Friday, May 13, 2016

Celebrating May: Mental Health Awareness Month (Actually maintaining my sanity)

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!

If you weren’t aware (as I wasn’t until this morning), May is mental health awareness month. 

I actually laughed out loud this morning when I saw the awareness banner across my internet home page.

I laughed, because this morning I popped a pill in my mouth to kick off my first-ever prescribed regimen focused on alleviating the symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

I laughed because I had no issue taking Valium as needed for the panic attacks that have been ever more frequent these past few months, but the moment the doctor suggested I start taking something on a daily basis to help prevent these attacks I… panicked. (An everyday pill?! That means there’s something actually, really wrong with me!)

I laughed because when I left the doctor’s office last night, prescription in hand, I cried because I felt like I lost a battle with myself. 

Almost 10 years ago, on a perfectly normal Monday morning, I woke up in my bed next to my best friend at the time who had slept over the night before. I was a freshman in college, and I had a typical day of classes ahead that didn’t start ‘til noon. Nothing particularly stressful was going on— no tests or papers due, but I jolted out of a deep sleep—heart racing. I was dizzy and couldn’t catch my breath—everything just felt generally horrible, and I had no explanation for it. 

My logical brain knew nothing was wrong, but I could not calm myself. I slipped out of bed, trying not to wake or alarm anyone, poured myself a glass of red wine (an old, dusty bottle I found in a cabinet), and sat in the shower—simultaneously nursing the terrible wine while shielding it from the stream of warm water.
While pulling myself together enough to go to school, I recalled a story a friend told me years earlier about waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone was sitting on her chest; she called it a panic attack, and I remember being unable to truly empathize. 

It was an unwelcome epiphany. 

Since then, I have found my own ways to deal: some constructive (talking with friends, yoga, working out, deep breathing, staying organized, staying away from caffeine) and some less so. 

There is still a very obvious stigma around mental illness—one that is dissipating, not fast enough. If I was writing this post about a different physical affliction (cancer, a peanut allergy, a broken leg) I probably wouldn’t have gone back and forth about whether or not to post this, and one of you probably would have started a GoFundMe page for me already. 

(Disclaimer: I do not want or need a GoFundMe page. I do not discount the very real suffering of those who are dealing with physical illness, or those who are in need of financial help from others to pay for medical treatment. I’m just saying, you don’t see gofundme/viral levels of concern for mental illnesses very often.

I grew up around a lot of people who did not believe in medicating for mental illness. If you needed pills to cope, you probably also needed a good exorcism. So I’ve been turned off to the idea of taking something pharmaceutical from day one. 

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m a planner. I like to make plans, write lists, and always stay busy. I feel most calm when I am being as productive as humanly possible. If I’m bored, or not being challenged—if things are disorganized or people indecisive—I get anxious. And sometimes, despite all my careful and meticulous planning, I bite off more than I can chew.Then I get anxious. Some days, for no reason at all, I get anxious. There are days when I give myself a pep talk to get out of bed, and others when I am a hurricane of multi-tasking proportions. 


It was a funny feeling last night sitting across from a doctor describing me as “highly functioning.” I wanted to say, “Tell me something I don’t know. I’m nothing if not highly functioning.” But that would have been rude. He had just met me, and was try to help by piecing together my previous charts.

I’m nothing if not self-aware. If I didn’t tell you how I was feeling, if you didn’t see the nervous flush creeping up my neck or feel my clammy hands, I would seem pretty darn put together most of the time. 

I can honestly say that my anxiety and panic disorders (so many names for things that I have a hard time differentiating) have never kept me from doing what I needed to do—neither my work, nor my grades have really been affected by it, and that’s something I’ve prided myself on. I power through. (Look at you! Keeping it together! Without any pills!

However, there have been too many times when I was short or rude or not as compassionate or empathetic as I would have/could have/ should have been had I not been caught up in my own head. There are arguments that could have been avoided with my husband, my family, my friends—those I love the most who sometimes get the worst of me. 

The past 6 months or so have been rough. I work a full time job, run my wedding business on the side, and started grad school this past September. Though I thrive on a packed schedule, I’d been having a harder time coping with my own racing thoughts and emotions. The balancing act of managing the things I had to do (work, math homework, household chores) and the things I wanted to do (plan events, see my friend, fit in some exercise here and there, enjoy being a married person) became more precarious each day. I was praying for the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month, the end of the semester. 

So who cares if I can work 80 hours a week and go to grad school if I can’t just be a nice person most of the time? What good are a bunch of hand written letters and cards to people I care about if I don’t think before I speak and offend them? Why make a million plans to do a million things if the days leading up to them give me a stomach ache?

Sometimes it’s hard to identify your own feelings.
Am I just stressed? Because that’s life and it happens. Or am I anxious?
Am I sad? Because that’s OK too, and normal. Or am I feeling depressed?
Am I organized and tidy? Or am I getting caught up in some kind of compulsive cleaning? 

I personally am most relaxed in a clean house, and I don’t think a person has to be diagnosed with “OCD” to like everything in its own place. However, when I let things like laundry tip me over the edge, it becomes an issue that needs to be addressed. 

I think starting grad school was a turning point for me. It shook up my routine. I met new people, and made some new friends—one in particular who I could relate to when it came to being fully functioning, bad-ass ladies with lots and lots of anxiety. It’s also a setting where the general subject of mental health—or more accurately, stereotypes of mental health issues— cropped up quite a bit—usually in ignorant or negative ways: “I’m going to kill myself if I don’t get a B.” “I’m really OCD about XYZ.” “I guess we know who the crazy one is in this class.” I’m not easily offended, and I’m not the PC police. I’m even guilty of speaking flippantly about mental health issues. (Maybe this is one of those cases where “crazy” people can joke about being crazy, but no one else can? Maybe not. I don’t know what the deal is.

So, back to the beginning. It was a very last second decision for me to go to a psychiatrist last night. I tried therapy with a counselor at the same office last year, but I frankly didn’t feel like I was getting much more out of it than I would venting about things to a close, trusted friend. When I met with this counselor, I was adamant that I did not want to be put on medication, so there was no need to ever schedule an appointment for me to meet with the psychiatrist. She listened to me, asked me a few thought provoking questions, and gave me some general advice. I was willing to keep a diary, and practice deep breathing. Even willing to consider cognitive behavior therapy, but I thought that if I broke down and agreed to try a pill, I was weak or broken—unable to just take a deep breath and “get over it.” 

A little part of me still feels that way, even though I know I’m wrong. I was embarrassed dropping off and picking up my scripts at the CVS last night (one pill for daily use to help keep anxiety and depression at bay, and another for use as-needed when I feel an acute attack coming on.) 

I have a lot of things to do tonight and this weekend. And next week, and next weekend. And all the weeks after that. (I did give myself a break in July and August to enjoy summer. Not too many people want to get married in the hottest months.) I was listing all the reasons I should wait to start these new pills. 

Maybe not today, because what if I don’t like them, and I don’t do a great job at my wedding this weekend? Maybe not Monday, because what if they start my work week off weird?

I was standing over the sink, watching the clock this morning—coming very close to being late for work—going back and forth in my head—to pill, or not to pill. I finally just threw the tiny thing in my mouth, swallowed, and walked out the door before I could regret it. (It was ALMOST JUST LIKE Neo’s red pill/blue pill moment, only… way less cool and without an audience.) 

This all sounds very dramatic, but it felt that way for me for those few minutes. The whole drive into work, I was dwelling on the list of potential side effects associated with this pill—do I feel dizzy? Am I nauseous? Do I have a new rash? Did my head just explode? 

Now here I am 8 hours later, feeling just fine. No dramatic change, no zombie feeling, no euphoria either. I do not regret a thing. I don’t expect to have to be on medication forever, but for now, I’m going to give it a chance and see if it can help me do/feel things that 10 years of “holding it together myself” couldn’t.

I don’t honestly know why I’m writing this post. Maybe it’s to make me feel better about myself. Or gather my thoughts. Maybe it’s so this is all out in the open—and any of you who want to can talk to me about it. Maybe it’s so one single person feeling a little “crazy” and doubting whether or not they should seek professional help reads this and just decides to go for it. 

I also don’t want anyone to hesitate to ask me for help (with anything!), because I have no intention of stopping doing the things and seeing the people I love. 

I know I am going to make self-care more of a priority. I’m going to stop telling myself it’s better to be “strong” than to feel sane. I’ll try to take another moment to think before agreeing to do things I maybe don’t want to/ or don’t have time to do. Hopefully, I’ll take an extra second before I open my mouth to say anything. And even if this isn’t the cure all, I’ll still be happy I tried. 

I hope your take away from all of this is to try be easy on others and to extend that same kindness to your own self.

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