I Am Not Okay: My Journey with Mental Illness
I’m writing this in honor of World Mental Health day, which was this past Friday. I would’ve gotten it done sooner, but I’ve been super busy. Mental illness in today’s society is a problem. A large one. It is ignored, it is stigmatized, and it is used to make people feel worthless. We all tend to ignore it, until it strikes close to us. Then what do we do? Ignore some more.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in May of 2014. My struggle with mental illness began way before that, however. It started in 7th grade, as far as I can remember. Up until that point, I had been a normal kid. An incredibly nerdy kid, but fairly normal, nonetheless. But in 7th grade, something changed. I didn’t feel as happy and carefree anymore. I thought that everyone went through this, but I saw my classmates living in the same easygoing lifestyle as I was thinking deeply about everything flawed with the world and feeling nothing was going to get better. I knew something was wrong, so nerd that I am, I did some research. After coming up with a few plausible solutions, I decided it was time to bring up my hypotheses to a good friend.
We were walking up to the track for gym when I popped the question. I wormed my way around the conversation until the topic was bipolar. “So, umm…hypothetically, what would you do if I had bipolar?” I asked her, nervous for the answer.
Her face fell and she became silent. After a minute, she said, “I don’t think I could be friends with you. Everyone knows crazy people are dangerous.” From that moment on, I vowed I would be normal. I wouldn’t tell anyone what I was thinking or feeling. I didn’t want to be crazy. Now I realize I’m not crazy, just ill. My brain doesn’t work quite properly. I’m not a lesser person than any of you, nor am I any better. I’m just Rachel.
Because of the way mental illness is stigmatized, I feel as if I cannot speak out about it. Which makes what I’m doing here incredibly nerve wracking. I realize that many, if not all, of you who read this will look at me differently. Some of you will read and understand, some of you will read and try to understand, and some of you won’t even bother. “When we start taking illnesses of the mind as seriously as we do ones of the rest of the body, that is when the gaping chasm of shame and secrecy will end — when you can walk into a doctor’s office and relay your symptoms without fear of being turned away or judged; seen as a lesser person. The disparity is shocking,unjust, yet swept under the rug because that’s all we know.” I realize I may come across as preachy or selfish at times, but this is my life. It’s a huge part of who I am. By letting you inside my mind, I hope you’ll understand what people like me go through every day. I ask that you read this without bias, with an open mind, and without judgment. Remember—I’m breaking an almost seven year silence here.
1: We can’t trust our brains
The thing about mental illness is that it is exactly that — mental. It’s all in our heads, and this makes it very hard to tell whether it’s our normal self or the depression/anxiety talking. It makes everything very confusing, and it’s hard to push past it to see what’s really real. Everything becomes a source of confusion and despair, even something as simple as a phone call. To a person with a normally functioning brain, a phone call is easy as picking up the phone and dialing. For me, however, it’s a different story. Here’s what goes on in my head when I need to make a phone call (for this situation, a potential employer).
“No, I don’t want to call them. I’m terrible on the phone. I always stutter. What if I dial the wrong number? Oh god, that person will think all day about how much of an idiot I am. Can’t even dial the damn phone right. And what if I mess up introducing myself? Like that time 9 years ago when I started off with the Pledge of Allegiance *cringe*. Oh, my god, and the one time I started off with dinner prayers to that one guy. I was so embarrassed. Still am. I can’t ever be articulate. My tongue trips over itself and I always end up sounding retarded. Better to just forget the whole thing. They’re going to think I’m annoying for calling anyway. I know I hate when people call me. So what if they’re a business and get phone calls all the time? I’m still annoying. I don’t need the job anyway. I’ll just wait until they call me. I mean, I can get by on almost nothing, can’t I? I’d be better than mucking up the call.”
This cycle continues until I finally force myself to pick up the phone and dial, because the only thing worse than mucking up the phone call is hanging up, a coward.
Even compliments become a source of confusion. I know I’m an incredibly successful young woman, but under the shadow of anxiety and depression, I become no better than a little gremlin, hiding in shame and fear. I am told I am beautiful, but I can’t see anything past my scars, the fat on my stomach, and the lines already etched on my face. Through the tinted lenses of depression, I am no prettier than Gollum, a worthless, wretched creature. My poor, aching brain tries to reconcile the two views, but simply can’t.
2: We have zero ability to switch it off
Again, mental. The illness is insidious. It’s meshed so tightly with your mind that every waking moment is filled with it. It can strike at any time, and without warning. Having a bad day? Perfect. Having a good day? Even better time.
Having a bad day is always a catalyst. When nothing seems to be going right, depression is there. People have bad days. It happens to all of us. But imagine that bad day multiplied exponentially. Every comment is a personal attack, even loving ones. Every glance becomes a withering glare, making you cringe. Every question tells you that you aren’t smart enough to know it or figure it out. All you want to do is escape from this hell. So you retreat inside yourself, which normally works. But all you find there is a black pit of misery and despair. Your favorite music isn’t nearly as good and grates on your ears. Your favorite books, your escapes, become an illegible mess of lines on paper through your tears. Your favorite foods turn to ash in your mouth. A drink doesn’t numb as quickly. When people ask, “What’s wrong?” it becomes an invitation for judgment, so you just say, “I’m fine. I’m tired.” Then you retreat into solitude so no one can see the panic in your eyes, the fear, the sadness.
Having a good day seems to be a catalyst as well, unfortunately. I may have finally had a good day for the first time in months. Maybe even a good week, or maybe two! I’ve built up a fragile fortress of peace and happiness. Finally, the clouds have lifted. It doesn’t take monumental effort to open my eyes in the morning, and doesn’t hurt to put my feet on the floor and stand up. Making coffee and taking a shower isn’t impossible. But then life decides that happiness just isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’ve been happy for long enough. Time to destroy the fortress.
Take, for example, graduation. Graduation is a fun time. You’re finally done with school, and free! The few weeks leading up to it, you’ve gotten to slack off a bit. Things aren’t stressful at all. The best part? You get to take a whole day off of school to have fun at an amusement park. The day is fantastic, and you are flying high when you get home. It is three days before graduation. You walk into the kitchen, beaming, only to find solemn faces. Instantly, panic seizes you. “What happened?” you ask, dreading the answer. A cement truck and an accident resulting in the death of a family member is the answer.
In the next few days, people arrive at the house to take care of business. They’re from out of town, so it’s cool to see them and cool that they’ll get to see me walk across the stage. My fortress is weakened, but still intact as they say, “This is your weekend. We won’t worry about [family member]’s business. It’s all about you.” Unfortunately, death doesn’t work that way. There are companies to call, cards to cancel, bills to pay. The weekend I planned to spend with my family, cooking for my party, hanging out with everyone, went POOF! I was stuck by myself, cooking for a crowd. I was busy making arrangements for fun while they were making arrangements for a funeral. To say I felt guilty was an understatement. I felt proud of myself for the first time in a very, very long time, and no one could celebrate with me, and I felt guilty for wanting to take their attention away from more important things.
I know that sounds selfish, that I wanted attention on me. But understand this — I’ve spent my whole life in the background. I am a shadow, drifting in and out of people’s lives. Very rarely do I get recognized for achievements, because people just expect them of me. It’s what I do. So when presented the opportunity to be recognized for even a small part of what I’ve done, I wished with all my heart that I could have some of the spotlight for once.
So instead of having fun in the days leading up to graduation, I felt guilty and selfish. Depression was telling me that I would never be worth it, that I was a failure. Why would anyone want to recognize me? It’s better to just let everyone focus on anything but you. My life, most days, seems to be a literal interpretation of the picture that says, “Me: I’m good for once. Life: Lol, hold on a sec.” My life, most days, seems to be a giant cosmic joke. Except it’s anything but funny. It’s made me deathly afraid of being happy. Which sucks.
Even on good days where nothing bad happens, sometimes I get depressed. I don’t know why, I don’t know what the trigger is. All of the sudden, this crushing sadness envelops me and all I want to do is hide. Asking me what’s wrong isn’t going to help me, only make me feel worse, because I can’t figure it out.
3: Well-meaning people often make it worse
There are two types of well-meaning people in a depressed person’s life. They are the sympathizers and the advice givers.
The sympathizers try. They really do, and I give them credit for that. They want to show you that they know how you feel, and that they believe in you. The thought is awesome, but it doesn’t quite work that way. The number one phrase out of their mouths is, “I know how you feel, I was depressed for a few days, once.” Again — I appreciate the thought, but unless you can tell me you’ve actually had depression, please don’t say this to me. Depression is much more than feeling down for a few days. It is a crushing pit of blackness that seems impossible to crawl out of. It is drowning as everyone around you is paddling happily. It is staring at the ceiling at 3 in the morning because you’ve lost the ability to sleep, to cry, and even to feel. You’ve lost the ability to care, and you realize you’ve completely lost yourself. Depression is not enjoying anything in life. It is never feeling good enough, never feeling loved, no matter how often people tell you differently. It is feeling terrible about feeling terrible. Opening your eyes is hard, and the thought of actually getting out of bed is terrifying. Safe zones don’t exist — it’s insidious, ruining you from the inside out.
The second most common phrases are tied at, “I’m sure you’ll feel better tomorrow,” and “You’re strong. You’ll be fine.” I know these are meant to be encouraging. But when the thought of even getting through the next hour fills you with dread, tomorrow is an eternity away. From past experience, I know it will be weeks or even months before I feel somewhat normal again. Telling me I’m strong seems like you’re kind of brushing my problems aside. If I’m telling you that I’m depressed or not feeling well, this makes the list of “Last Things Rachel Needs to Hear.” I’ve been strong for years and years. I know I won’t be fine, probably ever. I might get back to a semblance of normal, but I won’t ever be truly fine. By making myself vulnerable, putting my emotions in your hands, I am saying, “I can’t be strong anymore. I need help.” Don’t say I need to be strong.
The second group of well-meaning people are the advice givers. These people also try. Unfortunately, their advice is pretty worthless. “Go out, have a drink, forget about it!” or “You need to go for a run/get out of the house,” or “Happiness is a choice! Just don’t think/feel that way.” First off, alcohol is a depressant, so that’s a GREAT way to forget about your depression! Second, I’m not old enough anyway. I may look and act it, but I’m not. It’s not something you can just forget about. Insidious, remember? Running — I enjoy it. I really do. It’s a good stress reliever and I can listen to some awesome jams on the way. But when I can barely get out of bed because my body hurts so much, the last thing I can think about is a run. At that point, it will do me more harm than good. “But what about getting out of the house?” you say. I’m already out of the house more often than not, whether at work, shopping, or on a drive to calm my jangled nerves. If I’m out any more, I might as well not have an apartment.
The third one is my personal favorite. Do people really think people with depression and anxiety choose to feel like shit every day? In the song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” there is a line stating “you can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness.” This is true. The type of sadness I get before an episode is addicting. It feels good to sit in my apartment, drinking tea, reading sad books and listening to sad music. What comes after that, however, is nowhere near addicting. The constant tension and pain, feelings of worthlessness and despair, and crying aren’t addicting. Insomnia, headaches, and panic attacks are not addicting. So trust me when I say that happiness, past a certain point, is NOT a choice. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this. I would be living a happy life because I chose to.
4: People who don’t understand or mean well make it worse
There are three groups of these people: the questioners, the downers, and the non-sympathetics.
The questioners aren’t as dangerous, but they are mighty annoying and stressful. “What do you have to be depressed about? Everyone else is dealing with life, so why can’t you?” That’s the problem a lot of the time. I have nothing to be depressed about, yet I am. My life is good compared to a lot of people’s. I’m in two great jobs, completely independent, and have a life (kind of). Yet I am depressed. My mind is in constant sad mode, and nothing I do seems to make it better. I don’t feel successful at all and feel like I should be doing more with my life. I am plagued by doubt and insecurity. Everything I do I question, and it’s killing me. Which leads to the second question — why can’t you just deal with life? Again. I’ve been strong for so long. I’ve dealt with things many people don’t without the help of sex, drugs, or alcohol.
The downers are outright upsetting. “You’re being selfish. You’re bringing me down. You need to try harder and stop feeling sorry for yourself. You obviously WANT to feel this way!” To address the first two — no, I’m not, and I apologize. Try harder and stop feeling sorry for myself? Almost as good as “happiness is a choice.” I don’t know how I could try any harder to be happy. I try every day. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn’t. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I feel sorry for everyone who has to deal with me. I know a depressed person is no fun to be around. I know I complain too much. I know I’m not fun when I’m depressed. I’m not myself. As to wanting to feel this way — see the paragraph in “advice givers” above. I most definitely don’t want to feel this way. I hate it, and resent myself every depression day because I can’t fix it.
The third group, the non-sympathetics, are a wonderful mix of the above two, with an added dash of “I don’t give a shit.” Unfortunately, they are some of the most common. I hear them all the time. “Other people have it worse than you,” or “Life isn’t fair.” “Just deal with it, it’s all in your head.” Are all of these true? Absolutely. And that makes it so much worse. Other people do have it worse than me. I could be starving in Africa or oppressed in the Middle East. I could have cancer or AIDS. I could be an orphan, or live with abusers…the list goes on and on. Yes, I’ve got it relatively good. And yet I am still depressed and anxious. The added guilt for feeling bad when others have it worse is killer. To tell a depressed person this is like me saying, “You can’t be happy because other people have it better than you.” It trivializes the issue and makes everyone feel bad.
Life isn’t fair. I know this. I know some people are dealt shitty hands while some live life carefree and joyfully. I know most people should deal with this. Again, I’ve dealt for too long. And the fact that it’s in my head makes it all the worse. No one truly understands what a depressed or anxious person goes through, unless they themselves have been there. Because the illness doesn’t manifest itself physically (to a point, more on that later), people don’t give it any thought or credibility. Because I’m not showing any symptoms, my “depression” must be an excuse to complain and get out of stuff. I assure you, it is not. It’s real, and it’s a pain.
5: We’re exhausted all the time
Seriously, all. The. Time. Even when I’m sleeping, I don’t get a break. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I’m exhausted. And it sucks having to get up every morning like I’m fine and have energy.
Depression and anxiety more than make themselves known physically. At first, it just feels like my body is winding down. I can feel my muscles get heavy, weighing on my bones. My eyes start to droop and all I feel like I can do is fall into bed and sleep until forever ends. And that’s just the beginning. When I’m in the throes of a depressive episode, it feels like I’ve just gotten over a fever. When things touch my skin, it hurts. Cold burns and heat freezes. Every bump is magnified, every scrape a knife tearing my body open. I ache, deep in my bones. It hurts to step. The tension in my back becomes so high that my shoulders are in constant pain, and I’ve got a headache that never seems to quit.
When the anxiety is coupled with this, it’s even worse. Especially during a panic attack. They can happen over anything, and they’re rough. Absolutely horrible. It starts with a sharp bolt of panic through your body, almost like an electric shock. This sets your heart to racing and your lungs to heaving. You can’t get enough oxygen, and it feels like the blood is all rushing to your head. Almost like you’re drowning. Then your stomach starts to hurt, either just a dull thud or full on nausea. Your eyes dart around, searching for what caused the panic, when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and be safe. But you can’t do that, because claustrophobia sets in. I am not a claustrophobic person — in fact, I love being in tiny spaces. But during a panic attack, I need to be in wide open spaces. The normally comforting small spaces take my breath away and send me deeper into panic. My whole body clenches, sending spikes of pain up and down my already knotted and aching back all the way down through my legs.
After a panic attack, I’m even more exhausted. The hell my body goes through sucks. I’m even more achy and irritable because of this. Which bring us to the mental exhaustion. My mind constantly races, from the moment I wake to the moment I fall asleep. Even in dreams, it’s racing. Insomnia becomes a companion, as my brain keeps me awake with memories of past failures and imagined scenarios. I don’t have an off switch for it. When I’m having a conversation, even just making small talk, the past doubts and insecurities are there. If I randomly cringe while speaking to you, more than likely that’s me rabbit trailing and remembering something embarrassing I was reminded of. Even when I’m occupied with something, it races. Thought your brain wasn’t a good multitasker? Try depression and anxiety. It will prove you very, very wrong. My brain keeps a running narrative of how crappy I am and have been in the past, and I can do nothing to distract or stop it. It’s tiring.
Emotionally, it’s terrible as well. I’ve gotten to the point of being past exhausted — I am emotionally numb. I don’t really feel anything. When I do, it’s a shadow of what I’ve had in the past. Happiness, love, and joy are shades of their former selves. Sadness, anger, and guilt are sometimes there, sometimes not. More often than not, I’m just kind of resigned. I know what I should be feeling, is almost more terrifying than panic attacks. Constant worry, stress, and sadness have stripped my ability to be an emotive being. I simply can’t anymore.
6: We worry about being a burden to others
When in the throes of a depressive episode or panic attack, one of the main thoughts on my mind is “I’ve got to hide this.” I worry incessantly about being annoying and making you feel like you’ve got to do something about me. I can barely stand myself most days when illness strikes, so how can I expect others to still care for me? My mind tells me I will be better off alone, I’m not as much of a downer.
This is also due in part to my introverted self, and from years of being brushed aside. Part of the “introvert’s manifesto,” as we’ll call it, is “I am an introvert. That means when I’m feeling down, chances are that I won’t actually go to you for help. In fact, I won’t go to anyone for help. You’ll actually have to check on me. I don’t feel that I should burden others with my problems, but if you come to me, and prove to me that you really do care, I might trust you enough to let you help.” In the past, I haven’t had much luck with sharing how I’m feeling. Many of my friends fall into the “well-meaning, non-understanding, or non well-meaning” categories. I’m not saying this is bad, not by any means. It is what it is. But it’s made me realize that it’s just better to keep silent most days. The world doesn’t care if all you want to do is curl up in bed and cry for a while.
Sot this is a view into Rachel’s mind. A small view, only scratching the surface (and rambling), but I hope it will help some of you to understand.
To all of you here at the end, who bothered to finish this — thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. It means an incredible lot to me.
To all of the readers struggling with mental illness — I’m so proud of you. I really am. Even if I don’t know you well, or at all, I’ve been there. Still am there a lot of days. I know it’s painful, and I know how badly it sucks. But the fact that you’re still here today even after all of it is amazing.
Love to all,