I know that National Mental Health Awareness month has just passed, but I wanted to talk about my experience with mental illness*. Like millions of Americans (estimated 40 million), I have anxiety disorder. There are a few – generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety, as well as PTSD and OCD where anxiety is a major component.
I struggle with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and depression.
Since I was a little girl, I have been a worrier. I worried to the point that I would become upset and tremble and have a hard time sleeping. These feelings would come and go. Some were certainly reasonable feelings, like worrying about the first day of school, worrying about going to a party where I didn’t really know anyone, worrying about going to sleep away camp for the first time.
Other worries, the bulk of which occupied my mind, were arguably unreasonable. For example, the cabinet underneath the sink in my parents’ house held all the cleaning supplies – window cleaner, dishwasher soap, counter scrub – but it also held the plastic Ziploc bags and plastic wrap and aluminum foil. One day as my dad was getting my lunch ready for school (I was probably 8 or 9 years old), I saw him take out a few plastic sandwich bags from the cabinet and proceed to put my food in them. I became overwhelmed by a sense of terror. What is he doing!?, I thought. Those bags have been in that cabinet with all the cleaning supplies. All the TOXIC cleaning supplies! My brain was on overload. I was overcome with the fear that those cleaning supplies had somehow come out of their containers, gotten all over the plastic bags that my dad was using for food storage and were now going to contaminate my lunch. I’m going to die! He’s going to kill me! was the message my lizard brain was screaming at me inside my head.
When I was 12, I wanted a perm (super curly corkscrew curls were in) and my mom decided to give me one at home. If you’ve ever had a perm, either at home or at a salon, you know that it’s a really stinky process. The chemicals are pretty smelly and it’s not fun to breath in. However, they are safe and inhaling those fumes is not going to do permanent damage. But to my young, worrying mind, I was convinced that I was going to die from the smell. I began to tremble, sweat, cry, and scream “You’re going to kill me!” My mom abandoned the hair treatment half way through the process, the result being a calmer child with the hair of a deranged poodle.
Y’all… these are not reasonable reactions. I feared fumes, chemicals, injury, abandonment, death, and public humiliation all before I graduated high school. You wouldn’t know that I ruminated daily on these potential horrors because outwardly I was happy, friendly, well-liked, smart, and generally appeared to be a well-adjusted kid. I had learned to cope with my feelings by hiding them.
As I got older, it became harder and harder to hide my symptoms. I failed out of my first year of college because my anxiety lead to depression, though at the time I didn’t know that’s what was going on. Even while I volunteered at the Student Counseling Service as a peer counselor (something I excelled at because I could relate so well to other people battling similar demons), I still struggled to get out of bed every morning to make it to class. I couldn’t concentrate to study. I had fought with and lost the friendship of the only person I knew at university and I couldn’t cope.
I moved back home, got a job, became busy and my worrying thoughts went away. Or so I thought. They didn’t really. I just got better at suppressing them. Over time, other triggers would put me in a tailspin. I was in my early twenties when HIV was still the number one concern of casual sex. Even though I wasn’t in a casual relationship and had a partner who I knew was not HIV+, I feared contracting the disease. The Internet was still in its infancy and I spent countless hours on medical sites searching all of my perceived symptoms. I would reassure myself that I was OK and a few days later I was back to seeking reassurance that some new symptom wasn’t an indicator of my impending doom from an incurable illness. I also had numerous HIV tests, all over which were negative. I didn’t and don’t have HIV, but at the time that didn’t stop my constant need to reassure myself that I didn’t have it. I was plagued by this fear and it felt unrelenting.
The fear of death from hideous disease seemed to fade but around that time a new fear cropped up. I had just moved out on my own, had a job, and was making a modest living. It was enough to live on my own and I certainly wasn’t living in poverty, but I became consumed with panic that I would lose my job, lose my income, get evicted, be forced to live on the streets, be abandoned by my family, and die alone in a ditch somewhere all before I turned thirty. It was and still is an irrational fear, but I would attempt reassure myself by spending hours calculating and recalculating my income and expenses. My fear didn’t propel me to seek a better paying job or talk to my parents about a contingency plan should I have to move back home because I lost my job and couldn’t find a new one. The feelings of reassurance lasted only a short while and then I was back to the frantic rituals I would engage in to stop the pain from my fear and obsession.
There have been seasons in my life where my anxiety and panic were better managed. Through intense psychotherapy with an amazing psychologist, I was able to manage my condition for many years. I got married in early 2007 and at the end of that year we had our first child, a beautiful son (he’s 10 now.) Having an anxiety disorder made me all the more susceptible to postpartum depression and anxiety and I struggled with those two disorders for many, many months. I experienced another remission for about 18 months and then became pregnant with our second child (she’s 7). I knew what to expect with PPD/PPA and I sought help immediately. This was the best thing I could have done for myself and I was able to manage my GAD and panic disorder for several years. My fears were calmed. I was able to rationally manage the day-to-day and I was living very contentedly and peacefully.
There are some different thoughts as to whether GAD and other anxiety disorders can be permanently cured or if they’re simply managed and we experience periods of remission. For me I definitely think I’m the latter. Three years ago, I experienced a serious interpersonal event that was and has been hard to reconcile. I have been off and on medication for these last three years and seeing a mental health provider. For nearly a year I was able to manage my condition with out medication or therapy but in April, I experienced a set back. I’m still in the midst of that episode of anxiety and depression.
My anxiety has always elicited physical symptoms – headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, muscle aches, tiredness, overeating or under-eating, intestinal distress – but couple those symptoms with my tendency to ruminate and obsess about my health and it’s a recipe for serious suffering. It’s a vicious cycle. The body experiences unpleasant sensations because you’re anxious and then you become more anxious because your body doesn’t feel right. Cue Google searches for every single symptom and what comes up? Cancer. Or porn. But thank god my symptoms only came up with cancer. Knowing that Dr. Google is literally the worst doctor in the universe, normal, rational humans who don’t have anxiety disorder tend to take the information they find online about their symptoms with a grain of salt. Not so someone like me! So I’m back in the throes of reassurance seeking (I’ve been to four medical doctors in five weeks and have an appointment for another doctor next week. I’m not sure yet if I will cancel the appointment yet or not) and ruminating that my inevitable demise will be because of a terminal illness.
These are irrational thoughts, but when you’re lizard goes berserk, they’re all that make sense.
*This will likely be an ongoing series of posts about my mental health and mental health in general. I am currently on medication (Effexor ER 150 mg) and seeing my fabulous psychologist who has been helping me for many years, Dr. S. Writing about my mental illness is therapeutic and helps me gain some clarity and distance from the lizard brain.