Personal Story: My Battle with Mental Illness
All around the blogosphere, people have been coming out with their personal stories of going through mental illnesses. I always felt like it was my duty to do the same. If I have an opportunity to help others by sharing my experiences, wouldn’t it be selfish not to? Since I made a full recovery, I feel my story is especially important. But I was afraid. It’s terrifying to be so vulnerable and personal, especially since there’s such a stigma attached to mental illness. I don’t even talk to my friends about it, so a lot of people don’t know.
After years of going back and forth on this decision, I think it’s finally time to be open about it. My illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Not only do I want to reach out to others who are also suffering, but maybe I won’t feel like I’m guarding a dangerous secret anymore. I think telling my story will be liberating.
Here it goes. (Deep breath.)
I had the perfect childhood. I came from a happy, healthy, middle-class family. Nothing bad had ever happened to me. I was smart, pretty, talented, I had lots of friends, and I didn’t care what anyone thought of me.
When I was around 12 or 13, something changed. My life was still perfect — middle school was one of the happiest times of my life — but I started to feel heavy for no reason. It became difficult to concentrate, to smile, to enjoy things I used to enjoy. I felt awful so often that my friends got tired of hearing me complain about it. Clearly, I wasn’t normal.
There was never any doubt in my mind that something was medically wrong with me. Sure, I had personality flaws, but they didn’t align with my symptoms. After a little research I discovered I had a depression disorder. It wasn’t surprising since everyone in my family and extended family had it too.
I announced my discovery to my parents and told them I needed to see a psychiatrist and get put on medication. They refused.
Their reasoning makes sense to me now, though I felt betrayed at the time. My mother had gone through a dozen medications and had severe side effects from all of them. She had to go to the emergency room at least twice because of negative reactions to antidepressants, and she even lost her vision while driving on the freeway. Therapy had never helped her, so she didn’t believe it would help me.
They also didn’t realize how bad it was. I wasn’t very open with them, and after they decided not to put me on the meds I felt I needed, I was so hurt that I withdrew from them completely. If I had shown them what I was going through, they would have helped me much sooner.
One day when I was 16, I couldn’t stand being in school anymore. I went home in the middle of the day even though my parents were there, went straight to my bed, and refused to talk to anyone. My mom immediately scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist.
I wish I had thought to do that in the first place! Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.
In that first appointment, the psychiatrist discovered I had had an eating disorder for the past few years. My parents were flabbergasted. I’m one of the last people you would expect to be anorexic. It explained a few things, though: why my period didn’t start until I was fourteen, why my hair was falling out, why my skin looked dead and would peel off in large chunks.
My reasons for not eating are complicated. I still don’t fully understand them. A big part of it was that I hated my body for not working properly. I couldn’t handle my workload in school, I couldn’t function socially, I couldn’t be happy no matter what I did or how hard I tried. I hated everything about myself and the mediocre life I was given. Somehow, that turned into an aversion to food.
My parents signed me up for an outpatient treatment program. I went there for six hours a day for about a month and a half. A group of about a dozen of us went through therapy, did yoga, went to workshops with dietitians, had our meals supervised. We each planned our own menus while therapists tried to encourage us to make healthy choices. It was an incredible program and because of it, I’ve been anorexia-free for eleven years as of this April.
My eating disorder went away, but my depression didn’t. I kept telling my doctors that the medication I was on wasn’t working, but they just increased the dosage instead of putting me on something else. The therapy had helped immensely, so I accepted that I had improved as much as I was going to. I made peace with my improved but still mediocre life.
In my freshman year of college, my boyfriend helped me to see that I was still very sick and needed more help. He told me it wasn’t normal to skip classes or work because I was too depressed to go, to sometimes only sleep four hours a night for a month and other months sleep 14, to cry for no reason, to have panic attacks.
(Of all the symptoms I went through, the anxiety was the worst. I would get attacks where it felt like my whole body was crushing itself, and I couldn’t control them. Once in high school it happened while I was on my way home. I hid under a fenced-in overpass and prayed someone would find me and help me. Eventually, someone did find me. A worker saw me sobbing, gasping for air, and clutching my chest, and he threatened to call the police if I didn’t get off the private property. I hope God holds him accountable for doing that to me.)
After much prodding from my boyfriend, I went back to a psychiatrist and asked to be put on new meds. Let me say this: treatment is available, but it is not easy. You have to take the meds for about a month before they start working, and if they don’t work, it takes about a month to wean off of them. By that time your symptoms might get better on their own, especially if you’re also going to therapy, so you might think the meds are working when they’re not. Then you get hit with the symptoms later and have to go through the process all over again.
By this time, I had married my boyfriend. My husband had a harder time handling my depression than I did. He tried to be nurturing but nothing he did helped; I was still sad, irritable, angry, and lethargic. It quickly broke his spirit. I had accepted my life, but he never could.
Throughout my ordeal, many people suggested I might be bipolar. I always hated that. Everyone assumes a bipolar person has two personalities, but they actually have three: the manic, the depressed, and who they really are. I felt like I was being diagnosed as manic on the rare times that I was myself. Yet since I wasn’t getting any better, I suggested it to my doctor. He said I wasn’t bipolar, but that he’d try putting me on mood stabilizers instead of antidepressants to see if treating me as bipolar would help.
Once I got on the right medication. I slowly started to heal. My marriage started to heal. I didn’t have to call in sick at work all the time anymore. I didn’t fail anymore classes. I stopped bailing on social functions. After a lot of work breaking bad habits, I was finally the same happy person I was in middle school. For a long time I was afraid the symptoms would come back, but it’s been three years since I’ve had a problem.
There’s a lot of negative stigma attached to medication. People think they’re weak if they have to be on them, so they make it their life goal to function without them. They claim medication is dangerous because you don’t know what it’s doing to your body.
That’s all absurd. I am never going off my medication. Never. I’d rather die from side effects when I’m 60 than live a long life with depression.
I want everyone to know that treatment works. It’s not easy. I was sick for eight years before I finally got better. Finding the right meds can be a pain, and sometimes therapy downright sucks. No matter how hard it gets, don’t give up. The wonderful life I have now was worth the struggle.