I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety back in 2012 by a psychiatrist at my university and subsequently began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist at that time and began treatment, including prescriptions. At first, the primary issue was my depression. Back then, I was in a dark, dark place. Even reflecting on how I felt then now makes me feel sick. I didn’t think a person could ever feel so low. I didn’t know that the depths of despair could run so deep. I knew nothing about mental illness and had very little experience with it. It took me probably too long to get help. I wasn’t handling things in my life well, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. Eventually, it got to the point that my parents believed that this was out of our hands or knowledge (they were right) and it was time to get professional help.
I am lucky in not only having supportive parents but also by attending a university that offered mental health services. I was also very fortunate in having professors who did not just shrug me off when I spoke to them about it – primarily my work study bosses who were also my professors that semester and one of the toughest (and fairest and probably best) professors in my English program who I had for two classes that semester. I have found it best to be open about it from the beginning.
There is really nothing you can do to prepare for an “invisible illness,” especially one with a stigma like mental illness. How do you tell your friends that you’re suicidal? We were 20 years old. How do you even respond to that? We were young and dumb. I definitely lost some friends during this time – and have lost other friends since due to my mental illnesses, but I have also strengthened friendships and realized who is really there for me. Regardless of what they might say, you cannot really repay that sort of debt; when someone who was there for you at your lowest. The ones who gave you hope when you had none. The ones who helped you realize that you needed to stay. No matter what after that, there will always be a certain level of gratitude.
Mental illness is not easy for anyone involved. I was overwhelmed dealing with one. Not long after my initial diagnosis of severe depression, I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Living with multiple mental illnesses just complicates things even more, including treatment. My brain was telling me on a regular basis that life wasn’t worth living while also informing me that I needed to keep going, going, going with no end in sight. Everything had to be perfect and complete. It was exhausting; and depression on its own was exhausting enough. Combined with the conflicting nature of anxiety, it was indescribable. It is a nervous energy, like a negative buzz, coupled with the weight of depression pulling you down as if it weighs a ton.
For a long time, depression was what kept me down the most and was the primary concern of my treatment. However, depression was easier to pinpoint and treat in some ways with more effective methods than just medication.* But the problem was that depression is a heavily layered disease. There was a lot to get through in order to fully treat it. I am pretty confident in saying that right now I am not depressed, but recognize that i am prone to bouts of it from time to time.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a whole different disaster. I still don’t have a handle on anxiety and I don’t know when or if I ever will. And yeah, I recognize the irony in feeling depressed over the fact that I can’t control my anxiety. I haven’t had the best luck with therapy. I don’t have the best level of patience to get into meditation, although I really would like to. I’ve also thought about trying to go to yoga at least once a week for a workout so that I can work my mind as well. It’s just a mess.
There are so many things that I never realized were actually symptoms of anxiety. I didn’t know until recently that it takes the average person less than ten minutes to fall asleep. It’s always taken me much longer than that. My biggest issue with anxiety is probably how it effects me test taking. I don’t think I realized it so much in college because I was an English major and wrote so many papers not like a traditional test. But I’ve noticed it definitely with firefighting and, of course, trying to get my driver’s license which is the bane of my existence, embarrassing that I can’t, and the most frustrating thing in the world. It makes me even more anxious when people make comments about the fact I don’t have my license. It’s not by choice. It is because my brain essentially goes on overload and I feel as if I am in fog and going 100 miles per hour at the same time. I feel nauseous just thinking about it. Of all the comments I get about my mental illness, people telling me that anxiety shouldn’t be an excuse or laughing that I don’t have my license because of it, hurts the most.
The awkwardness I have felt of getting up to use the restroom or really anything else during a meeting or training or some other setting because I feel as if I am being watched and silently judged or that I am doing something wrong. Now, logically I know that people aren’t paying that much attention to me or really care. But anxiety can make me feel like I am constantly being judged. And that is exhausting.
Another aspect of anxiety that I didn’t realize was anxiety is that I always second-guess friendships and if people want me around. Sometimes it’s very hard for me to make any type of conversation for fear of sounding dumb or that the person I am talking to doesn’t really care. Texting is even worse – I constantly feel like I am bothering the person. I just always thought I was weird but once I started reading up on others’ experiences with mental illnesses, I realized that this was apart of it and that these feelings were actually a symptom that I was experiencing. I mean I’m definitely weird, but this wasn’t one of the reasons why.
I also never realized the physical symptoms of anxiety. I get chest pain a ridiculous amount of time, even when I don’t think I’m anxious, I can get it. I’ve heard others describe anxiety as having too many tabs open in the brain, and that is a pretty accurate description. My own brain doesn’t know if it is coming or going. It affects every aspect of my life, and it is very frustrating that I have not figured out a way to tame it yet. Even when my depression is at bay, anxiety is still present. It can hit me at any time. I feel like a tennis ball in a tennis match. I’ve been a perfectionist forever, and now I realize that was definitely my anxiety beginning to manifest. I am terrified of being a disappointment. I feel as if the highest expectations are always present, and anything less is failure. I wish I would have realized this sooner.
It is important to remember that you are more than your mental illness. But it is also important to accept that your mental illness can impact all aspects of your life. The sooner you recognize this, the sooner you can start really fighting this thing full-on. Denial is just going to drag it out further. Your anxiety will move faster and your depression will sink deeper. You also have to accept that there are going to be bad days. The bad days can sometimes make me scared as hell that it’s coming back. I’ve had a couple periods where I succumbed back into a deep depression. Obviously I am still here, but it is a terrifying feeling that you are going to lose yourself again and have to start from scratch again. It is also really important to build up a support system. It is much easier for me to write out how I feel versus talking about it. While I hope this blog helps people dealing with these situations, I also hope that it helps the loved ones of people with mental illness, including the ones in my own life. It can be very hard to put into words how it makes you feel. The despair, the nervousness, the guilt. The loss of self that can be all-consuming, wondering if you’ll ever find that sense of self again. I think one of the biggest pieces of advice that I can give (not that anyone asked for it) is to not let anyone invalidate your feelings when it comes to your illness. You know yourself best. No one has a right to tell you how to feel. Don’t let them stigmatize you. Recognizing your symptoms and accepting it is one of the first steps to beating it. Keep on fighting.
*Note: I am very supportive of using medication if you need it. I struggled for a long time with the idea of taking medication for my mental illness. However, after several false starts and a variety of combinations, I have found a regime that I realized is the difference between me functioning and not. My treatment requires more than medication, but I have finally accepted that it is okay to use medication and recognize that it does work. It’s literally me getting out of bed or not. Don’t listen to those who say you just need to change your diet/go outside/work out and medications are bad. While those may work for you, I’ve realized it is usually a combination of treatments. I was working out long before I was depressed – although it can help now, I still got depression. Don’t. Let. People. Guilt. You. Into. Not. Taking. Your. Medications.