May is Mental Health Awareness Month – Here is My Story

Mental Health Awareness Month

 

You know someone who is mentally ill. 1 in 5 adults in the United States – 43.8 million people – struggle with mental illness during a given year. And yet, only 41% of them get any sort of medical care. That percentage plummets among minorities.

And it’s only getting worse. Instances of mental illness in young adults has increased 70% in the last 25 years alone.

I’m one of the 20%. My collection of labels includes an anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and even a fun personality disorder.

I was raised to always keep up a facade of normalcy. You don’t tell people about how you’re feeling. You don’t ask for help. You suck it up, bury it deep inside, and kill it all with fire – destroying everything else along with it. You’re fine. Really.

Now that I’ve been in fairly intensive therapy for almost two years, I can easily see where that attitude my parents taught me came from. They were victims, too. (At least one of them. I don’t really know what my father’s excuse was and don’t care to).

I could sit here all day and go over where my sickness originates. But, really – who wants to hear that? Instead, I want to give you an inside look at my day-to-day life as someone who can appear perfectly “normal” when I meet up to grab a cup of coffee with you.

In my last semester of art school before I dropped out, I did my final project on anxiety. A burned flesh box that, when opened, spewed a jagged mess stitched with blood and painted red and yellow, spilling all over the table and onto the floor.

The first reaction I got? “No way. You can’t have an anxiety disorder. You’re so…calm.”

I get that a lot. I’m calm. People can’t stay angry around me. I’m soothing to be around. I’m so level-headed. I have everything together. I can’t have that personality disorder because those people are pure evil. I’ve had more than one person tell me they envied my life because I seemed to have it all.

That, folks, is the power of presentation. And if you can give that presentation on a daily basis and still carry out your daily responsibilities, that’s called “high functioning”. And it’s a fucking curse.

What my classmates didn’t see was how I couldn’t sleep for a few days leading up to talking about my issues for the first time in a public setting. They didn’t see me starving myself and then gorging on a whole Hostess bag of powdered sugar donuts. Or me shaking so hard I was throwing up and had to skip another class because I couldn’t drive myself to campus. Or the fact I had absolutely no life outside of that class because I was too afraid to leave the house most days.

When I moved from Fort Worth to Boston, I lost my title of “high functioning”. I spent the next few years only able to leave the apartment with my girlfriend – if I was lucky. I went weeks without leaving. She would come home and find me curled up into a tight ball in the closet. I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours a night.

There would be whole days where I physically couldn’t say a single word. I slept on the floor. I had panic attack after panic attack, punctuated only by periods of disassociation. Not infrequently, I’d flinch when she tried to touch me. I’d be in so much physical pain, I couldn’t get off the floor in the morning. I bit, and scratched, and hit myself. I often couldn’t feed myself and would wear the same outfit for a week. I was horribly embarrassed at my hands and arms which would flap uncontrollably, which eventually gave way to whole body twitches and tremors. I’d spend days where I couldn’t stop shaking.

After around three years, I finally had enough and saw a psychiatrist. In her office, I was perfectly composed. I sat still with my hands folded in my lap. Perfect posture. Cute dress. Makeup, even.

I was extremely lucky. My psychiatrist actually listened to what I said, versus going by my presentation. I had her for I think around 8 months. I only lost that composure once, and that resulted in a couple of tears and still no shaking.

Because I’m part of a medical school system, I’ve seen a lot of doctors. Something all of them have in common is telling me how articulate and self-aware I am. And, a few months later, telling me that it took them a while to see hints that things were really as bad as I was describing them. There’s a person in one of my group therapies that has told me more than once she doesn’t see why I’m there at all.

So, how about that coffee?

What you see is a short and plump girl dressed in a brightly colored dress and big smile walking into the coffee shop to meet you. She may seem a little shy, but that’s about it.

What you don’t see is she didn’t sleep the night before because she was rehearsing precisely how to greet you. That she played dozens of scenarios in her head about how conversation might go. That she started shaking and hyperventilating because what if she orders the wrong latte? The entire walk to the coffee shop felt like walking on death row, and it was a constant fight for her not to turn tail and run away.

That’s my norm. And my act? Usually taken at face value. You’d think it’d be validating for people to buy into my presentation, but it feels like someone’s ripped my heart out every single time.

So, please. Please remember. What you see isn’t always what you get. Don’t judge a book by its cover. You never, never know what’s going on inside another person. Your family member or best friend might be drowning right in front of your eyes.

So, what can you do? Listen to people. Listen to their stories. Show your love and support to your friends and family members – sick or not. Don’t crack jokes about mental illness. Don’t buy into media stereotypes that people with borderline personality disorder are all manipulative, evil, soulless crazies. Don’t give “cheer up” platitudes to someone with depression, or tell someone having a panic attack to “just chill out”. Instead, ask them what they need.

But above all, be compassionate. If you don’t know anything about mental health, look it up. Educate yourself. Here’s a great place to start.

And if you think you might be mentally ill yourself, please reach out and get help. Finding the right care can completely change your life. (Did I mention I now sleep in a bed for a good 7 hours a night and eat a fairly healthy and consistent diet? w00t!).

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