What Frozen II Taught Me About Being Highly Sensitive

Who wants to talk about Frozen?! I know I do. I’m sincerely hoping you all have seen both the original and the sequel of this beloved Disney film because I will be discussing SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now, I’ll sit right here and wait…

….wasn’t it awesome?! Okay, moving forward:

In my last therapy session, I learned something new about myself (which I’m always a fan of). I learned that I am what you would call an “HSP,” or, a Highly Sensitive Person. This means that I have a highly sensitive nervous system— a nervous system designed to notice subtleties in the environment— and as a result am more sensitive, empathic, and impressionable than most people. According to Elaine Aron, the psychotherapist and author who pioneered our understanding of high sensitivity, being an HSP is a genetic personality trait (rather than a disorder that can be diagnosed and treated or cured) that affects 20% of the population. HSPs process information differently than most, and we are more easily overwhelmed by intense levels of stimulation.

When I first heard that I am highly sensitive, I was disheartened. Wasn’t being labeled as “sensitive” a bad thing? I was familiar with criticisms like “Stop being so sensitive,” or “You’re too emotional,” or “What are you so afraid of?” In situations with heavy sensory stimulation (such as the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, watching a TV show with loud music and strobing lights, or smelling really strong scents) I had experienced anxiety or panic attacks. Watching horror movies (which didn’t happen often) made me physically ill. And if a friend of mine (even if they lived clear across the country) told me they weren’t feeling well, suddenly I started experiencing similar symptoms. All of these things told me that being highly sensitive was nothing to celebrate.

Do you remember in the beginning of Frozen, Elsa is taught to stifle her magic so that she wouldn’t hurt anyone? That “conceal don’t feel” mentality is exactly how I viewed my high sensitivity. It either seemed to make people uncomfortable or it was implied that I was wrong somehow for feeling things more largely than everyone else. So, I put my metaphorical gloves on and only expressed myself in my art or to the people I felt safe with.

Tapestry GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

As I meandered through life, my anxiety continued to grow and fester inside of me, much like Elsa’s magic. When my high sensitivity inevitably made itself known, usually through my anxiety, I was reminded of the reaction Elsa gets when her magic scares the residents of her kingdom, forcing her to flee into the wilderness. There, she is free to use her gift freely, and we see that she has exceptional, and beautiful power; building an ice castle for herself and transforming her physical appearance into the gorgeous Ice Queen that we have come to love.

My “Let it Go” moment came in my last therapy session, when I learned that stifling my high sensitivity is only doing more harm than good. Any time I felt my body giving my a cue that I was being too overstimulated, I shoved it down. I told myself that I would be seen as weak or a failure if I paused that loud, strobing movie, or put down that triggering book, or chose something else to eat that didn’t taste or smell so strong. My therapist assured me that by embracing my sensitivity, and listening to the cues my body is giving me, my anxiety will decrease and my quality of life will improve tremendously. When I mentioned that acting on these cues makes me feel like a failure, she asked “Do people who are failures work to decrease their anxiety and take care of themselves?” What do you think my answer was? She then gave me resources to explore so that I may continue learning about what it means to be an HSP, and how I can repurpose the word “sensitive” so that it does not have a negative connotation.

Since then, I have learned that being an HSP is not a choice or an illness, but rather a genetic trait, just like having blue eyes or being tall. Sound familiar? No matter how much Elsa tries, she can’t will away her magic; it is a part of her, and trying to contain it is useless. When I look at my sensitivity that way, I realize that being an HSP may seem negative to outsiders, but it is, in fact, a gift that, when understood, helps me approach the world in a beautiful way.

Now that I have these resources, I’ve started digging into what it means to be an HSP, and how I can find purpose and beauty in it. Each book or website I visited seem to call out to me, like the voice that calls to Elsa in Frozen II. I learned that high sensitivity is not the same as shyness or introversion; in fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverted! (I am a part of that 30%!) I learned that HSPs who try to live by the same operating system of non-HSPs, are more likely to develop chronic illnesses. If you’ve read the blog before, you know that I have dealt with chronic illnesses since I was young. Also, an important fact: highly sensitive nervous systems affect both men and women equally, but because of our heavily dominant culture, men are discouraged from expressing their sensitivity. (These facts I’ve listed came from Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook.”) Every fact or anecdote brought me closer and closer to my own Ahtohallan; the river of truth that Elsa searches for throughout most of the sequel.

Along the way, I met some other HSPs— friends and strangers alike, that shared in my feelings and experiences— much like how Elsa meets the other four spirits (Wind, Fire, Water, and Earth) on her journey of self-discovery.

My journey is far from over, but in learning all of this, Elsa’s final song “Show Yourself” started to resonate deeply with me. This is the moment in the movie where Elsa learns that she had the ability to be an unstoppable force of nature inside her all along. It took learning about herself and the past to unlock the full extent of her magic inside her. She always knew she was special, but didn’t know she could use the special part of herself for good, because in the past, it’s always exposed itself negatively.

To any reader out there who has seen themselves in this post, I hope what you take away, if nothing else, is the idea that being highly sensitive may seem negative to outsiders, but it is actually a beautiful gift. I am still learning about the facets of this gift, but I know that— just like the spirit, Elsa— there is purpose to being highly sensitive. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a trait that continues to be passed down (that affects 20% of our current population).

Show yourself. It’s time.

elsaedit | Tumblr

Did this article resonate with you? Do you think you might be an HSP? Check out this Facebook group for Highly Sensitive People, founded by the website “Highly Sensitive Refuge,” found here. I’d also love to hear from you, if you feel like sharing your own story! Drop me a line on my Contact page…perhaps this site can provide a sense of community to the HSPs I’m sure I already know.

Hospitalization During a Global Pandemic

I realized recently that I have not updated this blog with the craziness that has ensued since my second-to-last post, “I Am Not Okay.” I was inspired to write about my recovery, but kept butting heads with writer’s block and just could not figure out why I couldn’t get a finished thought onto the page. Then I realized my readers will not have a clue what I am talking about without providing them with some context, and poof! My writer’s block was no more. So, consider this post the preface to the next.

(I will say, this hospital stay will go down as probably one of the most difficult times in my life, so stay tuned for forthcoming posts that go more in depth into what I was experiencing then.)

A week after the aforementioned blog post I was flown into the ER by a close friend, who I had called abruptly after the onset of another panic attack– my second that day. Though I was glad I was not alone in the emergency room, my friend (bless his sweet soul) had to run back and forth between the lobby/waiting area and the nurses station for me: “My friend needs a wheelchair!” “My friend needs a barf bag!” “My friend is going to faint, I need a nurse!” (Hey, at least there was a free valet who knew how to drive stick, right Rob?) It was chaotic, and soon I was whisked away from him and was swallowed by the hospital.

I am going to write a separate post solely dedicated to my incredible nurses. I owe my doctors bigtime for handing me my life back, and I owe my nurses a hell of a lot more for handing me my sanity back. From the moment I was wheeled into triage, I knew I was finally in good hands. My health had been so bad, and I hadn’t acknowledged just how bad it was. (At this point I was fainting just by sitting on the toilet for an extended period of time, and hadn’t been able to keep solid food in days.)

When I was admitted to the hospital, the doctors informed me that I was so malnourished and dehydrated, my body was in starvation mode. Makes sense, I kept thinking to myself, as hunger pangs ripped through me. I was positively empty, my body at war with itself. When I laid down, my body rocked with every beat of my heart, which my anxiety interpreted as me dying, and panic would inevitably set in. Three days into my stay I learned this was due to my severe dehydration, and from that moment on was hooked up to constant IV fluids and magnesium. My body now stays still as my heart beats.

The worst part about this hospital stay (and, ya know, it already wasn’t great) was that we were now in a global pandemic, and Vanderbilt had started seeing patients with COVID-19. (I later learned that the first two confirmed cases in the state of Tennessee were patients at the very hospital I was in, at the same time I was there.)

It was terrifying. I wouldn’t allow myself to go on social media much at all, because any news about the virus scared me into an anxiety attack. And the last thing you want to hear during a panic attack is the monitor on your pulse and oxygen beeping bloody murder. Which, of course, wouldn’t get turned off, because the nurses were busy dealing with potential COVID-19 patients. At one point, on my first full day in the ER, I pressed my nurse call button 16 times within 45 minutes before someone came into my room to help me through a panic attack/colon spasm. I had also tried screaming in the direction of the door, hoping someone in the hallway would hear me, but the halls were also full of patients and bustling nurses. Yelling was no use in a busy ER room with its door closed. I couldn’t get myself to a bathroom on my own, so I had to let the pain wreak havoc on my body while I hyperventilated.

It turned out, my ER nurse was assigned to a patient who may have been in contact with the virus, so she had to suit up anytime she needed to go into that room. It was a lengthy process, which meant I had to wait longer than I normally would have. To say it was frustrating was an understatement. But my nurse was absolutely incredible, and somehow managed to handle all of my needs as quickly as possible, never forgetting a thing. (It’s also humbling to need someone wipe your ass for you. Never will I ever think poorly of nurses. They are the real heroes.)

I wound up staying in the hospital longer than I should have, partially because of the day of my arrival, and partially because one of my tests ended up needing to be redone. I was admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital’s Emergency Department on a Thursday night, and was admitted to hospital itself on Friday afternoon. Because of the tests I needed, there wasn’t time to complete it on that Friday, and they didn’t do these particular procedures on the weekend, so I had to wait until Monday to have my tests done. They were going to kill two birds with one stone so that I wouldn’t have to be anesthetized twice.

I remember waking up from the anesthesia on Monday afternoon to hear my mom telling my nurse that they couldn’t complete the second procedure. I was heartbroken. The prep for these procedures was not easy, and having to do it three days in a row (I started on Saturday, with my second test happening on that Tuesday afternoon) was like being thrown into hell over and over. I’ve written a lot of poetry about that Tuesday. I was as empty as I’ll probably ever be, and just completely disheartened. I cried most of that day. Or stared at the walls. Or tried to let my mom help me feel better.

It’s moments like those that I look back on to mark my resilience.

While I was in the hospital, there was a “one visitor per patient” rule, and on the day I discharged they announced no more visitors were being allowed into Vanderbilt Hospital. It was horrifying. I have never felt so isolated and lonely than I did during the gaps between visitors at the hospital. Often, my parents and my partner’s schedules would overlap, so I had to choose between seeing my boyfriend or seeing my mom or dad. (Also at this time, our cat had developed a post-op infection after being spayed, so my partner was having to choose between taking care of the cat or visiting me in the hospital.)

But as hard as all of this was, it all became worth it once my new gastroenterologist came into my room, sat next to my bed, and explained in detail what was going on with my body. She discussed what she saw when she sent her little video camera through my intestines, and helped me visualize why my body was causing me so much pain. Better yet, she told me how I can fix it.

She gave me her undivided attention for over an hour (unprecedented in hospital history!), answering all of the pages of questions I had written for her. What happened next? She signed my discharge papers.

I left the hospital on Wednesday, March 18th. The Nashville Safer at Home order began Monday, March 23rd. What has happened since has been a blur of ups and downs, in dealing with recovery of a chronic illness during a global pandemic, due to a virus I am considered high risk of contracting.

However, as difficult as it has been, it has also been an incredible period of growth for myself and my body. I am experiencing relief for the first time in my life. My body is doing things I never thought it was capable of.

Maybe a month before I went to the hospital, I told my therapist that I just wanted a break. A break from this battle with my body, a break from feeling overwhelmed by work and a lack of creativity. Next thing I know I spend a week in the hospital and am gift-wrapped a forced break: I am in the “high risk of catching coronavirus” category, and am not allowed to return to work until the world becomes a bit safer.

While, of course, I wish it were due to different circumstances, this time in quarantine has allowed me to come back to myself, my values, and my creativity. My mind has all this free space now that it’s not occupied with pain or anxiety, and it is being filled to the brim with creativity, hobbies, passion projects, and stronger relationships. I cannot wait to see what I can do as my body continues to heal and recover.

I hope everyone is staying safe in this difficult time. I am immensely grateful for all of the medical professionals that were on my case, and that I am sure have been putting themselves at risk every day since to care for their patients. The world cannot possibly offer these selfless professionals the gratitude they deserve, but we can certainly try. Thank you to both of my teams of doctors, and the amazing nurses who took care of me from start to finish. You are all my heroes.

Please stay tuned for future posts about my journey through recovery, and my time in the hospital.

Today in Therapy…

Alright, so my therapist used new language in session today that helped me cope a bit more with what I’m going through. You see, I’ve really been beating myself up because I’ve been so sick lately. My physical health has been very bad since I had a procedure done on my liver at the end of this past year, and my mental health is hanging on for dear life. I feel exhausted all of the time, I have very little interest in things I used to enjoy (what’s up depression), and now I’m having issues with my gut, so eating is quite difficult. Which also means I have a hard time living the life I used to live. You know, going out all of the time, or even just hanging out with friends somewhere other than my house (usually in my bed). Not only have I cancelled, postponed, and rainchecked plans left and right, but now I just try not to make plans at all because I know I’ll be too exhausted or sick to do anything but hang out at home.

Of course, when things get this way, I immediately bee-line for the shame train. I have no energy to hang out and do fun things anymore, so therefore I am worth less, somehow, than I was before. I am “unfun,” “boring,” “broken.” You name the criticism, I have already told it to myself a thousand times before the word is fully out of your mouth. As you can imagine, shame hits you pretty hard after a long day of depression, guilt, loss of appetite, physical pain, mental stress, and using energy for daily life tasks.

Here’s where my therapist comes in. Today, she framed my life right now as if I were in survival mode. My physical health is poor, my mental health is on shaky ground, I’m unhappy with my professional life, I feel aimless, and I don’t have much money. I also appear to have high-functioning depression: I only do what I have to do to survive, and I use most of the energy I have (which isn’t a lot, because: depression) just to get through my day to day tasks. So, when it comes time for fun things, or hobbies I used to enjoy, I have already depleted my daily energy for the day. I am surviving.

Somehow, that tiny reframe that my therapist made on how I view my life right now had a significant impact on me, and a lot of that shame that I was carrying around lifted off my shoulders. It reassured me that it won’t be this way forever. That I just need to survive a little bit longer and then things will get easier, and slowly my depression will fade and my energy will return. I cannot wait until that day comes.

To my amazing friends and family who have come over with food or flowers or hugs, who have sent kind messages to cheer me on, who have shown up for me in so many other ways: thank you so much. To the bottom of my heart, thank you. You mean more to me than you know. To my friends who I’ve cancelled plans on, or who I haven’t seen in a while: I am sorry. If you are patient, I promise I’ll show up soon. I’m just surviving right now.

 

 

 

PS. I may make these “Today in Therapy” posts every so often with new stuff I’ve learned in session. Because, if you’re in therapy I’m sure you know, when you have a breakthrough or a big moment where you understand a bit more of the puzzle of your brain or your life or whatever it may be, that provides enormous relief. And I’d love to maybe offer some kind of relief to any of my readers who may be going through similar situations or feelings or times in their lives. And if that reader is you: you got this. You are so much stronger than you will ever know, I guarantee it.

2020 Vision

I’m stepping into this new year- into this new decade- feeling a sense of calm and clarity. I’ve realized that I finally have some semblance of a grasp on my health, both physical and mental. I was planning on diving into what led me to this eye-opening moment in my life, but decided to save it for a future post. Got to keep you wanting more, I suppose. Instead, I will say this:

I have never shied away from discussing my mental illnesses on this blog. And I’m not about to start now. 2020 will be the year I embrace the role of advocate, and start being more proactive about trying to help others who struggle with their mental health like I do. I have many goals for the new year. I aim to reclaim my identity as an artist, and embrace my creativity, however messy or even lackluster it may be at times. I aim to allow my individuality to continue to exist while I grow alongside another human, my partner, and recognize that I can do both at the same time. I aim to push myself to be the best version of me that I can be. I aim to pursue my passions, especially the new ones that terrify me. And I aim to work harder, and share more of my journey here with all of you.

When I created this blog during treatment for my eating disorder, I awakened part of myself I never knew I needed. Writing on this website helped me in ways I never imagined, and taught me a lot about myself and the kind of person I want to be. So, here we are in a new year and a new decade, and I’ve decided not to hold myself back. To acknowledge that I am not perfect, nor will I ever be, and that sometimes pursuing my dreams and pushing myself through depression and anxiety will be hard as hell. But I will continue to move forward. I will continue to pursue my dreams, be ambitious, write freely, and try not to judge myself too harshly along the way. I hope you will join me for the adventures.

Happy New Year, all. Congratulations on making it this far. Let’s keep going.

California, I’m Coming For Ya

After a few horrible days of mourning the loss of Southern California in my life, I have decided to do something about it. In session today, I made a plan with my therapist on what I need to do in order to get back to California.

I’ve got myself on a one-year plan.

Hopefully in one year I will be back in either Los Angeles or San Diego. I plan on getting a job, saving up my money, and getting healthy so that I won’t just be able to live in SoCal, but I’ll be able to thrive.

My goal for 2019 is no self-harm. I made a list of coping skills that I plan on practicing this year and beyond. I want to return to CA with no new scars as of right now.

Some exciting news is that part of my plan involves applying for graduate school! I’ve made the decision to go back to school for mental health counseling, and I’m terrified and so excited to see where this journey will take me.

I also plan on figuring out ways to incorporate the SoCal vibe into my current environment as some added motivation and comfort while I wait. I’m lucky that I’ve found somewhere I call my home, while it’s unfortunate that I discovered it after I left.

California, I can’t wait to get back to you!

Just Your Friendly Neighborhood Reminder that Gender is a Construct

Do you feel like binding your breasts today? Cuz I do.

What about painting your toenails? Me, too!

This is just a friendly PSA that gender is fluid, and just because society tells you that men have to dress like men and women have to dress like women, you don’t have to abide by that.

Wear heels, or boxers, or chest binders (please be safe), or makeup, no matter your gender identity! Wear what makes you feel comfortable and confident.

I need to hear this every so often, and I believe you should, too.

Love always,

K

Introducing #DBTDay

Hello everyone!

I’ve fallen off the wagon of my #MentalHealthMonday posts, so I decided to revamp that, and add something new!

Once a week, I will explore a DBT skill on the blog! For those who don’t know, DBT stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and is used by many treatment centers and therapists across the country. It is a cognitive behavior therapy developed by the extraordinary Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.. As its name suggests, DBT is focused on dialectics; balancing opposites, and using “both-and” ways of thinking rather than “either-or.”

There are four sections of DBT: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Each section offers unique skills to help you stay in the present moment, tolerate stressful situations (without making things any worse), manage intense emotions, and communicate effectively in relationships.

In an effort to raise awareness about DBT, and increase my own personal use of the skills, I will strive to post about one skill per week. If anyone has heard of DBT and would like to request a particular skill, or if you are interested in any of the four models mentioned above, just send me an email from my Contact page.

I can’t wait to refresh my memory of DBT; these are skills that saved my life. I hope they will have some effect on you, too.

Intuition: My Sixth Sense

I recently started a new job that I expected to love. I ended up quitting after two days of orientation.

I originally wasn’t going to blog about this; I felt incredible shame and embarrassment and I didn’t want anyone to know that I had failed.

But now that I have done some reflecting, I don’t believe I failed at all. In fact, what I really did was trust my gut and made the right decision. And there’s hope on the job front! Keep reading to learn more…

 

I have had multiple therapists tell me that I have a great sense of self, and a great intuition. This week, I was able to use that intuition in a sticky situation. I started off being very excited about this job; I had an idea of what it would be like, and I was thrilled to start. However, when I did, I learned things about the hospital that sounded like they would push me to an unhealthy place. On my second day, I worried if I had made the right decision. The hospital seemed intense, and I was slowly feeling myself breakdown under the stress of it all. On my lunch break I had a full-fledged meltdown.

I managed to stick around for the rest of the day, all the while convinced I would not be returning once I left through the automatic doors that evening. I was a wreck that night and the following morning. After turning it over and over in my head, talking to my parents and one of my best friends about it, I decided not to return to work.

I was in agony, convinced I had failed and that no one was going to take me seriously in the mental health field anymore. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to go back to that place, but devastated that I lost out on an opportunity to grow in this field.

A day after I quit, I started thinking about opportunities elsewhere. And then I felt guilty for thinking those things. Who was I to start looking for another job, when I had just quit a perfectly good job? I started worrying about what other people would think, especially after my very public announcement of my new job. I knew I had a shot of interviewing at another hospital for a similar position, but I didn’t want people to think I was just going to quit that job, too, or not be able to hack it in a similar environment.

What I explored in therapy, today, however, is that doubt is the main thing that gets in my way. My fear of what people think stops me from doing great things. I think this other position will be a much better fit for me, and so I was able to set up an interview. After session today I am feeling so much more positive and confident in my ability to nail this interview and rock this new job. Much more comfortable than I was at the old job.

I’m trusting my gut.

My intuition has never led me astray before. I feel as though this is a “when one door closes, somewhere a window opens” thing. The job I left was not a good match for me, and I had an uneasy feeling going in. But this new potential opportunity feels totally different to me. So I’m running at it, with open arms.

My interview is next week…wish me luck!

Reframed: The Series of Hope & Bravery

My big exciting news that I mentioned in yesterday’s post has to do with my Reframed photo series (found here).

While I can’t say what the news is specifically (yet), I will tell you that the series is expanding! I have around 20 new models- many strangers- who have agreed to share the most vulnerable parts of themselves with me and my camera. It has been so inspiring.

I’m meeting so many people who have been brave enough to share their story with me; I can’t wait to share them with all of you. This has been an incredibly moving process, and I can’t believe that my small project may make such a large impact on others.

I want to thank those who have, and who will, participate in this project with me. I applaud your bravery for coming forward and making a difference in the world. This series is doing huge things when it comes to breaking down the stigma of mental health, and I am so happy you are a part of it.

Seasonal Depression…or is it?

I don’t remember the last time I felt like myself.

Great way to start off a blog post, right? Well, it’s true. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about seasonal depression; I thought it was something I’d face upon returning to a city that actually experiences changing seasons. And, while I have been struggling with depression, it certainly isn’t seasonal.

My previous therapist said to look at depressive episodes like I would a cold. They last for a period of time, usually a couple weeks, and then they end and I go back to my regularly scheduled life. Well, I don’t remember the last time I felt particularly motivated to do anything. It took me landing in the hospital to realize how little I was taking care of myself.

Of course, some of that was due to the fact that I wasn’t taking my medication as prescribed (meds are no joke, friends, don’t mess around with them) and therefore was messing with the chemistry of my brain.

Every day I struggle to get out of bed, and every day I have to fight myself to get through the day, at one point or another. I was reading the graphic memoir “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me” about a young woman dealing with her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, when I realized I was actually jealous of the author. Because with her, at least she experienced episodes of mania, where she was productive. Granted, I don’t really wish I had bipolar disorder, but the days when I start crying on a hike I forced myself to go on, or when I wish I could stay in bed all day, I miss feeling “normal.” I don’t even remember what “normal” is nowadays. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have trouble showering every day, or when I didn’t have any issues taking medication. Now even taking Advil feels like I’m climbing Mount Everest. I wish my depression was seasonal. Because then I could at least foresee an end to all of this.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had any wins lately. I’m fast approaching 10 weeks with no self harm, and I’m using skills every day that I’ve learned in various treatment centers to push past the depression and continue to fight for my happiness and my life. I’m proud of myself. I even think soon I will reward myself with the semicolon tattoo, because I’m still here; my story is not over.