Whose Pain Is Bigger?

Life is full, FULL, FULL of pain! Life hurts. A lot.

But that’s okay.

And it has to be okay. It has to be normal. We walk from problem to problem with the hope of turning our current problems into better ones in the future, not with the hope of creating a problem-less life.

Everyone hurts, and it’s true that some lives hurt worse than others. However, playing “whose pain is greater” only fosters a lack of empathy.

My husband had an abusive childhood and thoroughly nightmarish upbringing. He has revealed more about it, little by little, over the past seven years. I’ve had many close friends who were willing to share their darkest traumas with me, and no one’s story holds a candle to my husband’s. For the sake of his privacy, I’m not going into detail, but trust me when I say that “nightmarish” is the most appropriate word, if a nightmare can last 18 years.

My husband does not complain about his misfortune. He acknowledges it and takes ownership of it. He knows he’s fully responsible for his reaction to his trauma, even though he now has severe C-PTSD and the trauma itself was not his fault. Part of the response he has chosen is to not play “whose pain is bigger?” with other people’s horrible childhood stories. It would be easy for him to gain a quick emotional high by claiming that he was hurt worse, and therefore deserves more pity. In fact, the superiority high a person gets by playing “whose pain is bigger?” is usually the reason people play it in the first place. It feels good to feel superior, and saying “my pain is bigger than yours, so mine is more important” is a quick and easy way to get that superior feeling.

Some pain is bigger than others. But as humans, this knowledge does us no good. It harms us by robbing us of our empathy. My husband has to consciously work to be empathetic to others because, whether he wants to or not, he knows his childhood was worse than most. His saving grace is in knowing that comparing and quantifying suffering will preemptively end any empathy he’d be capable of in the first place. So, he tries to be self-aware enough to reiterate in his own mind the idea that he is choosing to listen and respond compassionately instead of letting himself ride the high of superiority-through-suffering. Even though he must internally acknowledge that his pain is bigger (because it usually is), he knows that’s not an excuse for him to be an asshole to someone else, especially a person who is being brave enough to share their pain with him.

I was never abused. I still turned out to be an extremely mentally and emotionally abnormal adult (and I know “abnormal” is not a PC word to use, but this is me identifying myself as I see appropriate- don’t yuck my yum). Statistically, among other mentally ill people, my case is more severe than most. However, if I decide that my pain is more important than yours, I will withhold my empathy for you and will treat you without compassion. This response comes from the same place as someone telling you to “snap out of it,” “just get over yourself,” or “don’t be a baby.” I think most people with mental illness would agree that those three things are horrible, terrible things to say to a person who is admitting to the pain in their life. They are cold, heartless, mean things to say. Most of us know how badly it hurts to hear them. However, even people with mental illness can still become shortsighted when we compare our pain to others’. We feel superior in our suffering, and since we enjoy that feeling, we allow ourselves to treat others poorly because of it.

If the quantity of suffering determined the worth of a person’s problem (it does not), we would all just move through the world as if we were better, more unique, more victimized, or more deserving than anyone who has not had our problems. The real issue here is…

I see this all the time.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t speak honestly about your pain. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t complain. I’m saying stop comparing your life to anyone else’s, especially when it comes to your struggle.

As I said before, life hurts a lot.

It is supposed to hurt, you are supposed to struggle, and you need to continue to be compassionate while you, personally, are actively hurting and struggling. Because everyone else is hurting and struggling, too, and no two struggles are equal when quantified. If you expect people to listen to you without judgment when you express your pain, you owe it to them and your own humanity to listen with equal compassion.

It doesn’t matter who hurts worse. Everyone should measure themselves by how closely their behavior aligns with their own values instead of measuring themselves against another person. The measure of success is unique to each human on the planet. The measure of pain is equally unique. 100% of what I can feel before breaking may be 30% for you (way easier) and 500% for someone else (deadly). So even if you suspect that you were hurt more than someone else, it does you no good to assume a position of superior suffering.

Empathy is the greatest tool we have for improving humanity. Unbridled empathy could solve homelessness, healthcare, war, poverty, famine, and global warming. Unfortunately, we tragically lack enough empathy worldwide to solve these problems on a macro scale. We are, in so many areas in our lives, only capable of making a difference on a micro scale; we can only influence those close to us. For this reason, you should actively exercise empathy as much and as often as possible. Your difference in the world will be seen most in the people around you.

I know you hurt because we all hurt. I hear your pain and your struggle, and I want you to know that your pain is valid. Just promise, promise, you’ll remember that everyone else’s pain is valid, too.

The Coping Skills You Didn’t Know You Needed

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There Is Always Hope Of Reducing Your Pain

You can calm and soothe yourself when you hurt.

It takes a long time, some training, and a lot of practice, but by using coping skills, you can learn how to calm yourself during a depressive episode, an anxiety attack, a panic attack, a bipolar episode, or something similar.

When I have a situation that causes me pain, the first thing I need to do is figure out how to feel better. After that, I can try to resolve the situation. This is where my coping skills come in. My coping skills are anything I can think or do to make me feel better. They range from meditation and mindfulness to re-watching comedy specials on Netflix and cuddling with my husband. Some are extremely simple, like reading or cleaning when I’m on the manic side. Others are just statements I reread that I originally had physically written down on index cards kept in my “toolbox”, which is the box I keep made out of a re-purposed shoe box. Now I use this article to “thumb through” my tools at a glance.

Actions

I have many soothing or calming actions I can take to feel better. Here are the actions from my toolbox:

  • Read a book if manic.
  • Call a friend if you need compassion or to be heard by someone.
  • Lay down, close your eyes, and relax from toes to scalp if you are tense.
  • Play guitar if you need a distraction.
  • Listen to an affirming Spotify playlist if you need to center yourself or re-establish your personality.
  • Do the big/medium/small ears centering meditation. (This is where you sit silently with your eyes closed and imagine your ears are getting bigger. When they are very large, listen for all the sounds you can hear outside of the room you are in. Once you can hear all the sounds, shrink your ears to half their previous size, and listen to everything you can hear inside the room you are in. Imagine your ears going back to normal, and listen carefully for all the sounds inside your body. This helps to ground you in the present moment, and it also helps with fear and anxiety. It is a very quick and easy meditation, and only takes a few minutes.)
  • Meditate freestyle. Let thoughts occur inside of imaginary helium balloons in your mind, and then let each balloon go up and away as your thoughts come up. Have a thought, but then let it float away.
  • Drink cold water.
  • Sing until you are distracted.
  • Exercise.
  • Hold ice cubes in both hands and feel them melt. This is good for distracting your brain from your anxiety, which calms you down for a little bit. It’s good for panic attacks, but the relief doesn’t always last, so have another skill prepared for after.
  • Walk. Thinking while walking helps you process emotion, due to the bi-lateral communication between the two hemispheres of your brain.
  • Go outside and ground yourself. You ground yourself by noticing something near you and trying to take in as much information about it as you can. Use sight, smell, touch, color, lines, your emotional response to it, its history and where it originated. You can do this with anything. I recommend a tree or a plant.
  • Meditate any way you like.
  • Splash cold water in your face.
  • Watch something comforting you’ve seen before on Netflix. This one is great for depressive and dissociative episodes, especially comedy specials. They have no plot to follow, it’s okay if you tune out sometimes, they have the same volume all the way through (which is good if you are tense, anxious, or agitated), and if you’ve seen it before, you’re not being challenged by trying to take in new information at a time when you already can’t process things you usually know.
  • Write about all of your feelings.
  • Talk to someone in your family. It is highly likely that they want to help you.
  • Paint.
  • Draw.
  • Think about science.
  • Color in your coloring book.
  • Yoga.
  • Do crunches or lift weights.
  • Find the present moment. Become completely present. Not worrying about the future or the past, just noticing exactly what is happening right now.
  • Warm up like you would before a voice lesson (or any instrument).
  • Make sure you’ve eaten. If you haven’t, have fruit. This one is a good solution for when I don’t want to eat anything at all.
  • Meditate by watching your breath.
  • Cuddle with a loved one.
  • Give attention and kindness to your pet. Take your time. Be present with them. They are always in the moment.
  • Take a hydroxyzine or Benadryl (or whatever you are prescribed for an as-needed anxiety med). I only name hydroxizine and Benadryl because both of them are non-addictive anti-anxiety medicines to be used as-needed for anxiety attacks and episodes. You have options when it comes to psychiatric medication, so keep your doctor informed if something doesn’t work or causes problems. Please note that lorazepam, alprazolam, clonazepam, and diazepam all have the potential for abuse and addiction because they work so well and make you numb if you abuse them, so discuss any addictive tendencies you have with your doctor. Like I said, you have options.

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I just graduated from high school. How can I make my life meaningful?

Congratulations! Now you will be thrown out into the wide world to learn how to be an adult. Don’t be scared; it’s just the ride. You’re on a ride. It will go up and down, thrill and scare you, but in the end, when you die, it’s all just been the ride.

Your last teen years and your twenties will be interesting, to say the least. You’ll make a lot of bad choices, which is totally normal, natural, and a healthy part of growing up. Don’t be too afraid of making bad choices. If you try not to hurt anyone, use birth control always, prevent STDs, go to the doctor when you need to, and stay away from hard drugs (no one tries crack, meth, or heroin just once), you’ll probably be just fine. Don’t get me Happy Fishes CCwrong; use your best judgment as often as you can. Just remember that everyone is imperfect and we all mess up sometimes. Nothing great has ever been accomplished through guilt or shame.

Your brain will stop changing and will be fully developed around age 25 if you’re a woman and age 27 if you’re a man, so you’ve still got a lot of personal growth and change coming. You’re not fully an adult yet.

For now, your job in your personal development is to figure out what you like and don’t like, what makes you happy, and how to feel better when you feel bad. A note though: don’t turn to alcohol to make your problems go away. If you do this often, you will become dependent and eventually have to give it up for good. Addiction is real and will really mess up your relationships and your life. If you only drink when you feel okay, you may be able to use alcohol successfully for the rest of your life.

There is no universal purpose or meaning to life. Everyone has to decide on their own what they want the purpose of their life to be. I decided that the purpose of my life is to learn, love people, and spread knowledge about mental illness. I get to decide, because my life is mine alone, and I’m the one who has to live it.

One of the ways everyone can make their life more meaningful is through practicing mindfulness. The internet will have better explanations of mindfulness than I can fit in a post, but the idea is bringing yourself fully into the present moment through various techniques, actions, or thought processes. When you get into the moment, it’s beautiful. The more you can get there, the happier you’ll be. There have been clinical studies on the effectiveness of mindfulness on mental health.

As far as giving your specific life meaning, I suggest you write about your feelings often. Try to pay attention to what basic things make you happy and find a way to form a life around them. If you really like plants, go work at a nursery and build a garden at home, or get a job in a local park. If you like walking around outside, get a job as a letter deliverer. If you like babies, go work at a daycare. If you like cooking, be a cook. You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer or business executive to be happy. You don’t have to be rich to be happy, although it is much better for Continue reading

“How do I comfort a loved one who is in mourning?”

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First and foremost, be patient. This is a wound that will only heal with time. And don’t worry. There’s nothing for you to fix.

Be supportive. This refers back to patience. You will temporarily have to pick up some extra responsibilities, because there are things your loved one can’t do right now, like dishes, running errands, or laundry. They just can’t. They’re not being lazy, they are actually incapacitated.

You will also have to help them with self-care, by reminding them to eat, shower, and brush their teeth. If they are not sleeping well, buy an over-the-counter sleep aid and remind them to take it, because if they sleep poorly, that will drastically worsen their depression. Inversely, if their sleep gets better, they will have an easier time with their depression.

Since this is what is considered a situational depression, these problems will not be long term. The depression will probably be over in less than a year, and will gradually get better day by day. It may even be better in a few months, depending on how quickly your loved one processes their loss.

If you can make an appointment for them with a therapist, do so, and offer to drive her/him to her/his first appointment. If they hate the therapist, try again with someone else. A therapist can teach your loved one coping tools that will help ease her/his suffering. You can learn coping tools alongside your loved one, both for you to use yourself, as well as for you to remember so that you can remind your beloved to use specific tools. If you would like to borrow some of my tools, I have a list here with explanations of how to use them: Coping Tools You Can Borrow! – The Goldfish Painter

Let them be angry, and remember that if they get angry with you for doing nothing wrong, it’s their grief talking and that their anger probably Continue reading

How To Help A Friend with Anxiety

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Talk to your friend about what activities are soothing, as well as what the things they really need to hear from you are. Encourage them to write these things down, with the goal of giving you the piece of paper to keep, so that you can say or do helpful things when they are having a hard time. Note: it is also very important that they make a similar list for them to refer to.

Some of the things you can say that might make a difference are:

Breathe slowly. You’re going to be okay. You’ve always gotten through this is the past, all you have to do is wait it out. I know you are strong. This will be over soon.

You are so loved, I care about you deeply, and I will help you any way you need if you tell me how.

We can get you out of this situation if we need to. (Make sure you can follow through on this.)

You are not in danger. This is your anxiety trying to take you over. I am here to help you feel safe. (If they will not respond positively to you saying that their reaction is coming from their anxiety, just promise them you will keep them safe.)

Some actions you can take to help are:

Try to remove your friend from the situation that is causing the anxiety response, like a social or family situation, the store, the mall, or a party/formal event. Go outside with them and encourage them to breathe in slowly through the nose while counting, and breathe out for half as long out of the mouth. This physically slows their heart rate. You can count out loud for them to help them concentrate, and feel cared-for. You can also offer them the option of leaving the situation entirely, if possible. It’s okay to cancel plans with friends and family in order to help your friend function. It’s something that they will need sometimes. If their friends and family can’t be understanding or supportive, they are going to lose those people eventually anyway.

Remind them to eat. Low blood sugar can trigger an episode. When you go somewhere with them, keep a piece of fruit with you.

Encourage your friend to get in to see a therapist if they don’t already. If they can’t afford it, there are some therapists who offer sliding-scale pricing, which means your friend would pay according to what they make. When they see the therapist, they should go in with goals in mind. These goals could be “I want to be calmer in public places.”, “I want to feel less anxiety.”, or “I want to struggle less with my daily life.” The therapist will then help them build tools and skills to use every day that are aimed at lessening their pain. If your friend is reticent to go to therapy, offer to help them find a therapist and to drive them to their first appointment.

Remind them often that they are loved and supported, in and out of anxiety episodes.

Remind them to do any of the activities they wrote down as “soothing”. It’s easy to forget your tools when you’re in crisis.

Please remember that your friend can get better and experience less anxiety, but they will probably never fully recover. The goal is not to be cured, the goal is to learn to live successfully, in as little pain as possible. Most of the responsibility to get better rests on your friend’s shoulders, not on yours. Make sure you take care of your own mental health before reaching out to help your friend. It’s okay to sacrifice a little for them, but if you find yourself slipping into a depression because of their situation, take some time to yourself to get better, and then return to your friendship refreshed. Since your friend has a mental illness, they should be understanding if you express the need to take care of your own mental health for a while.

It is very loving and honorable that you want to help your friend. If you have a very close relationship and you are willing to take on more responsibility, this has more ways you can help: How Outsiders Can Help – The Goldfish Painter

 

Like my artwork? Lots of different paintings are for sale here on Etsy!

“How Can People On The Internet Help Me With Severe Depression?”

All people on the internet can do for you is to listen and respond. We can offer our support through words and remind you that you are not alone. We will be here in the middle of the night. We will hear you, and we will try to help.

 

Move forward with the hope of treatment and remission. You need to be seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist. Depression is hard, and you may not have much energy or functionality today. That’s okay. Make your one task for the day “Make an appointment with a psychiatrist”, and even if there is a long waiting list, set the appointment and put it on your calendar so that you will have help in the future. Do the same thing tomorrow, only with a therapist.

 

If you already have a psychiatrist and therapist, stay vigilant in keeping your appointments and taking your medicine. Start to build your toolbox of coping strategies,(that link is to a list of all of my coping tools) and use it when you’re in pain, even if that Sunflower CCmeans you are using it all day, every day. You cannot be cured, but your pain can be managed. For your next appointment, take any notes you can on your symptoms, triggers, medicine effects/side-effects, sleep problems, eating problems, and daily moods. There is no wrong way to take these notes, just write down information every couple of days about things you experience in your illness. The important thing is that you have everything written down for the doctor. The doctor will only be as good as the information you give them, and you are your best and only advocate as the patient. Don’t rely on only your memory to communicate with your doctor, because memory is fickle and fallible, and doubly so with Continue reading

The Ultimate Guide To Taking Psychiatric Medication

(Quick! Take a 4-question quiz to let me know how you feel!)

When you first start psychiatric medication, you honestly don’t know what you’re doing. I wish that there was a class on how to be a good and helpful patient that anyone could take for free when they get their first script, but instead, I will write out the things I believe are crucial in order to make significant progress aided by meds.

person holding white medication tablet

Patient Skills For a Lifetime

Although I am not a doctor or any sort of health professional, I do consider myself a “professional patient,” due to the past 13 years of dealing with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. All that time, I have been in treatment with psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, general practitioners, and specialists in various fields. The following is what I’ve learned.

The Rules

  1. One psychiatric medication does not work the same on everyone. And if you’re already telling other people about your meds (what works for you and what doesn’t), then please read the disclaimer that needs to come before any advice you hand out.
  1. Sometimes a psych med has the effect of causing health problems, making things worse, or affecting you in a way opposite of its intended purpose. An example is that for some people, some antidepressants can cause suicidal ideation, and some antipsychotics can cause hallucinations. These effects happen to a small minority of people, so this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them. Because…
  1. Psychiatric medication can save your life. A med can bring you back from the brink. A med can improve you enough to be able to use coping skills, which is difficult in a nonfunctional place…
  1. Doctors are stabbing in the dark when you begin treatment. This means that you will probably have to try more than one medication before you find one that works. Once you find one that works, then you will need to…
  1. Adjust your dosage and time of the dose with the guidance of your doctor. Often, a medication that works for you a little bit can work for you a lot after you figure out what time(s) of the day make you feel best. This is often called “tweaking the dose.”
  1. To learn how the dose needs to be tweaked, you will need to KEEP NOTES. Print out a mood chart from the internet (search “mood chart”-it’s easy). Go to Kinko’s or the library if you don’t have access to a printer. I know some apps do the same thing, so look for those instead if you’re inclined. Or just keep a notebook. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you have the following information in an easy to read way:
    • Your daily mood status
    • What you are taking, what time and how much (you don’t need to write down the things that don’t change every day)
    • Your mental illness symptoms, especially anything severe or unusual for you
    • Other health problems
    • Any problem behaviors or events (like self-harm or episodes)
    • Any insight you notice about how you are being affected
  1. Bring your notes with you to the doctor. Some doctors’ appointments are as short as 10 minutes, so every sentence counts. Having all the information on hand eliminates the need for telling long, rambling stories full of irrelevant details. This is probably the most important thing to do in your relationship with your psychiatrist.

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Scared of What’s Next

Over the past month, I’ve been declining.

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The other night, my husband made a minor comment that made me feel bad, and I fell into a thought spiral on the thought “It’s not supposed to be this hard.” I started crying. I sank deeper into dark ideas, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and meaninglessness. When the sadness became too great for my brain, it turned to pure fear instead. My mind’s solution to fear is often to ascribe meaning to it that isn’t there, just because it needs to have a reason to be afraid. This time, my mind picked ghosts. The room around me was full of ghosts. They all stood still, with their hands at their sides, all silent, all staring at me. There must have been at least 30 of them. There was not enough space between any of them for me to leave the room or even get off the couch.

 

I called out to my husband to help me and told him about the ghosts. He tried to help me fact-check by telling me that there couldn’t be ghosts because ghosts are not real. That didn’t work this time. I could see them. I could feel them looking at me. My husband is a creative problem-solver when I’m in crisis, so he was on top of the situation. He told me that there were no ghosts in the bedroom, so we could go in there and be safe. He made a path through the ghosts with his body so that I could follow behind him without touching them. It worked. The ghosts stayed out of the bedroom, so I stayed in it. I moved on to other troubling beliefs, but none as bad as the audience of 30 translucent spirits in the living room.

 

Those ghosts were a psychotic symptom, somewhere in a mix between hallucination, delusion, and paranoia. Mental illness symptoms are rarely simple or plain. Everything is a mixture of gradients. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a striking and problematic psychotic episode.

 

I also had a night when I put together many pieces of “evidence” that my husband was cheating on me. It was full-fledged paranoia. I was seeing meaning and clues in everything. I spent the afternoon in a perpetual fit of Continue reading

I Am Disabled

Conv Bloodshot Earth.jpegI don’t like that I’m not supposed to say that I’m disabled. I was told recently that what I’m supposed to say is “person living with a disability.” I was told this by a healthy person with healthy privilege. Something is not right here.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet my cat on the idea that a healthy person coined the idea of  “people living with disabilities.”

I am completely supportive of trying to make the world a kinder place, and if saying only “a person living with a disability” instead of “a disabled person” is what we need to do to make people with disabilities (which I am not opposed to saying as long as “disabled person” is still something people can call themselves) feel more accepted, safe or supported, I will do it. But I will not give up my right to call myself disabled.

The word “disabled” is incredibly powerful to me. It took me years to accept that I am truly limited in a way that most people aren’t. Before I accepted that I was disabled, I measured my life against healthy standards instead of standards that are realistic for someone with my disorders. Because I did not yet acknowledge Continue reading

What to Expect in a First Therapy Appointment

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When you see a therapist, it’s good to go in with goals in mind. Those goals can be big or small, broad or narrow. Some of my goals in the past have been “reduce depression”, “cope with anxiety”, “build a healthier relationship with food and lose weight”, “learn assertiveness skills”, “set firm boundaries with parents”, and “minimize psychotic episodes”. At your first therapy appointment, be ready to set one or more goals. Your therapist may ask you directly what your goals are, or they might let you direct the session. Either way, let them know what your goals for therapy are.

It’s important to see a therapist with whom you are comfortable, but most people are not comfortable with their therapist for the first handful of appointments with them. It’s perfectly normal to be nervous and uncomfortable in therapy at first. The hope is that you will gradually learn that you can trust your therapist. If you have a deep dislike or disrespect for your therapist right away, leave. But if you’re just nervous, awkward, or uncomfortable, then try giving them 4 sessions before you decide whether you need to find someone else. Therapy is awkward at first, especially if you grew up in an environment where it wasn’t okay to openly and honestly express emotions. If you grew up in an emotionally accepting family, therapy will be easier to dive in to. If you didn’t, then it might be a little hard to open up, but there is nothing you could say or express to a therapist that would be inappropriate or out-of-bounds. This is the one person who legally must keep your secrets and is not there to get anything out of your relationship other than employment. They are only there to help you, and they have chosen that as their life’s work.

You can say as much or as little as you want in a therapy session. I encourage you Continue reading