The current life situation we are all facing has presented many opportunities for reflection. For me, in some ways the current crisis mirrors a personal crisis I experienced almost exactly ten years ago. Ten years ago I was trapped inside my house, unable to leave my couch, but for a very different reason. I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I went through at that pivotal point in my life, and how much my life has changed since then. After much contemplation I thought I would share my memories of that time, in the hope that it may be of encouragement to those who may know of, have gone through, or are going through something similar.
At the start of 2010, my life on the whole was normal. I was finishing up my junior year of college, had two jobs, and was dating a caring and bright classmate. I had my best friends as roommates and an active social life. I was on various intramural sports teams and participating in other extracurriculars. I felt the normal pressures of school, work and other responsibilities, but nothing was out of the ordinary. All was well.
However, life as I have learned is anything but predictable, and one weekday evening would alter the course of my life forever. It came as a thief in the night. I went to sleep thinking of the projects and classes I had the next day, only to awaken the next morning in a state of dread and panic. It was unbearable, unexplainable and irrational, yet it persisted. My mind felt as though a foreign entity had seized it, attacking my consciousness with every dark and terrible thought it could conjure. I was scared and confused, desperately searching for answers to what was happening. Alas it would be sometime before those came. This was my first of many severe and crippling panic/anxiety attacks. Shortly thereafter I rapidly began to lose my entire ethos searching for order amidst my chaos. I have many regrets from that time: how I lashed out at those I cared about and blamed people who deserved no blame. To this day it is like watching a movie I am credited with but know I didn’t direct.
As the semester ended and I returned home, I began to feel better, but was still seeking an answer to what was happening to me. Sadly mental health was still not a very openly discussed topic, so my search focused on my situation, and other health problems. During this time my relationship with my girlfriend ended, and I felt guilt and remorse for so many of my actions regarding it. She deserved much better than who I was then. I underwent various treatments for ailments I was diagnosed with, but did nothing to address my mental health.
The school year rolled around again, and I thought I could solve my mental health problems on my own. I was already rooming in a new place with people I never met before. I decided I would go by my middle name instead of my given name, thinking a new name would mean I could “reboot” myself to who I wanted to be and how I wanted to feel. However things quickly spiraled downwards, and I realized I needed to seek professional help. I first scheduled time with the University Psychiatrist; they, without asking many questions, said: “Do you want medication?” Having no information or experience I responded, “I don’t really want to take meds unless it’s absolutely necessary.” The doctor then told me that what I was feeling was just the stress of school, and if I felt anxious I should just “take a breath, tell yourself it doesn’t matter and the feeling will go away.” I did not find this helpful, and did not return to the University Psychiatrist again. I found a new psychologist who prescribed some pills to help me sleep, as I had developed severe insomnia. All this time I kept others out of the loop and wouldn’t let them know what was going on: not my family, not my friends, no one. I didn’t want people thinking I was weak. I wanted to solve this on my own.
The sleeping pills seemed to be working somewhat, but I was still feeling constant anxiety and dread, and didn’t feel like myself. The new doctors thought I might be suffering from a combination of Anxiety and Depression. They changed my medication and put me on an antidepressant. It normally takes a few weeks to see the results of an antidepressant but I saw no improvement after that time. The medicine was making me feel more depressed than ever. The therapists suggested electric shock therapy, which I thought was extreme. They changed my meds and took me off the antidepressant, and the medicine I was taking to sleep, and replaced it with a stronger narcotic based sleep medication.
There was a long weekend coming up and I had used my travel points to go visit my cousin. I had just started the new medication and felt some time away from school would do me some good. Little did I know that I would not return again that semester. As soon as I got on the plane, I began having panic attacks. I took the medication hoping it would help me sleep. Instead, the medication put me into a hyper alert zombie-like state. By the time I got to my cousin’s, I felt paralyzed with dread. Fears I never had before began to appear. That night I was so terrified I couldn’t be alone. I didn’t want to bother my cousin, so I called my mother, who stayed on the phone with me all night. However by the next morning I had only gotten worse. My cousin’s wife, who was a nurse, saw me at breakfast and immediately sprang into action. Within hours she had me on a flight home and arranged with my family to get me to a doctor. That was and still is the hardest flight I ever took. I was in such terrible pain I just wanted it to stop and I didn’t care how.
Once I got home, my family finally saw how bad things had become. I don’t know if they had ever been so scared for me as they were then. I was physically thinner, which given my normal weight prior to this was 150-160 lbs was saying something. I weighed just 138lbs when I came home. I was in such physical and mental anguish, I could barely speak. I couldn’t be alone; I slept on the couch in the living room because I was too afraid to go anywhere else, and family members took turns staying with me.
After the first 48 hours of being home things began to move very fast. My primary care doctor stopped my prior medication regimen and placed me on an antidepressant that other family members had taken with positive results. I was placed back on my old sleep medication, and was ordered to see a psychiatrist. Word had reached my friends, teachers, and coworkers at school that I was taking a leave of absence for the semester, though many to this day don’t know why I left. I spent the next 2 months meeting with my new psychiatrist and psychologist regularly. The psychiatrist was appalled at the lack of due diligence by my previous mental health professionals, and explained to me clearly what had happened at my cousin’s and what I experienced prior to that. I learned that the episode at my cousins was due to a reaction to the narcotic which resulted in hysteria, mania and (once i stopped taking it) withdrawal. It was slow going those months, but as the medicine began to work I found myself being able to face each fear. I no longer slept on the couch and could even be alone for periods of time without feelings of dread and panic. With each session I began to understand what was happening to me, and most importantly that I wasn’t alone.
We spent a lot of time talking about that first panic attack, and all my rationales to explain it. I had convinced myself by this point of why the attack happened and how it was because of some action I had undertaken prior to it. In essence I had rationalized that it was my fault and I could have prevented it. The turning point in my treatment came when my psychiatrist flat out explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that I was wrong. That that panic attack was going to happen to me, no matter where or what I had been doing. That any rationale I tried to make was nothing more than coincidence. That I was at the age that statistically mental illness occurs with greater frequency. This one sentence (and of course the effective medication) altered my outlook on things. I couldn’t control what had happened to me, but I could start to control what would happen to me.
I immediately set a plan with my doctors to attempt to return to school in January. I had worked out a way to complete my current semester remotely, but desperately wanted to finish my last semester of school on campus. I feared if I didn’t go back for it, I may never go back for it. It was extremely ambitious and my doctors were supportive but hesitant. However for the first time in a year I felt I had control again. I knew it would be hard, that I would have issues, but I also knew I didn’t have to go through it alone.
I became a studious learner of myself, figuring out what made me anxious, what situations caused me stress, and worked on ways to avoid or ease those situations. With my doctor’s help and a significant upgrade in my medication I returned to school. It was extremely difficult. Every day was a battle, but I slowly returned to work, and began to socialize again. Every day felt like a step out of the fog I had been enveloped in for so long.
The next year was filled with ups and downs but always trending towards growth. As each year passed I became more aware of my mental health. I eventually was able to wean down to one medication at a minimum dose (with doctors’ help). I was able to hold jobs, and make friends. But there were many dark moments along the way: days where I felt like I was back in the fog, days where I wanted to run away from everything. I came to terms long ago that mental illness is part of who I am, and it will always be part of who I am. I have learned to embrace that fact: for all the damage it did, it has also showed me things I otherwise would have never seen. It has made me stronger in many ways.
I wanted to share this because this year marks the 10 year anniversary of my Depression and Anxiety diagnosis (though I now know I had more minor versions of it prior). It is 10 years of growth in our society where each day we are removing stigmas and recognizing that admitting that you struggle with a mental illness is not weakness but strength. It has been 10 years where I have been able to work, get married, and have a family, things I once thought were never going to be possible. It has been 10 years of good and bad days, but with light always on the horizon. It is 10 years where I realize how many others are still suffering and how many do so alone. 10 years of realizing that I am one of the lucky ones, because I am still here, when I know so many that are not.
So finally on this 10th year of my mental illness I want to remind everyone and anyone that you do not need to suffer in silence. You are not alone, there is light on the horizon, and you will always find a compassionate ear with me.