The last month or so has been really difficult for me. I’m not one to share too much in a public forum, but basically I ended up having a mental/nervous breakdown. There was uncontrollable crying, panic attacks, inability to eat, and the urge to self-harm. It lasted about 5 days and it was the death of my brother’s–and my–dog, Rocco, that sparked it. He was 13, but had just had eye surgery and was able to see up to 50% so he was happier. His seizures, and consequent death, were sudden. He was a good pup.
With the support of a daily Xanax pill and my friends, I was able to get through it without harming myself or causing any other damage. I did make some big changes in my life because of that, including leaving a job that I didn’t like and reenrolling back into the PhD program with a new director for my dissertation. My short time at the new job reminded me that I want to be in front of a classroom–that’s where I can actually help students and that’s where I feel the best. These changes, along with my breakdown, mentally and physically exhausted me. I’m lucky enough to have awesome parents, cause they bought me tickets to come home for two weeks to relax and refresh before going back to the academic world.
This experience made me think about my mental illnesses. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and general anxiety disorder. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not much. While I wrote this my first thought was “who isn’t diagnosed with one of those?” During my breakdown, I was still going to work and it was one of the hardest things I had to do. I kept thinking, “If only my illness was physical, then I would have a legitimate reason to go home and take care of myself.” Now that I’m out of the fog, I’m angry. I’m angry at myself for thinking like that and I’m angry that the society I live in does not see mental illness as “legitimate.” I have three really good friends who have physical illnesses that affect their daily lives: one has rheumatoid arthritis, another has Hashimoto’s, and the other has had brain cancer since 2013 (in remission since 2014). Don’t get me wrong, these women are badass, but I’m also thankful that I don’t have to deal with what they do. Then again, I also deal with my depression and anxiety every day. Some days, getting out of bed and moving to the couch is all I have energy for. Some days, I’m fine and happy, can see a positive future. The next day, I have no energy and can’t see anything good to look forward to. It affects my physical health; it affects if I can do my job; it affects how I interact with others. I (we) have been conditioned to see mental illness as something completely different from physical illness. It’s something that can be “cured” if you just think positively, work out more, do yoga, cut out gluten, just be happy! Except it can’t be cured. It can be managed through meds, therapy, and, for some people, exercise, if they have the energy for it. It can be managed the same way one manages an autoimmune disease. It won’t be cured, no matter how often I’m in down dog.
I do wonder how if someone like me, who suffers daily, has a hard time accepting that I have is an illness that is just as legitimate, just as scary, and just as exhausting as any physical illness, how can someone who doesn’t have it understand? Even my parents, who have both been on anti-depressants for a time and have suffered from the occasional panic attacks, can’t understand the difference between me being depressed, or in a bad mood, and having depression. I try not to lose my patience when explaining to them that I will be on my anti-depressants forever, that therapy is not the same as talking to my friends, and that sometimes I need a pill to function.
I don’t know when the next breakdown will be. I haven’t had one for almost 4 years and the first one was 2 years before that. Neither were as bad as the one I just had, and this time I am on the highest dosage of Celexa I’ve been on AND have been going to therapy regularly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. Some days accepting that you have such an illness is just as difficult as dealing with that illness. I’m pretty damn lucky to have close friends who take mental illness seriously and are always ready to ask what I need instead of telling me to “buck up,” while others don’t have that support. I don’t know how mental illness will be taken more seriously. Sure, awareness is important, whether it’s sporting a green ribbon or urging people to read Hyperbole and a Half, but I’m guessing larger change can happen when most of us who have mental illnesses can acknowledge that we have a legitimate illness. Unfortunately, the nature of most of those illnesses mean we’re too exhausted to fight that fight, even with ourselves.
Click here for Allie Brosh’s comic on depression.