Over the past few years, the stigma surrounding mental illness has slowly begun to erode away. However, as a society we still have a long way to go before taking care of your mental health is as important and normal as taking care of your physical health. I’ve decided to take the time to tell my story here for a few reasons. First, it’s Mental Health Awareness month. Second, the importance of mental health during the coronavirus pandemic has been all over the news, so it’s a salient issue. Third, hearing other people tell their stories has helped me feel comfortable being open and honest with my own struggles.
My mental health issues were likely building for years before I finally hit a breaking point. I’ve always been described as high strung, anal retentive and a worrier. All personality traits that can be summarized as anxiety. I used to associate those parts of my personality with being an overachiever. In fact, I used to think the high level of stress I experienced was what made me so successful. Afterall, I made it through an undergrad degree, a master’s degree, and had begun work on my doctorate. I excelled. Always a teacher favorite, always receiving compliments, always being relied on to get things done well and on time.
The real trouble began in 2017 when I took a new job. I’d spent years trying to get into an incredibly niche field. I wanted this job, with this group, in this location. Unfortunately, when the group was hiring, I still hadn’t finished my doctoral degree. No matter, I applied ABD (all but dissertation) and was offered the job with the assumption that I would continue to work toward and eventually receive my PhD. Would it be hard to work full time and try to finish a dissertation? Of course, but I was confident that I could get a done. What’s a few years worth of working nonstop to finally have my career dreams come true? Other people have done both at the same time, why not me?
I’m sure this wasn’t a shock to anyone looking in from the outside, but it was much harder than I expected. Trying to do both left no time for anything else. I quit eating healthy. I quit getting any exercise. I didn’t go out with friends or coworkers. I didn’t even spend much time talking to my husband T (boyfriend at the time), unless it was to pick a fight so I felt like I’d accomplished something. I was operating at a high level of stress all of the time. The kind of stress usually reserved for finals time, or trying to get that grant or paper finished last minute, was my new normal. I managed to make it through about a year before things took a downward turn.
It was December, just a few weeks before Christmas, and I was sitting in a staff meeting. All of my big stresses for the year were over. My last big work meeting of the year was complete and the end of the semester had come and gone. I was really looking forward to the time I was going to take off over the holidays. T and I lived in two separate cities due to work obligations and he was set to arrive that night for a week long visit. After, I was going to head north to spend a week or two with my parents and siblings for the holidays. Everything seemed to be winding down and I could not have been happier.
All of the sudden, I felt incredibly faint. I was positive that I was about to pass out in the middle of a staff meeting. Fortunately, I didn’t pass out, but I could not shake that woozy-about to drop at any second feeling. I had a coworker drive me back home because I was afraid of getting behind the wheel of my car. I was able to get an appointment with a primary care office later that day and she was kind enough to pick me up and take me to that appointment. There, the physicians assistant took my vitals, did a cursory exam, and sent me to get some bloodwork done. Ultimately, the only thing odd was that my blood oxygen level was a little low. He concluded that I had an anxiety attack and recommended that I consider taking anti-anxiety medication. I was incensed. How dare he just write off my physical symptoms as anxiety without looking into other possible causes first. Sure, I was under a lot of stress, but I was managing it just fine. Stupid men assuming that all women have anxiety problems.
I spent the next week not feeling much better. I couldn’t go out or do much of anything without feeling woozy and unable to focus. T was incredibly patient and understanding. He wasn’t angry if we went out and I wanted to leave after five minutes and he didn’t complain about spending his entire vacation cooped up in my apartment because I couldn’t get out of bed. In fact, he fully believed that something was physically wrong with me. Halfway into his stay, he took me to an urgent care office because I wasn’t eating well and couldn’t get out of bed. They did several tests, including a CT scan because intense headaches were now among my symptoms. Again, nothing abnormal showed up and they encouraged me to just take a few days of bed rest.
Unfortunately, T eventually had to leave and go back to work. I was terrified to be alone. Not just nervous, but truly terrified that I was sick and something would happen to me while I was alone that would lead to me dying. So, my dad come to stay with me. T and him had a conversation that day (which I only found out about later) where T assured my dad that he thought something was genuinely wrong with me. It wasn’t just in my head. It means the world to me that he didn’t second guess me for a moment. T had been on me long before all of this happened to get my anxiety levels in check before I passed the point of no return. Yet, he believed that my symptoms were real.
My Dad stayed with me at my apartment until it was time to go home for Christmas. He even took me to ER one night upon my insistence that the headache I was having was not just a normal tension headache or migraine (spoiler alert – it definitely was). The ER experience was probably the low point for me. I was given the migraine cocktail, which honestly made me feel worse than the actual headache. However, because I went to the ER, I had to make a follow up appointment with the family practice run by the same company. This would be a positive turning point. More on that later.
Christmas that year wasn’t exactly all fun and joy like I had originally hoped. I spent majority of the two weeks up in my childhood bedroom. I didn’t feel up to eating dinner with family, working on our yearly family puzzle, or playing games. We didn’t even read our traditional stories on Christmas Eve because I wasn’t feeling strong enough. However, despite all of the challenges, there were some bright spots. My Mom bought me magazines and nail polish to pass the time, something she used to do for us as children when we were home sick from school. She introduced me to The Marvelous Ms. Maisel and sat through a few episodes with me even though she’d already seen them all. She even slept in bed with me one night when I was convinced that I was waking up and feeling like I was going to pass out (which sounds crazy now, but at the time I was fully convinced that it was happening and it was life threatening). Every single member of my family was kind and patient that year. They were understanding when I wasn’t up to doing our usual activities and listened when I explained how scared I was that something was wrong and the doctors didn’t believe me.
Unfortunately, the holidays were quickly passing. I spent New Years with T, but our celebration was thwarted by my health. We usually spend New Years with a friend of his who lives a little less than an hour from my parents’ house. We made it there, but instead of spending the night drinking and watching different cable television specials, we spent the evening in bed watching Shark Tank (one of my guilty pleasures). I had to practically push him out the door early the next morning to go to the annual New Year’s Day disc golf round that he’s been playing with his friends for the last decade. I eventually convinced him to leave and my dad came and picked me up.
Then it was time to return to my apartment, the holidays were over. My mom came back with me this time and spent a few days at my apartment with me. She even took some time off work to stay with me. I still didn’t feel comfortable being alone. Eventually she switched places with my Dad, who ended up staying with me for almost two months. During this time, I gave my health insurance a real workout and saw a slew of doctors from neurologists to ENTs to osteopathic doctors to cardiologists. Nothing was coming up abnormal. By all medical accounts, there was nothing physically wrong with me.
It was time for me to accept that perhaps my mental health was playing a role in how I was feeling. What really helped me turn the corner was one of the doctors I saw after my trip to ER back in December. She believed me, she sent me to several different specialists and only after ruling everything else out did she broach the idea that my symptoms could be the result of anxiety and depression. She made it clear that she still believed that my symptoms were real. It wasn’t all in my head and I wasn’t crazy. Poor mental health can result in physical symptoms. The question then becomes is the poor mental health causing the physical symptoms or are the physical symptoms causing the poor mental health. Since we’d ruled out any specific physical cause, it seemed like the former. So, I finally agreed to begin taking medication for my anxiety and depression. She promised me that if I didn’t feel better after a few months, that we could go back to the drawing board. I felt heard, I felt seen, I felt like I wasn’t seen as just another crazy hypochondriac.
It took a few weeks, but eventually the medication did start to help. The fog was beginning to lift and I felt like I could get through the day a little easier. The medicine helped me begin working on the other things that I knew were going to be necessary to get me the rest of the way to healthy. I started seeing a therapist once a week who helped me with strategies to loosen the grip anxiety had on my life. Perhaps the most valuable lesson she’s given me (we still meet every few weeks) was that I can’t let anxiety gain a foothold in my life. If I spend too much time trying not to anxious, I’m only feeding the problem. Instead, I should accept that certain situations are going to make me anxious, that is just life. If I simply accept the anxiety and move on, it can’t gain a foothold and being to control my life.
It’s been almost a year and half since the incident at the staff meeting that sent me spiraling. I still struggle with my mental health everyday, but now I know how to handle my anxiety. My parents always remind me that mental health is not a linear path, there will be good days and there will be bad days. As long as your progress is is generally trending in a positive direction, you’re doing just fine.
Throughout this whole experience, there were a couple of people who helped me try and visualize my mental health, two pictures stuck with me. The first was from a family practice doctor that my parents and siblings have been seeing for years (note: I prefer doctors that are not super chatty and when I was younger intentionally saw someone else, so the fact that I remember the information he passed on to my parents says a lot). He explained that stress and anxiety were like the water in a bathtub. As long as the bathtub wasn’t overflowing, it was easy to drain. However, once the bathtub starts you overflow, it becomes a huge mess that is going to take awhile to clean up. I had let my bathtub overflow and it was going to take me some time to clean up the mess. The second way to visualize stress came from my father. He explained that life was a stovetop with four burners. The four burners represent the energy you put forth toward your work, your hobbies, your health, and your family/friends. You cannot burn all four burners on high heat or the stovetop will break. You have to prioritize your energy. I regularly use this example to help ground myself. I also remember him telling me that we should never judge another person for how they choose to prioritize their burners. A life lesson that I’ve really taken to heart.
In addition to the bathtub example, the doctor told my dad that there would be four things I needed to help me recover from my breakdown (or overflowing bathtub if you will): medication, therapy, exercise, and sunshine. Like I said above, I had finally agreed to start taking medication for my anxiety and see a therapist. Now that I see how much those two things have helped, I want to kick myself for waiting so long to give it a try. The stigma around these two things remains strong to this day. I thought that taking medication would make me weak. I felt like it would simply be covering up the problem and I wanted to learn strategies to help me cope. Turns out you can do both. The medication doesn’t have to be a lifelong thing. Rather, it can help you get to the point where you’re able to work on the strategies that will help you cope with anxiety and depression. There shouldn’t be any stigma around taking medication for your mental health. We all need help sometimes.
And speaking of how we all need help, therapy. Everyone should go to therapy. It helps. Truly. I was lucky enough to find a therapist that worked for me on the first go, but I encourage you to take the time to find someone who is going to be a good fit. I knew my therapist was the right one when she was trying to get me to use some more abstract methods of controlling my anxiety. It wasn’t working and as soon as she realized I needed something more concrete, she switched methods without a second thought. All she cared about was finding something that was going to work for me. I still see her regularly and always leave feeling like I leave with a new perspective.
Getting the sunshine necessary was easy. There is literally nothing I love more than reading outside, preferably on the beach. The exercise component is a little bit more challenging. I am not a fan of exercise for exercise’s sake. I hate jogging, don’t enjoy biking, or HIIT classes, or really any cardio. I love yoga, but it doesn’t get my heartrate up quite enough. I still struggle with maintaining an consistent exercise routine, but I am lucky to have people that help motivate me. Especially T, who is always getting me up off the couch to go hiking or on a walk through the neighborhood. Even in the rain, he’s ready to get outside and get it done.
This brings me to my last point, the people. It wasn’t on the doctor’s list, but I find it to be one of the most important aspects of maintaining my mental health. I could not have recovered without the help of my family. My mom shared her mental health struggles with me and made me feel like I wasn’t alone. She was there when I needed to cry and she was there when I needed a little push to be stronger. I remember going to a tennis tournament with her once I started to feel a little better. She was patient when I needed to take a break from the crowds and encouraged me to hang in there. It was one of the first times I really felt like I was going to be okay. My dad stayed with me for months to help me work through everything going on. He made sure that I started exercising and that I go out of bed and made progress on healing everyday. He also let me vent. Most days I would come home from work and lay on the floor of the office he was using and just vent and vent and vent. He never once stopped listening and always tried to help.
My siblings did everything they could to make me smile. My brother made joke after joke and once he found one that made me laugh, he said it over and over again. It made me feel like everything I was going through was okay and I wasn’t losing the bond I had with my siblings. He wasn’t laughing at me, we were both laughing at life and it felt good. My sister, who has the kindest heart of anyone I know, was there for me constantly. She checked in regularly, even after Christmas break was over and we’d all gone back to our own lives. I knew she was there, always. Someone I could call for love and comfort at any moment of the day. Even extended family was there for me. It was so helpful knowing that someone else had been through a similar situation and made it out the otherside. Anxiety can be so hard to explain to people that don’t struggle with it daily. When I talked to her I felt like I didn’t have to constantly explain how I was feeling. She truly understood and I didn’t feel crazy. I’m so grateful that in the hardest times, the two of us make an effort to check in on the other.
And my husband, I honestly don’t know what I would have done without him. Like I said earlier, he had been warning me for years that ignoring my mental health was going to come back to bite me. When it finally happened, he never once said “I told you so.” He was patient and understanding when I wanted to talk to him every second of every day to feel safe. He was patient and understanding when I didn’t have the energy to talk to him for days on end. And he was patient and understanding when I swapped between the two without any warning whatsoever. He is the one constantly reminding me to exercise, get outside, take breaks, and take care of myself. He understands that mental health is something I will likely struggle with for the rest of my life and he is committed to helping me through the hard times.
All of this to say, don’t be afraid to open up to those around you. It’s okay to ask for help. I know the stigma is there and it can be challenging to admit that you are struggling. I hope that years from now the stigma is completely gone. I also believe the journey to that point starts with us. Hearing my mom and cousin tell me their stories helped give me strength. Hearing celebrities, scholars, and other people I respected tell their stories gave me strength. That’s why I wanted to tell my story. If one person reads this and feels just a little more comfortable, then I’ll have done some good. You’re not crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you. Seek out the help you need in whatever way you can. Anxiety and depression are constant struggles, but they aren’t insurmountable. A cheesy way to end this I know, but I do indeed get by with a little help from my friends (and meds).