years working up to a master’s degree. I married my high school sweetheart, and now we have four children. We live in a family-oriented community and have great jobs.

But here’s the truth. Anxiety and depression do not discriminate. They don’t prowl around seeking to sink their claws into those with the most difficult situations. Genes, brain chemistry, and trauma can all be contributing factors as to why some of us live with mental illness and some do not.

Depression and anxiety are beasts. They don’t care how badly you do not want them or what you had planned. There are many forms, but no matter the type a person has, it’s persistent and difficult, like a toddler in a toy store who won’t take no for an answer.

The truth is, many women suffer from anxiety, depression, or both. In fact, women are twice as likely to have depression than men. Factors including PMS, pregnancy, menopause, work overload, and abuse can be contributors.

I was in my thirties before I was officially diagnosed with anxiety. I’d done a lot of research into my symptoms and talked to a few trusted friends before working up the courage to see my doctor.

I discovered all of my options. Some women take prescription medication while others have found relief through supplements, CBD oil, or marijuana. Some exercise or practice mindfulness. Others opt for cognitive behavioral therapy, attending a support group, or taking up a new hobby.

Not only did having a diagnosis and treatment plan help, but the more I opened up to others about my anxiety, the more others shared their own struggles with me. Sharing my diagnosis gave them permission to reveal theirs. Together we established a sense of unity and support.

Of course, my anxiety didn’t magically go away just because I chose to share that I had it. In fact, I was met with more unsolicited advice by some. Why can’t I just pull myself up by my bootstraps, toughen up, and be grateful for what I do have? Why not take on the approach of “Don’t worry, be happy”? Why do I not just chill the hell out?

Trust me. If it were up to me, anxiety wouldn’t be part of my life. But since it is, I made a decision. I refused to go back to being a scared teenage girl who felt she had to become smaller and quieter so I didn’t make others uncomfortable. Instead, I claim my anxiety as part of who I am.

I’m hopeful that with powerful female celebrities like Lady Gaga and Taraji P. Henson speaking up about their experiences with mental illness, society will move in the right direction. When a woman reveals her mental health struggles, she’ll be met with empathy and community, not unsolicited, uneducated, and unsupportive advice.

It’s time to prioritize our mental health and say good-bye to the nay-sayers.

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If You’re A Mom On The Verge Of Breaking, Read This

I’m tired. My 4-month-old is inconsolable and screaming at the top of her lungs. My boobs hurt from nursing around the clock — it’s the only thing that consistently calms her down — and I have a lingering headache.

All I can think about is how in this moment, motherhood is draining me of all my life force. And I’m pretty sure I’m on the verge of losing it. But, unlike before, I’ve learned that, as a mother who’s struggling, I don’t have to keep everything to myself.

Accepting that I don’t have to pretend to be okay has made my life so much easier.

I’ve seen so many moms, especially young ones, who are regularly told we made the choice to be parents — or at a minimum to have sex — so we deserve to silently deal with the obstacles we face as parents. The messages suggest to us that we should be “surviving instead of thriving” and that we shouldn’t seek help when we need it.

It leaves mothers on the verge of breaking feeling alone and lies to them by saying motherhood should be synonymous with struggle. Trying to process those experiences alone, while thinking no one understands is painful. And it makes it harder for us to be good mothers.

There’s an indescribable amount of space dedicated to discussing the love and pride of motherhood. The world around us loves and even exalts the unwavering sacrifices that moms make for our families and other loved ones.

We’re told that motherhood is beauty, smiles, and roses. Yet no one mentions the thorns. On the rare occasion that we openly discuss how motherhood can feel like drowning, we’re ignored or chastised.

I’ve even heard people suggest if you’re frustrated in motherhood, maybe you don’t deserve to be a mother at all.

None of this is true.

It took a long time for me to understand that the freedom to address the obstacles I face as a mother is even more important than the freedom to discuss the fun of it. By neglecting to display the ways that motherhood can cause an equal number of sorrows and joys, we hurt everyone — including children, parents, and folks who may become parents.

Raising children is beyond overwhelming. It is terrifying to know that you’re responsible for making a person capable of self-sufficiency. But it’s so much more than teaching them to provide for themselves. It’s holding a child’s hand through their most impressionable stages and doing all you can to make someone who doesn’t contribute to all the bad things we hate about the world.

It’s a huge responsibility, and frankly, it’s scary as hell! And many of us have hardly made it to a place that we understand ourselves, let alone understand a child.

That’s a lot of weight to put on our shoulders. It requires acknowledging that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes. I’ve finally started coming to terms with the fact that my journey for self-understanding does not make me any less of a good mother.

On the contrary, the more I learn about myself, the more it becomes painstakingly clear that I owe it to everyone to ensure I am doing all I can to learn from these rough patches.
It is okay for me to wake up and take myself to lunch. There’s nothing wrong with me planning a 48-hour trip with the girls so I can reset.

At the same time, we have to remember, self care isn’t always about spending money on massages and bubble baths. If you’re struggling and can’t afford a formal getaway, try to schedule a 15-minute walk. Start journaling if you aren’t feeling heard — that way you know YOU hear you if no one else does. Start volunteering, head to a place with hardly any people and scream at the top of your lungs. There’s always something accessible we can use to de-stress.

It can also be as small as knowing when to tell your family to handle things on their own. Mothers are humans, not pack mules; we can’t carry everyone’s weight on our shoulders. So why do we keep trying?

We’re people with aspirations and goals. Some of what pushes us over the edge is repeatedly telling ourselves our passions don’t matter.

Still, these days, one of the most overlooked aspects of motherhood is knowing when to ask for help. Not just “I need support in a co-parent like fashion.” A deeper “I’m reaching out to a professional because I feel like I’ve been a detriment to myself or my children” type of help.

It’s okay to not be okay. Stepping away for that help isn’t failure. It’s proactive.

In order to do that, you have to spend time with yourself and look for the warning signs. A level of stress and anxiety around motherhood is normal. It’s okay to feel depressed from time to time. However, if you find yourself waking up in physical or emotional pain day after day without knowing why, you need to seek help. Similarly, if you feel like you want to hurt yourself or someone in your family, you need to seek help.

But so many of us miss the warning flags on the way to tragedy because we’re drowning in motherhood. Not to mention, the idealized image of the sacrificial mother convinces us we shouldn’t need time to stop, evaluate, and reset.

It doesn’t work. We can’t keep waiting until we’ve reached our breaking points to seek assistance. As mothers, we must learn to practice preventative self-care.

We have to accept that it’s okay to feel like you’re on the verge of a breakdown. But it’s not a feeling to be ignored. It’s a sign to be acknowledged in the same way that a check engine light on our vehicle means it requires maintenance.

If you feel like you’re always struggling, do some soul searching to put your finger on why. You owe it to yourself to stay in good shape.

Motherhood shouldn’t be all sacrifice and struggle. It’s okay to hate it sometimes. It doesn’t mean you love your children any less.

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I Talk To My Kids About My Suicidal Thoughts

I turned the dial to NPR and took a left, cutting through side streets to avoid rush-hour traffic. My kids and I listened to the news on the way home–an evening ritual. They sat behind me in bulky car seats with five-point-harnesses, one of them with legs dangling and the other kicking the seat. In the rear view mirror, I could see my oldest’s muddy face still flush from running up and down a grassy field, his hair a disheveled nest of twiggy strands from deep dives at soccer practice. It was three years ago, when he was just six years old. We hit a pothole with a bump just as the anchor told us that a beloved comedian had lost his life to suicide.

“What’s that?”

I paused before finding a gentle definition to share, and after, he sighed. “Why would anyone do that?”

These conversations are tricky. Some parents feel unsure if the young people in their lives are ready for these complex and tragic topics. Some need to shield small children from their own realities as survivors who lost caregivers, siblings, or other loved ones to suicide. Many struggle to find a way to cope for themselves, so how could they ever locate the head space and resources to discuss this with kids? Is it even appropriate?

I guess, for me, it just feels honest. Suicidal ideation is a big part of my life–a repetitive intrusion that abruptly interrupts my day, the way notes for a to-do list interject themselves into daydreams. The way some daydreams interject themselves into mundane tasks.

It winks, shamelessly flirting, and leaves a tight, tender throb in my chest when it teases. Like a secret lover sneaking brushes against my body undetected in front of my kids, my spouse, my friends. It’s a persistent street harasser I can’t shoo away. He follows me on my commute to work, whispering about my flaws and insecurities and failings.

As a trauma survivor, I know that the healing process includes more than weekly counseling or getting back to work, school, and “regular” life. For me, it’s meant learning to accept that these feelings will creep in like parasites when I least expect it ,  taking me as a host before I realize they’re present.

Nowadays, we listen to the news at dinner. Forks clang against a ceramic dish as I toss bright tomatoes and vibrant greens: a salad waiting in the middle of the our wooden table. The kids giggle as they bite crescent shapes into fresh, crunchy cucumbers for veggie-themed brows and mustaches. We turn down the radio and settle into our meal, but I still hear it: “The third suicide…” My eyes grow distant and our salad seems pale, limp in my periphery. I tell Alexa in my own robotic staccato to play music so we don’t have to listen to the report. I’m suddenly exhausted with a familiar, achy yearning–the first stage of my climbing anxiety. I want rest, the kind two tired eyelids beg for by pulling towards each other with a magnetic force.

My kids ask what it’s like to contemplate suicide, and I wait for wisdom. I can’t describe my graphic thoughts about my own undoing. The thoughts that seem to replace nutrients in the air with a poison–contaminants that feed me on a cellular level. I can’t tell them that it’s hard to feel the difference between the good and the bad since both mental illness and wellness are an odorless, colorless gas.

I tell them that some days Mommy’s mind travels to space, leaving to explore the darkness while my body stays home to fold laundry, help with homework, smile. I reassure them that I don’t want my life to end, that sometimes those thoughts just take over — that even though they aren’t logical, they’re real and it’s hard to escape their impact when they’re with me.

I explain that even though it doesn’t seem like it’s possible now, someday they might struggle with these feelings–and that doesn’t make either of them bad or weird or scary. Like diabetes or cancer runs through certain families, I know that mine has a history filled with this kind of thing–and that there’s no way to shield my kids from the hurts and traumas that might bring it on. I tell them that this is not something we can help ourselves or our friends through on our own–that we should get help when we recognize the need. We face the hard truth that we already love lots of people who live with this experience even though they haven’t shared it with us.

I tell them what we do to cope. How some dance and sing. How my dad told jokes. How I write and seek community. How we pursue healing.

At times we’re silent, and I struggle to fill the quiet with stammering murmurs, shaking my head with a sad, wrinkled brow. I bite my lip and poke at my dinner, taking slow breaths through my nose to calm my pounding chest. My little ones fidget with their utensils, and I lean over to pat their backs.

They feel safe asking me questions, but I don’t have answers and I don’t want to pretend I do. We talk about how confusing it is for everyone — even and especially for those who struggle to live with these thoughts.

This week, two young adults and a father made national headlines as victims of suicide after experiencing intense, violent trauma related to mass shootings — another serious concern my kids have heard on the radio. I wish the news would broadcast topics easier to discuss , but this is life right now. Our little ones spend tinyhood hiding under desks during school safety drills–planning for what-ifs and worst case scenarios because they happen. Maybe that’s what I’m doing: preparing them for what could happen.

I’m not a danger to myself right now–not in the clinical sense. I don’t have any plans to self-harm or access to weapons I might use against my body. But I recently had the realization that people who kill themselves lived like I live for days or years or decades before taking their own lives. In one moment, the compulsion became too strong and it happened.

Some of them were moms like me with kids like mine. I want my children to know what this is and not be afraid to ask me if I’m okay or to admit to me if they ever struggle–so we work through awkward questions and uncomfortable conversations about suicide. It’s not easy, but we talk about it.

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I’m Tired Of Fighting Bipolar 2 On My Own

She gazed out the window holding the world together, happiness just within reach.

A caped crusader without the valor. A martyr without the speckles of blood.

I worry I’ll forget what bravery smells like–what my real life is supposed to resemble.

As I swerve in and out of happiness and retrace the path to the beginning, I am not sure where I end and the better half of me begins.

Nervous thoughts steal energy and impede my cautious optimism. I’ve masqueraded in my own skin for so long, and I don’t always like what I’ve become. But I don’t know how to pretend to be anything different.

Anxiety has always been the comfort in the chaos — an imaginary friend with a cape and a sword, ready to both save me and destroy me.

Tension buried in my soul ready to lead the parade of crazy at any moment. Yet, anxiety is a comfortable place to lay my head and hang my hat. Fight or flight–helping me accomplish more than most but with the steepest of stakes.

But anxiety I can handle. It’s what comes next that still leaves me spinning.

One day I drove to run errands and pictured what it would be like to swerve off the road to make the pain stop. My hands clenched the steering wheel as my mind hopscotched the options. I was into year three of postpartum depression and hadn’t felt like myself in seemingly forever. I took pills. Tried every yoga move imaginable. I tore through $6,000 in beds thinking that if I just got sleep maybe I would feel better, but better never came.

Many nights I would hear my family playing without me downstairs and I was convinced they would be better of without me. Just give them time and they would forget about the woman who never was enough. I thought of pills, running away, dreamed of starting over.

Full on panic attacks would ensue and I would be convinced that the world was coming loose by an already dangling thread. No matter how hard I tried at work, at home, with my friends, nothing ever seemed good enough for the expectations I’d built up in my own head. Random things would trigger me. Just the wrong song on the radio. Just enough sleepless nights.

I remember nights of screaming at my husband, Jon. How could he ever love me? I don’t trust myself. Someone should take me to the hospital — I may be actually losing my mind. But morning always came, and the demons calmed themselves enough for me to make it to work the next day. For me to throw frozen pancakes in the microwave for my boys. To brush my teeth and hastily put on clothes that could cover up the twenty pounds children, emotional eating, and antidepressants left me with.

After trying fifteen combinations of pills, my psychiatrist re-evaluated me and determined I had bipolar 2 — everything about manic depression without the psychosis. I’ll never forget the punch in the gut as I heard the words. How could I be as crazy as my grandmother? How could I be this broken? They offered Lithium and I refused. Why not just lock me up, too?

“You may gain weight, you may have horrible side effects,” he said. “But at least you will be alive.”

A Lithium-filled life isn’t a life worth living to me. I can’t become a shell of myself just to save myself. Quality of life has to count for something even if my current life seems just past its expiration date.

I forced myself to start exercising and tried eating better. Kept trying to see if this new diagnosis was something I could handle on my own. The weight I gained from even the Latuda and Effexor was enough to send me into an anxiety tail-spin everyday. How could I handle 20 more pounds?

Some days are okay. You would never be able to tell because I am pretty high-functioning. But that’s the problem — no one takes it seriously because they cannot see the internal battle I fight every day of my life. Then again, I’m afraid they will take it too seriously if I let them in on the secret that I am bipolar.

The road to bipolar 2 has been a long one, but this is the first time I’ve let the world know. I’m tired of feeling ashamed for something I cannot help. Anxiety and depression feel comfortable because so many people have stepped forward and shared their stories. Bipolar seems like such a dirty word, but I’m tired of not saying it. It’s part of who I am as a person, as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend. If you have the massive highs and the devastating lows, I hope you can find the help you need and your own (if even dull) sword and dented armor.

 

We are Scary Mommies, millions of unique women, united by motherhood. We are scary, and we are proud. But Scary Mommies are more than “just” mothers; we are partners (and ex-partners,) daughters, sisters, friends… and we need a space to talk about things other than the kids. So check out our Scary Mommy It’s Personal Facebook page. And if your kids are out of diapers and daycare, our Scary Mommy Tweens & Teens Facebook page is here to help parents survive the tween and teen years (aka, the scariest of them all.)

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Mental Health Issues In Teens Have Significantly Increased Over Past Decade

Back in the ’90s, when I was a teen, sullen seemed to be in. Dark hair matched dark moods, and there were times when I honestly thought we invented the depressed, disinterested teenager vibe.

Was I actually depressed as a teenager? Well… yes, actually. I was. That’s when my life-long struggle with depression started to take shape, but I don’t believe all of us were clinically depressed. Many of us were just putting on that black eyeliner as part of an act.

Back in the ’90s, we hung out in the same room to talk about how much we hated our parents. We went to Blockbuster together. When our pager beeped, we had to actually call someone instead of sending them a text. We even rode in the same car. The majority of our interactions were face to face — and it turns out, teens were a lot happier then.

Not that this will shock anyone raising children in 2019, but teens of the 2010’s predominantly interact online, and it’s having a huge impact on their mental health. According to a recent study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, “More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide.”

The lead author of this study, Jean Twenge, PhD, and professor of psychology at San Diego State University said that, “These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

My oldest is a preteen, and like any parent falling into this age group, these statistics freaked me out a bit. But what I think made me even more anxious was when I read the scope of this study, and realized how much mental illness had increased. They looked at survey responses of more than 200,000 adolescents age 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2017, and almost 400,000 adults age 18 and over from 2008 to 2017. I don’t want to state the obvious, but that’s a pretty large sampling.

What they found was extremely alarming. The rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52 percent in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 and 63 percent in young adults age 18 to 25 from 2009 to 2017. There was also a 71 percent increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days from 2008 to 2017. The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47 percent from 2008 to 2017.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and I come from a long line of family members with mental illness, so I watch my kids pretty closely for signs of depression because I know how important it is to manage your mental illness. But what really hit me was that the authors of this study didn’t feel that this increase had anything to do with genetics or socioeconomic status, but rather lifestyle.

“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” said Twenge. She believes this trend may be partially due to increased use of electronic communication and digital media, which may have changed social interaction enough to affect mood disorders in teens. This was hands down the major contributor to this increase in depression.

But there was another related factor, and that was lack of sleep. Naturally, these two are intertwined. What this study found is that teens are spending more time awake late at night, interacting online, and it is contributing to their depression.

Now I’m with you, as a father of three, the last thing I want to do is monitor my children’s online activity in the middle of the night. But I must say, just a few weeks ago, I found my preteen in our living room playing games and live chatting with his friend at 4:30 a.m. on a school day. Who knows how many times he’d pulled that move and I’d slept through it. He now has to check in all his devices before going to bed.

As much as this should all give parents pause, the positive side is that you can change a lifestyle a lot easier than you can change genetics. And I know, I know, getting teenager to do literally anything they don’t want to can be a serious challenge, and asking them to put down their phone for even a moment feels a lot like severing a limb. But it is possible, and after reading this study, it might just be very necessary. And this is exactly what the authors of this study concluded.

“Young people can’t change their genetics or the economic situation… but they can choose how they spend their leisure time,” the study’s author’s wrote. “First and most important is to get enough sleep. Make sure your device use doesn’t interfere with sleep…don’t keep phones or tablets in the bedroom at night, and put devices down within an hour of bedtime. Overall, make sure digital media use doesn’t interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise and sleep.”

As someone who had learned to live with depression and anxiety, I can say confidently that lifestyle changes can help (along with medication and therapy, in some cases). And I get it, asking parents to add one more thing to their ever-growing list of things that will benefit their children can feel overwhelming. But the sad fact is, managing screen time and online interactions is what it looks like raising teenagers in 2019, and as this study pointed out, the stakes for online management have never been higher.

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How Dangerous Memes Like This Contribute To Mental Illness Stigma

We like to claim we understand mental illness. We like to say that we know mental illness is a disease, not a moral failure. That we know it’s not the fault of the person who’s dealing with it, but instead the result of brain chemistry gone awry. We’re enlightened people. We know that people with mental illness are not to blame for their conditions, no more than a patient with lupus, or a woman with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Something just doesn’t work right. It’s our job to give them space and grace to cope with their illness, to help them, to understand what they’re going through. To respond to their symptoms with understanding. Because mental illness is a disease.

Because we know mental illness is a disease, we treat it. There are many treatment options out there. For example, as someone who copes with ADHD, bipolar 2, and generalized anxiety disorder, I take a handful of meds every day. Mydayis treats my ADHD. It lets me live a productive life free from spaciness, disorganization, and chaos. Lamictal keeps my mood on an even keel and prevents deep depressive episodes that can plunge me into suicidal thoughts. Klonopin and Wellbutrin treat crippling anxiety that will leave me terrified of strangers, unable to leave the house, paralyzed by a fear that my husband will die at any second. I need these drugs to stay functional and sane. I need them to cope with life. I need them to parent.

Unfortunately, some people don’t believe any of this. And some of these people spread their harmful messages far and wide on the internet. 


The page “Empaths, Old Souls, and Introverts” decided to jump on the anti-mental health bandwagon when they posted a meme the other day blaming those will mental illness for their own problems. “There’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem,” claims their in-house created meme. Which infers that my meds are a “chemical solution” to something deeply wrong with — get this line of bullshit — not my brain, but my spirit. My soul. Apparently, my brain works fine, yo. It’s my soul that needs some serious work.

Who’s to blame for my mental illness, in other words? Me, myself, and I.

If I just did some serious soul-work, if I just tried a little harder, in other words, I could flush those meds down the drain (or turn them back into my pharmacy, which would be the more responsible route to take).

Let’s say this again, in case you didn’t get it: this page is blaming people with mental illness for their illness. It’s like saying, “Too bad, your fault you’re infertile. Maybe you should just try harder.” Or “You know how you have rheumatoid arthritis? Maybe if you did some work on your inner spirit, you could get rid of it.”

Fuck that noise.

The mental illness I deal with is a function of the way my brain works. According to My ADHD, “Current research indicates the frontal lobe, basal ganglia, caudate nucleus, cerebellum, as well as other areas of the brain, play a significant role in ADHD,” and “ADHD is a medical disorder, and it can be caused by a number of factors that affect how the brain develops and functions.” According to the Mayo Clinic, people with bipolar disorder appear to have physical changes in their brains. The Mayo Clinic also says that generalized anxiety disorder “likely arises from a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors, which may include differences in brain chemistry and function.” Basically, every single one of my mental illnesses is caused by physical differences in my brain function or brain chemistry. I am not to blame for any of them. I can’t fix them.

But I can take drugs that fix them.

These drugs are not a band-aid for some deep spiritual problem. Unfortunately, if I don’t take them, I tend to become suicidal, which is, on some level, a spiritual problem. So one could argue that these drugs actually protect me from spiritual problems. Like, you know, not plunging into existential despair.

These memes are dangerous and they need to end NOW. I know better than to believe them; they just make me angry. But they’re one of the reasons that mental illness remains so stigmatized in America today. According to ADDitude Magazine, 4.4% of adults have ADHD; only 20% of those seek treatment for it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says, “Approximately 2.3 million Americans are presently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the number affected by this disorder is even greater.” In fact, according to Mental Health Policy, the NIMH says that in any given year, a staggering 51% of people with “severe bipolar disorder received no treatment,” along with “40% of those with schizophrenia.”

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance says, “Despite its high treatment success rate, nearly two out of three people suffering with depression do not actively seek nor receive proper treatment. An estimated 50% of unsuccessful treatment for depression is due to medical non-compliance.”

Basically, people with major mental health issues are refusing to seek treatment.

Why?

Because they think it’s their fault that they’re suffering. They think that if they just tried a little bit harder, they would be able to cope. The National Alliance On Mental Illness says, “Approximately one in five (17%) respondents to the public survey believe that people with bipolar disorder can control their illness without medication if they really want to do so.” One study reported that 32.4% of people with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide, and between 4% and 19% will complete it. That’s a terrifying connection to make. People blame themselves for their own mental illnesses–with dire consequences.

That’s why memes like this are so dangerous.

That’s why we need to speak out against these messages whenever we can.

That’s why we need to assure those with mental illness, over and over, that their illness are not their fault, are not a “spiritual problem,” and can be helped with proper medical intervention. That they are not something to be ashamed of.

Because only when we remove bullshit like this from public discourse will we remove the stigma.

And only when we remove the stigma from mental illness will we see needless suffering end.

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Dissociation Is A Common Reaction To Trauma But It’s Freaking Terrifying

There have been a few times in my life that I have fallen into a state of intense dissociation, and it’s been fucking terrifying.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), symptoms of dissociation include “feeling as if one is outside one’s body, and loss of memory or amnesia.” Dissociative symptoms can often be found in people suffering from dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder.

Luckily, my dissociation never become a full-fledged disorder (at least not one I was diagnosed with), but I have spent weeks and months of my life where I have had overwhelming symptoms of dissociation and depersonalization that outright terrified me.

My experience of it is an overwhelming feeling that I am awake but dreaming, and that nothing around me feels real. The problem is, I feel stuck in the dream, like I can’t snap out of it and I will maybe never feel normal again. Then I start to feel like I’m “going crazy,” and the detached mood is mixed with a feeling of sheer terror.

It makes no sense, I know. But neither does anxiety and panic disorder, other mental health issues I have struggled with. Sometimes our bodies and minds do strange fucking things. It’s partly how we are wired, and partly the stress and traumas we have been faced with in life.

I can trace my times of intense dissociation and depersonalization to traumas – and psychologists have found that dissociation is strongly linked to traumas, particularly childhood traumas. It makes sense when you think about it: detaching from a painful or traumatic situation is a common defense mechanism. For some of us, it’s the only way to survive the damage.

The first time I fell into that dream-I-couldn’t-snap-out-of state, I was about 9 years old. A few years prior, my father had left my mother, and for a few years after that, my parents were trying to maybe work things out. He was in and out of our lives, and I had hope that things would get back to normal.

But then we got the sudden news that he had met someone else and was going to marry her. It happened quickly, in a matter of months. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the shock of that news swept me into a state of dissociation.

I remember walking around the schoolyard at recess, feeling as though everything and everyone I looked at wasn’t real. I looked down at my hands and arms. I remember being able to see my veins through my thin skin. And I just felt … like even I wasn’t real. This terrified me, and I was too scared to tell anyone. I didn’t even know how to describe what I felt.

The feeling passed, but I entered that state a few more times during my childhood, often in response to a traumatic event. I never told a soul about it. I felt like just talking about it would make it turn out to be true (which is bonkers, because actually talking about it has only helped to make it go away!).

Fast-forward almost 20 years. I was thirty years old, married, with a two-year-old son. My son passed out suddenly in the bathtub one afternoon, and although he ended up being fine, I didn’t know WTF had happened. I called 911, because I was convinced he had died. Two weeks later, in unrelated, but equally distressing news, I found out I was miscarrying a baby I didn’t even know I was pregnant with.

All of the loss and stress – coupled with a horrible conversation I’d had with my father a few months prior – threw me into a panic. And then, for the first time in a long time, I spiraled into a state of dissociation. It was the worst it had ever been, and was especially hard because I was a mom now and had to care for my son.

I went back to therapy then, and for the first time ever, I was able to describe the dissociation and detachment. I was surprised at my therapist’s reaction: while she didn’t discount how horrible the experience was, she didn’t make too big a deal about it.

I expected her to tell me that I had, in fact, gone off the deep end. But she told me that what I was feeling was just a response to stress and trauma, and that all I needed to do was talk. Oh, and also, that if I was aware that I might be “crazy,” then I wasn’t really “crazy” at all.

I still experience moments of dissociation. But as soon as I feel myself “going there,” I tell myself, “It’s okay, Wendy, you are just feeling hurt or scared.” Then I let myself really feel the sadness or pain or whatever it is I’m feeling, and I don’t spiral into a dissociative state as easily.

I have written a few times about dissociation and I often get messages from readers telling me that it is so reassuring to hear someone else’s story. Experiencing dissociation or depersonalization is a scary, isolating experience. It’s common for people to keep the experience inside and suffer in silence.

I’m here to tell you that you aren’t alone. If you are experiencing those symptoms, it’s probably because something really difficult happened to you, and you never got a chance to properly process it and feel the hurt of the experience. If it’s feasible, get yourself to a therapist or counselor (here is a guide for how to find free or low-cost counseling). It really helps just to talk to someone about what you are experiencing – it makes it less real.

Most of all, remember that dissociation is only a state of mind. It’s not an easy place to be in, and it can really hard to move out of, but it’s possible to feel well and whole again. I promise.

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Being A Natural Caretaker Is Both A Blessing And A Curse

Since I was a little girl, I have always taken on the role of caregiver. My parents broke up when I was young, and I immediately assumed a grown-up role, offering them advice and support – especially my mother, who was left by my father when she was six months pregnant with my little sister.

I cared for and tended to my mother when she was pregnant. At five years old, I would bring her tea and snacks, rub her feet and belly, and listen to her feelings. It was an intense time, and I rose to the role of support person, even when I was shattered inside from my father’s departure. My mother used to tell me that, in another life, I was the mother and she was the child.

When my sister was born, I thought of her as my own child. I helped my mother care for her. And when we were at my father’s house – and especially when he got remarried to a woman we did not always get along with – I was my sister’s guardian, advocate, and sometimes primary caretaker.

Even outside my family, I have always gravitated to the role. I’ve often assumed the role of caretaker to my friends. I’ve chosen careers and volunteer positions that are in the realm of intensive caring and nurturing. I wanted kids from an early age and threw myself headfirst into motherhood.

It’s a role I still gravitate to today – and I know there is beauty in stepping up to the role of nurturer, of being willing to put your own feelings and needs aside to serve others in your life. We natural caretakers feel the feelings of everyone around us. We recognize deeply when someone needs help – often before others do – and we feel a deep need to go in and fix things for them.

But therein lies the rub – and that’s where things can get dangerous. You see, there is dark side to being a natural caretaker. Natural caretakers want to jump in and cure everyone and everything, which is actually impossible. They want to take away everyone else’s problems, sometimes without recognizing that other people’s problems are primarily their own responsibility.

And most of this comes at their own peril.

Back in 2016, I had a bit of breakdown, and it had to do with my role as a caretaker. I had spent the previous 7 years volunteering as a breastfeeding counselor, which required untold hours of unpaid time answering mothers’ breastfeeding questions, online and by phone, holding meetings, etc. I cared deeply about each mother I helped; their challenges and pain often kept me up at night.

Meanwhile, I was a full-time mom to two kids, one of whom wasn’t in school yet. I care deeply about my kids, and they too (of course!) kept me up at night. Their problems were my problems. I think this is a normal feeling for mothers to experience, but for me, it was super-intense, because that’s just the way I am.

Oh, and did I mention I also was running a private practice lactation consultant business (and yes, my clients’ stories and struggles went right to my heart and soul), was freelance writing part-time, and was starting to have to deal with aging parents, and caring for them, too?

It wasn’t just the sheer number of obligations I had, but how each of them was wrapped up in a profound responsibility to give myself up to them – to care and care and care and care.

I began to feel something I hadn’t felt before, or at least something I hadn’t let myself feel before: ANGER. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was pissed the eff off at all the people who seemed to demand my endless love, care, and attention.

I did a little research and it turned out there was actually a condition to describe what I was feeling. It’s called “Caregiver’s Fatigue Syndrome” or “Caregiver’s Burnout” and it can strike anyone who is deep in caregiving – whether for work or in their personal life. And holy moly, I had all the symptoms: irritability, anger, emotional and physical exhaustion, withdrawal from family and friends, and depression.

Soon after my breakdown and subsequent lightbulb moment, I took a hard look at my life, the choices I’d made, and how I was operating. I cut way down on some of my caregiving activities. I stopped volunteering; I cut back on my lactation consultant practice; I worked on some major boundaries with my family members; and I even reevaluated how much hovering and worrying was appropriate for my kids, and thought of ways to step back.

I am in a much healthier place in life now. I still care – a whole hell of a lot. That’s just who I am. But I see that caring for everyone and everything all the damn time is not good for anyone, especially me.

The fact is, in many cases we “born caretakers” were sort of thrown into the position. Maybe there was no other real grown-up in our family and we were forced into the role. Maybe we were told forever and always that the only way to receive love is to please other people. Maybe we thought that by caring for others, we could fix the pain that they inflicted upon us.

I am not saying that every act of caring that natural caregivers enter into is tainted in some dark way. I know that I value all the caring I did for my whole life. But I also think it’s worth evaluating the reasons behind your need to constantly step in and save everyone. It might not look like you thought it did once you dive a little deeper in.

Most of all, if your caregiving tendencies are taking a toll on your mental health, now is the time to set up some boundaries, and do some reorganizing and reprioritizing. Caring should not happen as the expense of your wellbeing. You do not need to sacrifice yourself in order to help others. That is not helpful to you or the person you are hoping to save.

Remember this, too – and I know this is a hard one: Don’t feel guilty about the boundaries you might need to create to save your sanity. We natural caregivers are often driven by guilt. We’ve got plenty of it. But you need to understand that creating boundaries – pushing back sometimes in big ways with your nurturing – is not a bad thing.

The only way that you can continue to bring that incredible light and love to others – the light and love you’ve been blessed with always – is if you are health and happy. And sometimes that means learning the fine art of saying no, holding your ground, and putting your own needs first.

And that’s okay. It’s how you stay strong. It’s how you grow. And it’s how you continue to be that much-needed beacon of kindness and care that the world needs more of.

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When Anxiety Makes It Nearly Impossible To Sleep

Restful sleep is all that many of us want, and yet it’s so elusive. And the more it eludes us, the harder it is to feel good — not just well rested, but feeling like a complete person.

For those of us who have trouble sleeping because of anxiety, the lack of a good night’s sleep feels like being trapped on a merry-go-round. Because you will tell yourself that you need to shut up and go to sleep, which only compounds the stress you’re already under. Trying to turn off your brain enough to get a decent amount of sleep makes sleep feel impossible. Which then leads to you just feeling like crap — mentally and physically.

I don’t remember the last time I had a restful night’s sleep. For as long as I can remember, I have been plagued by waking several times in a night for no apparent reason. Since becoming a mother, I’ve gotten used to existing on a few hours of broken sleep, but it’s a lot harder now that I have to get up and be functional from the minute my eyes are open to the time I finally fall into another not particularly restful sleep. I will jokingly say that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since my son was born in 2013, but really, his birth just cemented that I may never have a decent night’s sleep again.

He started sleeping through the night when he was about three and a half. So I figured once he started sleeping through the night, I would be able to at least attempt to do the same.

What a big fucking joke that was.

Even though I’m not waking up every few hours like I did with him, I still don’t sleep for more than three hours before something wakes me up.

The most frequent culprit of my constant waking up is my own damn mind. All of my fears and anxiety comes to the surface when I finally lay down for the night. All I want to do is sleep and my brain decides it’s time to do a deep dive into the bad decision I made in 2011 that to my sleep deprived brain was the catalyst for every bad thing that has happened to me since. It’s like playing a greatest hits of all my fuck-ups on loop until I can finally tell my brain to STFU so I can go to sleep before the sun comes up.

And when I’m stressed? Forget it. I feel like I will never sleep again. My anxiety will turn into literal nightmares that will jolt me out of my sleep. Normally when I wake up in the middle of the night I can settle myself fairly easily, but an anxiety dream can keep me up for awhile. Mainly because I first have to stop my heart from racing and then stop my mind from racing. It’s practically impossible to keep my mind from going on an even deeper spiral into darkness.

I’d give just about anything to not be a victim of my anxiety and be able to turn off my mind to get a good night’s sleep. Because it doesn’t just affect my sleep — my whole life is thrown into a tailspin.

When I’m really tired, I’m the worst mom on the planet. I’m short tempered, easily irritated, just a straight up bitch. And my poor son doesn’t deserve my shitty attitude, but sometimes I literally cannot help it. Trust me, if I could stop being that person, I absolutely would. I have who I become when I’m exhausted. She isn’t the kind of person I’d want to be around.

Sleep deprivation manifests physically too. I already suffer from frequent lower back muscle pain, but when I’m extra tired, but pain intensifies too. Partially because I tend to throw myself into physical activity to forget about how tired I am. You can tell when I haven’t been sleeping well because my apartment is spotless. The cleaning helps me to focus on something other than how fucking exhausted I am. But then I push myself to the point where I can barely bend over or sit comfortably because my lower back is screaming in pain.

A recent study looked at the correlation between insufficient sleep and the way the body responds to pain. And unsurprisingly, the body is less able to handle physical pain when it’s tired. In one of the experiments, researchers found that even just a single night of sleep deprivation reduces a the pain threshold a person has by more than 15 percent. A separate experiment notes that even a small deviation from the normal amount of sleep you get day to day was a predictor in your overall pain level tolerance the next day.

Knowing that there is a correlation between the two is helpful because maybe now I will try and take it easy on my body when I’m really tired. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I will still be sleep deprived.

At this point, I don’t know if it’s possible to be able to turn my mind off enough to get a decent night’s sleep any time soon. Sure, it would be amazing, but I know it’s easier said than done. Maybe one day soon.

Because I miss sleep. A lot.

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