May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Throughout the month I will share my own experience with depression. This is the continuation of the journey which would eventually lead me to qualifying for Social Security Disability benefits because of my depression.
After my ‘mini’ breakdown and not showing up at the junior high, I was able to finish my practicum and completed my Master of Education in August 1995. It was a few tense months before I landed and started my first full-time job at a community college in January 1996.
This was NOT an ideal position for anyone, much less a 25 year old fresh out of graduate school. I reported to three different supervisors for a grant-funded position with no clearly defined duties. It was a recipe for disaster from the beginning regardless of my struggle with depression.
Early on I was very resistant to accepting criticism/feedback. I wrote one night that “more than once, I have gotten defensive and/or just ignored what was said to me.” I knew I needed to get back into therapy, but because I had previously been diagnosed with depression, I had a pre-existing condition and had to wait the required six months. (Thank you Affordable Care Act for changing that for others!)
By the time I was able to return to therapy, the stress had built to such a level that I began to have inappropriate angry outbursts whenever I was critiqued by one specific supervisor. After one of these explosions in mid-July I wrote in my journal, “I know that it was PMS and that it had only been getting worse each moth as I had more and more work.” (In hind sight, this is a sign that full-time jobs were not for me. It only took me 13 more years to finally accept that as fact. J)
In regards to the same ‘episode’ I wrote, “She made it appear as if I had chosen to act that way. I was not in total control. But, she doesn’t understand that.” I knew I didn’t have a handle on the situation, but I just was processing what needed to be done to better the situation.
Much time in therapy was spent exploring my anger. I was encouraged to read, “When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within,” by Matthew McKay. I was given handouts about the different types of anger and suggested ways to work through it without it coming out of me like lava when a volcano erupts. We did guided imagery to help me get more in control of my emotions. We did EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which is often used for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
None of this was helping. I just couldn’t get a grasp. In December, I was very discouraged and wrote, “I become upset at the lack of control I have over my feelings.”
Not only was I being easily agitated and having inappropriate/unprofessional outbursts, my physical appearance was also taking a toll. My release for anxiety and stress was most often to pick on my face. A simple, small pimple would easily fall victim to my fingers and repeated scrapings. Before long, my face would be covered with large, very noticeable scars.
These were taken the summer of 1996, only six to eight months into my first job. It would take a few major episodes, and many years of doing this before I recognized it as a pattern. But, the pictures don’t lie. Friends and family thought I just had a problem with acne and would give me advice and tips to clear my face. None of us realized at the time that it wasn’t an acne problem, but rather a more serious problem with depression and anxiety. Let’s call it what it really was: self-harm.
When someone talks about self-harm, we often first think of someone that cuts one’s self. According to NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness:
Self-harm includes cutting, picking, scratching, burning…to reduce, express or cope with overwhelming, painful emotions…[persons] living with depression may self-harm if they do not have healthier alternatives in place to cope with or relieve negative feelings.
Self-harm can also be used as a kind of “self-medication” for treating depression—not unlike drinking, using substances or overeating. Some individuals report that self-harm can be experienced as a “runners high” when “feel good” endorphins are released in the brain in response to the physical injury.
By and large, picking was my form of self-harm behavior. I had one instance of intentionally burning myself; and then just a few years ago, I was scratching my hand with a box cutter. Picking at my face was mostly an unconscious act. The burning and the scratching with a box cutter were deliberate attempts to relieve the pain of the depression.
Even with that pattern of self-harming behavior, I was not prescribed a separate medication for anxiety. I suppose since many of the antidepressants I had been prescribed are sometimes used for long-term treatment of anxiety as well this is why my psychiatrists took so long to consider adding another medication.
Things in that position never really improved to where I was happy with the job. I eventually asked for an accommodation based on my depression to be moved into another position for which I was qualified. I began my academic advising career and worked directly with students just as I had wanted all along. For the most part, this was a much better position and I was generally happy…until my world came crashing down in 1999.
In my next post I’ll share one of the worst days of my life and the impact it had on my depression.
This is the tattoo I got to cover the scar where I burned myself with a fork.
It is a compilation of four runes from “The Healing Runes” by Ralph H. Blum and Susan Loughan. In short, the runes are a way to bring focus in a chaotic world.
The different runes are: Courage (the arrow going up), and starting at the bottom going up Surrender, Prayer, and Serenity.