Blue Light Blue - A Blog About Coping With Depression and Anxiety
Amy Marlow lost her father to suicide and now deals with her own depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Her posts are incredibly personal and thought-provoking, reflecting not only the pain and trauma she has endured, but also her commitment to not hiding her struggles with mental health.
i am so grateful for this opportunity to share about what a positive impact experience i’ve had with this is my brave. for most of my life i felt that i shouldn’t talk about mental illness or suicide out loud. through blogging and performing for this incredible organization i took big steps in opening up and starting to own my story. their tagline is storytelling saves lives and i absolutely believe that to be true. that message especially resonated with me when i first started writing. check out their website to see if they are holding a show near you – they are nation-wide and growing. if you can’t make it to a live show they have an amazing variety of videos and written pieces on their site – all focused on breaking down stigma and living with mental illness.
this is my brave works to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues by sharing personal stories of individuals living successful, full lives despite mental illness through poetry, essay and original music, on stage in front of a live audience.
in march of 2014 – almost exactly four years ago – i got sick. i was hospitalized for the first (but not the last) time for severe depression, panic and suicidal ideation. before i got sick was a different time. kind of like bc/ad.
before i got sick i didn’t think that depression or anxiety were real illnesses. although i had been diagnosed with both for a decade. although my dad had died by suicide. i didn’t take them seriously, i underestimated their power. i thought that if i tried just a little harder i could overcome the sadness. if i worked a little harder i could overcome the anxiety. and if i loved a little harder i would never be abandoned again.
before i got sick i worked long hours and tried to do it all. i poured all of my energy into my jobs, never saying no and always wanting to do my best. i thrived off of the praise of my colleagues and didn’t know how to moderate my energy level. i didn’t have healthy boundaries. i would push myself too far too fast, burn myself out, find a new job and do it all over again.
before i got sick i didn’t exercise. ever. i didn’t do many hobbies outside of work. i thought i didn’t have the time to go to the gym. or take a dance class. or learn how to make pottery. i didn’t make room for experiences that would feed my soul. “self care” meant getting a manicure or going to the mall. i was hooked on an anxiety/adrenaline/manic cycle and shopping was my extracurricular activity. shopping temporarily filled the void. shopping made me feel beautiful. shopping distracted me from a deep-down need to be loved and taken care of.
before i got sick i didn’t see the patterns. the highs and the lows. the nature of my depression. the grip of my anxiety. the hard-wired ptsd. i didn’t understand how childhood trauma still impacted me on a daily basis. i didn’t know how close i was to the edge of a mental health crisis, that i was hanging on by a thread. i didn’t talk, i didn’t share. i couldn’t even say my dad’s name out loud. denial isn’t the right word – i was way past that. i was living an out of body experience – detached, unaware. totally unaware.
before i got sick i didn’t take my treatment seriously. not like i do now. if a psychiatrist gave me a prescription i filled it, no questions asked. i did no research about the medication. i was not informed and i didn’t want to be, didn’t think i needed to be. i showed up at therapy week after week, venting about coworkers or boyfriends or friends but staying far far away from the deeper issues. if i was given suggestions about things to try outside of counseling i didn’t try them. if books were suggested i didn’t read them. and if my dad’s suicide came up, if “childhood trauma” was mentioned the walls went up and i shut down. sometimes i would stand up, walk out and leave the appointment.
before i got sick i would wish a lot. wish that i didn’t have these problems that seemed to keep coming back on repeat. wish that my dad hadn’t killed himself. wish that i didn’t feel like i was sitting on the edge of an ocean of sadness. wish that i could feel like “everybody else,” believing that other people’s lives were categorically better than mine. i didn’t know about coping tools. or dbt. or mindfulness. i was miles away from having a recovery tool kit. i didn’t even have the box.
before i got sick a doctor told me that i needed to go off my antidepressants if i wanted to have a baby. so without question, without reservation, without much thought at all i did just that. i was a woman with a ten year history of often severe depression whose father killed himself and whose body she discovered. going off of medication was a dangerous move. it was downright irresponsible medical advice. but i had no idea at the time.
before i got sick i would push myself past limits i didn’t even know were there. as i weaned myself off of my meds i didn’t see the red flags going up one after another. like a boulder rolling downhill i hurled past breaking point after breaking point, unable to stop the momentum. while my ability to function at work and at home unraveled i watched from outside of myself, unaware of what was happening and unsure of what to do about it. by the time i realized how bad things had gotten it was too late. i crashed. all of the years of untreated mental illness, trauma, shame and grief rose up around me and swallowed me whole.
before i got sick got me where i am today. before i got sick had to happen for recovery. i have traveled an incredibly long way. but before i got sick i was beautiful. i was scared. i was strong. i was young. like a little seed underground, burrowing in the dark soil, i was preparing to grow. to stand up tall and look my pain in the face. to be drenched in the rains of grief and to be warmed by the healing sun.
i have had an extraordinarily difficult week. the worst week i’ve had in the last three years of recovery.
last thursday i received a new diagnosis: bipolar II, ptsd and generalized anxiety disorder. over the last few months i have cycled through a range of symptoms that are more indicative of bipolar/ptsd than major depression. it’s hard for me to write this because i am still processing. i agree with the diagnosis, i understand it but i am still processing.
the more i have learned about mental illness the more i have suspected that i may have some form of bipolar disorder. the cyclical nature of my depression, the up-high highs and the down-low lows, the excessive energy, at times feeling driven by a motor, the shopping issues. but this is the first time i have been diagnosed. and while i am already taking a medication for bipolar disorder this news means a possible medication change. which scares me so much more than what my illness is called. med changes have been historically difficult for me, and at times completely destabilizing.
i’m on the edge. i’m trying to hold on. to rational thinking. to feeling safe. to believing in my recovery and in myself. because my mind is traveling a million miles ahead of me right now, living in the worst case scenario. i feel like every thought begins with what if. what if i have to change my medication? what if it doesn’t work? what if i lose everything i’ve worked so hard for?
what if i get sick again?
i’ve been in enough treatment to understand cognitive distortions, and right now i think i’m experiencing all of them. i am one big anxious knot of black and white, time travel, all or nothing, catastrophic thinking. and underlying my panicky thoughts is a deep-down fear that i can’t do it again. if the worst happened, if i did get really sick, i feel like i don’t have it in me to get through another recovery. i’m exhausted. i have poured literally everything i have into getting better and i feel like i can’t try any more. why does it feel like the mental health rug is constantly being pulled out from under me? am i cursed? how many times do i have to start over?
so i have developed a mantra. and when i start going down the rabbit hole i will say it. out loud. several times. because i have to talk back. i have to pick myself up. in this present moment i can focus on who i am and how far i have come – not how far i have to go. i can’t control everything but right now i can do my best to acknowledge the fear and then reconnect with some opposite truths. i am not re-living getting sick again – it feels similar but it is not the same. this is just life with mental illness. this is a bump in the road of recovery.
recovery isn’t linear. i remember my case manager saying this to me when i was first discharged from the hospital. it doesn’t go in a straight line. and the bigger the problem, the more serious the illness, the more complex the recovery.
at the time i didn’t really understand what she meant. my outlook on getting sick was that you got better pretty quickly. the worst illness i had experienced before my breakdown was strep throat. i got antibiotics and within two weeks i felt normal again. identify the problem, find the solution and recover. so linear. i didn’t have any real experience with recovering from a serious illness.
i equate my experience with mental illness to a natural disaster that devastated my life. the buildup took years and years. i carried decades of not being ready to look my dad’s suicide in the face. i was detached from the effects of that trauma in my life. i wasn’t in denial – i truly didn’t see it. didn’t want to see it, wasn’t ready to see it, was terrified to see it. i think of all of those days and weeks and months and years that i carried the pain without talking about it, without even seeing it. add in the depression and anxiety that i didn’t want to have and didn’t know how to cope with – it was a recipe for personal crisis. it’s no wonder that i still struggle with feelings of fear and inadequacy.
and yet i find myself feeling deeply frustrated and almost desperate that after all of the work i have done i am still dealing with the same core issues. it feels like i have tried my hardest and yet i am still that broken little girl who is never good enough. i thought my recovery would be more complete, that i somehow would be farther along on my healing journey.
but recovery isn’t linear. the more serious the illness, the more complex the recovery.
my case manager compared recovery to a spiral rather than a straight line. i think she knew that i was in it for the long haul – that given all of the pent-up trauma and mental illness i needed a new visual. a way to re-frame this most difficult process. at the time i didn’t get that either, and for me the word “spiral” had a very downward connotation. two steps forward, one step back. never making real progress.
but the further i travel along my road of recovery i can see what she meant. it’s a forward and backward and then forward again movement. when i take a step outside of myself i can see that it’s not just two steps forward, one step back. the step back is usually followed by many more steps forward. i have to, have to, have to look at what has changed. because it’s real.
the past few weeks my anxiety has flared up. i’m over thinking, over doing – i think of it as fast forward amy. racing from one thing to the next, always feeling behind and overwhelmed. no matter how many wonderful, thoughtful, brilliant things i may do. lots of sweating, shallow breathing and that awful supercharged feeling inside. the farther along i get in my recovery the more frustrated i feel when the depression, anxiety or ptsd jumps out at me, reminding me that they are still there. shouldn’t i be past this by now?
it’s so critical for me to hit the pause button on my thinking here. because it is so not the same as it was a year, or two years, or five years ago. i am handling my symptoms infinitely better. and because of the work i have done my symptoms are nowhere near as strong or overwhelming. instead of hiding it away i told my family and my boss that i was struggling. instead of powering through a particularly difficult day i went home sick – since anxiety is a legit illness and is 100% deserving of a sick day. and although i had some painful moments i would still say that i had a pretty good week. even though it’s hard to change my thought process and anxious behavior at least i can see it for what it is. no longer in the dark, no longer struggling with an unnamed problem. at least i know – and knowing is half the battle, right?
recovery is a journey, which inherently needs to include breaks. time to rest, time to breathe, time to reset. i am giving myself a break – a break from trying so that i can just be. that’s something else i have learned – that sometimes in recovery i can just float. i can be carried by the positive momentum of all i have done. i can come back into the present moment, finding comfort and peace in my present surroundings. in my hot cup of coffee, my dog sleeping next to me, in the sunlight streaming through my window. even in moments of anxiety i can see the beauty all around.
i think i’m starting to get it. i am on the upward spiral. forward, backward, rest, forward forward forward.
i woke up to the sound of an alarm going off. at first i thought it was mine and, half asleep, i rolled over and slapped the clock. but the beeping didn’t stop.
i opened my eyes and stretched in bed. i remember distinctly the feeling of savoring one more moment under my warm covers. but the alarm kept going off and with every beep i felt a little ping of nervousness.
i got out of bed and followed the sound into my parents’ room. the alarm was beep beep beeping and read 6:30 on the dot. ugh, i thought, it’s so early. i hit the button and suddenly it stopped. my ears were flooded with the sound of silence. if my parents weren’t in bed anymore why was it so quiet?
i peeked into the guest room and found my mom asleep. often she would go in there if my dad had trouble sleeping, which seemed to be happening more and more. i walked across the hall and looked into my sister’s room. she was in her bed, surrounded by a mountain of stuffed animals – check. two out of three.
i moved downstairs and once again was struck by the absence of any sound or movement. everything was too quiet. my senses quickly became heightened as my brain worked to figure out what was going on. i scanned the living room, the kitchen and stopped at the dining table.
breakfast was laid out as if i was in a restaurant. a bowl, a spoon, a box of cereal and one banana. carefully arranged, everything in its place. there was even a glass of orange juice. the table was set but where was my dad? even at the time it struck me as chilling.
something small started gnawing inside. something very small.
i went into the basement. a few weeks ago i had come downstairs early and found him on the exercise bike. i crossed my fingers that he would be there but now it was dark and still. i looked in both rooms – no sign of him. i felt a cold wave wash over my whole body. the gnawing got stronger. something was wrong.
i raced back up the stairs, back through the kitchen the living room the sitting room. i moved through the rooms of my life in a blur, compelled by fear and a need to know. still no dad. i charged up the stairs and checked every bedroom again, opening every door and sweeping through every closet. checking, checking checking – a habit, a symptom i continue to this day. my heart was racing. the gnawing was stronger and stronger. where where where. where was my dad?
wait, i thought. i forgot.
i forgot about the laundry room.
slowly, this time, i walked downstairs. on some level i knew. he would be there.
i stood outside of the laundry room door and paused, just for a second. inhabiting the space between what was and what was to come. my heart was beating in my ears and i was shaking, ever so slightly.
i put out my hand and turned the doorknob. and without realizing it i stepped out of my childhood. out of my life. out of myself.
i opened the door and i found my dad. that’s where i finally found him. a single light bulb shined overhead, illuminating him and illuminating me in the darkness of our home.
i’ve hit a rough patch. and those of you who live with mental illness know how frustrating it is. i work hard every single day to stay well. i do meds, therapy, exercise, self care and ask for support from my family and friends. i write about mental illness because i live with it and want to do my best to process my symptoms and past trauma in a healthy way. i am so grateful to have made so much progress in my recovery. but when mental illness flares up i find myself feeling resentful and disillusioned. after all i have done, after how incredibly hard i have worked, it is still there.
my first reaction is anger. no way, not again. what is this point of this struggle if it keeps coming back? tired desperation hits me next. i thought i was beyond this. i have done everything right – aren’t i somehow beyond feeling hopeless or sad or isolated? i can’t do this again. i should be further along. i slide into self pity. fuck it, i think. my life is just going to be like this. other people’s lives are easier. other people’s problems aren’t as complex. childhood trauma has wrecked my life. it has wormed its way into every corner of who i am and how i think and feel. i am broken and i can’t be fixed.
it is at this moment that i am able to stop and take a step back. to respond to my fear with my wise mind. i find the strength to talk back to myself. i am not broken – i say it out loud. i have been through painful things and the pain is real. feeling pain doesn’t mean something is wrong with me. and feeling pain doesn’t mean that the experience of pain is permanent. the path of recovery is not linear. it winds around and goes forward and backward at times. i acknowledge that i move through the cycle of anger-desperation-self pity much more quickly than i used to. and i recognize when i am putting myself down or losing myself in catastrophic or black-and-white thinking. yes, mental illness is still here. but my ability to live with it and move through it is getting better.
i don’t like to write about how much i have helped other people. that’s not why i write. this blog is for me – for my own healing journey. but because i am being especially negative towards myself right now i would like to share some of the messages i have received over the past two and a half years. messages from people just like me, who live with mental illness and who have survived suicide loss and suicide attempts. these messages are evidence. proof that i am not the only one. proof that other people suffer and that other people survive. and proof that i am doing something good. and that good work is real. just as real as pain.
thank you for sharing the way you do with this blog. i have been looking long and hard for something like this and today i stumbled upon you. i’m struggling and fighting like hell in my mind to overcome this. your blog reminds me there are others out there sharing the same struggle and that helps a lot.
i was blown away. not only by what you have endured and survived, but the way you are able to share it. your honest writing puts depression and anxiety in understandable, human terms.
the battle can be overwhelming especially when no one knows what you are dealing with because you keep it hidden from the world. thank you for letting me be a part of your journey.
i am so appreciative of your strength, generosity, and BIG heart. i am 50 years old and have read oh, SO many books, magazine articles, blogs, etc. yet i have to say that i don’t think any of them has given me as much hope – nor has sounded so familiar to my heart and soul- as your writings. your honesty and determination to HELP others, no matter how starkly and boldly you need to lay yourself bare to do so, are remarkable.
i just stumbled on your blog yesterday and ended up reading almost all of your posts in one sitting. to date, your blog has had more of an impact on me than anything else i have read or come across.
thanks so much for all you’ve done for me, amy! you are a true example and role model for how we can all manage our mental health forever.
searching for a little online help this afternoon, your blog found its way to me on the west coast of canada. you are able to express so eloquently what depression has etched on so many hearts and minds.
i too have struggled with depression and anxiety for years and can relate to your feelings of shame secrecy about it. it can be hard to believe that ‘other people’ struggle too and i find myself feeling like a fraud keeping my depression struggles from my friends. there’s a part of me that knows i should share it and that very likely they would be compassionate. but there’s something that always holds me back. reading your blog makes me feel not so alone.
depression likes to hide and i think seeing people like you be more open and vocal and unashamed has a massive impact – at least it did for me.
i came across your blog last night and have read all 9 pages by this afternoon. i want to say thank you, thank you for your literature, your metaphors, your story, your pain, your infinite survival.
i work in mental health and i love your work. there are times where i have used your pieces to spark discussions and help my patients challenge negative thinking. i also suffer from major depression and each time i read your pieces they empower me further. thank you for making such a powerful contribution to mental health and my life.
i truly connected to your words. i finally feel like someone gets it. to not feel alone is the biggest factor in this illness i believe and when someone can relate, its just relieving. i cant wait to read more of your posts… keep writing… and stay well.
my dad committed suicide when i was 13 too. sometimes i wonder if there is ever a way to fully heal, but instead i just need to know how to not let the inner scars inhibit me…please keep being a voice for this topic.
stay strong and inspire others, your story brings hope.
author’s note: i did not include last names or contact information to protect the confidentiality of my readers. all quotes are taken verbatim from emails, messages and letters i have received.
suicide loss doesn’t stop hurting after one month or one year or one decade. i am 21 years into this journey and the impact is still there. the fallout is forever. i try my best to be positive and hopeful, to remember that i can deal with this and that i am a survivor. but some days, some weeks, i don’t feel like a survivor. i feel like i am just surviving.
that moment when i walked into the laundry room and found my dad is forever. it went somewhere deep inside of me and lodged itself into the core of who i am. i have been in years of therapy. i have reached out for help and talked to so many people. i have done my best to be aware of what i need and to take care of myself to the best of my ability. i write write write it out and process through this blog. but that moment is still there. the terror is still there. the abandonment is still there. the traumatized little girl is still there. maybe not as bad today as it was 21 years ago. but suicide is forever.
the abandonment i experienced when i lost my dad, the pain that my entire family experienced is forever. at 13 years old i was faced with a loss that was bigger and more complicated that i could comprehend. i was so sad that i couldn’t even cry. i was so scared that i didn’t even know it. and that feeling lasted in a conscious way for years and then went below the surface and is still present today. what if i fail? what if you don’t like me? what if you see who i really am and then you leave me? suicide is forever.
there is no road map for surviving a suicide loss. and especially as a child, i didn’t have the emotional framework to begin to process what had happened. i wasn’t even diagnosed with ptsd until i was 31, because back when my dad died ptsd was something that veterans experienced. not seventh grade girls. so many of my symptoms went untreated and i developed unhealthy ways of coping with the trauma. obsessive thoughts and behaviors to control my surroundings. checking checking checking to be sure that the people still closest to me were not going to leave. shopping to fill the empty space inside and to have a momentary rush of feeling beautiful, desirable, wanted. i am working on them, i am trying to change but i still do all of those things today. suicide is forever.
sometimes it feels that just when i have gotten to the bottom of my dad’s suicide it drops out again and i have to go deeper. there is always more to work on. there is always more to learn about myself. during weeks like this one it feels almost maddening. how many more layers are there to peel away? how can i work so hard at this and still feel stuck in the same behaviors i exhibited at 13, 15, 18 years old? i try to be kind to myself as i go through this process but that in and of itself is one of the biggest consequences of my grief and early trauma: on a deep-down level i see myself as not good enough. so i put myself down, over and over again. i try to grow and make different choice but it’s still inside of me. suicide is forever.
i want to scream at my dad, take him by the shoulders and shake him really hard.
look at this, look at what you left me with. look at what you did to me. did you know? did you think? did you realize?
sometimes when i least expect it i catch a glimmer of you.
at a random moment when my mind is on something else it happens. for a second i am transported.
i am looking walking running flying out the front door, bare feet slapping on hot pavement. i jump into your arms, spilling over with excited anticipation. “daddy’s home!” i shout and you smile, taking my hand as we walk back inside.
we are working in the yard. i want to help you build a new flower bed and you grin at my childish eagerness. “ok,” you say. “you can help me.” i bask in the warm sunlight of your love as i get to work.
it is fall and michigan is playing notre dame. you are watching the screen and i am watching you. we are caught up in the emotion of the game. i shout when you shout, i cheer when you cheer. we leap up, yelling “M GO BLUE!”
i ask you what you did in the navy. you tell me stories and teach me lessons. show me pictures. things you brought back. to me you are a hero. every story makes you braver in my little girl eyes.
it is christmas eve and it’s time for bed. we are nested close on the couch, a family of four. you are reading “the night before christmas” and everything feels right to me. the fire is crackling, the lights on the tree are twinkling. i close my eyes and listen to the story, feeling totally full and tingly with anticipation at the same time.
we are riding in the car with the windows rolled down. bob seger, bruce springsteen, the mommas and the poppas, chuck berry blast out of the speakers. you know all the words so i watch you sing, faking it when i miss a lyric or two.
you are telling terrible jokes and i can’t stop laughing. “you can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” nothing could be funnier. no joke was ever better. i laugh so hard that tears stream down my face.
we are sitting side by side, me with my sax and you with your trumpet. “what’s next?” you ask. “i left my heart in san francisco?” we play slowly as i struggle to pick out the notes. i sense your patience and i wish i was better. i promise myself i’ll start to practice more.
it is my fifth grade graduation and i feel like i’m standing on top of the world. after dinner you slide a small box across the table, wrapped with a pretty white bow. i open it, breathless. a necklace. the most beautiful necklace i’ve ever seen. i think to myself that i am the luckiest.
sometimes when i least expect it i catch a glimmer of you. for a second i am transported.
but a glimmer never lasts. by nature it is temporary.
like sunlight on the water or smoke in the wind it is fleeting.