I thought a lot about what to write for this month’s blog post. May is mental health awareness month, and though I wanted to contribute something meaningful and personal, I was also afraid. Afraid to fully open up and share the truth about my past struggles—and then it struck me.
This is why we need a month dedicated to mental health, this is why we need to raise awareness: there is still a stigma against mental illness and yet many, many people experience it. Suffering in silence, sweeping it under the rug, afraid to make their struggles known.
To be fair it is everyone’s choice on how honest and open they wish to be about their mental health, but I think if more people had the courage to stand up and talk frankly then maybe we would be able to chip away at the stigmas that keep mental illness in the dark, piece by piece. And so here is my contribution, my chip in the wall.
As long as I can remember I have struggled with depression and anxiety. When I was young, I didn’t have a name for it and don’t even remember why it started. What I do remember is having intense panic attacks at the age of 6 or 7 around the time I changed schools. I had terrible separation anxiety from my mother and would throw fits when they tried to take me to school. I missed a lot of classes, staying home, feigning a variety of illnesses just so I didn’t have to go back.
This was when my mother took me to my first therapist. I can’t fully remember what we did—I think I mainly played with toys in the office while my therapist observed my behavior. Needless to say, I was eventually able to overcome my separation anxiety and return to school like a normal kid, though I suffered from stomach problems because I was always so nervous.
For several years I was fine though. Then around the age of 12 or 13 I was struck with more bouts of crippling anxiety. Again this had to do with changing schools (perhaps there is a pattern after all…) As I prepared to enter a public middle school after going to a small private elementary school, I was told I needed a round of vaccinations. At the time, I had a terrible phobia of needles (brought on by a severe illness I had suffered as a young child). Going to the doctor’s office to get these shots felt like death to me. My panic attacks were so severe I would practically black out. I remember how terrifying it was. I also remember how I logically knew my reaction to such a little thing—getting a shot—didn’t make sense. But I couldn’t control my fear. Again I was taken to a therapist. He taught me several relaxation techniques and ways to work through my panic attacks. Though it didn’t completely get rid of my phobia, I was able to get my vaccinations and move on.
Once again I spent several years without much trouble. But after I started college and moved to a city where I had no friends and was half a day’s travel away from my parents, I ran into more issues. I think every young person attending college probably has a difficult time adjusting. I was able to get through it without too much difficulty since I made quick friends, but still I was out of my comfort zone. My confidence was shaky at best, and my mental stability tenuous.
Then I had an accident. I had a severe back injury working on a film set and was hospitalized with a herniated disk in my lumbar. I was bed ridden for a complete month. When I was finally able to be vertical, I had to get around with a walker—a terrible blow to a 19 year-old woman’s ego and confidence. I was incredibly depressed by my sudden disability, and on top of that was being medicated like crazy. When I look back on how much Valium and Vicodin was being pumped into me (out of necessity, so my doctors said), I am not at all surprised that I became addicted. As my pain began to decrease, my desire for these painkillers did not, and I started abusing my prescription. This only added fuel to the fire, increasing my depression to levels it may not have reached otherwise.
I became incredibly reckless and self-destructive. I wanted to hurt myself. I reached a place where I felt I was worthless and thus it didn’t matter what I did to myself. I’m not proud of my behavior at the time. At a party with other self-destructive, enablers I almost overdosed on pills. I began to cut myself regularly. I fantasized about ways to kill myself.
I finally realized I needed help and sought out my third therapist. After seeing her a couple times, I showed her the self-inflicted wounds on my arms. She immediately told me I needed to be hospitalized.
This has been my dark secret for a long time, something I felt I could not share with people (although my closest friends who knew me at the time are aware of it). My mother came to get me from college in Chicago and we went back home to Michigan where I was admitted to a mental hospital under suicide watch. I was there for a little over a week and was able to successfully get past my lowest point. By the time I was released, I no longer wanted to kill myself and I had a bit more clarity on the whole ordeal. The severity of my depression was intensified by my use of painkillers, and even more specifically, my quitting. Several weeks before I was hospitalized I had stopped the pills cold turkey, tired of feeling crazy and addicted. I had no idea these chemicals could unbalance me so intensely. It was a sad and almost inevitable situation, and the more I researched the more I realized that many people became addicted to pills after they were prescribed for legitimate pain. It made me wonder, what was the lesser evil?
Despite this knowledge, I also knew that I had been susceptible to depression and anxiety my whole life. After my stunt in the hospital, I continued to see a therapist and also a psychiatrist who put me on Prozac to help rebalance me. I took medication for my depression and anxiety for several years and finally was able to wean myself off and adopt a more holistic approach to mental health. Now, after years of working towards a healthy mind, I finally feel like myself—the self that was happy, confident, and full of optimism.
Still I know there is a side of me that experiences depression and from time to time it comes back. The difference is now I know how to handle it, and hopefully will never return to that low place when I was hospitalized.
Though I am not ashamed of my experience (I honestly see it as an amazing period of growth and learning), I still never expected to share it openly with the public. But I am making that choice to encourage others to be open with their experiences as well. I think the more we talk about it, the more we share, the less of a stigma it will be, which may make it easier for people suffering to seek help. My story isn’t particularly spectacular or unique, and that itself is the magic of this. When I was in the hospital, I realized there are so many people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses and they just keep it in the dark. But the truth is there are ways to treat and overcome these illnesses. We must support each other and share each other’s strength. I think together we can change people’s minds on the matter, and possibly even change our own.