I am the face of mental illness

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The first days of 5th grade included all the expected trappings - a brand new bookbag, arsenal of multicolored Bic mechanical pencils, wide-ruled three-hole-punch paper and a corresponding three-ring notebook that had Garfield diving into a pool of chocolate on the front. Then there were the unexpected trappings - nausea every day before school, throwing up routinely before class for more than two months and the endless stream of doctors, tests, ineffective medications and dead-end diagnoses.

Hidden Anxiety by Jordan Hourie
Those were my first panic attacks. At age 11. I was never diagnosed at that time with an anxiety disorder. Instead, I learned to cope, and those around me coped with it, too. My parents and older brother and sister grew incredibly familiar with the signs of anxiety and the ways to cushion the world around me, softening the blows against a fragile brain. It was like constantly reinforcing a nest around an egg being flung off a building and hoping for the best upon impact.

From 6th grade through 9th grade, I suffered through the first days of school with the same nausea and vomiting. My sophomore year of high school, I approached the first day of school carefully, meditatively, fearfully, swallowing hard against my 5-year tradition. Conquering that first day fear certainly wasn't the end of the road, but the rest of high school passed inside that constantly fluffed nest, sitting on the edge of a building but never quite falling all those stories down, down down. I wrote a lot of sad, weird poetry. I listened to a lot of Counting Crows and Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan and found myself in melodies and song lyrics that I wrote over and over again on the Bell's paper grocery bags covering my text books.

But college took me two hours from home and away from the nest-builders. And by my junior year, when I was taking 19 hours of class and working part-time and serving as props master for the Shakespearean tragedy The Winter's Tale, I fell out of the nest. And I cracked. 

It was spring in the North Georgia mountains, rainy and cool. I remember laying in bed in my dorm room and feeling the acute separation from reality. The Winter's Hell wrapped; I took midterms. I went home for spring break hollow and drawn. My parents worked furiously shoring me up and sent me back to school in adequate shape to finish the semester. And after a summer at home, you almost couldn't see the cracks anymore. Almost.

Depression, artist unknown
Then my senior year, faced with the beginning of the end, I fell to pieces all over again. After a screaming fight with my then-boyfriend in which I repeated at top volume, "I am not crazy," I realized I was indeed on the sidewalk at the bottom of that many-storied building with my years-old meticulously maintained nest splintered and the egg Humpty-Dumptied to the point that the king's horses and king's men need not be called upon.

I finally went to counseling. And I finally found out that I wasn't crazy. That in fact, I was sick. Mentally ill. Suffering from an anxiety disorder that tended to begat clinical depression. I learned to use my writing to help me process and sort the rational from the irrational. By graduation, I felt like a fairly well-adjusted human being.

Change is always a trigger for me, though, and when I moved back to Georgia after nearly six years in North Carolina, I was shoved right back off that building that in the intervening years had grown taller and further from the ground. Six months after I arrived home, I split from reality. This time felt different. I felt less able to white-knuckle through to the other side. The mental illness crept into all sorts of physical manifestations - uncontrollable crying, vomiting, shaking, weight loss. This time I bypassed the king's horses and king's men and went to the doctor. And I accepted that medication was a very necessary route to recovery.

I have been taking medication for my anxiety and depression for 8 years now. It doesn't keep me fully insulated all the time, but it gives me the clarity to know when my brain is most fragile. And it gives me the willpower to feather my own nest and build that cushion between me and the threat of falling off the edge.

When I talk to people about my mental illness, I find the most common responses include, "I can't tell" or "You don't seem like the type." And perhaps if mental illness always ran concurrent with an unhappy childhood or poor parenting or traumatic experience, then that would make sense. But it doesn't. Mental illness - like any other illness - can strike the most unlikely and seemingly healthy of people. It can creep into the minds of those who have wonderful parents, supporting family, beloved friends, education, a good job, a happy marriage, a perfectly charming life from the outside.

Most people who know me know that I have an anxiety disorder. I'm not shy to talk about it. I even generally have a good sense of humor about it because I'd much rather laugh than cry. But today, on World Mental Health Day, I want to be especially open about it in case someone out there, someone fragile like me, needs to know he or she is not alone. For those of you who have read this far, please know...

...that if it surprises you, know that it is happening to someone else you know - 1 in 5 American adults suffer from mental illness.

...that if you had an expectation of what mental illness looks like, I hope that reading this changed it for you in some measure.

...that if this sounds familiar, I send you a hug of solidarity. Don't be ashamed. It has nothing to do with who you are. It doesn't cast a shadow on your character or intellect or circumstances. 

...that if this sounds familiar because of someone you know, be gentle and patient.

...that if you or someone you love needs help, there are a lot of resources for you, and I've listed some links below. 

I have been incredibly blessed that those nearest and dearest to me have helped me cope for many years and accepted my illness without the barest hint of shame or stigma. I'll never be normal. But I'm not sure that has anything to do with my mental illness. 

Be kind and love each other. 

Coping with a Loved One's Mental Illness (American Psychology Association)