Category Archives: lessons learned

Too damaged to love?

It is difficult to look at someone who seemingly has it all on the outside and imagine they are damaged and broken on the inside. These are the people who expertly hide their realities; the ones who quietly suffer from life experiences of abandonment and disappointment from the most important relationships in their lives.

I find myself seeking these people out. I suppose it is because I find an odd beauty in something that seems so wrecked. Perhaps that is because I see a mirror image of myself in them.

I know that I am screwed up and that I am damaged and broken from past relationships. Someone shattered my heart to pieces. My spirit was destroyed. There was a fundamental shift in my soul. After that experience I never thought I could open my heart to another. I was perfectly content to walk this earth alone. So when I met someone I found myself sharing a deep connection with it completely caught me off guard.

Sometimes, the emotions are so intense I feel the internal struggle of wanting to build an impenetrable wall and surrendering myself to genuine love. It is difficult to ask myself to be open to the possibility of loving someone again. It is even more difficult to ask another individual who is equally (or perhaps more so) damaged and broken to let themselves love me.

When we reach that point in a relationship, there are a myriad of thoughts running through our minds. If I couldn’t make it with the last person I dated, then who can I make it with? Am I the right person for them? Am I the right person for anyone? I know I will never be able to give them what they want and I never want to be the cause of hurt or disappointment in their lives.

It is unfortunate that we let our past experiences dictate the value we believe we can bring to a relationship. We do not desire to hurt someone else or disappoint them but that is an impossible expectation. No matter how hard we try to be the perfect version of ourselves we are bound to disappoint. Will we fail in our attempts at love? It’s possible, sure. Even likely. But if you continue to doubt your ability to be in a successful relationship and to give it your best effort you will never succeed.

I believe people come in and out of our lives at the right times. Whether it is to teach us something about ourselves or for us to help them heal. We cannot predict how it will turn out in the end. I know for me, though, that the relationship I am building now is exactly what I need at this moment in time, even if it is just to show me that I am capable of loving again.

The lesson I have learned in all this is that we are all damaged. There is not a human on this earth who has not hurt or has not felt pain. We don’t hurt in the same way, of course. I look at myself and the people I have met in my life. Some of the traumas they have experienced in their lives are hard to fathom. It is understandable why they feel broken. Why they feel like their presence in someone else’s life can only bring sorrow and disappointment. The danger, though, is in letting it dictate our future and in letting it close ourselves off to the possibility of finding a forever with someone. The only thing it really does is give us the permission we need to stay single.

We are given one life to live and if we can experience a minute of genuine, pure love – the kind of love without any expectation of something in return – then it is worth any amount of pain we may feel in the future.

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Lessons learned from dealing with depression

The first time I experienced hypomania and depression was at the age of 14 when I experienced death for the first time. My grandfather had passed away and I was devastated. His death triggered something inside me and I started engaging in reckless and impulsive behavior. I stole my parent’s car on multiple occasions for joy rides around town. The fact I didn’t know how to drive and could barely touch the pedals didn’t phase me one bit. It looked easy enough; anyone could do it. Not surprisingly, I was caught and taken to kid jail. I escaped relatively unscathed as my punishment by the courts was to write a paper on the dangers of under age driving. And though you think spending time in court, being told I could go to juvenile detention, and realizing I could have very well killed someone would put me in my place, it didn’t. I didn’t feel guilty at all. There was a certain kind of thrill in breaking the rules. It made me feel alive. So I kept testing the waters.

In the weeks that followed I snuck out and met neighborhood friends (the ones deemed bad influences) to try cigarettes and beer. We broke into empty houses being built and practiced picking locks. And, if you remember when instant message chat rooms were popular, I became addicted. I couldn’t sleep so I would stay up all night and talk back and forth with people around the world, mostly guys because I liked the attention. Looking back and knowing what I know now it’s probable some of them were pedophiles. That gives me the heebie jeebies.

To most people it seems like all of this was just me acting out. What makes these series of events a hypomanic episode is that all of it was entirely out of character for me. I wasn’t reckless or impulsive. I never got in trouble. I was the perfect child, never talking back and always doing as I was told. I never complained. Following this series of events my Dad said, “You’re not so much the angel we thought you were, are you?”

Depression came crashing into my life not long afterwards. It was as if a storm cloud had descended over me. I began spending all my time in my room in the pitch dark, not wanting to come out. I cried a lot, usually for no reason at all. It was the first time I began having suicidal thoughts. It was when I first started self-harming – in the form of picking out my hair for the pricks of pain it caused and which I continue to do to this day (aka trichotillomania). It was the first time my mom sent me to a psychologist. And, just like I did in the years that followed, I pretended like my mom was making it all up. “Dude, I’m fine. Mom is over reacting. I am totally normal.” I succeeded. I tricked the psychologist into thinking everything was fine  and he sent me on my merry way. My mom’s instincts were right but with the stamp of approval from the psychologist what else could she do.

While grief after death is normal, the mood swings I went through were not. Episodes, whether hypomanic or depressive, come and go on their own. When you experience hypomania, you crash and depression follows. Eventually the cloud of depression lifts and you have a period of normality between the next cycle. Sometimes those quiet periods can last for years but eventually it rears its ugly head. Thus, it begins again.

Every one of us has been depressed at some point in our lives. After all, grief and sorrow are normal reactions to loss. The difference between that and someone with major depression though is that major depression enters your life with or without reason and it stays there, hovering and tormenting you, for long periods of time.

I had just one other hypomanic episode but many major depressive episodes over the next 13 years. What is different about bipolar I and bipolar II is the severity of your mania and the episode you spend most of your time in. With bipolar II you spend more time in a constant state of depression than you do in the highs. Through those depressive episodes I’ve learned many lessons, which I am only now able to articulate given the medication I take to stabilize my mood. This list isn’t by any means exhaustive but which stick out to me the most.


Everyone’s experience is different
When I first started writing and publishing personal essays about what having bipolar II felt like and what it was like to be in a psychiatric ward, I didn’t imagine anyone would ever question the truthfulness of those stories or write negative comments about my experience. People commented on those articles with things like, “I call bullshit,” and “There are many flaws in this story,” and “She is making it up. That would never happen.” I make it a rule not to read any comments on my articles but inevitably someone I know reads them and asks, “Did you see what they wrote!? Those fuckers.” My curiosity peaks and I end up reading them.

Reading those kinds of comments do hurt and it makes me angry that someone would judge my experience or others’ experiences when they themselves have probably never been in my shoes. To say such a personal story is untrue is dismissive and wrong. Hospitals and psychiatric wards don’t look the same across the nation. Yet the beliefs we hold about how hospitals are run and how people are treated creates an image that we are all the same when in reality we are not. Even in the support group I attend with women who have exactly what I have, none of our stories perfectly align. Yet I believe every word of their story. When people share such intimate details of a painful time in their lives, that takes courage. We should be applauding those who speak out to bring awareness and attention to the issue, not condemn them for showing their insecurities. To do so is unkind and shows no compassion for the human condition.


It’s just as hard to articulate how depression affects me as it is for those around me to understand it
I have found major depression to be incredibly difficult to describe. In an effort to understand my diagnosis my family has asked me a lot of questions. I know early on my Dad struggled with why I couldn’t just snap out of it or perk up. He had always said you have one day to be sad and depressed. On day two you better get out of bed and get going because life doesn’t stop. Now that we have open communication about what I feel and he’s read endless books about depression to understand, I’m not sure he will ever truly get it. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t been diagnosed with what I have will truly get it. When I talk to someone who wants to know about my story and they tell me they know what it’s like to feel depressed, it tends to irritate me. Though everyone experiences a case of the blues, it is far removed from what major depression feels like. But, just as it is difficult for me to describe, it’s probably equally difficult for others to fully grasp. I really shouldn’t get upset when people say that because at the most basic level they’re just trying to show me I’m not alone. They’re trying to offer up compassion and love. That is all I can really expect and I give them major kudos for trying.

There is no magical pill to fix pain
Though medication is incredibly helpful in stabilizing your mood, it doesn’t make the pain or despair you felt miraculously go away. A lot of times you feel ashamed when you come out of the episode. You ask yourself how you could have possibly thought the things you thought or did the things you did (self-harm, attempted suicides, negative self-talk). Long term healing takes a considerable amount of work and it takes time as well. You don’t take a pill and everything becomes hunky dory. People often say that time heals all wounds but I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. Time just  makes enduring pain and separating it from the events that happened in our lives easier. You never believe you’ll survive the pain, but you do survive it. Your life does go on and you continue living it to the best of your ability – day by day.


To make it out, you have to try.
The support and assistance I received from my family and friends after my breakdown was endless. It still is. It made me realize, if even just for them, I needed to embark on a path to recovery. Despite how much it helps to have them lending a hand and having my therapist, psychiatrist, and support group to talk to, I was never going to make progress until I started wanting to get better for myself. No one could walk my path to recovery except me. Though recovery doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes you think you won’t make it, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things do get better. You get better.

May is mental health awareness month. Do you have a story to share? Feel free to comment below!

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Filed under bipolar II, depression, lessons learned, life lessons, mental health, mental illness, recovery

Good riddance, 26!

I often put puzzles out on the filing cabinet that sits outside my office at work. I also have a white board hanging there, both of which I use as a means of engagement with my coworkers. Puzzles are fun for breaks and what I put on the white board varies by the day. Anything from “What are you grateful for today?” to “Goals for the week” to “Let’s play hangman!” It’s a fun way for me to foster a positive work environment and if you’ve ever worked in state government, you know we could use a little light-heartedness at the office.

I’ve had a running countdown in the corner of the white board since January, keeping my coworkers guessing for months what it could possibly mean. This week they finally figured it out. What was the countdown for? My 27th birthday, of course!

April 30 is a day I’ve been looking forward to pretty much since the day I turned 26. FINALLY, I get to kick my 26th year to the curb. Sianara, sucker! Good riddance! Adios! I most certainly will NOT miss you!

I started out 27 by spilling coffee all over my shirt but coworkers were quick to the rescue with tide-to-go pens and shout wipes (I should really start carrying those) so it turned around quite quickly. Everyone has made my birthday feel special – from sending flowers and cards to taking me out for lunch to sending me loving and thoughtful messages. But the best birthday present of all?! The birth of my nephew, Sawyer Dean. It is so cool to share a birthday with him!

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Even though 26 was a trying year and I’m happy I never have to live it again, I learned some not-so-bad things too.

What I Learned About Life
Everyone, everywhere basically wants the same things: to love and be loved in return; to be joyful and happy; to feel like we belong; to have a sense of purpose that is greater than ourselves; to feel validated; to have a sense of security; to have enough money to enjoy things beyond our basic needs.

It doesn’t matter where I am in the world or who I talk to, it seems like this is always what my conversations circle back around to. Early on in my twenties and up until this past year I was fairly ignorant about that. I thought that no one else could possibly understand what I felt or what I was going through or the things I desired. I was wrong. And at some level, in the back of my mind, I already knew this. But now, I know for sure.

What I Learned About Love
I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about love in my 26th year. I couldn’t possibly list them all here but what sticks out to me the most is this: at 26 I realized people do things to each other all the time that are awful, disappointing, and devastating. The way I was treated and the things that happened to me at the hands of someone else were flat-out cruel and deeply traumatizing. I don’t know why what happened to me did. But it did. It happened. And even though it makes no sense to me and I don’t have the answers to all the “whys” I can at least acknowledge that despite its horror, it transformed me (and for the better).

Now, at 27, I realize people also do things to each other all the time that are beautiful, uplifting, and genuine.

What I Learned About Myself
Put simply: I am brave, courageous, strong, and willing to both challenge and question myself. I am worthy of good things happening to me.

What I Learned About Work
In December 2014 I accepted my dream job. Six months later I quit.

I am unwavering in the values and beliefs I hold about creating a positive work culture – it’s probably the number one thing I look for in an organization. When a leader does not share those same values and instead abuses their position of authority, it lights a fire so deep inside me. I didn’t know this about myself until I actually experienced it.

I was fortunate enough to work for someone who became like family in the 4 years prior to accepting this particular position. With affection, we called her Mama Bear because she was fierce and firm in protecting us. If you find yourself in a situation where your supervisor does not do this and instead treats you like less than a human being, please stand up for yourself. Their authority does not give them the right to abuse you or your coworkers. No job is worth creating unhappiness in your life.

What I Learned About Family and Friends
I’m quite honestly horrible at keeping in touch regularly with my friends and family. We may only talk every couple of months but if any of us are suffering or hurting there is no doubt we will come out of the woodwork in waves to lift each other up.

I spent a long time presenting one face to the world, which had little resemblance to who I was at home alone. In fact, I was a skilled magician creating an illusion where people only saw what I wanted them to see. When that mask came off I shouldn’t have been surprised to see how many people loved and cared about me. But I was. They are the most important in my life. I didn’t fully realize how much until I hit rock bottom. I have mad love for you guys!

What I Learned About Water Parks
Best way to celebrate your birthday. Ever.

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How to be more vulnerable in relationships

Warning: this post is really long.

Whew! It’s been a few weeks since writing in here but I’ve been knee-deep in finishing the last school paper I will ever write. Because guess what? I’m graduating with my Masters degree in THREE WEEKS (can I get a whoop whoop?!?). Obviously, words cannot describe how excited I am because it has been  such a struggle working full-time, attending school part-time, and dealing with the tumultuous and traumatizing events over the last year (well, really the past three years).

Having spent weeks in economics theory and how it can be applied to environmental science policy I definitely needed a reprieve because if I had to write one more thing about particulate matter emissions I was going to explode. So I took a break from all that and started working on something far more interesting to me. And that’s where the rest of this post comes in!

As some of you may know, a few months ago I was approached by Ambiance Matchmaking (based out of Chicago) to be a contributing writer on their blog on all things dating/relationships. I was pleasantly surprised because I hardly feel like an expert on the subject. I mean, I am the girl who is queen of first date fuck-ups. The worst being that I set up two first dates in one day (don’t do that). I got drunk on the first one and by the second one I was puking. You wouldn’t think I’d be asked out on a second date, but I was. So somehow my winning personality must have beat out the most embarrassing moment of my life. Or maybe they just pitied me. But I digress.

Last month my editor asked me to write an article on how to be vulnerable since many of her clients have mentioned they struggle with vulnerability in their relationships. It took me a month to write this because every time I sat down to do it my mind was blank. I’ve certainly taken a lot of opportunities to be vulnerable in the last couple of months but I’m definitely no Brene Brown. I struggle with being vulnerable so who am I to offer advice on the subject? Well, it turns out I actually did have something to say. After nearly a month it’s finally finished and will be posted to Ambiance Matchmaking’s dating blog (check it out!) sometime this week. Here’s a peek! 

In the exciting but sometimes disastrous world of dating I often ask myself why it’s so hard for me to be vulnerable in a relationship. I imagine most of you have asked yourself this same question too.

Sharing our vulnerabilities isn’t always easy to do, especially at the point when you and your partner decide to take casual dating to the next level. This stems largely out of fear. Fear that if we share the most authentic versions of ourselves – those things we keep hidden like our insecurities or the guilt, denial, and shame we may hold about what we’ve done to someone or what they did to us – then we will be rejected, judged, labeled, even misunderstood.

Out of this fear we tend to portray only the perfect parts of ourselves – the parts that make us fun, lively, and enjoyable to be around. But to truly be vulnerable means to reveal those parts of ourselves we keep hidden. Why don’t we do that?

Well, I imagine all of us can think back to a time in our past relationships when we bared our soul to someone we thought would protect our vulnerabilities and they didn’t. When we love with reckless abandon and fall into those kinds of people quickly and relentlessly they mess with those vulnerabilities. They find ways to abuse them and sometimes they abuse them in the most cruel of ways. We realize that rabid dogs can take human form.

In order to protect our hearts from future hurt we build walls so high that they are impenetrable. We wear a suit of armor as if our lives depended on it. We suppress the scary, beautiful, tender side of our love because the idea of letting someone else in – even for the right sort of person – seems impossible.

But despite how scary it is to open ourselves up to someone we still yearn for connection and intimacy. Intuitively, I think we all know that true emotional intimacy requires vulnerability and that to be vulnerable requires strength and courage and authenticity. It requires us to be brave. It requires us to stop suppressing our deepest vulnerabilities because without letting your guard down it’s very likely your relationship will fizzle out.

In reality sharing our deepest vulnerabilities is easier said than done. After all, our first instincts when we feel shame, hurt, indignation, or disappointment towards ourselves or our partner is to mask those feelings, likely because we fear that expressing any sort of negative emotion makes us weak.

We may even fear how our partners will react. Maybe they’ll think I’m needy. Maybe they won’t want to date me anymore. And if they don’t want to date me because of these vulnerabilities then who will?

In all honesty (and for the sake of being vulnerable with my audience) I will tell you these things may very well happen.

Being vulnerable in a relationship will not always mean your significant other will share the same sentiments. If you open your heart to them and they view it as a weakness or they belittle your feelings or they refuse to show you their heart in return, you are with the wrong person.

In fact, run. Because despite our fantasies of being the rescuer – the one that finally changes them – they will not change. Even knowing this we may very well find ourselves staying, which probably stems from our fears. In return we become trapped in emotional turmoil. We become the source of destructive habits. Our happiness wanes and we unnecessarily suffer.

The truth is that the only people we can truly change is ourselves. We can choose to be someone who expresses their love. We can choose not to close ourselves off. We can choose to love ourselves despite our faults. We can choose to walk away from someone who abuses our vulnerabilities.

In that same regard, be kind and walk away if your partner shares their heart with you and exposes their deepest vulnerabilities yet you deny them the same sort of consideration. Do not exploit their vulnerabilities or make them feel small or judge them for sharing who they truly are. Because if you do, then you are not the right person for them.

Despite the rationality of this advice, I will admit that I am no expert in actually being vulnerable. In fact, I am more likely to sabotage a relationship than I am to be the one that puts myself out there. Certainly this stems from three years of emotional abuse from someone I loved – someone who I desperately wanted to love me back. It also stems from my fear of rejection and the stigma I hold about having a mental illness (although I hate admitting that because I am also an advocate for mental health). Yet in the last year I have been determined to practice being vulnerable despite how damaged I feel. And I’ve found endless opportunities to do so.

The obvious question then is if you see an opportunity to be vulnerable, how do you do it? Although I admitted to not being an expert, I will share what I’ve learned and what has worked for me since taking those opportunities. I hope these tips will help you too.

 

Love all of you
I am very open to sharing my personal journey of dealing with bipolar disorder to strangers, friends, and family, although I sometimes find myself attempting to hide that part of my life to someone I like or want to date. Inevitably, though, it is a part of who I am and until I was diagnosed, educated myself about bipolar disorder, and started attending support groups, I didn’t understand why I acted the way I did. I couldn’t help but be angry and irritable a lot of the time. I spent more time depressed and crying than I did being happy. There were moments when I was reckless and did things that were destructive to my life.

It was difficult to accept my illness at first and I drowned myself in denial, guilt, and shame, but when I resolved to sharing my story it helped me realize I was not alone – that many people had similar experiences and what I felt wasn’t abnormal.

After publishing my stories, many people reached out to me sharing their own. They talked about how sharing mine inspired them to be open about their own struggles. They realized they too could be a vehicle for change, fighting the stigma associated with having a mental illness.

Despite how absolutely terrifying it was to be brutally honest about my breakdown and the time I spent in a psychiatric ward, I am stronger because of it. Seeing these strangers and my family and friends love me unconditionally and offer up compassion allowed me to begin creating a space where I accepted that part of me. I am actually grateful to have gone through such tumultuous and traumatizing events leading up to my diagnosis because those experiences finally revealed my true self. And I love my true self.

By creating space for self-love in my life it meant there was less space for fear. When we stand in that space of love we reach self-acceptance. This is where the true power of vulnerability lies because when we accept ourselves – faults and all – we pave a path to finding true happiness.

 

Be willing to try, even if you fail
Those suits of armor we wear are hard to take off. While there is no magical pill for the hurt and pain we – or others – may feel or have felt, we inevitably survive it. Our lives do go on. By practicing vulnerability, we open ourselves up to finding the right sort of person (even if you come across rabid dogs along the way).

Although we may ultimately fail in our attempt at being vulnerable we can recognize where we were successful and where we made mistakes. We can carry those lessons with us into future relationships and ultimately become better versions of ourselves. Really, the only important thing is that you try because that in and of itself is the very definition of being vulnerable. Maybe you didn’t shred your suit of armor to pieces but I bet that just trying resulted in a helmet or glove coming off. Baby steps, my friends.

 

Vulnerability isn’t just about you
When we suffer we turn to those we care about seeking comfort and understanding. We expect them to be there for us. But ask yourself this: are you willing to be with someone who is suffering? Are you willing to be compassionate and kind and understanding towards them despite how uncomfortable it may make you feel? When someone exposes their vulnerabilities to you, you can practice being vulnerable just by sharing their emotional space. You can listen to them, feel their emotions without judgement, and offer up compassion whether you can relate to the situation or not. By doing all that you help them create their own space for love and self-acceptance. It is humbling and inspiring to witness that kind of transformation.

 

Say what you really feel
In my last relationship I learned quickly not to share any of my feelings because what came afterwards was blame, yelling, and the threat of “well maybe we shouldn’t be together.” I became afraid of speaking my mind because I was afraid I would say the wrong thing. I valued how he felt and what his needs were so much that I stopped considering my own.

I imagine many of us have, at some point in our lives, fallen into this trap and that we’ve let it impact how we communicate in the relationships that followed. When hiding what you really feel becomes a habit it can be difficult to break. But being vulnerable means being truthful. It means honoring what you feel, what the other person feels, and being brave enough to address those circumstances together. If you’re scared, say so. If you’re hurt or angry because you felt they were inconsiderate, say so. Don’t hide your emotions. You have every right to feel what you are feeling.

I myself have struggled with doing this and I’ve ruined some relationships along the way, which I deeply regret. But I’ve made significant strides and now I’m so much more open about how I feel that people probably want me to stop sharing. Don’t stop sharing.

Vulnerability has so much to offer and although it opens us up to rejection and pain and hurt it will be worth it (maybe not right away, but eventually) because without vulnerability we cannot distinguish the wrong person from the right person, just like we would never know good until we’ve known bad.

I don’t believe there is any right way to be vulnerable and what works for me may not work for you. But I do have faith you will succeed in however you approach your journey and I wish you all the joy and happiness that comes with taking such a giant leap of faith because you definitely deserve it.

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Filed under advice, Ambiance Matchmaking, authenticity, bipolar II, compassion, fear, lessons learned, love, relationships, self-love, vulnerability