Building a Mental Health Toolkit to Save My Life
Decades of living with mental illness helped me choose the right tools
The day I nearly ended my life, I lay on the family room floor with our dogs, Astro and Maxine, the rough yarn of the Berber carpet against my cheek. I wanted to go to sleep forever.
Images of a plan formed in my mind. Was I dreaming or scheming? We would climb into my Volvo station wagon, safely entombed in the garage. I would put the back seats down so we could all stretch out, get comfortable for what I hoped would be an easy transition. I imaged opening the hatch, calling “Kennel up!” and watching the furry white dog jump in followed by her sleek black “sister.” I would close the hatch then get in the car and turn on the engine. Once it was running, I would get out and crawl in the back with them. I imagined lying down and feeling the station wagon carpet itching my face. Maxine would sniff then lie down. Astro might pounce, playful still, even though she was not a puppy. And I would pat the carpet, say “Down” and soon, I hoped, we would all go to sleep-together-forever.
But the phone rang. So instead of killing myself, I rose from the family room floor, all of us still very much alive, and took the call.
A quarter of a century has passed since this day which could have been my last. Despite much reflection, I still can’t entirely explain what caused a person like me — a person with everything to live for — a good job (I was a partner in a law firm), a loving husband (we had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary), friends and family (too many to count), and two of the sweetest dogs on the planet — to reach a place where I thought permanent sleep would be the best thing for everyone. I only know I am eternally grateful for that phone call. I am still chronically depressed, still often bereft, but I no longer want to die.
Here’s what I do know. I have a disease, a mental illness, a mood disorder. It rolls through my life like waves under a boat. To stay alive, I had to learn to ride those waves. I had to fill the nearly empty tool kit I was given when I came on the planet. You know that instruction manual everyone else seems to have? I didn’t get it. I had to write my own.
Here are a few things in my toolkit:
Suicide Prevention Hotline:
After my near suicide, before the days of cell phones, I wrote the local suicide prevention hotline number on pieces of paper and taped them to the many phones in our house. I called that number many times. If it were today, I would save it as a “favorite” and pin it to my phone screen.
I see a counselor for talk therapy and a psychologist for neurofeedback, also known as “brain training.”
Depression lies to me. It tells me the world is dangerous, my loved ones will soon die, and I too will suffer and die. It tells me everything is too difficult and nothing is worth the effort it (whatever it is) will take.
The counselor listens first, then helps me recognize unhealthy mental patterns. She offers an alternative view and better options.
The psychologist uses technology to do something similar to what the counselor does, but it works at the brain wave level. I watch a movie while hooked up to an EEG which is hooked up to a computer database. As I watch the movie, my brain waves are recorded. When my brain “behaves” the movie is bright and clear. If my brain exhibits unhealthy symptoms, the screen dims almost imperceptibly and makes a small sound. I can hardly tell anything is happening, but my brain can tell. As a result, my anxiety lessens and my mood improves.
I see a psychiatrist for medications. Depression and bipolar disorder are physical as well as mental. Medications help. I have tried to live without medication always with disastrous results. I’m fortunate to have excellent mental health care and access to a psychiatrist.
Like my counselor, my psychiatrist listens and does some talk therapy, but she is primarily interested in using pharmaceuticals to manage my brain function. She tweaks them from time to time since they seem to stop working every few years.
Mindfulness meditation allows me to sit with unpleasant thoughts and body sensations which used to drive my desire to die.
People don’t talk about the pain that comes with chronic, recurrent depression. The weight of it nearly crushed me. A dull ache, sometimes throbbing, pain in my back, and a heaviness in my chest. A headache or ringing ears. Difficulty breathing both from anxiety and the depression itself. My thoughts were so heavy.
A regular practice of sitting and walking meditation, periodic silent retreats, and guided meditation helped me develop skills to “be with” with anxiety, depression, and hypo-mania without reacting in a way that made both the symptoms and my life situation worse.
The most recent tool I’ve added to the kit is what I call “breaking a sweat.”
My favorite way to “break a sweat” is by running. I began with 60 seconds of slow, easy jogging and that led to running 5ks and (because I’m ever-so-slightly obsessive) half marathons then full marathons. The positive transformation has been startling. Running has brought focus, increased energy, and improved self-esteem. It’s not a cure, but it helps me manage my symptoms.
There is so much science now showing incredible mental health benefits from exercise. I hope one day doctors will prescribe it first before anything else. It’s just one tool in the kit, but it’s very effective.
Finding like-minded people for support also provides enormous benefits. Over the years mine have included group therapy, support groups, recovery groups, writing groups, meditation groups, and recently, several running clubs. Sharing my experience with others helps me realize a level of competence which depression and anxiety makes me forget. Knowing I’m not alone and having a common language with which to discuss our favorite subject (whatever that may be) brings us together and helps me feel unconditional love.
Recording my thoughts gets them out of my head and on paper. They often look different when I see them in black and white. It corrals them, helps me see fallacies, and allows me to reflect in a different mode from the “mental masturbation” that often rolls around in my brain.
While I have formal training as a writer and my running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target, was published in 2019, that is not necessary. Writing brought me relief from depression and anxiety long before I tried to shape my words into something anyone else might want to hear.
We are each different. We each have to find our own way. This is just mine. I write this because I hope what I’ve learned on my journey will help someone else. I also write it to come out of the “mental health closet” as a way to end the stigma. And I write this to remind others that we do not have to suffer alone.
Download your free copy of Nita’s eBook Three Ways to Heal Your Mind.
Nita Sweeney is the award-winning wellness author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink and co-creator of the writing journal, You Should Be Writing: A Journal of Inspiration & Instruction to Keep Your Pen Moving. A long-time meditator, three-time marathoner, and former assistant to writing practice originator Natalie Goldberg, Nita founded the Facebook group Mind, Mood, and Movement to support mental well-being through meditation, exercise, and writing practice. She lives in central Ohio with her husband, Ed, and their yellow Labrador retriever, Scarlet.
Originally published at https://judgmentfreezone2013.blogspot.com.