12/15/16

You Need To Stop Playing Your Mental Illness Card

Something I've found myself doing pretty frequently lately is saying "I can't." And usually, "I can't" is coupled with "Because I'm bipolar." or "Because of my anxiety." or a variety of other deviations that involve having a mental illness. I've been using my mental illnesses as an excuse to do or not to do things. To put it another way, someone close to me very honestly said, "You need to stop playing your mental illness card."







Ouch. I was upset about that for awhile. I used it as another excuse to wallow. As I lay on my bed, crying in self-pity, I thought things like "They just don't understand! They'll never understand!" and "I have every excuse to act the way I've been acting." and even "I refuse to change because that's just how my life is. I'm always going to have these challenges so it's not even worth trying." When I had wallowed an inappropriate amount of time, I sat up and started to actually think about what they had said. "You need to stop using your mental illness card." "Well," I mused, "At least they acknowledge that I have a mental illness card."

They were right though. I've been waving my white flag and giving up to every little challenge that comes my way. (One such challenge being writing a new blogpost. "I can't, I'm too anxious." etc...) It is also my number one excuse for acting poorly. Instead of saying, "I'm sorry." I say something like "I'm sorry but I'm just really depressed right now." An apology isn't really an apology is there's a "but" involved. Treating someone poorly is still treating someone poorly, whether or not there is mental illnesses involved.

Like I said earlier, I do have a mental illness card. It is really there, and because of it, there are some things that are out of my control. My bipolar disorder sometimes triggers rage that I didn't even know could exist inside of me. It is uncomfortable and makes me panicky until I do something about it. Not just irritation or anger, full on rage. I've just been letting it boil out of me, uncontrolled. (It's embarrassing to be so open about this, but I think some of you reading this might understand.) So, while I can't control the emotion, I can control what I do about it. I'm learning how to step away from situations that have triggered my anger and to take a breather instead of acting out. There are more ways than one to handle a situation, mental illness involved or no.

Another example of me playing my mental illness card comes in the depressive episodes that come with having bipolar disorder. There are times when the last thing I want to do is get out of bed. When a friend asks me to hang out when I'm feeling this way, I'll sometimes make up an excuse why I can't when my real excuse is that I'm just playing my mental illness card. Now, I am learning to recognize when getting out of bed just isn't an option that day. Those days happen. But, what am I going to do when those days happen? I might not be able to do my normal routine, but there are things I can do. Instead of playing my mental illness card, I have to do what I can for that day. Just because I am extremely depressed doesn't mean I can't try. Maybe I can't go out with friends like I normally do, but I can get out of bed and take a shower. Obviously those "cans" change with each situation, but it's those kinds of decisions that I am learning to make instead of falling back on my mental illness card and not doing anything at all.

It has taken probably hundreds of times of those close to me very nicely saying, "You're giving up to easily." in a multitude of ways before it finally clicked with me. It took, "You need to stop using your mental illness card." At the time, it felt like a slap in the face. But as time has gone on, it has turned into fiery motivation. I may have a mental illness card, but I don't need to play it to win.

10/23/16

I've Been Robbed

When I was a sophomore in High School, my iPod was stolen. I loved that iPod. It was a replacement gift from my dad, as I had accidentally run my own bright-pink nano through the washer and dryer. I listened to it all the time on the bus and at home. It was  It was my fault, really. I left it in my backpack out in the open in the girl's locker room during gym. I trusted people too much and didn't think that I could ever be robbed in Bountiful, Utah. When I came back from class and saw that it was missing, I started crying. In front of everyone in the locker room. I tried to hold back tears as I walked to file a report with the school officer but I wasn't very successful. When I went home, I cried some more. I felt dumb. I I felt like my privacy had been violated. I was angry because it just wasn't fair.







For me, one of the hardest parts about having a mental illness is feeling robbed. I've felt cheated by God and the universe. I had the perfect plan for my life. Go to school, go on a mission, get married, and start a family. A simple request. A normal life. A safe plan. Obviously, that hasn't happened. I've gotten angry at God so many times for "cheating" me. Granted, my challenges are nothing in comparison to the trials that so many go through. But I have still felt like my mental illness has robbed me not only of my perfect little plan, but of who I am. I'm not who I was before I got sick. I used to be so much more kind and thoughtful. I enjoyed going to parties and being around people. I was more driven in academics and I thrived off of success. But then my mental illness came around and stole those parts of me. Because of this I feel dumb. I feel violated. I feel angry because it just isn't fair.


I never got my iPod back. It was gone for good, and I was pretty peeved about it for awhile. I learned from that experience, though. I started locking things up. The next iPod I got I appreciated so much more. I treated it better and kept it safe. My mental illness does the same thing for me that my stolen iPod did. It teaches me to appreciate the things that I do have and to work hard for the things that I don't. When I am depressed and hopeless, I have to work hard to get back up. When I am happy, I appreciate and enjoy it so much more. Just because I haven't gotten what I thought was rightfully mine doesn't mean that I haven't gotten was I actually need. Without the absence of the things that my mental illness has stolen from me, I wouldn't have grown in the ways that I have. My mental illness has caused voids in my life that were filled by things much more important and meaningful than I could have ever imagined. Getting robbed by my mental illness has been something that has changed my life for good, in ways that I am just now beginning to recognize.


Yes, mental illnesses suck. They steal things from you. They hurt. But there's an upside to it all: you have the experiences that you need to have to become who you need to be. It's just up to you to recognize it and do something about it. 

9/22/16

Why Marrying an RM Isn't My Top Priority

When I was in Young Women's, I was taught repeatedly that I should try really hard to marry a returned missionary. For the longest time, it was my number one priority for a trait in my future spouse. We made lists a few times for mutual activities about what traits we wanted in our future husbands. At the top of my lists I always wrote, "Returned Missionary." Well, my priorities have changed since then. 








Sometimes, young men can't serve missions. There are many reasons why they can't, and one of those reasons is because of a mental illness. Missions are extremely taxing emotionally and mentally. The Church recognizes this and understands that not every young man or young woman is healthy enough to handle the strain. I wasn't, and that's why I had to come home. For awhile I thought it was some sort of punishment, some sort of negative consequence for struggling. But I've come to realize that it was all in my best interest. The Brethren care about my health. They want me to be happy and healthy. When it was clear that I was no longer healthy, they did what was best for me. If I had a life threatening cancer, a debilitating injury, or anything of the sorts, I would not be expected to stay (or serve), and neither would anyone else. A mental illness is just as legitimate of a reason to not be able to serve a mission as any other kind of illness is. 

Now, just because a young man is not mentally healthy enough to serve a mission does not seem them undeserving of marriage. It does not make them unworthy priesthood holders. It does not make them worth less than any returned missionary. Recently, I've had correspondence with several young men who have expressed their challenges with dating because it seems like girls only want to date returned missionaries. I was once one of those girls. It was extremely unfair of me. 

But nowadays, my top priority concerning who I marry is this: are they worthy priesthood holders? And along with that, do they love God more than anything else in this world? If so, that is enough for me. Now, of course I support missions. I support missionaries. I fully believe that young men should do all they can to serve a mission. However, if it's not the right thing for them to do for whatever reason, that's okay. Being a returned missionary doesn't equal salvation. Salvation comes through consistent hard work and keeping the commandments. Missions supplement this, but are not the whole of it. 

My fellow single adult women, don't treat a man poorly because he didn't serve a mission. Young women, reevaluate those lists you make in mutual. Don't be blinded by the fact that a man didn't serve a mission so much that you don't get to know who he really is. A little black name tag doesn't define who a man really is and what he is really like, no matter how much you think it does. That little black tag is nothing in comparison to the size of his heart. 

8/29/16

How Being on Academic Probation Led to My Progression




When I was in high school, I was great at school. Yes, high school is pretty easy for most kids. But school was my thing. I didn't do sports. I didn't join choir. I did school. I worked hard (most of the time) and got good grades. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA (curse you AP calc) and a really good score on the ACT. I ended up with a one year academic scholarship from BYU and a 2 year scholarship from the state of Utah. I was set.

Freshman year of college was by far the best year I've had in college to date. It was so fun to meet new people, date cute guys, and most of all, be independent. I didn't do as well as I thought I would in my first year as far as grades go, but I did fairly well and was happy with my results. 

Then, I went on my mission and came home early. After crashing so hard, it was hard to get back up again emotionally, mentally, and even physically. But, I started up at school again, hoping that would help. 

As the semesters progressed, my grades slowly went downhill. It became continuously harder and harder to get out of bed and go to classes. I didn't do homework. I didn't show up for tests. One day, I got a letter from BYU that said I was on academic warning. They were watching me. If I continued to get poor grades, I would be put on academic probation. 

Still my grades slipped. More classes failed. More withdrawals. I went to the university accessibility center and got some accommodations to try and compensate for my illness. But, those didn't solve the problem. Then finally one day, the letter notifying me of my academic probation came in the mail. 

After getting put on probation, I decided to take a semester off and work. I knew that if I kept going at the rate I was at, I would flunk out of college. I knew I needed some sort of a break. 

I kept asking myself, "What happened? What happened to the Rachel who would freak out if she forgot to do an assignment? What happened to the girl who loved excelling academically and got scholarships?"

She got sick. 

Mental illnesses mess with who you are, to some degree. Learning, which once was so easy for me, became much harder after I got sick. My desires to be a good student changed and my ability to focus lessened. Something that I was once so good at became a nightmare for me. 

The reason why I'm writing this is to let all those who have had to take a break from school, work, or other commitments know that they're not alone. I've spent so much time thinking I'm a failure for not being graduated right now that I have failed to see what I am learning outside of school. I've learned more about myself, more about what I can and can't handle. I've been brave enough to admit what my weaknesses are and to ask for help. That's something that I don't think being a successful full-time student could have taught me. Being put on academic probation was the push I needed to take some time to take care of myself.

If you feel like you're drowning in school, don't quit. Now when I say "don't quit", I don't mean stay in school even if it's not healthy for you. I mean don't quit in your efforts to improve your health. Don't give up on yourself. Don't beat yourself up. You are incredibly strong, and you are even stronger if you can admit when you need help and need a break. It's more important to take care of yourself than to get straight A's and a degree in less than 4 years. 

This goes for other aspects of your life, big and small. Learn when you need to say "no" and when you need to say "yes". Unfortunately, this is a sort of a trial and error situation. You're going to fall down sometimes before you learn how to stay standing up. That's just how it goes. 

Don't forget to ask for help! In a university setting, go to the counseling center and get help offered by the school. Go to the accessibility center and find out if you're eligible for accommodations. And finally, talk to your professors. 

Talking to my professors at BYU has been extremely helpful. I had an English professor who told me that he too struggled with a mental illness. He helped me out with assignments and worked with me on deadlines. I had two French teachers who were absolutely terrific and genuinely cared about me and my situation. I had another professor who gave me extended time on tests because I had a panic attack during one once and couldn't finish. More often than not, teachers care about you and want to help. They want you to succeed and will usually work with you to accomplish your goals. 


Today was my first day of school since my break last semester. I'm terrified for this new semester and new adventure, but excited at the same time. Taking this eight month break has been great for me. I've gotten a new doctor, gotten on new meds, and gotten things more under control. School has been a tough battle for me, and probably will continue to be. But taking a break has made a huge difference. 

School can be an uphill battle. Sometimes it will be smooth sailing with straight A's and no big problems, but other times it will be a rough and stormy sea and failed classes. Because of the up and down nature of school (and life), there are going to be moments when you need to sit down and take a break. And that's okay. Catch your breath, gather your strength, and start up the hill again. 

7/15/16

Be the Good

I don't know about you, but for me, it has been a long week. From the Dallas shootings and the Nice, France terrorist attack, and all the negativity in between, I've just about had it. I have sat at my desk at work and cried this week, feeling utterly helpless and hopeless. I've found that nearly all of my communication with others this week has been negative. Last night I realized as I was talking to my friend that all I had done during the conversation was complain and talk about negative things. I stopped, and tried to come up with some positive things going on right now but at the moment, I had a hard time doing it. I've surround by darkness this week and my guess is I'm not the only one having a hard time finding sunshine right now. 


But, today is a new day and a new opportunity for me to find a glimmer of light in the gray that surrounds me. There are good people. There are good things happening. There are people out there doing all they can to make this world a better place, one small act of kindness at a time. Here's an example. 

Not long ago, I was at a 7/11 getting gas. I was irritated because I was in a hurry to get somewhere and the gas pump wouldn't accept my card. So, I stormed inside to pre-pay at the register. There were two people in front of me, and the one at the register was taking forever. I think I almost started tapping my foot in impatience like they do in cartoons. Finally, I started listening to what the man was saying to the cashier. He said, "Can I give you ten dollars to buy other people's drinks when they come in? I just want to try and make someone's day better because they get a free drink." Right then and there, I started crying. The lady in front of me saw me trying to subtly wipe away those tears and gave me a funny look. I was completely overwhelmed by the simple act that this man had done. He didn't look like he had a lot of money, but there he was being thoughtful in the smallest way and trying to make other people's day better. And here I was, wrapped up in my own selfish frustration. 

I have started to realize that I am surrounded by countless good acts like that every day. My life isn't just a compilation of negativity and horrible world events. There are beautiful, positive things happening all around me. And, more importantly, I can choose to be one of those positive things. I can be a little bit of light in someone's day. Though I am just one girl living in Provo, Utah, I can influence those around me for good. I can't stop all of the horrendous things happening in the world. I can't stop terrorist attacks. I can't stop racism. I can't create world peace. But I can be the light in someone's day. It might be hard to see the good, but I am learning that instead I can be the good. 




6/30/16

How to Save a Life

A couple of weeks ago, the author of this article-Steve Johnson-reached out to me and asked if he could share some important facts about suicide prevention and I am honored to share his article today. 

The topic of suicide is hard to talk about, but it's crucial that we do. I once found myself in a mental state where I was teetering on the edge of being suicidal. I didn't want to die, but I didn't want to live. I will be forever grateful for those around me who helped pull me away from that edge. I owe them so much more than I can ever give them. 

Just like those who helped me, you can help your loved ones step away from the darkness that engulfs them. They need you, more than you might know. You might be the one who saves their life.




Suicide Prevention and Mental Health


Mental illness affects nearly 10 million Americans, and for some, the weight of the disorder can lead them to substance abuse, depression, and even suicide. It’s a threat that any age group can suffer from, and while it can be overwhelming to watch a loved one go through it, there are things you can do to prevent the symptoms from causing a loss of control. 

For many who suffer with a mental illness, alcohol and drugs can seem appealing because of their ability to curb some of the symptoms, or to help the user cope. Therefore, early detection and diagnosis of the illness is imperative so that medication and/or therapy can begin, especially since alcohol use can interfere with the diagnosis and make a disorder difficult to detect. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, detection is also made difficult when the patient is depressed, and studies show that nearly one-third of people with serious depression also have an alcohol abuse problem. 

It can be tricky to detect a mental illness in another person, and it’s important to remember that only a doctor can diagnose. However, there are warning signs:

Changes at school or work

Frequently getting into trouble, not being able to focus, a lack of motivation, and sudden changes in attendance could be signs of a mental illness or a potential substance abuse problem

Changes in appearance and behavior

Sudden changes in appetite, sleep habits (too much or too little), paranoia, fits of rage or apathy, and changes in dress and hygiene are all signals that your loved one might be using drugs or alcohol and struggling with a comorbid mental illness

Physical changes

Shaky hands, slurred speech, agitation, periods of giddiness or seemingly unable to control their emotions, bloodshot eyes, and dilated pupils are all physical signs of substance abuse.

Also, it’s important to note that because alcohol and drugs physically harm the brain and interfere with the psyche, people with mental illness who also abuse substances are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than the general population. 

Depression and suicide go hand in hand, so it’s important to know what to look for as far as behavior goes. If your loved one talks about feeling hopeless or mentions suicidal thoughts, let them know you’re listening and that you take what they’re saying seriously. Often, mental illness patients feel as though no one understands what they’re going through, so it’s important to let them talk without judgement. Other signs of suicidal thoughts can include:

● Exhibiting self-destructive behavior
● Withdrawing from family and friends
● Sudden loss of interest in things that once gave them joy
● Voicing thoughts of worthlessness
● Severe or violent mood swings, including becoming happy after a long depression

With some mental health issues, symptoms begin to manifest years before diagnosis, which can make it difficult for families to watch for warning signs where behavior is concerned. However, if you notice sudden changes in mood or personality, or if risky behavior is suddenly introduced, it might be a good idea to talk to your loved one. Let them know you’ll help them, and if the threat of suicide is imminent, stay with them or have a trusted friend or family member stay with them until you can get help

Steve Johnson co-created PublicHealthLibrary.org with a fellow pre-med student. The availability of accurate health facts, advice, and general answers is something Steve wants for all people, not just those in the health and medical field. He continues to spread trustworthy information and resources through the website, but also enjoys tennis and adding to his record collection in his spare time.







6/16/16

Church isn't Always For Me

When I started this blog, I had the intention of being open, honest, and forthcoming about my challenges surrounding being and early returned missionary and with having a mental illness. In keeping with that intention, I am going to tell you about a very personal challenge I've had the past two years that has to do with my mental illnesses: 

Church isn't always for me. 


Sometimes, I don't go. And when I say sometimes, in some months it's been more often than not that I don't go. I think you could technically call me  "less active" according to attendance records. 

So what does church going have to do with my mental illness? 

1. Anxiety. I have generalized anxiety disorder and church is a huge trigger for me. For some reason, being around lots of people sets me off. I feel panicky, like something bad is going to happen. I get a tightness in my chest and I feel like I can't breathe. 

2. For awhile, I didn't go to church because I couldn't feel the spirit. Now, that seems counterintuitive and in a way it is. But I got panicky BECAUSE I couldn't feel the spirit because I was depressed. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I would sit in my seat and start getting angry at myself. There was a lot of self-hatred going on in those moments. 

Now here's the deal: I might not always be a consistent church-goer, but I can definitely tell you that I am firm in the gospel.  I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. I sustain my church leaders. I know the Book of Mormon is true and I believe that Joseph Smith was called of God. I love being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am currently really working on going to church and I am getting better at it. Those who love me have been incredibly understanding and supportive. They know I'm trying my best. 

Because of my mental illnesses, however, I have a different relationship with God than most. Because I can't really hear or feel Him sometimes, things get tough. Because of my anxiety and bipolar disorder, going to church isn't always an option. I'm not healthy enough to be there. But you know what? I think God understands that. I think He knows that I would be there if I could be. I think He recognizes all the things I DO do in spite of what I don't do.  I think He expects me to try my best, and that my best doesn't always include going to church. 

5/12/16

The New Normal

"Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring." Marilyn Monroe 


recently had the opportunity to be a guest speaker for a class hosted by NAMI. The class is called Family-to-Family, and it is intended for the family members and loved ones of those who struggle with mental illnesses. (Find out more here: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-Programs/NAMI-Family-to-Family)  I was asked to tell my story and share how I've been coping with my bipolar disorder. At the end, there was a Q&A section. I got asked a question that got me thinking. The question was: "How do you cope with who you are now? You aren't who you were before your mental illness, so how do you move forward instead of just treading water? How have you adapted to the new normal?". 

I am definitely not the person I was before being diagnosed. I used to be better at school, more inclined to be soft and kind, and more social and fun. Those parts of me were damaged or taken away by my illness. I struggle with school now. I went from being a straight-A student to failing three semesters in a row. I used to throw parties and go out with friends a lot. Now I keep to myself and avoid people. I used to be more patient. Now I am sometimes irritated by virtually everything. I mourn that I've lost these things sometimes. I miss the Rachel I used to be. 

It's easy to dwell on what I'm not anymore. It's easy to be caught up on what I've lost, what the normal used to be. I can sit here and be miserable about everything that my mental illness has changed, or I can do something with where I'm at right now. 

Now, I think it's perfectly fine and expected to mourn about my mental illness every once in awhile. I'm okay with that. But I'm not okay when I get down about it. That's not productive or kind to myself because "it is what it is." My life is where it is at right now, and I can't change the past. I can change my future and do everything in my power to be my best. 

Accepting your life as it is post-diagnosis is difficult. But it's possible. I've found the best thing for me to do is to put the skills I've gained from having a mental illness to good use. I may not be good at school anymore, but I'm a better listener. I may be more irritable now, but I have learned how to control my anger better and I'm more understanding others who can't. I may not be the social butterfly I once was, but I am a more emphathetic friend. I've come to accept that I'm not "normal" and my life never will be "normal". But that's okay, because I think normal is boring anyways. 


4/24/16

Anticipation


In every mission call, there is a line that is generally skipped over. In the midst of all of the excitement surrounding where a missionary will go, it kind of just...disappears. A missionary's eyes are so intent on finding the words that tell them where they will spend the next eighteen to twenty four month of their life that they breeze over it. I, too, skipped line. I wanted to know three things from the call--where I was going, what language I was speaking, and when I was leaving. I basically ignored everything else. It wasn't til I came home early that I re-read my call and noticed the line:

"It is anticipated that you will serve for a period of eighteen months."


Three years ago today, I packed up two large suitcases and hopped into our family car to head down to Provo. It had been a crazy few days. Within five days, I took all of my finals, moved out of my dorm, gave a farewell, and packed up to head to Seattle. I was tired, but I was excited for the new adventure I anticipated ahead of me. 

My family and I had a "last lunch" at Olive Garden. I remember seeing two other families with boys dressed up in suits at the restaurant. We smiled politely and nervously at each other. After lunch, my family and I headed over to the Provo temple to get your typical "I'm going on a mission" pictures. I'll be honest, I just wanted the pictures to be done and to be walking into the MTC. 

When it finally came time for goodbyes, I didn't cry. I was a little choked up on nerves, but that was about it. I remember feeling awkward that I wasn't crying. I hugged my mom as she cried and assured her that the time would fly. "I'll be home next October!" I said optimistically. Finally, with all my luggage in tow and goodbyes said, I left my family at the curb and headed off onto my mission.

I anticipated a lot of things that day, three years ago. I anticipated a tough but rewarding experience. I anticipated coming home in October of 2014 to the SLC airport with all of my extended family waiting at the bottom of the stairs for me as I walked down them, triumphant and successful as a returned missionary. But three years ago today, I did not anticipate anything that would actually happen.

I've learned a lot about anticipation since that day. The number one thing that I've learned about anticipation is that it is not a solid thing. It is not set in stone, it is not guaranteed. Anticipation is a hope or an expectation, not a promise. And most of all, man's anticipation does not always align with God's will or plan.

My anticipations of my mission were pretty much all wrong. I thought I was going to do one thing and become one thing, but God had a different idea. It took a long time for me to accept His will. It took months for me to be able to actually mean it when I said, "I know that I'm supposed to be home and not on a mission." I was so stuck on my anticipations for so long that I failed to accept the reality of the plan that God had for me. 

While I didn't get my anticipated 18 month mission, I got a lot of things that are better. I was blessed with experiences that taught me not to judge people as harshly as I had previously. I gained a better understanding, love, and appreciation of the power of the priesthood as I have received countless blessings in the three years since I went to the MTC. My heart grew softer towards those mental illnesses and I was filled with empathy and love towards them. I learned how to appreciate moments of peace and stillness. I became more reliant on the Atonement and on the Savior. In short, I gained so much more out of my mission experience than I anticipated.

Sometimes, life doesn't go according to plan. In fact, in my life, it hardly ever goes according to my plan. But it goes according to God's plan, and that's what matters. Three years ago, I would never have guessed that I would be where I am today in this moment. I couldn't have foreseen all the trials, challenges, blessings, and miracles that would occur. My life hasn't turned out how I anticipated it would. But, it has turned out how God anticipated it would, and that's alright with me.

4/14/16

Give Yourself Some Credit

(Sorry for the month-long absence, folks. Hit a sort of writers block, but I'm back!)

The other week, I had an opportunity to go on a little road trip with my mom to St. George, UT. While we were driving, we got to talking about the challenges I've been facing with my mental illness. She said something that took me a little bit by surprise. She said "Rachel, you're doing a lot better than you think you are. You've come so far since November of 2013. I know you think you're not doing well at all, but you are. You need to recognize that and give yourself a little more credit."

So I've been thinking: maybe she's right. 

I have made progress and come so far. It's hard to see sometimes. And I am doing better than I think I am. Are you?
"The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you've come." -Anonymous

Let me answer that for you: You absolutely are doing better than you think you are. You've come much further than you think you have. You are accomplishing more than you think you are. I tend to preach this a lot, but every little thing you are doing to work through your challenges is progress. Are you giving yourself credit? If not, you should be. 

Congratulate yourself for getting out of bed. For some, that's one of the hardest things to accomplish. And if it's a challenge for you and you're working on it, good for you. You are amazing for the amount of effort you are putting in. Trust me, I know that it's difficult. 

Give yourself credit for trying to think more positively. When you're depressed, positive thoughts are the furthest thing from your mind. If you can muster up just one, you are succeeding. Recognize that and celebrate that.

Acknowledge good you are doing for people, whether it's through a donation, some cookies delivered to a friend, or the a smile given to a passing stranger. You probably don't realize how much those little things you do are changing the lives of those around you for the better. 

I'm not perfect. I have a lot of challenges and weaknesses that I'm trying to overcome. But I think that I get so caught up in what I want to overcome that I forget to give myself the credit I deserve for the progress I've made. I get down on myself for not being perfect instead of being motivated by my success, however small that success might be. I get so caught up in the moment that I forget to appreciate how far I've come. 

We've all still got miles to go and mountains to climb in our lives. There will be ups and downs, dead ends and construction. The road will be tough and treacherous at times. We have and will have obstacles to overcome. But every once in awhile, we need to slow down and take a look over our shoulders and see how far we've come.

3/3/16

A Letter to Myself

The day I came home from my mission is a bit of a blur in my mind. Most of it is a mush of things that I've tried to forget. But, I have a few poignant, fragmented memories that won't ever leave me.

I remember looking out the window, numb, as my AP's drove me to the airport. They nervously tried to make small talk with me and the other two sisters in the car, then just with each other. I felt bad for them.

I remember seeing my dad for the first time in six months and the look of pain and concern on his face that he tried to conceal with a smile. He flew to Seattle to pick me up so that I wouldn't have to fly home alone. After security, while we were waiting for our flight, my dad asked me what I wanted. "What do you mean?" "What do you want? What can I buy for you?" I asked for Starbucks pumpkin spice hot chocolate. 

I remember walking down the stairs at the SLC airport, seeing my family waiting below. They looked as nervous as I was. When I got to her, my mom hugged me tighter then she ever has. My mascara smeared on my face and on her shirt. My little sister Amberly was taller, much taller than I remembered.

I remember that friends called. Neighbors visited. My family and I sat together, trying to inject some happiness into the awkward, sad bitterness than hung in the air. I told them funny stories and they told me some too. I pulled out the couple of Seattle souvenirs that I had snagged at various points in my mission--most of them tacky plastic somethings with the Space Needle plastered on them. We smiled and pushed back the tears the best we could. 

Sometimes, I wish I could relive that day. I wish I could tell myself then everything that I know now. I wish I could go back and square up my shoulders and hold my head high, because now I know that I deserved to. There are so many things I wish I had known back then. If only I could send a letter back to myself, to the girl in November of 2013.


Dear Rachel,

    Wipe away those tears. I know you're sad. It's okay that you're sad, but you're sad for the wrong reasons. You're sad because you think you failed. You think you gave up and failed everyone around you. But guess what? You didn't fail at all. No, you served the mission that God wanted you to serve. You didn't fail Him at all. He has something else in mind for you. Just because your mission only lasted six months doesn't mean you didn't serve a full mission. You did. Be proud of that.
   
    The next few months--years, really--are going to be tough. You aren't going to heal as quickly as you think you are, but you are going to make progress. You are going to make friends. You are going to find bits and pieces of happiness that will build up into something beautiful. 

    People aren't going to judge you like you think they are. They are there for you! They love you. They support you. Your ward, your friends, your extended family--they are all going to give you more love than you can believe is possible. They believe in you and want you to succeed. They are proud of you for everything that you've done. You are so lucky to have them. Cling to the support they are going to give.
    
    Rachel, your parents are hurting right now. They need help too. Seems strange, doesn't it? They are hurting for you. They want nothing more than to take away your pain. Love them lots, okay? Let them help you. Help them in return. Don't forget that they are your number one supporters.
    
    Your little sisters don't know what to do. It's hard for them to see their big sister in such a low spot. They've looked up to you for so long. But now it's your turn to look up to them. They have so much strength in them! They love you and want to help you. Rely on them, love them, and thank them. They might seem small and young, but they are powerful.
   
    Rachel, know this: There are better times ahead. Don't get overwhelmed by the darkness you are feeling right now. Cling to the little bit of light you have. Cling to the knowledge that you have that God loves you. He does. I know you don't believe it right now, but you've got to. Remember that the Savior not only died and atoned for you, but that He felt everything that you are feeling right now. When He knelt in that little grove of olive trees, He felt the ache you are feeling in your chest. He went through that dark hell that you are going through. He suffered it all. Don't forget that.
     
    Rachel, you've got a tough road ahead of you. Things aren't going to be easy. In fact, sometimes they feel worse. You're going to struggle, but it's going to be worth it. Keep going. Keep fighting. Hold on. Most of all, remember this: you are never alone.

Love,

The Optimist in Progress

2/25/16

What We Want You to Know


When I set out on my mission in April of 2013, I was planning on serving an 18 month mission. I remember that when I said goodbye to my mom I said, "It's not that long! I'll be home next November!" I thoroughly meant that. I was geared up and ready to wear my shiny black badge for a year and a half and I was stoked. But, my mission didn't last that long.


A lot of people in the LDS community don't know how to respond to early returned missionaries. This is understandable, as it varies case by case. The lack or responses or the negative responses are, in my opinion, often fueled by misunderstanding. So, to provide some more understanding, I asked a group of early returned missionaries to answer this question: "What would you like the world to know about being an early returned missionary?"

"Just because I seem fine after I came home for medical reasons doesn't mean I can- or should- go back to the field. Even though "finishing my mission" was what I wanted more than anything. Sometimes you finish your mission earlier than you want to, but the Lord is in charge and that's okay. I had cancer, and though most people didn't notice anything but the scar on my neck, I was very much not okay. Even after cancer was "gone", I am still trying to find the right dose of the medication I'll have to take for the rest of my life almost 2 years later. The blood tests and ultrasounds every 6 weeks to 6 months wouldn't have let me go back, even if I seem fine."

"Just treat me like you would if I served the full period. Ask me about my mission. I'll tell you. The mission wasn't the hard part, coming home was. There should be no social repercussions."

"Please please please do not treat my mission as if it were secondary to someone who was able to serve for the expected time. I still served a full-time mission, it was still MY mission, and I still loved every moment of the 6 months I was able to serve. Talk to me about my mission, it's one of my favorite things to talk about. Ask me about my injury, ask me about the people I taught and don't feel bad that I served for "only" 6 months. Those were the most fulfilling 6 months of my life. I still wore my mission tag with honor and pride and I loved all the people I served. Also, don't assume that I didn't want to return to missionary service. My knee surgeries were a lot more grueling than anyone had anticipated. I'm still an R.M. so please treat me like one."

"I'm not afraid or uncomfortable when people ask questions. I'd rather have people ask me about my experience returning home early than for them to speculate."

"We're human. We are hurting and mourning the fact we are home early too. Just love us and be willing to listen. Don't be afraid to talk about it if we initiate the conversation. If your RM isn't talking about it, don't push if they're not willing to talk. Not everyone comes home for worthiness issues. Just because we don't have a cast or aren't bedridden, doesn't mean it wasn't a medical release." (referring to mental illness)

"I love the Lord, and wanted nothing more than to remain in the field. But whether the Lord needed us to serve 2 years, 2 months, or 2 days, He accepts our sacrifice."

"Just because I didn't serve the full 18 months, doesn't mean I didn't serve complete my service."

"It is hard and you feel like no one understands but you are not alone."

"You can talk to me about coming home early."

"Just because I came home early shouldn't mean I'm any less of an R.M."

"It is very hard and even emotionally traumatizing. I'm struggling with feelings of inadequacy and depression. I feel broken, defective, and worthless. I feel like a failure. It can be overwhelming when people ask things like "when are you going to go back?" Honestly, I don't know and I can barely take it one day at a time. A huge part of my life just collapsed and I'm still trying to sort through the mess. More than anything I want validation and crave knowing I have value in someway, because frankly I just don't feel it."

"If I want to tell you my story I will. Don't bombard me with questions! (Especially when I first came home)"

"There may be times that I want to remember my mission and others that I just want to block that time period out."

"I'm just a normal human being with an abnormal problem."

"Missions aren't for everyone, but that doesn't mean we should treat anyone differently. Whether they don't go, come home early for whatever reason, or serve full term, it doesn't matter.
You can talk to me about coming home early."

"I've been home for almost two years. While I see coming home early from my mission as a blessing that led me to finding my husband, it is still a traumatic experience. Please be patient with me. I experience severe social anxiety when I have to be strangers. I know my mission is in the distant past for you, but coming home early affects my life every day."

"It's always going to be a part of me, and while I don't regret it it still kinda haunts me in a way. I don't think it's fair, but that's just the way our culture is."

"I feel the same about my mission as all of you who served for the normal amount of time! I fulfilled my mission as God wanted me to, and when He said I was done, I moved on to my next mission in life. The way He said that I was done and that He was proud of me was a little different than the way He said it to you, but He still said it."

"People need to know that just because someone came home early it doesn't change who they are. The reasons for coming home are way too far reaching for us to judge. Some choose it, some are sent home, and some didn't want to go on a mission in the first place. But the fact that they were there is what counts. God never said you need to be perfect now, He said we need to become perfect. That starts with trying and failing a lot. What early returned missionaries really need is just someone who shows them that they are so happy to see them and that they are loved. Isn't that what being a true missionary means? Lifting those who are down trodden. An early returned missionary knows people will talk about them, but what they need is someone who will talk with them."


We all want you to know a variety of things. We want you to know we are trying. We want you to know that we served full-times missions, but they were on God's timing, not our own. But most of all? What we want you to know is that we need your love.


2/10/16

The Truth About Tourette's

(I'm excited to have Landen Blume as a guest writer today on my blog today! Landen is my coworker, and while we were talking one day, we discovered that we share the commonality of being early-returned missionaries. He told me his story, and it is amazing. Read on, friends!)


"You're fine. Nothing's wrong with you. You're a perfectly healthy boy. Stop overthinking it."
For years, this was the general response from everybody. Teachers, friends, therapists, siblings, and my parents. It frustrated me. I knew something was different about me, I just knew it. Yet everyone couldn't see it. 

Let me start out by saying: Tourette's Syndrome is not how you think it is. 

When I was twelve, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a severe pain in my lower right side. After a long, scream-filled car ride, we arrived at the ER where I was told I had kidney stones and they began treating me. While waiting for the doctors to come in and give me one of several basic exams, my mother leaned over and softly said, "Land, when the doctor comes in, we are going to have to tell him a little about you, and there's something we'll tell him that we haven't told you. When you were eight you were diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome." Confusion was added onto my intense pain. What? I don't have Tourette's. I don't  randomly swear, I don't do anything like that. Somebody is wrong. Doctors are always wrong... 

As time went on, I realized I didn't know anything about this weird syndrome my parents said that I had. So I began to research it. I found out that there was very little information regarding Tourette's, but it was more than I knew. I talked to my mother and father extensively, them being a therapist and doctor respectively. I was told the disorder was characterized by facial and vocal tics, both voluntary and involuntary. It seemed weird. I didn't recognize having any of these "tics". My mother told me that when I was in elementary school, when the teachers asked a question, before answering I would stand up and down repeatedly before I could answer. Eventually they brought me to a psychologist who diagnosed me with Tourette's. The information did little for me. I understood nothing about this thing, and thought they were wrong. "Some misconstrued diagnosis because of one quirky behavior," I figured.

My life moved onward, almost forgetting about the whole Tourette's thing. At that point, I was not as self-aware, not as prone to thought. I was just a kid who didn't know who he was. As I got into Junior High School, I kept feeling like I was weird, different. I moved through life with what I believed to be a completely abstract mindset. I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety. When I felt backed into a corner or like things were just about to snap, I panicked. I felt like I was suffocating. I needed air. Every fight our family had, I thought was the end of the world. Every insult from a classmate was attempted murder. I began playing with this pom-pom that my sister used for cheerleading. I would wrap it around my hand and shake it about, and my imagination would run wild. I would play whole scenes that I had invented. It felt like I was plugged into a generator. My mind was clear as I played, I could concentrate. But I only used it as a release for my emotions and imagination. My parents looked down on it. My father often said it was a blatant waste of time. In a way, it was. I could spend a whole Saturday with my pom-pom. My hand would go numb and wrinkled from sweat, but it didn't matter. My brain felt free. The pom-pom was soon replaced with a shirt, and it stayed a shirt for the years to come. It was one of my escapes. I didn't realize it then, but that shirt tic was a crucial key to my Tourette's. 

Skip ahead a few years, and a few important life changes. Despite failing nearly every class for two years and having to make them all up in two weeks, I graduated. Miraculously. My mother fought like a lion to get me to graduation. She got me to dig deep, to focus. She was, and still is my champion. My number one fan. My Chemistry teacher helped as well. She found out the 150+ hours of detention I had, and wrote them all off for me and also paid all my school fees. Over $400 she shovelled out for me. Why? "School, life, it all has a system. You need to know the system, Landen. You're smart. You'll change the world. Just learn the system, learn how to navigate it, and you'll ride it like a wave all the way to the end."Not only did I graduate, but I walked with everyone. It was a fantastic night. 

The next life issue was related to my broken faith. The age for LDS missionaries had been lowered, and everyone began to ask me, "When are you going on your mission?" Eventually, I had to tell everyone (parents and family included) that I was not going on a mission, and I insisted on the fact that "missions are not necessary in our faith to salvation. I'll be fine without squandering two years to serve people I don't know, eat weird foods I didn't like, and all this for a church where so many of its members had been unkind to me, and to my family, and I would rather stay home and play Pokemon than go to church for three hours." So I left to college instead. College was actually a huge opportunity for me, and I am grateful I went. My roommates were lifesavers. My introverted nature was immediately shut down by them. I would try to sneak into my room without talking and Talon Boss would stand in front of me and say, "We're going to eat ice cream over at the bishop's house. You're coming with us." They ripped me out of my depressed shell, and I opened up. It was an opportunity to round my personality out, and I began to see what I wanted to do with my life. My Tourette's had stayed almost invisible to this point, as well. 

Life was looking up. I even met "the girl of my dreams," and those were some of my happiest days. Sadly, my indecisiveness and lack of focus caused me to lose focus on schoolwork and I began to fail. I'll try to justify that by saying I was frustrated at the "system", that I was sick of jumping through hoops like a dog. I was sick of being told essentially "You haven't learned to memorize numbers or follow orders well enough, so you're not allowed to continue learning." All my life I excelled with science, writing, and music, yet struggled with math and homework and other such aspects. I felt like school couldn't support my weaknesses and also couldn't handle my strengths. Those points are all true, but in reality, I just wasn't committed, and wasted my time with my girlfriend and video games. I did so poorly at school that I dropped classes, and eventually had to leave college. Over the months of college and living at home, a period which felt like "limbo" to me, I slowly rekindled a faith in God due to the bright faith of my roommates, some of which were taking lessons from the missionaries, and they eventually got baptized. Them simply affirming that "you always pray before you eat" taught me that God wasn't looking for recitations, he was looking for genuineness. But, those were merely seeds being planted. I am an impatient person, and didn't see this progress. I continued slipping and falling.

Everything in my life seemed to spiral downwards (I was living at home, had no job, my girlfriend left the state so we had broken up, and my family was struggling as well), my grandfather died, and my childhood best friend, my dog Sophie, died a week after. I thought all was hopeless. I was lost. 

Until my grandfather's viewing.

Long story short, a series of miracles allowed me to speak to my missionary cousin and his powerful, bold words convinced me that I had to serve a mission. I know, it was insane to me too. I figured I should begin to learn about the church for which I was determined to serve a mission, so I studied. I went back to church, I paid attention. However, adversity in my life amplified. The natural stresses and difficulties in our family had grown large, and I felt as if all the pressure was on me. I was exhausting myself, so my parents finally sent me to see a therapist who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. Speaking with this therapist did nothing for me. I stayed upset, angry, and depressed. I just had a name for it now. "Anxiety."

I went on to the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission, and I learned Spanish. Those were the best months of my life. My family improved phenomenally while I was gone, I learned unbelievable things on my mission, and to top it all off, I was speaking Spanish and eating tacos, tamales, and pozole all the time. What's better than that? 

On my mission, my Tourette's became pronounced. I developed steady, constant tics. But I didn't think anything of it. They were no nuisance. In fact, it gave me the chance to learn a lot about what caused my tics, and I learned a lot about myself and my mind. It was as if a dormant beast had finally reared its ugly head and I knew I could bring it down. I learned to focus and control my mind and it worked wonders for me. I was gliding on this tidal wave of life that I expected to carry me into the eternities. Then I crashed.

At the 16 month mark of my mission, I was suddenly struck with what can only be described as complete speech paralysis.One evening, within moments, I began developing severe vocal and motor tics, having a severe stutter which prevented any speech whatsoever, had several large facial movement tics, my hands and arms twisted and contracted involuntarily, my neck tensed up and twisted, my chest seized up. I thought I was having a stroke. I was terrified. I spent that night sobbing on our couch, stuffing a pillow in my mouth to muffle the bitter cocktail of grunts, groans, sobs, and screams of fear. Over the next two days, I visited several psychologists across the state of Pennsylvania, needing to type out sentences on an iPad to tell them what I wanted to say, and finally, after consulting with a therapist and my mission president, I went home. 

I couldn't believe it. After the best 16 months I had lived so far, in two days everything came crashing down without any warning. One minute I'm walking around Northern PA, the next I'm sitting on an airplane to Salt Lake with my suit coat in my mouth to not disturb other passengers. During those two days, my lively, confident attitude was replaced with a scared, timid, passive one. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't even want to be around anyone. With my new tics, I was a burden to everyone. At a choir concert for my sister, I sat in the back with my coat stuffed in my mouth to be quieter and all I got were dirty looks from the surrounding audience for "being so disruptive."

I had to come and live back at home with my mother, who I knew would give up anything to help me, which subsequently made me feel guilty and bad. My whole family was willing to sacrifice themselves and their comforts for me, and in a way, that made me feel stressed. I didn't want them to have to do that for me. I scrambled during the first days at home to find "anchors", or safe zones/things that I could rely on. There was almost nothing I could rely on. I had no phone, no car, not even my own room. 

For me, with the way I think and feel, I need anchors. I need reliability. Things as simple as a comfortable pillow or a warm blanket make monumental differences to me. If I'm at a social gathering (which now terrify me), and I don't have some kind of "crutch", like my phone, I panic, and my tics get even worse. Now, contrary to popular belief, not all my tics are directly stress related. When you are stressed, your tics amplify, but for me, it's whenever I'm full of energy. Happiness, sadness, you name it. 

I've now been home for just about three months, and it's been quite the journey. It's been an uphill battle, learning about my Tourette's and how it interacts with anxiety. My neurologist has Tourette's just like me, and just like me, he never grew out of it, the way you're supposed to as a teenager. He understands me, even when I can't speak well enough to explain myself. It's hard to explain Tourette's. 

Tourette's is strongly linked with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and ADHD. Let me put it this way: that feeling you get, when you need to inhale or blink? That's the same feeling as needing to "tic". I feel the stimulus, that sensation, in my tongue, my lips, my neck, my throat, my hands, my wrists, my lungs, everywhere, and in the same way that you inhale to satisfy the sensation, I "tic". However, the sensation doesn't go away for me. I tic, and tic, and tic, and I still feel the need to "breathe". Panic often sets in. It feels like suffocating, constantly, without any respite. At times I've found myself physically twisting my neck with my hands to try and desperately satisfy this compulsive urge. These compulsive urges are immensely powerful, and sometimes are difficult to resist. During the harder times of my life, my suicidal tendencies became amplified by a sudden "tic urge" to down a bottle of pills or crash my car. To me, it felt nearly impossible to resist. 

All my life I've had these disorders, and recently we have discovered that I may have developed some disorder where although something is wrong, my brain tells itself that everything is fine. All of these years, I felt like something was wrong. My brain was telling me something was wrong, but eventually I started to believe everybody else. Everything was fine. I just needed to "shape up" and "stop overthinking it", because I was a "perfectly normal boy". Basically, it was like forcing skin to heal over a wound and then saying, "See? Everything's fine." Now I have this theoretical "scar tissue" that I am now learning to heal the right way. I have to tear up everything I once knew, every social norm that was ingraven into my brain, and start from the beginning. I have to face my Tourette's, and learn to handle it. I have had to spend the past few months literally learning how to talk again. What sounds letters made, what words sounded like. A complete re-wiring. I still can't really pronounce the certain sounds in English. 

At this point, I probably will have my Tourette's for most, if not all of my life. But that doesn't worry me. One of my mission companions once told me, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today." So although I should've started all this work years ago, there's no better time than the present to get started. It's been such a learning process. It's been terrifyingly beautiful for me. 

Since the incident on my mission and being home, I've tried a slurry of medications, and although they technically reduce my tics, they're just glorified horse tranquilizers. This one's for schizophrenia, that one's for hysteria, this one is for bipolar. My whole persona is suppressed and slowed and that simply forces my body to reduce tics. It's a borderline nightmarish situation, so I often go without medication just to have my brain back until the tics get too bad to function. Then I delve back into the conscious coma.

Having Tourette's complicates the simplest aspects of regular life. To get a small cavity fixed in my tooth, rather than just one quick shot and a 15 minute filling, I have to be put under with nitrous gas so I don't accidentally twitch right into the drill. I sometimes have to pull over when a fit of tics hits and my hands and arms twist uncontrollably. 

The tics are just like the sensation of needing air. When I'm not paying attention, I can tic without noticing at all. No matter how big the tics are, just like being able to passively breathe without noticing. But when I notice (i.e. if I see someone else tic-ing or someone mentions a tic) I begin to tic. (Like right now, you have just noticed your own breathing. You're welcome.)
I can "hold my breath" for a time and suppress the tics momentarily, but then I feel the need to "gasp for air" and for a little while the tics are worse.

My whole way of thinking revolves around compulsive thoughts and feelings, and how I react to them. I wish I could simply turn off the tics, or choose not to do them. Many people have said things like "It's just because you're stressed, calm down." or "You've gotta get better at pronouncing that sound, Landen.", "You can't just give up. You've gotta try to talk better." or "If you know you aren't going to satisfy the sensation, just don't do it." But it isn't that simple. So don't expect others with Tourette's or any kinds of tics to just be able to "not". That's like telling someone to stop breathing, just because they know there's no air. We're going to keep gasping, it's the way our body functions. We can't control that.

Right now, I am constantly working on developing confidence again. Talking to people, going out of my suddenly-shrunk comfort zone. It's an exhaustive process, but one worth taking. I know I can't stay static with my Tourette's, I need to progress. And it's been working. 

I have a great job, I have a car, a phone, and several other safe anchors. I am feeling safe again. Sometimes my tics are really bad, and I struggle with the feeling of limbo, but I know there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Someday, I'll be totally independent again, and can begin paying it forward. I feel a sense of hope at the thought of visiting my mother on Sunday nights for family dinner, and the thought of owning the car I really want, and at taking trips to Central America. My tiny piece of stable "anchor" land beneath my feet is growing into a little island, where I can finally stretch my limbs and relax. 

I still don't know everything about Tourette's, or anxiety, or much of anything for that matter, but I'm learning every day, and there's one thing I will never forget:

No matter how much I may feel like there's no air, I am still going to keep breathing.