When I Refused to Accept That I Struggle With Mental Illness
Depression. Panic attack. Anxiety.
These are terms I’m all too familiar with. Yes, they are misused. But no, they are not overrated. They do not necessarily occur in this particular order. They don’t shy away from public places and familiar faces. They aren’t always triggered by the memory of a past event, an acquainted smell or vivid dream. It’s not always apparent. It’s not my imagination running loose and it’s not happening because I’m weak.
Confused? So was I. To the point that I refused to accept it, not because I was not “ready” to, but because I was ignorant and oblivious to its existence.
Despite being an educated, progressive young female, I failed to acknowledge mental health issues are just as real and valid as physical ones. The only difference is that a cut on the skin only hurts until it heals. On the other hand, mental agony slowly chips away your soul, your sanity and sometimes even your will to live.
I regret being unaware of mental health issues in the past and now not knowing is my biggest fear. Not only for myself, but for others who rock the same boat. Sure, I’ve heard these words before and probably even used them in conversation. For instance, depression was not scoring an A on an exam. Anxiety was meeting someone for the first time, and panic attacks were likened to stage fright or the jitters before an important presentation. That’s about it.
The first time I ever experienced a panic attack was right after the birth of my second child. I experienced a head rush first and mistook it for lack of sleep. All of a sudden, the room began to spin, my hands and feet became ice cold and my heart raced full throttle, so fast it wanted to leave my chest. I was gasping for air. It was a downward spiral from there.
Thankfully, a nurse immediately brought me a paper bag and told me to take deep breaths (I was hyperventilating). It was magic. I instantly felt better and slowly rested my head on the pillow. As a person of faith, I remember thanking God. Not for life, but for escaping such a death. Yes, that’s what a panic attack feels like — impending doom.
After this, I had experienced a series of similar attacks over the course of the next year. They came and went whenever they pleased. At that point, I thought it was the baby blues. It was so debilitating that I was forced to stop breast feeding my baby. I dreaded going to work because I had already created a scene. Twice. I couldn’t eat at the table without feeling queasy because for some reason dinner time had become a trigger. I distanced myself from social gatherings and people I thought were insensitive to avoid unwanted attention. I also had an attack during a shower. I never shut the door after that.
I had my paper bag in close proximity all the time. After numerous visits to the ER due to “near death experiences,” and having all other diseases ruled out, there was always one left on the list. It’s funny how even though that bag was my only relief, I still failed to put two and two together.
This state of denial led to depression. Even though it was a comorbid condition in my case, it isn’t like that for everyone. It’s a strong enough beast to stand on its own.
One of the things I would like to highlight here is that depression is a demon that comes in all shapes and colors. Depression doesn’t always look like a dark grey meme that has someone leaning against a wall with a tear streaming down his face.
Depression can look like a smile on a successful person’s face. It can sound like bouts of laughter among a group of friends. It can sound like someone cracking a joke and spreading joy. It can be a pretty face with makeup on at a party. It can be a loving mother playing with her kids. It can be a photograph with best friends on a memorable day. It can be as translucent as the flames on a birthday cake with a dire desire for it to extinguish with a wish.
Depression can be a prayer, a random call to say “hi,” even a, “Let’s just go out for coffee”. In other words, it isn’t always going to be evident. That’s the hardest part though. How do you explain something you can’t even outwardly perceive?
I had become a breeding ground for such demons when the anxiety became comorbid. It made me dysfunctional. The fear of a panic attack weighed me down more than the attack itself. It was only when I met someone like me that my naivety dawned on me. Suddenly, realization sunk in. This was the first step towards betterment.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Accepting it was the second step. It was the best feeling ever. That was when I began to dissect the demon bit by bit to develop a complete understanding of it. I asked questions and studied it and its propagating nature. I met some wonderful people who were being treated for it. All of them were fighters.
I slowly started to pick up the warning signs before the oncoming of another attack. I was able to pep talk myself into believing that it will pass, that I’m stronger and bigger than all this. That I’m resilient and that there was nothing wrong with me. The frequency of attacks started to reduce.
It made me more empathetic toward people who suffer from any kind of mental illness. Even though it is still a social taboo, I’m glad it’s being talked about now more than ever. There’s absolutely no reason not to discuss it, read up on it or get help for it. Look around and ask people if they’re OK. Let them know you’re there to lend an ear. If they shy away, go after them. Let them know they’re not alone.
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Thinkstock photo via balticboy