What to Say

Since my last post (and frequently at other times as well), many people have expressed a desire to help those who struggle with mental illness, but they say that they don't know what to say or don't know how to help, and they are afraid of doing the wrong thing.  I wanted to compile a list of some helpful things to say when someone says that they are struggling with mental illness.  As always, this is my only based on my experiences, but hopefully these could help others too.

Also, before I begin, I just want to clarify that it is very seldom that something someone says has the power to chase away my darkness or actually "make it better."  Rather, the words of comfort and encouragement that others have so often shared with me have given me the strength to hold on until the darkness goes away on its own later.  Don't feel that you have to "fix" the problem, as an easy fix is not often available.  Just being with me in the darkness and sharing genuine words of love mean the world to me when my heart is broken.

So with that being said, let's get started.  Things to say to someone struggling with mental illness:
  1. "I love you."  Don't we all need to know that someone loves us, regardless of our struggles?  A heartfelt expression of love has been such a lifeline for me at different times and never ceases to wrap my heart in warmth and comfort.  It reminds me that I need to hold on through the darkest of dark nights, because I am loved and needed by someone.  It also helps me fight the lies depression feeds my brain that I am unlovable or a burden to my family and friends.  Often times, even if someone has said that they love me 100 times before, I always wonder and worry that maybe that love has changed since the last time they said it, so it helps to hear it again and again, even if it seems that I should obviously know by now.
  2. "Your brain is broken."  This may not sound comforting to hear, but it really does help.  It helps me to remember that this is not me; it's this problem inside my brain that is beyond my control.  It also reminds me that however I feel in the moment is temporary, because broken things can be healed.
  3. "This will pass."  I'm pretty sure this one is self-explanatory, but in the moments of greatest pain, my brain cannot comprehend that the hurt will pass.  It seems like I have always felt and will forever feel that way.  Remembering that it will pass gives me strength to hold on, because it reminds me that the light will come again eventually.
  4. "I'm here for you."  It's so hard to reach out, especially in the moments when I am struggling the very most.  I worry that I've asked for help too many times before or that I'm going to push everyone away from me if they feel weighed down by my darkness.  Hearing these four words dispels some of the fears that my brain so often thinks are true.  And just like with expressions of love, even if this has been said before, sometimes I worry that it has changed, so don't be afraid to repeat it.  
  5. "Heavenly Father is pleased with you."  It is beyond heartbreaking to me that every time I am experiencing depression, I am convinced that Heavenly Father is so disappointed in me.  It feels like I must have done something terribly wrong and that I will never get things right in my life.  This has often led to feelings of hopelessness, as I've thought "why would I keep holding on if I'm already too far gone?"  I am not perfect by any means, but I'm also not the awful person that my depressed brain tries to tell me I am, so hearing that my life is not a complete failure means so much to me.
  6. "You did ____________ well recently."  I'm not trying to ask for compliments, but my depressed brain has this special super power that includes blocking out every good thing I've done and focusing on the one or two things I have not done right and then thinking that who I am is based on those one or two things.  For example, if I let my daughter watch more TV one day than I normally would, I suddenly feel like this failure of a mom, like all my daughter does is watch TV all day every day, and then my brain forgets about the moments when I played a game with her or colored with her or snuggled and read a book to her.  My husband has often been able to break my patterns of negative thinking or comparing myself to others by helping me recognize something good I have done.  It always catches me by surprise when he mentions these things, because my brain had wiped those clean from my memory in the moment.  It brings a sudden feeling of peace to my heart to know that I'm doing better than I think I am.
  7. "Do you want to talk about it?"  Sometimes I don't want to talk about what I am feeling, and if not, I just say that, but most often, talking about it allows my brain to make sense of some things.  It allows me to work through the problem rather than pushing it aside to deal with later.  
  8. Ask questions.  Why was it that that situation made you feel that way?  What makes you feel better?  What does it feel like when you are struggling?  Are certain events or times of day worse for you?  These are just some examples of questions to ask that allow me to process some of the thoughts swirling around in my brain.  They show me that the person I am talking to cares, and they also help me to figure out what is going on so that I can make progress in battling this brain sickness.
  9. Advise them to get professional help.  Sometimes the best thing you can do as a friend or a loved one is to make sure that the person is getting the help they need to get better.  You can be supportive and loving and helpful all day long, but ultimately, you can't make the problem better, and until a professional is involved, the progress is very limited.  You can even go a step further and help make phone calls, offer to go with the person to an appointment, or follow up to see how the appointments are going.
I know this is a pretty long list and may seem overwhelming.  Just know that your love and support is needed and appreciated.  I know for myself that I could NEVER do this without my husband and good friends who have loved me through the hardest times.  You can literally save a precious life by being the friend someone else needs.  

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Breaking the Silence

The other day, I saw this headline, and it hit me so hard: "Cancer brings casseroles, suicide brings silence."  As it sunk in more and more, I felt so much sorrow about this simple statement, how suicide is such an uncomfortable, unspoken subject, and yet it plagues the lives of so many individuals and their families every single day.  I never thought I would be in the position I am in, someone who knows all too well the depth of sadness that causes persistent, unrelenting thoughts of dying.  It isn't me.  I know that.  And I pray inside my heart that everyone else knows that too.  But either way, it's so very very real... and scary... and shameful... and that leads to silence.

Part of the silence is because it's not something I can just tell people.  When someone asks, "How are you?" I can't reply with, "Well, I actually want to die right now, and I'm scared, and my heart hurts, and I feel all alone, please help me," so instead I say, "Good," and everyone continues on with their day.  They aren't easy words to speak, let alone easy words for someone to know how to respond to, so they stay inside, and only those who have, for one reason or another, been marked as "safe" get to know those most painful parts of my heart.

At this point, I can't count the number of times I have prayed, begged, pleaded that I wouldn't wake up the next morning.  It has probably reached into the hundreds, if not the thousands by now.  I've even asked my husband to pray for it as well, assuming in those moments, that he must want the same thing for me.  I can't count all the times I have been sure that my husband and kids deserve someone better, or the times I have thought day and night about what it would be like to be gone, or the even scarier times when I have thought about how I could make sure that I was gone forever.  Those must be into the thousands as well.  But I can count the very scariest moments, when the shadow of hopelessness has fallen over me, and I have truly thought that it would overcome me.

Until we moved here, those darkest times could all be counted on one hand-- five desperate, terrifying moments that are seared into my brain for the rest of my life.  Each time, there were such beautiful, timely tender mercies that literally saved me from the darkness that threatened to consume me, and at some point later, I was so thankful that my heart had found enough strength to hold on and keep fighting.

But since moving, that number has increased to eight.  There have been three lonely, unspeakably difficult nights, when I was sure that the light would never shine in my life again, as the sickness in my brain continually fed the darkness.  I've contemplated sharing some of my more recent thoughts about suicide, given how real and terrifying these last couple of months have been, but this is how it has gone in my mind:

No one wants to hear about that.
You've been struggling for too long now.  It's time to pull yourself together and finally be okay.
People will judge you.  This isn't something anyone shares.
It will come across as negative and attention-seeking.
You'll just make everyone feel uncomfortable.

But as this internal battle about sharing weighed on my mind one night, I felt this pull to look at the number of people who have read each post on this blog.  As I was scrolling down and looking at the numbers, I was amazed to see that my #1 most-read blog post is THIS ONE, the very most vulnerable post I've ever written, and yet, it must need to be heard if so many people have taken the time to read it.

So here I am, once again sharing the pieces of my heart that need to be heard, and yet are so very difficult to articulate and then give away.  I won't go into all the details, because that's not why I'm writing this, but I do want to paint an honest picture of what took place and why I'm still holding on now.

First, it was an evening after an incredibly difficult week.  I had just attended a meeting for my new church calling, and I was terrified.  The monster inside my brain would not give up on the unrelenting thought that I would NEVER be good enough at this, and I was beyond overwhelmed.  As I left the meeting, some snow had just started falling, and I thought, I could get in an accident on the way home, and no one would know what happened.  It could all be over right now.  But instead, I gripped onto the steering wheel as tight as I could and prayed with all the strength I had inside my heart that I could somehow endure the pain and make it home.  I got home safely and slowly trudged up the steps to my apartment.  Every second there was a new thought about how I should give up, but I used all my strength to push those dark thoughts away.  I walked inside to find that our kitchen was flooded.  This was such a tender mercy, because it forced me to focus on something else for the next couple of hours until it was a more reasonable time to go to bed.  As soon as I could though, I got into bed and pulled the covers over my head as my whole body began to shake in terror.  I didn't know how I would ever overcome this storm, especially on my own, so I texted two people and asked them to pray for me.  Sending a text to some people you've just met and desperately asking them for prayers is terribly uncomfortable, but I felt it was my only choice if I wanted to find even a sliver of comfort for my broken heart.  One of these people texted me for the next hour, and I held on, second by second.

The next morning, I didn't feel better, but I continued to hold on.  There were a few things that I needed to do for our kitchen flood problem, so I tried to stay busy with those as I continually prayed that this pervasive and painful cloud of darkness would pass.  When my husband got home from work, I gave him the baby and took a shower.  I closed my eyes as the burdens on my mind were too heavy for me to bear.  I went to my room and prayed, "Heavenly Father, I can't take even one more step.  I have to give in..."  I didn't even cry.  I just sat there in numb silence, never finishing that urgent prayer.  At this time, I was sure that I would lay down and never be able to find the physical strength to get up again, until I heard someone talking to my husband in our living room.  I came out of my room to find two of our new friends standing in our doorway.  I must have looked confused as I asked what they were doing there, to which they replied that they were there to babysit our kids so that my husband and I could go on a date.  Suddenly, my heart felt wrapped in love.  The darkness did not lift, and my burdens were not relieved, but I felt love, and the tiniest spark of hope ignited in my heart, as I knew that I could hold on just a little longer.

When we got home from our date that evening, I learned about a sweet, beautiful woman who had committed suicide.  I remember laying there after finding out this news and feeling a complex mix of sadness for her to have been feeling so much pain, sadness for her family for the devastation they must have been experiencing, and an odd feeling of almost jealousy that I was still here with my heart in deep pain.  I tried to get it out of my head, but I couldn't stop thinking about this woman.

A few days later, I had another meeting for my new calling, and once again, I came home in heartbreaking tears.  My broken brain could not get past these thoughts of impending failure, and I felt myself crumbling, both physically and emotionally.  As the situation continued to get more and more serious and as my mind felt completely focused on escaping this darkness, I asked my husband if he loved me.  I was positive that he would say that he didn't, and then I would have nothing to hold onto, so I would give up.  To my surprise (I was actually surprised to hear this in that moment), he said that he loves me so much as he wrapped his warm, loving arms around my whole body.  I burst into tears as I knew that I had to hold on, because my husband still loved me, and I couldn't bear to hurt him.  A few minutes later, it seemed in my mind like maybe his love had changed, so I asked him again.  He squeezed me tighter and repeated to me that he loves me.  I continued crying as I wanted so badly to escape, but I had to stay.  I had never felt so much threatening darkness before, but if he could love me, then I could hold on somehow.

The next morning, after very little sleep and hours of crying through the night, I felt no better.  I was so weary and emotionally exhausted, but there was still no peace to be found.  My husband urged me to call someone, anyone, and open up to them and spend time with them that day so that I could be okay.  As uncomfortable as I knew this would be, I also knew that he was right.  I had to open up to someone, because I needed to make it through that day.  I called someone I felt I could trust, and I was immediately invited into her home.  We spent a good portion of the day there, until I knew that I would be safe to go home.  I had made it through another very threatening storm, and I prayed that I would never have to go through something so painful again.

But only a week later, I was back in the same place.  I was getting ready to go to the temple with my husband, when the fear and panic associated with this seemed to overcome me.  I still went as planned, but the anxiety and sorrow did not go away, even hours after we came home.  The gripping pain in my heart seemed to get worse by the hour, and I couldn't find any comfort for the brokenness that I was experiencing.  The next day, we celebrated my husband's birthday.  I let him choose his birthday dinner and dessert, both of which took more extensive preparation than I would normally do for the average dinner or dessert.  I wanted to do this for him.  I wanted to show him all the love that he deserves, but my heart was in so much pain that it seemed impossible.  I prayed with every ingredient that I measured or chopped or stirred in that I would have enough strength to do this.  I was literally only able to comprehend doing one thing at a time, so I tried to focus on just the next step of the recipes as to not get overwhelmed and stop doing it.  I made it through that evening of celebration, and I used all the effort I had in me to hide the terror that was penetrating my heart every moment.

The next day, the storm raging inside of me intensified, and I made a decision that reflected just how much I was hurting.  I decided to stop drinking water.  In my mind, I figured that it would only take a few days to get dehydrated, and then I could be free from this darkness.  Finally free.  It didn't seem like there was anything wrong with that at the time, and I wanted an escape, so I continued to not drink any water for two days.  Two long days that seemed like this was the only option.

The next morning, I did something that I NEVER have done or would have done before, and I'm still not sure why I did it.  I opened up to a friend in my "safety circle" and told her that I was not sure it was worth it to live anymore.  She didn't know at the time the details of what was happening, but she sensed the desperation in my voice, and invited me to come over, so we could talk.  I went to her house, and we talked for a while before she suggested that I really needed to get into the doctor again to get help.  I had been putting this off, because the process of trying to get help can be so long and discouraging and frustrating and sometimes more painful than the original darkness, but when she said that, I agreed.  She helped me find some doctors, and we made some phone calls together in her front room.  For the first time in a very long time, I felt a spark of hope.  I remembered this awfulness wouldn't be there forever if I could just get help.  I didn't need to escape; I could heal.  I went home and drank some water.  I had something to hold onto again.  I didn't tangibly feel that it was worth it yet, but I had the hope that it would feel worth it again soon.

The day after that, I opened up to my husband.  I hadn't told him anything in a long time, because I knew that moving was just as hard and stressful on him at first as it was for me, but I needed him to know.  I will never forget how it felt to be wrapped in his arms as he hugged me the tightest he had ever hugged me before and as he expressed his love.  I was so thankful in that moment that I was still there, that I hadn't let the monster of depression consume me.  Immediately, so much light filled my heart, and I knew that we were going to get through this together.  I didn't have to fight alone.

We are still in the process of trying to get help.  I wish it wasn't so difficult and time-consuming and frustrating.  But I am okay for now.  I feel peace.  My depression hasn't gone away by any means, but it is manageable right now, and for that, I am very thankful.

So why am I writing this?  I don't know honestly.  Maybe someone is battling through this same thing right now and needs to know that it will be okay eventually, that they are not alone, and that someday they will be glad they held on.  Maybe there is someone who loves someone with depression and needs to know what they can do to help.  Maybe we all need the reminder to have compassion, love, kindness, understanding, and grace for each other.  But regardless of the reason, I want to break the silence of depression and suicide.  I won't let these experiences be wasted on me.

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