In the Existence of Mental Illness

Book Review

The Existence of Amy by Lana Grace Riva

Amy is existing. She goes to work, makes excuses to avoid happy hours, and moves through life while knowing that simple existence is not right. She has something, a voice, a compulsion, a suffocating threat to any semblance of the life she used to have. Her friends continue to be there for her, but her secrecy, excuses, and separation keep her from accepting their kindness.

Lana Grace Riva has delivered a book that encapsulates mental illness, giving voice to every bit of Amy’s struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. Reading Amy’s first-person account of her mental illness was true and gave a voice to what it’s like in the thick of it, not after years of medicine, therapy, and improvement. It’s a rare book that truly does this.

Thank you to Ms. Riva for gifting me with a copy of this book to review and provide my own thoughts about this valuable mental health novel.

Overthinking About You: A Read-Along

Mental health is a passion for me. I struggle with severe mental illness (SMI), as I’ve shared on here before. But mental illness doesn’t just impact the diagnosed; it impacts their loved ones and anyone close to them.

Mental health and relationships come with their own sets of challenges. I am so grateful for my husband who supports my mental health journey and who is my unbending advocate.

That’s why I was excited to participate in The Tandem Collective Global’s real-along for the book Overthinking About You: Navigating Romantic Relationships When You Have Anxiety, OCD, and/or Depression by Allison Raskin (Workman Publishing). This read-along was a great way to immersive myself in the book and answer questions about my contributions to my marriage while dealing with SMI.

What I Liked about Overthinking About You

I loved the thoughtfulness of this book. Ms. Raskin writes with a warmth and honest approach about anxiety, OCD, and depression, and how to navigate relationships while you have a mental illness. Another quote that hit me hard: “I might not feel this way or see the world this way, but I acknowledge and respect that you do” (p. 90).

This book is practical advice, research from experts, and nuggets of wisdom. While Overthinking About You is written from the standpoint of new and relatively new relationships, I found the discussions about anxiety and conversations about mental health applicable to my marriage. My husband is incredible, but I know my mental health puts challenges on our relationship. And that’s on me.

Activities in the Read-Along

As I completed the read-along, I highlighted passages and filled my notebook pages with resonating words. Here are three statements that rang incredibly true for me:

  • A useful acronym to respond to anxiety – “STOP: Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed” (p. 40).
  • “It’s a lot more reasonable to ask someone to weather a storm with you when you already have a strong foundation” (p. 59).

And my absolute favorite:

“None of us are Superman, and that’s a good thing.”

Allison Raskin, Overthinking About You (p. 78)

Another activity asked about your healing rituals. Here are some of mine:

  • Sit outside with my husband.
  • Go for a long walk, ideally while listening to an audiobook.
  • Take a hot shower.
  • Pet my dog.
  • Let myself have a good cry.

Also, I liked the read-along activity that asked us to think about our senses and what awakens them. I came up with these:

  • Seeing the bright colors of tulips and the Northern Lights
  • Tasting a delicious dessert
  • Smelling a great perfume, coffee beans, and fresh-cut grass

Final Thoughts

Ms. Raskin understands the importance of mental health, and she writes from a place of honesty and realism. This book isn’t full of broad-stroke advice that you’d see on a motivational Pinterest board. Instead, it’s a thoughtful look at how you can manage your mental health, specifically anxiety, OCD, and/or depression, and be in a positive romantic relationship.

I’m happily married to a wonderful man who supports me and my mental health. While some of Ms. Raskin’s messages were solely for people in the dating stage, I still took away some great points about how I must communicate what I need when I’m struggling and how I can take hold of my own mental health in relation to my marriage.

Overall, this is a 5-star book for me, and I highly recommend if you struggle with mental health and are/want to be/have been in a relationship. It’s a great read with a long-lasting message!

Two quotes I’ll end with:

  • “There is power in knowing you are not going to change your morals in reaction to pain” (p. 193).
  • “No matter what happens, my life is in good hands. They just happen to be my own” (p. 196).

What Anxiety Looks Like

I’ve been fighting back crippling anxiety for a week now. I’ve tried to explain what my anxiety feels like before, but my words don’t seem to accurately define it. I am going to keep trying, though.

My Picture of Anxiety

  • Checking my email inbox obsessively to see if my boss’s boss approved of my work.
  • Feeling like a did 30 minutes of cardio when I’m just sitting in my chair. Heart pounding, shallow breathing, body aching.
  • Knowing I need to complete my to-do list, but not being able to focus, and then feeling ashamed that I can’t check off my priorities.
  • Counting calories and steps with a fear I won’t meet my goals.
  • Snapping at my husband because he asked how I am feeling.
  • Panicking when I realized I booked a non-refundable trip.
  • Clicking Buy Now on Amazon because a book or a dress might make me feel better.
  • Being proud that I was able to leave the house for 20 minutes.
  • Spending an hour talking myself up so I can leave the house for 20 minutes.
  • Sleeping because I’m exhausted, but having to take Klonopin to help me sleep.
  • Dreaming about trauma and failure.
  • Withdrawing from my family.
  • Cancelling a trip to the city to see friends because I can’t imagine getting on a train.
  • Wishing I could spend the day in bed, but feeling obligated to close my Apple Watch rings so that nothing bad happens.
  • Saying the same prayer every night so nothing bad happens.
  • Feeling like I’m walking in a razor-covered high wire.

Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month (Week in the UK). My company’s Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee tried to promote it and mental health support, but I only saw a few posts about it on our Workplace channel. I helped my department launch a campaign for mental health awareness, but I am sad that few people participated. I was the only one to make an individual post in support of the campaign. Now I’m unsettled because maybe my peers assume that I have a mental illness because I showed more support than others, and it feels like I’m standing out too much.

It’s true that I have serious mental illnesses. I share about my bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety here and on my social media channel. So if I’m putting my SMIs out in the web universe, why does this bother me? Am I a fraud because I’m nervous sharing any of this with coworkers? Am I contradicting what I stand for?

I think I am all of those things, but here are the excuses I tell myself when I shy away from talking about mental health in the workplace.

People Don’t Understand Mental Illness

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2020), 13.1 million U.S. adults have SMI diagnoses. While that’s 5.2% of the adult population, it doesn’t mean understanding and recognition is growing at the same rate.

SMIs take many forms. Some people can be high-functioning, hiding their SMIs from others while they control their symptoms with medicine, therapy, and self-care. I don’t believe that you can be “healed” from an SMI. Rather, like a cancer of your brain synapses and chemistry, you can go into remission. That doesn’t mean that you’re healed; it means that you’re not showing symptoms.

Yes, SMIs are being discussed more than ever, but the stigma remains. From misrepresentation in the media to stereotypes about mental health, there are so many assumptions about what SMIs look like:

  • Uncontrolled anger
  • Moping
  • Irrational behavior
  • Victimhood
  • Weakness

Those are just a few of the assumptions that I’ve heard, and I know there are more. The stigma of SMIs is deafening, and it prevents more people from disclosing their diagnoses.

Disclosing Mental Illness at Work

I’ve been in the professional workforce for nearly 17 years now, and one of the things I’ve carried with me from the beginning is that I’m a failure and a liability if I show too much emotion. Emotion equals weakness, and weakness equals stagnation. But what happens when emotions are tied to SMIs that, at times, have been out of control?

When I had a breakdown in August 2020, I was terrified of taking vacation time. We were in the middle of a pandemic, and who takes a vacation from work then? I was hanging onto my job with my fingernails, even while I had multiple panic attacks daily. Despite hearing that my UK counterparts were taking 4-week-long holidays, people in the U.S. didn’t do that. My boss worked 12+ hours a day, so I needed to do the same. But when I couldn’t function anymore, I knew I needed time off.

So, I made the decision to talk to my doctor about taking a mandatory leave. She agreed. I should have taken more than 10 days, but I refused to allow myself more. My boss stopped me from sharing too much information with her because of privacy laws, so I focused on HR and my doctor shared only the most pertinent information.

I felt forced into a corner to take those steps because I wanted to protect my position at the company. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents firing because of medical leave like mine, and I was afraid of retribution because I was taking time off.

But that’s a bit irrational right? My company was pitching the boilerplate language of self-care, work/life balance, and taking time away. People in other countries were taking PTO and seemed fine with it. But that wasn’t what I knew. After all, wasn’t my boss working tons of hours? Why would I show weakness like that?

I don’t talk about taking that medical leave. I didn’t share why I needed the time. I needed more time, but again, I didn’t want to be weak.

Some things have changed since that time. I have a new boss who actively encourages taking time off. I do the same for my direct reports. The world seems more attuned to mental health in some ways. But, stigma remains. People remain quiet. And I question my actions.

When will we move forward? When will we normalize conversations about SMIs? When will we change the narrative?

Four Reasons I Hate Mental Illness

Mental health matters and mental illness sucks. I have a running list of reasons I hate my mental illness. Here are four.

Mental illness sucks. There. I said it. It doesn’t just impact your brain. It makes nearly every part of your life go sideways. Here are four of the most pressing reasons why I hate having a mental illness.

Mental Illness Steals My Motivation

Do you have grand ideas of what you want to accomplish? Do you act on those ideas? Turn them in to goals that you fight to achieve?

I have grand goals that I want to achieve. I’m a driven person who seeks external validation in every part of my life. The problem is, I don’t often act on the goals that I know will make a huge difference in my life.

Give me a work project with a deadline, and I’ll attack it. Push me to do a work-related something new that will set me apart, and I am here for all of it. But, tell me that monitoring my diet and getting regular exercise will help me feel better, and I fall into a puddle of failure.

Most of the time I’ll blame this behavior on being lazy. I’ll respond with excuses and sometimes even anger. That’s a fear-based response because my brain tells me I can’t do it. Anxiety takes over and then it’s all about the overwhelming feeling of failure from before I even start. My brain lies because of my mental illness.

For example, I’ll wake up early on a Saturday morning and have grandiose plans of accomplishing my to-do list of those should-do items that I think about all week. I’ll sit with that feeling for a bit and then become exhausted. The thought of leaving the house to pick up some organizer bins or just go to the FedEx store or even have a lunch treat with my husband, and I’ll collapse under the pressure I put on myself. I’m an all-or-nothing type of person, and the “all” makes me tired. My motivation is gone. Mental illness lies and tells me that I can’t do any of it.

Finding a Medication for a Mental Illness is Frustrating

If you’ve ever had to take a medication for your mental health, you know what I’m talking about.

It can take months for the medicine to build up in your body, to be effective and make you feel better. Or, it can work from Day 2 and then taper off after a month. There is no cure-all that starts from the moment you swallow a pill, or four, and then feel stable for the rest of your life. At least, I haven’t found it. It’s like Alice taking a bite If a biscuit and morphing into a giant, her feet and arms pushing through the doors and windows of the White Rabbit’s house, and then she swallows another carb and shrinks to an eighth of her original size. In between, she nearly drowns herself with her own tsunami-sized tears.

Okay, I don’t remember the timing for all those scenes in Disney’s movie, but you know what I mean.

Finding a medicine – or a cocktail of prescriptions – is a tedious process when you’re tying to improve your mental health. I’ve been on so many different medications that I have lost track. Most recently it was lithium, that Big Daddy of the mental health world that scared me from the start. But, I’d take it for two weeks, feel great, and then the dosage would need tweaked. There’s a limit to what you can take, obviously, so we switched to something else. I’m feeling better right now with the current med cocktail, but there’s a lingering thought that the other shoe will drop and I’ll have to start all over once my body gets accustomed to another medication.

Mental Illness Makes Me Act Like a Victum

The t-shirts and the stickers are right for most people. Their mental health matters and they’re fighting through their struggles. They’re accomplishing things and sharing their stories.

I want to share my story, too. But right now, I’m in a cycle of victimhood as I blame others for the past and I’m not moving forward. I’m stuck at the blame-and-shame stage. I don’t believe that everyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and recover alone. You need a team, a tribe, a push forward.

I say “right now,” but if I’m being truly honest, I’ve been this way for decades. And that makes things worse. I hate that I’m not holding myself accountable for every part of this. Yes, bad things happened to me, but I haven’t made peace with those things yet. I hang on to the pain. And that exacerbates my mental illness and fills me with more lies that grow like mold in my brain.

Mental Illness Changes Your Relationships

This is the biggest reason why I hate having a mental illness. My depression and anxiety impact my family every day. I hate that my kids have become attuned to me hiding in the bedroom and sleeping away the afternoons because I’m so exhausted by life. I hate that I have to talk to them frankly about mental health. I hate that I don’t do the Pinterest and Instagram mom things because I’m mentally ill. I question if my love is truly enough when I can’t show up with enthusiasm and action unless I push up against the walls of the deep, dark hole that depression dug around me.

I hate that my husband feels he can’t talk freely without my emotions taking over in response. I hate that he’s dealt with my mental illness as much as he has. I hate that he anticipates a “no” from me before he asks if I want to do something, so much so that he’s stopped asking. I hate that I haven’t felt right with him in months because I can’t relax. I don’t know how much longer he can hang on. He knew what was wrong before we married, but my mental illness has gotten worse, and it’s incredibly unfair to him.

The Tipping Point of Mental Illness

The tipping point is near. The fear remains that I’ve gone past it and can’t go back. The lie remains that I will be this way forever. It’s not something I’m handling well. Maybe I just want to be miserable. And that’s fifth reason I hate having a mental illness.

Overcome Negative Thinking Patterns

I’m a negative thinker. From what I understand, negative thinking patterns are pretty common for people with depression and anxiety. It makes sense, really. My thought patterns feed me. I want to get healthier, so I’m working on identifying and rebutting these negative thinking patterns. Frankly, I’m struggling with it all.

Negative Thinking Patterns

According to an article on VeryWellMind.com, negative thinking patterns occur when you face a situation and cause stress. In my life, I imagine these thoughts creating sneak attacks on my brain when I’m vulnerable. These attacks have been occurring for so long that I’m actually accustomed to their warfare and no longer recognize what is false and what is truth.

For example, one negative thinking pattern (also called a cognitive distortion) that I battle is mind-reading. I might tell my husband about an event in my day. He’ll be occupied with some happening in his own day, and he might not react to me in the way that I expect him to. That leads me to think that he isn’t listening, he isn’t interested, he doesn’t care, and he clearly thinks I’m stupid.

See what I did there? In reality, if I stopped for a moment and asked myself, “What is the truth in this situation?” I would have been able to figure out that my dear, loving husband was actually just busy at the moment and would have been more than happy to talk about my day at a time that was more convenient. He’s proven this again and again. The truth is that he is kind and willing to listen at nearly any moment.

Stop. Rebut. Find the truth. It would save so much time and decrease my anxiety and stress – my husband’s too.

Another cognitive distortion is catastrophizing. This means that I assume that because X happened today, then it will happen tomorrow as well, and on and on until the world ends because X happened on October 31, 2020. In fact, the world ending will solely be caused by X happening to me on this date.

Do I sound crazy yet? I think I do. But, I’m being raw and honest here. I think catastrophic thoughts regularly. I use words like “always” and “never” to describe stressful events and interactions. I assume that because a coworker criticized my work on one project, that she hates everything I do and that I’m always going to be a target of her criticism, and she’s out to get me fired.

Again, fully acknowledging the crazy here.

When I type out these examples of my own cognitive distortions, I see how ridiculous I sound. So, I guess I need to continue to write about them. To make sense of them and understand what I’m doing when I have these thoughts. And, remember: Stop. Rebut. Find the truth.