Monday, December 2, 2019

If You're Struggling This Holiday Season...

Tis the season to be jolly. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Have a cup of cheer. It’s December and every time we step in a store, turn on the radio, or walk down the street we are reminded of the season of Christmas. Let’s be real; we’ve been inundated with these messages before the Jack- O’ lanterns rotted. Whether you love Christmas or hate it, these messages are inescapable.
I’m not here to go all grinch and ruin your Christmas spirit. However, if you’re not feeling the joy but in fact feel the exact opposite, this post is for you. Maybe you’re struggling with depression and it’s triggered or exacerbated by this season. Maybe you’re dealing with grief and the twinkling lights and scent of poinsettias are painful reminders of loss. Perhaps the stress of the holidays is fueling joy-stifling anxiety. You’re not alone.
Recently, my church did a sermon series tackling tough stuff, including, grief, addiction, depression, and anxiety. I was volunteering at the resource table set outside the worship center. A middle-aged man came up and shyly scanned the pamphlets. He shared that he was currently dealing with depression and was feeling much worse as the winter and Christmas season commenced. I was glad this man felt safe enough to reach out. He was far from the only one. It got me thinking. Is the bombardment of cheer, joy, presents, and decorations sending “should” messages to the many people struggling during the holiday season? You should be feeling joyful and jolly. You should be drinking eggnog and smiling by the Christmas tree. You should love every moment.
I’m not suggesting channeling Scrooge and banning all things holiday. But, here’s the thing: if you’re not feeling it you are not alone. This year, I turned on Christmas music while the turkey was still digesting. I smiled while my kids reacquainted themselves with favorite Christmas decorations and books. But the main reason I’m embracing the holidays this year is because last year I really, really couldn’t.
I live with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and attention deficit disorder. I anticipate a spike in anxiety as I try to do all the things (the pressure to do all the things is a whole other post) but last year it was the depression that really defeated me. People say things like “don’t let it steal your joy”. That’s like telling someone, “don’t let the rain fall”. There’s no “letting” involved.
My depression tends to have a reverse seasonal pattern - it worsens in the summer. I also have “double depression” which means I manage chronic dysthymia as well as episodic major depressive episodes that can last weeks, months, or even years. During the summer of 2017 my mood took a serious nosedive. Depression is frustrating. I have coping skills and check in with myself and my doctor regularly. Despite this, sometimes it comes without warning and with no identifiable triggers. In this case, I think it was creeping in and the dismantling of an important friendship among other stressors tipped the scales. I suppose the reason doesn’t matter. With my brain chemistry, it’s easy to slide into a depressive episode. It’s much more complicated to crawl out of it.
I tried self-care, medication changes, writing, sleep hygiene, you name it. The depression deepened and persisted. By November of 2018, I was at an all time low, and not for any particular reason. Depression doesn’t need a reason. Fun fact: depression (or anxiety, grief, etc.) doesn’t care what season it is or what kind of music is playing on the radio. I was a year and a half into a major depressive episode. I was tired. I wondered if I’d ever emerge this time. I’m sharing this because last year at this time the festive reminders felt like mockery.
I don’t think anyone really knew where my head was. After all, I’m a mom. I always loved Christmas. Growing up, it was my favorite time a year. I love replicating the idyllic Christmases of my childhood for my own children. My dad loved Christmas. He passed on December 10th, 2006, and every year we keep his memory alive and laugh as we adorn his favorite decorations. I plastered a smile on my face while the pressure in my chest expanded. That was the hardest part; the pretending. I smiled when we picked out an evergreen from the lot across the street. I took pictures while coercing my ten-year-old to stand by Santa. I dragged myself out of bed and to Christmas parties. When the sign-up sheet for my youngest son’s kindergarten class party landed in my inbox, I volunteered. Every night I read Twas the Night Before Christmas, Polar Express, and Charlie Brown Christmas.
 But when I was alone I dropped the act. The rare times I got in my car without kids in tow I punched the audio button as soon as I turned on the engine, turning Christmas music to Linkin Park. The Christmas music I normally looked forward to sounded almost eerie. The words “jolly” and “joy” were like big red fingers pointing at me. The lights only illuminated the gloom. In the shower, when I had the energy to take one, I grieved. Depression had stolen my joy and I was helpless to get it back.
Aside from anxiety, depression’s best friend is guilt. I berated myself for being immersed in darkness during the most wonderful time of the year. I isolated, fearing I’d fail to hide my bleak mood and it might rub off on my friends and family. Smiling was painful. Singing was painful. Visiting and talking and pretending was exhausting. I wanted to snap out of it. I know it doesn’t work that way, but the guilt was oppressive. Not only that, I was missing the season. I was sad about being sad.
Notice I’m saying “was”. This year, I can’t say I’m on top of the world, but I’m miles above where I was last year at this time. Thanks to support, a dedicated psychiatrist and counselor, and maybe some random luck thrown in, I’m in a good place. Some pretty cool things have happened since last year. I’m in the process of working with a publisher toward my book release date. Those dark times propelled me through my novel, which deals with mental health. I’ve watched my kids grow and change. I’ve learned about myself and my relationship dynamics. That’s why I’m embracing Christmas this year; I couldn’t last year. Not didn’t but couldn’t. That’s one massage I want to leave you with. Last year at this time I didn’t think the joy would ever return. I was ready to give up on ever feeling it again. I was wrong. I’m not going to sit here and tell you “things will get better” or “this too shall pass”. I’m not going to patronize you with platitudes, because I don’t know who you are or where you are or what your situation is. All I know is life is not static, at least not forever. It keeps moving, and if you keep moving with it, it has the chance to change. Give yourself the chance. That’s the other thing about depression. It not only helps me with my writing, but it helps me enjoy the times it’s absent. Because of depression, I can appreciate the mundane, I’d venture to say more than the average person.
The other message I want to leave you with might be the one you need to hear the most if you’re in a dark place. It’s okay. It’s okay if you’re depressed this holiday season. It’s okay if you’re grieving. It’s okay if you have the urge to shatter every single Christmas light and the thought of eggnog makes your nauseous. It’s okay if you’re dragging yourself through the motions of shopping, wrapping, cookie exchanging, and ornament hanging. It’s okay if you’re not. It’s okay if your skipping the holidays altogether. Listen, if this is you I truly wish I could come hug you and roundhouse kick your depression, grief, anxiety, etc. in the face. I know it sucks. It sucks worse when the joy you’re surrounded by contradicts your inner climate. It’s not your fault. If I can’t remove your struggles maybe I can help put a dent in your guilt. You’re not alone. I hope you feel safe to reach out for help. I hope the more we talk about this stuff the more people will feel comfortable. That’s why I started writing about my mental health. I’m just one person, but I want to be part of the conversation. If you’re not ready, that’s okay too. But just know that you’re not required to bathe in eggnog and feel all the joys of the season. You’re not alone. I know, I know, that’s a cliché, but based on myself, conversations with friends, and the number of people who approached that resource table, I can promise you it’s true.
Be kind to yourself. Be really gentle. It’s okay if this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for you. Whatever your feeling inside is legitimate. If all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, if you can’t put one foot in front of the other and all you can do is roll over in bed, that’s enough for now. You’re enough, during this season and always.

 National Sucide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or test TALK to 741741

Thursday, April 4, 2019

What Receiving My ADHD Diagnosis In My 30's Did for Me

They called me slow. Funny that I even remember that. Yep, I’m in my thirties still lamenting on the indignities of grammar school bullying. Sigh.

Seriously, though, that’s a cut-throat world. I couldn’t keep up with the cliques, the social cues that hovered just over my head, the expectations and assignments. I was in a foreign land feigning fluency in the language. My peers knew it, too.

I was the last to get my milk at lunch and the last to clean up. I was always behind on assignments or forgot them altogether, to the point where my teachers required me to have my Pepto-Bismol-pink assignment notebook signed. I forgot a lot of things, actually. On free dress day, I was the kid who showed up in uniform. I forgot to get my tests and permission slips signed. My fifth grade English teacher threatened me with detention if I forgot to bring my red pen to class one more time. She said she was doing me a favor and teaching me responsibilities so that as an adult I wouldn’t forget important things (like always having a red pen on me?). Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.

Ask anyone in my life if Mrs. M scared me straight in the fifth grade. Anyone who’s ever asked me (and rightfully so) if I called that person yet, saw that they called, or if I remember to bring X, you know what I’m talking about. In my “grown up” life I forget things. My keys aren’t where I swore I left them. Laundry hovers in various stages of completion, the dirty sometimes converging with the clean. I start things that I don’t finish. Making phone calls makes me squirm and I’m ALWAYS late. You might be thinking every busy, tired, frazzled, mom, insert-situation-here does these things. We all have our moments and our “stuff”. Nobody has all their shit together off of Facebook. At the risk of sounding dramatic, though, since kindergarten I’ve noticed that I struggle with things that most people can accomplish without so much thought. I’m not late because I don’t respect time and I’m inconsiderate. I don’t miss calling you back because I don’t care about you.

Detention didn’t teach me to stop forgetting things any more than those pink walk-of-shame tardy slips taught me to get it together and be punctual. Why didn’t these punitive measures work? Was I a kid who just couldn’t learn her lesson?

On the contrary, I was compliant to a fault. I wanted to do what I was supposed to do. I feared getting in trouble and I wanted to please people and meet their expectations. Spoiler alert number 2: that hasn’t changed much either. I didn’t start remembering things or better organizing. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do theses things; it was because I couldn’t.

My peers were right; I was “slow”. I froze up timed tests. I stayed after school to finish my work. I looked around in a panic when the teacher announced five minutes left to finish the project, observing my class mates gluing on the last pompom or flipping over worksheets, when I wasn’t even half way through.

“What were you doing all that time?” the teacher would ask. I didn’t know. I still don’t

A child knows when they’re different. Instead of denying that difference, our task is to create a world where differences are recognized as assets. It’s a tough sell when peers can be so cruel, homing in on any difference they can sense. Some girls dream of becoming princesses, movie stars, dancers. I dreamt of becoming “normal”. I tried to learn the language, but the accent grew thicker as the years passed and the demands increased. I concluded I was just stupid.

I was wrong. None of the labels I was given by peers or that I gave myself were accurate: Slow, stupid, inconsiderate, flaky, absent-minded. It took nearly three and a half decades to discover the correct label for my penchant for daydreaming, inattention to detail, forgetfulness, and overwhelm-shut down cycle. Three and a half decades to find a label that fits, that explains everything. Now I know this label is ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, inattentive type, previously known as ADD).

ADHD runs in my family, so it’s not like I didn’t know what it was. I’d even suspected it on and off throughout my adulthood, every time I reached the next arbitrary age by which I predicted I’d “have it all together”. But whenever I mentioned it, I’d hear some version of “Oh, you’re just a busy mom. It’s called pregnancy brain. It’s called ‘mom brain’. You’re just tired. Cut down on caffeine (wait, what?) You just need to get more organized and just do it. Oh, everyone thinks they have that nowadays.” In fact, when my counselor presented the diagnosis, calling me “textbook”, I was hesitant to accept it. Wasn’t I just making excuses? Not because I in anyway think ADHD is an excuse (or used as one), but years of internalizing the message of, “if I would just try harder” …. made me second guess. Was I claiming a diagnosis that I didn’t “earn”?

That last paragraph might sound really strange. I’m making an ADHD diagnosis feel like a gift or a badge of honor. Well, it is. Finally, my counselor got me to recognize and accept that I’ve been struggling with ADHD for my entire life. The struggles came to my attention when I started kindergarten and was met simultaneously with new responsibility and exposure to the development of same-age peers. By first grade I was behind, and they wanted to send me to a “special school;”. Yes, that’s really what they called it. I hate even typing it. My parents kept me at my grammar school. I’m very fortunate for my parents’ endless patience. Even without a diagnosis or much understanding of special needs or outside support surrounding them, they didn’t blame me for my difficulties. They saw how hard I tried and encouraged me to do my best.  

Let’s circle back to why I’m referring to my ADHD diagnosis as a gift and a badge of honor.

When I was diagnosed my first thought was, “So I’m not just stupid?” The diagnosis, once I “claimed” it, was nothing short of validating. My peers ran both literal and figurative laps around me (sometimes armed with pinesol spray and spit balls, but that’s another story for another day. Or not.) not because they were smarter or more enlightened. Their brains worked differently than mine. My brain worked differently from theirs. The teachers were annoyed with me not because I was a pain in the ass kid (although you might have to confirm that with my brother) but because I couldn’t keep up with my lessons. I fidgeted with my pencils and erasers, and I was always staring out the window. The math examples on the board didn’t make sense not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because I am part of the 20 percent of auditory learners. I don’t run out of mental energy after social engagements because I’m antisocial, I don’t forget thank-you cards because, I’m ungrateful or show up 15 minutes late because I’m rude.

I don’t love these things about myself and if they were easy to change I would, but that’s another way my ADHD diagnosis has freed me. I can now work on treating my ADHD so it doesn’t interfere so much in my day to day life. I can use systems to help me focus and keep things straight. I write and color code everything in a paper calendar because the notifications I set on my phone fly out of my brain the second my screen dims. I check and double check appointments. I make definitive plans and try to follow a routine. Everything must be gotten together the night before. I team up with other homeschoolers for accountability. These tools and others are just that – tools. It doesn’t mean I magically have it all together (who does?). I still have ADHD and I’m still trying. That’s where the badge of honor comes in. All those years I struggled to get through school (and life) thinking I was just dumb and slow, I had legitimate difficulties to work with. I was trying plenty hard enough even when it didn’t seem like it.

My ADHD diagnosis answers my life long question of why can’t I just do it? It helps me understand why I would flip through the science project syllabus given at the start of the school year, get knocked over by a wave of overwhelm, shut down and shove it into my backpack where I’d try to forget about it until after Christmas break Inevitably, I’d wind up cramming a semester-long project into a week, complete with many late, tearful nights. Rinse and repeat year after year. I turned in a lot of tear stained papers in middle school. Breaking down projects into more manageable tasks doesn’t happen in my unmedicated brain. I see and think about EVERYTING I HAVE TO DO, LIKE ALL THE THINGS. Then I don’t know where to start so I start with reading a book and blocking it out. The cards I write sit on my kitchen table so long it would just look weird to send it now. I mean all the steps required to write a card, seal an envelope, address it, and put it in the mail box.

I asked my therapist why I wasn’t diagnosed if I was so textbook? Sure, when I was growing up there was less awareness and accurate testing, but through college and adulthood I questioned. I’ve had psych evals that showed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, but not ADHD. She postulated that current testing doesn’t necessarily “catch” ADHD as it presents in adult women, especially without the hyperactive peace. We’ve learned, to a degree, to compensate. Now I take a low dose stimulant and work with my therapist on coping skills. Sometimes I wonder which came first: depression and anxiety or ADHD. I’ll never know, but I do know years of being bullied for something you can’t control, and thinking you’re stupid and falling behind (no matter how many times my parents told me otherwise) does things to your psych.

Which brings me to my final point. Parents, teach your kids about differences and special needs even (especially) if it doesn’t affect your inner circle. Parents of kids with ADHD, you’re doing fine. It’s not easy, but the most important thing is your child knowing home is always a safe place where they’re loved and accepted. Parents of kids with ADHD, you may struggle with whether to medicate. You know your child best and don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with, no matter what anyone says. Maybe for your child it won’t be called for. But if it is and you do go the medication route, please, please DO NOT FEEL GUILTY! Don’t worry about what people think. They don’t know your situation. I know giving your child a controlled substance isn’t easy and it’s not a decision you’d take lightly. But for some people with ADHD therapies simply aren’t enough. They NEED medication to level the playing field and give their brain the stimulation it is biologically unable to produce on its own. And you know what? That’s okay! If that doesn’t convince you to send your guilt packing, parents, how about this. I wish I’d had access to this medication throughout grade school, and not because of my grades. It would’ve put me on closer to level ground with my peers and maybe protected some of my confidence. Homework and tests wouldn’t have taken long if I could focus, limiting anxiety. My parents didn’t have access to this. If you do and your child needs it and your enduring some trial and error and you’re doing it, good for you. You are giving your child a precious gift. Pat yourself on the back. If you’ve chosen not to medicate your child and you’re using other therapies, good for you. You’re a fierce advocate and your child will know you always have their back. Pat yourself on yours.

Labels can be harmful if they’re over-identified with, or worse, incorrect. But the right label offers a map. It offers answers and validation. So, I truly am sorry when I don’t return your call and you still haven’t gotten your birthday card, or you’re left to wait for me yet again. I promise I’m working on these things, but in the meantime please know that it’s not you. My brain just works a little differently. It’s still my responsibility to work on these things and it’s not an excuse. But it is an answer to the “why” that I’ve been asking all my life. I have ADHD.