Let's Get Real About Mental Health
May marks Mental Health Month - a time to spread awareness and education about an issue that impacts all of us, directly or indirectly.
I started this blog with no intent to gain any major following, any endorsements, money, you name it. I started this blog as a way for me to write openly, honestly and hopefully connect with at least one person. Personally, finding a sense of authentic connection with others (blogs or in daily life) with helped me come to terms with a lot of my thoughts and a lot of the things I struggle with, personally.
However, as fully open and vulnerable as I am on some subjects, I find it hard to break through my self-constructed guard on others - including my own mental health. But, staying true to the mission for this blog, I try to write this with no shame or much held back - honestly and truthfully.
As some people know, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in 4th grade and Moderate to Severe Depression in college...and, I take medicine to manage it. I used to be intensely ashamed about relying on a pill to placate some of my problems, but it's part of me. I'm using medicine to treat a legitimate illness. That's that.
I want to share my journey of how I arrived here.
In 4th grade, I was taken to the hospital - I had no idea what was going on. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't stop shaking, I couldn't maintain my heart rate or temperature. I was scared, to say the least. That night, I was diagnosed with GAD (and, at ten years old, I wasn't really sure what to make of that).
However, as I grew older and lived through panic attack after panic attack, panic attack hangover after panic attack hangover and anxiety-ridden days after anxiety-ridden days, it started to make more sense to me. I was pre-disposed to be generally anxious and worried, I suffered from debilitating panic attacks for no reason and I could be pretty OCD and neurotic about certain things. I had a little bit of social anxiety thrown in there too, where I became uncomfortable in group settings.
Throughout the years, though, I developed ways to manage the disorder. I saw a few therapists, I developed a breathing system that helped me in the moment (hence, the inhale/exhale tattooed on my arm today), I read a lot of books and research on the subject and I found certain things that calmed me down - aromatherapy, ice water, and talking to the point I distracted myself. For a few years, I felt increasingly more and more in control of my mind and body.
Enter college. My anxiety had been all but nonexistent my freshman year, but by the time of my sophomore year, it raged on and on with multiple panic attacks a week. Beyond that, I was having trouble getting out of bed, I felt heavy and listless and I felt like my smile was often fake. None of my tried-and-true tricks seemed to be working, and I simply drank a lot, hoping to numb down my fears and worries. Mostly, I didn't understand what was happening - everything in my life was going well, so why all of a sudden was this resurfacing?!
After a few months of struggling, I took myself to a counseling center - ashamed, scared and embarrassed of my "secret" life. But, I was desperate to feel better. I was living unsustainably and was willing to do anything to feel a little more like myself. I saw a psychologist and psychiatrist, who both suggested I start taking medication. I immediately rejected the idea - thinking people who were on meds were crazy and on the far end of the spectrum I lied on.
But, after a few more weeks of trying new methods to no avail and after listening to the doctor tell me over and over again I had a chemical imbalance and that I wasn't making the choice to be depressed and anxious, I opened my mind a little more to the idea of medication and started a low dosage of Zoloft. I came to terms with the idea that I was sick - I was struggling with an illness.
After testing out a few dosage levels, I finally settled on the dosage I still take to this day. My feelings are intact - I was never numbed out, like some people are on medication. Instead, my anxiety and depression became increasingly manageable. The medication doesn't eradicate the problem completely, but it puts me in a mental state better equipped to manage my disorder. I still get panic attacks (yesterday and today, for example), but I haven't felt totally hopeless for quite awhile.
For years, I was ashamed to tell anyone I took medication, fearing they'd have the same stereotype and preconceived notion of people who take medication as I first did when I went to the Vanderbilt doctor. I just told people I was taking vitamins before bed each day and that my alcohol tolerance just randomly went down the drain (Zoloft makes you get drunker faster, FYI). It scared me to admit my "secret" life to people - I liked being the girl who supposedly "had it all" - the grades, the guys, the friends, the athletic talent, you name it. I was scared of showing people all the cracks in the facade.
However, as I gradually opened up to people as my facade's cracks began to show in unexpected ways, people were tolerant and understanding. Maybe, it's because of who I surrounded myself with, but the outpouring of love and willingness to help and listen was amazing. It put my mind at ease and helped a little writing this - as most of my San Diego friends still aren't familiar with this part of my life.
No, I don't want to stay on Zoloft forever. I'd love to wean off of it someday, but for now, I'm okay with admitting that I'm sick and need some help. I don't advocate medicine for everyone, but it was the right choice for me. It's helped me when I couldn't help myself, as hard as that is to admit as a control freak and type-A gal. It is what it is - and it makes me me.
It’s not comfortable to talk about still (even after like 14 years), but if you struggle – you’re not alone. Most importantly, you have at least my ear to hear you out.
**And ironically (or something like that), I wrote this in the midst of a really anxious day - a panic-attack "hangover." If you have anxiety, you know this feeling well.