Yesterday, I woke up feeling overwhelmed, sad for absolutely no reason, and just wanted to stay in bed and cry all day. I haven’t had an episode like this in quite a long time so it scared the absolute shit out of me. I texted a few very good friends who know me well and who would know exactly what I needed to hear, I took my medication, and slowly, throughout the day, things got better. I still felt exhausted. I still felt sad. I still felt anxious about being sad but today I’m better. Rationally, my brain knew this would be temporary, but physiologically, I was already in that head space, and there was nothing I could do to “snap” out of it.
My old therapist used to call this “getting on the bus.” She said to me, “Kelly, if you saw a bus being hijacked, would you choose to get on the bus?” I said, “Of course not. That seems really dangerous.” She said, “then why do you keep choosing to get on that hijacked bus?” And that’s what it feels like. It feels like you’re on a hijacked bus and you can’t get off. Over the years, I’ve learned how to “not get on the bus” with the help of a great support system and wonderful counselors, but sometimes, your body just REALLY wants to get on that bus, and once you’re on, you’re Sandra Bullock and Keanu isn’t going to save you or anyone.
The worst part about suffering from mental illness is that even though I know far more people who suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other illnesses than don’t, no one wants to talk about it. There is still such a stigma surrounding it. It’s also difficult when you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety or depression to try and explain what it feels like to them. I have a wonderful, caring partner, but his brain doesn’t work like mine. He listens to me, cares for me, and does everything he can to try and “fix it” when I’m having one of my moments, but it’s all so irrational it’s almost impossible to explain. I’m reminded of the scene from “Masters of Sex” when Virginia Johnson is trying to explain to Dr. Masters what an orgasm feels like:
Johnson: “It’s like trying to describe salt to someone that’s never tasted salt.”
Masters: “I’ve tasted salt.”
Johnson: “Not the way I’ve tasted salt.”
Your partner may have felt sad before, anxious, worried, etc., but not in the same sorts of irrational ways you do. So they can sympathize and be there, but unless they’ve gone through it, it’s exactly like explaining what salt tastes like to someone who’s never tasted salt.
I’ve probably suffered from anxiety and depression my entire life, but it didn’t manifest until graduate school. I started having panic attacks so I finally went to see a psychiatrist because it was to the point where I wasn’t able to function normally. I was afraid to go on medication. Would it change my brain chemistry to the point where I can’t think like I used to? Would it change my personality? I’d heard horror stories of people turning into zombies, unable to feel. I didn’t want that. I’d seen a close family member drooling in a mental health facility because they’d put him on some cocktail of meds to keep him from hurting himself. I had every reason NOT to get the help I needed.
And I was ashamed and embarrassed. I was ashamed that I couldn’t just “suck it up.” But I went ahead and took medication anyway. My anxiety subsided. I was able to function. No more panic attacks. But even then, even though my life was remarkably better than it was before I began getting help, I had people in my life questioning my decision to get on medication. I was told to “just run it off. Exercise more and that will cure you.” I was told that “maybe this will only be temporary and you won’t have to be on this medication forever.” On days when I just didn’t want to get out of bed, the answer was, “Well, just get out of bed. Get some sunshine. That’ll do it!” I felt as though I was doing something wrong. I was “giving into” taking pills to solve my problems and being shamed for it. I felt weak. I felt horrible. And at that time, I didn’t know others who struggled, too, so I felt very alone. That didn’t help things.
My point in writing all of this is that though there are many articles on destigmatizing mental health issues and illnesses, I live in a world where I have friends who still feel as though they cannot discuss this openly, who live with their deep dark secrets for fear of being judged. We don’t treat mental illness the same way we treat other illnesses. If I had a heart condition and was told to take medication for it, no one would judge me whatsoever. In fact, they’d be grateful I was being treated. But not so with mental health.
On paper, my life seems pretty perfect. I have a wonderful partner who loves me (even on days like yesterday), I have a good job, I can pay my bills, I have a great support system of family and friends, and I consider myself successful in my career. This doesn’t mean that some days, I’m going to cry for no good reason at all. That my lovely friend, depression, isn’t going to just decide to wake up and say, “hey, I’m going to make you feel awful all day and there is nothing you can do about it.” That my anxiety will manifest into OCD and I won’t be able to sleep unless I meet a deadline or disinfect the tops of every soap dispenser in my apartment.
So much of what I struggle with is irrational. Being on medication helps me see the irrationality. It helps me choose to not “get on the bus.” Not always, but most days. Being on medication helps the logical side of my brain kick in and understand what is happening to my body.
I see too many people in my life either not getting the help they need (in whatever form that takes), or feeling like struggling with mental illness is still something we should all be ashamed of. It isn’t a matter of strength or weakness. It isn’t a matter of “praying away” the horrible sadness and anxiousness. Sometimes, you just need to get help. Sometimes that may involve medication; other times not. But in the end, can we please stop shaming those who do suffer from mental illness? Can we please look at this like the disease it is and talk about it openly instead of suffering in silence? Can we please stop telling people that just “jogging it off” will cure what’s going on inside their heads? I exercise. I eat well. I take care of my body, and yes, all of those things are great habits to get into. But they don’t cure my depression and anxiety–at least for me and my brain. Do they help? Absolutely. But I could jog 24 hours a day every day for the rest of my life and some days, I’m just going to feel miserable, or on edge, or like the world is just too much. And that’s ok. If you have felt like that–that’s ok.
So to all the people in my life who supported me yesterday, who have been there for me on the worst days, and who have listened without judgment, I would not be where I am without you. To all who recognize or struggle with mental illness, I’m with you. I hear you. It is unbearable but having people in your life who love you and support you help. And if you find yourself surrounded by those who don’t, who don’t try to even understand what it’s like to spend one day in your body and in your head, it’s time to cut ties. Let’s stop the shaming and admit far more of us live lives that aren’t perfect in any way shape or form–and that’s ok. We need to stop being embarrassed or ashamed of what we perceive as failures due to our brain chemistry. We’re not “less than.” Our brains just function differently. And there is no shame–nor should there be–in difference.