The Reality of Living With Chronic Mental Illness
Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
Warning: Visual and auditory hallucinations referenced.
I’m reading in bed. It’s dark. It’s quiet. I’ve got my e-reader in front of me and I’m snuggled under my blanket. I’m deep into the plot of a historical romance when I see my blanket move, yet I’m lying still. It’s rising up and down like waves in the ocean. My heart stops. I’m terrified. I’m frozen. The blanket keeps moving. I shake my head. The blanket stops.
It’s not real. It can’t be real.
It feels real.
I turn on the light and look around the room. I’m OK. The blanket doesn’t move again. I’m the only person in the room.
I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.
I keep telling myself this. I chant it like a mantra until I believe it.
I turn the light off and continue to read. The glow from my e-reader creates a circle of illumination around me, yet I’m not protected at all. This tiny light won’t keep the demons away. I soon spot something crawling in front of me. It looks like an insect — or a spider. I turn on the light and nothing is there. My heart is racing, but I am eventually able to calm down.
I close my eyes. I tell myself they can’t find me if I close my eyes. It’s time to go to bed anyway. I’ll be safe here because the spiders aren’t real. My blanket isn’t moving on its own. I will be OK if I just close my eyes and slip into the world of dreams… even if they’re nightmares.
I start to drift off into sleep, but before I do, the voices come. They talk in my right ear. I don’t always remember what they say. Sometimes I hear, “Stop it!” even when I’m not doing anything. Sometimes I hear a sentence or two, but it makes no sense. It’s like someone is changing the channels on a television set and I’m hearing a piece of dialogue from a random show.
I need to write this down. I have to make sure my doctor knows.
If I remember to do it, that is. Sometimes I forget. I get into the habit of telling him I’m fine so I don’t have to worry about changing my medication. You get used to lying. You get used to pretending that you’re OK when you’re nowhere near OK.
When the voices stop, the nightmares come. They don’t come often, but when they do, they seem to steal my breath away before I’m able to jolt myself awake.
This is what I have been dealing with for the past several years. Sometimes I see things that aren’t really there. Sometimes I hear voices that aren’t mine.
My mood is precariously perched on a roller coaster and the devil is at the controls. I have snapped at people out of nowhere, then I’m crying 10 minutes later. I work hard to prevent myself from having a panic attack when it feels like the walls are closing in.
This past weekend, I was reading a book with some violent references in it. Afterward, I couldn’t stop the paranoid thoughts going through my head. I worried something would happen to my loved ones. I would see these horrible images when I closed my eyes and I couldn’t stop them.
As you may have guessed, I’m dealing with ongoing, chronic mental illness. I’m diagnosed mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), mood problem and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These challenges have taken so much from me over the past few years, but I’m determined to work through them. This is why I have been seeing psychiatrists since 2015 and I’ve been on medication to help address my chemical imbalance.
I had an appointment scheduled with my doctor for August 18, but I couldn’t wait until then to talk to him about how I was feeling I feared I would default to doing the same thing I always do: tell him I’m fine.
I wasn’t. I’m not.
What I did do is send a detailed email to my doctor through MyChart. I didn’t know if he would read it or not, but I prayed he would. I told him what I was seeing, hearing and feeling. I gave him detail because the images and sensations were fresh, potent and devastating.
I told him I didn’t want to wait to tell him this because I was afraid that I would forget it or not tell him at all, or lie to him. I can’t get better if I lie. I know that.
So, during our appointment, we talked longer than we ever had before about that email I sent to him. He asked me some very uncomfortable questions that needed to be asked. I answered them honestly because I don’t want to keep dealing with this if there is a solution — a path to healing.
A path to some measure of peace.
He changed my medications, increasing the dosage of one and adding another. He also wants me to keep track of my moods, behaviors, symptoms, etc. He has increased my visits as well.
My meds have been picked up and I will start my new regimen tomorrow.
I’m scared. I always experience severe anxiety every time I start a new medication, which is ironic because I can’t manage my anxiety if I don’t take medication. The depression just keeps coming at me and I can’t address it unless I take the medication.
It’s sad to say it, but I don’t remember what “normal” feels like. Who the hell am I under all of this? Who is this broken girl? Why is my brain fighting me? Why can’t I have peace? Is it because I don’t deserve it?
That’s not true. It can’t be true.
Often, people who struggle with chronic mental illness are trying to manage their condition while the people around them don’t understand the war going on inside of the mind. We don’t have a visible condition that can be pointed out with the naked eye or even a microscope. There is still a stigma attached to our condition that makes some people think treatment isn’t needed to “cure” our condition. Some believe we can just flip some internal switch and make it go away.
God, I wish it were that easy. It’s not.
The brain is the most powerful and complex organ in the human body. It is the nucleus, the epicenter of every human. All the signals throughout the body pass through this vital organ, and scientists have barely scratched the surface of understanding it. Once you acknowledge the brain is a powerful and complex organ, it can make one wonder why there are still those who believe mental illness is so easy to self-treat.
Still, there are those who believe mental illness can go away with a prayer or our sheer force of will.
It can’t. Our condition needs to be treated by medical professionals trained in the field. What we need is understanding and compassion, not judgment for not being able to deal with our mental health without professional intervention. We shouldn’t be shamed for having an illness. It’s real. It can’t be ignored or wished away.
That is why it is so frustrating when people refer to clinical depression as “just being sad.” Sadness is a natural emotional response to an event or a situation. It is temporary. Clinical depression is not temporary. It is ongoing and it blankets those who struggle with it with a feeling of low self-esteem, low self-worth, depressed mood for several months at a time, etc.
An anxiety disorder isn’t only about being about shy or nervous. It goes much deeper than that. It is this debilitating fear that is persistent, a feeling of dread that often permeates every part of a person’s life. It makes it challenging to get through the day. Sometimes, it pulls you into a state of constant paranoia. Sometimes, it leads to an anxiety attack in which your heart races, your mind races, you may even feel like you are going to die. It can happen at any time and sometimes in response to no external stimuli.
For those of you who are not be diagnosed with chronic mental illness, I will make the following suggestions:
1. Please do not ask us to smile.
For me, it feels frustrating, degrading and dismissive of my condition when someone believes “turning a frown upside down” will somehow make me feel better. It won’t. For many, it actually makes us feel worse. Such a request is often used to make the other person feel more comfortable, not the person struggling with mental illness.
2. Please believe us when we say, “I’m not feeling well.”
Just because you can’t see the symptom, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
3. Please allow us the time and space to practice self-care.
4. Please don’t expect us to be able to magically make our symptoms go away.
We can’t. We need treatment.
5. Please realize using a sick day to deal with mental health is just as valid as using a sick day to deal with a physical illness.
When someone is symptomatic, they might not be as effective at work. It can also cause more psychological damage if they do go to work.
6. Please be patient.
Recognize it may take us a while to feel well enough to get back to a good place, a place where we can function in a healthy manner.
7. Please don’t force us into social situations that make us uncomfortable in an attempt to cheer us up.
You might do more harm than good.
8. Respect, encourage and support our efforts to get healthy.
Allow us the space to see our doctors, take medication, go to therapy, etc. Don’t be dismissive of the positive steps we are taking to get better.
9. Be a cheerleader, not a critic.
I have a chronic health condition; it just happens to be a mental health condition. I’m being treated for it. I will get better. Until then, I just ask you appreciate the fact I’m not always going to be who you want me to be, but right now, this who I am. I may not be in a place where I feel worthy, but I am worthy. We, those of us with chronic mental illnesses… we are worthy.
Unsplash image by Alex Sorto