The words “mental illness” make me cringe. My name is, Shar, and as much as I hate to admit it, I have a mental illness. I shouldn’t be ashamed of having a mental illness, but my perceived societal stigma often makes me feel that way. I’ve felt like I was less or going crazy, or not “normal” because of it. Looking at me, you would never know about the turmoil that lies just beneath the surface. Being that this week (October 6-12) is National Mental Illness Awareness week, I thought I’d put those inadequate feelings aside and write about the invisible, not-talked-about, reality of my mental illness in the hopes that someone out there can relate and know they are not alone or at least if you know someone struggling with these same issues you are more aware of what that person is going through.
I’ve struggled with anxiety/panic disorder since I was a teenager and if I think about it probably even before then. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I started taking medication to control the symptoms, even though I was hospitalized for three-days at the start of my freshman year of college (because of the dehydration I experienced from my inability to eat for weeks on end as a result of the anxiety). I’ve been in and out of therapy and know dozens of techniques to use during an attack and prevent future attacks. For the most part, the combination of these things keep me on an even keel. Yet, even so, something will trigger an attack or one will sneak up on me out of the blue for no apparent reason (at least to me).
I can recognize some patterns in my life that have led to an episode of panic – the changing of the seasons (especially the Fall), a conflict, traveling, flying and cutting back on my medication. Some of those triggers I can avoid (although I don’t really want to, like not traveling) and others are completely out of my control (Fall will come whether I like it or not). You might ask why I would mess with my medication. The main reason is that I’ll get cocky. I’ll go long periods panic-free and start to get on myself about using medication as a crutch and then try to cut back on the dose (with my doctor’s permission). I’m fearless and confident I can handle whatever comes my way until a panic attack knocks me down again. Logically, I shouldn’t see the medication as a crutch, diabetics don’t use insulin as a crutch nor is anti-seizure medicine a crutch to someone with epilepsy. Yet, in my mind even when someone would make these same comparisons to me, I would think but those are real conditions. Years ago as I went through multiple blood and GI tests, I kept hoping and praying they would figure out what was really wrong with me and not just the elusive anxiety that would magically go away if I could somehow relax and stop worrying.
I would not wish a panic attack on anyone. It is the worst feeling ever. A panic attack can hit me anytime of the day or night, but once I have the initial one it takes me a couple of weeks to get back to myself again. From that point on mornings are the worst for me. As I’ve come to know myself and apply techniques I’ve learned along the way, the symptoms aren’t nearly as severe as they were in the past and they don’t last as long as the used to, but it still doesn’t feel good – at- all. I’ll wake up with a heaviness in my chest. My heart will race and I’ll get really hot and start sweating. In the next moment, I will be shivering and my arms will tingle as my feet and hands go numb. My stomach will (in the past I’ve even thrown up) and flop as my appetite disappears to nausea. These symptoms will play havoc on me off and on for several hours. Upon which I will feel extremely tired. Unfortunately with a full-time job in addition to being a wife and mother of two – sleep usually isn’t an option. I have to get out of bed, which is a good thing. This forces me to face down the symptoms warring within me to talk myself down as I accept the feelings and then let it go. By the end of the day, I’ll feel like myself again until the cycle begins the next morning until it doesn’t.
It isn’t easy getting out of bed those days, but what other choice do I have? Keep on, keeping on.
Has anyone else felt ashamed of having a mental illness or thought it was something they should be able to just get over?
Later this week I will write about some of the ways I’ve learned to cope with my panic disorder.