Invisible Disabilities and Having a Go at Cancer Lady

Dancing FeetHubby and I started ballroom dancing last February in preparation for our wedding and enjoyed it so much we just kept going, except for the three weeks I was in the psychiatric clinic. Returning after an absence brings about a perfect paradox in the life of someone who suffers from both depression and social anxiety. The depression side of you hopes that people have at least noticed that you haven’t been around for a few weeks, but the social anxiety side doesn’t want a fuss or any attention drawn to you whatsoever. Turns out, I needn’t have worried…

We arrived at the same time as another couple who, unbeknown to us, had also missed a few classes. The wife half of the couple had the unmistakable shaven head of someone undergoing chemotherapy. Hubby and I got the “oh shame, hope she’s ok, wonder what kind she has” out the way. I smiled my socially anxious smile and we entered the ballroom; where sympathy descended upon chemo lady.

Now I am taking nothing away from chemo lady. Cancer is a horrible beast. Hubby had leukaemia as a child and so I am all too familiar with his stories of how cruel the disease, as well as its treatment can be. However, I had just been in hospital too. For three weeks. For a life-threatening condition in the sense that I wanted to end my own. I have temporal lobe epilepsy that was giving me two seizures a day at the time. And a dreadful chemical imbalance that I didn’t ask for, any more than she had asked for her tumours.

Not all disabilities are visible

The difference here is obvious. My diseases are invisible. You can’t see epilepsy. Or anxiety, or depression. You may see its symptoms if you know what to look for, but for the most part, I am fighting an invisible battle, while chemo lady’s is very much out in the open. Now this isn’t about attention, this is about support. This is about knowing that people are in your corner. Our entire dancing class is in chemo lady’s corner. No one knows I need them in my corner too. And I think the thing that possibly makes me the saddest is that even if I told them about my invisible illnesses, about what I struggle with each day, I feel quite certain I wouldn’t get as enthusiastic a response as her bald head did.

All in your head

There is something terribly wrong with our society. Something that seems to think that mental illness is a choice. A weakness; something we should be able to just snap out of if we were strong enough. You don’t expect people to snap out of cancer, or diabetes, or hypertension; but when it comes to ailments of the brain – well then, just think yourself better. Maybe it’s because doctors can’t yet prove with scientific tests exactly what’s chemically going on in your brain to cause depression, so it must be “all in your head”. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing. If I could “think myself better”. Lord knows I’ve tried.

If mental illnesses presented as physical then even if someone wasn’t brave enough to seek help, or didn’t know where to turn, if they were in so much pain that they would rather be dead than alive, at least someone would freaking notice! Hell, it would probably present as a gaping wound on their forehead! Blood and puss would be gushing out of their ears. It would be nasty. The kind of thing that people would stop to stare at, that people would gather round. The kind of thing that people call an ambulance for. But mental illness is invisible. And so you go unnoticed; unhelped; unrescued.

How we feelIn fact, if anything, mental illnesses are worse than invisible. If people do notice a sign or a symptom, they usually feel so awkward about it, they’ll pretend they didn’t see it. Crying in the bathroom stall at work? What a weirdo! Can’t she get her shit together like the rest of us? Personally, I think getting your shit together is overrated. I think it’s a myth. Perpetuated by people so boring they have no shit to get together. When you’re made to feel like it’s an attainable goal, yet it feels like your world is crumbling around you, crying in a bathroom stall should be perfectly acceptable behaviour.

Everyone deserves their privacy and the invisibility of mental illness could sometimes be seen as a blessing, I guess. But I fear most people are using its anonymity as a shield against shame. The fear of rejection and the stigma of mental health issues within society are enough to make anyone hide their symptoms. And it is this secrecy, this tendency to hide in the invisibility that is perpetuating the problem. Mental illness is not something that can be overcome without a strong support system and you can’t have a strong support system if people don’t know what is going on in your life. It is only by talking about these issues, and other invisible illnesses, that we can begin to break down barriers and heal each other as a true community.

Support Network

In truth, I am part of the problem. I felt sorry for myself because my dance class wasn’t there for me, but I denied them the chance to be. I could have come back to class and explained my absence. I could even have blamed the epilepsy entirely and left out the mental health aspects – something I am prone to doing – but instead I said nothing, and internally berated a poor woman with cancer. I feared their judgement, but it was me who judged them first.

There is a risk that people won’t understand. That they’ll tell you have so many reasons to be happy and that you just need to think positive thoughts. But there is also a chance that someone will give you a hug and tell you that they understand and your support system will become that much stronger. Isn’t it worth the risk?

you-dont-look-sick-awesome

Welcome to Crescent Clinic, Enjoy Your Stay

Depression

This was never meant to be a travel blog, but as I really hit my stride behind the keyboard during our honeymoon road trip and then swiftly dropped off the map thereafter, to the casual observer, that’s all my blog looks like; a review of places to stay and things to do. And this just so happens to be another review of a place to stay and a thing to do. Only this one comes with a twist.

I posted last July about my tendency to sometimes slip into depression. But I didn’t touch on it again. Even though my depression was steadily getting worse. I think conveniently, I wasn’t noticing. I had a giant wedding to distract me and a road trip to look forward to. That’s the tricky thing with depression you see. High functioning mental illness can lull you into a false sense of security that you’re actually ok, when really you’re very, very NOT ok. When you can still get out of bed (most days), put your face on, get yourself to work, put in a (half decent) shift, go about your normal evening routine… everything feels a bit sluggish, there’s a greyish tint to the display, the sound clarity is a bit off, but you’re getting by. You’re not reaching for the razor blades. You’re ok. But you’re also not.

I'm Fine

This was me for much of last year. Yes, even though my life, on the face of it, is perfect. Please, for fuck sake, do not remind me of the many, many reasons I have to be happy. I descended into the spiral that would eventually drop me off at rock bottom at the end of October. You also don’t need to point out that this coincides with my wedding. My therapist, psychiatrist and many friends and family members have already helped to point that out, but more on that in a later post (maybe). My psychiatrist, who I have been seeing for thirteen years now (yes, I single-handedly financed her children’s private school education) first recommended admission to a psychiatric clinic in early December. My first response was shock and denial. Surely I can’t be that bad? We hadn’t reached Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl Interrupted levels of crazy, had we? By mid-December I had moved from denial into bargaining. I couldn’t go into a clinic at Christmas.

I was hoping to feel better over the Christmas break. Then I could blame work and just get a new job (I say it like that would be easy, but it sure felt easier than going into a psych ward at the time). But if anything, the razor blades just started looking more tempting. But by the time my I saw my doctor again I couldn’t even contemplate admission because my mom was visiting from the UK and I couldn’t waste precious quality time with her in a place where they only allowed two hours of visiting every second day of the week. February brought a better excuse – my birthday – even better, it was my 30th. We were hiring a jumping castle. Hubby was making me a marble glaze ninja turtle cake from scratch. I had friends coming from another province.

Bother People

But some days I also felt like pulling my car over into oncoming traffic; or accelerating into a brick wall. Or going into a really dangerous neighbourhood to see if someone might kill me for my cellphone like the stories you hear on the radio. Maybe I could swallow all the pills in the house, lord knows we have enough. Or do we? How many is enough? Or I could jump off a building? But how high is high enough? Knowing my luck, I’d end up a vegetable, in a whole new world of depression.

My birthday party was on the 11th of February. It was one of the best days of my life. I was surrounded by most of my favourite people, my favourite foods, my favourite music and I made some special memories. Most importantly, I decided I would go to the clinic for the 21 day programme that I should have gone for at least three months prior. Because those people deserve the best version of me. I deserve the best version of me. And I wasn’t going to get it by just muddling through.

And so, on Monday, the 13th of February, the day before Valentine’s Day, and six days before Hubby’s birthday, I checked into Crescent Clinic. Mum still had eight days left of her holiday.

Upon arrival, it looked like a hotel. I was instantly feeling simultaneously at ease with anxiety levels through the roof – a state of being I am all too familiar with. Once all the formalities were completed I was shown to my room. Now I had by no means been expecting five star living, despite the fancy furniture and fresh flowers in reception, but nor was I expecting the communal dormitory in which I found myself. Five beds. One bathroom. Gasp. Anxiety out of this hemisphere.

I arrived late in the evening and so my first day was just an underwhelming dinner, followed by meds, awkward chit-chat with the roomies and some reading before bed. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the next afternoon at 2:30pm. In the morning, I was assessed by an occupational therapist who assigned me to the ‘blue group’ and gave me a time table of courses. Now this was something I could work with. Scheduled classes and group therapy sessions discussing a variety of topics and teaching healthy coping mechanisms centred around weekly themes. This week’s theme: relationships. The first class: boundaries. We were a match made in heaven.

My head

I met with my psychiatrist, Dr Sheldon Zilesnick, a friend and former colleague of my usual psychiatrist, in the afternoon. He is a specialist in temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) my primary diagnosis. Between them, they believed my symptoms were largely down to uncontrolled seizures. As soon as the epilepsy was under control, the depression would be under control. I didn’t have any clinical symptoms as such. There is nothing wrong with my life. I don’t have any childhood traumas. This is a chemical battle. But he would get me a psychologist to meet with during my stay as that was typical procedure.

Depression FeelsI met with her the next day. Her name is Deirdre Hartley, and in short, she broke me. She both ruined and saved my life, all in one. In three short weeks, she showed me what was wrong with me and what was right with me. I have had more “Aha!” moments in her office than anywhere else combined. She ripped my world apart and is slowly showing me how to put it back together. She tipped my diagnosis on its head. My problem may have been chemical, but I am facing a very real internal battle and it is only just beginning.

Crescent Clinic both saved my life and changed my life. I found out that they have rooms that are less communal and that if you ask the nurses nicely they will change your room (after they find you cowering in a corner ugly crying). I found out that the food is very inconsistent, but if you’re not a fan of rice, you’re going to be very, very hungry. I found out that they can give you a day pass to go home to celebrate your husband’s birthday. I found out that drum circles can give you a natural high. I found out that I’m a blue and that it’s a good thing to wear a mask.

I found out that just because someone loves you with all they have doesn’t mean they love you the way you needed to be loved at that time in your life; and that that’s not your fault, or theirs, it just is. I learnt that as human beings we crave purpose and connection but that often we sacrifice our individuality for the sake of our relationships. Only through self-awareness can we accept ourselves for both who we are and who we are not and begin to act with conviction and assertiveness.

Right, that’s enough buzz words. What does this all come down to? Here it is. Life isn’t all sunshine and roses, but it shouldn’t be razor blades and overdoses either. You shouldn’t even have to settle for a fuzzy picture or slightly distorted sound. You deserve to live in HD. If you’re not getting the most out of your life, don’t let the stigma of mental illness hold you back. Don’t wait until you’re planning your own demise to ask for help. The rooms are comfortable, the food is tolerable, the healthcare professionals are outstanding, the programme is life-changing. Welcome to Crescent Clinic, enjoy your stay.

learn-how-get-over-social-anxiety

Like a mist it descends…

Misty Road

It descends on you like a cloud; or that killer mist from Mount Weather in The 100. You don’t even see it coming. It creeps up on you so slowly, you’re completely unaware it’s even on its way at first; but eventually it arrives. And suddenly you’re drowning in it, gasping for air, but too exhausted to wave your arms about in the hope that someone can rescue you. And then you’re wondering if you even want to catch your breath. Maybe it would just be easier to drown.

Happy Outside Sad Inside

Depression. Statistics say it’s more prevalent than obesity. But it’s an invisible killer. You can see fat people; but it’s hard to pick out the truly sad ones, those who are one wave crash away from drowning. We hide it well you see, because that’s what you do. If I was bald from chemo or had a gimpy leg we could discuss it. If it was diabetes or epilepsy, I could at least bring it up. But not the “D” word, no. That doesn’t even make it to the tip of your tongue.

And why, if it’s so goddamn prevalent? Maybe if we all talked to each other about it, it wouldn’t be so bad. But instead we’re all so busy pretending to be ok that it’s eating away at our souls, one conveniently packaged treat-sized bite at a time.

Anxious Face

This morning started well. A lazy Sunday was in store. The weather was a bit bleak but Joburg winters generally call for snuggling under the covers. I had TV shows to watch, wedding invitations to assemble, scarves to knit, blog posts to write; I never saw it coming. But two invitations in, watching the very show that inspired our entire wedding theme; and I felt my hand hovering over the self-destruct button. I swiftly retreated to the safety of my bunker (laptop, in bed) and disappeared into Scandal. But I felt it weighing more heavily by the second.

Eerie Pic

Husby came in to check if I was ok. I could only shake my head in answer. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Nothing”, I replied. Because that’s the brutal truth of it: nothing is wrong. I have countless reasons to be happy. I’m getting married in four months for fuck sake. I live in a beautiful house in a beautiful country and I have beautiful friends. I have TV to watch, scarves to knit, blog posts to type; and yet I want to kill myself. If there was a button on the table that could end it all, I would have pushed it long ago. And the worst part is, I have no idea why.

The brain is a complicated organ (or is it a muscle?) It has been studied from every vantage point imaginable; but still so much about it is unknown. At the moment I am going for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy designed to enable the brain to heal itself by reprogramming how you react to certain stimuli. A progress report will follow, but so far all it’s done is make me cry a lot, and remember things I worked very hard to forget.

Among friends and family (and increasingly, work colleagues), I have a reputation for being over-sensitive, for over-analysing and for caring too much. Is this just a way of saying that it’s my fault? If I could learn to care less, “live in the moment” instead of the past or future, then I wouldn’t be depressed. But… feeling things deeply is who I am. Getting invested in my emotions, heart and soul, for better or worse, is who I am. So is depression who I am?

All I know for sure is, the next person who tells me to “snap out of it” or “think of all the things I have to be happy about”, is coming with me when I push that button!

Mist Bench