While Mental Health Awareness month isn’t until May, BuzzFeed is having their Mental Health Awareness week all this week with articles and videos from people who are living with mental illness. I use the word living because mental illness is a chronic condition – it’s something you learn to live with. So, it inspired me to share my own story of living with mental illness because I am a believer in bringing awareness to it, to humanize it by continuing to put a face to it, will relieve the stigma surrounding it. I hope one day people can just talk about it openly without any feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Like, “Man, my depression is really acting up today” like you would say about your carpel tunnel or arthritis. Your brain is an organ just like anything else – why not talk about it like one?
This is me in 2009, right before I started by sophomore year of college and right before I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety. As you can see it looks like I’m having an awesome, sunny beach day on Block Island but I remember that day really differently. I remember feeling so foggy, unable to concentrate and be in the moment with my friends. Constantly having the feeling of dread. This photo is a great example of what someone with mental illness looks like. It’s not that iStock “head clutching” photos that usually accompany articles about mental illness. It usually looks more like my photo – someone smiling and getting by.
A couple weeks after this photo was taken, after a couple weeks of feeling like I could crumble at any moment, I called my mom and told her I needed help. I just knew something wasn’t right. Weeping for no reason, not being able to sleep, not looking forward to anything, not enjoying things I usually would enjoy – I couldn’t write it off anymore. Looking back, do I think I had symptoms sooner in my life? Probably. But when you’re a teenager it’s really easy to chalk it up to hormones. Or to parents. Or to boys. Whatever. But now things were going pretty good for me. I was doing good in school. Great friends. And I just started dating a guy. Oh shit. A guy. What would he think of this girl he started dating a few months earlier being evaluated for depression and anxiety? This was one of the thoughts I had. (Spoiler: it went fine. We’ve been together almost 7 years now).
The whole “evaluation” process was fast. They ask you a series of questions ranging from “How are you sleeping?” to “Do you want to hurt yourself?”. The doctor said I had moderate to severe depression and the next day I started on my prescription to treat it: Celexa, 20 mgs. I remember wanting it to hurry up and work so badly but knew it could take a minimum of 2 weeks to feel improvements. My mom kept saying “It will work. All of a sudden it will feel like someone turned the lights on.” I started to worry. My doctor told me medication for mental illness can be trial and error. But about 3.5 weeks later I had that “lights came on” moment. I started to feel more optimistic and I started to look forward to things again. Things were good.
I had been on my medication for almost 4 years and I thought, “I’ve been feeling pretty good for a few years now. Maybe I don’t need medicine anymore.” So I took myself off it without supervision from a doctor. I felt fine until a couple months later when I relapsed. I had just started a new job and I couldn’t concentrate. My anxiety symptoms were more physical than before. My body would shake. I had dry mouth. I couldn’t sleep. The littlest tasks seemed so difficult. It was debilitating. I was terrified.
I went to the doctor as soon as possible to get back on my medication. I remember beating myself up for thinking I could live without my medication and feeling bad that I couldn’t function without it. To help me through this, I found a cognitive behavioral therapist near me. Medication has worked wonders for me but I also knew that I didn’t exactly have the most healthy way of thinking about certain things (myself being a big one). Medication helps the chemical imbalance in my brain but it doesn’t help the way I think which is a big part of mental health. It was my first time going to therapy consistently and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’m still on my medication. Will I be on it for the rest of my life? I could be. And that’s okay. The amount that it has helped me has been tremendous. Do I still have bad days? You bet. And that’s okay too, and something I am still learning to accept. Medication is okay. If it helps you be your best self, it’s okay. It doesn’t make you crazy. Going to a psychiatrist, therapist, psychologist – whatever – doesn’t make you crazy. It makes you smart. It makes you aware. It makes you strong. Telling your story makes you strong.