Disclaimer: When it comes to mental health and mental illness, I believe it is critical to talk about these things, how they affect us and about how our loved ones can support us. Talking, writing, music etc. helps us become louder than silence. Mental illness affects everyone differently, but this is my story. Finally, may September, which is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, serve as a reminder to reach out and hold the ones we love close. Your mental health matters!
I had a debilitating panic attack a few weeks ago.
Late at night, my palms became sweaty and my head started ringing. When it gets like that, it doesn’t. Stop. Ringing. My breath picked up until I was hyperventilating, which is not like in the movies. Sometimes I wish it was like in the movies.
As the cherry on top, I threw up in a trash can.
After choking down some Gatorade, I took a Xanax and fell into a fitful but mind-zapping sleep. I was going to be okay. It would be okay and I would get some pancakes tomorrow for breakfast. I like breakfast food because, from there, the only direction my day can go is up.
The next day, an acquaintance told me that if I was depressed, I must be the happiest depressed person they’d ever met.
I appreciated what this human was saying about my demeanor and was only slightly irked that I had never created a one-woman band named ‘The Happiest Depressed Person Ever.’ But thinking like that establishes a qualifier that one must be sad or one must be ‘anything’ at all to have a mental illness.
Last December, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression while home for winter break. It was the day I was scheduled to return to college for resident advisor (RA) training.
While I was waiting for my dad to drive me up Parley’s Canyon, I bought some overpriced pizza from Whole Foods and cried at a corner table in the cafe. It felt very official having a doctor confirm via prescription pad that there was something wrong with me. I remember it snowing, which did an uncomfortably stellar job of setting the mood for that day. It was a feeling like I was constantly dropping something very loud in a quiet-only space — popping up occasionally to say, ‘Hey, world. I’m depressed and a little sad, but I also like to make awkward small talk!’
It took my reality and twisted it.
At times, I felt like my failing mental health was my burden to bear and mine alone. As someone who is known to overshare, mental illness simply wasn’t something I knew how to navigate. I was terrified of not seeming capable or strong enough to do my job, succeed in college or be a supportive friend.
To me, there seemed an inherent selfishness in acknowledging the limits of what a person could tolerate. It made sense that if I was hacking up phlegm and had a fever, I should stay in bed. But when levels of dissociation rendered stress puking and panic attacks, I felt like I failed everyone.
There is no set plan for handling depression. For me, at the height of it, depression scaled back and forth between numbing solitude and radiance. It was beauty. It was deception. It was a dependency marked by validation.
More anxiety. More panic attacks. No more overpriced pizza, though. I put a stop to that one.
When I was first on Zoloft, it felt like my skin was crawling. My doctor warned me about this, but I wasn’t ready for my anxiety to develop physical symptoms. Before, it was contained to a sense of what I perceived as control.
With Zoloft, you have to take half pills for a predetermined amount of days until your system becomes accustomed to the rapid serotonin increase. At first, I wasn’t sure what I hated more — being depressed and anxious or being unable to sit still, also depressed and anxious.
Before my 21st birthday, I went to fill the prescription with my mom in tow. I asked the pharmacist if/how much alcohol I could safely consume on that day. He looked at me and squinted, saying, ‘You do know these are antidepressants?’ and I laughed until there were tears in my eyes.
Depression had hit me square in the face in that moment, and I felt it in that Smith’s pharmacy. On the way home in the car, I thought of how mental illness wasn’t something that could stop altogether. I could live with it, though, because it was a part of me.
Too often, discourse around mental illness presents a need to ‘conquer’ and ‘overcome.’ I used to have dreams where I would wake up and be happy. I wanted to ‘beat’ my mental illness and become ‘normal’ to the point that it almost won.
But I’ve now realized there is nothing shameful about my mental illness. There is nothing to beat or overcome. Living, learning and existing with a mental illness is an act of resistance and honesty.
The people in my life who stuck around are perhaps the closest things I have to serenity. They remind me of it every day in the ways we hold each other. My friends Nicole and Mariela especially refused to let me forget that I had made tangible and important connections at Westminster.
Knowing they weren’t going to leave has aided in my recovery process to this day.
In retrospect, I’m aware this might come off as one big grand journey with a beginning middle and hope for the future. It didn’t feel like that, though, when my illness was at its peak and I thought I would never be able to be happy again or see the light in life. Mental illness doesn’t fit into any nice recovery narrative.
You see, within shame, anger, disgust, solitude, beauty and the rest, I found something: a tangible, indestructible and persistent strength. It doesn’t look like battle armor. Instead, it looks a lot like eating an expensive piece of pizza and crying in a Whole Foods.
I love that woman — her insistence on wearing Birkenstocks in 3 feet of snow and the fact that she went in that morning and got the help she needed. I love the fact that she can reflect on herself in third person (heh) but, most of all, I love that somewhere, somehow, on that January morning, she wanted to stay alive.