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Let's Talk About Mental Illness

I have nervousness posting this blog. The majority of it comes from the intense stigma of 'mental illness'. The fear that future employers would not want to deal with an employee who struggles with anxiety. The fear of people looking at something like this, and not seeing the strength it takes to write it, but rather someone who is weak. Because that's how we deal with disorders of the brain in our society. We see people struggling as just being deficient in dealing with things, whiny even. But here's the truth: people who struggle with mental illness are some of the strongest and most determined people you will ever meet.

 I didn't understand what it was like to have your brain betray you until I had my first anxiety episode in high school. It came on like a freight train; I went from feeling normal, to feeling like I was crawling in my own skin in days. It's a feeling of utter dread, terror, hopelessness, and sadness wrapped and boxed with a pretty little bow called an 'anxiety disorder'. Your brain becomes trapped in a constant barrage of thoughts, each which brings your body into convulsions of terror even though you know it makes no sense. It's like your brain turns up the volume of how it should respond to stimulus by a multiplier of, oh, 1 million. So a thought that normally woudn't even register in your body, now brings on heart palpitations, dread, and terror. You know rationally it doesn't make sense to be afraid, and if we people with anxiety disorders could use our frontal cortexes to tell our amydalas to shut the fuck up, believe me, we would be doing wonderfully. The thing is, your body's feeling of dread that it responds with feels so terrible that you try not to feel it. Which means trying not to think this thing or that thing, or do this or that thing that causes it. But, you guessed it. It's a trap. Like those stupid finger traps. The more you struggle, the tighter the constriction. It's only through a long time of facing those feelings and thoughts (and they can be terrible) and fully being with them without avoidance, that slowly but surely, your brain decides it shouldn't be afraid of stupid crap anymore. The first time I had an anxiety disorder it lasted (lasted is kind of a weird phrase because recovery is such a process, but it was a large part of my life for) about 4 years, when my withered adrenal glands finally listened to my brain and gave up on feeling afraid of everything.

I thought it was just a blip in my life that I had learned to overcome, until I experienced it again in 2013 and now again at this very moment. The thing is, I know all the skills and coping mechanisms, because I have learned to overcome it in the past and those skills do seem to lessen its duration. But my paradigm is beginning to shift. I've begun to realize that my anxiety episodes may not be something I just get from faulty coping, but rather like a flower that blooms in my body after too much stress into a rapid onset but slow to recover brain dysfunction. I've viewed acceptance and facing fears as coping mechanisms which can help while my brain clunks along for a while, but they really just help me hold on as best as I can while my brain goes through its cold.

Before I experienced my anxiety disorder, I could never understand depression and suicide. I too thought it was people who were just bad at dealing with things. Because if you've never had your brain betray you, it's impossible to understand. It's like something evil has taken control of the hardwires, prodding your synapses and neurotransmitters to tell you things that are terrible, and make your body feel awful. To even convince you that you'd be better off not existing. Ruby Wax said it best "If Satan had tourrettes, that's what [our brains] would sound like". But people who struggle with mental problems hold on, despite their brains trying to shake them off like shadow of the colossus beasts, and manage to find the courage to rip themselves up like velcro from their beds to meet their responsibilities--facing the day with a cloak of normalcy.

The thing is, mental illness isn't a rare. It affects millions of people just in the United States. It's one of the most closeted disorders of the human body. I have had countless people admit they struggled with depression or anxiety, but never tell anyone for fear they would be viewed differently. But that just makes it harder. When someone has cancer, we do everything we can for them, but when someone has mental illness, we say "cheer up", "stop it". This alienates and isolates people and leaves them more vulnerable to depression. It's that very advice which keeps people stuck in the loop. Because every waking moment for them already is a struggle to "cheep up" and "stop it". That advice is like telling someone stuck in a finger trap to just pull harder. You're just going to leave them even more overwhelmed, guilty, and frustrated than before. We need to replace advice that seems rational to healthy brained people and replace that with compassion, acceptance, and understanding of how damn scary it can be to live with a brain that doesn't function normally. Whether it is being utterly overwhelmed by stimulus from autism, terror traps from anxiety, or a deep pit of nothingness from depression. Because isolation and stigma is what causes people with depression to believe their brain when it lies and tells them they are better off dead. Its what causes people with anxiety to struggle harder to be normal rather than accept where they are.

 But compassion is the antidote to stigma.

Even in the pits, the thing that keeps me going is the beauty of people. Of helping people and being helped. I'm so grateful for all the people who help me cope on a daily basis that it brings tears to my eyes instantly to think about it. Even when I can't be happy, I can find beauty in people. I wish we could live in a society where we can talk not only about our health problems, but our mental problems too, without shame, without stigma, but with compassion and understanding. I hope someday the millions of us who struggle with brains that rebel against us will no longer have to tip-toe among conversations or feel the guilt of having to reach for a medication that helps our brain function normally.  And so, despite my fears of coming out on these things, I need to, because this conversation needs to start.

If you have friends or family who deal with problems that are hard to understand, just ask them what it feels like, and imagine yourself in their shoes. And then just simply ask, is there anything I can do to help? Or genuinely offer for them to call you when they are struggling to cope. Just knowing someone cares and doesn't judge will be enough to make their day, help them accept their clunky brain, and realize the beauty in life.

There's a slight caveat here. If you already do this for someone, and you notice they get into pits where they just want to talk and nothing can make them feel better, it's important to redirect the conversation or to have them challenge their thoughts and assumptions.

Especially when someone is new to anxiety or depression, it can be tempting to talk forever, because it's the only thing that makes us feel normal, but it can also lead us down a pit of feeling hopeless. Compassion is important, but once you are already there for someone, tough love is important too.


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