Wednesday, February 19, 2014

About anxiety and depression - don't try to eat parfait when you have a stomach bug.

Today's post about surviving isolation will be published this afternoon. For now, however, I wanted to pause and take a look at another, uglier, part of this winter for me. The return of depression and anxiety. I think being vulnerable about mental illness is an important first step to helping society rid it of the trappings of failure that often come along with this sort of fight. So, I share, in hopes that by sharing others will share and understand that this sort of thing is both normal and treatable, so that they or those they love do not have to fight this illness alone.

I struggle with an anxiety disorder. Several of my friends battle depression. They're close cousins, and they're often misunderstood.

Let's look at them like illnesses.

No, better yet, let's look at a commonly understood illness. The stomach bug.

Have you ever had a bad stomach bug? One where you just don't want to eat anything? And you're weak because, well, you haven't eaten anything?  And if you try to eat anything, you can't keep it down?

Picture trying to explain this to some friends, friends much like you except that they have never encountered nausea, doesn't know what it is to feel the stomach flu.

They hear you're sick and weak, so they bring you some soup.

You pick at it, maybe eat three bites, then set it aside. It's good, but the nausea is stronger.

"But soup ALWAYS makes people feel better," they say, "you should eat it, you'll be stronger.

"When I had a cold last week, I went on a soup diet," another one says, "I felt better by the end of the week!"

Seeing that you won't touch the soup, they decide it's probably not tasty enough. So they bring you a parfait. Because "everybody likes parfait."  They ask you what else they can bring you to get you to eat. You can't think of anything.

The thought of parfait makes you feel sick. But they can't understand that (having never experienced nausea) so they leave it on the center of your table and say they're going to go get you some ice cream. Because, one says to you, "when I was feeling really bad because my boyfriend broke up with me, I ate a tub of ice cream and felt better. And that's the only time I've had that weird feeling behind my nose that you're talking about -- like the nausea thing -- so I think it'll make you feel better too."

No matter what they bring, you won't eat. No matter how much they tell you you need food, no matter how much you know you need food, you can't eat -- because it hurts. In fact, the pushing of food on you just makes you feel worse, more nauseated, more like a failure for failing to get your body one of its basic needs -- food.

Sometimes you can get over the stomach bug on your own, sometimes you need to be hospitalized and have IV fluids pumped into you. Depends how bad it is.  But one thing is certain: just eating food and pushing through won't fix it. It makes it worse.

Depression / anxiety are like that. You know you need to be happy, or calm, or put together, or what not. But happy thoughts don't get you there. It's not a matter of you being upset at something or depressed about something. It's not rational. It's not something you can work through if you just try hard enough. Yoga -- like a few tablespoons of broth -- might help, but it won't fix it.  Because when it comes down to it, you're fighting an illness.

I had every reason to be anxious for five months as my son was in the NICU, but during that time I was okay. Now, when I have a child more perfect than I could have imagined, when he's beaten all the odds and is doing so well, now when there is no cause for it -- now is when I cannot keep my pulse in check. Palpitations, higher blood pressure and yes, even anxiety attacks have crept back in. (Anxiety attacks present like heart attacks. I don't recommend them.) I have every confidence that God is carrying us through. I'm not really worried about the big things in life. That's right, I'm not worried. And yet that doesn't stop the anxiety. Because that's not what anxiety is.  Anxiety is not just being worried. Depression is not just feeling sad.

In this season of seasonal effective disorder, those of us who fight this sort of illness fight harder.

I've been blessed with a man who has never had a mental illness but somehow still understands my mental lapses. He lets me run into the bedroom and curl up into a ball. He gives me time away from the kids to run and swim to release endorphins. He takes time off work so I can seek a doctor's help when I cannot manage things alone. But -- and this is key -- he never makes me feel like what I am battling is anything more or less worse than a stomach bug. I have an illness, it needs treatment. I am not the illness I fight, and I cannot simply push through.

I am grateful today for those around me who help keep me sane. I am also grateful that winter is almost over.


  1. I find the winter so much harder too. A combination of winter isolation, awful weather, and my husband working 70+ hours per week (he's an accountant) makes for an extremely long 4 months. Most days I can't even manage to get my self dressed. Only a couple months to go...we can do it! :)

    1. One more month down! I hope it's warming up in your area of the world, Dusti!

  2. So glad you are willing to write about this, I think a big part of why people who have never experienced this don't understand is because there is still a stigma about mental illness.

  3. Thx for bravely sharing what's happening in your life. I have felt what I'd call sadness from you the last few times we've been in each other's company, but (not having the "stomach bug", as you describe it) I was uncertain what to say or do. I am so glad (as you are) that you have Steve to support you. Be assured you and your crew are in our prayers.


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