February 21, 2013 by panicpony
I am lying here with an icepack on my head, trying not to vomit.
It’s not an unfamiliar feeling. It’s very uncomfortable, I feel like I can’t get up, and my plans for today are pretty well shot, but I will take a headache and tummy ache any day over the wild rush of mood swings that usually accompanies a new medication. Past experience has told me this will be a short lived experience, and that the ends may very well justify the means. In about a week some things will have balanced out, and I will feel better, stronger, more empowered and capable as I do the vital work of learning how to live.
See, I’m “sick”. I have an “illness”. One that is difficult to pinpoint, easy to ignore and dismiss, that is a reluctant diagnosis, both on the part of the sufferer and on that of medical professionals who are often fish out of water when it comes to recognizing these diseases. It’s not their fault. We live in a culture and a system that doesn’t foster awareness or comprehensive care of these types of diseases, and encourages us to ignore it and carry on, steeling ourselves against them in a way that simultaneously amplifies them until we reach our breaking points.
I reached mine about five years ago, when I suddenly began having intense, terrifying panic attacks. It was the scariest and most baffling experience of my life. I had always had mild, off and on chemical depression, but never anything I really struggled with or had even mentioned to my doctor. This was so drastically different and I had no idea what was happening to me. I could barely go to work, my days were spent clenched against the freezing cold or feverishly hot flashes that rolled through my body over and over; horrible, obsessive thoughts bounced around my head, and I was certain I was going to die. So certain that I gave up. I lost it. I gave up on trying to stop the tornado of panic, gave up on living, gave up on moving. My body and my brain couldn’t handle it.
My husband didn’t know what to do. My mom came. My dad came. They carried me down the stairs, into my mom’s car, and I lay in the back seat wishing I was dead,clutching the stuffed bear with one arm I’ve had since birth. Nobody else wished I was dead. We got to Wenatchee, and for the first time in a long time my whole family sat in one room, holding my hands and speaking for me because I could barely even lift my head to look the counselor they had in the eye. They were getting me help.
That was a long and difficult summer. I stayed with my family, with my husband (who was not my husband at the time) driving back and forth every weekend to see me. I started some medication, saw a counselor for about a month, and time basically healed me. For a moment. I believe that my parents, my sister, my brother and my husband did everything they possibly could to build me back up again during that time. I also believe that the medical and mental health professionals thought they were doing what was best, but crisis management is not a sustainable option for healing.
At the end of the summer, having gotten through probably one of the worse things we could get through, my husband and I decided that we wanted to get through everything together, for always, and got married at the beautiful old courthouse in my hometown. I was fixed. I was ready to go home. I thought to myself, well, with all I’ve been through, that was probably bound to happen eventually, now it’s over and we can all move on. My friends and my job welcomed me back with open arms. Everything was fine. Just fine. No really, I was totally fine.
Until the next summer. More inexplicable panic. More obsessive thoughts. More certainty that I was dying, that I deserved to die, that I was worthless. More terrified loved ones doing what they could to manage the crisis. A very brief intervention with professionals, no follow up, and again I was fine.
And I was fine. My life just kept changing for the better. I started pursuing some of my long-put off dreams, going back to school to learn to do what I could for social justice. I got a better, more fulfilling job. The activist that had been hidden within me started blossoming and I, who had been so shy for 28 years that people were always asking, “What’s wrong with your weird friend?”, reached out all over the place for new friends, new opportunities. I started getting so busy that I forgot all about those two embarrassing episodes, the ones that almost nobody knew about,although occasionally I would sit someone down and say, “So, I want to tell you about something………….”, afraid to reveal that I wasn’t perfect and with the awareness that I was taking a chance on losing a friend for being, you know, crazy. And weak. I had no one to talk about it with. I was successful because I was showing no signs of mental illness. Although I certainly don’t think anyone meant to portray this to me, the brief crisis intervention I had received sent me the message of failure for ending up there again. So I just kept on, I was fine, I didn’t talk about it, I just took my meds and kept saying to myself, “Don’t fail”.
Well, oops. I failed again. Not all that long ago actually. This time it was really really bad. I couldn’t do it again, and if I had to do it again, I didn’t want to live. I can’t talk too much about this. But I’m here, and I’m grateful. Because this time someone saw me.
They saw me. The social worker at the hospital looked into my eyes and said, “It’s not normal that this keeps happening”. I thought, I know. I’m a failure. Then she said, “This never should have happened even one time without you getting sustainable help.” That was different. No one had ever said that to me before. What was help? What was help that lasted? I didn’t know. She said, “Things have happened to you that never should have happened, and no one has helped you.” She helped me. She acknowledged what I had never wanted to face, that things had happened to me that were so traumatic they had driven me deep into illness, but had also taught me that showing any sign of weakness meant absolute failure. No one had ever told me, not any of the well meaning professionals, that things had happened to me that weren’t ok, and I deserved to get better.
I have mild depression. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I admit it. I experienced prolonged trauma for many years of my childhood, which I can’t necessarily say is anyone’s fault, but a result of systemic trauma gone long unnoticed and un-addressed in a system that leaves the most stigmatized issues of abuse, addiction, and mental health out in the cold. I moved from that to a violent and emotionally abusive first husband, whom I finally fled, although it didn’t occur to me that I should maybe get some help about dealing with what I had been through with him. See, in this culture, in this system, you don’t get help. If you have the money to go to the doctor, you spend it on REAL sickness. And if you do go to the doctor, it’s very likely you will just be handed a prescription and told to seek counseling that you can’t afford. And you can’t tell anyone, because what you’re feeling isn’t a real sickness. You just need to have a better attitude. Buckle down, cheer up, snap out of it. Anxiety has been part of my life since I was a little girl. The world gave me and my family very few tools to deal with this, let alone a language to even define it, and it developed along the normal progression of a disease model until it could have killed me. This is unacceptable.
Someone saw me. Someone handed me some tools, even used them for me before I could use them myself. I am happy to say I am better than I ever have been before in my life. I am on a great medication, and trying a new one that will help me to be on LESS medication (hence the headache and trying not to barf). I GET COUNSELING. Really, I deserve counseling. I could never afford it. This wonderful social worker, who’s name I can’t remember but who changed my life, found me an excellent counselor that’s FREE because of a UW pilot program. She is there for me, she won’t be going anywhere until I tell her I’m ready for her to, and because of her I got through a panic attack, like a landing-in-the-hospital panic attack, all by myself for the very first time. I am a proud Al Anon member, unraveling the issues that have been building to my illness since before I was even born. Serenity—not something I ever thought possible. Things will not always be perfect, but I am learning to be ok with that. I am getting treatment FOR my illness, not its symptoms. And I am learning that I have nothing to be ashamed of, I did not fail, and I deserve to talk about this like anyone else does who goes through a sickness. It is so difficult to say, “I’m feeling anxious, I don’t think I can handle this right now,” to someone. That’s failure, right? That’s letting everyone else down. Or is it just letting me down? It is so scary to tell people,”You know,I’m fine, but I need to adjust to some medications and it’s going to be hard for me to meet all my obligations this week.” If I say this, I will surely lose all my friends. Right? Right???!!!!! Help is showing me that I have been wrong, but not about any of the right things.
I got help, but by the skin of my teeth. I have wanted for a long time to tell this story, to lay it bare, to do what little I could to remove the stigma of mental illness. I didn’t really know how. I read this great article yesterday, about Houston Rockets player Royce White, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, too. He is making a valiant and revolutionary fight both for his own mental health care, challenging his employer, the NBA, to accept and deal honestly and adequately with mental health issues, and for the whole nation. He says, “….we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill because they’re the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, “You stay over there and deal with your problems over there…The problem is growing, and it’s growing because there’s a subtle war–in America and in the world–between business and health. It’s no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.” The article also states that White “wants to use basketball as a platform to fight for universal mental health coverage with clinics in every community. He claimed that he is willing to “die for this.” ”
If a famous basketball player can’t get the freaking NBA to address his need for mental health care, it is no surprise that it took almost 30 years for little old me to get some decent help. His words and his dedication almost make me cry, because he’s saying he would die for ME. For me, my family, people all over this country who’s illnesses go ignored, stigmatized, and dismissed.
If he can stand up for himself, his right to care, and mine, so can I. I stand with him and call for universal access for life saving mental health care. And I stand with him and tell my own story in an effort against the shame and silence that so many of us have undeservedly endured.
I’m fine. I really am fine this time. I won’t always be fine, but I can finally accept this, and now I know what to do when it gets too hard. What a world this would be if we all got that privilege.
I invite anyone who needs support or acknowledgment to talk to me. We don’t have to be invisible. We can ask each other for help. Our friends and family love us more than we are willing to admit to ourselves, and they will be there for us. And if they don’t and won’t, let’s build ourselves new families, new friends. We can demand adequate treatment. We can create networks to get this help for each other. But we have to be a little bit brave. We have to speak up. We deserve to speak up.
And we deserve help.