Free your mind…
This is part 3 of 4 in a May series titled “Free Your Mind”, where Carlen Altman shares the tips and tricks she’s learned on her quest for inner peace (and hopes they can help you too!)
Hi, dear Free People blog reader, it’s your friend Carlen. Being that the title of of my Free People mini-series is Free Your Mind, I should give you some backstory to how I came to be so passionate about “mental self help”. (PS- did you know May is Mental Self Help Awareness Month?)
For as long as I can remember, I have been a sensitive, anxious person who never understood our “modern” society. I remember sobbing on the floor of my first grade classroom, secretly covering the glue traps the janitor set out with wooden toy building blocks in an attempt to spare the lives of innocent mice from a terrible sticky fate. (Seriously, imagine how terrible it would be to die on a pile of glue! Or don’t actually! They say thoughts become things!)
From the rules and restrictions of school (sit in your chair; be quiet; pay attention; don’t share your notes with others) to the similarly restricting guidelines of adulthood (work 9-5; don’t question authority; no naps allowed) I have truly never felt like I was born on the right planet. If it were up to me, I would spend my days daydreaming, reading books, writing and walking around nature with friends. This is my idea of being a “Free Person” and unfortunately, unless you have the good fortune of financial independence, this type of lifestyle seems to be only restricted for weekends (after the laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping,and bill paying get done of course…)
As I became a teenager, I would come home from school most days and numb myself in front of the television watching MTV or living in my head, imagining I was in a faraway place that didn’t exist in the real world. How could there be wars? How could we let homeless people go to bed hungry? How could we accept greedy companies were cutting down the rainforests and contributing to climate change for the sake of money?
In an attempt to feel a sense of control in the world, in 10th grade I founded my high school’s Environmental Club and signed so many “save the world” petitions all day long I developed what felt like juvenile carpal tunnel syndrome. But alas, despite all my efforts, I still felt out of control and anxious about everything. Since about the age of 15, I have been what you would call a ‘vitamin junkie’, always looking for natural cures for anxiety. First I tried fish oil, then B12, then Ashwaghanda. I am sure these supplements all have tremendous benefits as research suggests, but no matter how many vitamins I swallowed, an intense feeling of anxiety always kept creeping back up on me.
It was on my 21st birthday that my mother suggested I take antidepressants. I was initially insulted and immediately said no; afraid that antidepressants would take away the one thing I had – my imagination.
So, after months of contemplation, I finally said yes to the possibility of antidepressants. My mom and I made an appointment with a recommended psychiatrist, who after listening to me for 50 minutes diagnosed me as anxious, depressed, and obsessive compulsive (oh my!) and immediately gave me a high dose of the antidepressant Paxil.
Despite my all my reluctance to take medication, I have to say Paxil worked almost immediately. My anxiety, sadness, and fears about our planet became manageable. After only 2 weeks of taking it, life stopped feeling like such a struggle; I began leaving the house more; I even had a boyfriend. I still felt alienated from society but it didn’t cripple my life in the same way it did. I continued signing petitions to “save the bees” (and everything else) and I would even feel moments of happiness from time to time.
But for the next ten years, things felt ‘off.’ Mainly, I couldn’t cry. I literally couldn’t cry. Not when I watched a sad movie. Not when my grandfather died. Nothing. Not even a single tear.
For the entirety of my 20’s, I think I cried once. It was in 2012, when Free People sold out of a floral maxi dress I was about to buy. (Just kidding.) Sure, I felt some emotion throughout my days – I wasn’t completely an apathetic robot, but I just felt disconnected from reality (not to mention, basically asexual – but that topic is for another post…)
In February of 2015, on the 10th anniversary of being on antidepressants, I decided to do something very unusual to celebrate – attempt wean myself off of them. In so many ways, antidepressants have been a lifesaver for me, friends of mine, and certainly millions of other people – but I decided I wanted to see if it were possible for me to experience life without them.
Why did I want to wean off of them, you ask? I wanted to know what it was like to feel – and maybe even shed a tear – not to mention a heap load of research suggested that the use of antidepressants long-term would have some pretty unhappy side effects. (A little note: I only advocate weaning off antidepressants with the help of a professional; I also do not mean to imply that I think antidepressants are a sign of weakness or something to get off of; I just knew for me it was the right time to try something else!)
From February to May of 2015, under medical supervision, I tapered down my dosage into smaller and smaller quantities until I ran out. CVS Pharmacy would call me daily with their robot automated voice “Your refill is ready for pickup” and I would just hang up… At first, life without antidepressants was great! I felt fine being unmedicated and solely supplementing with a multivitamin and B12. However, 3 months later, I began to feel what I assume are withdrawals , as I experienced a level of anxiety and panic I had never felt before. Remember my wish and longing to cry? Well, that wish came true! Big time! If I saw something upsetting about the environment on Facebook, I would cry immediately. If something good happened or an elderly person smiled at me on the street, I would cry tears of joy immediately as well. If I saw someone yell at their child on the subway or if someone said something mean to me at work, I would have to take a walk around the block just to cry in private.
I have to say, although I preferred this colorful and overwhelmingly emotional way of living over the apathetic asexual robot life I left, I wondered if there was some sort of middle-ground between the two… Sure I didn’t want to feel numb but I also didn’t want to be controlled by my emotions! After a particularly rough day, my mom kindly encouraged me to go back on antidepressants. “Maybe there are different, ‘more improved’ ones since you started taking them 10 years ago,” she said. But something deep in my gut told me that this wasn’t the solution either. Did I really want to go deeper down this rabbit hole?
I remember hearing a quote “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” and it really resonated with me. Although crying at the drop of a hat wasn’t healthy (I mean literally, I cried when my hat fell in a puddle), maybe it wasn’t “me” that was the problem, but our society instead? Could it be that feeling sad and scared about climate change and homelessness was normal and that our society’s decision to go on with business as usual was what was actually crazy? Could it actually be that sitting quietly in an office chair under fluorescent lights 8 hours a day with lunch and social media being my only solace like I was doing was actually a crazy way of existence and that I wasn’t the problem?
With so many questions in mind, in February of 2016, a year after I began weaning myself off antidepressants, I decided to do something even crazier. I impulsively quit my job at a TV news station, bought a cheap ticket to Los Angeles, and left New York City (without even so much as posting it to Facebook.) I didn’t have much of a savings account and didn’t know exactly what I was doing but I knew that something needed to change.
And something did change. For the better! When I got to Los Angeles, I took a break from the news, from social media, from everything and cried. I cried for our planet, I cried for our current insane election, I cried about everything. You wouldn’t know it was a drought in California with all the water expelling from my eyes (Sorry, terrible joke – but they say laughter is the best medicine, right? Does that count if I am the only one laughing? Don’t answer that…).
I have good news. Over the course of the next three months in Los Angeles, I think I may have ACTUALLY figured out how to manage my anxiety and experience my emotions without letting them take control of me… There is no one-size-fits-all way to naturally deal with anxiety and depression as we are all so very different but I will share with you how I finally felt better with the hope that it will help you too.
- I discovered a life-changing (and controversial) new book called A MIND OF YOUR OWN: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies To Reclaim Their Minds by Kelly Brogan, which advocates dietary and lifestyle changes as a means to deal with depression and anxiety – If you are dealing with anxiety or depression, THIS BOOK IS AN EYE OPENING MUST-READ! (Sorry for the caps, I am not yelling.)
- I got a blood test to detect whether I was receiving enough vitamins. Through one bloodtest (which I did under the guidance of a naturopathic doctor named Emily Glasser) I learned I was deficient in vitamin B6, vitamin D, (and suffered from Adrenal Fatigue and a parasite! Who KNEW?) – and immediately started supplementing. As an (almost) lifelong vegetarian, I had heard all about the importance of supplementing with vitamin B12 but nobody had ever talked to me about the importance of vitamin B6! As soon as I started supplementing, I immediately began feeling better.
- On the suggestion of Dr. Glasser, I began taking many supplements including a probiotic and magnesium, two things most people are lacking which are known for helping to alleviate anxiety. (If you are in LA, I highly recommend making an appointment with Dr. Glasser!)
- I incorporated more fats, oils and protein into my diet (Consult with a doctor first to see if this is right for your body. Everyone is different.) and cut out almost all processed sugar, gluten, soy, corn, grains, non-organic produce and alcohol. This has been the most challenging, cost and willpower-wise, but I have tried to make it my top priority.)
- I joined a gym and began to exercise at least 4 times a week (along with meditating for 10 minutes everyday, which I mentioned in my previous post) – If you don’t have time to go to the gym, that’s okay. Any activity that makes you move your body is helpful. Check out some great exercises to do at home on the FP blog here!
- I began volunteering with causes I believed in. Remember how I tried saving the mice in 1st grade? I am now volunteering with non-profit organizations who are trying to change the world! Even an hour a week, put your energy into what you care about – it will help the world and give you a sense of control over the situation. Find volunteer opportunities at Idealist.org! WE HAVE MORE POWER THAN WE THINK!
- I started a daily gratitude journal (learn how to make one here) after reading another life-changing book called THE MAGIC by Rhonda Byrne which explains the Law of Attraction and how gratitude is (truly) the attitude you have to adopt if you want your life to get better. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK!
From these 7 steps above, I can say that I honestly feel happy and balanced for the first time in my life. There is no one size fits all solution to anxiety and depression but if there is one takeaway from this whole lifetime of ups and downs, it is that if you are feeling anxious, depressed or hopeless, you should never give up! Sure, the world is not entirely ‘saved’ and I still do not want to ever work a 9-5 job in an office (which is something I am figuring out how to do now and will share with you shortly), but I finally feel a sense of inner peace for the first time ever and hope that somehow, my words and experience help you on your journey too.
Images by FP Emily.