Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What it's like to live with anxiety

Photo: newhealthguide.org
This isn't something I talk about very often. And I'm not sure why. With all my preaching about how mental illness is a disease that you shouldn't be ashamed of, I spend an awful lot of time being ashamed.

So, here it goes, I'll just say it. About five years ago, I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. And when I found out, I was actually relieved. Suddenly I knew that it wasn't my fault that a lot of times my heart would race and my palms would sweat even though the logical part of my brain was screaming at me, "You have nothing to be nervous about!" Suddenly it all made sense why there were times I would feel alone and like no one loved me -- even though this was the furthest from the case.

But, even though I now understood why I acted the way I did, I still found that most people didn't understand it. They didn't understand how a chemical imbalance in the brain can make you think and act in a way that you can't help.

Or they would think that I was using a disorder to explain away how I was feeling. But I know that's not the case. I work at a newspaper, and I come face-to-face with moments on a daily basis where most people would find themselves feeling anxious. I know the twinge of fear that comes when you're calling the mother of a child who just died, waiting for her to pick up the phone. I know the panic that comes when you walk up to a podium to give a speech in front of hundreds of people. Those are "normal" reactions. And I know that this feeling is completely different than when I'm in my apartment, watching TV, reading a book, doing dishes, etc. and that random feeling of anxiety hits me out of nowhere. And no matter how much I try to "think happy thoughts" or slowly breathe in and breathe out, the feeling won't go away until it's good and ready.

Through medicine and counseling, I have been able to regulate these panic attacks so they happen less often than they used to.

But it still happens. And I have met people in my life who don't accept this fact about me.

I recently read the best article I have ever read about anxiety. It was as if the author was inside of my head. And maybe sharing this will help others understand what it's like to have anxiety.

The article is titled "7 Things People with Anxiety Want Their Loved Ones to Know" by Sammy Nickalls, a contributing writer on hellogiggles.com.

  • It doesn't have to do with you. People who have seen me during my anxious moments will ask, "What did I do wrong?" You didn't do anything wrong. Sometimes this just happens for no reason at all. 
  • Never try to talk us out of our emotions. I know this too well. Don't tell someone to "Calm down" or "Relax" when he or she is having an anxiety attack. I once had someone tell me, "If you keep worrying about it, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy." Don't ever, ever say this to someone with anxiety. This will just make them worry about worrying, which can really make a person feel like they're going crazy. And, speaking of that, never tell someone "Stop acting crazy" (which is another thing I have been told. As you can probably guess, it didn't help).
  •  Part of us knows that our fears aren't rational, but we can't shake the part that doesn't. "I'm not good enough," "I'm going to get fired," "Why did I say that, I'm so embarrassed," "He or she is going to leave me."  Even if, deep down we know that this isn't true, these are thoughts that run through the brain of someone with anxiety. 
  • We're not pessimistic. I can completely relate to this. I may seem pessimistic during a bout of anxiety. But between these bouts, I'm probably one of the most optimistic people you've ever met. Don't tell me that I'm a downer. That's not me. Don't characterize me by my anxiety. 
  • We appreciate you trying to see things from our perspective. Not all people are willing to do this. But Nickalls writes, "Every time you answer our fearful texts with reassurance and kindness, or pull us into another room to ask us what we’re worrying about, or are simply there, steady, supportive, without questioning the way we operate, we can’t even express how much that means, because it’s rare to find." I am so grateful for all of the people who have done this for me and who never made me feel like being my friend was "hard work."  
  • We wish we could turn it off but we can't. 
  • And, most importantly, it doesn't define us! If someone has cancer, "cancer" isn't the kind of person they are. It's something they can't help. It's the same for someone who has anxiety. Like I said before, my anxiety isn't the kind of person I am. When all is said and done, I think I'm a pretty damn brave person. My anxiety isn't me. It's just something I have to deal with from time to time.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Leelah Alcorn's suicide note goes viral: 'The only way I will rest in peace is if one day, transgender people aren't treated the way I was'

Last week, a couple of my friends and I started binge watching "RuPaul's Drag Race." But my newfound love of this reality show isn't because of the extravagant dresses, the wigs and the makeup. It's because men who have been treated differently for their entire lives now have a place where they not only belong but where they are celebrated for who they are.

I wish that Leelah Alcorn, 17, whose legal name is Joshua Alcorn, would have found a place like this to be accepted.

WXYZ reports that the transgender teen is believed to have lost her life to suicide after walking in front of a semi-tractor trailer on Interstate 71 in Southwest Ohio. And the suicide note, signed (Leelah) Josh Alcorn, has gone viral.

The blog post states, "The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in because I’m transgender."

She writes that she has felt like a girl trapped inside a boy's body ever since she was 4 years old. She wrote that her parents didn't support her, told her "God doesn't make mistakes," and sent her to Christian therapists, who told her she was selfish and wrong.

"If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me," wrote Alcorn.

Alcorn said her parents treated her like an embarrassment, pulled her out of public school and isolated her from her friends for months.

She wrote, "I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already."

I am not going to pretend like I know how Alcorn feels because I don't. I was blessed that my body and the person I am inside are both the same gender. And I can not imagine what it would be like if this wasn't the case.

But, although I don't know what it's like, there are a lot of people in this world who do. And I wish Alcorn would have known that she wasn't alone. I wish she could have seen that she is beautiful and that, one day, she would find someone to love her just as she was.

There are about 700,000 people in the United States who are transgender, and there are several support groups that are available, such as PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and The Trevor Project.

I know she didn't believe that life could get better, but in less than a year, she would be 18. She could have moved out and started living her own life. I wish that she could have waited for that.

She ended her blog post with, "The only way I will rest in peace is if one day, transgender people aren't treated the way I was. They're treated like humans with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better."

Although this world is more accepting of the LGBT community than it used to be even 10 years ago, there is still a long ways to go. And I wish that Alcorn could have stayed alive to help be that change. Although she has raised awareness of the subject through her blog post, think of how many more people she could have touched in the years to come?

In her memory, I challenge everyone to accept those who may be different than you are. If your child, family member or friend comes out as gay, don't ever make them feel like something is wrong with them. Instead, show that you love them no matter what. In the end, it could save their lives.

I challenge everyone to live their lives working for the change that Alcorn wanted so desperately to see.

Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach wrote on his Facebook page, "While Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the mid-west to include transgender inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years ... the truth is ... it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in this country."

"We have to do better."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Are you respecting others and yourself?

I think one of the biggest problems of this generation is the lack of respect people have for others — and also the lack of respect people have for themselves.

Maybe I'm biased since I live in this generation, but it seems like the most disrespectful era there has ever been. And I think people forget that those around them are human beings with emotions and fears — and not just objects to be used for their professional, sexual or any other kind of gratification.

It's a vicious cycle. There are people who don't respect others. And the people who aren't respected start to view themselves that way too — that maybe that's all they're good for.

But, the sad thing is, many people are afflicted with both. When you are disrespected, it's easy to stop respecting yourself. And when you don't respect yourself, it's difficult to respect those around you.

Here's a way to find out if you are disrespecting yourself without realizing it.

Think about the activities you are taking part in. Is it something you enjoy and want to do? Or is it something you know, in the back of your mind, you are only doing because someone else talked you into it? Or, even worse, because you're afraid someone will be mad at you if you don't agree to it?

Sometimes we're so used to letting people walk all over us that the line becomes blurred of what we actually want to do and what we're doing because we want other people to like us.

When you realize that you are doing things you don't actually want to do — stop doing it. Yeah, you may lose people in your life. But, when all is said and done, those people only thought of you for what you could do for them — and not as an actual person.

Do you let people talk down to you because either a) you think you deserve it or b) you don't want to cause waves? Try sticking up for yourself because you deserve better than that.

Now, think about the way you are treating other people. Do you stop and think how your actions affect those around you? Do you care about the people in your life? Or, when you are with them or talking to them, are you thinking about what they can do for you?

If there are people you are only friends with (or dating or having sex with) because you want them to benefit you, start thinking of them as a human being, just like you are. How would you feel if you found out one of your "friends" felt this way about you?

These are questions I've started to ask myself on a daily basis. And I think if everyone started thinking this way, it really could change the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Suicide from a first responder's point of view

Brandon Tubek, paramedic for Community EMS 
I have so much respect for emergency medical technicans and paramedics. They see so much on a daily basis that I cannot even imagine.

My friend Brandon Tubek, a paramedic for Community EMS, said one of the worst calls he ever has to respond to is for a possible suicide.

It's not the blood or the gruesome ways people take their lives that make suicides the worst calls  though. Brandon said it's seeing the family members' reactions as they first see the body of their son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife. That's the "worst thing in the world," he said.

Brandon recently responded to the suicide of a young man in the Novi area. He said he and the other responders worked for an hour, trying to revive his lifeless body.

"His parents stood by — helpless — all while knowing it was futile," said Brandon.

For anyone who thinks, "No one will miss me if I'm gone," Brandon can say firsthand that this isn't true.

If you are considering suicide — imagine being a fly on the wall as your family and friends find your body. Maybe that will make you rethink the decision.

"Most of the time, the family has no idea there was even a hint of a problem. So they feel such guilt. The faces of the parents is something that is forever burnt into my mind. It always makes me think of my mom and dad," Brandon said.

"If you know someone who seems depressed, especially around the holidays, talk to them and make sure they know that people care or get them the help they need. ... If this helps one single person, then I have done my job."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call Common Ground's 24/7 hotline at 800-231-1127 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Actress Lena Dunham's battle with obsessive compulsive disorder

AP photo
I've recently started reading actress and producer Lena Dunham's autobiography "Not That Kind of Girl," which documents her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder.

I admire how open Lena is while writing about her OCD, which she was diagnosed with at age 9.

Usually when people think of OCD, they imagine someone who is constantly washing his or her hands until they become red and chapped. But, really, OCD can be any compulsion a person may have.

Compulsion is defined as "an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one's conscious wishes."

The Mayo Clinic characterizes OCD as "unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions)" to ease the stress.

Some examples of obsessions:

• Fear of germs and dirt
• Fear of shaking hands or touching others
• Wanting things orderly and neat
• Thoughts of harming yourself and/or others
• Unwanted/disturbing thoughts about sex

Some examples of compulsion:

• Washing and cleaning
• Counting
• Repeating a prayer or word over and over again
• Checking repeatedly to make sure the door is locked, the stove is turned off, etc.
• Following a strict routine
• Avoiding  situations that can trigger obsessions

Lena said that her compulsion is oversharing, and in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, she said that, as a child, she was afraid to fall asleep, which was when her parents first sent her to see a therapist, and she was also obsessed with the number eight.

"I'd count eight times…. . . . I'd look on both sides of me eight times, I'd make sure nobody was following me down the street, I touched different parts of my bed before I went to sleep," Lena said.

In an interview with NPR, Lena said, "You spend so much of your life, as a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person with any kind of mental illness, trying to camouflage your habits, trying to appear normal."

She told US Magazine that mediation for about 20 minutes a day helps control her OCD.

"It gathers me up for the day and makes me feel organized, happy and capable of facing the challenges of the world, both internal and external. I feel so lucky that I found it," she said. "I found out there's a way to sort of take this gift that I've been given and give it outward."

The Mayo Clinic also advises people who have been diagnosed with OCD or who show symptoms of the disorder to see a doctor or mental health provider. The two main treatments for OCD are psychotherapy and medications and often treatment is most effective with a combination of these.

Lena is no longer ashamed of her OCD — even creating a character, which she plays on the television show "Girls," who also has the disorder. And I admire her for helping to continue the important subject of mental health and bring awareness.

Lena shows that people who have a mental disorder have nothing to be ashamed of and that it may even be a gift. For Lena, through treatment and mediation, she learned to channel her OCD into her creativity and hard work. Who knows, maybe without it, she wouldn't be where she is today.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Michael Hudson, who died from suicide 5 years ago, would have turned 25 today

One of my first published articles was for the Lake Orion Review about Michael Hudson, a 19-year-old Lake Orion High School grad who took his life in April 2009.

In August of that year, as one of my assignments for the paper, I covered a bowling fundraiser, put on by Michael's family in his memory. And, upon meeting his family, I was forever changed.

Michael's mother, Karen, and aunt, Sharon Carlile, inspired me to become a mental heath and suicide awareness activist. Without them, this blog, which you are reading right now, probably wouldn't even exist.

I have since written countless articles about young adults who have lost their lives to suicide because the Hudson family taught me that they deserve to be remembered and that their story can save the lives of others.

I must admit that before I met the Hudson family, I believed in the stereotype — that all people with mental illness were loners who wore dark makeup, were failing their classes and were easy to spot. While some people who suffer from depression can be described this way, not all are.

In an article I wrote about Michael for The Oakland Press, his mother Karen said, "People think it can't be the person who's everybody's friend, who's smiling all the time or the star athlete."

Michael was 6'7", graduated with honors, was popular, was a "stud" among the ladies and was embarking on becoming a model and actor. Not the kind of person anyone would guess was struggling with these internal demons.

I will always remember what his aunt Sharon said to me more than five years ago — "(Michael was) a kid who gave back so much to others and who just needed to keep some of it to himself."

And that's one thing I have realized — about myself and about others — that sometimes the people who seem the happiest and have the most friends are the ones who are secretly suffering the most. Sometimes, they think so much of others that they forget to think of themselves.

Today would have been Michael's 25th birthday. And his mom posted this on Facebook, which brought tears to my eyes:

"Can't believe we would have been celebrating Michael's 25th birthday today. So hard to think of what he'd be doing now, what job he'd have, if he'd be married or have any children as so many of his friends have. We miss him more than even imaginable. Yet, one thing we do know is that Michael is celebrating today and being celebrated in Heaven. Hugh's Dad and I would like to ask all of you to join us today in celebrating Michael's life. As many of you know, he loved going out for ice cream sundaes-or was that just a great way to meet girls??? Either way, you're never too grown-up for a sundae! So, get your favorite ice cream and your sundae best toppings and celebrate a memory of Michael. Better still, invite a friend or even buy them a sundae. Perhaps it's someone you can share a memory with or perhaps it's someone you know just needs a friend right now. I like to think Michael did a lot of that too. Or if that doesn't work for you, just light a candle. Just celebrate Michael with us and the love he shared with so many of us! Thanks!"

If I could say something to Michael right now, I would tell him, "I wish I could have met you. I wish I could have seen all the things life had in store for you. But I also want to thank you because, even though you are no long here, you changed my life. You made me realize what's important. And I know you will never be forgotten. Your story will touch the lives of so many people, people who you never even got to meet. And I am so lucky that I got to be part of sharing your story with others."

And I hope that, in Heaven, he can hear me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

'Love is being yourself'

I never truly knew what being "in love" was.

Until now -- when, oddly enough, for the first time in my life, I'm falling out of love.

Okay, don't make fun of me, but I'm going to use a movie quote to describe what I have realized that love is (actually, two movie quotes).

The first is from the movie "What's Your Number," when Anna Faris' character says, "Being in love means being yourself." 

The second is from "The Wedding Singer," when Ellen Albertini Dow, who plays Adam Sandler's grandma, says, "You'll know when you meet the right girl because it's not how you feel about her, it's how she makes you feel about yourself."

I had watched both of these movies dozens of times and never understood these quotes. "Isn't loving someone completely about the other person? How does it have anything to do with how you feel about yourself?"

Now, I understand how wrong I was. Because you could think your significant other is a god among men. But if you don't feel good about yourself when you're with him or her, it's never going to work out.

If you're in a relationship, and you constantly feel like you're pretending to be someone else, then, please, end it right now. In my last relationship, I was not myself at all. I would have panic attacks at least once a week, when before, I would only get them, at the most, once every six months. I had a very short temper when, before, it was almost impossible to get me mad. I doubted everything, especially myself, when I was with him. And the two most used words in my vocabulary at that time were, "I'm sorry."

For people who know me, you know that this is not the person I am. At least not when I'm single.

It doesn't mean that it's the other person's fault that you feel this way about yourself. And it's not your fault either. No, you're not crazy. No, this isn't who you really are. It just means this person isn't "the one."

For the first time, I realize that, when I do find "the one," I will feel confident. I will be proud of the person I am, and I will know that I am exactly who I'm supposed to be.

I know it won't be perfect. When I do find true love, there will be days where I feel down. There will be days when I will cry. And on those days, I'll know it's okay to let it out. I won't be ashamed of my tears. I won't try to hide it. Because I'll know that's just another part of who I am, and that it's okay.

Never again will I ever settle for anything less.

And you shouldn't either.