Never Alone Even When I Am Alone

I stared at the computer screen, blinking back tears as my eyes took in the images of my daughter proudly showing off the tooth she had lost that day. I wanted to reach my arms through the screen, hug my girl tight, and tell her how excited I was. But I couldn’t. Instead, I sat in the small computer lab housed in the wing of the mental hospital where I was an inpatient for the first time and felt waves of hopelessness and despair wash over me.

Depression had led me to this place — dark thoughts having run away with all reason and logic — and I knew I needed to be here to be safe. But that did not change the fact that I knew what I was missing at home. At night when I was alone in my bed in the psych ward, I would think about my girls and worry that I was ruining them for life by being gone and being ill. I worried that I would never be able to be the mom I thought I should be. How could I, when I was barely hanging on to life itself?

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Coping with the Coronavirus

I have been going to therapy on an almost-weekly basis since August 2018. During that time I have been able to assemble a host of coping skills to help me battle my depression and anxiety. Given that we now all find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, socially distancing ourselves and seeing the world turned upside down, I thought it might be helpful to share some things that keep me grounded when my feelings seem out of control.

  1. Keep your hands busy. The more anxious I am, the more fidgety I get, and it really helps me to have something to manipulate with my hands. I have this therapy dough in the “Spa” scent that I love to play with. It may seem silly to play with something that is very much like play dough, but trust me on this: having something in your hands can be a great distraction. And if you want to go a cheaper route, Silly Putty also works great for this.
  2. Try mindfulness activities. Mindfulness activities are meant to help keep you grounded in the present moment, and they are a great way to take your focus out of your chaotic thoughts and into the current reality. A few I like: try writing the alphabet with your non-dominant hand; pick a color and make a list of things that are that color; pick a color and find objects of that color in the room you are in; write a description of the room you are in, focusing on as many details as possible; play 5-4-3-2-1 (pick 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can touch).
  3. Go for a walk. Physical activity is a great weapon against depression and anxiety, and it’s something that we are still able to do while social distancing. Being outside not only feels good, but if your walk is strenuous enough, your body will release endorphins and give your mood a boost.
  4. Create positive experiences for yourself. Find little ways to inject pleasure into your days. Are there flowers for sale at the grocery store? Grab some while you’re making your grocery run and brighten up a room. Is there music that calms you? Spend 5 minutes and listen to it. Feeling stressed? Take a soothing bubble bath. Small, simple gestures like these can go a long way in making the day more pleasurable.
  5. Practice deep breathing. This is one of my favorite calming techniques, and it’s super easy. All you do is focus on your breath, taking in slow, deep breaths through your nose, holding for a few seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth. The slower your breaths, the calmer you feel.
  6. Journal. Keep a journal of your experience during this very unique, crazy time we are living. It will not only help you process all that you are thinking in feeling, but it will be an interesting document to revisit after this has all passed.
  7. Reach out to friends. Stay connected through calls, texts, emails, Marco Polos, etc. Any way that you can maintain relationships during this time of social isolation will help boost your mood and decrease anxiety. We are all in this together, and we can fight it best together.
  8. Memorize Scripture. Pick some of your favorite passages and work on setting them to memory. Hang them up around your house in places where you will see them frequently. God’s Word is the best antidote to anxiety and depression.
  9. Color. I really enjoy coloring, and it is a great way to focus on the present moment and relieve stress. Coloring isn’t just for kids! There are a lot of great coloring books for adults.
  10. Practice gratitude. Gratitude is essential. Without it, it is easy to become lost in all of the negative things happening. But there is always something to be grateful for, so spend some time each day making a list of simple blessings.

This is just a sampling of things you can try to lower stress and anxiety. Get creative and be intentional, and if you really want to dive deep, here’s a list of 99 coping skills you can try! I recognize that these things will not change our current reality, but it is my hope that by practicing these coping skills, you might feel better equipped to face these uncertain times.

What is your favorite coping skill?

Far from Home, Part 3: The Wounds I Carried

This is part 3 in a series describing my time spent at Timberline Knolls receiving treatment for depression. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.

As I mentioned in my last post, my days were filled with activity. Group therapy took up the largest chunk of the day, and some groups resonated with me more than others, but all of them had something that I could use if I looked hard enough. Here’s a list of some of the groups I attended on a weekly basis:

DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) Skills: DBT is the theoretical framework out of which everything at TK operates. Several groups were dedicated to various aspects of DBT. The goal behind DBT is to create a meaningful life, and DBT teaches people how to do this through a variety of practices.
Body Image
Self Image
Mood/Trauma
Art
Family Dynamics
Soul Making
Mood Regulation
Process of Addiction
Process Group
Reflective Journaling

One group I attended was called “Grief and Loss,” and after hearing part of my story, my therapist assured me it would be a good group for me. I didn’t know why she said that since I have not experienced the loss of a loved one. I felt like an intruder just being in the room, since I knew that several of the women present had experienced deep loss. We started the group by listening to this TED talk by a woman named Nora McInerny. In it she talks about losing her husband and that she doesn’t think you “move on” from grief but instead “move forward” with it. It’s a very moving, poignant talk that I highly recommend listening to. As I was listening to the talk, I found myself becoming emotional. Tears sprung to my eyes, and I was hit with the hard truth that had I made different choices, I would be putting my husband and family and friends through the very grief that Nora talked about. Depression and suicidal ideation is a thief and a liar, and it almost cost me everything. The reality of that thought struck me with an almost palpable force in that group therapy room. After the video, several women shared their stories of loss, including two who lost parents from suicide, and it was an incredibly intense but important session.

After that group, I met with my individual therapist. One advantage of attending TK was being able to take part in their Christian track of therapeutic programming. This basically entailed attending certain groups specifically geared towards believers and being provided with a therapist who is a Christian. I was assigned to a therapist named Cynthia. Cynthia and I hit it off pretty much immediately, which was fortunate since I met with her 3 times a week the whole time I was there. Initially, it was daunting once again having to start all over with someone and fill her in on all that had been going on, but she was an excellent listener and had good recall, and I was instantly put at ease when sharing with her.

That day after the grief and loss group I found myself essentially sobbing through the entire session. Not only did I realize the gravity of the situation in which I found myself, but I also saw with clear eyes how much I have lost over the years. The losses for me haven’t been people but instead have been related primarily to my health: being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis; being sick for 3 years before getting to remission; not getting to run my 2nd half marathon due to chronic hip pain; giving myself shots on a biweekly basis; being told I needed to be in remission for a year before getting pregnant; gaining weight on prednisone; having hip surgeries and being on crutches; enduring weeks of physical therapy; continuing to have pain; eventually gaining back all of the 90 pounds I once had worked so hard to lose; having an unplanned C-section and a child in the NICU, etc. I cried for the pain of all of the unmet expectations, dreams, hopes, and desires those losses represented. I cried for the pain of having endured all of those things. I cried for the pain of having hoped that I had “done my time” with suffering and wouldn’t have to suffer like I presently was. I cried, and my therapist listened kindly while I somehow managed to express all of this to her. I cried, and I felt heard and seen, not just by Cynthia, but by God. I knew He had been there with me through all of those trials, and He was with me in that therapy room while I opened a door of my heart that I had stubbornly kept locked.

For the first time in a long time I allowed myself to admit that all of those experiences had wounded me, and I allowed myself the space to grieve what might have been. For the first time in a long time I didn’t minimize my struggles by saying, “It could have been worse,” or “Other people have suffered more.” I just let myself grieve, and it was freeing in a way I can’t express. For too long I have not let myself feel sad about the sad things that have happened to me because I have compared my pain with that of others and felt like mine was lacking in significance. But what Cynthia helped me see is that pain is pain and pain is painful, no matter how it comes, no matter the degree it is felt or experienced. All of the times I had pushed my pain aside resulted in me absorbing the message that my pain was not important, that I was not important, and so instead of making the wounds smaller, this denial just made them deeper and larger. I was hurt and hurting, and it was acceptable to admit that. Not only was it acceptable to admit it, but it was necessary so that I could move forward. 

I wish I could say I have moved past all of the painful experiences I have had, but I’m still a work in progress. That’s what therapy is for–to continue to heal the wounds that I let fester unseen for too long. If there are things in your life that were painful but that you swept aside out of fear that they were too insignificant, I encourage you to bring those wounds into the light and let the healing begin.

 

Far from Home, Part 1: Why I Went to a Residential Treatment Facility for Depression

I have wanted to write about my time at Timberline Knolls, but I haven’t even known where to begin. Being away from home for 4 weeks to live with 30 other women with mental health problems is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and there wasn’t a day when I was there that I didn’t question what in the world I was doing. However, I know that going was worthwhile. I know that going probably saved my life. And I know that going changed me. There is much that happened, much that I want to tell, but also much that I will keep to myself. 

So here are bits and pieces of my experience at a residential facility, where I received intensive treatment for recurrent, treatment-resistant major depressive disorder

My decision to go to a residential facility actually began while I was still inpatient (for the second time) at a mental hospital in Memphis. I was there for nine days and was miserable the whole time. The only bright spot was my therapist, who met with me every day. Towards the end of my time there, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “There’s a corner you haven’t turned yet. There is more you need to address, and we can’t do it here. You need extended time to heal. You should really consider a residential program.” I was completely taken aback. I hadn’t seen this coming. No one had ever mentioned this before, nor did I even realize that there was such a thing as a residential program for depression where you could actually take extended time away from your life to deal with mental illness. Of course, before this year I had no reason to know such a thing existed, for it certainly wasn’t anything I had needed before, nor has anyone I know ever been to such a place.

My first instinct was to dismiss his suggestion, and I said as much. There was no way I could leave my family for any longer than I already had. There was no way I could ask my husband to bear the full weight of household responsibilities. But then the therapist spoke the obvious: “If you were dead, he’d be taking care of it all, all of the time. Don’t you think he’d rather do it for 30 days instead of the rest of his life?” Though I resisted for a couple of days, after praying and talking it over with Stephen, we made the decision for me to pursue residential treatment. I had tried so many other things to little avail; what if what I needed was something big and drastic? After many tears and a lot of phone calls, I was connected with someone from a program much farther away than I had imagined going: Chicago. Timberline Knolls (TK) supposedly had a good reputation, though, and since I knew I wouldn’t be getting a lot of visitors no matter where I ended up because visiting time is so limited at these kinds of places, I decided it made little difference whether I was two hours away or eight hours a way. A representative from TK did a very detailed, somewhat intrusive phone screening with me (asking me such questions as what medications I take, how often I have suicidal thoughts, what, if any plan I had, etc.) and then told me I was cleared to receive treatment there, and they could accept me as soon as I was able to get there. This all happened on a Friday, and we decided that my parents would drive me part of the way on Monday and finish up the trip on Tuesday, when I would be admitted. 

When I first arrived at TK, I was terrified. My mom and dad waited with me while I went through pre-admission screenings and answered questions I had already answered several times over. At one point I just laid my head on my mom’s shoulder and cried. I felt lost and scared. I couldn’t believe this was my reality. I had left my husband and my girls hundreds of miles away, all because life was too much for me to handle. I felt like a failure and a burden. I remember pleading with the Lord for this to make a difference, for the time not to be wasted, for me to have a renewed appreciation for life. 

After several hours, I was led to the place where I would spend the next four weeks: Willow Lodge. One of the other residents gave me a tour of the facility, which helped me feel a little more comfortable. The lodge is basically a huge house, with several bedrooms that housed anywhere from 2-4 residents. It had a small kitchen where we had our snacks (and where some residents who were not permitted off lodge ate all their meals), a common area called the milieu, and three group rooms where group therapy was held. There was also a medical area (essentially a closet) where nurses dispensed medications three times a day. I feel like I spent more time waiting in line for my medications than anything else!   

I was assigned to a room with two other women, and the following day a third woman was added, bringing my room to full capacity at four. I was really anxious about living with other people, but I was fortunate to have roommates who were easy to get along with and who did not cause drama. We each had a twin bed and a chest of drawers and a small open closet to hang up some clothes, and we had a display board where we could hang up pictures or other mementos. One of my friends had taken the time to make several printouts of various Scriptures and put them on pretty scrapbook paper, so I was able to rotate through these the whole time I was gone. It was a simple gesture that made living in an unfamiliar place a little more bearable, and I was so grateful for it. 

The first night I was there was a blur. I wrote in my journal, begging God to be near and asking Him to deliver me from darkness and restore to me the joy of my salvation. I didn’t know how He would do it, but I prayed that being at TK was setting me on the path to get there.

To be continued…