This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, which is related to life with diabetes in more ways than many of us care to admit. Oftentimes, diabetes can take us to a dark place, where not only managing this illness but making it through life, day-to-day, can seem overwhelming.
This national advocacy initiative was initially established in 1990 by the U.S. Congress, with awareness and assistance tools organized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To mark the week, I'd like to share my own story of being clinically depressed and finally reaching out to get the professional help I needed.
I wrote about it at the beginning of the year in a personal post called Beginning Again.
Symptoms might sound familiar or strange, depending on your own personal experiences: I felt withdrawn, unfocused, irritable, and just not myself. My diabetes management was out of control and it just didn't seem worth trying to change that.
At the time, I described it this way: I was like a ship in the darkened night-time waters trying to find my way to shore. The light house wasn't easy to find, but I knew it was there. The choppy waters of depression and diabetes and life stresses were all crashing against me, slowing down my journey and pushing me even further off course.
But a fellow Person With Diabetes (PWD) who happened to be a therapist helped me conquer those waters. I actually dubbed her "Mind Ninja" because of her nimble "ninja skills" to get into into my psyche. Mind Ninja became my navigational guide, allowing me to talk openly about how I really felt and the fears I had, while encouraging me to interact with people and confront my feelings. She prompted me to retrain my brain to replace negative thinking with positive thoughts, and move forward one day at a time. She emphasized that I should not view sharing my story or taking meds as weaknesses, but necessary steps forward.
With her help, I was able to find that beacon to help me reach the calm mental "shoreline" where I needed to be.
That's where I've been, safely anchored to shore for the past several months, with the help of some medication that keeps me afloat in particular choppy waters.
The toughest part, in the beginning, was seeking help. I'd kept telling myself: "No, I'm not depressed. I just need to deal. This isn't anything I can't manage on my own. If I can't, then I must be weak and ill-equipped to simply handle my own life!"
But through hearing the stories of several others in the Diabetes Online Community (DOC), I was able to see that it wasn't a weakness to share these personal struggles... these emotional and mental hurdles that I wasn't able to deal with on my own. These people opened my eyes.
And I hope that other PWDs who need it most can find that strength and courage now, to reach out if they are feeling down in the depths.
There's nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of.
Now, I haven't been to see Mind Ninja since early summer because -- well, I think all has been OK. The meds have been helping and keeping me focused, not overly worrying or stressing about anything. The start of the day is reserved for some positive-thinking and maybe a quick walk outside with my Riley Dog to get the mind moving forward. And then I make the effort a couple of times each day to take a short break to play with the pup or just take a walk around the block to take in the sunshine and fresh air.
Yes, there are times when I still feel down -- about life in general and also in regard to diabetes. Lately, I've just been emotionally exhausted about being all "bionic," wearing an insulin pump and CGM and always on the hunt for a new spot of real estate. (My wife and I are hoping to move soon.) Taking a pump break and letting myself go with multiple daily injections for a day or two has helped, giving me a way to rest without letting my D-management go by the wayside.
Taking a "diabetes vacation" now and then is something our friend and esteemed diabetes psychologist Dr. Bill Polonsky suggests as a way to mind one's emotional health.
Since starting work at the 'Mine back in May, I've also had to pay special attention to gradually weaning myself off of being connected online all the time. Personal and professional diabetes advocacy take up most of my time, and I realize that I do need to draw a line between my personal and professional lives in order to avoid being overwhelmed. So I've made a renewed effort to devote my off-hours to family and household matters, to keep my sanity.
All in all, I'm in a much better place now than I was at the beginning of 2012. It took some extra attention to my own mental health, and becoming aware of how others were handling their own issues and telling their stories to let me know it was OK to step up and ask for help. And so, that's what I hope we can do as a community this week: encourage those who need it to ask for help.
Because really, we can't do it ourselves all the time and often we need some friends to help shoulder a burden -- or a good therapist who really "gets" what you're going through. The first step is knowing that it's OK to not have to carry our burdens all by ourselves...