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When Your Mental Illness Comes in Waves

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A couple of years ago, I drove myself to the emergency room, unsure if I was having a heart event or a panic attack. My chest was tight, my breathing was rapid and shallow, and the longer I tried to calm myself down, the worse I felt.

Long story short: It was panic. Nothing was wrong with my heart, but my brain was exhausted. I’d been doing all the things I regularly preach against. My blood pressure was through the roof, and I was scared I might actually die.

This particular panic attack lasted four days. It was the first time I’d been in the hospital since I almost died by suicide more than six years before. Both times, being released from the hospital felt like a resurrection of sorts. A new chapter. A fresh start. The man who got out of that bed was not the same guy who went in.

After this latest visit, I felt good for a long while. I was taking my meds, exercising as much as possible and checking all the boxes I tell others to check when they’re living with mental illness. Everything was fine.

Until it wasn’t.

About a month ago, I was driving home from a massage, and I could barely drive through the tears. My anxiety had been worsening for several weeks, and I couldn’t get my brain to shut off. The intrusive thoughts were exhausting. The way I explained it to my inner circle was this: it’s like my thoughts are going 75 miles per hour on a 20 mile per hour, neighborhood street

I had cut alcohol and sugar from my diet. I was going for a massage at least every two weeks. I was meditating, exercising and taking my medicine.

But I was not OK. Not at all.

I pulled over on the drive home, shaking and scared. I sent a text to my friend Ashley, “I’m tired of being strong. Fuck. I need some help.” Then I collapsed into a pile of tears.

For someone living with anxiety, it means living with the constant fear that you’ll feel this way for the rest of your life. You look in the mirror and, as much as you want others to see you as a person, all you can see is your own misery. Your diminished self-worth is based on the fact that you not only feel “crazy,” but you believe you are insane.

Living with anxiety is stressful. People who know your diagnosis ask how you’re doing, and you nearly have a panic attack because you don’t know how to adequately explain something you don’t even understand yourself. It’s exhausting fighting with your own head. 

And in the next breath, let me tell you this: living with anxiety is one of the most courageous things a person can do. Your mind writes a story that would make any “normal” person weep, but you live with it every moment of every day because you know the only other alternative is a far less-happy ending.

The more I read, the more I begin to understand that mental health is a lot like the ocean. It swells and subsides. It comes and goes. It rises and falls. And everyone’s rhythm seems to be different. Several people I know (not just those with bipolar), experience recurrent symptoms of their mental illness.

I talk about “recovery” from a suicide attempt quite often, but it’s easy to assume that by “recovery,” I mean the alleviation of symptoms and suffering. And for most people with mental illness, a life free of symptoms and suffering just isn’t realistic. In fact, I suspect that expecting your mental illness to magically disappear and never return could likely make things like anxiety or depression worse when the symptoms recur.

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What can you do?

Obviously, that question is easier to ask than to answer. I’d start with your doctor and others in your mental health team. Once you’ve looped in your support system, I’d start by accepting this harsh truth: life is rarely easy. A dear therapist friend of mine works on an inpatient psych unit with children reeling from trauma and abuse. She said she usually tells them something like this: “This is going to be really hard for a long time. No one can fix this for you. You’re going to have to work twice as hard as most people, just to attain some sense of normalcy.” 

Once you’ve accepted the truth that life is hard, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is one vulnerable thing you can share with one safe person today? Get gut-level honest about what you need right now, and then don’t be afraid to share that information with your doctors and others in your inner circle.
  2. What is one thing in your life — a pet, a skill, a person, a memory, etc. –that brings you moments of joy in the midst of ongoing pain? Can you hold it in your mind, letting yourself feel the warmth and goodness of it fully like a cat basking in the sun?

Being a human is hard work. Life is nuanced, messy, unpredictable and scary as hell at times. But in my next breath, let me tell you this: the good days are so beautiful. So, if you’re reading this in the midst of a difficult and unpredictable season with your mental health, please keep holding on. Ask your doctor for help, don’t stop taking your medicine, and tell your inner circle the truth. It’s OK to not be OK. When it comes to living with mental illness, just finding the courage to live another day makes you a hero in my book.

Getty image via Chalabala

Originally published: October 22, 2020
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