There’s A Fear That Comes With Loving Someone Who Struggles With Depression

Depression is common. Very common. According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people live with this condition, including swimmer Michael Phelps. In a recent interview with TODAY, the Olympic-gold medalist opened up about his struggles with depression and how his illness affects his family. “I’ve had some scary ups and downs,” Phelps told TODAY. “Sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball in a corner. I need to be alone or I feel like I should be alone [and while] Nicole loves me and wants to help, she wants me to get better, she’s also struggling herself… I know it’s hard for her.”

This isn’t the first time Phelps has shared his story. In 2018, he told a hushed audience at a mental health conference at the Kennedy Forum he had contemplated suicide. And while Phelps’ interview was captivating, especially to me — someone who lives with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and PTSD —  it was a follow-up interview with Phelps’ wife which caught my attention. Because Phelps’ wife, Nicole, shared what it’s really like to live with and love someone with depression.

“After Vanessa [Bryant] lost Kobe, all I could do was look at Michael and be like, ‘Can we please help you? Because if I lose you, I don’t know what I’m gonna do,’” Nicole, 35, told TODAY. “Michael is the most amazing father and partner I could have ever asked for.” But Nicole worries. She also admits it’s hard.

“It’s difficult because I want to hold space, not only for my children, but for my husband, too,” she said. “When Michael’s having a day, I want to be there for him as much as I possibly can. I want to take care of everyone.” But that is a tough task. “I used to think, ‘Oh, I can fix him. I can be his therapist. I can be what he needs,’” she revealed. “But what I’ve learned is that you can’t take ownership for how they’re feeling, no matter how badly you want to.”

Of course, Nicole is not alone. Millions of people know, love, and/or support someone with depression, including Kristen, whose partner lives with this condition. “The hardest part for me is the frustration of not being able to say ‘the perfect thing’ to snap them out of a depressive episode,” Kristen says. “I know they’re hurting and I know their brain is lying to them, but I can’t ‘fix’ things, and that’s difficult. It’s hard.” 

A mother of three, whose name has been withheld at her request, shared a similar sentiment. “The hardest part of my daughter’s depression [for me] is the helplessness. Watching her suffer and knowing that, other than supporting her, all I can do is ride the wave with her, is torture.”

My own husband has expressed both frustration and fear. He has told me on numerous occasions that he wants to help me but doesn’t know how. But that’s not all. All three individuals we spoke with shared a similar fear. “The thing I’m most afraid of is death by suicide,” Kristen said.

“I worry I’m going to lose you,” my husband admits.

The good news is that, in most cases, depression can be managed and treated. According to the Mayo Clinic, medications and psychotherapy are effective for most individuals living with depression. Alternative therapies, like sleep and dietary changes and exercise,  may also help alleviate symptoms. For some, other procedures, called brain stimulation therapies, are useful, and familial support is huge. While my husband cannot “save” me from my illness (or me) his support — and the support of my friends — means everything. 

It means the world, and others agree.

“I tell my daughter repeatedly that I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. We won’t stop fighting this until we get you out of this. And she hears me and tells me that helps,” the mother of three says. “But the thing I haven’t told her is that she is a gift and a joy in my life, even when it’s hard and scary. I think she feels like a burden when things are bad but she’s never a burden, and I don’t know how to fully express to her how much she matters and how much every part of her, including the dark parts, are so incredible and how grateful I am for her.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP, text 741-741 to speak to immediately with a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line, and/or find a therapist, psychiatrist, and/or support group in your area.

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My Chaotic Childhood Has Made It Impossible For Me To Deal With Stability As An Adult

When it comes to talking about my childhood, I feel like there are a lot of missing pieces. I have friends who look back on their past with fond memories of third birthday party cakes, princess bed sheets, Barbie doll narratives at bath time. They can remember the dress their mother wore to their high school graduation, the way their father cried when they went on their first date — intricate moments of their youth that bleed colors like a spotlight feature film.

For me, it’s different. Everything is … patchy. I remember parts of it, the big, loud, blaring red parts of it. But, for the most part, my childhood is blank. Black spaces in my subconscious that I can’t quite piece together. Like a puzzle to which you have lost half the pieces.

What I am able to remember, the things I can recall, are pieces of chaos.

I grew up in a divorced home where my parents tried their best to make things work for my sisters and me. But, as the tell-tale story goes with most divorced parents, it’s never that easy. Growing up, I never quite wrapped my head around always being the kid with the broken home. I moved around a lot. My parents fought a lot. Money was tight, things were unstable, and it impacted everyone in my family in different ways.

I was the youngest of three, and with the large age gap between my sisters and me, I was tossed around like a rag doll between my parents. Seen more as a “trophy” than a child, being pulled in mom’s directions for the holidays, but dad’s direction for the weekends. I never felt like I was “seen.” Instead, I was just collateral for a messy divorce that someone wanted to win.

I don’t resent my mother, nor my late father, for the way that things went down. But there were so many times I wished that someone would have stopped and seen the ways in which every word, every fight, and every explosion would later impact me. I think, as a parent, it’s hard to balance the “now” with the “later.” For many parents, it’s hard to look at how every choice we make now can impact our kids later on, down the road.

Most parents think of it in terms of financial security, the “are we saving enough money so that our dear ______ can go to college? Buy a home? Be secure?” Never the, “Are the words I’m choosing to use around dear ______ going to hurt her down the road? Are my actions going to cause her insufferable damage years to come?”

During my childhood, I moved six different times, living in six different houses (sometimes even with family friends). My parents fought constantly about finances. My siblings both had struggles with physical and mental health disorders. I lost my paternal grandmother young. My father had a stroke, recovered, and then suffered a bacterial infection that left him in the ICU for two years. He recovered, and later passed. I was a regular at our local hospital, for at least one person in my family. I knew the food court menu down to a T, could tell you exactly where the nurses hid the best blankets and pillow cases. I even got free parking after a while.

Now, as an adult, my life is far from what it was during my childhood.

I’m financially stable. I have a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a post-master’s license. I have two budding and growing careers. I have two adorable dogs and a loving and supportive boyfriend. I have a roof over my head, I can cook a bomb meal every night, and I have a small circle of friends who are funny, inspirational, and awesome women.

But I have absolutely no idea how to handle, nor deal, with my life. I’m completely and utterly uncomfortable in the face of stability.

I don’t know how to sit still and enjoy any moments. When things are going great, I look for something to go wrong or I wait for the “other shoe to drop.” I’m convinced that nothing good in life comes without a catch, or a “But wait, there’s more” kind of moment.

I self-sabotage moments in my life that should be exponentially glorious because I have absolutely no understanding of calm. I dig through mountains of joy to find the one needle in the haystack that screams chaos. It’s like chaos is a drug and I’m constantly seeking it out. I don’t know how to just be content.

I look at everyone around me, all of those who I’ve grown up with, smiling and laughing their way into marriage and parenthood, and while I am excited for all of those next steps, I’m absolutely terrified I’ll ruin it searching for chaos in the darkness.

Psychologists write about this kind of narrative all of the time. Trust me, I’ve Google searched it all at 3:00 a.m. in bed, hiding from my boyfriend, who I pick fights with to feed the frenzy inside me. They say that as a child, when we grow up around chaos and instability, our body is constantly in “fight or flight” mode. The anxiety within us becomes so normalized that we think that it’s only natural to be this way. Our “homeostasis” becomes anxiety, whereas for many, that’s a center of discomfort.

Growing up in chaos means that situations that are filled with chaos and bring on and induce the “fight or flight” mode are normal to me. I’ve become so desensitized to it that it feels almost like going back to the “old neighborhood.” Being anxious, feeling chaos and uncertainty, that’s my childhood home.

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A Letter To All the Girls Who Don’t Think They’re ‘Thin Enough’

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What My Screen Time Usage Says About My Mental Health

Up 27 percent. Down 12 percent. Over three hours. Under two. These are just a few of the daily statistics my iPhone gives me about output, capacity, and productivity. About usage. And while it seems silly to track these numbers — after all, they are just that: numbers — I do. Constantly and diligently. I check my screen time usage religiously. Why? Because excessive screen time use is (usually) the first sign my mental health is on the decline. It is a signal my mania or depression has returned.

Let me explain.

You see, I live with bipolar disorder and have lived with this condition for some time. In fact, I was first diagnosed more than five years ago. And while I experience a plethora of symptoms when I am manic, when I’m depressed, I’m forlorn and despondent. I sleep too much and eat too little; I also struggle to shower, to execute the most basic tasks — and my phone usage also changes.

During depressive episodes, my phone becomes a conduit to zone out or veg out. I scroll endlessly through Facebook and Instagram. Through social media. During manic episodes, my phone enables me. I use it for work, jotting down article excerpts and ideas. I send dozens of emails an hour. There are also texts and phone calls. I communicate rapidly and quickly. Mania is marked by excessive energy, activity, feelings of grandiosity, and racing thoughts. And both phases cause my screen time usage to skyrocket.

I can easily waste four or five hours a day.

But that’s not all: When I am mentally unwell, I use my phone to reach out to others. To feel connected to others. When I am mentally unwell, I use my phone as a distraction, from my mind and myself. I also use it to listen to music and watch TV, two things which help turn my brain off when I am anxious, manic, or depressed. 

Of course, there have been numerous studies about the relation (or correlation) between screen time usage and mental health. In fact, a 2018 study found that cell phone and/or tablet use is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression in teens. It also affects their ability to focus and make friends. Excessive screen time use is associated with lower psychological well-being. But few researchers have analyzed the inverse. Few researchers have analyzed how our mental state impacts our cell and/or tablet use. 

The good news is science is catching on — or, should I say, up. According to an article in Time, entitled “Your Phone Knows If You’re Depressed,” a 2015 study found that screen time use can reveal declines in one’s mental state. 

“Depressed people… spent an average of 68 minutes using their phones each day, while people without depression only spent about 17 minutes on their phones,” the article reads.

And while “the software didn’t track what people did on their phones — just whether or not they were using it, the authors [of the study] have some ideas about why they saw phone activity rise with depression. ‘One of the things we see when people are depressed is that people tend to start avoiding tasks or things they have to do, particularly when they’re uncomfortable,’ [David] Mohr explains. ‘Using the phone, going in and using an app, is kind of a distraction.’” And that is the case with me.

My phone becomes a respite. An outlet. A diversion from the pain — and my life.

The good news is that when I see these numbers increasing, I can recalibrate. I exercise more and (try) to sleep less. I journal in an effort to get a handle on my thoughts. To better understand my feelings. I reach out to friends and tell them I am not doing well, calling on them for assistance and support. I say the words “I am not okay.” I ask for help. When things are particularly bad, I call my therapist or text her. I schedule additional appointments, when necessary. We talk, candidly and openly, about my struggles, and if I need to, I work with my psychiatrist to adjust my meds. I take an antipsychotic and antidepressant and sometimes my dosage needs to be tweaked.

Is this strategy fool-proof or fail-proof? No. Mindfulness isn’t a cure for mental illness, and knowing I am struggling doesn’t always stop me from slipping into a manic or depressive state. But it does help shorten the duration of said episodes. It helps me focus and feel less crazy and less alone, and it helps me help myself.

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Every Night Before I Sleep, I Rehash Stupid Moments Of Regret

I have this thing I do where, every night before I fall asleep, I rehash as many embarrassing or shameful events from my past as my brain can fit in. I do not do this deliberately. It just happens, no matter how much meditative breathing or backwards counting from a thousand I do to try to distract myself. I simply must re-experience the embarrassments of my youth before slipping fitfully into sleep. These memories range from small-scale “oopsies” to dear-God-let-the-earth-swallow-me-now calamities. A few highlights:

One year when I was visiting my ex-husband’s family in Peru, I offered to help in the kitchen and was asked to make the rice. Of course, simple; I can handle rice. It’s the easiest thing on the menu. But I forgot to add oil, so it came out all weird and sticky and weird-tasting, and it was stuck to the sides of the rice cooker too, and everyone saw that the dumb American did not even know how to cook rice. I cook rice all the time! I know how to cook rice! I swear!

In middle school I got in trouble for shoving a boy on the same day I’d crimped my hair to try to be cool. Something about sitting in the principal’s office awaiting punishment while simultaneously trying to be cool with my dumb crimped hair continues to make me cringe to this day.

During college, I had the incredible fortune to attend Aspen Music Festival in Colorado via a generous and prestigious scholarship. As a scholarship recipient, I was assumed to be a capable violist and was thus invited to play with the famous outdoor summer quintet for a few hours, a gig whose tips paid extremely well. I played once with them and managed to hang in. They invited me back a second time, and I completely and utterly choked. It was like I forgot how to read music. Why? Why did I choke? Why didn’t I just read the music?

While attending a financial conference during a brief tenure as a financial planner in my late twenties, I was asked to describe a type of investment known as a private placement. A group of men stood around me, staring down expectantly, rooting for this young woman to know what she was talking about, and all I could do was sputter some nonsense about how these investments “weren’t like the stock market.” I’d described a private placement a hundred times to my clients. Why couldn’t I just say what I knew? I felt like I’d let every woman on the planet down by not showing my competence in that extremely male-dominated field.

A few years ago, I was invited to do an interview with Huffpost Live about my kid and his ADHD. The other guest’s big personality so overwhelmed me that I sat in silence and contributed basically nothing about a topic I could ordinarily talk about for hours. Huffpost never called me back. I imagine the conversation they had about me afterward: “Yeah, she was a boring guest, and also very stupid. Delete her from our list.” Ughhh.

These are ones that have popped up in the last few nights. I have a hundred other examples that haunt me, moments when I embarrassed myself in some stupid way or froze in gape-mouthed, mute despair. Other people attest that they too have plenty of moments of similar embarrassment. Why do moments like these haunt us?

Melissa Dahl calls these moments “cringe attacks” — an apt descriptor if I’ve ever heard one. She wrote a whole book on the topic, called “Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness,” in which she explores the reasons we dwell on embarrassing moments and how we can reframe these moments as opportunities for growth.

For an article for The Cut, Dahl interviewed James McGaugh, a neurobiologist who studies memory. McGaugh explained that embarrassing moments stick in our brains better than mundane ones because of the heightened emotions we experience during the event. In that moment of “Dear God, help,” our brains release adrenaline, and then noradrenaline, and then our amygdala wakes up and tells our brain, “Something important happened. Make a strong memory.”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Psychologists call this fixation with past embarrassments “rumination.” Folks who have anxiety tend to worry most about the future — what may happen. Ruminating has to do with the past — wishing you could go back and “redo” a moment in time. This behavior isn’t any better for our mental health than the anxious worrying about a future that has yet to arrive. In fact, studies have shown that rumination is associated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

So, as much as I can almost poke fun at myself as I lament my nightly “cringe attacks,” and as much as others may commiserate with me when I bring it up, the truth is, this kind of rumination should be a signal that it’s time to better prioritize my mental health. These memories make me physically cringe as I’m trying to wind down from the day and fall asleep. Combined with some of the other symptoms I’ve experienced — memory problems, hair loss, general lethargy — these are not just awkward moments hilariously relived. They’re a sign I need to take better care of myself. As in, I need to schedule an appointment with my doctor.

Advice for how to stop ruminating abounds on the internet — experts recommend learning to recognize when you’re ruminating, to know your triggers, to learn to let go, call a friend or distract yourself in some other way. And all of that can be useful. But if you’re like me, regularly entertaining paralyzing memories of ancient embarrassments that you objectively know no one else is thinking about but you, a bigger check-in with yourself — and maybe your doctor — may be in order.

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Everyone Congratulated Me On Losing Weight … But I Had An Eating Disorder

Around Halloween, I weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 220 lbs. I wore a 2x or so. No one had told me that Lithium, a drug that controlled my bipolar disorder, had weight gain as a side effect. I had become borderline diabetic; no matter what I ate, my skin broke out like a teenager’s. My doctor switched me to another drug. I began losing weight immediately. This wasn’t weight loss I worked for; it fell off me. For someone who had tried diet (didn’t work), exercise (nope), and orthorexia (an obsession with healthy food, and no, that didn’t work either), it was intoxicating.

I was on a lot of other drugs, too. Some of those drugs suppressed my appetite. I began to realize that if I just… didn’t eat, my weight loss became more dramatic. At first, when my kids had lunch, I had a drink instead. Then when my kids had breakfast, I stuck to coffee. Soon I was often weaseling my way out of dinner, too. I could go 24 hours without food. Then I could go 48. Sometimes I could go 72. Carefully, I ate enough to keep from passing out. I knew my own blood sugar limits.

No One Asked Questions

My weight loss was rapid and dramatic, at a rate of more than 13 1/2 lbs a month. This doesn’t sound like much, until you think of it like this: from October 31st to June 1st, I halved myself. I went from 220 lbs to 110 lbs. I could not only wear pre-baby clothes, three kids, a decade, and gestational diabetes later. I could wear clothes from college again. I weighed roughly what I did as a senior in high school, and would have fit in my Catholic school skirt, but my baby belly wasn’t going anywhere.

My feet shrunk back to pre-baby sizes.

Sometime around March, when I began to hit a hundred and fifty, a hundred and sixty pounds, the comments began. “You look great!” friends would say. “You’ve really lost a lot of weight!” I’d smile through my teeth. If only you knew what it took to get here, I’d think. Even then I knew my eating patterns were severely disordered. I didn’t care that they were disordered, but I recognized it.

Guys would stumble. “I don’t know how to say this,” one said, smiling. “But you look, uh, really good.” I blinked and smiled like a Stepford Wife.

No One Made Connections

I tried to dye my hair. So brittle from lack of vitamins, it fell out. I was left with bald spots, so big I eventually started wearing wigs (thank God I live in the South where, if it’s on your head, it’s your own goddamn hair). Some of my mother’s friends visited, and they congratulated me effusively on my massive weight loss. Once, while we were driving, one tilted her head. “I wonder if your hair all fell out because you lost all that weight so quickly,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said blandly.

Hair loss is a common side effect of anorexia.

But other than my wig (which baffled them), they thought I looked fantastic, and told me so — constantly. Oh, you’re so skinny. Oh, you look so great. When I went out with them I had a salad. I didn’t eat anything else all day.

My husband called all this “intermittent fasting.” This, he claimed, was a thing. I was doing it for weight loss even if I didn’t know I was doing it, and it was all over the news, and as long as I ate dinner, whatever.

One Person Expressed Concern About My Weight Loss

Only my friend Nicole ever commented. She saw a picture of me taken around mid-May, still not at my lowest weight, and messaged me. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You’ve lost a lot of weight.” Nicole is that friend I love dearly and don’t see very often, but who has cleaned my kitchen.

“I’m fine,” I messaged back, and I cried, because someone had actually seen and done more than pat me on the head and told me what a good girl I was. Later that fall, my mother-in-law worried about me; when my bosses here at Scary Mommy saw a picture of me with a shaved head, my weight loss was so clear and dramatic that they asked if I needed time off. My mother-in-law danced around it and sort of confused me. My bosses made me cry with gratitude.

My psychiatrist mentioned my weight loss, but I had to tell her the truth about it. She didn’t float anything unhealthy as a possibility until I did. My male general practitioner was mid-congratulations when I cut him off.

My Weight Loss Was Called “Atypical Anorexia”

It’s a terrible name: anorexia is anorexia, no matter what your age or weight. Just as you can eat healthily as a size two — and now I do — you can starve yourself as a size 2x. Both pin-thin teens and overweight undereaters deserve the same treatment and the same sympathy. Unfortunately, myths about atypical anorexia abound. But unhealthy food intake — with or without weight loss — makes the diagnosis, not age or weight.

Molly Gwen was considered “morbidly obese” when she was diagnosed as having atypical anorexia. And yes, she had “real anorexia,” and the health consequences she suffered were just as dire. After all my psychiatric treatment, I really started on my recovery when my bosses assigned me an article about the health effects of anorexia. It terrified me into eating. From heart irregularities to a seriously shortened lifespan, I didn’t want them to happen to me.

Fatphobia Concealed My Weight Loss

America says fat is bad. Thin is good. We make this not only an aesthetic consideration, but a moral one. A fat person, our cultural narrative says, is a glutton: someone who overeats, who can’t control themselves. They’re too lazy to get off their couch and exercise. Their fat is their fault, no matter what their health (which may be fine). Thin people, however, earned their aesthetic appeal through self-control around food and motivation to exercise. Thin people deserve to be admired. 

So when my weight loss became runaway, I was a moral success in most people’s eyes. I was clearly showing self-control and self-motivation. Nevermind that meant not eating. People congratulated me on my appearance, and as a subtext, on my hard work. This is why you do not comment on other people’s bodies. “Are you okay?” is one thing. “You look great, you lost all that weight,” is fatphobic. And for me, it only masked a serious health risk.

Is someone losing weight? Don’t assume it’s intentional. If they say they’ve lost weight, rather than “Congratulations,” try, “I’m happy for you if you’re happy and you’ve done it in a healthy way.” And if you see a friend has dropped weight dramatically, your first question should be, like my friend Nicole’s: “Are you okay?”

“Are you okay?”: the only acceptable way to react to dramatic weight loss. Period. You do not have a right to comment on people’s bodies. You do not have a right to say they look better or worse. America’s fatphobia could have killed me. It almost certainly shortened my lifespan. Think about that: the way you view fat people could have deprived my children of a mother. 

I’m grateful to those who saw my weight loss and called it what it was. I love you for caring. I don’t blame the rest of you. You’ve been brainwashed. But I am asking: please deconstruct your fatphobia. And next time, with your next friend, please think.

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My Thyroid Condition Made Me Feel Like I Was Losing My Mind

I was staring down at a sink full of dark red hairs. There was also hair on the floor and some clogging my shower drain. It wasn’t clumps, but it was noticeable and it was alarming. And it was happening every single day. It had been for weeks. My hair, normally extremely thick and shiny, was dull, lifeless and getting thinner by the day. I swept it up off the floor, threw it in the trash, and went about my business. It must just be winter shedding, I thought, nothing serious.

When I looked in the mirror, though, I hardly recognized myself. I was so swollen. My eyes were sunken in and I was pale. Summer was long over, so maybe I’d just lost that glow. Maybe I was just retaining water. I do have high blood pressure. Maybe that was it. But that didn’t explain the fact that my clothes were getting tighter even though I really wasn’t eating much of anything.

Along with the thinning hair and puffy face, my skin was dry and itchy all the time. I developed eczema on my knuckles that cracked, and bled, and burned. I attributed it all to the cold, dry air. I was scratching to the point that my skin was flaking off. And there was nothing there. No bumps, no bites, no rash, just really itchy skin. Surely it was nothing. My husband wasn’t so convinced.

Soon I was tired all the time. We had two small boys, one just two and the other less than a year. I was working full time and found myself exhausted every night. I would make dinner, get the kids to bed, and go to sleep myself. I spent zero time with my husband. I just wanted my pillow. Once I started coming home from work and napping everyday before I could even make dinner. He became extremely concerned.

Maybe I was pregnant again? Nope, negative test. I had battled an eating disorder and depression when I was younger and my husband was convinced that’s what was happening to me. I told him that I was fine. I wasn’t upset, or sad, or particularly angry about anything, I just felt weird. No, I felt crazy.

He truly thought I was losing my mind. There were all of these symptoms. I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t explain them. I felt and looked like shit. I was becoming a terrible mother and an even worse wife. I couldn’t get it together, no matter how hard I tried. One morning, it just all came to a head. He insisted that I go see a therapist. Clearly I was suffering from some terrible form of depression. I knew that I wasn’t and I knew that these weird things that kept happening to me were real. But it wasn’t worth an argument and maybe he was right. I was out of answers.

I made an appointment with a psychiatrist for the next day. If I was going to do this, I wasn’t wasting any time. I filled out a million forms, had a brief talk about my medical history and how I was feeling. The doctor said that it certainly sounded like I could be suffering from depression, but he wanted to run some blood tests to rule out anything else. Fine, I thought. But what was he going to find? I was a pretty healthy, 31-year-old woman.

I hadn’t been gone from the Quest lab for an hour when my phone rang. It was the doctor calling to tell me that my TSH and T4 Free tests were abnormal, extremely abnormal. What the hell did that mean? It was my thyroid. I’ll be honest, I’d heard of a thyroid before, but I had absolutely no idea what it did. He recommended that I see an endocrinologist as soon as possible for treatment.

My brother is a juvenile diabetic and has seen the same endocrinologist for years, so I was able to get in quickly. When we sat down and talked about my results, the doctor said that my numbers were the highest that he had ever seen and he had no idea how I was functioning during the day at all. He’d expect me to be in bed all the time. What did all of this mean? And more importantly, what could I do to make it better?

I was officially diagnosed with Hypothyroidism. This condition presents itself when the thyroid gland stops creating essential stimulating hormones. The thyroid regulates all kinds of body processes and helps with metabolism, proper heart function, muscle and digestive function, and even brain and bone development. When it is not properly functioning, you feel like a complete zombie. It’s awful. But treatment is often simple and can begin right away.

My doctor started me on a very high dose of Synthroid, a synthetic thyroid hormone, that helps your body to function as if it were making its own hormones naturally. I began to feel relief in a matter of weeks. Slowly, my body got back to normal. I dropped weight, my face lost most of its puffiness, my hair and skin felt better. I looked like myself again. It took months, but my TSH and T4 Free levels were back to that of a person with a properly functioning thyroid. Over time, my medication dosage has decreased and I am now on a maintenance dose. I will take this type of medication for the rest of my life. But the beauty is, once your levels are normalized, you’re good. One pill a day for me. It’s simple.

I am so thankful to my husband for urging me to seek help and for a doctor with the foresight to overturn every stone before making a diagnosis. Eleven years later, I still take my little blue magic pill and I feel great everyday. I knew I wasn’t nuts. I knew my symptoms were real. But I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t listen to my body. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Never get so far inside of your own mind that you don’t take care of yourself.

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Anorexia Only Affects Teenage Girls, And Other Myths

My journey with disordered eating started when I was a freshman in high school. I had a pervasive feeling of not fitting in…of being a misfit. And such began a very long road of starvation, compulsive exercising, laxative abuse, daily weigh-ins, etc. My eating disorder became a source of comfort for me – I even once described it to a therapist as my security blanket. If life ever felt out of control, I could retreat to a place where I was in control. Or so I thought. The irony, though, is my eating disorder was always in control and I was often spiraling.

Fast forward to adulthood, marriage, and three healthy kids. Now in my mid-40s, I hadn’t had any disordered eating thoughts in many, many years. It was something that hadn’t even entered my mind. Until I saw a picture of myself from my younger sister’s wedding. And I hated it. I thought I looked terrible, especially compared to my thinner sisters. And that was enough for the switch to flip in my head and my eating disorder to come out of hibernation to tell me “well, you know what to do.”

I immediately started restricting calories. It always starts off slowly … instead of a whole yogurt for breakfast, just eat half. Then eat nothing. Eat a smoothie and some almonds for lunch. Then eliminate the almonds. I started weighing myself daily. I expected to see that number go down every day and was disappointed when it didn’t. I felt like a failure and I obviously needed to try harder. Which meant eating even less.

Out of nowhere I became consumed with counting calories … determining what I was “allowed” to eat. Avoiding carbs and sugar like they were as dangerous as heroin. Of course, the weight came off, and quickly. And people started noticing and complimenting me. Which, pardon the pun, feeds the beast of the eating disorder. “You think I look good now, wait until I lose another 10 pounds.”

It wasn’t just enough for me to restrict calories and compulsively exercise, I started abusing laxatives again too. Especially if I felt guilty about what I ate the night before. My husband and I attended a fundraiser for the board he sits on and it was the first time in a long time I felt out of control of what I had to eat – I didn’t have a choice but to eat what they were serving. I left the fundraiser that night feeling huge and fat and disgusting. Before I went to bed that night I took four laxatives to make sure my body was going to get rid of that food.

Of course, my husband asked what was going on, if was I okay. He asked if I was using laxatives, as he knew I had done so in the past. I lied to his face and told him no. I would actually hide the empty laxative packages in shoe boxes in my closet so he wouldn’t find them. One day my seven-year-old daughter was trying on my shoes and she found them. She asked what they were and I lied and told her they were vitamins. That was a pretty low moment for me as a mother.

Over the course of just a few months I had lost 40 pounds. None of my clothes fit. I was having chest pains and dizzy spells. I was having a hard time sitting through meetings at work and focusing on my job.

And people started getting concerned and talking. A couple of people asked my husband if I was okay. My older son told me I looked weird because I was so thin. My daughter asked me why I never ate the desserts we baked together. Those were very sobering moments for me.

I knew I needed help because, mentally, I wasn’t able to snap myself out of these habits. I met with a clinician at a non-profit that specializes in providing resources and support to people struggling with eating disorders. She told me that the youngest person she’s ever met with one was eight years old and the oldest was 81. And she also told me that, based on what I shared with her, I should take a leave of absence from work and admit myself to a partial hospitalization program.

To say that those words felt like a punch in the gut is a drastic understatement. I thought she would give me the names of some therapists and nutritionists and I’d be on my merry way. I felt so ashamed. Here I am, in my mid-40s with a successful career and raising three kids. How did I let things get to this point? Shouldn’t I have my shit together at this point in my life? I felt like a weak and damaged human being.

I cried the whole way home from my meeting with the clinician, but then I thought “fuck this.” I’m not going to let my eating disorder take me away from my kids. I was going to flip that switch back no matter what it took.

I found an amazing nutritionist who I truly credit with saving my life. It took a while for my mindset to shift and for my eating disorder voice to quiet down. It wasn’t a seamless process … there were slip-ups, there were tears, there were a lot of emotionally and physically uncomfortable moments. But through that journey I have learned to better trust my body, to enjoy food again, eat homemade cookies with my daughter, and hopefully set a better example for my children.

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I’m Not Myself When I’m Depressed

Trigger warning: suicide

 

February 27, 2019

I feel physically sick. My head aches. I have no appetite for the shrimp pasta my husband cooked for dinner tonight. I’ve been on the verge of tears all day. I picked up my six-year-old son from school and he asked if he could make a bomb out of LEGO. I calmly explained why he shouldn’t make anything that resembled a bomb or was called a bomb. He got mad at me and said, “You’re not me! I get to name it whatever I want!”

Depression manifests itself in different ways for different people. For me, it’s like being held down by something really heavy that I can’t get out from underneath, no matter how hard I try. Darkness settles around me and I can’t see beyond it. My face goes expressionless. I want to cry, but I can’t. You know how doctors take a tongue depressor and stick it in your mouth and hold down your tongue so they can see your throat? That’s what depression is like for me. I can’t move. I’m not me.

All I want to do is curl up in bed, go to sleep, and not get up again. I think about the different ways I could go. I think about sharp objects. I think about swerving my car off the road. I think about stepping into oncoming traffic. I think about pills. I’ve tried that before. Then I think about my sweet son and what he would do without his mama. And I stop myself.

With bipolar disorder, I never know when depression is going to come over me. The change of seasons often sets me off, but winter is just plain hard. I long for the warm summer months. The times with boundless energy and creativity. Working long hours for a purpose, a goal. Needing less sleep. Feeling all the range of emotions. I milk those times for all they are worth, knowing they won’t last. What goes up must come down.

Whether up or down, I survive on music.

I get Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings newsletters delivered to my inbox. Brain Pickings is filled with wonderful quotes, excerpts, and links from great thinkers, artists, musicians, and writers. In one particular newsletter, Popova relayed Dr. Oliver Sacks’ experience with surviving a harrowing event through the power of music.

I felt, with the first bars of the music, a hope and an intimation that life would return to my leg — that it would be stirred, and stir, with original movement, and recollect or recreate its forgotten motor melody. I felt, in those first heavenly bars of music, as if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music; that our living moving flesh, itself, was “solid” music — music made fleshy, substantial, corporeal. The sense of hopelessness, of interminable darkness, lifted… A sense of renewal grew upon me.

When depression hits me, I need to raise my voice like my son and say “You’re not me! I get to name it whatever I want!” and detonate the bomb of music within to destroy the darkness. To explode into light and fire and spark. To sing once more and bring to life the notes on the page until the chorus upholds me and the music lifts me out of the abyss. (Or, the “a-bisque” as my son pronounces it.)

I follow the writer Amber Sparks on Twitter. She tweeted, “You have five minutes until the world ends and you can put anything on speaker or headphones. What do you want to go out listening to? Think fast.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. The song, ever since I was a teenager, is “Tear in Your Hand” by Tori Amos. Tonight, I’m going to turn out the lights, shut my eyes, and listen to the music. It’s all I can do right now.

January 5, 2021

Winter again. We’re in a pandemic. It’s dark at 5 o’clock. Last night my son randomly asked my husband to make shrimp pasta for dinner, even though at this point he refuses to eat the shrimp. I didn’t say anything, because I’m not the one who does the cooking. How can I complain? How can I explain how the smell of lemon and butter and garlic and seafood makes me remember?

This Christmas, I gifted myself a weighted blanket, which holds me down in a different way than the tongue-depressor depression. I knew I needed the blanket when I started to pop out of bed on time and began cleaning my house like Monica Geller on speed. Also, as of Christmas, my son has accumulated enough little pieces to make the world’s largest LEGO bomb, which has indeed detonated all over my living room floor. Those little pieces just might be the end of me.

Yesterday, I talked to my psychiatrist over Zoom. She told me to ride out the wave of my current rise in energy. She told me that I know what to do. Embrace the waves. Enjoy my organized closets and the inspiration I’m feeling on overdrive. Because soon, one day, maybe even tonight, my spark will dim. I told her that I know I’ll be okay, because I live under that tongue depressor most of the time. I’ll be okay.

Tonight, though, I’m going to sit here alone in my makeshift, working-from-home office for as long as I can. I’m going to listen to a new song. My coworker recommended “What I Needed” by the band Dark Dark Dark. I’m going to feel all the feels. Soon my husband will send my son down to get me to come upstairs for dinner. I just overheard that it’s Taco Tuesday. I take a deep breath. I have to be me. It’s all I can do.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the SAMHSA National Helpline or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Verbal And Emotional Abuse Is Sometimes Hard To Recognize, But It Can Leave Scars

She didn’t push you. He didn’t hit you. There are no bruises. No cuts. No wounds. No scars. But the absence of a bloodied nose and broken bones doesn’t mean you are well. It doesn’t mean you are cared for or safe, and it doesn’t mean you haven’t been abused. Why? Because abuse can take many forms. From putdowns and neglect to character assassination and emotional manipulation, it can wear many faces, and while the signs of emotional and verbal abuse are harder to recognize, that doesn’t make said abuse any less detrimental or dangerous.

Emotional and verbal abuse can have both short- and long-term effects.

“Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health,” the Office on Women’s Health explains. Chronic pain is a frequent reaction to emotional and/or verbal abuse. Mental health-related issues, like depression or anxiety, are also common, as are self-esteem issues and feelings of guilt, fear, or shame. Some individuals who have been emotionally and verbally abused will turn their pain and anger inwards, injuring or harming themselves, and some will have suicidal thoughts.

When I was in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship, I made the first of several suicide attempts. 

But before I get into the effects of verbal and emotional abuse, I should talk about the signs – the all-too-common indicators you are in an unhealthy relationship. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are demeaning and demanding. They speak to you in an aggressive way, one which diminishes your voice and sense of self. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are controlling. They tell you what to do or wear. They want access to your computer, phone, and friends — if they still “allow” you to have friends. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are insulting. They call you names, such as “stupid” and “disgusting” and “worthless.” They constantly put you down. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are manipulative. They coddle you and apologize before hurting you, again and again, and those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive gaslight you.

They make you believe you are bonkers, or at the very least, overly sensitive. Your account of events is (almost) always wrong.

But that’s not all: Some verbal and emotional abusers yell and scream. They use their voice to instill fear and make you feel small. Some are neglectful and dismissive. They ignore you, dehumanize you, and shut you down, but most abusers are a combination of all of these things, as was the case with me. My abuse started slowly, subtly, with coercion and manipulation. 

“You don’t want to hurt me, do you? Stay with me. Don’t leave me. I need you.”

It morphed (somewhat quickly) into something deeper. Something darker. Something more cunning, hateful, and insidious.

“You’re nothing without me. You’re helpless and hopeless. Stay. You cannot make it on your own.” 

And when I was mentally beaten into submission, my abuser’s tone changed. There was yelling. Cursing. Screaming. I was put down on a constant (and chronic) basis. They “loved” me, overtly and covertly — keeping me from friends and family. I was manipulated in ways I didn’t understand, and both the short- and long-term effects were damning. My self-esteem has been shattered. I often feel I am worthless and broken beyond repair. I also struggle with mental illness; anxiety colors my days, and depression consumes most nights.

That said, I am not alone. Millions of individuals have experienced the effects of verbal and/or emotional abuse, individuals like Sara — who survived an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship — and Brandie, who survived an abusive marriage. 

“When I was in an abusive relationship, I questioned everything,” Sara said. “I hated myself and felt like I was an awful person. Like I was going nuts.”

Brandie tells Scary Mommy she “didn’t recognize” herself anymore. “I stopped showering, stopped brushing my hair, and didn’t care what I wore,” she says. “I also NEVER smiled in pictures… because I couldn’t. It hurt too much.” But the long term effects have been particularly damning — for myself, Sara, Brandie, and all of the individuals I spoke with.

“I have beyond low self esteem,” Brandie says. “I question every decision I make and put myself down.” One woman, whose name we’ve withheld at her request, echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s been over three years since my relationship ended, and a bit over two years since I last saw him in person… but I still feel unsafe and violated,” she said. “I still feel worthless.”

Why? Because while bruises fade and wounds heal, the pain of verbal and emotional abuse — scratch that, the pain of any form of abuse — remains. Events like these shift your mind. Your character. They alter who you are. According to the Office on Women’s Health, many survivors of abuse struggle with shame and guilt. They also feel helpless and hopeless. They struggle to feel safe and secure in their body (and their voice). 

The good news is, there is help, and hope. You do not have to be hurt or victimized any more. This isn’t your cross to bear. It is not your lot in life. And while walking away sounds easy — while overcoming, rather, undoing the effects of said abuse seems easy — I’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t. Leaving an abusive relationship is hard, and undoing the toxic tapes is damn near impossible. But you can do it. You can get out, and I promise you: There is light on the other side.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. If you aren’t in immediate danger and/or you have an opportunity to reach out, do. Confide in a trusted friend, family member, therapist, and/or volunteer with an abuse shelter or call a domestic violence hotline

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