Anxiety, relaxation and HAHAHAHA

(The “HAHAHAHA” is totally sarcastic)

So, as I write this entry, my in-laws are playing with my kids and having a great time.  My wife and I have been pleasantly chatting – I’m off this week, and we’ve got some nice plans.  Everything should be relatively calm and relaxed.

And yet, I can’t relax.

To be fair, I can never relax.

Everyone around me has always noted me to be so high-strung it’s almost comedic.  And, to be fair, it is.  I’m that guy.  The guy who spends Friday night worrying about what kind of work he’s going to have to get done on Monday.  The guy who wakes up early – all the time – to get stuff done.  The guy whose favorite website is his online to do list.

So, why?  In part, I’ve always chalked up my complete and total inability to let go to my anxiety issues, which is a generalized anxiety disorder.

All of this being said, being unable to relax isn’t exclusively related to anxiety.  And being anxious doesn’t mean you can’t relax.  I do have fun. I have hobbies.  I love video games.  I write, and I have constantly found salvation in creativity.  My job is a huge source of anxiety for me, but it is also an unending source of pride.  When it goes well, it goes really well.

All of that being said, there’s no doubt in my mind that anxiety and an inability to calm down – even at moments when I am not “anxious” – are related.  That’s because anxiety and depression never really go away.  I’d categorize myself right now as in a pretty good spot – I don’t find myself actively suffering from depression, and I haven’t had a full-blown, hardcore anxiety attack in over a year.  But, that doesn’t meant that it’s ever not there, lurking somewhere in the background.  One of the hardest things for me to recognize is that anxiety and depression never truly leave you.  I’ve recently come to the conclusion that both are somewhat similar to being addicted to something.  You never truly “recover” – you are just in recovery.  And there is a big, big difference.  Being in recovery means that you are on a constant journey, a spectrum.  Recovery isn’t an end state.

Which brings me back to the crux of my entry.  And, keep in mind, this isn’t just me being whiny – check out this article from Psychology Today in 2013:

…research has shown that stress, anxiety and depression, which come on the heels of this kind of non-stop pressure to achieve, physically interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanisms.

No kidding.

So, the general conclusion of this entry is this: If you are an anxious, high-stress person to begin with, you don’t just get anxious during anxiety-inducing situations.  You can anxious – and stay anxious – all of the time.

If you are one of these people, odds are good that you know exactly what I am talking about.  If you are not, I hope this is insightful, in that it shows how difficult living with a mental health condition can be.  I frequently compare mental health with physical health.  This is another example.  Mental illness is a chronic condition.  Just like constant pain, it never really goes away.

All of this being said, anyone out there know what I am talking about and want to chime in?  Your opinions, as always, are welcome and appreciated.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Mental Health & College

As I wrote yesterday, depression and mental health is a hugely personal issue for me.  I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety in some form or fashion since I was in 8th grade, but didn’t actively seek treatment for it until college, when the adjustment to a brand new environment, combined with my already existing issues, pushed me into therapy.

I was lucky.  I graduated from Muhlenberg College, and Rick at the counseling center saved my life Freshman year.  And yes, I do mean that literally.  He got me through the transition into college, the breakup with my girlfriend from home, and a slew of other challenges.  When it became apparent that talking wasn’t enough, he helped me locate a psychiatrist at home who first prescribed me medication.

The reason I have been thinking about this is because of my real job.  As part of it, I’ve been reading a fascinating, in-depth study on suicide in college students, complete with specific recommendations for how to reduce them.  This, naturally, brought me back to college, and had me thinking about how lucky I was.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky?

Look, college is insanely stressful.  It’s a time period in which many mental health challenge first manifest themselves (75% of all mental illnesses onset by age 24), and that’s why it is so important that college students (well, everyone, obviously) have knowledge about what sort of mental health resources are available to them – and access to them in the first place.

I did a little bit more research into the specific issue of colleges and mental health.  The results are difficult to swallow.  According to this USA Today article, the issue is rapidly becoming an increasing problem on campus.  A survey of college administrators said that mental health is their top concern on campus.  The same article also found:

“…institutional enrollment grew by 5.6% between 2009 and 2015, while the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments by 38.4%.”

There’s actually good news in this article:

This new demand for mental health services reflects a number of positive trends — breaking down of stigmas, more diverse student bodies, greater access to college. But it also puts colleges in a difficult position.

Many colleges – like Muhlenberg – have their own counseling centers on campus.  Students can confidentially make appointments and talk about their problems with a trained professional.  And, as these studies illuminate, this is exactly why it is so important that all colleges have some sort of mental health support system.  Three things in particular strike me:

  1. Colleges must have easily accessible mental health resources, be it on-campus counseling centers or the ability to refer a student to a trained professional off campus.
  2. Colleges must be aggressive in letting their students know what resources are available to them.  The greatest counseling center in the world isn’t going to do a lick of good if students don’t know what’s there for them.  This is why legislation like Madison’s Law is so important.  This proposal, recently enacted in New Jersey and named after Madison Holleran (a University of Pennsylvania Freshman who killed herself), requires that:

    An institution of higher education shall have individuals with training and experience in mental health issues who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available on campus or remotely by telephone or other means for students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The individuals shall also work with faculty and staff on ways to recognize the warning signs and risk factors associated with student suicide.

    No later than 15 days following the beginning of each semester, an institution of higher education shall transmit to each student via electronic mail the contact information of the individuals required pursuant to subsection a. of this section.

    In Pennsylvania, this legislation has been introduced by my colleague, Rep. Tim Briggs.

  3. We must continue to endeavor to destimagtize mental illness.  The stigma that surrounds mental health continues to keep people away from available treatment.  That’s why anti-stigma campaigns – and putting a personal face to mental illness – is so important.

I’ll certainly have more to say later, but this is obviously an important issue when it comes to mental health.  And one more thing: The more I dive into this area, the more I find just how important it is to not approach mental health as a monolithic block.  We have to approach each subgroup differently (college students, first responders, LGBT, etc) while pushing towards the overall goal of reducing stigma and helping all people find peace.

As long as you breathe, there is hope

Hiya!

My name is Mike Schlossberg.  I’m 34 and living in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  I’m a very lucky man: I’m married to a wonderful woman, Brenna, who teaches in the Allentown School District.  We have two young kids, Auron & Ayla, and they are our pride and joy.  My full time job is to serve the people of the 132nd Legislative District as a State Representative.  I’m also a writer and have written a book called Tweets and Consequences: 60 Social Media Disasters in Politics and How You Can Avoid a Career-Ending Mistake.  You can expect to hear more from me about my writing projects in the future.

But, my blog would be pretty boring if it was all about how lucky I was, right?

For more than twenty years of my life, I’ve suffered from pretty severe depression and anxiety attacks.  Like any other illness, it has ebbed and flowed, but it hit a crisis point when I was in college, the only time in my life I’ve been so depressed that I seriously contemplated suicide.

Since that time, I’ve seen therapists on an as needed basis, and taken medication to control the worst of the symptoms; for the past fifteen years, not a day in my life has gone by without me swallowing a life-saving drug, prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Living with depression and anxiety disorders is a challenge, to put it politely.  I’ve experienced no worse hell in my life than a full blown anxiety attack and the inescapable pain and terror that comes with it.  Depression is a different but related animal, and on a personal level, the last five years of my life have seen more challenges with that than the anxiety.  Depression, for those of you who have been lucky enough to always avoid it – well, there are many metaphors.  The best one I can think of: Imagine depression as a randomized Instagram filter that you can’t turn off.  Sometimes it’s super dark and affects each and every thing you see.  Other times it’s so slight you barely notice it.  But it’s always there, somewhere in the back of your mind, coloring everything that you experience.

While I’d never hidden my challenges from my family and friends, I never exactly stood at a street corner, screaming “I TAKE PILLS!”  That changed on August 11, 2014: The day that Robin Williams killed himself.  Williams’ suicide broke my heart, and like many who suffered from mental illness, I was floored: If it ended his life, why not me?  Why was I so lucky to still be alive, and relatively okay, when someone like him killed themselves?

Then, Facebook.

While scrolling through my newsfeed, I came across some schmuck who had written something to the effect of, “So sad Robin Williams killed himself.  Shame he didn’t have more faith in Jesus!”

Umm, no.  NONONONO that’s not how this works.  Oh, and Williams was Jewish, you idiot.

Anyways.  

That moronic Facebook status inspired me to go public, and one day later, my local paper published an op-ed I wrote, detailing my own struggles with depression and anxiety.  That dramatically changed my career.  Since then, I’ve spoken across the state and in Washington about my struggles and how to effective combat the stigma that surrounds mental illness.  I’ve worked on legislation to help mothers to be treated for postpartum depression and started the Pennsylvania Mental Health Caucus.  I also spoke publicly about my mental illness on the floor of the House:

That speech was…difficult.  And necessary.

Anyway, after months (if not years) of putting it off, I finally came to the conclusion that a blog might be a good way to get information out.  Mental illness is treatable.  It is survivable.  You can live a happy, wonderful, productive life despite mental illness …and yeah, I mean that.  I can’t imagine my life without the suffering I’ve endured, because it made me a better person and a better public official.  So, here I am, blogging away.

As for the reason I am blogging: Well, I’ve got two things on my mind, one I can discuss in detail, and one that will be discussed at a future date.

First, I want to discuss mental illness in general.  I come at this from a few perspectives.  First is the personal one.  In my journey as a public official living with mental illness, I’ve been floored at my own personal effectiveness in telling my story – and let me clarify that, lest you think my ego is enormous.  There is nothing more effective in supporting those with mental illnesses – and in beating stigma – than telling your own story.  I want to keep doing that, to keep reminding people that they are not alone by putting a real face to mental illness.  I want to make sure that people realize they are never.

I also want to discuss mental illness in a broader context.  Among the things I will hopefully discuss here is the interaction of public policy and mental health, coping strategies, public views on mental health, and more.

Second, in a few months I’ll have a new project to launch.  It is a personal one, and one that is deeply important to me.  I’ll have more on that later.

Before I go, two quick disclaimers.  First, as noted above, I’m a Pennsylvania State Representative, so it seems prudent for me to note this: This is a personal project.  There may be times that I discuss public policy, just like any other person.  That being said, all blog entries are being written on my own time, with my own computer and my own resources.  None of this is being done on governmental equipment or using other legislative resources, and nothing I discuss will bring any “confidential” information to bear.

Second, please understand: I’m not a doctor.  Any advice I give is based on my own personal experience and readings, NOT based on medical training.  If you are ill, please see a Doctor.  If you are in crisis, or worried about harming yourself, help is available.  You are never, ever alone.

So, that’s it for now!  I hope to have more to say later, but for now, have a wonderful day, and remember: As long as you breathe, there is hope.

~Mike