Insane. Bonkers. Stupid. Lazy. Obsessive. Paranoid. Crazy. Weird. Sad. Useless. Lonely. Burden. Dramatic. Awkward. Nervous. Antisocial. Inconvenience. Unbalanced. Needy.
All of these words describe exactly how I think people feel about me. And although everyone around me would strongly object to the fact that I am any of these things, this is ultimately a projection of how I feel about myself. We’ve all heard at least some of these words used to describe someone with a form of mental illness, at one point in our lives. But in reality, it’s just not so black and white.
Hi. My name is Catherine and I suffer from mental illness.
You see, I tried to kill myself when I was 17 years old. I attempted it in a subtle way, so that no one would know what I was up to. I would sneak into our medicine cabinet at home and swallow random pills to see how many I could take before I felt something. One day at school, when I had taken a few too many, my best friend asked me what was going on. And in a subconscious plea for help, I told her exactly what I was doing. She grabbed me by the arm and marched me right into the guidance counsellor’s office, where they proceeded to call my mom into the school. I remember that day vividly. And I will never forget the look on my mom’s face.
What transpired from that day onwards, was a series of appointments to doctors and psychologists who provided me with an “official diagnosis” of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression. I was put on medication and told that it was important that I talk to someone on a regular basis. I would go on to tell them numerous times that I didn’t actually feel sad, so they must have it all wrong. I remember coming to the conclusion that I didn’t really want to die, I just wanted the pain to end. And that maybe I actually was looking for help more than seeking finality. Through this process though, and with the more people who were involved, the more isolated I started to feel.
I spent an agonizing year on medication during my last year of high school. When I wasn’t feeling numb or lethargic, I was throwing up. I missed a lot of school due to various issues with my physical health and sheer exhaustion. When I asked to be weaned off of the meds, I felt a bit more like myself again – but a bit different somehow, in a way that I couldn’t explain. I gravitated more towards music and writing, but always felt that in the back of my mind, there was this indescribable sinking feeling. And I started to hesitate more than ever.
Over the years, I fostered an acceptance for the constant knot within my gut. It lived there comfortably, but pressed a little too hard some days, making life exceedingly difficult. But alongside the knot, a fire lit and started to burn brightly. They got tangled up often, masking themselves as ambition or overachievement, depending on the scenario. They started to battle with each other every time I made a decision, sucking all of the energy out of me, leaving a big ol’ pile of exhaustion at the end.
A friend of mine once described his emotional pain as a “silent tsunami”, coming at him in giant, quiet waves. Powerful, yet destructive and completely consuming, with little to no warning. Mental illness can feel exactly like this at times. The only difference is that you may get warning signs or start to recognize your triggers. But that doesn’t mean you can stop the tsunami or the after-effects.
Over the years, I have found it quite difficult to differentiate between my inherent personality traits and signs of my mental illness. I doubt most situations that I enter into – does that make me flaky or just nervous? I overcompensate when I meet new people because I automatically assume that they won’t like me – am I outgoing or just insecure? I have something that I have coined my “perpetual guilt complex”, where I over-apologize and over-thank everyone because I constantly feel as though I am putting them out or inconveniencing them – am I too polite or just irritating?
What no one tells you about anxiety is that it’s so unpredictable. You might think it shows up as someone just being nervous or not wanting to do something. When it reality, one day they might be completely crippled by it and then the next, they’re incredibly driven and motivated by it. It’s hard to describe and even harder to admit to someone. There is still such a stigma associated with mental illness, as if admitting it is a sign of weakness.
In reality, talking about it is a sign of courage. Admitting that despite your struggles, you still have enough strength to get out of bed every day takes some serious guts. What gets me the most is that a lot of us think that we’re alone in this – that no one else could possibly understand what we are going through. In fact, 20% of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. And 1 in 5 will experience issues with their mental health in general. Whether it be a friend, a family member or yourself, chances are that you’re not alone.
Getting treatment is a very personal, very individual and possibly very complicated decision to make. When someone has a broken leg, you can be pretty sure of exactly what needs to be done. They need a cast, possibly surgery, and then there is a recovery period. When dealing with a disease that cannot be seen, it’s not so straightforward. There is no one concrete solution – it’s an ongoing, potentially lifelong management strategy that needs to be put into place and executed.
Now, let’s take that person with the broken leg, you aren’t going to tell them to just walk it off, right? Or to just stop being lazy and go for a run? Well, the same applies to someone with a mental illness. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Now, I don’t expect you to fully understand if this isn’t something that you are going through. I mean, I’ve never broken my leg, so I have no idea what that’s like either. But, I feel like it would suck at times. And that’s where a little bit of empathy goes a long way.
Today, I understand that every day that I get out of bed is a gift. Instead of letting it consume me, I am continually using it as a tool for learning and growth. I’m in control of my life, of my mental illness and of the choices I have decided to make in order to manage it. Yeah, some days are still harder than others and I’m only human, but I don’t feel defined by it anymore. Now, the fire in my gut takes over and the knot loosens. I will do whatever I can to keep fanning the flames.
If you, or someone you love is struggling with mental illness, it’s okay to ask for help. There are tons of online resources within your area, crisis lines you can call or places you can visit in person.
You are not alone.
Sending you love & hope,
Photos by Amanda Hayden Photography
Information Source Stats: http://www.cmha.ca/media/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/#.WLH5thLyuu4