Apparently, it's mental health blogging day, since May is national Mental Health Month. This is a subject near and dear to my family since every single one of us has a mental illness. Which is such an ugly word. Do people say you have a "body illness" when you have cancer? Why can't we just call it what it is? We have depression and anxiety. And it has wreaked havoc with our lives for the past several years - a whirlwind of doctors, counselors, hospitalizations, medications. But we're in a relatively calm period (I say that with caution because after what we've been through I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop!). Things have been pretty good for several months now.
Each person, even with the same diagnosis, has different manifestations of their depression and anxiety. I have anxiety, but rarely have depression. I have days in a row where I'm definitely "off" and feeling depressed, but what plagues me day to day is my anxiety.
I know I was always an anxious kid - I would have a stomach ache every first day of school and I often worked myself up to the point of canceling plans under the heavy veil of "what ifs". I had a myriad of physical symptoms, too, very real and very bothersome. I thought for years I must be suffering from an unknown illness, and surely I would die soon. But the years went by and I didn't die. Still, I had no idea what anxiety was and, apparently, neither did my doctors.
I had several panic attacks in college, and after my kids were born, things just intensified. I felt very confident as a mom, but my physical symptoms continued to plague me, and I worried I had an undiagnosed illness that would leave my children motherless. By this time, I had researched more about anxiety and thought it might be at least contributing to my symptoms, but I was VERY resistant to taking medication.
My reasons for this were, ironically enough, fueled by my anxiety. You know those commercials where they talk about a fabulous new drug and then go through all the side effects that include things like "sudden death" and worse? I worried I'd experience every single bad symptom and then what good would it do? Not only would I have anxiety but I'd also have bleeding gums and vertigo? No thanks.
Finally, after missing a school event because I was "sick" only to have my mysterious illness disappear as soon as I was off the hook, I realized it was time to bite the bullet and give in to the pharmaceutical industry. I went on my first anti-anxiety drug and it was just as I expected. It was awful. I felt terrible, and so I stopped the medication and resigned myself to feeling anxious and sick forever.
But then I did more research and realized there were a myriad of drugs out there that might work. While the first medication, Zoloft, made me have awful tummy aches and didn't seem to make a difference (because I only took it a few days, and, unfortunately, anxiety drugs often take weeks to work), the second, Prozac (fluoexitine) worked like a charm. I was finally, finally free from feeling anxious all the time. In fact, I didn't even realize how awful I felt until one day, doing a perfectly boring and normal thing - driving my kids home from school - I suddenly felt a fog lift and I felt..........hopeful, I guess. Normal. Definitely not something I'd felt in a long, long time.
I was so happy to be free from anxiety that I barely noticed the weight gain - at first. But, suddenly, I was forty pounds heavier and a whole lot happier. Sounds crazy, but the trade-off seemed worth it. I decided I'd rather be "fat and happy" than skinny and anxious. So, I was. Until my weight kept ballooning and I decided I'd better make a change.
I tried Celexa for a few weeks because my insurance insisted I do so. I had to "try and fail" two different anxiety meds before they would approve Lexapro, which my doctor thought would work best for me. That's another caveat of having a mental illness. Insurance companies playing games with your well-being by creating these stupid rules about which drugs you can be covered for. Who's crazy now?
My anxiety often makes me feel isolated, but it's a vicious cycle. I bow out of social engagements because my head is swirling with "what ifs" or I don't feel secure with the situation. Things that sound like a good idea when I commit to them can often seem like the worst thing in the world when the actual day arrives. Sometimes, it's easier to just stay home in my safe house than venture out to experience social awkwardness, or the perception that everyone else is living a better life. So, I stay home and then I feel lonely and isolated. It's a bitch.
Lexapro, as it turns out, works like a charm. I only need a small dose and I feel normal - capable, calm, no more scary mood swings, no more brittle demeanor that would crumble in tears at the slightest slight. I feel confident, secure, assertive, and able to function normally for the first time in years. Relief!
Then, one day, I decided that it was a horrible fate to have to "take drugs to be happy." I decided I would try weaning off my medication now that I clearly had things under control. The first sign that this was a mistake was the unpredictable mood swings and the irritability. We're talking such a heightened sense of irritability that someone breathing too loud could set me off. I realized quickly that this was the "crazy" talking and I went back on my meds. Two more failed attempts at weaning off my Lexapro and I decided I would just accept that I needed this medication - like a diabetic needs insulin.
Recently, I started taking my meds less often. Every other day and now every third day. In another attempt to see if I can manage to lose weight a little easier once I'm OFF the meds, I've decided to try weaning again. And I've definitely noticed an uptick in my moodiness, my irritability, and my sadness. Nothing I can't handle but still disconcerting. So, maybe it will work and maybe it won't. I'm not opposed to staying on the meds forever. Even if it means I'm fat and happy. It's just worth so much more to me to be able to appreciate the simple joys in life, to feel secure and stable and to handle what life chucks at me instead of staying home, hiding behind my closed door and feeling lonely and alone.
Anxiety, for me, is about trade-offs. I know in my head and heart that this is a physical illness, the same as any other illness. I am not ashamed to take medication for it. I am not ashamed to talk about it. I know if more people did, we could remove the stigma of mental illness once and for all. I know more people than I realize are suffering from the same symptoms. We're all in this together. I know how scary it is to succumb to the hold mental illness can have on a person. I've watched people I love become suicidal, socially isolated and terrified to face the day even while being able to logically tell themselves "you're ok, you're ok, you're ok". Because no matter how much you talk to yourself and reassure yourself that you're not going crazy or about to die, your body controls you and you are powerless to stop it. And sometimes, you need a reset - in the form of medication, counseling, hospitalization. Whatever it takes. It's worth it.
So, while living with anxiety is a total bitch of a motherfucker (and I say that kindly) it can be done. Like anything that's worth it, it takes work and sometimes an admission of defeat or the balls to ask for help. But one thing it should never be is shameful. Anxiety is an illness. Cancer is an illness. Schizophrenia is an illness. Heart disease is an illness. People with anxiety need the same love and compassion as anyone else struggling with their health.
When my children were in the hospital, exactly two people brought meals to us. About five people reached out through a text or Facebook message. No one visited. Our family did not rally. There was no dinner sign-up sheet, no fundraisers, no one offering to help around the house. And I wonder - would that have been the same if my children had been injured in a car accident and hospitalized? Is a battered body more serious than a battered mind?
Compassion. That's all we need. Understanding. Education. For all you know, you have a family member, co-worker, friend, colleague who suffers from anxiety, depression or the myriad of other mental illnesses. You won't be able to "tell" because there won't be any outward scars (but some people with anxiety cut themselves), there will be no trailing IV pole (but some people carry meds to take at a moment's notice so they don't have a panic attack at a most inopportune time), there will likely never be a public display of manic behavior or oddness that you can pick out. People with anxiety and depression are masters at hiding it. Imagine having to hide your cancer because some people just don't get it.
Be kind. Someone is always fighting a battle, and that battle might be anxiety or depression. And if you, too, suffer, don't be afraid to open up and share. Sometimes, when your whole world is crashing down because of a chemical imbalance in your brain, just knowing you're not alone can be the one thing that keeps it all controlled. Listen. Learn. Be kind. You're ok. You're ok. You're ok.