Thursday, October 10, 2013

Managing the Isms

At some point in my early 20's, I started having difficulty managing stress.

For a lot of people who struggle with stress -- and isn't that all of us at some point in our lives? -- the root of our stress is the pressure we place on ourselves. For me, it's pressure to do well at work. By "doing well," I'm not referring to making a pile of money, or that I become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. My definition of "doing well" at work is that my colleagues think of me as valuable, that my customers know I'm reliable, and that nobody ever questions my work ethic. This has always been the case for me.

That self-imposed pressure comes with a lot of stress. My need to work hard is most definitely an inherited thing. Both my mother and father are crazy hard workers. After they divorced, they each went off and married another hard worker. Look on both sides of my family and you can't find a slacker in the bunch. All of my family role models definitely earned their pay. As if that all of those busy bees in my family weren't doing a good enough job creating a false pressure to work hard, add my great grandmother Vera Conrad, lovingly known as Great Gran. When I was a little girl, Great Gran used to lean towards me in her wheelchair and whisper, "Idle hands are the devil's playthings." I assure you, there is nothing creepier than an ancient woman with long earlobes and chin whiskers telling you about devil's playthings to scare some work ethic into a little kid. And she practiced what she preached. Though she was wheelchair bound and no longer able to tend to a farm (talk about work!), Great Gran sat in her little wheelchair and quilted non-stop, keeping those wiry old hands as busy as could be.

Her creepy words stuck with me. At a very early age, I figured that I better work hard, or the devil would start playing with my hands and oh my goodness no! I'll just get to work, thanks. Given that pressure, it's no wonder I got pretty good at playing the piano. Busy hands. Busy hands.

During school and college, I managed stress enough not to cause problems, but I was always known as a bit of a "Stressball." It's just how I'm wired. But when I started full-time work in my early 20's, the stress of it all began manifesting itself in the form of some ugly little anxiety attacks. I didn't know how to handle it, and that stress fed on itself, so my anxiety worsened.

Lucky for me, when this started happening, one of my longest and closest friends was in grad school, getting her Masters in Social Work. I called her, and she came to my apartment with her hands full. In one hand, she held a six-pack of beer, in the other hand, she held a fat copy of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. I will never forget that. It's so indicative of the kind of friend she is: loyal, giving, and fully invested in helping you when you need her most. It's not surprising that to this day, she is still my dear friend, and a successful and highly-regarded private therapist who specializes in many things, among which are anxiety disorders.

That night, with a six-pack, tears and laughter, we began searching the DSM for answers. While we certainly didn't find them all that night (that DSM is one agonizingly difficult read, but a good cure for insomnia), it was a first step in identifying what was causing me to feel like I was completely out of my head. Soon enough, I began seeing a therapist, learning breathing techniques, and learning how to cope with my own definition of "normal."

I hated the way anxiety made me feel, so I didn't tell many people at all. I kept that secret close to my pounding chest. I was so afraid of people thinking that I was crazy. Except guess what? We're all crazy. It's just varying degrees, friends. And guess what? Most of the normal, honest people I know have admitted that they, too, struggled with anxiety at some point in their lives. If not anxiety, then depression. If not depression, then some kind of compulsion.

My sister calls these things "isms." "Isms" aren't always related to mental health. It could be that you need glasses and refuse to get them. That's your "ism."  It could be that you use baby talk when you talk to your boyfriend. Well, that's not an "ism," but it is annoying, so quit it. It could be that you detest laundromats. That's your "ism". Are you getting the idea? And honestly, if you live in this day and age and don't have some kind of "ism", well, congratulations on becoming a Buddhist monk. When you get back from your silent retreat, we'll all be back here in "ism" town when you're ready to talk again.

There's a Facebook thing that's been going around for a year or more that has a sad little drawing of a woman in an ugly pink robe that says, "Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are NOT a sign of weakness. They are signs of having tried to remain strong for way too long." The first time I saw it, I thought, "No wonder she's depressed. That robe is terrible." And then I read it again, and realized that the sentiment there is meant to promote acceptance of mental health issues - and that the sentiment is a good one. But it is a tad on the dramatic side. I certainly wasn't forced to be "strong" for a long time, I just got hit square on with anxiety issues. I believe my anxiety issues have much more to do with chemical make-up and a lot of forced pressures that I place on myself.

The post goes on to send a message of acceptance for those of us (1 in 3, evidently), who deal with "isms" at some point in their lives. It also mentions that this week is Mental Health Week. Every time somebody posts it, I "like" it. Because it's a good message. But I also get tickled that since it's on Facebook, that message keeps floating around, making every week Mental Health Week. But in case your particular "ism" is that you're a stickler for dates, October 6-12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. And while I will always take a silly tone with serious topics, it really is a good time to reach out to someone that you know struggles in some way, and let them know that you are there for them. It might also be a good opportunity to ask them how they manage their issue, and how you might help.

For those of us who struggle with our "isms," every day is Mental Health Day. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what would happen if I had an anxiety attack while driving, speaking to customers, caring for my kids, you name it. If it weren't for years off an on in therapy, an extremely supportive family, meditation and prayer, regular exercise and deep breathing techniques, I'm fairly convinced I would be trying to figure out how to leave my people and make a beeline for the nearest ashram for a long-term recovery.

And just because I can talk openly about my anxiety issues, does not mean everyone feels that free. I wish it were easier for everyone, because it would help reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems.

In recognition of Mental Health Week, here's the link to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, where you can tell your story. I shared mine; I hope you share yours.

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