Mental health: It’s a topic that’s complex and fraught with stigma. Or I guess I should say a lack of mental health is what is stigmatized.
In my 26 years, if there’s at least one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everyone is out of their mind to varying degrees. Oh, what’s that? You think you know someone who is totally healthy and balanced? No, that person is likely just very adept at hiding the batshit crazy thoughts clamoring around in their skull. I cannot say enough just how relieved I am that no one can read my mind. The anxiety, the paranoia, the self-loathing…it’s weirdly always with me at least on a subconscious level. It sounds extreme, but it’s really not all that bad. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.
To be honest, how could we all not be a little crazy in a world like this? In a universe like this? I’m gonna assume that if there’s intelligent life in a distant galaxy that they probably don’t have their shit together either. You all live in this world, and you know what I’m talking about. The pain, the suffering, the injustice, the lack of control…it plagues me just as much as anyone. And you can’t fix it. You can win some victories here and there, perhaps both personal and societal with a little organizing, but you can’t eliminate all the inclement weather, all the accidents, all the sociopaths, and all the injustice in one fell swoop. Or even several fell swoops. Or a million. However, it’s important to appreciate the victories when you get them. You just can’t rely on them to keep you grounded all the time.
I think it’s important to disclose a little bit about some of my own mental health issues, if for no other reason than to help contribute to there being fewer stigmas about it. Because let’s make one thing clear: If you seek professional help for your mental health issues, you are NOT weak. You are actually exhibiting strength. You are proving that you are strong enough to combat social pressures that encourage you to suffer in silence. I stayed silent for way too long, and it did nothing but create unnecessary pain for myself and those closest to me.
I feel for men in this regard given how masculinity is constructed in our society, and the pressure to be tough and never show vulnerability makes this especially difficult. Even for me, I always wanted to be as tough as men to prove myself. Although I’m a heteronormative woman, I perceived that there was power in “acting like a man” in certain aspects. (Daring to violate gender norms is a delicate balance, and definitely worthy of a whole other discussion.) To this day, I still catch myself sometimes saying: “Don’t be a pussy, Shannon.” I literally apply a gendered insult to myself…yikes!
I’ve been anxious my entire life, but when I was in my early 20s, my standard anxiety became exacerbated with severe panic attacks (“Holy Shit I’m gonna die! Like right now, as I’m driving this here Ford Focus, I’m about to die!”) and sporadic episodes of depression. Generalized anxiety was something I knew well, and was almost comfortable with. I had learned how to channel it in ways that were productive. If not for some degree of anxiety, I would literally never get anything done. However, I had never really addressed that my anxiety was a problem. And by anxiety, I don’t mean that I was anxious for any particular reason. I, of course, was great at finding reasons to be anxious and still am. Within a single hour, I could manage to find time to worry about having offended a family member, my risk of developing cancer, my career, the chances of an asteroid striking the Earth, how to solve the economic crisis, and my ultimate mortality. Even without my mind running through all these scenarios and problems, most days, I just felt inexplicably anxious.
I usually dealt with it by finding distractions, but the prevailing anxiety proved to be exhausting. As with anything, it had to get bad enough before I finally got help. The panic attacks, which would literally hit me out of nowhere, made it incredibly difficult to function. It’s not like you could say: “Sorry I was late for class today. I literally thought I was dying as I was sitting at a red light on the way here.” Panic attacks are strange. It still amazes me that my body can start reacting as though I’m about to get hit by a bus for no apparent reason. Rapid breathing, sweating, dizziness and numbness in my extremities…I suppose you could venture over to WebMD if you’re particularly curious. I still get them on occasion, and I have my own mantras and breathing exercises I employ to get through them.
The panic attacks, although shitty, were still in line with my proclivity toward angst. However, what really tripped me up was developing depression for the first time. I felt like with anxiety I could distract myself and find ways to be productive: Write a blog, clean my apartment, spend time with friends, etc. With depression, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I would just be sitting at my desk at work sometimes and boom—water works for no (obvious) reason. I was lucky in that my depressive episodes never lasted more than a day or so. The other kicker was suicidal ideation. The irony there being that my anxiety predominantly relates to my own demise. How was it that I, with my very open and oft-expressed fear of death, could think about killing myself? This was when I knew I couldn’t put off getting help any longer.
I remember the first time I finally got up the nerve to call and make a therapy appointment. I was lucky enough to still be on my parents’ health insurance, so I figured it was a good idea to take advantage while I could. When the receptionist answered with her nasally Long Island accent, I remember my voice was shaking as I asked to make an appointment.
“What seems to be the nature of your problem?” she said mechanically.
I understood it was a question she had to ask, but when you have to put what’s “wrong” with you into a few sentences, it can seem a bit awkward and overwhelming.
“Um…well I have anxiety and depression…with like, occasional suicidal ideation,” I squeaked out nervously.
“Well, we’re all booked up for at least two months…how is December for you?”
Frustrated, I took this an opportunity to back out. I was already so uncomfortable with the idea, I jumped at an excuse.
“Um…you know what, I think I’ll call you back.”
“Okay, well if you’re thinking about harming yourself or others, please call crisis services at…” she droned on robotically.
So because I was unwilling to wait a bit for an appointment, I put myself through months and months of more agony. About nine months later, I called the same office (it was in walking distance from my home), and they had an appointment within about a month. I didn’t back out this time, and it was literally one of the best things I ever did with my life.
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but it’s incredibly beneficial to talk through your problems with a highly qualified stranger. Not every therapist is perfect for sure, and it can take some time to find the right fit. But despite the work involved, it’s better than just staying on the same road that will only cause more harm to yourself and others.
So I wouldn’t say that I’ve somehow achieved optimal mental health…I’m not even quite sure if that’s totally possible. I would say that I am healthier, and that my quality of life has improved as a result. I can only hope that one day the stigma will end, and posts like this will be unnecessary. It’s hard for me, as I still experience apprehension in sharing my story. Either way, I hope maybe someone can find this comforting. Because if you’re on this planet, you’re certainly not alone in how you feel.