Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Is In The Air

Yes, folk, it’s spring. For a lot of people this means allergies, unpredictable weather, lighter clothes, and nature show segments acted out in the back yard. If you’re Christian, Christ is resurrected. If you’re a prankster, you plan an elaborate hoax for April 1. If you like the outdoors, it’s time to polish up the boat or get out the hiking boots.

For me, spring involves some of those things but it also tends to mean a time of year that is particularly difficult. Spring is when my worst mental health episodes tend to develop, for reasons I do not really understand clearly. It may have something to do with the traditional school calendar, in which the culmination of the year brings the most stress. It may have something to do with a lack of vitamin D in the winter months. It may also have to do with unpredictable weather and a sense of a loss of control. Whatever it is, my springs have tended to involve medication changes, increased medical visits or even hospital stays, self-destructive behaviors, shame, and exhaustion.

I recognized this pattern fully last year when a particularly rough winter/spring transition landed me in the hospital briefly. I was able to check out again in a week and continue classes, with understanding from my professors, but the whole experience reminded me again how fragile my mental health can be sometimes. If I tell someone about my struggles with mental health, the response is usually something like, “Wow, that’s really awful. But you’re okay now, right?”

And I usually assure them I am, because that’s what we both want to hear. The truth is, though, that I deal with the reality of my mental health on a daily basis. There are days when I have to make a conscious decision to eat regular meals. I have to talk myself out of self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes I still give in, and then I have to be careful not to beat myself up for it too much.

So, I anticipated the arrival of spring this year with some trepidation, but also with renewed determination. For one, I really, really want to graduate. I want to be healthy enough to spend my spring doing things I enjoy with friends and other people important to me, rather than trying to pull myself out of a downward spiral or decide whether I should check into a treatment program. Also, I want to be safe and strong for my fiancé, currently serving in Afghanistan.

This spring started off a little rough. I had a wonderful trip in Europe with Walter, but coming back home to school a week late was an unpleasant adjustment. I slipped back into an old habit, and then perpetuated the cycle by punishing myself for giving in. Using the excuse of a fairly major paper that I couldn’t seem to get going on, I isolated myself a bit socially. I used sleep to escape, and then only proceeded to get angrier with myself as deadlines drew nearer.

I finished the paper, and instantly felt relief. I spent lots of time with my friends and had a great weekend. However, after a few days I realized that the paper had only been the focus of my anxiety, rather than the root of it, and sooner or later the next stressor would come along.

Unless you live under a rock in Siberia (in which case you wouldn’t be reading my blog) you know that Osama bin Laden was killed this weekend. I heard about it as my ride picked me up from the airport after a lovely weekend trip to Arizona. I suppose my thoughts had the same trajectory as most Americans: Was it really true? How did we know it was actually him? How did it happen? What did this really mean for the world? What did this mean for me and those I love?

The last question is the one I have lingered on the most. As someone who has declared her intent to marry a service member, however, the question was inevitably wrapped up with the concerns of a military significant other. I usually make a point not to watch the news, particularly anything that has to do with Afghanistan, but I like to listen to NPR when I wake up and I spent a fair amount of time online, so it’s hard to ignore it completely. Lately I have been hearing more than usual: the large jailbreak in the south, the announcement of the spring offensive, insurgents’ warning to civilians, and now bin Laden’s death and all the speculation about the kind of retribution his supporters will take.

And so, while the rest of the world was processing the news, I couldn’t stop thinking about what this might mean for Walter, who will be in the thick of it for another five months or so. There has been a lot of debate about the moral validity of celebrating bin Laden’s death, but I honestly can’t say how I feel about it other than deeply frightened. Right now, it is impossible for me to disentangle the reality of a life ended from what the consequences for someone else’s life may be. And so, unable to face the anxiety I was feeling, I went to bed and stayed there until my phone calendar alerted me to an appointment with my therapist that I had rescheduled and forgotten about. As I tried to explain the crippling fear I was feeling and the terrible sense that something bad would happen and I would fall apart. After all, it was spring and it had happened before.

I asked her what I should do, and she answered with something along the lines of, “Just keep going.”

It may not have been the most satisfying thing to hear at the time, but I knew she was right. I needed to eat, take a shower, go to class, do my homework, keep myself safe, take my dog on a walk, no matter how overwhelming those things sounded. I started by going home and eating lunch, and moved forward a bit shakily from there to a shower, class, and homework. My anxiety hasn’t exactly evaporated and it probably will not any time soon, but at least I am functioning—baby steps, as Bob would say. 

Part of living with mental health issues is accepting the reality that not every day is a good day, but a bad day doesn't indicate a breakdown. Even though I have had difficult seasons in the past, I know more about myself now than I ever did, and I am so fortunate to have the amazing support of family and friends. Someday I hope that I can look forward to spring for the flowers without fearing what else it might hold; but until then, I'm doing what it takes to move forward.