Thursday, May 8, 2014

Mental Health Awareness Month: Conquering the Stigma


It’s mental health awareness month – and, for me, it’s extremely important. I know there’s an awareness month for just about anything you can think of, so I usually do not pay much attention. But for many reasons, this one is important to me.

It’s a difficult thing to write about – mental health. While the stigma is most definitely lifting, it’s only really lifting at the corners - otherwise, it's still stuck there. For example, I’m comfortable alluding to my anxiety in light-hearted ways. Jokingly, I can say, “I can’t watch the news – it gives me anxiety!” and people will usually laugh. However, conversations get weird when you take it past that. If you start talking about how you saw a headline about climate change 3 days ago and you still can’t pick up a newspaper because you don’t even want to know, well, it gets difficult.

How do you explain - without sounding “crazy” – that the sound of people coughing at work sometimes makes you jump? Or how other days your head goes in constant circles around a problem that doesn’t exist? What do you do when you try to explain these problems and people just stare and question, “You don’t need to worry about these things, though, so why don’t you just relax?” My first thought is, “If it was that easy I would and half of people in the mental health field would be without a job.” After that, I just start worrying about the reasons why I’m worrying in the first place.

It all sounds funny in certain contexts and I think that’s okay. Laughing about your weaknesses makes them more bearable. On other days, though, it’s just not funny. It’s not funny when your family is downstairs celebrating Easter and you are upstairs, alone, just trying to catch your breath. It’s not funny when you finally come downstairs because you are scared for no reason and your dad needs to hold you for 15 minutes while whispering in your ear that it’s a good day, nothing bad is happening and we’re all right here. It’s not funny when you have to explain to your family why there are tears running down your face and you do not even know why.

There are times when I go through spurts of depression, too, which is whole other monster. I once read somewhere that depression could be described as feeling like you are drowning; only, you can see other people and they are all breathing. It does feel that way. It feels like you are screaming for help and no one can hear you, or the people than can hear you just don’t know how to help. So, you need to wait, and you need to work at pulling yourself out. Eventually, you always do, but its tough to remember that in the moment…

The thing is, at least with anxiety you can find the humor – when it comes to depression, there just is none to be had.

I think these feelings are more common than we all like to admit; just some of us go through them more than others. I've sadly known two people in the past year that commited suicide. 

It’s scary to admit the ugly feelings because it feels as though people will run and hide from you. When I meet someone new I try to hide it – I am not anxious and I do not get depressed now and then - that’s the perfect image I try to portray. That sometimes makes it scarier, because what happens when they find out? It’s not true anyway, I’m not perfect and I won’t be, so it’s not worth it to pretend differently.

After a few dates, I once told a guy that I have anxiety. He – ignorantly, to say the least - was going on and on about how his one friend was “crazy” and to really drive his point home, he added that this friend was “medicated.” That’s how crazy he was. Needless to say, I did not like where the conversation was going. So I plainly said, “I have anxiety and I take medicine for it.” *Silence* He then took my hand and said, “I don’t think you have anxiety, I just think you are just too hard on yourself.” Hmm… well, that didn’t turn into a relationship for obvious reasons.

Anyway, I feel to do this justice, I would have to go into some of the thoughts and feelings I have on my worst days. But I can’t do that – there’s too much of a fear there, which is where the stigma of mental health comes in. I want everyone to believe I never have awful, scary thoughts; I want everyone to believe that I am always fine.

The thing is, it’s not something that’s going to go away. I’ve been to doctors and therapists and I’ve cried when they told me, “This is something you will deal with forever. You will learn skills to control it, but there is little chance it will go away.”

I cry because I do not want to feel this way – like my heart is constantly beating out of my chest when there’s nothing even happening. However, not wanting to feel this way won’t change it; it will just make me resist it. The truth is, I do feel this way. I do have anxiety. I did not ask to be this way, I do not enjoy it, and I don’t bother to dissect how I got here – because when it comes down to it, it’s not important at all. It is what it is. 

Another thing I remind myself is that it is not a label stuck to my forehead. I have other things, too - like happiness, love, humor, curiousity, and a deep caring for other people. I have to believe that people will view those things as important and not just my weaknesses.

I have people out there on my side – people who have felt this way, who do feel this way, and people who try desperately to understand even if they haven’t experienced it. I have ways of coping – writing and running. I always tell my mom I’m going for a run “to get the demons out,” and it’s true. It helps.

On my darkest days, I read a quote from The Perks of Being A Wallflower – a book that I believed saved my life many times. I read this not so much for the message, because the message itself is flawed. That's the point, though - it helps to know that the person who wrote this book gets it, they understand. Here it is:

“I know that I brought this all on myself. I know that I deserve
this. I'd do anything not to be this way. I'd do anything to make
it up to everyone. And to not have to see a psychiatrist, who
explains to me about being 'passive aggressive.' And to not have
to take the medicine he gives me, which is too expensive for my
dad. And to not have to talk about bad memories with him. Or
be nostalgic about bad things.

I just wish that God or my parents or Sam or my sister or
someone would just tell me what's wrong with me. Just tell me
how to be different in a way that makes sense. To make this all
go away. And disappear. I know that's wrong because it's my responsibility, and I know that things get worse before they get
better because that's what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse
that feels too big.”

On my brightest days, I don’t need to read quotes from books. I look up at the sunshine, smile, and think to myself, “Cherish this moment and remember it. Remember that when it gets bad, days like this will always return.”

As with all my writing and many of my blog posts, there’s a specific anxiety that comes with getting it out there. Some people might look at me differently after reading it – but I think right now it’s just important to me that I get this out there. I can sit around and complain about the stigma behind mental health or I can speak out to overcome it.

If nothing else, I hope this helps people understand that mental health problems are not something to be scared of. They do not indicate “craziness” or “weakness.” I do not believe I’m weak. I make it through every day, sometimes with the help of others, but I make it. I might have bad days, but overall, my life is good. Most of all, to those who suffer from similar problems, don’t let it hold you back. Moving to a new city is difficult for anyone; moving to a new city when you have anxiety is harder. I did it and I’m here. That in itself is proof that anxiety does not equal to weakness – don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.