May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I think that's important. I think we should talk about this stuff. We spend so much time posting on Facebook about politics and pictures of cats. The reality, though, is that our political arguments probably won’t change a thing, and we’ll never meet that one cat who got scared by a lizard. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But mental illness isn’t something that happens to “other people”. It’s something that someone around you is struggling with, has struggled with, or will struggle with in the future -- I guarantee it. I could cite statistics to prove my point. I could play with numbers, and talk about the percentage of the population that suffers from depression, or anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia.
But I’m not very good with statistics. One thing I can do is tell stories. So, with your permission, I’d like to tell you my own story about mental illness. Now that I’ve got some distance from the worst of my experiences, I feel a responsibility to make those experiences count for something, and this is the best way I know to do that. I believe stories have power, and my hope is that this particular story can help give you the power to survive your own struggles, or to pass that power along to someone else in need.
(Note: If you’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression, and are easily triggered towards those thoughts again, please slide right on by and don’t read this. It’s not for you, and I don’t want to cause you those difficulties.)
For several years, I’ve lived with depression. The first thing that you need to understand, though, is that “depression” is actually a very general term that describes a lot of different difficulties. There are as many varieties of “depression” as there are individuals who suffer from it. My story doesn’t and couldn’t represent everyone else’s. If you want to understand someone else’s experience, the best thing you can do is go ask them. That said, the symptoms I dealt with (and deal with) are fairly common, or so I’m told.
It started during my time at Ole Miss. First, I lost the ability to be cheerful. It’s not that I was sad, I just didn’t really feel happy about things, even when I knew that I should. As time went on, I gradually lost the ability to feel other emotions, both positive and negative. For a while, I existed in a strange sort of state where I couldn’t feel anything but anger and sadness. But my life was pretty good, actually, so I didn’t have anything to feel angry or sad about. I think that at times, I sought out reasons to be angry or sad, just to feel something. But eventually, even those emotions died away and I felt nothing.
Life without emotion isn’t as great as the mystics and zen masters try to make it sound, y’all.
There were times that my emotional capacity would briefly reawaken. It was hard and unpredictable. During those times, people ended up on the receiving end of my undeserved anger for no discernible reason. I would break down in tears and not fully understand why. But mostly, I lived in the doldrums of an emotionless, grey mental landscape.
There’s an analogy I use to help people understand this part of my life: Imagine that you’re blind. Now, there’s two ways that might have happened to you. Either your eyes were damaged, or your brain was. If it was your eyes, you’ll still be able to remember what it was like to see. You’ll have all your visual memories. You’ll remember your father’s face, or your girlfriend’s smile.
If the blindness resulted from brain damage, however, it’s a different story. In addition to losing your vision, you’ll lose your visual memories, because your brain has no way of processing that information anymore. You might still have the information stored somewhere on your hard drive, but you’ve forgotten how to understand it. Because of this, you won’t be able to see anything -- and, quite possibly, you won’t be able to imagine what it was like when you could.
That’s where I was. Except instead of vision, it was emotions. My friends would talk about being happy. Me? Well, I knew I’d been happy before. I knew because I remembered telling someone about how happy I was. But remembering what that felt like? Imagining what it would be like to be happy again? Or, even more, imagining that I could be happy again in the future? Impossible. The idea of happiness -- of any emotion, in fact -- just stopped making sense to me, because that part of my brain was dead.
Life was like that for over a year. Seasons came and went, all in an emotionless haze, punctuated by brief bouts of intense feelings reasserting themselves without warning -- sometimes for mere hours at a time.
At the advice of my family, I sought medication, but even that was a crapshoot at times. I remember the first medication I was put on, I felt better within a week. Within another week, my depression had flipped to crippling anxiety. Instead of feeling nothing, I felt everything. Constantly. For the first time in my life, I started having panic attacks. They would strike at the smallest provocation, or no provocation at all.
First, I’d sweat.
Then, I’d have cold flashes running throughout my whole body. About that time, I’d start feeling my heart beat as though I were staring down the barrel of a gun.
Finally, all at once, my entire body would start to shake as paralyzing nausea washed over me.
And there’s my mind in the middle of it all, not understanding what set me off this time or what I’d done wrong to deserve it.
That was the first medication they put me on.
What followed was a rollercoaster of experimenting with dosages and combinations, all in an effort to fix the broken mess that was me. Sometimes, it helped. But quite often, the medication shifts and subsequent withdrawals were just more stress piled on top of it all.
My grades were slipping, most of my friendships were in shambles because I was not a pleasant person to be with, and I was just exquisitely weary of asking myself what the next day held -- only to realize that I didn’t even care anymore. Without going into too much detail, I foiled my own suicide attempt one night, deciding that I’d give life outside college one more try. I moved home. I did not finish college.
But moving home didn’t mean those thoughts were gone. As many who have struggled with suicidal thoughts would tell you, they’re never gone for good. I got a job. I woke up every morning, and breathed in and out. There’s no one thing that saved my life during those days, but there are many things and people who did.
That process continues today, years later. Every morning, I wake up and pick a reason to live that specific day. Some mornings are easier than others. Sometimes my little sister is my reason. Somewhat less majestically, occasionally I just wake up and want a sandwich from the cafe. Or maybe I thought of a funny joke and want to tell it to people. There’s a lot of different reasons, big and small.
And really, I guess that’s part of the point.
At times, I still fall back into the “grey, emotionless doldrums”. It can last for days. I’m struck with temporary emotional blindness all over again. I don’t know what triggers these episodes. Probably nothing in particular. They pass. I’ve built a life that works, formed habits that provide safety nets and boundaries for me. I haven’t done it alone, but I have done it. And that is more than I would have been able to imagine during the worst times.
I feel like I should end this story with some advice. “Chin up, you can do it!” Or maybe something like, “It’s always darkest before the dawn!” But there were people who told me that stuff back then, and none of it meant a thing, so I won’t subject you to it. All I can tell you is the reality that I experienced.
The reality is that if you or someone you love is struggling with mental illness, you’ve got a long road ahead of you. And it’s gonna be difficult. It might not be a straight road. Medication might help, or it might not. You might get “better”, like getting over the flu, but probably not -- you’ll more likely just improve by degrees, over time. You may have to accept that some things can’t be changed, in order to change others. You might have to live your life carefully, like someone with an acute allergy, monitoring your mental and emotional diet on a daily basis. It’s probably going to be rough.
And you know what? That’s OK. Some of us have different roads than others, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. If that’s the road you have, just start walking it. Please don’t stop. I like you. Let me know if you need somebody to walk it with you for a while.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I think that’s important. I think we should talk about this stuff.