Making Peace With My Mental Illness
I did everything I could to distance myself from the mentally ill. I didn’t want to take the chance that it might be contagious.
Several years ago, in college, I studied abroad in the UK for a month. I was wildly homesick, and had no control over my schedule. In spite of the fascinating surroundings, I found myself slipping, slowly, into despair. There are specific people who were in my life during that time that I loved. There were times, on that trip, when my love for those people was the only thing stopping me from walking out in front of a bus.
Of course, no one on the trip knew anything about how I was feeling. I didn’t have any friends with me, and I pride myself on appearing unruffled, no matter what I’m feeling inside.
I am the queen of keeping it together.
I guess I thought that if I could act like everything was fine, then I couldn’t be mentally ill. I was trying to protect myself from mental illness by cutting myself off from the only help I might receive.
I returned home from the UK, and the weeks that followed were filled with stressful circumstances: a roommate situation gone wrong, a dead computer, an ending relationship. I began to experience panic-attacks.
I’m not sure what it was that got me to turn a corner, but things began to get better. I sighed with relief.
In the summer of 2013, depression crept up on me (though we didn’t call it depression at the time). I would drive to an empty parking lot on my lunch breaks at work and cry as if my heart would break before mopping myself up and returning to work, all smiles. I began to think of ways to avoid work. Perhaps I could get into a car accident, or get pregnant and quit. When I started to let my mind linger on the steak knives in the office kitchen, I began to panic.
It’s almost like there’s a mechanism deep within me that has to be disabled before I can fall apart. It’s tough to find that lever, but when I do, I’m flat as a pancake, utterly incapable of making a decision or moving toward help.
I found that lever in a church small group, and as I confessed all of the terrifying thoughts in my head, I saw only support reflected in the faces around me. Those people helped me take the first steps toward therapy and identifying a vitamin D deficiency (which certainly contributed), as well as helped me see that I could quit my job, no excuses needed.
I began to walk through the steps of changing my circumstances, and then I dutifully went to therapy.
I’ve written before about my first therapist and her thoughts on my desire not to have children. What I didn’t tell you was that on my first appointment, I sat down and told her my story, trying not to leave anything out. I anxiously awaited her verdict.
“I don’t think you’re depressed,” she said. “I think that now that these circumstances have passed, these feelings will go away.”
It was exactly what I wanted to hear.
I was not mentally ill.
The only problem was that it wasn’t true.
After that experience, I found myself dipping below the surface about once a month. Anything might set me off: a holiday weekend spent alone, a friend getting married, the cancellation of a planned outing. Although I didn’t experience suicidal feelings again, I found myself hopeless during those times, trying to hunker down and weather the storm, hoping that it lasted just a few days.
I had friends that I could call upon during the hardest times, people who would pray and swear with me and sit in the pain (or numbness) with me. Those friendships are forged in a fire unlike anything else.
Even in those times, it was hard to reach out. There is something hard-wired into me that tries to tell me that nothing is wrong as long as I can keep a smile on my face. My first attempts were always feeble and so much less than urgent. A sample text might say: “Are you free at all this weekend?” I was always afraid that if I told people what was really going on, they wouldn’t come (and that they might never come again).
After many months of this recurring, I finally made an appointment with another therapist, with a trembling hand.
I was so worried that this one would be like the last one, but I had to try. I couldn’t keep living from one horrible few days to the next, not if there was hope to be had.
I grilled her on that first visit, and she was patient. I’ve been seeing her for several months now, and she is nothing like my first therapist. She has given me hope for the future (and the present).
She’s also given me a pending diagnosis (pending in that these things have to occur for a certain amount of time before they are definite). She thinks I have dysthymia, a type of depression that affects a huge number of people (I had never heard of it). The symptoms are not as severe as that of major depression, but dysthymia can often be triggered by an episode of major depression (which is what we think happened in my case). While you may feel better much of the time, a person with dysthymia rarely escapes all symptoms for more than two months.
Since getting some clarity about what was going on with my mental health, I’m surprised by how much better I feel. The fear that I had harbored for my entire life had come true: I am mentally ill. But that admission is allowing me to be more supported than I’ve ever been. Instead of a life-sentence, I’ve found that embracing this truth is life-giving.
My friend Rachel suggests in her book, Eat With Joy, that everyone has an eating disorder. I’ve taken that to heart, trying to understand my relationship with food and the different ways in which it is disordered in different seasons.
In the same way, I’m beginning to think that everyone is mentally ill. We might not all have a diagnosis, or chemical imbalance, but we all have things in our past and present experiences that sneak up on us and try to get us to believe lies. I have believed those lies for a long time.
In the end, I’m finding that the true enemy was not mental illness, but the fear of it. It was that fear that stood between me and my own humanness, between me and wholeness, and between me and other people. But now, as I begin to share my story and my feelings, even my brokenness, I’m hearing the stories of others, and I’m feeling healthier than I ever have, mental illness notwithstanding.
This post is part of the October Synchroblog: Blessed Are The Crazy. This event was prompted by the launch of Sarah Griffith Lund‘s new book — Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church, and National Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 5-11). When I heard the announcement, I knew that it was time to tell you this story.
Thank you for listening.
Check out the full list of synchroblog participants below:
Sarah Griffith Lund - Stronger Together
Liz Dyer - Finding the Courage to Break the Silence
Patricia Watson - Grace Amid Crazy
Glenn Hager - When Mental Illness Strikes Home
Crystal Rice - Looking Well on the Outside
Cara Strickland - Making Peace With My Mental Illness (you are here).
Jeremy Myers - A True Foot Washing Service
Carol Kuniholm - A Prayer for the Broken
Susan Herman - 3 Self Care Rituals for Managing Tough Transitions
Eric Atcheson - #BlessedAreTheCrazy
Joan Peacock - “Alice in Wonderland”, a Bipolar BookGroup Discussion Guide
Justin Steckbauer - Mental Illness, Awareness, and Jesus
Kathy Escobar - Mental Illness: 3 Sets of 3 Things
Leah Sophia - Synchroblog: Mental Illness/Health Awareness
Josh Morgan - Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health
Tara Ulrich - Breaking the Silence
Sarah Renfro - #BlessedAreTheCrazy
Mindi Welton-Mitchell - Breaking the Silence: Disability, Mental Illness and the Church
Michelle Torigian - A Life of Baby Steps
Bec Cranford-Smith - a vlog