ending the stigma. or whatever.

It was World Mental Health Day last week, and I spent it as, I would guess, most did. I scrolled through social media, came across some posts about ending mental health stigma, thought for the appropriate number of seconds about how much I agreed with that mission, and then, as a gesture of how woke I am, would throw a formal like its way. I didn’t realize at the time that these little moments would swirl together in my mind and create a tornado funnel of feeling that has made further silence on the matter impossible. I can’t rest knowing how much I wish things were better without making whatever moves I can to better things. If I’m going to like every post I see about ending mental health stigma, then I’m going to do what I can to move toward that goal in my own little corner of the world. To me, posting publicly about my own struggles is the first step.

I deal heavily with anxiety and depression. I know this is much like a college student saying that they’re spiritual but not religious. I know it seems too prevalent to be really troubling. I know it seems laughable. I know it seems fake. It’s not. I want to give a glimpse into my experiences with the mental illnesses that have cropped up in my life in hopes that it may help those with similar struggles or loved ones with conditions they want to understand better. I am of course speaking only from my personal experience and do not claim to represent others’ experiences accurately.

Have you ever had a nightmare in which you’re hiding from someone coming to kill you? When you can hear footsteps coming closer and closer? Okay, that exact feeling is what I’m talking about when I say I feel severely anxious. Think about that for a second. These two states are emotionally indistinguishable to me. When I say I feel anxiety coming on, I feel exactly the same as I do in that dream space; I feel like I am going to die. It is a kind of sheer panic and life-or-death terror that is completely debilitating. In a lot of cases, my muscles stop working properly. I have gotten lockjaw on multiple occasions. A lot of times people want to question or combat anxiety by belittling what they deem to be the root of the anxious feelings. People ask what’s wrong, and when you can’t answer, they’ll start saying that the test you have coming up isn’t that big of a deal, that he isn’t worth it, that there’s no reason to “freak out” over it. The misunderstanding here lies in thinking that the real-life importance of the trigger of the feeling dictates the intensity of the feeling. I doubt that makes any sense at all, but I’ll try to do better. When you’ve hit the point when your system is being so flooded with panic that your brain has departed entirely from whatever worry sparked this reaction, it’s no longer your inner rational being’s game. What might have been a passing thought to a healthy you takes on an entirely new and infinitely more powerful form once anxiety has kicked in. Your inner thought process is twisted into itself and shoved into crisis mode. Anxiety is fear of the worst kind at the highest of heights. It feels like you are going to die. I mean that. It makes sense that a lot of people who struggle with this kind of trauma repeatedly and relentlessly end up clinically depressed. This is my segue into the depression part. I’m good at writing.

I’ve written extensively about depression from its grips, but I haven’t tried to articulate what it’s like since coming out of my first major depressive episode. To my mind’s eye, my memory of the months I spent depressed appears to have an instagram filter over it. Every instant of that time seems so bizarrely distorted in hindsight. The words I wrote in that time in an attempt to make sense of what I was feeling are more harrowing than any Poe I’ve read. Being severely depressed is singularly and solely dark. Everything feels wrong, and everyone thinks you’re wrong. I don’t mean that you’re wrong in the sense that something you’re doing momentarily is wrong; I mean that your being is wrong. I felt like everyone else was constantly and only thinking of me as a mistake that needed undoing. I was so filled with existential agony that action of any kind seemed pointless. If I did try to pull myself out of bed and into the world, I was lucky to have thirty minutes outside the confines of my room without an anxiety attack. When everyone hates you, the world is terrifying. Living in and with this terror makes everything unfamiliar. Things you used to do daily become unconquerably daunting. Places you used to frequent lose whatever charm kept bringing you back to them when you were healthy. Your friends become giants looking down at you through the barrel of a microscope. The only thing that hates you more than they do is yourself.
All of that probably sounds disjointed and just plain bad, but this is my step one. This is my entry into the conversation on mental health. I hope it does something for someone. Maybe I can help someone to better understand mental health. Maybe I can make someone feel less alone. That would be the coolest. I’ll end this by repeating something I’ve told anyone in my experience who wants to discuss mental health or asks about mine.

I’ve been hospitalized four times in my twenty-one years with physical ailments. I’ve had appendicitis, abscesses in my left kidney, double pneumonia, and severe neutropenia thanks to a couple of viruses that hopped on board in the wake of that pneumonia. I’ve been stuck with every sized needle you can imagine, trapped in agony without a diagnosis to treat, biopsied, and undergone myriad other scary and painful medical procedures. I also get the flu about three times a year, strep even more. The point is that I know what it’s like to be sick. In all my life, the most crippling illness I’ve had is the one in my head.

Thanks for reading.

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