Mental Health & Putting On My Oxygen Mask

Trigger warning for anyone who is steering clear of descriptions of symptoms of mental illness.

I’ve been meeting with a therapist twice a week for a year and a half. We work on many topics and areas of my everyday life, as well as tackle the overwhelming things from my past that have felt hopeless or impossible for many years. I know she’s a psychologist and that it is her literal job to be good at this…but she’s SCARY good. I thought I knew myself pretty well, but in a matter of weeks, she was able to start making observations about my family, me, and the way I think that both shocked me and made an incredible amount of sense. I had no idea how to talk about anxiety, panic, and depression before. In the beginning, I felt like I was walking a weird line week to week between excited about learning and afraid of learning, which she taught me can exist on the same emotional continuum. When you’re afraid on a roller coaster, you’re also excited. Rather than focus on how afraid I was of the prospect of sorting through my life, I could start to focus on how excited I was for a simpler, more-sorted-through future. They say you go to therapy when it’s time, and boy was it time.

I started to learn that taking care of yourself first isn’t selfish. My therapist told me that self-care is putting on your own oxygen mask before you help the person next to you put on theirs (like safety instructions on airplanes). If you don’t do it in that order, you could be screwed, or both of you could be. I need to get enough sleep, eat enough, relax, and have time to myself and time alone with W. Listening to my feelings and instincts, and the cues my body gives me. Balancing logic and emotion into wisdom to see reality for what it is and accept it. Mindfulness has been a completely new concept for me. So were boundaries and my right to set mine without apology. When these things fall by the wayside, I fall by the wayside too.

I had to – this one made me laugh.

My friend and I were talking recently about the power of terminology. Having the appropriate language and framework through which to understand concepts or experiences is revolutionary. I’ve always thought even the small amount of psychology I’ve been aware of in my life up to now was fascinating, but I feel like I’ve been holding onto every new idea I’ve been hearing like it’s gold. Sometimes I take notes afterward so the information can sink in better, and my therapist gives me handouts regularly. I think she’s noticed that as I’ve stabilized (and not every session is me sobbing as much), I respond well to an almost academic approach when she brings out a new concept. We’ve got drama triangles, acronyms, diagrams, and bubbles. You name it and a visual aid exists for it.

I mentioned anxiety, panic, and depression earlier. I don’t mind sharing my diagnosis if it might help someone feel less alone. I am diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and nightmare disorder. There’s some OCD, depression, and self harm tendencies in there too. I have experienced dissociative episodes and flashbacks. I have had vivid, frightening nightmares more nights than not since my earliest memories that stay with me, and I thought I was just “weird” in this regard until last year. My therapist says I live in the world of anxiety and fear. I honestly thought everyone’s mind worked this way, with swirling anxiety that makes my body feel like an overheating machine. I read childhood diaries I wrote as early as age 8, full of far too much worry that I thought all kids had. Fast forward back to present day, and most recently I’ve had three major panic attacks, two of which landed me in the hospital. Sometimes it can all feel completely overwhelming.

I didn’t expect there to be a therapy Boromir, but here he is!

But… I have hope! I’m doing the work, and I have an incredible primary care doctor as well as my wonderful therapist who both listen and respect where I’m at on any given day. Not to mention W, who has held my hand all night for many nights, sometimes in a row. He has been right there with me every second, helping me make medication decisions and learning my new coping skills too as I learn them so he can guide me when I don’t know which way is up. I know that I can feel strong, assertive, and confident. I’ve even been exercising every single day with almost no exceptions for the last few months! ME! My therapist says gratitude can get you through anything. I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity to work through things that come my way, and for the people around me who have held my hand and lifted me up. I guess you could say I can see the oxygen mask now, and it’s time to put it on.

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