Warning: If you’re prone to feeling like people are “over-sharing” when they share deeply personal things online, feel free to stop reading now.
I’ve never kept my anxiety/depression a secret, but I’m not overly vocal about it, either. I stopped being ashamed of it a long time ago. I’ve made peace with the fact that it will be a lifelong struggle for me, that I will be on medication for the rest of my life just to feel…not normal, but as close to normal as I can get. I’m okay with that. But some people—a lot of people—don’t get it. Mental illness still carries such a stigma, despite the growing numbers of people who suffer from it. It’s still a taboo topic in society and often looked upon with pity, judgment, and misunderstanding. Unless you’ve suffered from it yourself, or are close to someone who suffers from it, you just don’t get it. You can’t. And that’s not your fault. But you can try. Try to put yourself in their shoes. In mine.
I was 14 when I was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance. I had suffered from severe anxiety attacks my entire childhood but had no name to attach to them. I just thought I was overly scared of things, things that seemed ridiculous to most people but were very real to me. I had never heard of anxiety or panic attacks. Depression was people who slept all the time and talked like Eeyore. Mental illness was crazy people in psychiatric institutions. My parents weren’t familiar enough with it either to be able to pinpoint what was wrong with me, or that anything was wrong with me beyond normal childhood fears.
But then puberty hit and with it, hormonal changes. The chemicals in my brain couldn’t keep up, and the daunting task of starting high school put me over the edge. I finally got bad enough that my mom saw the need to take me to a psychiatrist. Here I received my fist diagnosis and a script for an antidepressant. I learned what a panic attack was, and could finally put a name to the all-consuming, completely debilitating episodes that had plagued me my entire life. Those times when hell had opened up and had threatened to suck me in. There was a name for it. I couldn’t believe it.
But I was angry. I was scared. I was in serious denial. I just wanted to be like all the other kids and be normal and happy and free of stupid, embarrassing fears. I was furious that I had to take a pill just to feel normal. So I didn’t. I only took it every three days when the withdrawal symptoms set in and I couldn’t handle the electric shocks in my brain and the way the room spun every time I moved. I was young and stupid and didn’t understand that my brain needed that medicine like a diabetic needs insulin.
I proceeded through high school this way; mostly ok, but totally unable to cope when things in my world went horribly wrong. I couldn’t handle big changes, especially changes in relationships, and when that happened, I fell apart. I bounced from therapist to therapist, getting no help at all. One guy would talk about his other patients, then mutely stare out the window for 5 minutes. Another one said I was doing too well on my medication and he couldn’t help me unless I stopped taking it and got some of my symptoms back. After a trip to Seattle to have a psychiatrist tell me I was “textbook” and then proceed to relay everything I had told him in confidence to my mother, we gave up. (I knew that last guy couldn’t be trusted when I saw a cartoon drawing pinned to his bulletin board in his office, the punchline being something about Prozac.) I was done with therapists.
After high school, I got married and got pregnant and things went downhill again. (Pregnancy hormones and mental illness don’t mix well.) I was a mess and my doctor switched my meds up. That was when I learned that antidepressants only work for 5-10 years (sometimes less) and then your body decides it’s used to them and they stop working. This was also the time my diagnosis was switched from “chemical imbalance” to “severe anxiety disorder” and “depression.”
My pregnancies were rough. The second one rougher than the first. I barely made it through, and only with the help of an increased dosage of meds and another one added for good measure. After two miserable bouts of post-partum depression, I knew my body couldn’t do another pregnancy, and that’s something I struggle with every single day.
Moms with anxiety and depression raising young kids deserve some special award for bravery. (Dads too.) It was arguably the hardest thing I have ever done. Lack of sleep, crying babies, sick kids, the constant demand for attention, is hard enough. Throw in emotional instability and you have a recipe for disaster. But here’s the thing: we can still do it. People do it every day. And we’re still amazing parents. My kids are older now and pretty self-sufficient but the challenge is not gone. It’s just different.
So here’s why I don’t talk about my anxiety/depression. Because people like happy endings. They don’t mind hearing your story if it’s in the past tense. But the minute you admit you’re still smack in the middle of that story, things get awkward. But to most sufferers of mental illness, the happy ending is not “and then I was cured. The end.” It’s “I get through every day, and some of those days are good, and some are crap, but I keep going and that’s something I’m proud of.” And that’s the happy ending.
Also, remember how I said that people who don’t have it just don’t get it? Those people like it when they can fit mental illness sufferers into a neat little package with a neat little label on it. Bipolar. Schizophrenic. Manic depressive. But guess what, Mr. Doctor In Seattle With Totally Unprofessional Cartoon On Wall? There’s nothing textbook about me, or my illness. You can’t file me away under one category and call it good. Despite what my file says under “diagnosis,” I’m not anything that will make sense in anyone’s brain that hasn’t been there.
So what is it like to be in my shoes? I’ll give you an idea.
It’s standing in the middle of your kitchen, seeing the dirty dishes, and being so overwhelmed by the prospect of doing them that the only thing you can think to do is crawl back into bed.
It’s getting on Instagram and seeing all the pictures of fellow moms doing things like baking, and taking their kids to the pumpkin patch, and volunteering at the school, and dreaming about what that must be like, to just decide to do those things and actually be able to do them.
It’s being proud of yourself for showering and putting on real clothes that aren’t pajamas today.
It’s wondering how much longer until your kids start to call you out on things you and they both know you should be doing but aren’t, then realizing it’s already started happening.
It’s being so consumed with self-doubt and guilt and feelings of inadequacy that sometimes you can’t breathe.
It’s falling to your knees and pleading with God to “just feel normal.”
It’s feeling so unbelievably tired that your bones feel like they’re filled with metal instead of marrow, and your brain is full of sand, and the only thing you have energy enough to do is sleep.
It’s dreaming up different ways to try and make your family think you did something other than sleep all day without actually having to lie to them.
It’s thinking back to the days when you were young and carefree and your biggest worry was which CD to buy and wondering if you will ever, ever feel like that again.
It’s wondering why the little things that people do every day, the mundane tasks that they don’t have to work at doing, are like climbing Everest for you.
It’s worrying that even though you think you feel ok, you’re missing out on all the feelings that other people feel every day, because your medicine numbs you, and you’d have no way of ever knowing.
You may read these and think they sound like the statements a severely depressed person would make. But you’d be wrong. (At least in my case.) And that’s why I don’t fit into any one mold. Because I’m a “happy” person. Ask any of my friends and family members. I’m talkative, friendly, outgoing. I laugh and joke around and sing. I know it seems impossible that that could be one person, but it’s true. And that’s the beauty (ugliness?) of mental illness. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t fit into the “depression” category. I don’t even fit perfectly into the “anxiety” category. I’m not bipolar, either, sleeping all day and moping around and then suddenly singing and dancing and cleaning my house. I am ALL of these things at ALL the same time. And when I’m happy and talkative, I’m not hiding my depression either. It’s still there, just pushed to the back. It’s all there—the good, the bad—all of it, always. I am the happiest depressed person I know.
So please, please don’t read this and think, “Wow, I had no idea Alicia was doing so bad. She needs help.” I’m getting all the help I can get. And I’m ok. This is me. It’s my life. It’s always been my life and will always be my life and I will never give up hoping for something better but in the meantime I have to accept what is.
What is my purpose in telling you all of this? Understanding. Understanding for the person in your life who suffers from any mental illness. Because I promise you there is someone. Understand they are not less than. Understand they can still be happy and act normal and they are not faking it. Understand that things you take for granted being able to do every day are monumental feats for them to accomplish. Understand that the best thing you can do for them is to listen when they want to talk about it, show compassion, and don’t try to fix them. Because you can’t. That is worth repeating: YOU CAN’T FIX THEM. Trying will only make them resent you. Tell them that you love them, no matter what, and you are so sorry they have to deal with stuff that you can’t even begin to imagine on a daily basis. Make sure they know you are always there for them. Most importantly, don’t judge. Until you’ve been there, you can’t judge. And if you have been there, then why would you judge??!!
Feel free to text/message/call/email me if you have questions or want to talk. I am ALWAYS willing to talk about this, and I am always amazed at how many people suffer from it. People who are suffering in silence, people who are scared to speak up because of the reasons I listed above. To those I say, please know you are not alone.
Let’s rid the world of the stigma that surrounds mental illness and start talking about it.